Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:17-24)
Although it is obscure by comparison, this is one of those passages that people construe to say that it is wrong to make moral judgments about others. It seems that Christians have an opinion about everything, and this irritates non-Christians to no end. And so even some among us say, “Should we be more sensitive to people’s feelings? Should we share our faith without being so offensive?” Of course not. Did Jesus teach you this, or someone else? Perhaps someone with horns and a pitchfork?
Sometimes the way non-Christians describe what we do sounds more biblical than what church leaders suggest that we should do. The unbelievers complain that we “lecture” them and “preach at” them, but many ministers think that we should not. If we are too preachy, they warn, we will drive away people. However, this is God’s chosen method for revealing the elect and the non-elect. Those who love God enjoy having the truth preached at them, while those who are destined for hell foam at the mouth.
It is not by subtle suggestions, detached discussions, or nebulous nudges that the faith of Jesus Christ is declared before the world; instead, it is by preaching – an explicit and authoritative declaration of what God reveals, what God commands, and what God has done through Jesus Christ. And when a Christian preaches, he will sound preachy, just like when a non-Christian whines, he will sound whiny. Paul said to the Athenians, “What you do not know, I am here to tell you.” The very act of preaching, especially to unbelievers, assumes a spiritual, moral, and intellectual superiority, if not in the one who preaches, then certainly in the One who is preached.
In a more popular passage, Jesus said, “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1), and this is often taken to be a teaching against forming and expressing any moral evaluation of any person’s beliefs and actions. Even before we consider the passage further, this interpretation is impossible on its face, and if it is true, it would be impossible to implement. This is because the idea that it is wrong to judge is itself a judgment and evaluation. If it is wrong to judge in any sense, then one can never say this without condemning himself.
Jesus did not commit this error, because he meant something different. He continued, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (v. 3-5).
He was teaching against hypocritical judgment, and not judgment as such. Verses 3-4 describe someone who perceives a fault in his brother, when he himself is burdened with a greater fault. Verse 5 indicates that the point of this is to discourage hypocrisy, and it also states that after this greater fault has been removed, then the person becomes able to rightly and effectively remove the fault in his brother. This final point is highly significant, since as Jesus finished the teaching on hypocritical judgment, he affirmed that this person could in fact point out that fault in his brother.
Paul’s aim in the beginning chapters of his letter to the Romans is to show that sin is universal, and to secure the verdict that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), so that he may proceed to expound on a righteousness that comes from God through Jesus Christ, provided as an endowment apart from the works and merits of men, which he imputes to all those whom he has chosen to save by granting them faith in the gospel.
In the process, Paul shows that although men knew about God, even his power and his nature, they suppressed this knowledge and turned to worship idols. And although they knew about his commands and the punishment he had decreed against those who transgressed, they not only did those things that God declared detestable, but also approved of others who did them. He also shows that, although the Gentiles did not have the Old Testament, they nevertheless had some sense of moral standards in their hearts. And their consciences sometimes defended them and sometimes accused them. Thus even their hearts witnessed against them, that they were transgressors. Even the laws that the Gentiles invented for themselves, they often failed to keep. Therefore, their guilt is clear and their condemnation sure.
This same argument applies to the non-Christians around us today. They reject God’s moral commands as revealed in the Bible, and adopt their own standards of right and wrong. However, no matter how wrong, how arbitrary, and how accommodating their standards, they still do not constantly and perfectly live up to them. This shows that they are transgressors.
As for the Jews who had the Scripture, they had access to a precise revelation of God’s commandments. Paul’s aim is not to forbid judgment, but to prove their guilt. Thus he points out that, although they knew them and even taught them to others, they themselves transgressed these commandments. He writes, “You who preach against stealing, do you steal?” He does not say that stealing is not wrong, for the Scripture indeed condemns stealing. Rather, those who preached against stealing, against adultery, and so on, did these very things that they told others not to do.
Again, the point is not that they should not have preached the law, or to evaluate people and actions on the basis of it, but that because they did the very things that they knew to be wrong, they are shown to be sinners just like those who suppressed their innate knowledge of God to worship idols, and like those who were aware of God’s laws, but who still sinned, so that their consciences accused them. The result is that, far from telling people to suspend judgment against sin, Paul has made our awareness of the nature and extent of sin even more pronounced.
In verses 21-24, Paul exposes the hypocrisy of the Jews, and thus their sinfulness and their need for a righteousness that comes apart from their own merits and efforts. But he does not deny what he says in verses 17-20. Because they had the law, the embodiment of knowledge and truth, the Jews considered themselves superior, a guide for the blind, a light for those in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, and a teacher of infants. Although Paul speaks as he does in verses 21-24, he does not disagree with how the Jews saw themselves in verses 17-20. This is confirmed in 3:1-2, where he acknowledges that having access to the Scripture was indeed an advantage “in every way”: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.”
Who has the Scripture now? The prophets and the apostles proved that the Jews did not in fact believe the Scripture that they had. Jesus himself said that if the Jews had believed Moses, they would have believed him also, because the Old Testament testified about him and predicted his appearance. And of course they rejected the apostolic writings that completed the Scripture. On the other hand, as Christians we believe all of Scripture and have inherited it, and also the advantages that come with it. We have the Bible, so that 2:17-20 and 3:1-2 now apply to us. We are superior. We are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, and a teacher of infants. This is the commission of the church, stated in the New Testament in almost these very words.
We are now at an advantage “in every way.” There is no need to deny this. What we need is to fully appreciate Paul’s point, so that we would not make hypocritical judgments, so that we would admit that we nevertheless fail to obey, and admit our transgressions, and renouncing our own works and merits, trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Romans 1-3 demonstrate that men never live up to what they know. They are transgressors, wicked sinners. Since sin is universal, divine condemnation is also universal. Only Jesus Christ can save us from God’s wrath. This is the most important lesson. Rather than undermining judgment, this basic understanding of the message of salvation requires the most extensive and damning moral evaluation of all men.
Here is where we turn this passage against those who oppose moral judgments. The same reasoning applies: those of you who call other people judgmental, are you judgmental against judgmental people? That is, you who say that people are morally wrong because they are judgmental, do you do the same thing by being judgmental against these judgmental people? You hypocrite! You do the same thing that you condemn. You transgress the very standard that you invented.
Jesus said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24, ESV). It is not wrong to make a judgment; this verse tells us to do it. The problem is that some judgments are mistaken, some are premature or based on insufficient information, and some judgments are made with hypocrisy. If we will reverently and intelligently study God’s judgment and declare it to the world, and to profess that we also stand under the same standard, and that even now we continue to fall short, so that we trust in Christ alone to save us, then we cannot be faulted.
Only the person who is judgmental, in the sense intended here, can stand up for what is right. He has knowledge of what is right, and can defend it and promote it. He has an idea of what is wrong, and can perceive it and oppose it. Let us, therefore, resist the judgmental criticisms of non-Christians, and become more and more judgmental according to God’s standard, so that all may become aware of their sins, of the wrath of God, and of the salvation that is given only through faith in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.