Sin’s Dominion over the Moralist (2:1-16)

Lesson ▪ 2002-03
Tags: Romans 2:1-16; Sin; Morality; Condemnation
Excerpted from God’s Righteousness Revealed: An Exposition of Romans
Related Resources: Sin, Grace, and Works: An Exposition of Ephesians 2:1-10


In this passage, Paul proceeds to indict a second class of people: those who sit in judgment of others’ faults. He concludes that such persons are as guilty as those who are morally unrestrained and spiritually unenlightened.

The Charge (v. 1)

Here Paul indicts moralists of all descriptions—those who judge others. He describes moralists as “inexcusable” (anapologetos—the same term he used in 1:20 to refer to the guilt of those who reject God’s revelation in nature). Though he eventually gets around to indicting Jewish moralists in particular (vv. 17ff), here he has in mind all who would lay claim to righteousness apart from God.

The Explanation (vv. 2-16)

Paul carefully presents his argument for the guilt of the moralist. The argument consists of the following parts:

Condemning others’ failures does not excuse one’s own (vv. 2-3). The basic fallacy of the moralist’s position is that in condemning others, he condemns himself. He is guilty of the very faults he points out in others’ lives (v. 2). Whether guilty of the exact same deeds, or of similar ones that indicate the same opposition to God, the moralist stands guilty. He wrongly concludes (logizomai) that God will not judge him because of his own disapproval of others’ misdeeds (v. 3).

God will not postpone judgment indefinitely (vv. 4-5). The moralist wrongly assumes that because he has not experienced divine wrath, he must be righteous. He overlooks the fact that God delays the execution of justice precisely so that hardened and unrepentant sinners (including moralists) can have the opportunity to repent! By failing to forsake his own righteousness, the moralist is actually accumulating wrath that will be unleashed on the day of judgment.

God is an impartial judge (vv. 6, 11). Verse 6 begins a chiasm that concludes in verse 11. We can be assured that God will reward every person according to his or her works precisely because He is impartial by His very nature. He is uncompromisingly faithful and holy. By implication, He will not overlook the moralist’s sins simply because he is judgmental towards others.

God’s standard is absolute perfection (vv. 7-10). These verses, constituting the core of the chiasm, refer to God’s impartial judgment of those who obtain eternal life (vv. 7, 10) and those who are condemned (vv. 8-9), both Jew and Gentile. Commentators interpret these verses in several ways. Paul seems to be setting up a hypothetical situation: If anyone actually lived righteously throughout their life, God would justly reward him or her with eternal life (vv. 7, 10). However, since the universal presence of sin renders this impossible, all are subject to wrath (vv. 8-9).8

The law—whether natural or spiritual—is an agent of condemnation (vv. 12-16). Paul concludes his argument against the moralist by portraying moral law as a source of condemnation (v. 12). The law demands complete observance; mere familiarity with it is insufficient (v. 13). Paul affirms the necessity of obeying the law by noting that Gentiles do so “by nature” (v. 14). This is not to imply that unbelievers can do so perfectly; rather, their vestigial sense of morality serves them as a means of accountability (v. 15), and indirectly condemns the Jews, who have access to a much clearer revelation of God’s will.


While this passage addresses the views of unbelieving moralists, it has implications for believers as well.

  • We should warn moralists of the inadequacy of their standing before God. God alone can confer righteousness on a guilty soul. Observance of the law can never bring one into a right relationship with God.
  • We should beware of legalism in the Christian life. Just as righteousness is God’s gift to us, so personal holiness is a result of the Holy Spirit’s work within us.
  • We should exercise restraint in judging others. The fact that exercising judgment is a means of self-condemnation should deter us from hastening to it. Nevertheless, this warning should not cause us to relinquish moral judgment.
  • We should thank God for his patience and mercy, through which He postponed judgment long enough for us to accept His grace by faith. In addition, we should praise Him for His impartiality: Not only does He uniformly reject feeble human works; He faithfully receives all who call on His name for salvation.
  • We should recognize the weakness of human nature. No matter what law is set forth as a standard, we are incapable of observing it flawlessly (vv. 12ff). Therefore, we can never claim to be acceptable on our own merits. The law functions to bring us to an awareness of our need for salvation (cf. Rom. 3:20; 7:5, 7-13; Gal. 3:21-24).


8 This interpretation is consistent with Paul’s thesis statement at the beginning of the passage: Those who justify themselves can never be righteous in God’s sight (v. 1). It also accords with verses 12-13, which require (absolute) observance of the law and emphasize condemnation, not justification. It is a stretch to identify those who receive eternal life (vv. 7, 10) as believers, since these verses emphasize personal attainment--a concept that is in incompatible with Paul’s overall teaching concerning sin and justification (e.g., Rom. 3:9-10; 3:20; 10:3; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).