Romans 2:17-29


How would you like to go flying with me?  We could go down to the local airport, charter an airplane and I could take you up for a plane ride.  Who is going to fly this plane?  I am.  You might ask me, “Are you a licensed pilot?”  And I would pull out my father’s logbook and show you all of the hours that he logged in flying different types of airplanes.  He was a career pilot in the Air Force, he flew thousands of hours and he flew all sorts of planes all over the world.  “Did he teach you how to fly?” you ask.  No, but I have read some books on flying and I have my father’s Air Force hat and some of his flying insignias.  Certainly I need nothing more!


Sounds a little silly.  But that is exactly the situation which Paul addresses in the book of Romans.  He addresses those in the church who were relying on their ancestry to give them a proper standing before God.  They had the pedigree - they traced the lineage to Abraham.  They had the books - the Law and the Prophets.  And they had the insignia - the sign of circumcision.  They were ready to fly!


Paul brings them back down to earth in this chapter.  He started in chapter 1 by showing that the pagan world is under the wrath of God.  Now he has moved to the religious man - the Jew who was depending upon his Jewish heritage to save him.


Romans 1:18-32

Romans 2:1-29

The Pagan

The Religious Man

The Gentile

The Jew

Understands the existence of God and so is without excuse

Has the Law of God and so is without excuse


This is the second chapter of bad news.  And it isn't over yet.  The worst is yet to come.  Paul is giving us the bad news so that we will be ready to get the good news.  His bad news cuts deeply.  But it is the cut of a physician who has a scalpel in his hand.  He is cutting out a deadly cancer.


As we read this passage, we could substitute EVANGELICAL or PRESBYTERIAN for “Jew.”  And in doing so, we shall come face to face with three dangers that we face.





            But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, 18 and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, 19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth... (Romans 2:17-20).


Paul begins by addressing himself to his fellow Jews.  They were Jews and they were proud of the fact.  To this day, Jewish men in the synagogue thank the Lord in their daily prayers...


That they are lo goyim (not Gentile).

That they are lo evedim (not slaves

That they are lo isha (not woman).


Paul points out five great privileges and five great professions of the Jew.  He begins with five great privileges:


1.         He has the Law of God.


God had spoken true truth to Moses and to the prophets and had given His commands in the form of the Law.  The Jews alone had that Law.  They were known as “people of the book.”


2.         He had a boast in God.


He was a worshiper of the only true God.  He knew God in a way that none of the pagans knew God.  He was able to worship God in the way which He ordained that He be worshiped.


3.         He knew God’s will.


He had the Scriptures of the Old Testament.  He had God’s message in written form.  The most precious communication in history had been placed into his hands and written in his language.


4.         He could approve the things that are essential.


He had the capacity through his knowledge of the will of God to determine between...

Good and evil.

Moral and immoral.

Ethical and unethical.


5.         He was instructed out of the Law.


He had grown up in a Jewish family and had the knowledge of God taught to him as a young child.  He had spent his childhood in the synagogue, being taught by the rabbis.  He could quote the law of God.  He knew all of the Bible stories for they were HIS stories — stories of his own ancestors and people.


There were also a number of professions which the Jew made.


           A guide to the blind: Blind people need guides.  But the worst possible scenario is a blind person being led by a guide who is also blind.


           A light for those in darkness: Isaiah speaks of the fact that God’s covenant nation was appointed to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6).


           A corrector of the foolish: Real wisdom is found in knowing God.  The Jews were self-professed wise men.


           A teacher of the immature:   The Jews thought of Gentile believers as mere spiritual babies.  They had not been raised with the Scriptures and so were considered to be spiritually retarded.


           The embodiment of knowledge and truth.


There is a direct application that can be made to Christians today.


Jews of Paul’s Day

Christians Today

You bear the name “Jew”

You bear the name Christian.

You rely upon the Law and boast in God

You trust in your church and boast that you are a Christian.

You know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law

You know the will of God and the basics of Christian doctrine.

You are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness

You are able to set straight those who are in the cults and those who are unchurched.

You are a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature

You can counsel people and teach the young.

You have in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth

You have all the answers.


Let us suppose a hypothetical man.  He calls himself a Christian.  He trusts in the truths of the Scriptures.  He delights in being close to God.  He has studied the Scripture and has even gone so far as to enter a Bible College and get a string of degrees from college and seminary.  With those degrees in had, he now sets out to tell others of the Lord.  He becomes a teacher of the Scriptures.  A Christian counselor.  A preacher of righteousness.  This is the sort of man portrayed here by the apostle Paul.  And with such a portrait in hand, we now have some questions for such a man.





  , therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?

            You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?

            You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?

            For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, just as it is written. (Romans 2:21-24).


Now Paul asks five questions of his Jewish readers.  He does not openly assert anything.  And yet, his questions expect an obvious answer.




Do You Not Teach Yourself?



Do You Steal?



Do You Commit Adultery?



Do you Rob Temples?



Do You Dishonor God?


1.         Do You Not Teach Yourself? (2:21).


Teaching others is easy.  The hardest one to teach is always yourself.  The book of James gives a warning to teachers — that they will be held to a stricter standard (James 3:1).


2.         Do You Steal? (2:21).


Not all stealing is done with a gun or with the stealth of a thief.  Much is done in the cutthroat business tactics of those out to make a fast buck.  The prophets regularly condemned such cases of social injustice.


3.         Do You Commit Adultery? (2:22).


Divorce was at epic proportions in that day, not only among the Gentiles, but also among the Jews.


4.         Do you Rob Temples? (2:22).


Since the time of the Babylonian Captivity, no Jew had been guilty of bowing down to an idol.  But there was another sense in which they WERE guilty of idolatry.  They were guilty of making idols out of other things...





The book of Malachi talks about how men had robbed God by holding back their tithes and offerings (Malachi 3:8-9).


5.         Do You Dishonor God? (2:23).


There was nothing worse in the Jewish mind than blasphemy - to bring dishonor to God.


In chapter 1, we saw a downward evolution of pagan man as he moved from idolatry to sensuality to immorality.  In this chapter, the order is reversed.


Romans 1:21-32


Idolatry →    Sensuality →   Immorality

Romans 2:21-24


Immorality →   Sensuality →   Idolatry


There is a point here that I want you to see.  Paul has not changed subjects between chapter 1 and chapter 2.  He has only changed his audience.  His topic is still the wrath of God upon a godless life.


The religious Jew knew the Law.  That was not his problem.  It was that he did not LIVE the Law.  Paul comes to this conclusion in verse 25:


            For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, just as it is written. (Romans 2:24).


Paul is quoting from the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah speaks of how the Israelites were oppressed, first when they lived in Egypt, and later by the Assyrian invasion.  People looked at the troubles of Israel and concluded that their God must be very small and powerless.  Heathens saw the Israelites going into captivity and they said, “The God of Israel must not be much of a god.  The gods of the Assyrians are greater than the God of Abraham.”  The name of God was blasphemed in those events.  But now there is another way in which God’s name is blasphemed.  It is when people who call themselves God’s people don’t live in the way that God’s people ought to live.  Once again, the heathens look at God’s people.  They see those who are called God’s people and...

...they are stealing.

...they are committing adultery.

...they are robbing temples.

...they are breaking the Law.


And the conclusion of these heathens is to blaspheme - to say, “Those folks don’t have much of a god!”


Here is the principle.  If you are a Christian, then you are the representative of God on earth.  You are the only Jesus that some people will ever know.  And when you sin and act in an ungodly way, you are directly responsible for blasphemy, for you have given opportunity for pagans to speak ill of God.  It is sad but true that the worst testimony for Christianity is Christians.


I am told of a minister who was visiting a man in his community and the man said, “I will never come to your church because I have had dealings with a dishonest member of your congregation and, if that is what a Christian is, then I want no part of it.”


The minister noticed a piano in the corner and asked who within the family played the instrument.  He was told that the man’s daughter was taking lessons.  The minister asked if he might hear her play.


She came into the room and the minister leafed through the music and picked out a very involved composition written by Chopin, asking her to play it.


“Oh, that is much too difficult for me,” answered the girl, but at his insistence, she attempted the piece.  Of course, it was disastrous with missed notes and poor tempo.


After the girl had finished the piece and left the room, the minister turned to the father and commented, “That Chopin wasn’t much of a composer, was he?”  The father understood the point immediately - that the inability of the girl was not a reflection on the worthiness of the composition.  In the same way, the inability of the religious man to live according to the Law is no reflection upon the Maker of the Law.


Another story is told of a man who took a friend to hear the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon.  Afterward, he asked his friend, “What did you think of Spurgeon?”  His friend looked blankly for a moment before replying, “Spurgeon?  I don’t know about him, I was too busy paying attention to Christ.”


That is what will happen if we are living a proper Christian life.  People will not see us - they will see Christ.

Did you  hear of the dentist who took X‑rays of every patient who came in and then made a special proposition to them. He said, “For ten dollars I will fill these cavities that you have here, but, if you don’t want to pay that much, for five dollars I will retouch the X‑rays.”
The ritual without the meaning behind it is like that, it is a retouched X‑ray ‑‑ the cavity is still there.





The sign of the Jew was circumcision.  It was the sign of his covenant with God, placed upon his own body.  There is nothing wrong with circumcision.  It is a rite that was commanded by God.  But it is only a sign.  It is an outward sign of what was supposed to be an inward reality.  If you want to feel the full force of this passage, then read it again and substitute the word “BAPTISM” for “circumcision” as you read Romans 2:25-29.


            For indeed BAPTISM is of value if you practice Christianity; but if you are a transgressor of the commands of Christ, your BAPTISM has become UNBAPTISM.

            So if the UNBAPTIZED man keeps the commands of Christ, will not his UNBAPTISM be regarded as BAPTISM?

            And he who is physically UNBAPTIZED, if he obeys Christ, will he not judge you who though having the teachings of Christ and BAPTISM are a transgressor of those teachings?

            For he is not a Christian who is one outwardly, nor is BAPTISM that which is outward in the flesh.

            But he is a Christian who is one inwardly; and BAPTISM is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by water; and his praise is not from men, but from God.


This brings us to the question: If baptism does not save me, then what good is it?  The question in our passage does not deal with baptism, but with circumcision.


1.         The Value of Circumcision: The ritual without the reality is useless.


            For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. (Romans 2:25).


We could put this into a mathematical formula:


Circumcision + Practicing the Law = Value


Circumcision + Transgression of the Law = Uncircumcision


Paul establishes that the test of authenticity is not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside.  This brings up an obvious objection.  If only the inside it important, then why worry about ANYTHING that is on the outside?  Why be baptized?  Of what value is circumcision?  The answer is that circumcision is of value if you a Law-keeper (the specific value will be seen in the next chapter).


The religious Jews to whom Paul speaks claimed to be Law-keepers.  They made their boast in God.  They said, “God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives.”  They assumed that their circumcision gave them an “in” with God.


Circumcision was never supposed to equal superiority.  Rather, it was to be a sign of submission.  It was a sign of God putting a knife to man’s self-sufficiency.  It was to teach the lesson that there is no part of a man’s life that is too private or too personal for God.  It was to illustrate our need to have our sins cut away from us.


But the Jews had come to see circumcision as a sign of superiority.  They began to trust in the symbol more than in the Lord.  And they became presumptuous in their relationship with God.


Hypocrisy in Biblical Christianity is hardly ever reflected in overt sin — it is more often reflected in presumption.  We are sinners.  We say that we believe this.  But if you were arrested for drunk driving and your name appeared in the newspaper telling of the event, would you go to church that Sunday?  Or would you stay home until you had “straightened up your own life”?  The answer to that question will determine on what you are depending for your acceptance before God.  It is like being in an accident and saying, “I don’t want to go to the Emergency Room, I have this blood all over me and I just don't look presentable.”


You know the Gospel - that God sent His Son as a sacrifice for sins to die in your place - that He died and was buried and that He rose again to show that He had defeated death - and that you can find salvation only through faith in Him, trusting Him as your Lord and as your Savior.  You know the gospel.  But even the gospel will do absolutely nothing for you unless you have appropriated the gospel for yourself and have made it a part of your life.


2.         The Judgment of Circumcision: The reality without the ritual is sufficient.


            So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

            And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? (Romans 2:26-27).


Here is a Gentile.  And he has never been circumcised.  But he is a law-keeper.  Through faith in Jesus Christ, he has been credited with the righteousness of God and this is evidenced by the practical righteousness of God in his life.  The result is that this man is as good as circumcised.


When my wife and I were first married, we exchanged wedding rings.  And for the first few years of our marriage, I wore a gold ring on my finger.  Somewhere along the line, I lost the ring.  But that did not end our marriage.  It in no way detracts from our relationship.  It is simply a symbol.


When I had the ring, I did not make more of it than I ought to have done.  I did not take off the ring and worship it.  My interest was centered, not on the ring, but on my wife who gave it to me.


Suppose that I had not lost the ring.  And imagine that I became a cruel and unfaithful husband, refusing to care for the needs of my wife.  What if, one day, she had reached the breaking point and said, “You have ceased to be a husband to me.  You are cruel and there is no love in your heart and I want you to leave.”  How would she respond if I countered, “How dare you complain!  I’m wearing the wedding ring and I’ve never removed it a single time!  Sure, I’ve beat you and insulted you and cheated on you, but I was wearing the ring!”  Such an answer would be ridiculous.  And it is no less ridiculous when we depend upon externals for our relationship with God.  The symbol may represent love, but it can never replace love.


Symbols are important.  Some of them, like baptism and the Lord’s Supper, represent salvation.  They go so far as to articulate salvation.  But they do not impart salvation.


Putting your trust in a symbol is like trying to fly a plane based only upon the fact that you have a pilot’s insignia or a logbook or a pilot’s hat.  It won’t get you very far.  And you’re in for a tough landing.


3.         The Identity of the Truly Circumcised.


            For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29).


There is a small play on words in verse 29.  The word “Jew” is derived from the Hebrew name “Judah” which in Hebrew means “praise.”  When a man is a Jew inwardly, then he has the praise from God to match the meaning of his name.


Outward Jew

Inward Jew

Outward circumcision in the flesh.

Circumcision which is of the heart.

Circumcision by the letter.

Circumcision by the Spirit.

Praise from men.

Praise from God.


This brings up a question.  How can a heart be circumcised?  The word “circumcision” means to “cut around.”  The Christian is one who has undergone a heart transplant.  He is one in whom the Lord has performed a surgical operation, cutting through the spiritual calluses of his hardened heart to replace it with a heart for God.


Outward Judaism doesn’t do much good.  And neither is there much value in Christianity that is only skin-deep.  You cannot impress God with your pedigree.  Or with your rituals.  Or with your own self-effort.


Let’s go back to my flying illustration.  I know that you wouldn’t do it, but let’s pretend that you actually go with me to the airport and get into a plane.  You watch as I walk around to the side of the plane and begin to blow on the wings.


“What are you doing?” you ask.

“I’m trying to get enough lift to fly the plane.”

“Why don’t you turn on the engine?”

“I can’t do that.  I’m going to fly this plane by myself.”


Such would be the words of a legalist, huffing and puffing to fly himself to heaven.  Are you out of breath?  Been working really hard at trying to please God?  I have some good news.  He has already done the work on your behalf.  You can trust in Him and He will save.  And then you will soar.


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