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Series: Romans
Book: Romans
Scripture References

self-righteousness (rom 2:1-5)



David was a man after God’s own heart and yet he fell into serious sin….he lusted after another women, committed adultery with another man’s wife, made her pregnant, tried to cover it up, had her husband killed and for at least a year he minimized and justified his own sin and thought he had got away with it, that nobody important had seen. But of course God sees everything and knows everything, so he sends Nathan the prophet to confront David in 2 Sam 12. David tells him a story of a rich man who had many flocks and herds, but when he was called upon to show hospitality toward a guest, he was unwilling to take one of his own animals, but instead took the one cherished lamb that this other poor man had, which was more like a family member than an animal to him. David is outraged and he says the man was merciless and deserved to die and in the midst of his ranting and raving about how wicked this rich man was and how terrible his sin – Nathan looks David in the eye and says, “You are that man.”

That’s exactly what God does to us in Rom 2 through the Apostle Paul. He gives this long, detailed description of the depth and extend of human sin which climaxes in a horrific description toward the end of the chapter

29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

and then he turns and looks us in the eye and says, “You are that man!”….

Let’s read the text in Rom 1:32 – 2:5



The argument from salvation history

Paul is building an argument from Rom 1-5 which is going to climax in him saying – therefore we all can only be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ – no other way of salvation will do, no other answer is sufficient, no other hope is to be found. So he has to go through the other ways, the other solutions, that people trust in and resort to in order to try gain eternal life, or appease God’s wrath, or prove that they will be accepted into heaven -  and he has to systematically dismantle them. So that by Rom 5 Jesus Christ stands alone as God’s only and all sufficient solution for the problem of sin and righteousness.

The one he is dismantling in this text is “self-righteousness.” That’s what I’ve called this message, and the argument Paul puts forward here is like a logical syllogism with 2 propositions and a conclusion. Two statements which lead inevitably to his conclusion

1.   You are Guilty (2:1)

2.   God is Just (2:2-3)

3.   Therefore you are destined for wrath (2:4-5)

So let’s look at each of these in turn and understand them in their context.

1: You are Guilty (2:1)

You are that man

Read 1:18-20

·      God’s wrath is being poured out now, as we speak on those who are unrighteous. That means that they are not right within themselves, they are not right in their relationships with others and they don’t have a right standing before God, they are objects of His wrath rather than His favour and blessing.

·      20: they are without excuse….

·      2:1 you have no excuse.

·      1:18 they are under God’s wrath – 2:5 you are storing up wrath.

·      So you get what Paul is doing here, he’s doing exactly the same thing as Nathan did with David. He’s been describing these sinful people and sinful actions that rightly deserve God’s wrath and now he suddenly looks them in the eye as it were, and says, “You are that man.”

·      The Greek word for “you” in vs 1 is in the singular. Paul is engaging in a kind of dialogue here, a diatribe which was used in the philosophical schools of his day. It’s a theoretical dialogue which the listener is drawn into as a spectator, only to find out that the story is actually about them.

·      You who judge(1-2), you who suppose(3), you who presume (4), you who have hard and impenitent hearts (5). Who is the “you” here who Paul is having a kind of theoretical discussion with, a theoretical argument with?

They and you

·      1:16-The gospel is God’s power for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jews first and also to the Greek.

·      The Jews are God’s covenant people, chosen from among all the other nations to be His special possession. The Gentiles are everyone else, all the other nations that didn’t receive special revelation, that didn’t have a special relationship with God.

·      In 1:18-20 Paul goes on to describe how all men have the knowledge of God in creation, they have general revelation which gives them sufficient light, sufficient truth to render them guilty for suppressing that truth and turning to worship the creation rather than the creator.

·      1:24,26,28 Because they didn’t respond to that light, because they turned away from the God they knew through His creation, to worship and serve other things, God gave them up to their sin, to pursue their sin and be consumed by it.

·      But God didn’t give Israel up, He didn’t leave Israel to worship false God’s and idols, instead He rescued Israel from bondage and revealed Himself to them and gave them His law. They were the recipients of special privilege and grace, unconditional election, undeserved love and favour.



Ps 19: General Revelation, special revelation.

·      19:1-4a Creation is revealing God. It is communicating clearly, every day in many ways that God exists and is wise and big and beautiful and powerful and should be worshipped.

·      19:7-11 There is something even better than general revelation – the specific revelation of God in His law. The law gives wisdom, light, joy, reward and the Jews were the recipients of that special revelation.

·      So as they hear the description in Rom 1:23ff about idolatry and impurity and homosexuality and all manner of unrighteousness in 1:29 the Jews would have said to themselves – we know better, we know those things are wrong and we don’t do them. Those poor lost souls who don’t know what we know, who don’t have the light that we have.

·      The Jews, as a nation, were not characterized by idolatry and immorality and homosexuality and many of the sins that Paul mentions in Rom 1. So they are reading the description of Rom 1 and saying, yes, these things are wrong, they are terrible and rightly deserve God’s wrath. They are listening to Rom 1 like David was listening to Nathan’s story and feeling outraged at all this sin….of the Gentile nations.

The argument of chapter 2

Let’s track Paul’s argument in chapter 2 so we can see where he is heading with this.

·      6: God will render to each one according to His works, according to what He has done.

·      9-10: There will be judgment for every human being, Jews and Greek alike. The same principle of divine justice applies to both equally and impartially.

·      12-13: It’s not those who know the law who will be justified, but those who do the law.

·      2:17-20: Can you hear the attitude that Paul is addressing? We have the law, we have seen the light, we don’t walk in those sins, we instruct sinners in the way.

·      But hold on! 2:21-24. You who know the truth, don’t walk in the truth. You who know what is right, who teach what is right, don’t do what is right….and that’s an undeniable fact, even God’s Word confirms that His name is blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of you – they look at you, who are supposed to know better and can point fingers at how far you fall short of your own standards.


So the “you” that Paul has in mind are those who would not have identified with the “they” of 1:20. You can see how Rom 1+2 follows the same pattern as Ps 19. They have general revelation yet they reject that revelation and don’t worship and serve God, they are without excuse and under God’s wrath. You have special revelation in the Law, yet you reject that law and don’t worship and serve God and are under His wrath. So the “you” here is specifically the Jews, who had come to believe that they were better than others, they had come to trust in their own self-righteousness. They didn’t feel the weight of condemnation of chapter 1 because at least on a superficial, external level – they were not as guilty, they were not as sinful.

Paul taking aim at self-righteousness

Paul had enough experience in preaching the gospel to realize that there were some who were particularly hardened to the gospel. They didn’t hear it as good news because they hadn’t fully comprehended the bad news. They were so confident in their own righteousness that they didn’t see their need for the righteousness that God had provided in Jesus Christ.

So in chapter 2 Paul must take aim at this great hinderance to the gospel called self-righteousness…. and he’s going to do such a good job of dismantling it, that by 3:1 he must answer the question, “Then what advantage has the Jews, or what is the value of circumcision.” If what you say it true Paul, then is there any advantage to being the recipients of God’s special revelation, of knowing and having the law and the promises?

You practice the same things

So let’s go back and look at Paul’s accusation in 2:1. Read 2:1. You are guilty and have no excuse. But guilty of what, specifically?

He is not rebuking them for judging others, for looking at those who follow the sinful way of life described in chapter 1 and saying – that is wrong, they are wicked.

Our culture says it’s wrong to judge others, it’s wrong to pass judgment and say something is sinful or someone is sinning. That’s wrong and unloving and unfair according to our culture…. But not according to this passage….

The problem here is not that you judge others by God’s standard and find them guilty. The problem is that you don’t judge yourself by that same standard. You don’t apply the rule of the law to your own life. “You the judge practice the very same things.” By the same law you condemn others and justify yourself.

There’s double standards here. Hypocrisy, a failure to comprehend their own guilt before God.

We get further insight into this attitude from the teaching of Jesus


Turn in your bibles to Lk 18:9-14

·      We are told what is the point of this parable – to highlight the sinfulness of self-righteousness.

·      You can see the attitude that Jesus is addressing here, is the same one He is addressing in Romans through Paul.

·      Thank you God, that I am not like those wicked sinners. I don’t lie, I don’t steal, I’m not homosexual, I don’t murder.

·      The sinner says – God I’m a sinner, I need mercy….

·      Who goes home justified before God? That’s the question Jesus clarifies in vs 14.

·      Why – because self-righteousness exalts self – the gospel requires a humble confession of guilt and inability, a desperate need for mercy.

Comparison – relative guilt

See there’s this comparison game going on where the self-righteous compare themselves favourably with others. They spend so much time fixating on the wrong that others are doing – that they can no longer see the wrong they are doing. They justify self by magnifying the sin of others.

There’s a relativizing of sin. Sin is put on a scale from bad to worse to unforgivable – and along with that, a relativizing of judgment. God certainly should punish those sins, but I’m sure He will find me good enough.

Which leads to the second point in Paul’s argument. God is just

2: God is Just (2-3)

We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice these things. God is just and right to judge such unrighteousness. Thieves should be caught and sentenced and do jail time. Murderers and rapists shouldn’t be allowed to get away with their crimes. We can’t just let people go free who have done such crimes against humanity. I want my reputation restored, my money returned, my rental contract upheld.

The Jews wanted God’s justice to prevail when it came to those wicked people over there, but somehow they were hoping for special treatment from God in their case.

They had not only relativized sin, they had relativized God’s justice.

Example from modern Judaism

I found this statement on righteousness from a Jewish website which explained the doctrine of righteousness (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/righteousness):

RIGHTEOUSNESS, the fulfillment of all legal and moral obligations. Righteousness is not an abstract notion but rather consists in doing what is just and right in all relationships; "…keep justice and do righteousness at all times… In the Bible righteousness bears a distinctly legal character; the righteous man is the innocent party, while the wicked man is the guilty one: "And the judges judge them by justifying the righteous and condemning the wicked" (Deut. 25:1; cf. Ex. 23:7; II Sam. 15:4; Isa. 5:23). Righteousness requires not merely abstention from evil, but a constant pursuit of justice and the performance of positive deeds…”


So far they are doing well.

Because righteousness is not an inherent human characteristic, but rather a learned trait resulting from sustained performance of obligations, man can never attain the peak of righteous perfection: "For there is not a righteous man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not" (Eccles. 7:20; cf. Ps. 143:2; Job 4:17; 15:14; Dan. 9:18).


And now they are doing even better. Righteousness is not possible in absolute terms, they say, no man can reach the peak of righteous perfection always doing what is right and never doing evil. But the next statement says this.


The impossibility of achieving absolute righteousness, however, does not preclude the constant striving toward this end. The Jew emulates the Patriarchs, conscious that God evaluates even their righteousness in relative terms (Gen. R. 30:9; Shab. 55a; Sanh. 107a; cf. Hab. 2:4; Yoma 38b; RH 16b; Sanh. 93a; Num. R. 3:1; Song R. 3:3; Zohar, Gen. 9).


Once we have acknowledged that we fall short of God’s perfect standards of righteousness, the only hope we have is that God will evaluate our righteous in relative terms. That he will judge us to be better than those people who aren’t even trying, that He will reward our efforts to try to attain to His righteousness. In other words, we judge ourselves on relative terms, our righteousness relative to others, and we expect God to do the same.

Paul says in vs 3, “Do you suppose” because of course that is exactly what they were supposing. That despite the fact they were guilty, they were better than the rest and God would judge them in relative terms.

Paul is reminding them – God is just. Vs 6, “He will render to each one according to his deeds.” Vs 11 “God shows no partiality


Which leads him to the inescapable conclusion: you are objects of wrath rather than recipients of blessing.

If you are guilty and God is just then you are destined for wrath


3:You are destined for wrath (4-5)

Paul says in vs 4, “You are presuming upon God’s mercy.”

Moses sees God’s mercy

When Moses wanted to see God’s glory, God hid him in the cleft of a rock and gave Moses a revelation of His character which is preserved in the words of Deut 34:6-1

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.”

This is the verse that O.T prophets quoted more than any other passage because it epitomizes the nature of God and His relationship to His people Israel. He is a God of mercy and grace, who is slow to anger. A gracious and forgiving God.

The Jews had so camped on this verse that they had come to believe that God would be gracious to them despite their sin, that He would just overlook their sin. That he would give justice to those wicked Gentile nations, but mercy to His people Israel.  They came to believe that God was pleased by their efforts to keep the law and that by their pursuit of righteousness they were storing up blessings for themselves.

Paul says – just the opposite. You are presuming upon grace and storing up wrath. The Greek word in vs 5 there is used of storing up treasure. They thought they were storing up a treasure of rewards for themselves for the future. Paul says just the opposite, you are storing up a treasure of wrath on the day when God’s righteousness is revealed.

He is saying to them, “Your unrelenting confidence in your own righteousness is hardening your heart to the righteousness you so desperately need, which God has provided in Jesus Christ. You see the basis of their self-righteousness was a minimizing of their sin and a relativizing of God’s justice…. The basis of God’s righteousness was the perfect fulfilment of it in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

All rely on mercy, but on what basis

Both the self-righteous and the Christian appeal to God to be merciful. The basis for that mercy for the self-righteous is found in their best efforts, though they are not perfect, they are trying and are not as bad as others. The basis for the Christians appeal for God’s mercy is the perfect righteousness of Christ which is given to us through faith.

Read Rom 10:1-4. Could it be any clearer, what Paul is driving at in this passage.

·      Please, see the depth and extent of your own sin.

·      Please, see that because God is just, He can no more overlook your sin than He can overlook the sin of a serial killer, or a rapist, or any other person that you know needs to be brought to justice.

·      Please see that all your efforts to try make up for your sin and establish your own standard of righteousness, is only hardening your heart to the righteousness that God has provided in Jesus Christ, the only kind of righteousness that is acceptable to Him.

·      Please repent, turn from self-righteousness to Jesus Christ.

You are that man!

And now, I must do what Nathan did and what Paul did and say this morning – You are that man!

While Paul clearly had his own fellow Jews in mind – the text says, You are without excuse, every single one of you who takes up this kind of self-justifying, self-excusing, self-righteous stance.

And we all do…..

·      We look at others, we compare ourselves to others and say – at least I am not as bad as them. I don’t do that, I haven’t killed anyone, I haven’t hurt anyone…..We can always find someone who is more wicked than us. By pointing at how bad other people are, we can feel good about ourselves.

·      We do it as churches – those charismatics, those liberals. Those happy clappies, those legalists, those fundementalists, – and we paint them in a bad light so we can feel better about ourselves.

·      We do it as families – we look at other people’s marriages, or homes, or parenting and we say to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that, I don’t live like that, I don’t do that.” The misery and mistakes of others comforts us because then we don’t feel so bad about ourselves.

·      We do it as individuals - We speak to others about the good things we have done, the areas we are growing. We maximize our good and we minimize and justify our sin. We gossip and slander and paint other people in a bad light so we can feel a little better about ourselves.

·      We point all four fingers at others and what they have done to us and how terrible their words or actions toward us are and how much they have hurt us – and we give very little thought to what we have done to them.

·       We play these games with our sin and put them onto a relative scale where some of them are small sins and minor slips and we do our best to avoid those really big, bad sins that are on the top of the list.

·      We establish sets of rules and regulations for conduct that we can judge ourselves and others by and we ignore our heart motives. As long as I’m tithing, and attending church and reading my bible and avoiding bad movies and low cut blouses – I’m doing ok.

·      We start to believe that God is impressed with our diligent efforts to pursue righteousness and that somehow He even owes me something for all my hard work and service and sacrifice for Him.

·      God will hear our prayers and give us blessings and reward us with good health - because of what we have done

You, every single one of you, this text says,  are that man!....


Our churches are full of self-righteous Christians who are preaching the gospel to everyone else out there who desperately needs Christ and not preaching the gospel to ourselves!...And that is why the church keeps losing the gospel.

The number 1 threat to the gospel in the N.T. is self-righteousness. The harshest and most direct rebuke by Jesus is reserved for the self-righteous:

·      Matt 23:1-2: crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others.

·      23:15: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

·      23:23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.

·      23:25: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Go read Matt 23 and say to yourself, “I am that man!” and then repent of your self-righteousness and put your whole confidence in Christ and Christ alone. Turn from self-righteousness to Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is perfect, it cannot be improved upon, it cannot complemented or supplemented by anything you do.

As Roms 10 goes on to say, ““Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Closing words

The self-righteous trust in their own righteousness, the Christian trust in Christ’s righteousness. The self-righteous asks God to reward our efforts, the Christian asks God to reward Christ’s efforts on our behalf. The self-righteous are impressed with self, they boast in self. The Christian is impressed with Christ and boasts in Christ alone.

Where are you placing your faith?