All Have Sinned (Romans 2–3)
Sadly, this brokenness extends even to Paul’s own workplace, the Christian church, and in particular the Christians in Rome. Despite being God’s own people (Rom. 9:25), “called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7), the Christians in Rome are experiencing a breakdown in their relationships with one another. Specifically, Jewish Christians are judging Gentile Christians for not conforming to their own peculiar expectations, and vice versa. “You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with the truth,’” Paul notes (Rom. 2:2). Each side claims that they know God’s judgments and speak for God. Claiming to speak for God makes their own words into idols, illustrating in miniature how idolatry (breaking relationship with God) leads to judgment (breaking relationship with other people).
Both sides are wrong. The truth is that both Gentiles and Jews have strayed from God. Gentiles, who should have recognized the sovereignty of God in the creation itself, have given themselves over to the worship of idols and to all the destructive behavior that follows from this basic mistake (Rom. 1:18–32). Jews, on the other hand, have become judgmental, hypocritical, and boastful that they are the people of the Torah. Paul summarizes both situations by saying, “All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).
But the crux of the problem is not that each side misunderstands God’s expectations. It is that each side judges the other, destroying the relationships that God had brought into being. It is crucial to recognize the role of judgment in Paul’s argument. Judgment causes broken relationships. The specific sins noted in Romans 1:29–31 are not the causes of our broken relationships, but the results. The causes of our broken relationships are idolatry (toward God) and judgment (toward people). In fact, idolatry can be understood as a form of judgment, the judgment that God is not adequate and that we can create better gods on our own. Therefore, Paul’s overarching concern in chapters 2 and 3 is our judgment of others.
You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? (Rom. 2:1–3)
If we wonder what we have done that puts us in need of salvation, the answer above all is judgment and idolatry, according to Paul. We judge others, though we have no right to do so, and thus we bring God’s judgment on ourselves as he works to restore true justice. To use a modern metaphor, it is like the Supreme Court overturning a corrupt judge in a lower court who didn’t even have jurisdiction in the first place.
Does this mean that Christians are never to assess people’s actions or to oppose people at work? No. Because we work as God’s agents, we have a duty to assess whether the things happening in our workplaces serve or hinder God’s purposes and to act accordingly (see Rom. 12:9–13:7 for some examples from Paul). A supervisor may need to discipline or fire an employee who is not doing his or her job satisfactorily. A worker may need to go over a supervisor’s head to report an ethical or policy violation. A teacher may need to give a low grade. A voter or politician may need to oppose a candidate. An activist may need to protest a corporate or government injustice. A student may need to report cheating by another student. A victim of abuse or discrimination may need to cut off contact with the abuser.
Because we are responsible to God for the outcomes of our work and the integrity of our workplaces, we do need to assess people’s actions and intentions and to take action to prevent injustice and do good work. But this does not mean that we judge others’ worthiness as human beings or set ourselves up as morally superior. Even when we oppose others’ actions, we do not judge them.
It can be difficult to tell the difference sometimes, but Paul gives us some surprisingly practical guidance. Respect the other person’s conscience. God has created all people in such a way that “what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15). If others are genuinely following their own conscience, then it is not your job to judge them. But if you are setting up yourself as morally superior, condemning others for following their own moral compass, you are probably passing judgment in a way for which “you have no excuse” (Rom. 2:1).