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Why are moralists hypocrites?

Why are moralists hypocrites?

A diagnosis from Romans 2 about true and false morality

Dear friends

Thanks for the positive feedback a number of you have sent in about our new series chatting our way through the book of Romans. It’s a slightly different way of driving a podcast conversation, and of exploring a Bible passage—so please keep letting us know how you think it’s working.

Today, we come to Romans 2, and its discussion of moralistic hypocrisy. This is something that Christians have often been accused of—of proclaiming great moral standards in public but grossly transgressing them in private. But in this passage, Paul attacks the failure of the superior, judgmental moralists of his day—the Greeks and the Jews—and holds out the possibility that true morality is indeed possible, if God writes his law on the heart.

Your brother,


Why are moralists hypocrites?

Phillip Jensen: Well, I've been thinking about Romans 2 for the past week, particularly trying to wrestle with what are the great thoughts and ideas that come out of Romans 2. It's an incredible passage, and a big part of it has got to do with contrast—contrast with Jews, contrast with Greeks, contrast with Gentiles. In that time, the Greeks were people of high morality, but then I discovered I really don't know much about the high morality of the Greeks. Now Tony, you know more than I do about ethics and morality. Could you tell us, what was the kind of ethics that the Greeks were teaching? 

Tony Payne: And by the ‘Greeks’ you mean the people he’s been talking about since Romans 1–the people of intellectual stature and dominance in the ancient world. 

Well, there’s Plato who to some extent talked about ethics, but he mainly discussed the ideas or the meta philosophy that grounded ethics. It was Aristotle, really, who, among others, would have been the main source for how a Greek might have thought of themselves as virtuous, as having thought about and practised a life well-lived, a life of virtue. The Greek ethics that Paul might have been addressing here was a realist ethic like the Bible, and that's different from many ethics today which are mostly based on subjectivity and emotion.

PJ: By ‘realist’ you mean there actually is a thing called ‘good’? 

TP: Yes. They thought there really was goodness, and that goodness could be lived out. In a sense, it was something to participate in, to embrace a life that sought goodness in different kinds of virtues like courage or prudence or wisdom or self-cultivation. So it connected character and action and the life well-lived. The virtuous life was the goal of that ethical philosophy. And they approached it in different ways. Plato saw the real good as something that existed above in an ideal set of forms. Aristotle saw the real good as existing within the stuff of the world, that it was just there and, by reason and experience, could be embraced and lived out by the noble and the good.

PJ: So back to last week's discussion on Romans 1, for example, where it says, “claiming to be wise they became fools”, this was very much so referring to the Greeks wasn’t it? In their moralist foolishness, God gives them up to their own morality and you then wind up with all the people who know the good but don't practise it. So Romans 2 starts off with the moralist, but it wasn’t just the Greeks who were the moralists. The Jews were also moralists, weren’t they? 

TP: I think because Romans 1 has been about the Greeks, I've always assumed that Romans 2 is immediately shifting to talk about the Jewish hypocrite. But actually, no, it doesn't make that change straight away. Romans 2 is still talking about Jews and Greeks. 

PJ: Yes, and you see this because of Paul’s adamant change in Romans 2:17. “But if you call yourself a Jew…” So prior to that, it's been about Greeks and even Gentiles. Here’s how it starts:

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practise the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practise such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practise such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.

TP: And especially in this case, it is referring to those who have high moral standards–whether it's the higher moral standards of God's law given in the Old Testament or the high moral standards and aspirations of the Greek philosopher who saw his philosophy as only being a good philosophy if it proceeded into a good life. It wasn't philosophy separated from morality in the way that we have today. For them philosophy covered and played into politics and into how you live your life. 

And so you were asking about Greek ethics before and I told you that it was a realist ethic. Yet it was quite different from the Old Testament ethic despite both of them being realist ethics, because although they thought there was such a thing as ‘good’ and they sought it in character and action, they didn't have the revelation of a Creator God who had made the world good. And so they had no solid way of anchoring or discovering that ‘good’. It's what Plato looks for in the forms. It’s what Aristotle looks for in the stuff of things. But in the Old Testament, you have a good God who makes a good world.

PJ: And it's good because he determined it is good.

TP: Yes, he made it to be good, because he is good. So you do have something beyond the world that gives the world goodness, but you also have real goodness that's in the world that we experience and that we live out.

PJ: Yes.  

TP: Now, when you go back to the ethics of the Greeks in this passage, you see its contrast with the Jewish law that came from the Creator God of the world who expressed the good and gave commands as to what was right and wrong and good. Meanwhile, the Greek had some principles that they were searching for and had elucidated, which overlapped, to some extent, with what the Jewish law said, but which didn't have any basis in a Creator God. They didn't believe in a God like that, a God who revealed the nature of the world and the law.

PJ: And so Paul was picking up their failure to acknowledge a Creator God. 

TP: Yes, even though they both had the standards. 

PJ: Yes, and he goes on to lay out the principles of judgment. God's kindness, forbearance, and patience is a Pauline theme. In Acts 17 in the Areopagus address, Paul talks about it. And 2 Peter 3 also mentions that God is patient in waiting for people to repent; that God's justice could already be delivered but God delays his justice out of his kindness for us, giving us the time to repent, though we humans use it to rebel further against God. 

At the same time, the nature of God’s justice is also spelled out in Romans 2:6-11. 

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

It's a wonderful statement of some of the principles of justice which we in the Western world take for granted, that we treat people without partiality. And again, the rule of the law is part of the principles of God's justice: that we judge according to the law, not according to who we are, nor according to who the judge is. So the king of Israel had to read the law and obey the law himself. And applying the law to the Donald Trump's of this world is something that we approve of, something that we think is right and proper. But that's unusual in the history of mankind and around the world. Generally, the kings and rulers get away with not obeying the law and oftentimes the law doesn't apply to them. 

TP: We believe that there should be one law for all and it should be administered completely, impartially with no respect to person, but that's from this passage. That's a biblical principle about who God is. And it actually isn't the way the world has ever worked in any society except in the West.

PJ: Yes. And there is also the concept of retribution. You see in verse six that we're given what we deserve. That's a retributive notion of justice, which these days, some people say it's vengeance or it's backward looking. But the essence of justice is you're not given anything other than what you deserve. It's very important that we retain that. We used to have the Department of Prisons. Now we have this utilitarian Stalinist language: the Department of Corrective Services. How we have moved from one language to the other is astonishing, because words do affect how we then think. And so it's not a prison anymore; it's Corrective Services. Who is correcting whom, to what standards by what means? This is straight out of the Gulag. 

TP: It’s a horrible concept. It used to be that you went to prison because you deserve to go to prison. It was the appropriate punishment for the act you committed. And so that's the idea of retribution, that you receive a punishment that is proportionate and appropriate to the crime that you committed. But we don’t like the idea of punishment and retribution any more. In the last 40 or 50 years, as we’ve moved intellectually away from the Christian foundations of everything, including our justice system, we’ve moved away from retribution to correction.

PJ: But at the same time, of course we haven't, because when we're the victim, we always want retribution. We want justice, we want punishment.

TP: You see them outside the courts being interviewed afterwards. “How do you feel today?” “I feel we've got justice.” Or “I haven't got justice today, because the sentence wasn't long enough. He raped and killed my daughter, and he's getting out in 18 months time. It's not justice.”

PJ: It’s not justice. You know, Gilbert and Sullivan can make fun of the punishment that fits the crime. But that's not to be made fun of. That actually is one of the fundamentals of our whole legal system, our whole morals. And it's a fundamental that comes from God who gives us what we deserve. And you see, on the other side of it, it's one of the things I dislike about Islam, because in the Sharia law, there is not this sense of proportionality. If you're a thief, you can have your hand chopped off. Well, I think that is excessive. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is the limitation of what can be taken; it must be equal to the cost and not more than the cost of the crime. But there's nothing in this world that I could steal which is worth my hand. 

TP: In fact, from the words of Jesus, you can say it's only something not of this world that I might give my hand up for. If your hand is going to send you to hell, better to chop off your hand than to go into hell. But that's a bit different from “I stole a loaf of bread, and I lose my hand.”

PJ: Yes. I mean, if you said to me, I'll give you $10 billion. If you let me chop your hand. No, there's nothing in this world that is much more valuable to me than my hand.

TP: All these principles of justice–that everyone is under the law, the idea of impartiality before the law, the idea of retribution, the idea of proportionality and appropriateness of punishment–are being laid out by Paul as he makes his argument. And his argument in the end is: it doesn't matter whether you're Greek with your moral principles, whatever they might be, or whether you're a Jew under the law of Israel. Whichever law that you're under, you'll be judged by God regardless of who you are, according to an impartial judgment, and you'll receive the due penalty for what you've done. 

PJ: Yes. God is impartial, and God judges with total knowledge. So in the next paragraph, you see that he judges by the secrets of our hearts.

TP: Yes indeed. 

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

PJ: The general thrust is that you are judged by what you do. And you're judged by the just, right God who knows the secrets of your hearts. And so owning the law is not what matters; doing the law is what matters. Even those who don't know the law but do what they should do will be rewarded.

TP: In that case, it doesn't matter whether you're a Greek with your principles or a Jew with the law of God. Either way, you're going to be judged by having fallen short of what is right and true and good.

PJ: Yes. And now Paul does move to Gentiles. 

TP: Yes, this is the first time the Gentiles are actually mentioned here. And those verses are tricky, because there are two most likely options as to what's going on there. One is that he's saying that Gentiles–that is, the whole rest of the world who are presumably less educated than the Jews and Greeks–have some among them who might actually know the law in their very selves and put it into practice. And it doesn't matter how high or mighty you think you are with your law and your philosophy, because they will actually be better off than you if they do the law which is written inside them somehow. So some people take it as being a kind of natural law that everybody, such that even the most uneducated people have some sense of what is right and wrong in their hearts. And that also kind of fits the passage. But that phrase, “written on their hearts”, is a very strong phrase.

PJ: Well, it reminds me of Ezekiel 36, when the aim of God in the kingdom of God is to change the nature of the human heart, so that the law will be no longer external to us and written on the tablets of stone, but now internal to us and written on our hearts, our hearts moved by the Spirit of God to do what the law requires. And that's what's going to happen through the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles.

TP: That’s the second option for understanding these verses—that Paul, in other words, is saying something like, “Now you people who claim to have a law and who are hypocritical judges of others—I know a group of people, people who you would have no respect for, who are actually Gentiles. What if a group of people like that actually show that they did the law because it was written on their hearts? What about that?!” It's kind of like a little hint of what Paul goes on to say in the rest of the chapter and later on in the book. 

PJ: Yes, he does go on to say it, but he announces to the Jews specifically rather than the Greek to reinforce that point that there are Gentiles out there doing what you Jews claim to do, but actually don't. Why don't you read the rest of the chapter for us, Tony. 

TP: Absolutely.  

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth–you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonour God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

PJ: I think it becomes very clear that he really does take on the contemporary Jew and really does get stuck into the hypocrisy of Jewish law ownership. But getting stuck into the Jews is something we need to be very careful of, because it's not anti-semitism at this point. Paul himself is Jewish, and later on speaks of his great love of his own people and his desire for them and their welfare. But in the light of October 7, of those terrible things and the war that is flowing out of Hamas’ terrible abuse of Israel, we just need to be a little sensitive when we're reading about the Jews doing the wrong thing, because he's not talking about that. Rather he's talking about the Jews’ pride in the law, especially the Pharisees, the scribes of the law, whose great honour and great claim to fame was that they had the law of God. But owning it is not the same as doing it. And you're not judged by owning it, you're judged by doing it. And that's what Paul's contemporaries had not understood, that their pride in their ownership of the law was, in a sense, their undoing, because the very thing that they owned, condemned them in the behaviour that they were conducting.

TP: And far from being anti-Jewish, it's about as pro-Jewish as you can get in the sense that the goal is for everyone to become a Jew–to be an inward Jew. That's what the Spirit will do. And I wonder, early on in that passage where he was just hinting and floating at this very idea that the promise of the Old Testament was that by the Spirit of God, not just God's historic people but all nations will have the law of God written on their hearts, and his people will know the law and will long to obey it. And that's something God will do by making all nations his people. 

PJ: Yes and no. It's not that the Gentiles become ethnically Jewish. But the Gentiles do become ‘to the praise of God’, because the word ‘Jew’ means ‘praise Yahweh’. And so that last little bit about the praise, that's what it means. Circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. His praise is not from man but from God, and to live for the praise of God, that is God's praise of us. Who does God look to? The man who is humble and obeys his word, as it says in Isaiah 66. Now the Gentile can be living to the praise of God, when it should be the Jew who in his very name is ‘praise’, yet he's not living to praise God. He's actually bringing discredit to God, because he's one of Yahweh’s people, but he's not living Yahweh’s way, and the Gentiles mock Yahweh because of him. 

TP: But now the Gentiles do become Yahweh’s people. They don’t become ethnically Jewish, and they don't become part of the national Israel, but they become the people of God for Yahweh’s praise, that the Jewish people and Old Testament Israel was always intended to be.

PJ: Yes. And so this passage then also brings out for us this wonderful truth that it's the spiritual reality that matters, not the external circumstances of life that matter. God is going to judge the hearts. He's going to judge the secrets of men in Christ Jesus. It's the reality of being one of God's people that matters, not which family you come from, which law code you own, which ways you can externally observe religious practices. 

Old Testament Israel have missed the point. And many people think they're right with God because they have fulfilled all those external circumstances of law keeping and done so in the sight of other people so that everybody else says, “They are right. They are good people. They are God’s people. Look at their fasting, look at their feasts, look at the ways they dress, look at their buildings.” But whatever you can look at, that doesn't matter because God looks at the heart. And so it's the spiritual reality of rebirth that the Gentiles have now, with the law written on their hearts and obeying it, and it is not for the Gentiles only. The Jews also, like Paul, who have accepted Christ, will be judged by the secrets of their heart by Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, by the Spirit of Christ Jesus, we come to obey the law in ways that the moralist doesn’t–be they Greek, be they Jewish. They have great high standards but low performance, whereas the regenerate do have high performance.

TP: In other words, to truly be one of God's people and to be for the praise of God is a work of God by his Spirit. And we should pray God does this for us, and that through the preaching of this gospel, he works this miracle for all our friends and family and the people we preach to.


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Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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