Condemned By the Law- Romans 2:17-24

But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, 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 2:17-24).

 

The book of Romans contains the most theological explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ found anywhere in the Bible. Found in these chapters is the doctrinal framework that provides us with a comprehensive understanding of the good news of our salvation in Christ.

 

We are in the first major section of the book, which reveals mankind’s need for the gospel. Paul is laying a massive foundation upon which he will build our towering salvation. The taller the skyscraper, the deeper must be the foundation. When Paul teaches about the gospel, he will soar to the heights of heaven, but first he must lay a firm base. You have to know the bad news before you can appreciate the good news. No one can be saved until they know their true need for the gospel.

 

In this lesson, we find ourselves in the middle of the section on condemnation, which explains our desperate need for salvation. When we will come to the section on justification (Romans 3:21-5:21), Paul will soar to the heights of heaven as he teaches us about the perfect righteousness that God imputes to believers in Jesus Christ. But presently, he is tightening the screws of our condemnation before God. He is driving the nails down deep into our understanding so that the truth is very securely fastened in our thinking.

 

The Condemnation of All

As we come to this section in Romans 2:17-24, Paul transitions from addressing the Gentiles to addressing the Jews. In verses 12-16, Paul focused on the one without the Law. This was referring to the pagan Gentile, who has never heard the Law or the gospel. He said the Law was written upon their conscience and upon their heart. They are without excuse in their life of sin.

 

In verse 17, the first word is "But," indicating Paul is making a sharp contrast from what he previously said. When he writes, "But if you bear the name ‘Jew,’" Paul shifts to addressing the Jew. He is putting his arms around all of humanity and reveals the universal condemnation of all mankind, both those who have never heard the Law and even those who have the Law. Whether you are a Gentile or a Jew, whether without the Law or with the Law, whether you have never heard the gospel or whether you have heard the gospel, all people are under divine condemnation and in desperate need of the salvation that God gives in Christ Jesus. But specifically, Paul’s focus is now directed to the Jew.

 

The similarities between the Jew and those who live in America are quite clear. The Jew grew up in a privileged nation in which there was an abundant exposure to the word of God and some degree of external morality. This is very similar to living in America with its great opportunity to hear the word of God. There are vast numbers the world who do not live in a nation like this. But for those in America, and especially for those in what I would call the buckle of the Bible Belt, in the south, there is an abundance of opportunity to hear the gospel. People grow up hearing about God, morality, and righteousness, though many never hear the true gospel in America.

 

As we look at verse 17, there are points that will hit very close to home for us who live where the word of God is made known. We can put ourselves into the sandals of these Jews who have grown up in a privileged place of hearing the revelation of God. Paul will argue that if we do not act upon this knowledge and believe in Jesus Christ, then, in reality, we are worse-off than those without the knowledge of the gospel. There will be a greater judgment for those who have the light of the truth but do not act upon it.

  

I am going to give you an outline for Romans 2:17-24 that will help us see the framework of this passage. In verses 17 and 18, there are four privileges. In verses 19 and 20, there are four practices. In verses 21 and 22, there are four charges. Then in verses 23 and 24, there is one judgment. This outline will serve as a skeleton upon which we will put the meat and flesh as we work our way through each verse.

 

I. Four Privileges (2:17-18)

 

Paul begins in verse 17 with four privileges. He writes, "But if you bear the name ‘Jew’" (verse 17). The word “but,” as I have already mentioned, pivots from the previously mentioned Gentile without the Law. He now turns his attention to the Jew who has the Law. There is a bit of sarcasm as Paul says, "If you bear the name ‘Jew,’" because he is implying that they are not a true Jew. In other words, they are a Jew in name only, but not in heart reality. A true Jew would be one who is born-again. A true Jew would be one who is not only circumcised in the flesh, but circumcised in the heart. Paul will talk about this distinction in being circumcised physically, yet being uncircumcised spiritually at the end of this chapter (verses 28-29). When he says, "But if you bear the name ‘Jew,’" there is an intent of making an indictment that Paul makes. He is pointing out they are, in reality, a Jew in name only, that is, by their heritage and natural birth, but not by faith.

 

They Received the Law

The first privilege Paul mentions is they "rely upon the word" (verse 17). This is their greatest privilege, because of the special revelation they have received in the Law. No one can be saved without special revelation, and the Law is a part of this special revelation. The Law is mentioned a total of nineteen times in Romans 2:12-27, ten times in verses 12-16, four times in verses 17-24, and five times in verses 25-27. The reference to the Law is a dominant feature in this section. When Paul says “the Law,” he is referring to the Law of God, given to Moses at Mount Sinai and received before Israel entered the Promised Land.

 

The Law can be divided into three sections: the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. The moral law is how the Jew was to live, the ceremonial law is how a Jew was to worship and approach God, and the civil law contains how the Jew was to function as a nation and society. When Paul mentions the Law in verse 17, he is referring to the moral law as succinctly stated in the Ten Commandments.

 

The Ten Commandments are still directional for our lives today. All ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament, and nine out of the ten are still binding upon us as originally given. The only one that has been fulfilled is the Sabbath requirements. Therefore, I do think you can eat in a restaurant on Sunday. I do think you can mow your backyard on a Sunday. I do not think we are still under the Mosaic requirements on the Sabbath. But the other nine still pertain to our spiritual lives today. We would be an antinomian if we did not hold to the teaching of the Ten Commandments. God should be first in our lives. We should not have graven images of God or take God's name in vain. We must honor our father and mother and not steal. We must not commit adultery, and we must tell the truth. We must not covet within our heart. Who would argue that those truths do not have direct effect upon our lives?

 

They Boast In The Law

The second privilege of the Jew who has the Law is that they can claim a special relationship with God. Paul continues that those with the Law "boast in God" (verse 17). They boast in having this special relationship with God, because the have received the Law. God has revealed His will to the Jew, and they know the holy character of God.

 

They Know His Will in the Law

The third privilege is that the Jew knows God’s will. Paul writes, “and know His will” (verse 18). The Law reveals the will of God for their lives. He reveals how they are to live. The Law reveals the way God wants them to live. They know how God desires for them to conduct themselves.

 

They Approve the Law

Fourth, those who have the Law “approve the things that are essential” (verse 18). More than posses and know the Law, the Jew gives hearty approval to what is in it. They fully affirm the teaching of the Law as from God. The Jew approves the things that are essential in living for God. Because the Jew has the Law of God, he knows what is most essential to God. He approves what is fundamental in glorifying God and pleasing Him.

 

The Purposes of the Moral Law 

Because the Law is emphasized in this section, I want to pause for a moment and give five purposes of the moral law of God.

 

One, the Law reveals the character and attributes of God. We see in the Ten Commandments God's holiness as He makes moral distinctions between what is holy and what is unholy. We see His righteousness as He promises His reward for obedience to His commandments and punishment for disobeying them. We see His sovereignty in the Law as He makes known His right to command our lives. We see His love in the Law, as He reveals the path that leads to abundant living. The Law directs us into the center of His will. We learn much about God by simply looking at the Ten Commandments.

 

Two, the Law reveals the sinfulness of man. We are measured by the Law and are found to fall short of the glory of God. The Law is like ten plowshares that break up the hardened soil of our hearts. The Law prepares the heart to receive the seed of the gospel so that it may be received into our hearts. When our heart is hardened by sin, the seed of the gospel merely bounces off the surface. There is a necessary place for the use of the Law to bring about conviction of sin. Consider how Jesus spoke to the rich young ruler. How did Jesus evangelize? He used the Law to show the sinfulness of the heart. There is a proper use of the Law to reveal the sinfulness of man.

 

Three, the Law is to be a tutor to lead the sinner to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The Law is that which points us away from ourselves in order that we would look to Jesus Christ. Christ is the only One who obeyed the Law perfectly. Because Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law, He Christ alone can forgive our offenses against the Law. Christ alone can give His perfect righteousness that He achieved under the Law.

 

Four, the Law is a restraint to evil in society. It is a limited restraint, but nevertheless, it does serve to some degree as a restraint. That is why we want laws in a general way to say you cannot kill, you cannot steal. If you come into a courtroom, you should tell the truth. The law does function as, in some limited way, a restraint of evil.

 

Five, the moral law of God reveals the will of God. It points us into the very center of God's will. It tells me how I should relate to my parents. It tells me what I should teach my children. It shows me how I am to work. It shows me how I am to be content. It shows me how I am to use my mouth and my lips. The moral law of God is like a moral compass that is pointing us into the will of God.

 

Paul does not discard the Law in New Testament times. He says that the Law is written upon every person’s heart. The Law reveals the things that are essential. The Law gives the knowledge of the will of God. This is very much a privileged position to know the Law and to have access to the commandments of God. It reveals those things that are pleasing to God. It shows those things that lead us into the very center of His will. Paul begins with these four privileges that the Jew enjoys by knowing the Law.

 

II. Four Practices (2:19-20)

 

In verses 19-20, Paul advances his argument from four privileges to four practices. We notice that these Jews who have the Law are not inactive. They are active in ministering the Law to others. They are teaching the Law, preaching the Law, and passing down to their children the Law. Paul says in verse 19, “and are confident that you yourself are.” This confidence brings about a false assurance to the Jew. Just because they have the Law and are using it, even telling others about it, it does not mean that they have taught themselves the Law. They are preaching it to others, but they have not applied it to their own life. Paul will list four practices of the Jew in rapid fire succession. There are no verbs in these statements, but simply short, pithy statements of how the Jew is active in ministering the Law to others.

 

A Guide to the Blind 

The Jew is confident that they are, number one, a guide to the blind. The “blind” refers to those who are without the Law. It refers to the Gentiles, the pagans, and those who are outside the community of the faith. To be a “guide to the blind” means to be a teacher to those who are without the Law. It means to bear witness to those who do not have special revelation in the written word of God. In this sense, Paul says they are a “guide to the blind.”

 

As Paul writes this, the nation of Israel was not the missionary force to the world God intended them to be. They had become a spiritual cul de sac, a self-contained holy huddle. They were not going out into a lost world and trying to reach the surrounding nations with the truth. They were smug and self-content in hoarding the Law for themselves. As Paul says this, he is using sarcasm, almost prodding or shaming them. When he writes what they are doing, in reality, he is prodding them in what they should be doing, but were not doing. They have become an inner circle unto themselves, a holy huddle. That is an awful place to be. In reality, these four practices are what the Jew ought to be doing with the Law, but were not.

 

A Light in the Darkness

Second, Paul says they are “a light to those who are in darkness” (verse 19). Being in “darkness” does not refer to physical darkness, but to spiritual darkness. It refers to those who are without the knowledge of the Law. God declared that Israel was appointed to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Christ Himself became the ultimate fulfillment of this passage, when He declared, "I am the Light of the world" (John 8:12). He then sent out the disciples to preach the light of the gospel to all the nations. Because Israel had failed in this mission, Christ commissioned the church to preach the gospel and be a light to the nations.

 

Do you remember when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach the gospel there? Rather than obeying, he went in the opposite direction. He tried to go as far away as he possibly could. He was filled with prejudice and did not like the Ninevites. He believed they were wretched sinners who did not deserve the word of God. He wanted to horde the Law and keep it within the nation. The best way Jonah knew to keep the truth to himself was to get on a ship and go in the opposite direction to Tarshish.

 

Paul says the Jew is “confident that you yourself are a… light to those who are in darkness" (Romans 2:19). In reality, they are not actually doing this. This was an indictment of the nation that they were not passing on the Law as God required that they should.

 

A Corrector of the Foolish

Paul then drives the nail deeper into the board, stacking up the indictments like pancakes. He says they are confident that they are "a corrector of the foolish" (verse 20). The “foolish” refers to those who have worldly wisdom. This refers to those who sat at the feet of Aristotle, Plato, and the Greek philosophers and presumed that wisdom was found in the brilliance of the Greek intellectual mind. They needed to be corrected of such foolishness. Paul says that the Jew was supposed to be teaching the Law, the wisdom of God, to these foolish men.

 

A Teacher of the Immature

Fourth, they are falsely confident that they are “a teacher of the immature” (verse 20). The “immature” refers to spiritual babes who are lacking the knowledge of God's word. This could have referenced the generations of children in Israel, who needed to be taught God’s Law. Deuteronomy 6 says, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one…. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them” (Deuteronomy 6:4,6-7). The Israelites were to teach the younger generations, those who were immature, the Law of God.

 

The Privilege of Knowledge

Paul concludes verse 20 by saying that the Jew practices these things because they have the Law. He writes, “Having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth" (verse 20). They were to be a guide, a light, a corrector, and a teacher because they possessed the Law. This was their intended purpose, but they failed to be this to themselves. When he says, “the embodiment of knowledge and truth,” Paul is referring to how the Law gives the knowledge of God and man. The Law gives the knowledge of one’s need of salvation through Christ. The Law gives the knowledge of how a believer is to live his life. The Law contains the embodiment of the knowledge of the truth. What a privilege that the Jew has had this knowledge entrusted to him.

 

In like manner, there has been a stewardship entrusted to us of this same knowledge of the truth. There are places on the other side of the earth that do not have this knowledge of the Law and truth. You are in a privileged place to know the truth. I do not know that there is a place on earth that is more privileged than where many of us live, with access to the Bible and its truths. We could easily place ourselves in the place of the Jew who Paul is addressing.

 

Have you been born again? Have you exercised saving faith in Jesus Christ? Do you have more than just the embodiment of knowledge? Do you have the truth in your heart by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ?

 

III. Four Charges (2:21-22)

 

Paul has said there are four privileges and four practices, and he now comes to four charges. The four practices that we just looked at were a backhanded way of giving four charges, but now he is much more direct. Paul begins, "You, therefore." Like any great preacher, Paul gets to the “you.” His message becomes very personal. For those of you who preach or teach the word of God, there has to come a point in your preaching and teaching where you become extremely personal and get to the “you.” Where are “you” as it relates to what we have been discussing? That is what Paul is doing in verse 21.

  

Do You Teach Yourself?

Paul says, “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” (verse 21). The Jew was good at running everyone else's life. But Paul wants to know how they are at running their own life. They were good at telling others how they need the Lord. But do they teach themselves how much they need the Lord? This statement is in the form of a question. The implied answer is negative. Paul puts this in the form of a provocative question to cause their self-examination. He wants them to run a self-audit of their own spiritual life in order to see their own spiritual bankruptcy. They have not been applying the Law to themselves. They should know how holy God is. Likewise, they should know how sinful they are. They should know their desperate need for a mediator to stand between Holy God and their sinful life. They should know of their need for the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel.

 

Do You Steal?

In the second charge, Paul says, "You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?" (verse 21). It is as though Paul is putting the religious Jew on the witness stand and examines him with questions. Paul’s appeal in this statement is to the eighth commandment. He is still dealing with the moral Law. The eighth commandment says, "You shall not steal." Paul is using the Law to drive the Jew away from his self-righteousness into the sober realization that he is in desperate need of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

This time, Paul’s question implies a positive answer. “You who preach that one should not steal, you do steal?” The Jew may claim to act righteously, but he is still a thief, because he robs God of His glory. He does not put God in the very center of his life. He robs God of His glory, because he has not repented of his sins and believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ. He has robbed the poor of what he should give in benevolence and kindness. He is a thief in his own heart by robbing God and others of what rightfully belongs to them.

 

Do You Commit Adultery?

As we come to verse 22, Paul continues to advance his argument by asking soul-searching questions. In verse 22, he begins, "You who say." Please note the parallelism here. In verse 21, he said, "You who teach" and "You who preach." Now in verse 22, he says, "You who say." In a sense, he is saying almost the same thing, but using alternate words to pry deeper into the thinking of the reader. "You who say that one should not commit adultery" (verse 22). That is the seventh commandment in the Law. Paul will not let go of the Law. I want to say again, we need more appeal to the Law in our evangelism and Christian living. Again, Paul’s question implies a “yes” answer. Just as Jesus did, Paul is bringing this charge of committing adultery against those who have the Law.

 

Do You Rob Temples?

As Paul brings his fourth charge, please note how aggressive Paul is in exposing sin. Most preaching today pulls back from this kind of exposure. Most witnessing today pulls back from exposing of sin in the life of other people. Paul says, "You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?" (verse 22). Again he is appealing to the Law in the first and the second commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me” and “you shall not have a graven image by which you worship Me.” The answer is, yes. They may say, "But we are not going to the Canaanite temples and taking idols. Therefore, we are not breaking the first and the second commandment." But Paul's reasoning is, yes, you do break the first and second commandment. You have idols in your heart. You have allowed other things in your life to become more important than God.

 

An idol is anything you love more than God, fear more than God, and serve more than God. An idol may even be something that is intrinsically good, but is elevated to a place of primary importance that belongs to God alone. Your job can become an idol. Your ministry can become an idol. Your family can become an idol. Your health can become an idol. If that is what you spend your time daydreaming about, investing in, and being preoccupied with, then it has taken the place of prominence in your life that should be reserved exclusively for God.

 

Paul clearly implies that nothing should be more important in your life than God. He should be at the very center of your life, and you should obey and follow Him. This is a charge from Paul that, yes, you do have idols in your life – things that are more important to you than God. He is leaving them indicted before God and charging them with sin just like he charges the pagan heathen with sin. Even you who sit under the teaching of the word of God and have access to the word of God, if you have never applied it to your own life, first by repentance and faith, then you are in the same boat as the man who has never even heard the gospel.

 

IV. One Judgment (2:23-24)

 

This now leads to one grand judgment, one great indictment, found in verses 23 and 24. These verses may have seemed to be somewhat difficult to follow. But in Paul's mind, they are highly structured. Paul is highly linear in his thinking. What he writes here is laid this out in logical fashion. In these verses, Paul brings his argument to a bottom-line summation. Paul writes, “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?” (verse 23). The Jew boasts in his possession of the Law. He boasts in his knowledge of the Law. He boasts in his ministry of the Law, in his teaching, preaching, and speaking of the Law. But despite all this ministry with the Law, the religious Jew is nevertheless a lawbreaker, just like everyone else. He is no better than the man on the other side of the globe who has never heard the gospel. He is in the same category.

 

You, too, are a law-breaker, and because you are a lawbreaker, the wages of your sin is death (Romans 6:23). Because you are a lawbreaker, you are under the curse of the Law (Galatians, 3:13). The curse of the Law is death. You have broken the Law. You have not simply made a mistake. You are a lawbreaker. You have violated the Law of God. You are an offender of the Law, you are guilty of the Law, and you are condemned by the Law.

 

When one breaks the Law, Paul writes, “you dishonor God” (verse 23). That is not a small indictment, but a serious charge. Dishonoring God occurs when we honor other things more than God. This takes place when something else is placed before God. When you break the Law, you are a flagrant dishonorer of God. Paul is tightening the noose and setting the knot, so that when he gets to the gospel in the next chapter, people are going to be sprinting to receive it. They are going to be running to the gospel and falling at the feet of Christ, begging for mercy.

 

But Paul does not stop there. In verse 24, he concludes by quoting from the Old Testament. This shows that his indictment is nothing new. It is not strange new teaching in the New Testament. This is not something that only recently came onto the scene a few years ago with the public ministry of Christ and His death. This truth goes back to Old Testament times. Paul's reasoning is, "I thought you knew the Law so well. I thought you were well versed in the Old Testament." He now quotes from Isaiah 52:5, “‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles, because of you,’ just as it is written” (verse 24).

 

To dishonor God leads to blaspheming God before others. Again, there is a note of intended sarcasm in this statement. The Jew, who is a guide to the blind, is actually blaspheming God to the blind. The Jew, who is a light to those in darkness, is, in reality, blaspheming God to those in darkness. The Jew, who is a corrector of the foolish and a teacher of the immature, is actually blaspheming the name of God by his superficial religion. The Jew had adopted a religion of selective rules keeping. He did not have a religion of the heart, but only that of an external façade. His heart had never been circumcised by the Lord. He had never been born again and birthed into the kingdom of God. In reality, he had stiff-armed God and kept Him at a distance. He continued to live his outwardly moral life in which there was no conviction of sin, no need of repentance, no need for self-denial, and no need for self-humbling. He had a religion of convenience, where he was not disturbed by God.

 

In reality, the unconverted Jew was a blasphemer of the name of Holy God before the unsaved Gentiles, the very ones he was to be reaching with the message of salvation. He was compounding his guilt and judgment when he stands before God. He has been given so much truth, but squandered so much. The Jew was entrusted with the treasures of heaven, but he buried them. He refused to repent and turn away from such hypocrisy. He kept his religion on the outward façade of his life. He would not allow the truth to penetrate into the depths of his soul. He would not allow the Law to open up his soul. He would not permit the Law to drive him to Christ in repentance and faith to receive His mercy.

 

Conclusion

What are we to learn from this passage? First, the necessity of personal, saving faith in Jesus Christ. To only know about God without coming to faith in Jesus will still condemn you. You must be born again. Second, we should note the importance of personal obedience to the word of God. Be careful to practice what you preach. Your life should reflect the gospel that you share with others. Third, we see the importance of bearing witness with the word to those without the word. Jesus Christ has charged us, His followers, to share the gospel with all the nations. Let us not be like the Jews, who knew God’s word, but hoarded it and failed to share it with others.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.