Romans 2:17-21, “17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?”
Scripture’s teaching on the depravity of man is clear that “there is none who does good” (Pss. 14:1–3; 53:1–3), but in order to understand what this means, we have to consider Paul’s teaching on sin in Romans 1–3. As we carefully consider what the Apostle has to say about human beings, we must conclude that those who are outside of Christ can do things that are good in at least some sense. Romans 2:14–16 makes this plain. Paul indicates that unbelievers sometimes do “by nature … what the law requires.” In fact, their conformity means that they can even excuse themselves as they consider what they have done.
Does this make anyone righteous apart from Christ? No. When Paul says that Gentiles do what the law requires, he does not mean the perfect righteousness the Lord demands to be declared just in His sight. Commentators say his use of the phrase “even excuse” (v. 15) means that the accusations that condemn Gentiles for breaking the moral law far outnumber the thoughts that excuse them. Though many unbelievers love their families and treat people kindly, keeping some commandments externally, they do not obey our Creator in the fullest sense. We must do all things to God’s glory, but no one except Jesus has ever done this (1 Cor. 10:31; Heb. 10:5–7). No true evaluation of our deeds is wholly free of accusation. For example, good parents must say both that “we have kept God’s law because we love our children” and that “we have not kept God’s law because our love for our children is not wholly for the purpose of His glory.” “The work of the law,” not “the law,” is written on the hearts of unbelievers. Without Christ, people know enough to render some external conformity to the law, but they lack the heart disposition that makes keeping the commandments truly pleasing to the Lord. Martin Luther comments on Romans 2:12, “The Apostle does not say that they fulfill the Law but that they are observing some certain elements taken from the Law.”
Gentiles halfheartedly keep some—not all—of the commandments, so they have the same standing as Jews when it comes to obeying God. First-century Jews prided themselves on being lights to the world, instructing the foolish, guiding the blind, and teaching truth simply because they had God’s law in written form. The descriptors in Romans 2:17–21a are all found in extrabiblical Jewish literature, but Paul denies that they are true of his countrymen. He calls the Jews to teach themselves (v. 21a), indicating that they do not really practice the Lord’s statutes and, therefore, have not truly learned God’s law.
Today’s passage reminds us how seriously God takes the principle that we must apply the same judgment to others that we apply to ourselves. We should never condemn others according to a standard that is higher than that to which we hold ourselves accountable, and we should especially never judge others for an action not condemned in God’s Word. Let us know His Word and take care to judge ourselves by it long before we evaluate others.