Romans 2:3-4 “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?”
A biblical sense of right and wrong has fallen out of fashion in many places. Gossip is celebrated as a form of entertainment on a half-dozen or more TV shows dedicated to exposing every celebrity’s most private moments, or it is defended as the public’s “right to know,” whatever that means. Fornication is embraced as a right of passage, a harmless pastime, or a necessary experience to prepare for marriage. Obscenity is nothing more than a way to say it with an exclamation point. Defying authority is cool. In some circles, even violence earns you “street cred.”
But when Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” everyone’s head nods in agreement. And how can we argue, if Jesus said it? “Judgmentalism” is something everyone condemns, mostly unaware of the irony of the position they have taken.
The first two and a half chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans is merciless in attacking human pride and rebellion with God’s law. This is God’s judgment, not Paul’s. Chapter one has just concluded with a rapid fire expose of humanity’s crimes: willful and knowing rejection of the truth, idolatry, homosexual perversion, envy, murder, malice, slander, arrogance, inventive evil, heartlessness and ruthlessness to give just a sampling. As we watch Paul’s assault on immorality, anyone with any moral sense is tempted to stand in Paul’s corner, cheering him on. “You go, Paul! Let ’em have it!”
But we aren’t getting Paul until we see his fingers pointing at us. I complain about a relationship, “I can’t get a word in edgewise. All he wants to do is talk about himself.” Why do I complain? Because I want to talk about myself. We complain about our coworkers: “No one has any work ethic. Everyone sits around gold-bricking. Laziness is epidemic.” Why do we complain? Because we don’t like to work so hard. Survey after survey shows that we Christians are almost indistinguishable from our non-Christian neighbors in behavior and attitudes. We destroy our marriages at the same rate as the world around us. We watch the same trash on television that everyone else does. We abuse alcohol and drugs at about the same rate as the unbelieving world. Research by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith suggests that there is little or no difference between the belief system (the belief system!) of a typical American Christian teen and his non-Christian counterpart.
The point is not to let us breathe a little sigh of relief because we aren’t worse than everybody else. The point is not to excuse or defend ourselves. Chances are that, if we take an honest inventory of our own lives, we don’t come out smelling so pretty. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” the saying goes, and the same thing is true in God’s court. But at least my non-Christian neighbor could plead ignorance in certain cases. I can’t. “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?”
Romans 2 convinces us that our sins deserve one thing: God’s judgment. But that’s not the life we have experienced. “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” The kindnesses of God in our lives are impossible to enumerate. When I take a breath, it is not the burning, sulfurous atmosphere of hell I inhale, but air that is pure enough and rich enough to sustain my life a few moments longer. I am surrounded by friends and by family that care for me; I am served in a society filled with people who watch out for my safety, and assist with my health, produce the products I need to survive. I am not alone among jeering demons celebrating a misery I share with them. I have lived in a smallish, one bedroom apartment as well as 2000 square foot houses, but both were comfortable and pleasant enough places to live. Neither one was the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels Jesus describes as the final fate of the lost.
Just for the sake of argument, take all of that away, and still God has been tolerant and patient with me in the extreme. Each new sin is still forgiven, accounted for in the infinite payment for sin that Jesus provided by his sacrifice on the cross. I am a believer by God’s grace, but getting my heart and mind in line with God’s own has come slowly, and improvement is unsteady, and eruptions of anger, pride, lust, doubt, impatience, worry, greed, and envy are far more common than I care to admit. Still, God forgives. Still, he works with me. Still, he isn’t too disgusted or frustrated to claim me as his own child and let me claim him as my own Father. It seems as though his patience is inexhaustible! I can’t help but share David’s observation in Psalm 103, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”
When I compare these two things then– the judgment of God against sin, and the goodness and forgiveness he continues to show me–there is only one conclusion I can reach, one “judgment” I can make about myself: I have been the recipient of a love I don’t deserve, God’s remarkable grace, and so have each of you. This is the repentance to which Paul says God’s kindness wants to lead us–not just regret over our sins, but an awareness of the great grace we have been shown and an unshakable confidence in the God who has shown us such love.