Judging the Judgers
It's easy to condemn self-righteousness in other people - but not so easy to do so without being self-righteous ourselves. The apostle Paul shows that in making judgments about others, we should be aware of the judgments that could be made about us. The good news is, Christianity gives us a way out of this cycle of endless posturing and comparing ourselves with other people. Through Jesus, everyone can experience the mercy of God, and with it the validation we're looking for.
1 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, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man-you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself-that you will escape the judgment of God?
4 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? 5 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.
6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.
As Paul begins Romans 2, he shifts his focus from the sinfulness of the irreligious Gentiles (who practiced all sorts of obviously sinful behaviors) to the sinfulness of the religious Jews (who, though better at controlling their behavior, nurtured sinful attitudes in their hearts).
We know that Paul is addressing the Jews because he speaks of those who 'pass judgment on another' (verse 1), referring to Jews who often adopted a posture of self-righteousness and moral superiority over the Gentiles. The Jews, upon hearing the vices of the Gentiles in Romans 1, add their own righteous denunciations.
Except, maybe they're not so righteous. In a startling - and slightly comical - turn in the argument, the judgers fall under God's judgment. We can picture it like this: as Paul rattles off the list of Gentile sins in Romans 1, the Jews enthusiastically nod their heads in agreement. But then Paul suddenly wheels around and prosecutes them as well, saying they are guilty of the very same things.
And this judgment on the judgers, it turns out, is devastating. Paul employs a literary device known as diatribe, an imagined debate between himself and his Jewish interlocutors. He repeatedly levels accusations that challenge Jewish self-righteousness: 'you have no excuse'; 'you condemn yourself'; 'you are storing up wrath for yourself.' In this, Paul is alluding to the sins of the heart at the conclusion of Romans 1 - greed, envy, pride, malice, and so on. These sins are very much part of Jewish hearts, as they are of all human hearts. In short, the Jews are no better off than the Gentiles; if anything, worse because they are blind to their sin.
This, of course, was one of the central themes of Jesus' ministry to the Jewish people, explaining to them over and over that they could never be saved by their outward behavior when their hearts were so corrupt. As he said to the Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:27-28)
It's this blindness that is the real danger in self-righteousness. If you think in terms of whether you're better or worse than other people, then you've already stopped thinking in terms of whether you are right with God. Self-righteousness is the major obstacle that prevents people from receiving the gospel, because it conceals our need for grace.
Self-righteousness is a constant temptation for Christians, too. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee relates the story of a Sunday school teacher who failed to grasp meaning of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story Jesus told to challenge the self-righteousness of the Pharisees:
We did not know whether to laugh or cry when we were told of a Sunday school teacher who, after an hour of instruction on this parable in which he had thoroughly instructed people on the dangers of Pharisaism, concluded in prayer - in all seriousness: "Thank you Lord that we are not like the Pharisee in the story!" And we had to remind ourselves not to laugh too hard, lest our laughter be saying 'Thank you, Lord, that we are not like that Sunday school teacher."
Self-righteousness is so insidious that we can be self-righteous when condemning self-righteousness!
Paul will have much more to say on this theme, but here are a few applications to think and pray about today:
(1) To 'judge others' in this context does not mean that we never evaluate or admonish other people's behavior. On the contrary, if we see a brother caught in sin, we should seek to restore him in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). Rather, Paul is warning us not to judge others as a way of elevating or exonerating ourselves. When we see others ensnared by sin, we should focus on gentle correction for their sake and not on any form of pride for our sake. (cf. Matthew 7:5)
(2) Are there areas in my life where I hold others to a stricter standard than I hold myself? If I dislike critical speech, am I also critical? If I detest boasting in others, do I also boast? If I am 'practicing the very things that I condemn' then I need to repent before God and perhaps ask forgiveness from others.
(3) Remember that salvation is based on the 'kindness and forbearance of God' (verse 4). The crisis of sin is not something I can work my way out of, and I must religiously lay down all my pretenses to religious superiority. I must avoid the trap of thinking that performing better than other people somehow makes me right with God. It does not. I am saved from my sins, from my comparisons with others, and lo, even from my self-righteousness only by the mercy of God.