It’s easy to read Romans chapter one and feel smug. Paul denounces sins like ingratitude and idolatry and sexual immorality. When I read the first chapter, I want to say, way to go, Paul! Hit ‘em again, hit ‘em again, harder, harder! But then I read chapter two. Paul turns his guns on me! He moves from the third person in chapter one to the second person in chapter two. He moves from they, they, they, to you, you, you. He says, those of you who pass judgment do the same things you condemn in others.
Just like Jesus in the sermon on the Mount, Paul is pesky in pointing to the issues of the heart. In essence, he says,
Murder isn’t just a matter of taking a human life: murder is holding a grudge against somebody else. It’s living with a spirit of resentment and bitterness.
Adultery isn’t just going to bed with somebody other than my spouse: adultery is looking at somebody else with the purpose of lusting. It’s letting your mind fixate on a world of fantasy.
Theft isn’t just welfare fraud or burglary: it’s fudging on your taxes or padding your expense account.
Religious people are often guilty of judgment without justification. Carlyle Marney said: “Many Christians define sin as the sum total of acts which they themselves do not commit.” But of course, we don’t want to talk about the sins we do commit. We don’t want to talk about those flashes of rage at home. We don’t want to talk about the selfish ambition that drives us to step on other people. We don’t want to talk about how we sometimes neglect our parents.
Paul says in Romans 2:3, “When you pass judgment on others, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” In other words, “Who do you think you are, to pass judgment on somebody else? The gavel doesn’t belong to you: it belongs to God.”
Paul isn’t saying that we can’t ever correct or admonish other people. There are times when we must confront sin in the lives of believers (see 1 Corinthians 5, Galatians 6) But he is saying: Don’t you dare have a double standard, a high standard for everybody else, and a low one for yourself. It’s one thing to hold an opinion: it’s another to pass a verdict. It’s one thing to hold a conviction: it’s another to pronounce a sentence.
Judging other people is like condemning somebody else because he can’t jump to the moon. The point is, nobody can even come close. There may be a few people who can jump a few feet into the air. But nobody gets very far. You might be able to jump a few inches higher than I can, but it’s no reason to boast.
But we love to point fingers at other people, because it reduces the pressure to look at ourselves. As long as I look at your puny jump, I don’t have to be honest about my own. It’s like the man who went to see the psychiatrist with a turtle on his head and a strip of bacon dangling from each ear and said, “I’m here to talk to you about my brother.”
Romans has humbled me this week. Romans has reminded me that religious people are often guilty of judging without justification. That I dare not sit in judgment on other people. Not pagan people. Not other religious people. Not Christians in other groups. Not other Christians in my group. Because judgment is God’s prerogative, not mine. And the very things I accuse others of, I can be guilty of.
Romans has reminded me that religious people are often guilty of profession without practice.
That I can’t pride myself on my pedigree. That before I teach others, I’d better teach myself. That unless I am challenging myself every day before God to live a more Christ-like life, I have no right to teach others.
That if I fail to practice what I preach, I bring shame on the name of God.
So I’m sitting down this week to eat some humble pie!