Romans 2:1-24, 3:21-30
The Limitations of the Law (2:1-24)
In this passage Paul seems to be making an example of the Jews. In fact, one commentary that I use titled this passage "the failure of the Jews." Of course, Paul was a Jew himself so maybe he felt that this context was the safest one for his message. In the same way, I might criticize or make jokes about my own family, but I certainly wouldn't stand for it if someone outside the family said the exact same things. The Jews of Paul's experience were dedicated to living a life that focused on a code of righteousness that was pleasing to God. Nothing wrong with that! However, choosing to live at a higher standard can lead to self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude. No skill is more easily mastered than the ability to detect the flaws of others. Not only is this skill a delight to practice, it has the added bonus of confirming our own integrity. Paul points out that anyone who appoints himself as judge has essentially declared himself as divine, and Paul does find something wrong with that. Here lies the limitation of the law-- good people can allow their goodness to betray them into self satisfaction and
superiority. It's not like Paul was the first Jew to notice this. We find the same message repeatedly throughout the Old Testament prophets.
It's an odd point that warning people about being judgmental can come off sounding very judgmental.
God, on the contrary, who is entitled to judge, does so "according to truth." He alone knows all the facts, and He alone can set them in the light of perfect righteousness. This is good to keep in mind, because Paul seems to imply that all of us are in the path of God's wrath and fury. The Jew is not excused because he has the law, and the Gentile is not excused because he lacks it. That covers pretty much everyone. For those with greater privileges, there are heavier responsibilities, but all will be judged by the moral insight that is possessed. Paul is getting pretty liberal here --- he acknowledges righteous Gentiles outside the narrow and exclusive confines of the law. He concedes that reason and conscience are the evidence of God's presence within each person, but the full revelation of grace is through Christ alone.
The Saving Act of Justification (3:21-30)
In this passage Paul presents justification as something needed by everyone and available to everyone. It is an act of God, and it manifests his essential nature. It becomes effective when it meets the response of faith. Most of the common metaphors of atonement are included in this passage. Being "made righteous" is like being acquitted and freed from prison. "Redemption" refers to the slave who is freed through the payment of money. "Expiation" is a term associated with ritual sacrifice and reconciliation. All of these are analogies, though, and all are insufficient to explain God's grace.