What does Romans chapter 2 mean?In Romans 2, Paul springs a bit of a trap for religious people, especially for religious Jews living under the law. In the second half of Romans 1, Paul described the downward progression followed by humanity in our sin. It concluded with a list of all the different kinds of sin we end up indulging in after rejecting God. A self-assured religious person might have read that description of humanity's sinfulness and assumed it was about other people: pagans, "sinners," and so forth.
Paul now turns to look those religious people in the eye. He calls them hypocrites for making themselves judges over others. In truth, everyone is guilty of some of those sins. All of us are guilty of the sin nature that leads to them. All religious people agree those who practice sin deserve God's judgment, so why would anyone think he or she will escape that judgment? To presume God's kindness, in this moment, implies that He will never judge us for our own personal sin.
In fact, Paul insists, God will judge everyone based on the same standard: whether his works were good or bad. If his works are shown be consistently and perfectly good, he will receive eternal life. If his works are shown to be selfish and disobedient, he will receive wrath and fury. This goes for both Jews and Gentiles, Paul says. In the following chapter, Paul will show the logical conclusion of this concept. In short, it means that all people are doomed on the basis of their deeds. Nobody can possibly be judged by God as having done good and not evil in this life.
For now, though, Paul wants to speak to those who are under the law: those who practice Judaism. They will not be protected from God's judgment because they have the law or because they are circumcised. It's important to remember that Paul speaks from personal experience, as a former Pharisee and zealous adherent to Judaism himself (Philippians 3:4–7).
So is there any value in the law? Paul lists several good things that Jews have because they have the law. That includes being included in God's chosen people, boasting that their God is the one true God, knowing God's will, serving as a guide to the blind, and teaching children and the foolish the truth. Having built his Jewish readers up with this impressive list, however, Paul finally turns it around on them. If you have all of these things, why don't you follow the law?
His point is that having the law of Moses is no good, in the end, if you don't keep it. Lawbreakers dishonor God. Jewish people should not think that God will spare them from His judgment simply because they have the law or because they are circumcised.
Circumcision is valuable, still, Paul insists, but only for those who keep the law. If someone who is circumcised breaks the law, it's as if they aren't circumcised, at all. On the other hand, if an uncircumcised Gentile were to keep the law, God would regard that person as if he were a circumcised, Jewish person.
Jewishness, or any other set of religious rituals and sacraments, is about what's going on inside a person and not on the outside. "Circumcision" becomes a shorthand reference to all of these. Having said that, Paul will show in the following chapter that nobody, including the Jews, is able to keep the law. Nobody is able to fix their darkened hearts in order to be praised by God.