The Judge

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 4, 2021.

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. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 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? 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? 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 (Romans 2:1–5).[1]

As we work our way through Romans, there is a temptation to read Romans 1:24-32 through the lens of comparison. In hearing the sins that characterize those given up and under the wrath of God, it’s easy to think: Thank God I’m not like those people. Having an air of righteousness, this perspective increasingly dwells on the sins of others, rather than meditating on the holiness of God. Such a perspective can lead to performance by comparison rather than a life rooted in the grace and mercy of God.

I am reminded of the parable that Jesus told about two men who went up to the temple to pray. One was an esteemed religious leader of the people, a Pharisee. The other was a despised hypocrite, a tax collector. The Pharisee was a frequenter of the temple and a man of prayer. In contrast, one might wonder: Do tax collectors even pray? Yet, there they were, saint and sinner, so to speak, praying in the temple.

Distancing himself from the sinner, the Pharisee prays aloud, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” The prayer tells us much about the man. Clearly, he believes in the one, true God, and thanks him. Thank God he is not a bloodsucking blackmailer! Thank God he is not a biased bigot! Thank God he is not a fornicating philanderer! In other words, thank God he is not like his neighbor. He is the model moral man, and transparent too, confessing his faithful fasting and gracious giving. His piety is impressive.

In contrast, the tax collector has no piety to profess, only contrition, so strong he cannot lift his head. Instead, he beats his breast. There is no jubilation only lamentation: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” It is a sinner’s prayer, a contrite confessing plea for mercy.

In what would have stunned his original audience, Jesus said that only one of these men left the temple “justified” (Luke 18:9-14). One compares himself to his neighbor, confessing his moral superiority. The other compares himself to God, confessing his moral inferiority. One professes his piety, asking for and receiving nothing. The other confesses his sinfulness, asking for and receiving mercy. The contrast is intentionally striking, confronting not only first-century Pharisees but sinners like you and me.

Yet, when we look back to the preceding passage, with its despicable, dishonorable, debased description of fallen humanity, it’s tempting to think comparatively, and to thank God that we are not like those people, especially the dishonest, the unjust, and especially the sexually perverse. Before long our thoughts and intentions look first to the sins of others, leading us to evaluate the world comparatively rather than redemptively. We even acquire a mean-spirited self-righteousness. We thank God that we are not unholy as they are unholy. We thank God that we are not them, and in our moral superiority we play the judge.

Comparing Others

Paul puts it bluntly: “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.” Paul’s accusation is not condemning distinguishing between moral and immoral. He is not addressing judgment between right and wrong but wrong judgment, a moral comparison that places your morality as the standard and you as the judge. In judgment you compare yourself to the murderer, thanking God that you are not like him, while burning with anger toward your brother (Matt. 5:21-22). In judgment you compare yourself to the adulterer, thanking God that you are not like her, while lusting in your heart for your sister (Matt. 5:27-28).

In your moral superiority you stand away from her, distance yourself from him, as if they are the sinner, and you are not? Is your choice of sin more socially acceptable or perhaps more easily disguised? If you compare yourself to other sinners consistently enough, long enough, eventually you start to see their sin everywhere you turn, which helps you forget about yours. But neither you nor I are the standard of righteousness, and while we may attempt to play the role, we never were nor will be the judge. There’s only one, and we are not him.

Yet, even coming to terms with this doesn’t counter our tendency to compare. If not the sin of others, and our judgment of them, then it’s God’s judgment due them and our escape from it. Why is your neighbor’s sin worthy of God’s judgment and yours is not? Isn’t it interesting how we expect God’s judgment upon others while presuming God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience with us?

Presuming Kindness

Comparing yourself and your sins to others leads to a false perspective of yourself and presumption about God, that he will judge those sinners and their sins but not you and yours. Maybe you don’t think this is a fair assessment, but ask yourself: Do I wish retributive judgment upon others but expect an abundance of kindness toward me? Do I anticipate God’s wrath and fury upon others but expect tolerance with me? Do I look for tribulation and distress upon others but expect patience with me? If so, you have presumed wrongly. In his judgment, God shows no partiality, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

God’s kindness is not a reducing or relinquishing of his righteous standard. Each and every sin is worthy of judgment. God has shown us kindness in not immediately giving us what our sin deserves, momentarily restrained his wrath for what our sin is due and been patient with us despite our sins. Such kindness, forbearance, and patience have one goal: our repentance, literally meaning a “change of mind” and implying remorse with intent to change.[2] Witnessing such kindness, enjoying such tolerance, receiving such patience, it would seem obvious that everyone would repent. But the fallen human default isn’t repentance but performance, as if we are a standard unto ourselves. Unless God acts, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we do not, we will not, repent, amassing a wealth of wrath.

Storing Wrath

In the preceding passage, Paul said, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18). Here, he says, “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.” What is the distinction between God’s wrath revealed and stored up? God’s wrath revealed is the present weight of sin upon the lives of every man, woman, and child. So powerful is this sin that it is akin to flesh, a force so powerful that under its weight we not only practice our sin but approve of it in others (Rom. 1:32), even calling evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20). Such is the wrath of God revealed.

In distinction, God’s stored up wrath is the future accumulated wrath that every human being is due for spurning the kindness, tolerance, and patience of God. Each and every sin is a deposit into our individual wrath account (or IWA). James Montgomery Boice poignantly puts it,

Each little indulgence of sin is a coin of wrath stored up. Each neglect of others is a saved-up ingot of anger. Each angry word, each selfish thought, each mean retort, each harmful act, is a piling up of wrath’s treasures. Each pleasure enjoyed without genuine thanks to God builds wrath. Each year of grace, each day enjoyed without the experience of God’s swift and immediate judgment, each moment of indifference to the mercy of God, is wrath’s accumulation. If life has been good to you, you only increase your guilt and build a treasure of future punishment by ignoring God’s kindness.[3]

This stored up wrath is not relative or arbitrary but is according to “God’s righteous judgment,” judgment that is perfectly and completely just. Of course, we want justice when it comes to our neighbor’s sins but what about our own? We may wonder: Where is God’s judgment for the vilest of sins? But do we wonder where it is against our “respectable” ones?

Jesus taught, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2). Neither you nor I are the judge before God but merely hypocrites when we play it. God is the Judge. He is the righteous standard. His law is the Law. Before God, we do not pronounce the guilty verdict but rather must plea, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Needing Mercy

Jesus said that the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, “went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14). God heard his plea for mercy and forgave him. He left the temple right with his God. Undoubtedly, the tax collector’s life revealed God’s wrath. Certainly his wrath account was compounding. But, as James puts it, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). And, so it did. And, so it does.

For, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); and, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Indeed, the wrath revealed in us and stored up for us was poured out upon Christ upon the cross, serving as a propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:2). As a result, “we have now been justified by his blood…[and] shall be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9).

Therefore, we have no innate moral superiority but what has been given to us according to God’s mercy and by his grace. It is all by God’s grace, reminding us that we are not the Judge. God alone is. Our perspective then should be akin to what Martin Luther wrote on his deathbed: “We are beggars, this is true.”[4]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “What Is Repentance?,” Tabletalk

[3] James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Justification by Faith; Romans 1-4 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 1:221.

[4] Gene Veith, “We Are Beggars; This Is True,” Cranach (October 29, 2013),

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