Exposition of Romans 2:17-20, We all take a stand somewhere

Most of us have a keen ability at self-defense. If pressed, we could surely come up with something positive to say about our spiritual heritage. Most who read this study attend a solid, Bible-believing church that exalts Jesus Christ. That is a good place to stand so long as you do not think that is all God wants from you!

(ESV) Romans 2:17-20

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth

Paul is still arguing with an imagined Jewish opponent, although his arguments have significance for the Gentiles as well. Looking back to the theme of the letter in Romans 1:16-17, Douglas Moo expresses Paul’s objective in Romans 2: “Paul insists that it is faith — only and always — that is the basis for righteous standing with God. Therefore, the signs of [Israel’s] election — the law and circumcision — are of no value without this faith.”[1]

Today we are looking at the first half of an “if . . . then” style of argument; you can see the ESV considers the break to occur at the long dash ending verse 20. The “if” portion (2:17-20) describes in detail the sources of Jewish self-confidence about their status before God. In spite of ungodly anti-Semitism from surrounding cultures, Jews have historically felt pride in calling themselves Jew largely because they rely on the law and boast in God (2:17). These are genuine sources of pride!

However, the problem with a strength is that it may be overused and become a weakness. C.E.B. Cranfield explains how reliance on the law can go wrong: “The trouble is that he follows after it [by works] rather than [by faith] (cf. 9:32), and relies on it in the sense of thinking to fulfill it in such a way as to put God in his debt or of imagining complacently that the mere fact of possessing it gives him security against God’s judgment.”[2] This is exactly what happened with the Jews.

In 2:18, Paul continues his list of advantages legitimately enjoyed by the Jews, who know his will and approve what is excellent. By giving the revelation contained in the Old Testament, God had given the Jews a tremendous advantage over all others in terms of knowing how to please him.

The verb translated “approve what is excellent” (2:18a) is dokimazo, the very same verb used in 1:28 to describe the unbelieving mind that was unable to approve what God had made plain. The mind that is responsive to God through faith is able to function in a life-enriching way because it can discern fine differences that make one option superior to another. Paul attributes this ability to the insight provided by the law.

Paul uses four well-known metaphors in 2:19-20 to describe the value of the enlightened Jew to those still blind to spiritual truth, those truly enshrouded in darkness. God had intended for the Jews to serve this light-giving function for the nations. Unfortunately, the Jews had basked in the light as their own possession rather than sharing the light with the world. But in these two verses Paul speaks of their positive responsibility as representatives of God.

However, all these definite privileges have another side. Moo says, “Even more than the Gentile, therefore, the Jewish person is without excuse before God (2:1).”[3]

How strengths may deteriorate

The Jews in Pauls day had many reasons to feel legitimate pride in their heritage, but they had let those blessings deteriorate into complacency and self-satisfaction.

1. What part of your personal heritage or spiritual heritage has helped you grow spiritually?

2. How might your confidence in what God has done for you actually lead to self-satisfaction that inhibits further spiritual growth?

Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” (Luke 12:48, NET). Learn from the Jews that Jesus was not talking to someone else; he was talking to you!

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 158.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 164.

[3] Moo, Romans, 163.