(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
What is “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” and why did Jesus say it was the “unforgiveable sin?” Can we commit “the unforgivable sin” today?
First, spanning out and considering a larger context, this incident (3:19-30) is preceded by Jesus’ confirmation that He is indeed claiming to be God, who alone can forgive sins, in direct response to a charge of blasphemy from the Scribes—if only at this juncture in their unexpressed thoughts (2:1-12). Now we see him charging them with blasphemy for openly ascribing the works of God to the works of demons, or “Satan” (the prince of evil spirits, or the adversary). So in Mark’s chronology we see Jesus’ identity progressively revealed, and along with this revelation we see the Jewish leaders becoming increasingly bolder in their accusations against him, and in their denial of his deity—which is their rejection of God’s revelation of His salvation to humankind in Christ.
Specifically to the question of why Jesus defines blasphemy as the “unforgiveable sin,” it is important to identify from the text what that “blasphemy” is. And we do have the definitive statement that Jesus is speaking against the “blasphemy” of those who had said, “he has an unclean spirit” (3:30). In other words, this unforgivable blasphemy—committed in a specific time and place by a specific group of people--was the denial of Jesus’ deity, and not simply by suggesting he was a mere man rather than “the Son of Man,” but with the added force of claiming the works he performed to prove his identity were in fact works he performed by the power of “Satan.”
I have occasionally heard people wonder, “what if I have committed the unforgivable sin?” It is important that we remember the time and place context of this story. Again, Jesus was speaking to a specific group of people, who had committed a specific offense—that of denying that His works, done physically in their presence, were the works of God, and ascribing those works instead to the works of “Satan.” This is not a position any of us are in today, historically speaking. Beyond this, our theology, and specifically our soteriology, will dictate our response to someone who fears they may be “unforgivable.” When our faith in the power of the cross assures us that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (cf. Romans 8:1) we can comfort one another with this “good news.”
 First century Jews would have indeed understood from their prophets that Israel’s Savior would be none other than God. In fact, it is not possible to call Jesus “Savior” without also calling him “God” (cf. Isaiah 43:3; 45:21; Hosea 13:4).
 “Soteriology” refers to the doctrine of salvation, or our belief about how one becomes saved, and would also encompass whether we believe one could ever “lose salvation.”
(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
What is the significance of Jesus’ claim that the “Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins?”
Old Testament prophecies of salvation and the forgiveness of sins often include the language of physical healing, associating disease and sickness with sin, and health and wholeness with the forgiveness of sin. For example, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:2). And in this description by Isaiah of the New Jerusalem, wherein God dwells with his people, which we understand to be fulfilled in the church (cf. Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 21:2, 9-10), the eradication of “sickness” is accomplished by the forgiveness of sins:
Isaiah 33:24 And no inhabitant [of the New Jerusalem] will say, "I am sick"; the people who live there will be forgiven their iniquity.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus comes on the scene healing, and specifically according to Isaiah’s prophecy, he heals the blind, deaf, lame and the mute, as well as many other diseases (cf. 1:29-34; 40-45; 2:1-12; 3:1-6; 5:21-41; 6:53-56; 7:31-36; 10:46-52). In addition to healing physical disease, Jesus casts out many “unclean” or “demonic” spirits (cf. 1:21-28; 32-34; 5:1-11; 7:24-30; 9:14-29).
When Jesus responds to the faith of the paralytic and his friends by saying to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” the scribes charge him with blasphemy, as only God can forgive sins. Jesus’ reply to them confirms that their understanding is indeed correct: only God can forgive sins. And just “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” (in other words, so that you know that I, the Son of Man, am indeed God, “your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel”), he says to the paralytic, “stand up” (cf. 2:1-12).
 Isaiah 35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. (See also Luke 7:21-22.)
 “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine... For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior...I am the Lord and beside me there is no Savior...Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel... I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King... I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (cf. Isaiah 43:1,3,11,14,15,25).
(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
What is Mark’s “good news” or Gospel?
With his introduction, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1), Mark is ascribing divine authority to his gospel: this is not merely the evangelist’s story about Jesus; this is Jesus’ own word; it is his good news to his people. Mark then defines what the "good news" is by quoting the prophets Malachi and Isaiah. By identifying the fore-running "messenger" of Malachi 3:1, and the “crying voice” of Isaiah 40:3 as John the Baptist (cf. 1:1-4), Mark is boldly proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah promised to Israel, which she knew according to her prophets would be God. Also from the context of Isaiah 40 it is further understood that Mark is announcing, "the glory (i.e., the salvation, cf. Isaiah 52:10; Luke 3:6) of God is about to be revealed" (cf. Isaiah 40:5).
So what is this good news? What is this promised salvation? At the conclusion of Mark's prologue, he defines the "good news" as follows: 1) the time is fulfilled, and 2) the kingdom of God has come near (1:14,15). We need look no further then to again, Isaiah 40, to see this promise about to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ defined as the comfort of God’s people, through the forgiveness of their sins: "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins" (Isaiah 40:1-2). At the conclusion of the gospel, included in the “shorter ending” following 16:8, the good news is equated with the proclamation of “eternal salvation,” and this is indeed theologically consistent with Mark’s opening quotation from Isaiah.
 Malachi 3:1 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts."
 Isaiah 40:3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
 The earliest manuscripts do not contain Mark 16:9-20. The scholarship community is divided over whether this “longer ending” was part of Mark’s original gospel. Some manuscripts contain a “shorter ending” following verse 8, which reads: “And all that had been commanded they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” For more on the various perspectives on the ending of Mark, please see: Maurice Robinson et al., Perspectives On the Ending of Mark: Four Views, ed. David Alan Black (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2008).
We were asked this question on our forum by one of our members:
Q. Will it be possible for man to fake the Second Coming with false signs and deceive many people? If that would be so, then many may say that it was prophesied in the bible and the Second Coming is yet to come. What are your thoughts on this?
Here is my response:
A: Ask any futurist who believes he is living in the "end times" or in the "last days" today, how does he know? And he will say it is because he sees "signs." And where are these "signs" described? In the Bible of course! But the apostle John saw these very signs, and referred to them, when he said, "Little children, we *know* it is the last hour." He saw that what Jesus said would happen was happening, and thereby he *knew* that it was the last hour.
The futurist is in a real tough spot now, for two reasons:
1) In order to say that the "signs" he is seeing now are those spoken of by Christ, he has to say that the apostles were all mistaken (as was Jesus, since he put them in the specific context of that generation--and that is a whole other problem for him: Jesus was right about the signs but wrong about their timing?), and if the apostles were mistaken about the signs, what else were they mistaken about? Their credibility has been shot, by the futurist's own admission...and yet, he still consults their writings to tell him what signs he should be watching for?
And this was a real "light bulb" for me when I was first looking at the time statements in the New Testament:
2) In order to say that the statements of urgency and imminency apply to our time now (or that they applied at any time beyond the first century) we must also be saying that they meant *absolutely nothing* to the people they were written to. And that is a pretty absurd suggestion, is it not? And yet....that is exactly what a futurist paradigm demands.
However, Christ's promise to return in their lifetime is quite enough to render the question of whether "signs of the Second Coming " could be faked today moot. Because again, the only way for one to be deceived by such signs would be to say that Jesus was either uninformed or deliberately misleading, in which case one has discredited the very Scripture he is trying to use to identify the supposed signs. Furturism, we now see, really is impossible to defend.
In a theology class recently, we had a forum on eschatology, based upon our reading of various theologians on the topic. Here are a few of the questions I was asked by my classmates in the course of that discussion, and my responses to them. (Tami, did I hear you correctly??? uh, yeah, you did!):
Q: Tami, As I read through your summary, I was confused. Are you saying that the end of the age that Jesus spoke of and that the apostles spoke of already happened and everyone missed it?
A: Yes, I do see “the end of the age” that Jesus and the apostles all said was about to be fulfilled in their generation as the end of the old covenant age. As Hebrews says, “in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son,” and “that which is waxing old is ready to vanish away.” And no, if we are believers in the gospel, we didn’t miss anything, but rather are living under all the benefits of the glorious new covenant (“there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”).
Q: Why do Christians believe time is linear?
A: I think you may be referring to [our textbook editor's statement here]: “A characteristic Christian belief, of decisive importance in this [eschatological] context is that time is linear, not cyclical.” Why is this of decisive importance? A few thoughts:
God’s plan of redemption laid out in Scripture, beginning in the garden (Genesis 3:15) is a historical plan. The historical event that was prophesied from the beginning that accomplished the redemption of God’s people was the death and resurrection of Christ. Some (probably a minority within Christianity) take an “idealist” (I am not sure whether this is the same as “cyclical” or not?) approach to redemption and remove it from its historical context, which in effect renders the cross of Christ unnecessary. It is instead then viewed as a “show” or “demonstration” of a redemption that was already performed, rather than the actual performance of that redemption. But Luke states that Jesus came to “perform the mercy promised to the fathers” (Luke 1:72). He had to do something. I think this will become more and more significant the more time we spend contemplating how God worked progressively (e.g. the law was a tutor to lead them to Christ, cf. Galatians 3:24) throughout the history of His people as recorded in the Scriptures to reveal, and eventual accomplish, their salvation. Things were prophesied, then they happened according to those prophecies, all leading up to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. So that:
Ephesians 1: 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time,to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.
Those are just some of my thoughts on why a linear concept of time is theologically significant.
Q: Do you think dispensationalism has died down?
A: I grew up being taught dispensationalism in church. (At the age of 8, I watched a movie produced by Billy Graham's group called "A Thief in the Night" about the "rapture" and it scared the sh*t out of me. I was almost scarred for life! ) In fact, it wasn't until fairly recently that I even knew there were other ways of understanding eschatological prophecies, because I was sheltered within that specific denominational culture.
You ask if dispensationalism has died down? I think it depends on where you are. For example there are some big mega churches (e.g., John Hagee's in San Antonio) where it is still preached with fervor. But I do think that it has begun (thankfully) to die down. From my view point, one factor has been the growth of the emergent church movement, another the increasing prominence of voices within evangelical churches like Greg Boyd's (see his book "The Myth of a Christian Nation"), and another has been the increasing involvement of activist groups with mainline associations (e.g., Methodist, Episcopalian, some more liberal Lutherans--and in this case I use "liberal" in a positive sense!) in speaking out against American foreign policy which has been so heavily influenced by dispensationalism (e.g., Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson). I don't mean to sound arrogant here, but dispensationalists are by and large not very educated about things beyond this country's borders (I sure wasn't!). The "left-behind" craze is primarily an American evangelical phenomenon. So there is a shift happening in the culture which I think will result in the marginalization of dispensational eschatology, even in America where it has enjoyed such mainstream prominence and influence.
The other thing that is going to cause it to inevitably die out is time passing. How many more definitions are they going to be able to come up with for a "generation?" (Their "last generation" clock started ticking in 1948--and time is running out.)
[And in response to a comment someone made about "newspaper eschatology"]:
A: The thing that has always perplexed me about those who practice the "newspaper eschatology" that you mention, is that they see "signs" today that lead them to believe "the end is near." But where do they get this idea? What I mean is, what tells them what the "signs" of the end are? They say the Bible (specifically the New Testament) tells them what the signs are, yes? And yet the Bible was written by the apostles who believed with unwavering conviction that *they* were seeing the signs *then*. So if the apostles mistakenly believed they were seeing the signs that Jesus told them to look for (the apostle John *knew* without a doubt that it was the last the "last hour," precisely because of the signs he was seeing), and if Jesus was mistaken when he told them *when* to look for those signs, then on what basis would a "newspaper eschatologist" today consider their writings to be authoritative? This is just what perplexes me when I hear people say that the Bible is what is telling them that this or that event in the news today is a "sign" with some prophetic significance, when the apostles who wrote the Bible (which describes the very signs these modern folks are pointing to!) were saying the signs were happening back then.
So we have the apostles on one hand....and we have the "newspaper eschatologists" on the other, who claim the apostles as the source of their eschatology which directly contradicts what the apostles taught. Are you confused yet? I sure am!
A while back someone posted on our forum some thoughts about our obedience to Old Testament law today, not suggesting that it is required we obey it in order to be justified, but that perhaps we should be motivated out of gratitude to obey those laws, and also for practical reasons as many of them are wise guides for living. And another question was raised: If we are not under obligation to obey the law--either Old Testament or New Testament--in order to be justified before God, then what is our motivation to live morally? Or for that matter, to abstain from immorality?
The reason I am so drawn to having this conversation is that it's right where we all live. And it involves that tension I think we all feel between the legalism we were brought up with and our understanding of liberty in Christ, and also the tension between the fact (yes, it is a fact) that our consciences have been cleansed and are now absolutely perfect and guilt free--no, we couldn't possibly be cleaner, purer, or more righteous in God's sight--and the feeling we sometimes have that we are guilty.
And how do we assuage that "guilty" feeling? I think it's often by trying to be more obedient. It's our nature to try to do that. But when we find ourselves seeking relief from the feeling of guilt in obedience to law--any law, OT, NT, some standard we set up in our mind derived from comparing ourselves to others, whatever--it should be a red flag to us that we have forgotten the cross. For however brief a moment, and to whatever degree, when we seek to relieve our guilty feeling through our own performance, we have forgotten His mercy. And that is a very dangerous thing. Because as soon as we forget His mercy to us, we diminish our capacity to show it to others.
Something else that needs to be pointed out whenever we start talking about obeying Old Testament law (even as a wise and practical guide for living), is that Scripture doesn't make any distinction within that code that allows any parceling. So you simply cannot separate a discussion about obedience to any Old Testament law without dealing with the dilemma presented by the fact that Jesus and the apostles never said anything along the lines of, "Ok, guys, here is a list of the ones we are doing away with, and here is a list of the ones that still apply." Christians have those lists in their heads but they are nowhere in Scripture. So if we speak of obedience to certain laws--or to even one of them--"out of gratitude," then how do we avoid advocating the obedience of the entire law out of gratitude?
But now back to motive. If our motive is not to assuage our guilty conscience, since we are truly guilt-free, then what motive do we have to obey--specifically, setting the Old Testament law aside, what motive do we have to abstain from immorality as defined by the New Testament? Certainly, the "law of Christ" can be summed up as 1. Love God and 2. Love others. And if that is all we ever thought about, if our motive was simply love for God and others in response to His love for us, out of thankfulness, then wouldn't "immorality" be a non-issue? When we think of New Testament admonitions toward how we should "walk" as God's people, love as the motive really does cover everything. "We love because He first loved us," and we prove He has loved us when we love one another (1 John).
But there is another "motive" we all tend toward. Or I know I am confronted with this every day. The best way I know to illustrate it is with this familiar passage:
1Co 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 1Co 6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 1Co 6:11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Legalists loooooove this passage. The self-righteous simply adore it. Never mind that it condemns them all with the same standard by which they judge others. They can't be bothered with that. They just love to use it to prove that salvation is by works!
Let's face the facts, if it were true that by doing something on that list, you are disinherited from the kingdom, then we are all dead. The cross did nothing for us, and we have no hope. We've all done things on that list since becoming Christians. But the power of the cross and the glory of mercy is stated right there in that passage: even though we still do those things, those things are not who we are.
"And such were some of you. But you are washed." In other words, in God's eyes that is not who you are, anymore. And it has nothing to do with your ability to avoid doing those things. And thank God it doesn't!
What then is my motive for abstaining from those things which I know to be immoral as the Bible defines immorality, and both harmful to myself and others? It certainly is not to assuage my guilt over having done them, or even my guilt for continuing to fall into them. I am free of that guilt because of Christ's righteousness. And because of His mercies new every morning. But when I do those things I still may feel guilty. And such a feeling of guilt or shame , when it doesn't drive me to my knees in thankfulness at the foot of the cross, may instead drive me back to legalism, which always leads to projecting judgment onto someone else. Self-righteousness is the twin brother of guilt, they are truly two sides of the same coin. And both are an affront to the finished work of Christ.
So just as falling into self-righteous law keeping should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross; falling into immorality should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross. And when I do fall and feel guilty, I need to run to the cross and be reminded that I am forgiven and cleansed. And be restored once again to the joy of that forgiveness so that I can share it with others. And love them. My motive? "The love of Christ compels me." That's the communion we are invited to experience with Him and with one another in Him, whereby we "fulfill the law of Christ."
I was recently asked this question. I hope some of you may be encouraged by the response below.
In Revelation, John writes about the "works you did at first" to the Ephesians, and to those in Sardis he writes, "I know your works;...you are dead." What kind of works could John be referring to?
Regarding the admonition to the church at Ephesus to "do the works you did at first," there is a parallel structure that is significant:
"You have abandoned the love you had first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first."
"The love you had" and "the works you did" are clearly paralleled, and cannot be separated.
In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he praised them for their faith and "love for all the saints" (Ephesians 1). They had obeyed the gospel by believing, and the resulting fruit of that belief was love for God and His people. Many of the believers in all of these churches were Jews. In order to believe the gospel they had to repent of their former "dead works" (ie, self-righteousness under the law, cf. Hebrews 6:1). When some law-abiding Jews asked Jesus, "what must we do, to be doing the works of God?" He answered, "this is the work of God, that you believe on Him who He has sent" (John 6:28,29). A common theme throughout the New Testament is the temptation that Jewish believers, who were being persecuted by the self-proclaimed "Jews" who were of the "synagogue of Satan," had to return to the law after believing the gospel of grace. When John writes here, "repent from where you have fallen," we might consider the connection to Paul's statement to the Galatians that if they returned to self-righteousness and trusting in the "flesh" (ie, their own efforts to keep the law) after having begun by the "spirit," they had "fallen from grace" (Galatians 5).
Regarding the "soiled garments" of those in Sardis (Revelation 3:1f), I believe this also is a reference to self-righteous works. Isaiah says, "all our righteousness are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). It is only in Christ that we are clothed with "robes of righteousness," and the beautiful "garments of salvation" (Isaiah 61:10).
Notice that the church at Sardis also is admonished to return to what they had "received and heard." Of course what they had received and heard was the same gospel that the Ephesians had received and heard, which had resulted in "the love they had at first." Again, the dichotomy between self-righteousness and faith in the righteousness of Christ by the gospel is emphasized.
This same contrast is evident in the message to the Laodiceans (Revelation 3:14f), who believed themselves to be "rich" but were in reality "poor, blind and naked." And what was the solution for their nakedness? In this clear allusion to the garden scene, the only remedy for the shame of nakedness is the righteousness of Christ. In the garden Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with garments of their own making, but their shame remained. For as Isaiah says, "their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works" (Isaiah 59:6). Shame is always the result of our attempts to "buy" (work for) our own righteousness. But to the church at Laodicea, and to us today, Jesus says, "buy of me ("without money and without price"—Isaiah 55) gold tried in the fire, so you will be rich, and white raiment ("garments of salvation"—Isaiah 61) so you will be clothed, and so that the shame of your nakedness does not appear."
Again, "This is the work of God (i.e., the works you did at first): that you believe on Him Whom He has sent" (John 6:28,29).
In John 17, Christ prayed:
John 17:22 And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; so that they may be one, even as we are one: 23 I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
For those who may suggest that we have yet to be glorified with Christ, or that He has been glorified, but we have not yet, please pay attention to this (and by all means, look at the entire context in John 17):
The glory which God the Father had given Christ...
He was giving to His disciples...
they would be one...
with each other, and with Him.
AND so that...
He would be in them.
AND so that...
the world would know that God sent Christ...
and that God loves them....
Now, regardless of the verb tenses here, and the timing of the accomplishment of this glory, the goal of it is our oneness.
Are we one in Christ? Then we have been glorified. With the same glory that the Father gave the Son. If we have not been glorified, then we have not yet been made one in Christ. And the world cannot yet see that "You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me."
Does He dwell in us, and us in Him? That is our glorification.
I received this question from a friend in my small group the other day:
I am struggling with Romans 2: 1-16. It seems to go a bit against what I have more recently been understanding about God's Grace and Mercy and that works alone will not save us. That I understand, but what about 2:6-8?
Romans 2:6 "God will give to each person according to what he has done. 7 To those by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
I understand that if we are truly following God, then there shouldn't be a disparity in our lives between what we say and believe and what we do. I understand that we are not saved by works, but the integrity of our faith can be revealed through works? Help me put the wrath and judgment piece together with Grace and Mercy.
This is an important discussion, thanks for bringing it forward. I’d like to offer a few thoughts regarding the passage you have quoted—first considering the specific statement you are asking about in verses 6f regarding wrath and judgment and secondly considering the larger context of Romans.
Notice there are two groups of people being contrasted:
1. Those “who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality”
2. Those “who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness”
Those who do “good” and seek “glory, honor, and immortality” are those who are not destined for judgment and wrath. Therefore we know these to be believers. The “good” that we “do” which results in glory and immortality is to believe the gospel. In fact, Scripture is clear that belief in the gospel is the only way to glory and immortality. Consider the following:
John 6:28,29 Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
2 Timothy 1:9,10 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
So we know that those who are “doing good” in Romans 2 are believers in Christ. And no believer in Christ will ever, EVER experience judgment or wrath from God. To suggest otherwise really amounts to despising the work of Christ on the cross. There are many things we could talk about regarding what these believers were experiencing in the first century which required the “patience” of which Paul speaks. They were enduring intense persecution from not only the Romans, but also from the self-righteous Pharisees and Jews who were enemies of the gospel, and who were about to have God’s wrath poured out on them--which brings us to the identity of the second group: those “who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” Again, what is the “truth?” The truth is the gospel. To obey the truth is to believe the gospel. To disobey the truth is to reject the gospel. And it’s helpful to back up a couple of verses for the clearest confirmation of who these “disobedient” ones are:
Romans 2:5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
Now back up even farther to chapter 1, which sets the context for this whole discussion. The wrath of God (the same wrath which is the subject of your question in chapter 2) was being or about to be revealed at the time of this writing against those “suppressed the truth.” Again, the truth is the gospel. And yes, we can prove this:
Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Rom 1:17 For in it [the gospel of Christ] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH."
Now watch this:
Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is [present tense--it was happening or about to happen then] revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth [the truth is a synonym in this very context for the gospel in verse 16] in unrighteousness.
So, to sum up the difference between these two groups Paul is contrasting: those who “do good” believe the gospel, and those who are “self-seeking” (ie, they instead trust in themselves, or in their own righteousness) do not believe the gospel.
And some additional thoughts, considering again the larger context. If we keep reading in chapter 2 we will find continued confirmation that it is the self-righteous, unrepentant, Christ-rejecting Jews who were about to receive God’s judgment and wrath. Watch this:
Rom 2:17 Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law [ie, you trust in self-righteousness], and make your boast in God [you claim to be serving God],
Rom 2:18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law,
Rom 2:19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
Rom 2:20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
Rom 2:21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?
Rom 2:22 You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
Rom 2:23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? [he is exposing their hypocrisy]
Rom 2:24 For "THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU," as it is written. [quoting Isaiah 52, ie, God’s name is being blasphemed because of your self-righteousness]
Rom 2:25 For circumcision [the “Jewishness” and legalism you are trusting in] is indeed profitable if you keep the law [but NO ONE CAN]; but if you are a breaker of the law [which all of you are], your circumcision has become uncircumcision [ie, your law-keeping is worthless, and gets you nothing].
Now this is the clincher, right here:
Rom 2:26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man [a Gentile, one you despise as unclean and a law-breaker] keeps the righteous requirements of the law [WHAT?!], will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?
Wait a minute. As we studied in Galatians, no one is justified by keeping the law, because no one CAN keep the law. As we read in James, to break one tiny part of it is to break the whole thing. So how can an “uncircumcised man” (a Gentile, and the fact that he is uncircumcised means he’s already broken the law, since the law requires circumcision! This is some riddle!) keep the “righteous requirements of the law” so that it turns him into a Jew? (That is essentially what is meant by “his uncircumcision will be counted as circumcision.") Paul explains it later in Romans (we HAVE to read Romans as a whole, because of course that is the way it was delivered). Remember the phrase from 2:26 above, “the righteous requirements of the law…” and watch this (remember, it is part of the same discussion by Paul):
Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh [ie, do not seek justification in the law], but according to the Spirit.
Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
Rom 8:3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
Rom 8:4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh [seeking justification/righteousness by keeping the law] but according to the Spirit [trusting in and receiving Christ’s righteousness].
Remember that Paul says in chapter 2 that anyone who keeps “the righteous requirements of the law” is counted as a Jew. In contrast to the ones who prided themselves in being Jews (keepers of the law, righteous in their own eyes, and superior in their own eyes because of their national/racial "Jewish" heritage). And here Paul continues by saying that those “righteous requirements of the law” ARE FULFILLED by Christ, IN us.
Finally, look at the last verses of chapter 2, which again clarify the contrast Paul was making at the beginning of the chapter:
Rom 2:28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly [ie, you self-righteous ones who think you are better than others because you are “Jews” are not “Jews” in any way that matters to God] or is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
Rom 2:29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. [ie, true “Jews,” true keepers of God’s law, are believers in Jesus Christ, who have been forgiven and cleansed by the cross, and who are now perfectly righteous in the sight of God.]
So to bring this full circle back to your question, how do we reconcile the statement in Romans 2 that God gives to each person “according to what he has done,” with His mercy and grace to believers? His mercy and grace is indeed lavished upon ANYONE who does “good”—or “the work of God,” which is to BELIEVE in Jesus. And when we abandon self-effort/self-righteousness, and trust in Christ’s righteousness, “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us. Christ fulfilled it, because we could not. And for us who have believed, for you and me, ”it has been fulfilled. Once and for all. “Therefore there is no condemnation.”
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, SO THAT we would be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“The Lord has brought forth our righteousness, come let us declare in Zion (Zion = the church, the assembly or congregation of believers) the work of our God.” (Jeremiah 51:10)
For further study, we also discuss this section of Romans 2 in this podcast, if you are interested in spanning out even farther to include a larger Scriptural context for Paul's comments.
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.