Difficult Bible Passages: Romans 2:4

There is a biblical order to how we share the gospel:

One mistake Christians can often make is to single out and highlight one biblical text and act as if it was the only scriptural passage that can be brought to bear on a particular issue. Yes, there might now and then be a verse which seems to be all rather unique. But on all the key biblical truths, such as something like salvation, there would be numerous passages to consider. All of them must be taken into account when trying to understand an important biblical doctrine.

Let me offer a case in point. Recently on the social media someone shared a meme about how the good news of the gospel must be preceded by the bad news of the gospel. That is, before we can tell people that they can be saved, they first must understand that they are lost. To tell people that they can have their sins forgiven and be delivered from divine punishment requires that they first know that they are indeed sinners, and are now under the wrath of God.

And this is quite correct, biblically speaking. But someone came along seeking to dispute all this. He did so by quoting one passage – or part of one passage – thinking this had just refuted everything this meme was seeking to teach. He had shared part of Romans 2:4. The NKJV puts it this way: “the goodness of God leads you to repentance”.

So this fellow, on the basis of one text – or really, one partial text – sought to argue that we must start (and end) with God’s love, goodness and mercy. So who is right? Should we just ignore the bad news of the gospel and only share the good stuff with non-Christians?

Obviously this is not a ‘difficult’ passage as such, but as with many verses I have studied in this series, it can be misunderstood and misused. So let me discuss this further. The first step, as always, is to put the text into its context. Romans 2:1-4 (in the ESV) puts it this way:

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?

There can be differing views on who exactly is being addressed here by Paul. Some commentators see the Jews as being in view, while others think this is about morally superior Gentiles. Either way, Paul is dealing with those who judge others yet are doing the same thing.

They may think they deserve God’s goodness, kindness and patience, yet they are not showing it to others. Yes, God is kind and patient, but these divine attributes which are lacking in us are meant to show us our need of repentance. So it is this Gentile hypocrisy Paul is focusing on here. But the overall argument of the epistle makes it clear in what direction he is moving.

The whole structure of Romans 1-8 shows us how Paul first reveals our condition as sinners under the law, and then how we can find grace in Christ to rescue us from this nasty situation. The opening chapters condemn us all – Jew and Gentile alike – while the following chapters tell us of the way out of the mess that we are in. John Stott in his commentary on Romans puts it this way:

The apostle thus divides the human race into three sections – depraved pagan society (1:18–32), critical moralizers whether Jews or Gentiles (2:1–16), and well-instructed, self-confident Jews (2:17-3:8). He then concludes by accusing the whole human race (3:9-20). In each case his argument is the same, that nobody lives up to the knowledge which he or she has. Even the special privileges of the Jews do not exempt them from divine judgment. No, ‘Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin’ (3:9), ‘for God does not show favouritism’ (2:11). All human beings are sinful, guilty and without excuse before God. The picture is one of unrelieved darkness.


The ’But now’ of 3:21 is one of the great adversatives of the Bible. For into the universal darkness of human sin and guilt the light of the gospel has shown….

Bad news before good news

So this notion of telling the non-believer about his sin and condemnation before we share the good news of salvation in Christ with them is certainly biblical. Many quotes can be offered on this. Let me share just a few of them. Commenting on this chapter, R. C. Sproul put it this way: “Before we get to the gospel, the good news of justification by faith alone, we must be brought kicking and screaming, if necessary, before the holy standard of God’s law so that we might be duly persuaded of our need for the gospel.”

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R. Kent Hughes says similar things:

As we begin our study of Romans 2, we need to focus on this thought: mankind does not accept God’s assessment of human sin and the imperative of divine judgment. This is not to say that men will not admit they are sinners. It is very easy to get a non-Christian to agree that he is a sinner (“nobody’s perfect”), but it is almost impossible to get him to realize the gravity of his sin. Typically he has no trouble agreeing that those who are guilty of “big sins” like murder and rape and treason deserve judgment – even death. However, that God’s wrath should fall on those guilty of such “lesser sins” as envy or arrogance does not seem quite right to them….


This problem is twofold: first, man does not understand God’s holiness, and, second, he does not understand his own sinfulness….

Numerous other more general quotes can be shared. Francis Schaeffer once put it this way: “If I had one hour with every man, I would spend the first 45 minutes talking to them about God’s law, and the last 15 minutes talking about His great salvation.”

Or as Charles Spurgeon stated: “I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. The law is the needle, and you cannot draw the silken thread of the gospel through a man’s heart unless you first send the needle of the law to make way for it. If men do not understand the law, they will not feel that they are sinners. And if they are not consciously sinners, they will never value the sin offering. There is no healing a man till the law has wounded him, no making him alive till the law has slain him.”

In his commentary on Galatians John Stott wrote: “Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit the need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested us and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for our justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.”

“Before I preach love, mercy, and grace, I must preach sin, law, and judgment” is how John Wesley put it. Long ago John Bunyan put it this way: “The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Saviour.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was quite right to state this: “The trouble with people who are not seeking a Savior, and for salvation, is that they do not understand the nature of sin. It is the peculiar function of the Law to bring such an understanding to a man’s mind and conscience. That is why great evangelical preachers 300 years ago in the time of the Puritans, and 200 years ago in the time of Whitfield and others, always engaged in what they called a preliminary law work.”

The late J. I. Packer said it this way: If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgment on it, we cannot present Christ as Saviour from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. We are, in effect bearing false witness and preaching a false Christ. Our message is ‘another gospel, which is not another.’ Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Saviour from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else.”

And two quite brief quotes to finish with:

“The first duty of the gospel preacher is to declare God’s Law and show the nature of sin.” Martin Luther

“You’ve got to get people lost before you can get them saved.” Attributed to D. L. Moody

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6 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Romans 2:4”

  1. Curious could you do a difficult passages for 1 Corinthians 13:1?? Tongues of angels is the target. It’s the ONLY verse mentioning Tongues of angels.

  2. When I came to the Lord I was simply interested in whether it was true or not. After receiving the Holy Spirit, without understanding very much at all, many sins simply fell away and I was definitely changed. Some sins did not and became an ongoing process to deal with.

    I’m not sure whether I am particularly different but I had very little understanding of the ins and outs of repentance at the time but as soon as I verified the truth of the matter it simply became a matter of common sense to learn and obey what God says.

    Now I do understand repentance is very obviously central to scripture and when people do wrong knowingly they are doubly at fault but unusually for most people, I received the Holy Spirit two months before I realised the necessity for baptism and repentance. It took that long for my mind to catch up with what had happened.

  3. Thanks for this article Bill.

    I have been working my way through Romans and looking at the seeming toing and froing of Paul as he seems to dismiss the law on one hand then turns 180 degrees to validate it. Without the law, we cannot know what is sin.

    Thanks for the quotes from those other* biblical scholars. They are very enlightening.

    Here I go, back to the start of Romans again.

    Thank you Lord for putting Bill’s article in my path at just the right moment in time.

    * Bill being a biblical scholar of some repute.

  4. Thanks Bill, I like DL Moody’s quote “You’ve got to get people lost before you can get them saved.” and couldn’t help wondering if that is what God is letting happen today with all the ideologies and untruths out there – so people can see evil/Satan and wake up to the Gospel.

  5. In 1976 a brave young lady, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, asked me 2 questions.
    “Do you believe in God?”, to which I answered yes.
    “Do you think He approves of your current lifestyle?”. The answer to that was in the negative, but it took me 6 hours to decide. The holy Spirit won me over in the end, and that night I asked the Lord to make my life one such as He could approve of. I don’t yet have His full approval, even after 45 plus years. But we’re working on it together. He does however approve of the direction I’m taking, and for that I am grateful.

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