THE SIN OF BEING GOOD
1 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. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 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? 4 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? 5 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. 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.
— Romans 2:1-11, ESV
I came of age in the ’70’s, when bad was good. If you told your friend, “Man, that’s one bad ride,” you were actually complimenting the gentleman for his fine automobile. If you called someone a “bad dude,” it meant this fine fellow excelled at whatever endeavor he undertook. “Bad” was good.
The concept was resurrected about ten years ago in Super Bowl commercials produced by carmaker Jaguar. Various British actors portrayed a villainous character from a Bond movie driving the latest model. They close with the declaration, “It’s good to be bad.”
The Apostle Paul has just argued in his epistle to the Romans that it is bad to be bad (ref. 1:18-32). Now he is going to tell us that good can be bad, too. That is, until we are transformed from bad to good. Then, good is what the good do. Let’s break that down.
Bad is Bad
As a text without a context is a pretext, so the text of 2:1-11 needs to be understood in the wake of the thrashing condemnation of 1:18-32, which flowed from the purpose statement given in 1:16-17.
We desperately need the righteousness of God, which comes by grace through faith in Christ, because the wrath of God is going to fall on all who do not have it. Unbelievers are unrighteous and ungodly in the eyes of God. They are bad and they engage in bad behavior, following their lustful feelings and turning their backs on God. God eventually gives up on such bad people, fed up with their litany of bad deeds.
Therefore, God’s wrath is for every cognizant human being who has turned their back on God in order to live an unbelieving, ungodly, ultimately bad life. And, Paul added, “They are without excuse” (ref. 1:20).
Does this make you feel good? You should not. If you do, “You have no excuse” (ref. 2:1) either. For, good can be bad, too.
Good is Bad
Good is bad when you judge bad people because you think you are so good. Paul used a witty wordplay here to point out those who judge others are actually piling on judgement for themselves. Speaking of pointing, it’s like the old ditty when you point your finger at someone, you have three pointing back at you. A better illustration still is the Gospel parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (ref. Luke 18:9-14).
Good is bad when you think you are too good to do bad things. Go back and look at the list of sins Paul condemned as worthy of condemnation in 1:18-32. Do you think you are too good to have ever engaged in such bad sins? Then I’ve got five words for you: The Sermon on the Mount (ref. Matthew 5-7). We judge by the action of the hands, God judges by the attitude of the heart.
Good is bad when you think God’s blessings have come to you because you are good. This is the exact premise of the prosperity gospel, the insidious notion that God can be bought, or that God can be cajoled into granting blessings based on your giving or other good behavior. From that same Sermon on the Mount, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (ref. Matthew 5:45).”
Good is bad when you seek glory and honor for yourself instead of God. There are a lot of good people who have an insatiable lust for recognition, fame, fortune, power. Seldom do they use it for spreading the gospel, building the church, or helping the poor. Such good people will receive the shock of their lives, when their lives are over, and nothing but the bad, awful, wrath of God comes pouring out on them.
Bad is Good
We humans turn good into bad. God, however, turns bad into good. It is called “repentance.” This is the grace whereby God turns a sinner from their unbelieving, bad, wasted life to faith in Christ, and the faithful, truly good, godly life of a genuine Christian.
A true Christian realizes he or she is not good, only God is good. Jesus made this point with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-29, Mark 10:17-30, and Luke 18:18-30. And, Paul will nail it down with great force in Romans 3:9ff. We must know we’re bad, all of us, which is good, for this gives rise to repentance and faith.
God’s goodness led this bad boy to repentance and faith in 1982. Everyone thought I was good, very good, especially me. I was from a good family, was a good student, was a good athlete, had a bunch of good friends, lived a really good life, and was looking forward to a good future. Then the gospel exploded into my good life (ref. 1:16) and revealed it to be bad, because I was “self-seeking,” living for my glory and my honor. When I realized I was bad, it hurt so good, for that is when I found grace, in repentance and faith, and began to live my life for the glory and honor of God.
Good is Good
How do you define the good life?
Most people would say a good education, a good job, a good family, a good neighborhood, and good retirement account, and maybe even throw in a good church, or temple, or synagogue (Paul will tackle religion in the next paragraph). But what good is this life, really, if one is not a true Christian, but rather a none or a nominal or a hypocrite. Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul (ref. Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36)?”
Good in God’s economy cannot be measured in dollars and cents, real estate and retirement accounts, treasure and trips. What is good with God is real repentance, genuine faith, and the good works which flow out of it, for the glory of God. This good is the real good.
One of the best friends and mentors I ever had owned a seafood market in our home town. He put two placards on the wall, two good sayings. One read, “Being good will keep you out of jail, but it won’t keep you out of Hell.” The other said simply, “Jesus saves.” I think he just summed up Romans 2:1-11. This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!