9 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Paul uncovers in these verses a strange human foible, namely our tendency to be critical of everybody except ourselves. We are often as harsh in our judgement of others as we are lenient towards ourselves. We work ourselves up into a state of self-righteous indignation over the disgraceful behaviour of other people, while the very same behaviour seems not nearly so serious when it is ours rather than theirs. We even gain a vicarious satisfaction from condemning in others the very faults we excuse in ourselves. Freud called this moral gymnastic ‘projection’, but Paul described it centuries before Freud. Similarly, Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth- century political philosopher, wrote of people who ‘are forced to keep themselves in their own favour by observing the imperfections of other men’. This device enables us simultaneously to retain our sins and our self-respect. It is a convenient arrangement, but also both slick and sick.
In addition, Paul argues, we expose ourselves to the judgement of God, and we leave ourselves without either excuse or escape. For if our critical faculties are so well developed that we become experts in our moral evaluation of others, we can hardly plead ignorance of moral issues ourselves. On the contrary, in judging other people, we thereby condemn ourselves, because we *who pass judgment do the same things* (1). For *we know* perfectly well *that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on the truth* (2). How then can we suppose (we who, though mere human beings, play God and *pass judgment* on others for doing what we do) that we *shall escape God’s judgment* (3)? This is not a call either to suspend our critical faculties or to renounce all criticism and rebuke of others as illegitimate; it is rather a prohibition of standing in judgment on other people and condemning them (which as human beings we have no right to do), especially when we fail to condemn ourselves. For this is the hypocrisy of the double standard, a high standard for other people and a comfortably low one for ourselves.
Sometimes, in a futile attempt to escape the inescapable, namely God’s judgment, we take refuge in a theological argument. For theology can be turned to bad uses as well as good. We appeal to God’s character, especially to *the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience* (4a). We maintain that he is much too kind and long-suffering to punish anybody, and that we can therefore sin with impunity. We even misapply Scripture to our advantage and quote such statements as, ‘The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love’ (Ps. 103:8; Ex.34:5ff.). But this kind of manipulative theologizing is to *show contempt* for God, not honour. It is not faith; it is presumption. For God’s*kindness leads us towards repentance* (4b). That is the goal. It is intended to give us space in which to repent, not to give us an excuse for sinning (cf. Ezk. 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9).
Tomorrow: Acts 2:5-11. 2). God’s judgment is righteous.