I’m going through the book of Romans with a friend of mine, and the first two chapters offer an interesting contrast. The second half of the first chapter talks about people who wallow in their sins and deny their need for repentance and salvation – and God – while chapter two talks about how religious people need the Gospel too.

The first half of the chapter warns against judging others. This isn’t in the sense that the world claims – that we don’t have the right to call out sin. It’s judgment in the sense of looking down on others whom we don’t perceive as being as “good” as we think we are. It’s an easy human tendency, and not just in religious and moral circles, to give the side-eye to people we deem as less worthy of love and attention as we think we are.

Tim Keller puts it this way in his commentary:

But to “pass judgment” in 2:1 is not simply saying: That is wrong, but accompanying it with a particular attitude, basically saying: You are lost, and I’m glad because now I feel better about myself. In other words, to “pass judgment” is to believe that others are worthy of God’s judgment while you are not.[1]

We have to guard against attitudes that will pull us in that direction.

In the second half of the chapter, the Apostle Paul calls out the moralism of Jewish Christians who hide behind their heritage of the law:

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Romans 2:17-24 (ESV)

In his commentary, N. T. Wright says that Paul is comparing moralistic believers to corrupt cops who know the laws but openly disobey them. Obviously, not all the Jewish Christians were disobeying the Torah so openly, but some of them must have done so. Paul calls them out for seeing the Torah as mere theory (verse 21) as well as for using their heritage as a source of hubris (2:25).

Don’t get me wrong: Paul isn’t just aiming his strong warnings at Jewish believers. People both inside and outside the church are his targets. What Paul warns against is a sense of moralism that takes the place of genuine faith.

At one time or another we’ve all been guilty of the attitude of, “I’m a good person, so that’s enough.” Such moralism can get someone in trouble when one thinks that one doesn’t need Jesus, but believing Christians can fall into that trap too sometimes.

What does moralism look like for a believer? Tim Keller says that moralism turns faith into a relationship with Christianity rather than with Christ. Moralism morphs into legalism or my-way-or-the-highway attitudes within the church. Moralistic attitudes represent everything that non-believers hate about Christians.

If you’re a believer in the God of the Bible, are you living a life of genuine faith in God, or are you relying on a moralistic sense of your own goodness? Think about how you demonstrate your relationship with God to the outside world, and see if it reflects as faith or moralism.


Check out the previous installments in Chris Queen’s Liberty Island writings on faith:

The Pitfalls of Emotional Christianity

My Church Heritage and How It Shaped Me

What I’ve Learned from Reading a Systematic Theology

A Faith-Drenched View of the South


[1] Keller, T. (2014). Romans 1–7 for You. (C. Laferton, Ed.) (p. 40). The Good Book Company.

Photo by QuinceCreative (Pixabay)