Romans 2:17-23 – “Boast in” the Law


To demonstrate God’s impartiality in judgment, Paul has to deal with law as it relates to Gentiles and Jews.

  • Last week, he showed that the Gentiles, in fact, do have a law by which they will be judged.
  • They may not have the law, but they have a law written on their hearts – their conscience.


In our text today, Paul contends with the Jewish side of the equation.

  • “Paul takes up those two things that, more than any others, pointed to the Jews’ special status: the law and circumcision” – Douglas Moo.


Helpful Observation before we proceed:

  • “Paul’s target [diatribe against the “Jew”] is ostensibly far from his audience. They are invited to join Paul’s indictment of an insufferably arrogant bigot, not realizing that similar pretensions will later be exposed in their own behavior toward one another” – Robert Jewett.
  • This seems to me very helpful in trying to understand to whom Paul is writing in both today’s text and the previous verses as well.



Verses 17-23:

Romans 2:17–23 (ESV) — 17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.


Paul quickly dispatches the idea that Sinai has given the Jews an advantage.

  • He does this by showing at least two things.


1) First, Paul highlights the relationship Jews have with the law.

  • Rely on the law” – verse 17.
  • Instructed from the law” – verse 18.
  • Having in the law” – verse 20.


And in our text, Paul points out real benefits of the having, relying and being instructed from the law.

  • Know his will” – verse 18.
  • Approve what is excellent” – verse 18.
  • Guide to the blind” – verse 19.
  • Light to those in the darkness” – verse 19.
  • Instruct the “foolish” – verse 20.
  • Teach “children” – verse 20.
  • The embodiment of knowledge and truth” – verse 20.


There is no question that Paul affirms the value of the law.

  • Paul is not anti-law.
  • He is anti-misuse of the law!
  • In 3:19, for example, he shows that the law shuts the mouth of self-righteousness – “every mouth may be stopped”.
  • In 3:21, he says that the law bears witness to the righteousness of God.
  • And in Romans 7:12 (ESV) — 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.


Paul has to “rethink the role of Israel” around Jesus the Messiah – to be sure – N.T. Wright.

  • But, for Paul the law didn’t fail, “National Israel failed in its vocation” – N.T. Wright.



2) Second, Paul then shows why the problem is with the Jew and not the law.

  • To this end he uses the phrase in verse 19, “if you are sure that you yourself are a guide…”.
  • Some translations have “convinced” instead of “sure”.
  • The idea here is that the “you” in question is full of arrogance and cocksuredness – Robert Jewett.


Paul then rhetorically asks this arrogant, self-righteous Jew…

  • Haven’t you taught yourself what the law teaches?
  • Do you not teach yourself” – verse 21.
  • Jewett points out that at this point the audience in Rome is most certainly with Paul in his disdain for this arrogant “you”.
  • But as we pointed out at the beginning, this is part of Paul’s tactic to slowly bring his sites onto them as well.


He then answers the question by making some serious accusations.

  • You rightly preach against stealing, but you steal (vs. 21).
  • You rightly teach against adultery, but you commit adultery (vs. 22).
  • You rightly abhor idols, but you…? (vs. 22).


You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” – vs. 22.

  • This particular verse deserves further comment.
  • It appears the idea here is a charge of hypocrisy for financial gain.
  • “They claim to detest idolatry and spurn any association with idols, yet they are willing to be defiled by profiting from the very idols that they detest” – Tom Schreiner.


And about these sins, we need to consider Moo’s point.

“It is not, then, that all Jews commit these sins, but that these sins are representative of the contradiction between claim and conduct that does pervade Judaism” – Douglas Moo.


And then comes the “law-bomb”:

  • Romans 2:23 (ESV) — 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law.
  • The Jews claim special access to God’s saving righteousness because of the law.
  • But in fact, what they really have is an inside track on dishonoring God.
  • And this is simply because though they have the law, they break it.


We need to consider an interesting parallel here with Paul’s Romans 1 words to the Gentiles.

  • Romans 1:24–25 (ESV) — 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

“Just as the Gentiles failed to bring him glory by repudiating the revelation available from the created order, the Jews failed to honor him by practicing the law that was vouchsafed to them” – Tom Schreiner.


And then Paul heaps it on even more!

  • Romans 2:24 (ESV) — 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”


Many think Paul has in mind Ezekiel 36:23.

  • We will see in verses 24-29 how the broader context of Ezekiel 36:23 ff. also fits very well with where Paul is headed in our text.
  • Ezekiel 36:23 (ESV) — 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.



  • Instead of being an advantage, by misuse of the law Jews have blighted the name of God.
  • And in pointing this out, Paul reveals that one reason this is a concern for God…
  • Other than the “holiness of my great name”…
  • Is that God’s name has been sullied before the Gentiles.


It wasn’t supposed to be this way – Jewish misuse of and reliance on the law.

“Many, including Paul himself, would have celebrated the fact that God had chosen Israel and given them his law in order to make them a beacon of virtue to the rest of the world. Before his conversion, Paul would have seen this calling of the nation of Israel as the rock on which he could stand firm” – N.T. Wright.

  • After all Isaiah 42:6 says the Jews were to be “a light for the nations”.
  • But now, as we pointed out earlier, Paul has to rethink everything around “Jesus is Lord” – including purpose of the law.


Finally, with respect to last week’s lesson:

  • Paul’s line of reasoning in verses 17-23 also does two more things.
  • (1) It provides further evidence of God’s impartiality from verse 11.
    • Jews are not advantaged because of the law.
  • (2) It provides further evidence that that “hearers of the law” are not justified “doers of the law”.
    • Quite the opposite, Jews are law breakers!


I mentioned earlier that Paul’s allusion to Ezekiel 36 fits well with his current line of thought.

  • Verses 25-29 will show us why as Paul dispatches the idea that the outward sign of circumcision shields one from God’s condemnation.
  • We will contend with this next week.