All humans feel conflicting thoughts that accuse or excuse their behavior (Romans 2:15). One common way people try to help themselves feel better when they experience accusing thoughts of guilt and shame is judging others. We judge to elevate ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable reality of our moral weakness and failure. We convince ourselves that as long as we are better than our neighbor, then we are good enough. It is as if we are saying, “Surely God wouldn’t condemn me; I’m not like those horrible people over there.”

This self-elevating moral hierarchy is seen in every facet of society. The rapist consoles himself that he isn’t a child abuser. The child abuser consoles himself that he isn’t a racist. The alcoholic gloats that she isn’t a heroin addict. The dishonest CEO condemns the shoplifter. The shoplifter justifies herself by denouncing the corrupt CEO. And it goes on and on. Every person, away from genuine repentance and faith in Christ, uses this type of moral calculus to elevate their moral standing above others, to reduce their feelings of guilt and shame.

When religious people do this, it is particularly harmful. By using their supposed devotion to God as cover for their sin, they cause God’s name to be blasphemed and demonstrate that instead of being teachers, they still need to learn the basics of true religion (Romans 2:18–21, 24). Unfortunately, this was exactly the condition of many of the Jews Paul addressed in the book of Romans.

The book of Romans lays out a different vision for dealing with guilt and shame. In next week’s lesson, we will see that instead of allowing us to hide from our sin by condemning others, Paul points us to Jesus’ death as God’s way of condemning sin and releasing sinners from guilt and shame. Since we are all sinners, and we can all be saved by faith in Christ, we don’t have to condemn one another to make us feel better.

Paul also reminds us that, instead of our external devotion to God and inward corruption, God has a better way. He desires to write His law on our heart (Romans 2:15) and that we fulfill the law by serving Him from the heart through the Holy Spirit (Romans 2:27–29). For Paul, the power of the Holy Spirit is the antidote for religious hypocrisy.