The "Romans 23 Principle" (a follow-up post)

The "Romans 23 Principle" (a follow-up post) March 24, 2014

A reader asked a question about my previous post “Using the ‘Romans 23’ Principle to Explain Sin.” Here is the comment he left on the blog:

“I definitely see two aspects of sin: against God’s person (the honor-shame motif) and against God’s law (the innocence-guilt motif). My ministry partners here in Cambodia have been discussing this particular post via email. I did want to raise a question about Romans 2:23. It seems that the dishonor comes from the breaking of the law, which is the definition of unrighteousness in Jewish thought, as easily shown from a host of biblical passages. More than that, any Jew would have assumed the Gentiles to be unrighteous (= law breakers) because they didn’t have the law.

I am still trying to put all of this together in my mind. I agree with most of what you have said below and believe it to be very helpful. It just seems to me that Romans 2:23 is actually saying that the way people have dishonored God is by them breaking the law. It seems like legal terms to me. This is not to discount Romans 1 and 3.”

Below is my response––

RomansThank you for allowing me to join your discussion. Of course, I’m glad to hear people processing these passages. In Saving God’s Face, I discuss this passage and show how it fits into its surrounding context.

For now, I’ll respond using four broad lines of thought.

1) Distinguish Meaning from the Means

Regarding Rom 2:23, it is important to distinguish means from ends, essence versus expression. Fundamentally, the core problem or offense is that people bring disrepute upon God’s name. Breaking the Law is simply one way of dishonoring God.

By analogy, I could offend a friend in a variety of ways, like insulting his wife, dressing inappropriately at a formal event, being too blunt, etc. Yet, the key issue is the fact that I am offending him, treating him as lacking value.

In fact, the grammar clarifies the point. “Dishonor” is the sentence’s lone verb (excluding the participle “boast” within the nominative/subject clause). Breaking law is a prepositional phrase modifying the subject’s main actions.

2) Verse 24

The fact Paul ground v. 23 with v. 24 is further confirmation. Rom. 2:23 is unambiguously concerned with the dishonor brought upon God’s name.

3) Boasting

Additionally, the way he describes the offenders as those who “boast” in the law (and who boast in God in 2:17 highlights the irony, which centers on honor-shame. After all, they presume to honor that which they boast in. Note that believers “boast” (same Greek word) in the glory of God in Rom 5:2.

4) The Meaning of “Law”

One more critical observation to make is that the Law in Romans 2 is not talking about some sort of abstract human moral law in the universe. He is talking about the Mosaic Law specifically. Thus, the Jews have the Law by birth whereas the Gentiles do not (cf. Rom 2:13-14; hence, the objection posed in 3:1-3). This has been argued in my Saving God’s Face as well as in a number of other places at length.

One of the most important passages confirming that Paul is not defining sin in terms of Law is found in Romans 5:13, where Paul writes, “…for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.”

Notice also that 5:14 confirms what Paul means by “Law.” Thus, in the very next verse, he says, “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.” Clearly, the “Law” comes in with Moses.

Accordingly, Jews dishonored God “breaking his Law.” Yet, people dishonored God prior to the Law’s arrival. In that case, the essence of “sin” (evil/wrong human thoughts/desires/behavior) could not be breaking a Law that didn’t exist.

Let me know if you have any follow-up questions. I’d love to hear your thoughts.



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  • Chris Seawright (ស៊ីរ៉ែត គ្រីស)

    Dr. Wu,

    Thanks for your response. That was helpful. One of my ministry friends has responded to it and am curious to what you would say, when you have a moment (no rush):

    > Ok, so this post clarifies that Wu agrees with me that in this case, dishonor comes from the Jews’ breaking of the Law, though dishonoring God is definitely the central concern. And he expresses (as I did in my email from earlier) that this particular offence was only possible with those who had the Law: the Jews. And I appreciate him integrating Romans 5:13 into his argument which I have also accounted for in my thinking. > > But remember, one of my reasons for bringing this up was to point out that honor-shame and law-guilt are not opposing cultural paradigms. In the case of Romans 2-3, they are obviously interrelated. We see both principles in play in Romans 1-3 whether we are talking about the Jews or gentiles since, even though they don’t have the Law, God will still judge the gentiles (clearly a legal event) on the basis of their deeds with or without the Law (Romans 2:12-15). That there are legal ramifications for the gentiles despite not having the Law in Romans 2 is impossible to deny. > > Likewise, we find that nearly all human cultures operate on the principles of both models even if they vary in emphasis and application. To say that Americans don’t understand honor-shame at all is wrong. Likewise, to say that the Chinese don’t understand law-guilt at all is also wrong. > > Therefore, if we agree that there is no need to decide between honor-shame and law-guilt because both models are found in both the Scriptures and (with varying emphases) in all cultures, how then do we define the starting point, trajectory, and ending point when speaking to Americans, Chinese or Khmers? I propose the following: > > > > Starting Point > Trajectory > Goal > Americans > Law-Guilt > Honor-Shame > Both > Chinese / Khmers > Honor-Shame > Law-Guilt > Both > > My thinking is that the starting point should be what the receptor culture naturally gravitates toward and quickly grasps, the trajectory should fill in the gaps in their understanding, and that the goal must be defined by Scripture, encompassing both. This last point does not attempt to place the gentiles “under the Law” thus nullifying grace (contra Acts 15, Romans 4, Galatians), but it does make it clear that one day we all will face a legal judgment based on their thoughts, intents, words and deeds. > > I haven’t read Wu yet (maybe this summer?), but it seems to me that he is mostly concerned with the starting point. Is this true? Also, I haven’t heard much about trajectory or ending point, though I believe that he probably has considered both, even if in different terms. What do you know about this? Nor have I seen him spilling much ink on law and judgment, but then again I haven’t read his book, only a number of his blog posts.

    Thanks for your time.


    • Thanks for sending the questions. They help me sharpen my own thoughts and ways of explaining myself. I’ll reply in hopefully shorter statements this time and let you follow up as you need. Having read my book and blog, one can fill in some of the gaps.

      1. I absolutely agree that Law and honor-shame are not opposing cultural paradigms. I think my previous post “Is Our Theology Enslaved to the Law?” is clear enough to show how I relate the two. In addition, I would affirm the fact that both are human categories, not simply “eastern” or “western.” As you have heard me say before, the existence of Facebook beautifully illustrates the point for a western context.

      2. Speaking about “Law” can get rather vague and confused if we are not careful. I wholehearted affirm the importance and use of “legal” metaphors. However, it is critical that we go a step further to observe that the Bible predominantly has in mind a regal context, not simply a legal setting. In other words, God is not merely a judge; he is also a king. An ancient king was a judge but a judge is not necessarily a king. In addition, discussions about Law in a Jewish context are concerned with the covenant concept, which entails issues on collective identity (an theme built into the umbrella concept of honor-shame). I do spend a lot of time on the blog and/or in print talking about the royal motif.

      3. I think it is important to distinguish the fact that God will judge the Gentiles (hence, the use of legal language) and the specific conversation happening in Romans 2. Yes, there are legal ramifications but that is not the major point of the chapter; that is, whether there are legal consequences as opposed to honor-shame consequences. The results of believing/obeying (or not doing so) could be stated both in terms of law and honor-shame, as is evident in Romans itself, including chapter 2 (especially Rom 2:6, 10; cf. 9:33; 10:11).

      4. Regarding a starting point, I’m not sure that we need to define a trajectory or sequence. In general, we would start with honor-shame issues when talking with easterners, but maybe we would start with idolatry, purification, or some other theme. It could depends on the individual. The point is however that honor-shame is going to be a pervasive and shaping influence in some form or another, even if you are not directly using the words “honor” and “shame.” For instance, you might be speaking about group identity. No matter who they are, we want every believer to know and believe the entire Bible well, not just one metaphor as opposed to another.

      I hope these answers help. I would be interested in hearing the feedback from your conversations.

      • Thanks Dr. Wu. Been busy the last couple of weeks and just getting around to looking at this reply of yours. I will forward this response to my ministry friend and get back to you if we have any other questions.