“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-16 ESV)
We Will be Judged by the Light We Have Received
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.” (Romans 2:12)
“Without the law” and “under the law” are broad descriptions of Gentiles and Jews. The people of Israel received God’s law in the Ten Commandments and others at Mt. Sinai. The Jews had the Torah, the Old Testament teachings of the law and the prophets. They were “under the law.” The Gentiles had none of this. What did they have? Back in chapter 1 we saw that all humans have God’s revelation through creation which tells us what God is like and is a sufficient testimony of truth about God that all men are without excuse.
The Gentiles are without the Old Testament law, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t sin. They still sinned but they sinned without as much knowledge of God’s will as the Jews. The Jews sinned “under the law” and therefore will be judged by the law. Both “perish.”
In Chapter 2, Paul is addressing Jews who hear about the judgment of God and think, we are ok. We have the Torah. We are God’s chosen people. I fear no judgment for I am a son of Abraham. Yet a quick look at the story of Israel described in the Old Testament is that they were moral scoundrels just like the pagan people around them. There’s plenty of sin to go around.
Paul wants all of us to realize that God is impartial toward Gentiles and Jews. He is no accepter of the face, even a Jewish face. For the Jews, who trusted in their status as having the law and being God’s people, will be judged by that very law. How? “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Romans 2:13)
Who are the hearers? Not Gentiles. They never heard the law. But Jews heard it from childhood. Jews heard it every day. Paul says that having the Torah and hearing the Torah doesn’t justify you before God. Doing it does. Is Paul creating an alternative way to God without Jesus and by obeying the law? Let me make it clear, that is exactly what he is saying. Did you know you can be saved by obeying the law? You can go to heaven by obeying the law. Obey the law and you will be justified forever. What is the problem? We cannot obey the law sufficiently to be justified before a holy God.
We Cannot Obey the Law’s External Requirements
These are the ones we typically focus on. You ask someone, how do you know I’m going to heaven? They will often say, I’ve never murdered anyone. I’ve never robbed a bank. I’ve never done ____________. These are external moral actions which have NOT been done. We like to focus on the capital offenses because these are easier to avoid. But even the Ten Commandments include honoring your father and mother. How did that go when you were two years old, much less 20? Or, you shall not covet your neighbor’s anything. Even the big 10 create problems for us as they include external and internal requirements.
We Cannot Obey the Law’s Internal Requirements
Never having an idol. Never coveting. Never being irreverent with God’s name. The Jews missed what Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount. That obedience to the law is not merely external but also internal. If you are angry with your brother, you murdered him in your heart. If you lust after a woman, you are having mental adultery with her. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was so revolutionary because he internalized the requirements of the law. If anyone was listening they would have thought, Uh-oh. I’m in trouble.
All People Will be Judged by God for Their Response to Light/Truth
“…and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:15-16)
There is a day of reckoning coming for every one of us. We all will stand before God and be judged for our lives. Notice what is judged, “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
We like to think this will be like a pie or chili judging where the best pie makers of the county submit their finest pie. We are not judged by our finest moments. These are not things we have as secrets. Our secrets are our worst things. Our secrets are the things we hope nobody finds out about. Our secrets are the things we are most ashamed of. We all have them. The secret failures. The secret sins. Even as I say this, many of our minds go to that struggle in the past which we naturally hope never gets out.
Someday, it will get out. On Judgment Day it is brought out into the ultimate light of moral purity and is judged by God’s holy standard.
Where is this heading? “None is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10). Here Paul deconstructs the argument of the religious person who rests assuredly in their possession of truth or ethnic relationship to the truth. Ethnicity doesn’t save even for Jews. Having revelation doesn’t save. What matters? Living perfectly according to the light of truth is what will save you. Here’s the problem. Nobody does. Nobody can. Nobody will.
When we began Romans, I noted that Paul doesn’t start with God’s love or God’s grace. He starts with God’s wrath. Why? Only by realizing how bad the bad news is can we revel in how good the good news is. What makes it wonderful is a full realization of what awaits us as all our sins, even the secret sins, are brought into the light of God’s holy gaze and judgment. What is the result?
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law.” (Romans 2:12, emphasis added)
The word “perish” is very descriptive. It is not physical death, but eternal destruction. The result of final judgment is not merely the horror of having my secrets revealed and being judged by them; the ultimate horror is the eternal verdict and punishment forever apart from God in a place created by God as the just and right destiny for sins and sinners. It is called hell.
All this prepares the heart for chapter 3 where Paul will say, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3:21-22) Why is that wonderful? Because whether you are Gentile with a heart law or a Jew with the written law, all of us are condemned as sinners before God. By the time I get to 3:21 I think, there’s no hope. I’m bound for hell. What can I do?
The gospel of Jesus dying for me and providing a righteous standing for me on Judgment Day is the most wonderful thing I could even imagine. How do I sign up? Where do I go? What do I do? Just tell me because my sins are great. My secrets are the worst. There is a Savior for your secret sins. Jesus who died for your secret sins and all the rest of them. Believe in him. Believe now.
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
© 2018 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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