Romans 2:12-16

Download audio

Download sermon

v.12     As an explanation of the previous sentence, Paul explains that there is equality among men. But it concerns not privilege but judgment. Everyone must face the judgment of God. Sin unredeemed and a life that is not changed into goodness will lead to perdition in every case, but there is a principle of equity in God’s judgment. A Gentile, for example, will not be condemned for failure to conform to laws known only to Jews. The Jews, on the other hand, are obliged to live according to the law that God revealed to them. Each person will be judged according to the light he or she has been given.

v.13     The NIV’s “will be declared righteous” is the first instance of the verb “to justify” in Romans. The verb means to vindicate or to declare righteous. It is a courtroom word and suggests acquittal before a judge. In this particular usage it seems to suggest that there is an aspect of our justification that doesn’t take place until the last judgment however much we may be justified in our life history here in this world. We said last time that many take Paul’s statement to be hypothetical: obedience to the Law would suffice to justify a person before God, but, of course, no one is obedient to the Law. In other words, the standard we must all meet, perfect obedience to God’s Law, is far beyond anyone’s reach. Such a statement, then, part of his long argument that continues through the middle of chapter 3, is to the effect that all are guilty, all hopeless in their guilt, and, therefore, Christ’s righteousness is our only hope of being righteous before God.

We said last time that while many good men have taken the text that way, and good arguments may be made on its behalf, strong objections may also be raised against that interpretation. It is not obvious, I don’t believe it would have been obvious to any original reader of Romans, that Paul is speaking hypothetically through this section about something that will, in fact, never happen. He seems rather to say repeatedly, as first in v. 6, that “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” Taking Paul’s strong assertion that “everyone who does good” will be granted eternal life in its natural sense – a statement made in similar language many times to Christians in the Bible – it makes sense to understand him to mean that the salvation that he is going to describe, the salvation that comes to men through Jesus Christ, provides forgiveness and standing before God, to be sure, but its real object is the transformation of sinners’ lives; its real purpose is to make men good and to enable them to live a holy life, a Christlike life. Paul will spend a great deal of time in Romans developing this point. We tend to stop with the forgiveness of sins – with justification – but Paul sees forgiveness as a means to an end. What God is after is not primarily righteous standing, important as that is,but righteous living. That is why the judgment at the end of history will measure and reward one’s behavior, because that new and better behavior – that life of love and service – is what Christ’s salvation ultimately produces. As Paul will go on to say, the transformation of life is as completely the free gift of Jesus Christ as is the forgiveness of our sins. They are both his doing and not our own. They are both the effect of the cross and the empty tomb. But it is the transformation of our living from sin to righteousness that is the main object of Christ’s salvation, what McCheyne called “the better half of salvation,” and so it is natural that it should be this holy living that tells the tale on the Judgment Day. Every human being is headed to the Judgment Day and on that Day his or her life and living will be judged.

In any case, with the Jew before him, Paul reminds him that privileges are of no value if they are not acted on. It profits no one to know the will of God if one does not do it.

v.15     Once again, there is a great debate about the correct interpretation of these verses. Some argue that Paul is describing unbelieving Gentiles who do good as a result of an inner monitor that guides their behavior. [C. John Collins, “Echoes of Aristotle in Romans 2:14-15,” 22] Others contend that these Gentiles are Christians and, as Christians and only as Christians, have the law written on their hearts. It would take too long to set out the arguments for each viewpoint. Let me say that I favor the unbelieving Gentile interpretation. The fact that the Gentiles do good does not mean that they are good enough to be justified without the righteousness of Christ. That is not Paul’s point. His point seems primarily to demonstrate that the Jews, who possess the great privileges of God’s Law and God’s covenant, have absolutely no excuse for their lack of faith and their disobedience to God. As he will put it in v. 26-27, “If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirement…they will condemn the Jews who have the Law but break it.

This interpretation of the existence of a conscience among all men and of its influence upon human behavior has already been hinted at in chapter 1 in Paul’s assertion that human beings know the good even if they do not do it.

v.16     The criterion God will employ at the Last Judgment is conformity to the moral norms of God’s law, whether written in Holy Scripture or upon the heart of someone outside the church of God. And that measure of conformity will be absolutely assessed, even down to the secret thoughts of the heart. The Lord Christ knows whether a man or woman did or failed to do what was right, whether or not they obeyed the inner monitor that enforces standards of behavior even upon those who remain completely ignorant of the truth of the Bible.

More than once in the Bible the gospel is a message about judgment as well as about salvation. You cannot speak of salvation without speaking of the judgment and there can be no salvation if there is not a Judgment to come.

Ravi Zacharias – born in India, converted to Christ as a teenager, and for the past few decades is one of the world’s most important apologists for the Christian faith. If you have never listened to his lectures delivered at Harvard about 10 years ago, I commend them to you. Sponsored by the Veritas Forum, it is one of the really grand expositions of the Christian faith and arguments for it that you are ever likely to hear given in an obviously hostile territory, but wonderfully well done. In his autobiography Ravi tells of a family friend, a Mr. Krishnan, a devout Hindu and man deeply respected by those who knew him. Mr. Krishnan had never met his wife until the day they were married – as was even more often the case a generation ago in India – and when his wife saw him for the first time, it was obvious to him that she was deeply disappointed by his physical appearance and by his unusually high and shrill voice.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could bring himself to say. He told her that he understood why she had reacted as she had and that she owed him nothing. “We have one bedroom, and that will be yours. I will sleep in the verandah.” He also told her, “I will treat you with dignity and respect and do all that you ask of me.” How many Christian men would have reacted in such a selfless and noble way? He was a humble man in ways that mattered. He rode the bus to work even though he had a job of some influence in the government and could have gone by car. He took a real interest in what was happening in the lives of others. He cared for the common people, which is rare for a person with a high position in government. Day after day his wife watched him conduct his life honorably and gradually his character won her over. Sadly, the Zacharias family had been Christian for generations, but Ravi’s father did not have the character and did not treat others with the dignity that was the mark of Mr. Krishnan’s life. He beat his wife and his children and conducted himself in very different ways in private and in public.

It is simply a fact of life, a reality we encounter over and over again:  unbelievers often do good, often are good in real and beautiful ways; indeed, they often live better than those who profess faith in Christ. In Paul’s day the same point would be made by saying that the unbelieving Gentile often outperformed the Jew when it came to right living. How is this to be explained? Well, in the case of the Jew, Paul has already said and will say again that it stems from their failure to live up to their privileges. And in the case of the Gentile Paul explains that God has left a witness to his moral will in the human heart and that even those who know nothing of the Bible do know the difference between right and wrong. And so it is that their conscience not only declares some behavior to be right and some wrong, but often leads them to do the right, even sometimes when it is difficult to do.

Of course, Gentiles do wrong as well, often great wrong. Paul has described the mire of human sin in the Gentile world in lurid detail in chapter 1. He is not saying that all Gentiles are notable for goodness; he is not saying that any Gentile is good enough. At this point he is only saying that even unbelieving Gentiles know to do what is right and often do it because God has left a witness to his will in their hearts. It is not a main point of his argument but it is an important sub-point.

And there is certainly nothing new in that assertion. All through the Bible we encounter unbelieving Gentiles who display a sound moral sense and whose behavior can be compared favorably to the behavior of God’s people. Pharaoh had to lecture Abraham on truth telling and integrity in Genesis 12 and Abimilech had to do the same in chapter 20. Jethro, Moses’ Midianite father-in-law, had more insight into the problems Moses was facing than did Moses himself. [Ex. 18] Rahab grasped the power of Yahweh and acted on it more faithfully than many Israelites did. Ruth was a Moabite woman but behaved honorably and loyally toward her Jewish mother-in-law and became, as a result, a progenitor of the Messiah. In 1 Sam. 6 the Philistine clergy showed more concern for the presence of Yahweh than the Israelites had done. The Phoenician sailors hesitated to follow Jonah’s advice because it seemed wrong to them to consign the Lord’s prophet to the waves. Ebed-Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch serving in Zedekiah’s corrupt court, was the one who acted to save Jeremiah from death when the prophet was lowered in the muddy cistern. Then Nebuchadnezzar treated Jeremiah more righteously than did Zedekiah, the King of the Jews.

And so it continues in the New Testament. When Paul says that the man in the church in Corinth was guilty of a sin that even the pagans didn’t commit, he was acknowledging the existence of a moral sense in the unbelieving world. When he required elders to have a good reputation with outsiders he was as much as saying that we can usually count on unbelievers to know whether a man is an example of real virtue or not. [Collins, 22-24]

Now some have argued that Paul seems to be saying that at least some Gentiles are good enough to pass muster at the Last Judgment. That is not Paul’s point and he will go on to say that no one can stand in the Judgment without the righteous standing and the righteous living that only Jesus Christ makes possible for those who trust in him. Indeed, he begins the thought, in v. 12, by saying not that those who sin apart from the law will be saved apart from the law, but that they will perish apart from the law. It is true that they will not be judged according to a standard of which they were ignorant, and it is true that their good works will be counted as well as their bad, but when fairly judged by the standard they knew very well they will still perish. The conscience not only guides the unbeliever to right behavior. Paul says it also accuses and condemns him when he does wrong. G.K. Chesterton wrote that an uneasy conscience is the most universal experience of human life. We know when we did wrong. The condemnation of sin that will occur at the Last Judgment occurs already in every human heart. We know very well how little good we do and how much evil! When people say that they are “good” people, they know better. They are trying to convince themselves.

Ravi Zacharias tells another story of his boyhood growing up in India, of a time before he was a Christian himself. He had been given a 5 rupee note by his mother with which to buy ice cream from the street vendor. He was to bring her back the change. But the vendor accidently gave him change for a ten rupee note instead of a five. He rejoiced in his good fortune, returned the change from 5 rupees to his mother, and pocketed the difference. But every day he passed by this kindly ice cream vendor, a Sikh man, on his way to school and every day felt worse about what he had done. He couldn’t escape the judgment of his own heart that he had cheated this cheerful and friendly man. Finally, several months later, having saved every small coin he could find, he went back to the man, confessed what he had done, and gave him back his money. Returning home he felt that a huge burden had rolled off his shoulders. As Paul reminds us here, unbelievers do what is good, but they also do what is bad. Their conscience approves but also condemns. Fact is, only rarely is a man so troubled that he undoes the evil he has done or does the good he has failed to do, but occasionally he has such experiences of conviction of sin and they prove to him that he lives in a moral universe.

But for now, take the point. There is a lot of sin in the unbelieving world; but there is a lot of goodness too. We can sometimes wish it were not so. It would make things simpler for us if every Christian were kind, thoughtful, faithful, loyal, loving, self-sacrificial, and humble in every way and every non-Christian was always selfish, proud, and mean-spirited. But it is not so and has never been so.

But now look beyond and beneath this reality of sin and goodness in human life, in all of human life. Take the main point: man is a moral creature. It is his defining characteristic. It defines him from his birth to his death and then, Paul says, up to the judgment seat of Christ. Everything about his life – what makes it so unique, so important, so human indeed – is connected to and depends upon his moral nature. What he will be for ever is determined by the judgment of his deeds. Every moment of every day in one way or another, in our thoughts and words and deeds, we live in a moral universe and express our moral nature. We judge the right and wrong of our own behavior and the right and wrong of the behavior of others. A sense that something is wrong morally blights what might otherwise be attractive to us and a sense that something is morally good and honorable is attractive to us. I’m speaking of all of us, every human being, at least much of the time. We might vote an evil man into office, but not likely a man we know to be evil. The discrimination between good and evil – however warped it may become – remains absolutely fundamental to our life. It is what explains the fact that we can communicate with one another about the issues of the world.

We take these facts for granted because they are so much the warp and woof of our life but our moral natures are the essence, the essential thing about us as human beings. And when Paul says here that all of this is according to his gospel he is saying that it is precisely this moral judgment that is, that must be, and that will be made of each and every human life – is it good or bad, is it right or wrong – it is this coming moral judgment that is the essential context of the incarnation of the Son of God, of the cross of Christ, and of his resurrection from the dead. Everything is defined by the inescapable moral judgment that looms above and before every human life. Every moment of every day we are storing up a record to be assessed at God’s judgment. It is in the prospect of that judgment that Christ offered himself a sacrifice for sin. It is in the prospect of that judgment that he secured for us a salvation that provides not only forgiveness but the moral transformation of our lives. That is what was required; that and nothing less.

Beside right and wrong there is a great deal of happiness and misery in this world as well. Many people are happy and many are very sad. Many live easy lives and many live punishingly difficult lives. But that finally is the measure of nothing, it doesn’t matter. People who have lived comfortable, pleasure-filled lives must eventually face the moral reckoning of their lives and those whose lives have been short and painful and bereft of joy likewise must face a moral reckoning of their lives whether they have been right or wrong, done what is good or done what is evil. And it is the moral reckoning that stands between this short life and the eternal destiny of every human being: whether eternal life or divine wrath. A person will not be judged according to how happily he lived, but according to how righteously he lived. That is all!

We Christians need to re-appreciate how fundamental to everything in human life is this moral nature and its judgment. We need to learn again not to take for granted the fact that people know the difference between right and wrong, that God bears witness to his righteousness in people’s hearts and that they can no more escape that witness than they can fly. And we need to appreciate the fact that all of human life takes its character and its supreme importance from the approaching Day of Judgment. Most people and I fear most Christians nowadays live their lives with absolutely no thought of this looming assize, but it is the definitive meaning of their lives.

Man’s moral nature is, of course, one of the grand demonstrations of both the existence of the infinite personal God and of his nature. This is a point, if you remember, often made by C.S. Lewis in his arguments for the Christian faith.

“There is no escape…. If we are to continue to make moral judgments (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely “on its own” and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational nature.” [Miracles, 38]

Many people, nowadays, will argue that of course, we don’t share a moral consensus; that, in fact, people have very different views of what is right and wrong. Some think sex outside of marriage if fine and others think it a sin, and so on. To an extent that is true. But, as Lewis was fond of pointing out, the differences are usually greatly exaggerated. We may be inconsistently moral; our consciences may be seared and become unreliable in many ways through constant battering. But the fact is we all share a moral code that is fundamental to our sense of ourselves and the world. There is, as we say, honor even among thieves. We all know it is wrong to be selfish, we all find overt expressions of pride and arrogance disgusting, we all agree that is wrong for people to steal from us, to lie to us, to commit violence against us, even if we may do all of those things to others!

This is the universal context of human life and human experience. And it is into this context that God addresses his gospel, his good news to us. There is a way for us to find harmony and consistency with our moral nature. There is a way for us to rise to become the sort of people our consciences are always telling us to be. There is a way for us to come to the judgment of God having become good and having done good. It is not within our power to attain this, to be sure, but it was within Christ’s power to attain it for us.

What Paul has set before us is the justice of God, his true and righteous judgment of every human life. It is true and righteous in one respect because it makes allowances for the circumstances of every human being. As Bishop Butler put it in his famous Analogy, one of the great works of Christian apologetics, that is, one of the great defenses of and arguments for the Christian faith:

“All shadow of injustice, and indeed all harsh appearances in the various economy of God, would [disappear], if we would keep in mind that every merciful allowance shall be made, and no more shall be required of anyone, than what might have been equitably expected of him from the circumstances in which he was placed, and not what might have been expected from him had be been placed in other circumstances.” [Pt II, Chapter vi]

In other words, when the man or woman from central Africa who lived and died before ever hearing of Jesus Christ comes up to the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of his or her life, the standard will be the law of God as that law had been written on his heart, the law of God as he or she knew it, the standards of right and wrong that his or her own heart recognized. They will not be held to the same standard as someone who knew the Bible and the gospel of Jesus Christ. By the standard known to them and by that standard only they will be judged. What they have done that is good will be counted to their credit, but, as Paul will go on to say, there will be far, far too much evil for them to expect to escape condemnation in that judgment. There is none righteous; no not one.

But the justice of God is revealed in another way. Having published his law in these various ways, having made it known to every human being, God will require of man an accounting. Man was given to know what is right and what is wrong; all men and women were. What did they do with that knowledge? There can be no right and wrong if there is no reckoning, no judgment.

Here is a bright light shed upon the way of every human being, a light shone over the entire world. Every life, every human being, everywhere in the world will someday stand before God and give an account of his life. Everyone with no exceptions. In this all human beings are absolutely the same. We share this future, this prospect and more than anything else it is the really important thing about us. At bottom we are all the same, we are all in the same boat, because we all know the difference between right and wrong and will all be held accountable for what we did with that knowledge.

And in that moment, at that judgment, as Paul says here by way of anticipation, all men, all women will stand before none other than Jesus Christ. The Muslim, the Buddhist, the Secularist will stand before Jesus Christ because he is the judge of all men. He will exercise this judgment over the lives of those who knew of him and those who did not. In the final analysis it will be Jesus alone presiding at the judgment of mankind; the one person who will, in one way or another, determine the destiny of everyone else.

Remember Mr. Krishnan, that devout Hindu and honorable man? Mr. Krishnan’s son, Sunder, Ravi Zacharias’ boyhood friend became a Christian as a young man and eventually married Ravi’s sister. The witness of his son and that of his Christian friends began leading Mr. Krishnan to think about the meaning of life and about sin and about righteousness. We might well imagine that for a man like that the fact that he lived an admirable life and that so many others looked up to him for it, would send him to his death confident of his place in the next world. But it was not so.

In his 70s he was hospitalized with the illness that finally took his life. As his friends, mostly Hindus, gathered about his bed in the hospital, he sat up to tell them what he had learned and what was most important to him.

“Now I’m dying. I want you to know that I have been asking myself a question: who is the answer to life’s questions? I have pondered this for seventy-some years. I now want to share the answer with you.” In the presence of his wife, his Hindu friends, my sister, and [his son], he paused and raised his voice: “The answer is Jesus.” [Walking from East to West, 90-91, 237]

The devout Hindu, the honorable man, the man’s whose character was so much admired, — perhaps precisely because he saw so clearly what was right and wrong, because his conscience had borne such a faithful witness to his heart through so many years – he himself came to realize that he had to have Jesus Christ and his righteousness to be right with God and to live a truly righteous life.

Four great truths: 1) all human beings know the difference between right and wrong; 2) they all do what is wrong even as they sometimes do what is good; 3) they will all be judged according to the standards of right and wrong that were known to them; and 4) their judge will be the same Jesus who is the Savior of the world.

Jesus Christ for these reasons stands at the center and at the end of human life, of every single human life. He will be everyone’s judge; but he can be anyone’s Savior as well.