I remember well a moment when the glory of the gospel hit me afresh. It was during the two years when my family and I lived in Louisville. As perhaps most of you know, we were in Louisville because this church had graciously given me a two-year sabbatical to go pursue another degree, and so I hit the ground running as I stepped onto the campus. Knowing I had this gracious two year window, I was trying to pack in as much and be as diligent as I could. I remember Lili and I having conversation where we would remind ourselves this was just a season as I’d leave her with three young children, run off to the library, and many times kiss my kids goodnight as she’d bring them to campus to see me before I’d run back to do some research in the library. It was a busy time.
It also became for a season somewhat of a numbing time in my soul. My guess is that most of you know what I mean by that. I busied myself so much during much of this time that I stopped feeling my heart moved as much in affection toward the Lord. I’d go to pray but instead of being able to focus in prayer, my mind would simply fill with thoughts of all that I wanted to get done today. I kind of was just running through the motions for a stretch.
Then the morning came when, for some reason, my racing mind and life stopped for a moment. It was a Sunday, and we’d gone to gather with the saints at the church we were attending there in Kentucky. Lili was going to grab the kids out of their classes, and I was sitting alone, still, waiting for my family to show up and for the service began. There were conversations all around me, but in that moment, I began to reflect.
Immediately, it’s as if that numbness went away, but what came flooding into my heart were what felt like many failures. We only had our oldest three at the time, and they were five, three, and one, and I felt like a terrible parent, busying myself during some precious years. My failures as a husband were clear to me as I thought about how many times I was leaving my wife back at the house to educate and raise three young children in a city where she hardly knew anyone. My own lack of personal holiness was quite apparent to me, as my realm of interacting with the Lord had almost been reduced merely to academic pursuits about the Scripture. My complete lack of righteousness was clear to me and weighed on me in that moment.
Then, right on the heels of that all settling in my heart, we began to sing, and what we sang could not have been more appropriate for the state of my heart. The opening lines of the song (that I’ve referenced before) were, “I don’t deserve to be your servant, and how much less to be your child. Anger and wrath, sure condemnation, should be my portion, my just reward.” I was unfamiliar with the song, but at this point I thought, “Check. I feel every bit of that.” And because it was a song I didn’t know, each additional line was new to me. So, right in the midst of that song resonating with how low I felt and the reality of my complete lack of righteousness, I found myself caught off guard by the next line. Right after singing, “Anger and wrath, sure condemnation, should be my portion, my just reward” we sang, “Never have seen it. Never will know it. Your lovingkindness enfolds my life. All you have shown me is grace, love, and mercy. Now and forever, I am your child.”
And I was overwhelmed by the glory and beauty and goodness of the gospel in that moment, and it didn’t stop there. As we continued to sing of the gospel, pray about the goodness of the gospel, and hear the gospel preached, I found myself moved to deeper and deeper joy. It felt like it couldn’t be true, and yet it was. And my fresh realization of these things affected me unlike much else had.
Now, what helped me see the glory of the gospel in that moment is that I was under no illusion in that moment that I had any righteousness of my own at all. And so when I saw afresh that God credits us with complete righteousness by faith in Christ alone it was glorious. And I remember praying in that moment, “Lord, never let me lose sight of the fact that the gospel is not about my contribution of righteousness at all but completely about your free gift.”
I bring this up because I think that’s what Paul is doing in these first couple of chapters of Romans. He very deliberately, carefully, and pervasively shows the absolute unrighteousness of Jews and Gentiles apart from Christ, condemning them in their sin. But the reason he does so is not so that his Roman hearers might feel sufficiently bad about themselves. He makes clear that salvation is not about our own contribution of righteousness but about Christ’s absolute provision of righteousness because he wants his readers to see just how glorious the gospel is, and it’s only when we see that the gospel is about providing for us what we were hopeless to provide for ourselves that the gospel is as glorious to us as it should be. To use the words of Paul, it is only when we see that the righteousness of God is revealed through faith that we will find ourselves eager to make sure that others get to hear and see and experience the glory of this gospel as well. That’s why Paul is showing the sinfulness, guilt, and condemnation of Jew and Gentile apart from Christ in these first two chapters.
In our text this morning, Romans 2:12-16, Paul is specifically continuing to show the hopelessness of Jewish unbelievers outside of Christ. As you’ll remember, Paul showed that Gentile unbelievers who haven’t even heard the gospel stand condemned in Romans 1:18-32 because they know God exists but fail to honor him as God and instead turn to worship the created order and live out all manner of unrighteousness. Then, in chapter 2, he turned to Jews, showing that though they may want to cheer Paul on in his condemnation of the unbelieving Gentiles, they too stand condemned because they have failed to repent, be credited with righteousness, and had a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit to begin living in ways that are honoring to God. This led Paul to conclude in Romans 2:1-11 that God’s judgment of all men is not only just but also impartial, for “God shows no partiality.”
But Paul knows that it could actually be a tough pill to swallow for an unbelieving Jew that God shows no partiality. After all, the Jews had seen much kindness from God throughout the Old Testament. As Tom noted last week from Amos 3, it was the Jews alone to whom God had revealed himself and given his law. Consequently, an unbelieving Jew may want to push back and say, “No, Paul, we’ll be just fine at the judgment because we’re not like the pagan Gentiles who never received the law and live in all manner of ignorant wickedness. We, after all, were the ones who received God’s revelation of his commands through Moses.” And it is this that Paul answers by showing that what is required for salvation is more than just having and hearing the law. So, let’s look at his argument that I want to sum up in three steps. The first is this:
God will judge all sinners, whether or not they ever had or heard the law
After arguing that Jews and Gentiles have sinned (whether they’ve had the law or not), Paul concludes, “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” (v. 12). In other words, Paul is saying that God is going to judge all people because of their sin, whether they had the law or not. It may well be that the Jew was born into a family where he heard the law of Moses read every Sabbath, while the Gentile was born into a family where he never heard anything about God or his commandments, but God will not pardon the one (because he was blessed to have the law) or pardon the other (because he didn’t get to be exposed to the law); rather, he will judge both because they have sinned against him.
In other words, what Paul focuses on is not their differences (one having the law and one not having the law) but their similarity (both having sinned). Now, on the day of judgment, the Lord will bring out the written law of Moses to condemn the Jew and will not bring out the law of Moses to condemn the Gentile, but both will be condemned because they sinned in light of the revelation each was given.
That’s the first step in Paul’s argument. But Paul adds to the argument by telling us why merely having or hearing the law is not sufficient to escape judgment, noting that,
Having or hearing the law is not the issue but doing the law
Paul makes this very clear in verse 13, writing, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” In other words, the reason that Jews aren’t excused from judgment on the basis that they had or heard the law is because God does not judge us according to whether or not we’ve heard the law but whether or not we’ve obeyed him.
Now, with that said, there are two ways that we can understand what Paul means by “doers of the law” whom he notes, “will be justified” before God. Let’s first note what Paul does not mean. He doesn’t mean that we’re saved by seeing what God has commanded, obeying him, and on the basis of us having obeyed enough, we will be justified. Paul makes clear in many other places that no man is justified on the basis of having obeyed the works of the law. One place here makes that clear is in 3:20, where he writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” That is, the law was never set up for us to obey it and on the basis of our obedience to it be justified before God. So, that’s not what Paul means.
But, as I noted, there are two other options, and honestly men I respect are quite split on these options. The first is to see that when Paul says “doers of the law will be justified” he makes a statement that is true but that he knows no one can achieve. In other words, yes, if someone can perfectly obey God’s law (i.e. be a “doer of the law”) then that person would be justified before God, but no man (except Jesus Christ) can do that and so Paul is holding up a hypothetical reality that he knows no man will achieve.
But, one might ask, if that’s what he’s arguing, then what’s the point of saying it? And the answer would simply be that Paul is setting up his readers to understand that outside of Christ no man, Jew or Gentile, can be righteous on the basis of obedience, but praise be to God, through faith, Jew and Gentile, trusting in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, can have his perfect obedience to the law credited to them so that they will appear before God not clothed in their own obedience and righteousness but with the perfect obedience and righteousness of Christ and because of Christ’s righteousness being credited to them are seen as “doers of the law” in Christ.
The other option is that Paul really means that those who do the law will be justified but what he means is not that their obedience will serve as the basis for their justification but more like what I noted a few weeks back, namely, that those who are justified by faith in Christ alone have transformed hearts that begin bearing the fruit of obedience to God’s commands, which the Lord will point to on that final day as vindication of their justification. So, though not perfectly, Paul really does mean that believers (through the power of the Spirit who came to, according to the promise of Jeremiah 31, cause us to walk in God’s ways) will do God’s commands and be justified on that day. Again, their justification will not be on the basis of their good works but their justification will be in accord with their good works (or, we might say, vindicated by their good works).
So, which of these options does Paul mean here? Well, honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I some details in the text and in the book lead me one way and some the other. But I don’t know that it really matters for two reasons: 1) both are true, theologically, and 2) the point of verse 13 isn’t affected by which view one holds. For the point of verse 13 is that merely hearing the law is insufficient on the day of judgment. Just because one has God’s law doesn’t mean he’ll be excused from judgment, and so the unbelieving Jew, Paul wants to understand, is giving no privilege on the day of judgment simply because God revealed his commands to them in a way that he didn’t reveal his commands to the Gentiles.
But there is one more step in Paul’s argument. First, a quick summary of what we’ve seen. God will judge all men, whether they had or didn’t have the law. One reason he’ll judge all men without reference to whether or not they had/heard the law is because hearing the law is not sufficient for salvation. God demands obedience to his commands, not merely hearing them. And there’s one final reason why the Jewish unbeliever must not think that he’ll be excused from judgment simply on the basis that he had/heard the law, namely,
Everyone, in some sense, has the law
Now, you can imagine the weight of this argument as the unbelieving Jew might give himself a false sense of comfort in judgment, noting that God has revealed to him what is right and wrong and left the hapless Gentile to grope about in his ignorance and unrighteousness. But Paul has already begun to crumble his argument by pointing out that God will judge all men and that what matters isn’t having the law but doing it. Yet, Paul won’t stop there, now showing that the Gentiles themselves do have the law of God written on their hearts.
Paul argues, “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law by nature 1 [i.e. the written law] do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. The show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (vv. 14-15a).
So, even though the Gentiles were never given the written law of Moses, Paul argues, there are a few things that indicate that God actually wrote his law on their hearts. That is to say, God put within all men a sense of what is right and wrong. And Paul says that one way the Gentiles show that this is true is when they end up doing things that the law requires.
And this is a good point, isn’t it? There are times when pagans, who’ve never read a page of Scripture or heard it preached, do things that are in accord with God’s commands because there’s a sense within them that tells them it’s right. In other words, if you have two men on an island together who’ve never been exposed to anything or anyone else in all the world, and one of them has a coconut, the other man, though he’s hungry and wants the coconut, may not steal it from the other man. Now, that makes sense to us, but the question is, “Why in the world would this man not steal the coconut?”
I mean, he wants the coconut. He’s hungry. The answer for this, Paul says, is that the “work of the law is written” on that man’s heart so that he knows it would be wrong to steal the coconut. Apart from that reality there is absolutely no reason why the man wouldn’t just take the coconut. But what it shows is that even if someone has never heard, read, or possessed a copy of the law of God, they still know God’s law because it’s written on their hearts so that, as Paul says, all men end up being “a law to themselves.”
But Paul says there’s more evidence than just the fact that men at times do what God’s law commands. He also notes that their conscience and thoughts reveal that they have God’s laws on their hearts. He writes, “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” (vv. 15-16).
Paul is saying that on the day of judgment, as God condemns men who never had the law (v. 12), by noting their sin, their response to God declaring these sins won’t be, “What? You mean that is good and the other is bad? I had no idea.” Rather, Paul notes, their conscience and thoughts will be accusing or either excusing them. So, for example, as God notes the judgment of adulterers, those unbelievers who have committed adultery will have their thoughts saying to them, “Yes, you did that, and you knew it was wrong.” That is, their thoughts will accuse them. Others, perhaps will say, “I didn’t do that because I knew it was wrong.” That is, their thoughts will excuse them.
Now, of course, those who excuse themselves at one point will indeed find themselves rightly accused at another. But the point is that the mere drive to accuse or excuse shows that they know right and wrong. It shows that God has written his law on all men’s hearts.
And this accusing and excusing happens in the present as well. So, going back to the two men on the island illustration. If the one man does steal the other man’s coconut, the man who has been robbed will accuse the thief of doing wrong. That is, he’ll accuse. Meanwhile, the man who has robbed will come up with reasons why he’s justified, noting that he was hungry or the like. That is, he’ll excuse. But whether the action is condemned or justified is secondary. The main point their inclination to accuse or excuse shows is that these men who have no teaching in the area of God’s commands still know that stealing is wrong (and thus deserves accusation when it occurs or demands an excuse if one is to be justified) because God’s law is written on their hearts.
Thus, Paul completely removes the supposed excuse the unbelieving Jew has for thinking he might be pardoned on the day of judgment. Were the Jews given the law in a way that the rest of the world wasn’t? Absolutely. They alone were given the Old Testament Scriptures so that they could read God’s laws. However, God will judge all sinners (whether they had the law or not) because what matters is not having the law but doing it. And the unbelieving Jew has not obeyed God’s law. Not only that, they’ve missed that they’re not as unique as they think, for God did not leave the rest of the world without a witness to his commands, but he wrote his law on their hearts. Thus, all men must repent and believe in order to be justified before God.
Now, there are two brief applications I want to make from this argument. The first is that I want all of us here this morning to make sure we’re not falling prey to the same flawed argument Paul poses from the unbelieving Jew in this text. That is, it’s not enough that you gather with others on Sunday mornings, sing with them, give, and hear the preaching of God’s Word. These are good things, but mere exposure to these things is not enough for you to avoid punishment on the day of judgment. Each one of us must turn from sin and place our faith in the Son of God who lived, died for our sins, and was raised for us. So, I want to plead with everyone today to make sure our faith is resting in Christ today.
Second, let the reality that none of us has righteousness to offer remind you of the glory of the gospel. Let it be like that black background against which jewelers lay their jewelry so that you see its glory more clearly. In the gospel the righteousness of God is counted to us who believe. That is amazing news, and my prayer is that we become so overwhelmed with the glory of the gospel that we cannot help but make sure others hear this good news as well. Now, let us give thanks to the Lord for this glorious gospel as we come to the table. Amen.
1. The word translated “by nature” could modify “do not have the law” or “do what the law requires.” The ESV has chosen the latter, but I think it’s more likely that it modifies the former since the word is always used in Paul’s letters to refer to one’s identity, not actions.