Chapter 2:12-16 (ESV) - 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.
Question to consider: What did Paul mean that the Gentiles were a law to themselves?
Often those who wish to call the exclusive nature of Christianity into question will ask, “What about the person who grew up in a part of the world where they never heard the ten commandments? How can God judge them?” Paul answered that objection in the first statement of today’s passage. Those who have sinned without the Law (referring to Gentiles) also perish without the Law, and those under the Law (the Jews) will be judged by the Law. Then Paul follows it up with a truly scary statement, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
I hear Christians quote that verse with the intent of trying to get people to act more Christian, “Are you merely a hearer of the word or a doer?” Paul did not write that statement to spur people on toward godliness but to wreck them. He was not talking about the use of the Law to help us grow as believers but in justifying us before God. People were supposed to read that line and say to themselves, “If I am only justified by how I have kept the Law, then I am condemned.” People may give the appearance of godliness in their outward showing of righteousness, but God knows the heart.
If the Gentiles thought their ignorance of the Law let them off the hook in regard to judgment, Paul followed his statement by saying that even though the Gentiles didn’t have the Law, they were a law unto themselves. Everyone, including the person who has never heard the Law of God, has their own code of moral conduct. Everyone has their own standard of goodness that they apply to themselves and others, and everyone has transgressed it. Consider a green activist who professed to everyone that carbon emissions were contributing to the death of humanity, and yet they got caught flying a private jet to an energy summit.
Their conflicting thoughts and conscience continually accuse them no differently than someone under the Law. They’ll try to justify how all of their good actions toward the cause outweigh their transgression with the airplane, but if they were judged by their own standard, they would be found wanting.
As Paul pointed out, there will come a day in which God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Jesus will be the judge because He kept the Law without sin and paid for the sins of anyone who will accept His payment on their behalf. According to Jesus’ own words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Dear heavenly Father, You know our thoughts and intentions and nothing is hidden from You. Thank You for washing us clean in the waters of baptism, and help us to remember who we are in Christ and look forward to the day when there is no more sin and death. Amen.