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 just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:12-16).
As I teach and preach the word of God, certain questions inevitably are raised. Among those most frequently asked is: What about those who have never heard the gospel? How do they stand before God? Will God grade them on a curve? Will God judge them in comparison to a moderated standard of morality? Will God measure them by others in their culture? If they are religious and sincere, can that gain them acceptance with God?
Inevitably, as I talk to unbelievers, these same questions seem to always be present. Today’s study in Romans will be helpful for us, because it will equip us to better interact with to others about those who have never heard the gospel. Romans 2:12-16 is the signature text in the Bible on this controversial subject. We are going to use these verses to walk through the book of Romans, seeing how God deals with those who have never heard the gospel
The testimony of Scripture is clear that all unconverted people are under the wrath of God. Paul writes, "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). This is true, not only of those who have heard the gospel and rejected it, but of those who have never heard the gospel. They are deservedly under the wrath of God. The verb "is revealed" is in the present tense. This means that at this very moment, wherever an unbeliever is on the earth – whether he has heard the gospel or not – he is already under divine wrath. Every person is either a believer in Christ, or under divine wrath. There is not another category in which someone could find themselves. There is no middle ground.
All people have received general revelation from God, which makes them without excuse before Him. Paul makes this very clear, "because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them" (Romans 1:19). God has revealed Himself to every person on earth with general revelation, which gives the definite knowledge that God exists. General revelation also tells us something about what God is like. "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). Every person on earth, whether they have heard the gospel or not, is directly accountable to God, being without excuse. They know that there is a God, whether they admit it or not.
Any critically thinking person can look at creation and realize that there must be a Creator. This is proven by the simple truism, “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” If there is something created, that presupposes and necessitates that there was an original first cause, an uncreated entity. That uncreated entity is none other than God Himself.
The Creator's thumbprints are all over what He has made. Anyone can look around at creation and clearly see what God is like. Creation testifies that God is awesome. He is powerful. He is orderly. He is perfect. We have already talked about this, but we need to remind ourselves, as we begin our investigation of Romans 2:12-16, that all unbelievers everywhere are under divine wrath because of their sin.
With this as a backdrop, let us consider the case that Paul makes against those who are without the Law. That is, they have never heard the truth of the gospel. What can be said about them?
I. They Have Sinned Without the Law (2:12a)
First, this passage tells us that even those without the Law have sinned. It is crystal clear, "For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish" (verse 12). Those who have never heard the gospel are not innocent. Neither are they found to be righteous before God. They are sinners who have rebelled against God, and who are in defiance against Him. Like those who have heard the gospel and have refused it, they nevertheless have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
“Sin” (hamartia) means ‘to miss the mark.’ It is the idea of an archer aiming his bow and arrow at a target, firing it, but missing the mark. This is what sin is. It is failing to hit the mark of God's perfect holiness with one’s life. Such people are not in a state of innocence, but are unrighteous.
II. They Will Perish Without The Law (2:12b-13)
Second, all who are without the Law will perish. "For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law" (2:12). The word “also” is very important, because it indicates whether you have the Law or whether you do not have the Law.
Without the gospel, you are going to perish. “Perish” (apollymi) refers to eternal destruction, eternal punishment, and eternal damnation. This is a very strong statement. It does not say that they will be saved. It says they will perish without the Law. According to 1 Corinthians 1:18, they are already perishing right now. They are self-destructing by their own life lived without God. They are like a cheap sweater that is unraveling as they live their life.
Doers Will Be Justified
Verse 13 is an explanation of the end of verse 12. Law. Paul says, at the end of verse 12, "All who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law." This refers to Jews who have received the moral law from God. It has been passed down from generation to generation, read in the synagogue and memorized. They are “under the Law,” meaning they have the Law and are directly accountable to the Law. They have sinned and will be judged by the standard that is in the Law.
Verse 13 begins with the word “for,” which means it is an explanation of the end of verse 12. "For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified" (verse 13). This does not mean that there are people who can keep the Law, obey the Law, and therefore be justified by God. The whole book of Romans makes it crystal clear that would be a wrong interpretation of what Paul is saying. Even in the context of the passage, verse 13 is talking about those who keep the Law but are not justified by keeping the Law.
Verse 13 is saying that if you are more than a hearer of the Law, if you are a repenter and a believer in Jesus Christ, who is presented in the gospel, then you will immediately begin to live in obedience to the Law of God. Just because you have the Law does not mean that you are right with God. You have to be a doer of the Law to prove that you are right with God.
The Obedience of Faith
Paul has already established this truth at the very outset of the book of Romans. In Romans 1:5, he talks about the obedience of faith, which means the obedience that comes from faith or the obedience that is produced by faith. All true faith is an obedient faith. There is no such thing as faith that is disobedient. All true saving faith produces obedience. James 2 is also abundantly clear on this matter. Obedience is a very important fruit of salvation. Faith is the root, obedience is the fruit. It is a cause and effect.
Even Jesus says, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father" (Matthew 7:21). Verse 13 is addressing those who have repented of their sins and have true, genuine, saving faith in Jesus Christ as presented in the gospel. They are known as doers of the Law, and they alone are justified by God.
Those who do not obey the Law are unconverted. They may be religious, but they are lost. We would say today that they are lost church members, unconverted religious people who have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof. They are those who have sinned under the Law and they are judged by the Law.
III. They Instinctively Know To Do The Law (2:14)
Third, they instinctively know what is in the moral law of God. When we come to verse 14, we come back to Paul’s original argument, which is found in the first part of verse 12. These are those who are without the Law, who have not received special revelation, who have never heard the gospel. "For when the Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves" (verse 14).
They instinctively and intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. This is not referring to the ceremonial law and the civil law. It is referring to the moral law of God contained in the Ten Commandments. They instinctively know they should honor their parents. They instinctively know they should not steal. They instinctively know they should tell the truth. They instinctively know that they should love other people and show compassion to others. They instinctively know it, because God has written it upon their hearts.
IV. They Have the Law Written In Their Heart (2:15a)
Fourth, as we come to verse 15, we see that God has written the Law upon their hearts. Paul writes, “in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (verse 15). Those without the Law instinctively know to do what is in the Law, because God has written it upon their heart. The invisible finger of God has written His Law upon the tablet of every human heart. It is a limited knowledge of the Law, not enough to be saved, but it is enough to condemn. Because God has written the Law upon the tablet of their heart, they are held accountable to God for the choices that they make.
As we will see, they are held accountable before God, not just for their deeds, but for their very thoughts, conscience, and secrets within them. Verse 15 shows that they are accountable to God for the Law that is within them. They are not off the hook or in no man's land. They are not without accountability to God.
As a quick footnote, those who have the Law do have a stricter accountability to God, because they have a greater light. Those without the Law, that only have the Law written upon their heart, have a lesser accountability, but nevertheless, it is an accountability. The Bible is clear that it would be better to have never heard the truth than to hear the truth and reject it.
V. TheY Have an Accusing Conscience (2:15b)
Fifth, they have a conscience that bears witness to them of right and wrong. "And if they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness" (verse 15). Their conscience is giving a clear and strong testimony regarding what is right and what is wrong.
Every person on earth has a conscience. A conscience is that which instinctively tells you when you have crossed the line and violated the Law, or when you have kept the Law. Your conscience is like a smoke alarm that goes off in the middle of the night that wakes you up and alerts you when something is wrong. Your conscience is like feeling pain in your body when you have broken your ankle. You need to know that you have broken something, and pain is your friend because it tells you that something is broken. That is the roll of the conscience.
The Strength of Your Conscience
Your conscience may be clean, your conscience may be guilty, your conscience may be weak, your conscience may be strong. It just depends upon how many stop signs you have been running as the Law of God is telling you, "Stop, stop, stop." There comes a point where the conscience becomes seared, as with a hot iron, and it no longer feels what it once felt. There is now no moral restraint, there are no brakes in the car, and you speed down the highway of sin. That is a seared conscience.
But as you humble yourself and keep the Law, that strengthens your conscience. You become more sensitive to even the little things. I have people who will call me after I have had a conversation with them and say, “Would you please forgive me? I should not have said this or that.” I may not even be aware anything wrong took place. It is because their conscience is so sensitive, because they have been walking in the truth and walking with the Lord.
For other people, it would take a sledgehammer across the forehead for them to even ponder the thought that what they are saying might be blasphemous. They have worn the brakes off their car, because they have been plowing through their conscience until they have little to no conscience left. They openly bring their sin out of the closet, they do not hide it anymore. They proudly tell people of the sin they have been doing. Earlier, they had enough moral restraint to hide it, but now there is no longer that shame. They now flaunt their sin.
The inner thoughts of those without the Law are accusing them of their sin. The Scripture says, “their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (verse 15). Their thoughts are both accusing and defending them. Their thoughts are connected to their conscience, and their conscience is bearing witness of their thoughts, accusing them of wrong doing. It is bringing conviction and pressing down.
They feel a sense of guilt, which is telling them that they need to get right, because something is wrong. There is a false guilt, but there is also a true guilt. Guilt is one way you know that you have violated your conscience. Your conscience is connected to the Law of God written upon your heart. This person without the Law, this person who has never heard special revelation, has a conscience that is accusing them before God.
"Or else defending them." Every so often they help old ladies across the street. Every so often they fold the laundry for their mother. Every so often they do some right things. But they are also doing that which the Law written in their heart forbids. They think they are doing good things, but those good things will not save them from condemnation. It only takes one sin to stand guilty before God.
VI. They Will Be Judged By God (2:16)
Sixth, even those without the Law will stand on the last day before God. This passage says, “on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (verse 16). There will not be a reprieve or stay of judgment for those who have never heard the gospel. There will be no settling out of court for those without the knowledge of the gospel. They will have their day in court, where they will stand before God.
When Paul refers to “on the day,” he addresses that final day at the end of time. He already addressed this day in Romans 2:5. The day is so dramatic and graphic that Paul only needs to refer to it as the great day looking on the horizon. He writes, "Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (verse 5). This is the day of judgment. Those who have never heard, those who are without the Law, will still stand before God on that last day.
They will no only appear, but will be weighed in the balances by God. On that day, they will be weighed against the standard of the Law written on their heart. Please note, this does not say they will be saved, but they will be judged. Paul writes, “on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge" (verse 16). There will not be a different standard for those who have not heard. They will be judged by the gospel.
The gospel includes not only the message of salvation, but also the message of condemnation. The truth of the good news necessitates the truth of the bad news. There can be no good news if there is not the corresponding bad news. The bad news of the gospel is found in Romans 1:18 through 3:20. It is the foundation upon which the gospel is built. The bad news of condemnation is inseparably bound together with the good news of salvation. These two can never be separated.
The believing sinner has to be saved from something. He cannot only be saved unto something. The truth is, he is saved from the wrath of God and condemnation. Paul writes that “on that last day they will be judged according to my gospel” (verse 16), which is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The importance of this statement is the judgment will not be by the morality of others sinners, how they compare to other people. They will not be judged on the curve to see if they have done more good than bad. They will be judged by the gospel, and the gospel commands that all men everywhere repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those without the Law will nevertheless be judged by God. I have already alluded to this, but in here it could not be any more clear. Paul writes, "God will judge" (verse 16). This does not say they will be saved or pardoned by God. Nor does this say that they will be given a second chance by God. Rather, Paul maintains that they will be judged by God. Those without the Law will be strictly judged in accordance to the Law written upon their heart.
Those without the Law will have their secrets exposed and judged. Paul asserts, "God will judge the secrets of men" (verse 16). It is not just their deeds that will be made subject to divine judgment. Far more exposing and condemning, it is their secret thoughts that will be brought out into the open and condemned. Who could possibly stand innocent and acquitted before God when their secret thoughts are made known before God? Paul confirmed, "Their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them" (verse 15). What will be on trial goes deeper than just their actions that violate the Law of God written on their heart. It is their attitudes, their motives, their hidden thoughts, their selfish ambitions, revenge, anger, and hatred. All of that will come out into the open before God on the last day. The evidence will be overwhelming for those who are without the Law.
Those who are without the Law will still be judged through Christ Jesus. At the end of verse 16, Paul says that those without the Law will be judged “through Christ Jesus." The truth is that God has given all judgment to His Son. It is before the Son of God that every person without Christ will stand. In John 5:22 it says that God has appointed all judgment to His Son. In Revelation 20, at the great white throne judgment, Him who sat upon that throne is Jesus Christ. It will be before Jesus Christ Himself that all without the Law will stand.
As we conclude our look at these verses, we see that even those without the Law are under sin and its curse. Paul will conclude the larger section in which this passage is found, "For we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin" ) Romans 3:9). The “Greeks” refers to those without the Law. Despite being without this special revelation, they nevertheless are under sin. Therefore, they are under the curse of the Law, which is eternal death or the second death. The Bible says, "For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Even those without the Law are still under this curse. If they die without Christ, they have no other recourse but to pay this penalty in hell forever.
All mankind has Adam's original sin imputed to them. This includes those who have never heard the gospel. Paul teaches, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned" (Romans 5:12). When Adam disobeyed God, his original sin was charged to the account of every person who would ever be conceived in the womb of a woman. Again, this includes even those without the Law.
The mere fact that infants die in the womb confirms that Adam's sin has already been imputed to every person. Otherwise, there could never be death in the womb. Even the infants of those who have never heard the gospel are not immune to death.
Over six thousand years ago, Adam's sin was charged to every person who would ever be conceived in their mother's womb. If that sin was not imputed to that child in the mother's womb at the moment of conception, that child would never die. This is why there are miscarriages.
Through Adam's one act of disobedience, the many were made sinners. That includes not only those who are under the Law, but also those who are without the Law. Every person who enters into this world already has Adam's sin charged against them. This puts them in a state of death at the moment of their conception.
As a result, those who have never heard or read the Law are in desperate need to have the gospel preached to them. Paul writes, "How will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). That is a rhetorical question, and the obvious answer is they cannot. No one can call upon Him in who they have not believed. You cannot believe in that which you have not heard. The answer is they cannot hear unless someone tells them. No one can be saved without hearing the gospel. Whether it is a pastor, a parent, or a businessman bearing witness of the gospel, someone must share the good news if others are to be saved.
Paul continues, "How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10:15,17). This is why we must be resolutely committed to the cause of gospel preaching, one-on-one witnessing, and world evangelism.
You do not have to go to the other side of the world to meet people who have never heard the gospel truth. You can just walk across the street and meet people who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ. There are many in churches who have never heard the truth. In these places, church is show time, it is entertainment, or it is dead ritual and empty routine. You do not have to go to Africa, China, or India to find people who have never heard the truth. They live right where you are, and they remain in need of the pure, simple, saving gospel message.
What Paul addresses in Romans 2:12-16 is talking about the vast majority of people on planet earth. This is not describing a small pocket of people. There are billions of people in the world today who are without the Law. Untold numbers have never heard the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, they have the Law written upon their heart. Consequently, their heart is accusing them, that they have sinned and fallen short of God’s perfect standard. They will stand before God at the judgment on the last day, just like every other unbeliever. At that time, all of their secrets, their thoughts, ambitions, lusts, and motives will be brought out into the open. The entire record of their lives will be made known. It will be Jesus Christ before whom they will stand. In that day, they will have no self-defense whatsoever to give. The only hope they have is in this world now, for us to take the gospel to them while they are still alive.
Those who have never heard the gospel are not just on the other side of the earth. They are in your zip code. They work in your office. They marry into your family. They live in your neighborhood. They think they have to work their way to heaven. They think they have to say Hail Mary's to get to heaven. They think that they have to go to church a certain number of times and do good to certain people in order to meet a standard in which they will find acceptance with God. They are still on the treadmill of self-righteousness and have no concept of the saving grace of God. It is our responsibility to share the gospel with these people.