We come now to another one of those passages that should give us more pause than it does. It is also one of those passages that we are, all too often, guilty of twisting the plain meaning of so as to make the text better fit our theological position. We do that to our own peril. The text was not meant to conform to our beliefs but, rather, our beliefs were meant to conform to the text, even if we don’t like what the text is saying. You will see what I mean as we study the last few verses in this section.
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. (Romans 2:12-13 ESV)
Right off the bat we notice something that is vital to our understanding of the gospel of Paul: how a person lives matters to God. Notice who is made right before God: the one who is obedient, not just the one who makes some kind of intellectual acceptance of it. The “doers of the law…will be justified,” not the hearers only.
Given that this is a study of both Romans and James intended to deal with the apparent tension between the two letters, notice what James says along these lines:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25 ESV)
So, right off the bat, we see that Paul and James are both teaching a gospel that is not just about believing in the right things but also involves putting those beliefs into action. James and Paul both believe that God cares about what we do. They both proclaim a gospel that says that what we do in this life has eternal consequences.
As if this wasn’t controversial enough, Paul goes into something that we are going to be hearing a lot more of in the coming months. At the end of March, Rob Bell has a new book coming out entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. If you haven’t heard about it yet, you will. I promise. Because of this book, it is going to become mandatory that we have a firm grasp of Scripture’s position on something that this next section hints at. Let’s read the section and start digging in.
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. (v. 14)
In this section, Paul’s main goal is to put the Jewish Christians in the Roman church in their place. We spoke of it in the introduction to the letter, but Paul is writing to address and dispel some of the tension between these two groups of Christians within the church. In this section, Paul is speaking to the Jews and telling them, in essence, that they have no business looking down on the Gentiles within the congregation simply because the Jews were chosen to receive the Law and the Gentile’s weren’t. Paul says it doesn’t matter. When Gentiles behave as though they have the law, even though they don’t have it, they show that they have the law in a deeper way: they have it embedded in their hearts.
We don’t see how radical this is as non-Jewish Christians in the 21st century, so let me put this bluntly. Paul is telling these Jewish Christians that the written words of the Law of Moses don’t matter. Having or not having the Law doesn’t determine one’s standing before God. If the Jewish Christians have the Law, but are refusing to do it, they are condemned. If the Gentiles who have never heard the Law are living as the Law requires, they are not condemned. Paul elaborates more.
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)
This is the passage that gets twisted to fit our preconceived beliefs about salvation. Our dogma is clear: we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. Period. For some works don’t amount to a hill of beans in the eyes of God. So how is the passage handled? Here’s one example, from the ESV Study Bible.
Paul does not imply that the testimony of human conscience is always a perfect moral guide (for people have conflicting thoughts about their moral behavior, sometimes excusing themselves from wrongdoing), but the very existence of this testimony is sufficient to render people accountable to God.
Notice the interesting twist: by their conflicting thoughts they excuses themselves from wrongdoing. But this is not what the text says, or even implies. Paul says that their thoughts “accuse or even excuse them” on judgment day. The NRSV does a good job of picking up Paul’s nuance.
They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts; to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Paul is not saying here that, on judgment day, people will try to excuse themselves of their sin before God. Paul is saying that their thoughts may possibly excuse them when God passes judgment. If we “Christianize” the interpretation, what is being said here is that those who have never heard the gospel just might be safe in the end if their lives are reflective of the way that God intends for humankind to live.
Notice in the above sentences how I emphasized here. Other places in Paul’s letters he has much harsher words towards unbelievers. But that isn’t what Paul is saying in, at least this section of, Romans. Paul is telling the Jewish Christians who have the Law that their being given the Law amounts to nothing. He is saying that no matter how much they judge all those Gentiles around them for their disobedience to the Law that it is ultimately God who decides the fate of every man woman and child, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever. We don’t decide who God will condemn or redeem in the end. God does through Jesus Christ.
The scary thing is that this passage very plainly calls into question our dogmatic understanding of what happens to people when they die, especially without the gospel. It would be as if Paul said that having the gospel doesn’t matter because it is those who live by it, whether by it’s written words or by it’s natural presence in the hearts of all of humanity, who will be made righteous before God. This leaves hope that those who haven’t heard the gospel yet are not every one ending up in hell simply because they were born in the wrong part of the world. Some of them just might be saved anyway.
Some would say that this undermines our urgency to share the gospel. After all, if they might end up in Abraham’s bosom anyway, what’s the point of sharing the gospel? Or so the argument goes.
Should the fear of hell be our motivation for sharing the gospel? I don’t think so. Not to downplay the doctrine, but we were not told to go into the whole world and share the gospel because everyone is going to hell without it. Jesus told us to go share the gospel and make disciples simply because He said so (you know, the whole “all authority in all the earth has been given to Me” bit). Jesus told the disciples, in essence, “Because I am God, here’s what I want you to do.” The fact that there is hope until we get there should not deter us from sharing the gospel with those who haven’t heard it yet. After all, they may all be going to hell. Who knows. Paul simply says “perhaps” God may excuse them.
In the end, though, it is not up to us. It may upset our sensibilities to think that people who haven’t “accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” will be in heaven. We may, in some twisted way, find it appealing to think that everyone is hell-bound except for a chosen few, specifically those who have chosen Jesus. But that isn’t what Paul says here. Paul says here, and other places in Romans, that the decision is God’s and His judgment is righteous. We can rest assured in that, if nothing else.