I think it will be good for us here at the end of the year to see one great truth about God and one great truth about man, and how these two truths will make a difference in 1999 if you see them and embrace them for what they are. I don’t bring these two truths to this text, but have them thrust on me by this text. So, let’s go to the text and try to follow Paul’s line of thought in Romans 2:11–16.
Inside the Mind of an Inspired Writer
And I say “line of thought” because it is surely that. It moves not in a circle, but in a line from one premise to the next to establish his main point. Only as you reflect on this argument and how he builds it do you see the two truths — one about God and one about man. So let’s try to follow Paul’s thinking. Let’s think his thoughts after him.
This is a thrilling thing to do: to be able to think the very thoughts of an inspired biblical writer. Some of you have discovered how exciting it can be to think the thoughts of a great writer, say, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Kant, Milton, Shakespeare — to sense that you have actually entered his thought world and seen what he saw and made it your own through the amazing act of understanding.
But all of you can experience something even more thrilling, and that is to enter the thought world not just of a great writer, but of a divinely inspired writer, who is not writing out of mere natural genius, but out of supernatural revelation. To get inside that kind of head and follow those thoughts and see that reality is a thrill unparalleled in the reading of all literature and the watching of all TV and all videos and all movies. And I covet it for all of you.
So come with me. Review for just a moment what Paul is doing here in Romans 2. In verses 1–5 he pointed out that the people in his day with high moral standards, especially many of his own kinsmen, the Jews, were guilty of hypocrisy. They point the finger at the immoral Gentiles mentioned in chapter 1, but in doing so, Paul says, indict themselves, because they do the same kind of things.
Then he explains in verses 6–10 that the judgment on Jew and Gentile is going to be “according to their deeds,” not according to their ethnic or religious advantages. Jews and Gentiles will receive or not receive eternal life on the same basis. Do their deeds corroborate their faith?
No Partiality with God
Now in verse 11, Paul states the principle or the truth about God underlying this train of argument: “For there is no partiality with God.” This is why God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles not according to their appearance or their circumstances or their cultural or religious advantages, but according to something more intrinsic. This is something fundamental about God. This is impartiality. This is one of the two big truths I want you to get this morning. So we need to dwell on it. In fact, the rest of this text dwells on it and ties it in to a second big truth about man.
This is such a major truth about God that the New Testament seems to invent a word for it — several words. Before the New Testament, there are no instances of the word used here for “partiality” or “respecter of persons.” The idea was there in the Old Testament: God does not “receive face,” they would say, that is, he is “impartial” — he is not moved by irrelevant external appearances. He sees through them and goes to the heart of the matter and is not partial to appearance and circumstance. Nobody breaks the rules and gets away with it, no matter how powerful or clever or wealthy or networked. All are judged by the same measure.
In the New Testament, this was so important to make clear that the writers took these two words, “receive face,” and combined them into a new verb in James 2:9, “be-a-face-receiver” (prospolempteo), and two new nouns, “a-face-receiver” (prosopolemptes, Acts 10:34), and “face-receiving” (prosopolempsia, Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25, James 2:1). There is no “face-receiving” with God, Paul says.
How Can God Be Impartial?
But there is a problem here, an objection that has to be answered. So Paul takes another step in his argument. Here’s the objection: “You say, Paul, God is going to judge all people according to their deeds, and therefore, impartially, but, in fact, God gave the law of Moses only to the Jews. And so they have access to what deeds are required of them, and the rest of the world doesn’t. So how can you say that God is impartial to judge according to deeds when he has only told one group of people what the deeds are that they should do?” Here’s the first part of his answer from Romans 2:12: God is impartial “because all who have sinned without the law [that is, nations who don’t have the Old Testament law of Moses] will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law [Jews who have the Law of Moses] will be judged by the law.” You can see that this is a direct response to an objection: They don’t have equal access to what they will be held accountable for.
This is an objection that comes up often in defending Christianity from its critics: “What about people who don’t have the same access to the Bible that you have?” What’s Paul’s answer? He says, “You are right; different groups of people have different advantages when it comes to the amount of truth God has revealed.”
But then he says that the judgment of God will not be partial to those who had access to more truth; it will be according to the truth they do have. So he says, verse 12: “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.” The law of Moses will not be brought in to condemn those who sinned with no access to the law of Moses. It will be used only to judge those who had access to it.
The Law Won’t Save You
When someone perishes who never heard of the law of Moses, it is not because they never heard that law. Not hearing the law of Moses will not condemn anyone. And hearing it will not save anyone. That’s what Paul says in verse 13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”
In other words, having access to the moral law of Moses and hearing it and knowing it is not an advantage at the final judgment. At the judgment, the question will not be: “How much of the law did you possess and hear and know?” The question will be: “In view of how little or how much you possessed, how did you live? How did you respond in your heart and your action to the law you did know?”
We will come back in a few weeks to the phrase in verse 13, “the doers of the law will be justified,” to explain how that fits with justification by faith. In the meantime, notice three things:
Doing the law might include trusting God’s grace for salvation, if the law commands that we trust him that way.
It doesn’t say that justification is based on the doing of the law, but only that the doers will be justified; whether the “doing” or something else is the basis of justification is not said.
Notice that the justification is future — “the doers of the law will be justified.” This is probably a reference to the final judgment, just as in verses 7–10.
So for now, I suggest you understand “the doers of the law will be justified,” to teach the same thing as verse 7: eternal life will be given to those who persevere in good deeds.
But don’t miss the main point in the argument here: Not having the law or having it is not the basis for judgment in the last day: doing it is.
Where Is the Law?
But that immediately raises another problem that Paul now has to answer. Somebody is going to say: “How can anyone do what the law requires if they don’t have a copy of the law to read and follow? Paul, you say that doing and not hearing is what counts, but still those who have the law are at an advantage, because they know what they have to do. Romans 2:14–15 are Paul’s answer:
For when Gentiles who do not have the law do instinctively [literally, by nature] 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.
So Paul’s answer to the question, “How can God be impartial in judging according to our deeds if the Jews have the law and the Gentiles don’t?” is that the Gentiles do have the law. The moral law of God is written on their hearts, verse 15 says. Or, as verse 14 says, “They are a law to themselves.” Then he says in verse 15b that the evidence for this is that the moral behavior of all kinds of people all over the world shows that they have a sense of many true moral obligations, and their consciences confirm this with the conflicting self-defenses and self-accusations that it constantly brings up.
Now let’s get the whole train of thought before us, from verse 11 on. First, Paul says that “there is not partiality with God” (verse 11). Then he defends this in verse 12 by saying that God’s judgment will fall according to how we respond to the measure of truth that we have access to. Then he explains (verse 13) that mere hearing of the law is no advantage to the Jew at the judgment day, and not hearing it is no disadvantage to the Gentile, because doing and not hearing is the issue. Then he explains (verses 14–15) that the law really is available to those who have no copy of the law of Moses, because God has written it on the heart and given all of us a conscience to awaken us to this moral knowledge in our hearts.
God’s Law on Our Hearts
Now here is the second great truth I want you to see this morning, the truth about man. All human beings have the moral law of God stamped on their hearts. Paul is teaching something enormously important here about human nature. Notice the wording of verse 14: “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.” The “instinctively” is literally “by nature.” In other words, Paul is telling us something fundamental here about human nature. This is what it means to be human: to have the law of God pressed or stamped or written on our heart.
We have seen this teaching before in 1:32 (“They know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death”) and 1:26 (“Women exchanged the natural function for that which is against nature”) and 1:21 (“They knew God”). And the point of it all is to stress that every human being is guilty before God because everyone suppresses (1:18) the truth and none lives up to even the demands of his own conscience, let alone all the demands of God known to him. Nevertheless, all are accountable to God and will be without excuse at the judgment day. All Jews and all Gentiles are accountable to God and guilty before him under the power of sin.
Now we are in a position to see clearly the two great truths that I mentioned at the beginning: one about God and one about man. The truth about God is that he is not partial. And what God’s impartiality means is that he judges not on the assumption that we all have access to the same amount of truth, but that we all have the truth we need to be held accountable, and that we will be judged by our response to what we do have, not what we don’t have.
God is so committed to this dimension of his justice that he secures it by creating every human soul with the imprint of his moral law and with the capacity to know his glory revealed in nature. He is impartial not merely with what he finds in the world; rather he sees to it that what he finds in the world conforms to his impartiality.
So the second great truth (about man) is built on the first one (about God), namely, all human beings have the moral law of God stamped on their heart. Every human soul, as it comes to consciousness, knows that it is created by God, and dependent on God, and should honor and thank God (1:20–21), and should do the things that are written on the heart (2:14–15), and that failing to do them is worthy of death (1:32).
The Impact of These Two Great Truths
Now these are great truths to know and will have an impact in your life if you will embrace them for what they really are. Here are three examples of the kind of difference it could make in your life, if you know yourself this way and your children this way and others this way.
1. Knowing Yourself This Way
Consider one implication of knowing yourself this way. If God is impartial and judges by fixed standards that he has revealed, and if you, in the depths of your human nature as the image of God, have the moral law of God stamped on your being, then to know this and embrace this will give a tremendous gravity and solidity and stability to your convictions about God and about truth and right and wrong.
You will see clearly that there are fixed truths and fixed moral standards that you do not make up. They are not mere human opinion, but come from God, outside of us. Life is not a cafeteria of equal options from which you can choose. Life comes with profound givens. God exists. God is impartial. God is and knows the truth. God has imprinted it on human hearts. It is knowable. We will be judged by it. Therefore, life is not trivial. And our convictions about God and morality gain gravity and solidity and stability.
2. Knowing Your Children This Way
Consider one implication of knowing your children this way. Look upon your children as beings whose souls God himself created in his own image and inscribed with the law of God. Look upon them as beings who are endowed, like no other creature, with the capacity to know God and, in fact, will know God enough to perish by or live by.
Ponder, as you look at your child, that here is a person who has been prepared specially to live according to goodness and truth. Here is a being not to be taken for granted, or trifled with, or neglected — a being whose main purpose in the universe has been set by God: that he or she know God and do God’s will. To know your children in this way will make you more serious about your parenting and the glorious privilege and responsibility of joining God’s inner work to bring these children up into Christ and make God known and loved.
3. Knowing Others This Way
Finally, consider two implications of knowing others this way. Everyone you know at work or school or in the neighborhood has the law of God written on his or her heart. Everyone you know, knows the impartial God. Whether they suppress this knowledge or not, they have it. They know their Creator at a profound level, and they know their duty at a profound level. God has dealt with them deeply before you ever came on the scene. God has gone before you in preparing them for himself and his will.
So here’s the first implication: therefore, be hopeful in 1999 as you do evangelism, not minimizing the blinding effects of sin, but also not despairing that there is no point of connection in the person you care about. There are points of connection, deeper than you ever dreamed. Speak the truth in love and God may be pleased to make the connection between what they know by nature, and what you tell them from the word of God.
And the last implication is this: beware of despising anyone. Every time you disapprove of someone — a politician, a colleague, a church member or leader, a person of another culture or race — remember that God has written his law on that person’s heart and given him or her the knowledge of himself. This is to be marveled and wondered at, not despised. Human nature in the image of God, fallen and depraved as it is, should nevertheless spread the aroma of sanctity and reverence over all our repugnance or disagreement. There is an honor that belongs to man as man in the image of God, who wrote his law on all our hearts.