This is Part 2 of a 2 part series – see part 1 of 2 – Principles of God’s Judgment—Part 1 (Romans 2:1-5) here
who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. 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 not the hearers of the Law 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. (2:6–16)
Paul here continues to talk about “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (v. 5). As mentioned in the previous chapter, “the day of wrath” refers to God’s final judgment of sinful mankind. Peter refers to it as “the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:7), and Jude as “the judgment of the great day” (v. 6). Paul explains that it will occur at the second coming of Jesus Christ, “who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1). At that time “the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:7–8).
This final judgment is described in some detail by John:
I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:11–15)
Jesus declared that at that time “the Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:41–43). All of history is moving inexorably toward that awful day, when the sinful of all ages will “fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
The story is told of an ancient Roman ruler named Brutus the Elder who discovered that his two sons were conspiring to overthrow the government, an offense that carried the death penalty. At the trial the young men tearfully pleaded with their father, calling him by endearing names and appealing to his paternal love. Most of the crowd who had gathered at court also pleaded for mercy. But because of the severity of the crime, and perhaps because being the ruler’s sons made the men even more accountable and guilty of worse treason, the father ordered and then witnessed their execution. As someone has commented about the incident, “The father was lost in the judge; the love of justice overcame all the fondness of the parent.”
God offers Himself as a Father to fallen mankind. He pleads with them to come to Him for salvation through His Son, because He does not want “any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). But one day the opportunity for repentance will end. At that time God will execute His perfect judgment even more inexorably than that Roman ruler.
The first three of the six criteria God will employ in final judgment were discussed in the previous chapter. The second three are deeds (Rom. 2:6–10), impartiality (vv. 11–15), and motive (v. 16).
who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (2:6–10)
Although it is simple and straightforward, this passage embraces several truths that are easily misinterpreted if not studied carefully.
In the text from Revelation 20 quoted above, we are twice told that men will be judged “according to their deeds” (vv. 12–13). That is the same truth Paul emphasizes in Romans 2:6–10, declaring plainly that God will render to every man according to his deeds.
Judgment by deeds, or works, is clearly taught in the Old Testament. The Lord instructed Isaiah to declare, “Say to the righteous that it will go well with them, for they will eat the fruit of their actions. Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him, for what he deserves will be done to him” (Isa. 3:10–11). Through Jeremiah, God proclaimed even more specifically, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jer. 17:10).
Jesus reiterated that principle of judgment, teaching that “the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds” (Matt. 16:27). On another occasion He said, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29).
Paul, the great apostle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, consistently taught that God’s judgment of believers as well as unbelievers will be based on works. “He who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor. 3:8). He goes on to explain,
No man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each marts work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each marts work. If any marts work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:11–15)
Again speaking to believers Paul writes, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Even in that wondrous epistle of grace Paul declares, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal. 6:7–9).
God does not judge on the basis of religious profession, religious relationships, or religious heritage. But among other standards, He judges on the basis of the products of a person’s life. An issue on the day of judgment will not be whether a person is a Jew or Gentile, whether he is a heathen or orthodox, whether he is religious or irreligious, or whether he attends church or does not. An issue will be whether or not his life has manifested obedience to God. On that day “each one of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12).
The subjective criterion for salvation is faith alone, with nothing added. But the objective reality of that salvation is manifested in the subsequent godly works that the Holy Spirit leads and empowers believers to perform. For that reason, good deeds are a perfectly valid basis for God’s judgment.
A person’s actions form an infallible index to his character. “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus twice declared in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:16, 20). The works of a person’s life are one of the unchanging bases upon which God will judge men. Every man will one day face the divine Judge, who has a comprehensive record of that man’s deeds, and by that record, the marts eternal destiny will be determined.
It must be made clear, of course, that although Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, teaches that judgment is by works, it nowhere teaches that salvation is by works. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory because of Thy loving-kindness, because of Thy truth” (Ps. 115:1). Whatever good a person has or does comes by God’s gracious provision, and only He should be given credit and praise for those things. “For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act,” the Lord declared through Isaiah. “For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another” (Isa. 48:11). God will save whom He will save, and His sovereign grace completely excludes works righteousness.
Speaking of the New Covenant in His Son, Jesus Christ, God promised ancient Israel:
Behold, days are coming … when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them … But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, … I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jer. 31:31–33)
The essence of the New Covenant is God’s extension of mercy and grace to unworthy people. The work of salvation is entirely by God’s sovereign and gracious will and power. “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance,” Paul said, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. And yet for this reason I found mercy, in order that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience” (1 Tim. 1:15–16). To all believers the apostle says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
But if salvation is wholly by faith, then how do works enter the picture? Paul continues his great statement in Ephesians 2 by saying, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (v. 10). The same apostle admonished the Philippian believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). In other words, the life that is saved by faith is to give evidence of that salvation by doing God’s work. Outward godly works are the evidence of inner faith.
Salvation is not by works, but it will assuredly produce works. The presence of genuinely good deeds in a person’s life reveals that he has truly been saved, and in God’s infallible eyes those deeds are a perfectly reliable indicator of saving faith. In the same way, the absence of genuinely good deeds reveals the absence of salvation. In both cases, deeds become a trustworthy basis for God’s judgment. When God sees works that manifest righteousness, He knows if they have come from a regenerated heart. And when He sees works that manifest unrighteousness, He knows if they come from an unregenerated heart.
In Romans 2:1–16 Paul is not talking about the basis for salvation but the basis for judgment. He does not begin discussing salvation as such until chapter three. In the present passage he is talking about deeds as one of the elements, or principles, God employs in judgment. He is discussing the evidences of salvation, not the means or basis of it. He is saying that if a person is truly saved, there will be outward evidence of it in his life. If he is not saved, there will be no such evidence. Every believer falls short of God’s perfect righteousness and sometimes will fall into disobedience. But a life that is completely barren of righteous deeds can make no claim to being redeemed.
In Romans 2:7–10 Paul draws a clear line between two classes of people, the only two classes that exist: the saved and the unsaved. He focuses first on the determinative deeds of the redeemed (v. 7), next on the determinative deeds of the unredeemed (vv. 8–9), and then again on the deeds of the redeemed (v. 10).
The Deeds of the Redeemed
to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; (2:6)
True salvation is manifested in a believer’s perseverance in doing good, and the highest good he can do is to seek for glory, and honor and immortality. Although those three terms seem to be used here almost as synonyms, they carry distinct meanings. Together they describe a believer’s heavenly perspective and aspirations.
First, the highest and most wonderful desire of a believer is glory, above all, God’s glory. A person who does not have such a desire deep within him cannot be a true believer. “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” Paul admonishes (1 Cor. 10:31). To live to the glory of God is to manifest the very nature of God as a willing vehicle for His own divine working.
A believer also seeks glory for himself, not in the fleshly, self-seeking way that is common to fallen human nature, but by looking forward to his sharing God’s own glory some day when his salvation is perfected (see Rom. 8:21, 30; 2 Thess. 2:14; cf. Ps. 17:15). We know that any “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17) and that “when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then [we] also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). In seeking this heavenly glory it is really a seeking of Christlikeness. Paul had it in mind when he penned Philippians 3:10–14, 20, 21:
that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was hid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
… For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
Second, a true believer seeks honor, again not the worldly honor that most men long for but the honor that comes from God, the honor of His saying, “Well done, good and faithful slave; you were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things, enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).
Third, a true believer seeks immortality, the day when his perishable body “must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53).
Paul is not discussing how a person comes to salvation or how God produces Christlikeness in him. He is describing what the life of a true believer is like, pointing out that those divinely-bestowed qualities will eventuate in the final glory of the divinely-bestowed eternal life. John beautifully states that basic truth at the end of his first epistle: “We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
Eternal life is not simply a quantity of life, although by definition it lasts through eternity. But even the unsaved will have eternal existence, an existence which will be everlasting death and punishment (2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:9–11). Eternal life, however, is first of all a quality of life, the life of God in the soul of man. Speaking of his own eternal life, Paul said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Paul’s point in the present passage is that a person who possesses the life of God will reflect the true character of God, and that it is on the basis of that reflected godly character that he will be judged. It is just as impossible for a person having eternal life to indefinitely fail to reflect something of God’s character as it would be for him to indefinitely hold his breath. Eternal life induces spiritual breathing just as surely as physical life induces bodily breathing. John Murray succinctly noted that “works without redemptive aspiration are dead works. Aspiration without good works is presumption.”
Justification by faith alone does not negate works of righteousness in the believer’s life. Scripture makes clear that just as surely as we are saved by our faith we will be judged by our works. When in sovereign grace God receives a sinner at the time of his conversion, He asks nothing but that he believe in Jesus Christ and submit to Him. But from that moment on, the believer enters into a responsibility of obedience, and the mark of his new spiritual life becomes his obedience to God. Faith in Christ does not produce freedom to sin and to do as we please but freedom from sin and a new, God-given desire and capacity to do what pleases Him.
James makes the relationship between faith and works explicitly clear:
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? … For dy without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14–20, 26)
In Romans 2:7 Paul is focusing on the completed, fulfilled eternal life that comes after the final judgment, when the eternal state begins. This completed eternal life will be rendered according to the salvation evidenced by those good deeds a believer has manifested during his life on earth (v. 6).
The Deeds of the Unredeemed
but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, (2:8–9)
Here Paul contrasts those who prove by their good deeds that they belong to God with those who similarly prove by their bad deeds that they do not belong to Him. Those who do not belong to God manifest many evil characteristics, three of the general underlying ones Paul mentions in verse 8.
The first characteristic of the unredeemed is that they are selfishly ambitious, a phrase that translates the single Greek word eritheia, the root meaning of which may have been that of a hireling. The idea is of a mercenary, who does his work simply for money, without regard for the issues or any harm he may be doing. Everything he does is for the purpose of serving and pleasing self. Certainly this fits the Bible’s emphasis that the basic problem of unregenerate man is his being totally wrapped up in himself and having no place in his life for God.
The second and consequent characteristic of the unredeemed is that they do not obey the truth. The person who seeks his own way above all else naturally resists any other way, including God’s, which is the way of truth. Disobedience of the truth is synonymous with rebellion, and spiritual rebellion is what the Fall was all about and what fallen human nature is all about. The unredeemed are rebels by nature, the enemies of God (Rom. 8:7: cf. 5:10; Col. 1:21).
The third characteristic of the unredeemed is that they obey unrighteousness. No person lives in a moral and spiritual vacuum. He is either godly or ungodly, righteous or unrighteous. Jesus declared categorically that “no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). And it can be deduced that no man serves no master. It is either God or another. And when man does not serve God, all other masters lead him to sin. Serving God means obeying God’s will! Serving another master means obeying sin.
The road to hell is here very simply defined as the spirit of antagonism against the lordship of Jesus Christ. The unsaved person is by nature selfishly ambitious, and his enmity against God leads him to disobey God’s truth and instead to obey unrighteousness.
To such people God will render (see v. 6) wrath and indignation. Orgē (wrath) signifies the strongest kind of anger, that which reaches fever pitch, when God’s mercy and grace are fully exhausted. It will mark the end of God’s patience and tolerance with unregenerate, unrepentant mankind in the swelling of His final, furious anger which He will vent on those whose works evidence their persistent and unswerving rebellion against Him.
Thumos (indignation) represents an agitated, vehement anger that rushes along relentlessly. The root meaning has to do with moving rapidly and was used of a man’s breathing violently while pursuing an enemy in great rage. It is used by the writer of Hebrews to describe Pharaoh’s murderous fury at Moses (Heb. 11:27; cf. Ex. 10:28). It is used by Luke to describe the fury of the Jews in the synagogue at Nazareth who wanted to throw Jesus off a diff (Luke 4:28–29). It is used of the pagan Ephesians who resented Paul’s preaching the gospel and especially his claim that their idols “made with hands [were] no gods at all” (Acts 19:26–28). On the final day of judgment God’s indignation will explode like a consuming fire upon all rebellious mankind.
Consequently, there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil. Thlipsis (tribulation) has the root meaning of exerting extreme pressure, and is sometimes translated as affliction, anguish, or persecution. It is used of the persecution of the early church by the Jews in Palestine (Acts 11:19) and of the tribulation of the saints in general (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3; 2 Thess. 1:4). Paul used it to describe his persecution in the province of Asia (2 Cor. 1:8), and it is used of the crushing of the grapes of wrath during the great battle of Armageddon (Rev. 14:18–20).
Stenochōria (distress) literally means “a narrow place” and came metaphorically to refer to severe confinement or constriction, and hence the idea of anguish or severe distress. Besides capital punishment, solitary confinement has long been considered the worst form of punishment, being the absolute, lonely confinement of a prisoner who is already strictly confined. Part of hell’s torment will be its absolute, isolated, lonely, and eternal confinement, with no possible hope of release or escape.
Paul uses the phrase the Jew first and also the Greek twice in this passage, and it is significant that the first instance relates to those who are condemned by God. Jews were used to thinking of themselves as being first in God’s sight. The typical Jew, in fact, believed that, with perhaps a very few exceptions such as Rahab and Ruth, Gentiles were by nature beyond the reach of God’s care and redemption.
God had indeed chosen Israel above other peoples to be His elect nation. “You only have I chosen among all the families of the earth,” He declared to Israel (Amos 3:2a). But He immediately went on to say, “Therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities” (v. 2b). Israel will receive severer punishment because she was given greater light and greater blessing. As Paul here makes clear, the Jew first means that being first in salvation opportunity also means being first in judgment responsibility.
The righteous deeds that God requires and for which men will be judged are, of course, impossible even for a believer to produce in his own power. He is no more able to keep his salvation by good works than he was able to attain it by goods works. Like salvation itself, the good works it produces are made possible by God’s sovereign grace alone and empowered by His Holy Spirit working within the life. The only way to produce righteous deeds is to possess the righteousness of Christ, which comes by trusting in Him as Lord and Savior, to possess the Holy Spirit who empowers those works, and to consciously seek to obey the Word of God!
In His infinite justice as well as His infinite grace, God will be certain that the glory and honor that is sought by every man who does good will indeed be his reward. This peace that God divinely imparts is perhaps used by Paul as a synonym for the immortality the true believer seeks along with glory and honor (see v. 7). Everything divine that the saint of God seeks he will receive.
Again the apostle points out that the order of judgment will be that of the Jew first and then the Greek. The unbelieving Jew will be the first to be condemned (v. 9). Only after God has dealt with His chosen people will He deal with the Greek, that is, the Gentile.
For there is no partiality with God. 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 not the hearers of the Law 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, (2:11–15)
A fifth element related to God’s judgment is His impartiality. Prosōpolēmptēs (partiality) means literally “to receive a face,” that is, to give consideration to a person because of who he is. That exact idea is seen in the popular symbolic statue of justice as a woman blindfolded, signifying that she is unable to see who is before her to be judged and therefore is not tempted to be partial either for or against the accused. Sometimes she is also pictured with her hands tied, suggesting she cannot receive a bribe.
Unfortunately, there is partiality even in the best of human courts, but there will be none in God’s day of judgment. Because of His perfect knowledge of every detail and because of His perfect righteousness, it is not possible for His justice to be anything but perfectly impartial. Such things as position, education, influence, popularity, or physical appearance will have absolutely no bearing on God’s decision concerning a persons eternal destiny.
The most magnificent and exalted creature God made was Lucifer, the “star of the morning, son of the dawn.” But because of his prideful ambition to raise himself even above his Creator, to make himself “like the Most High,” even the high-ranking, majestic Lucifer was cast out of heaven by God to Sheol (Isa. 14:12–15). The most exalted became the most debased. If ever there was a being whose position merited special favor before God it was Lucifer. But his high position instead made him more accountable for his evil rebellion and he therefore will receive the greatest punishment of any creature in hell.
When Peter saw how God was working in the life of Cornelius, he was finally able to surmount his Jewish prejudice against Gentiles and confess, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality” (Acts 10:34). Like his Lord, Paul was not impressed by a persons elevated religious position (Gal. 2:6). That quality of justice is also implied in the apostle’s declaration that “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7). Who a person is will have no beating at all on what he reaps at God’s judgment. “The one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life” (v. 8).
In warning masters to be considerate of their slaves, Paul reminds them that “both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Eph. 6:9). “He who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done,” the apostle assured the Colossians, “and that without partiality” (Col. 3:25). Peter admonished his readers, “If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth” (1 Pet. 1:17).
God’s impartiality does not exclude His taking into account the varying spiritual light that people have. Paul mentions two distinct groups of sinners: those who have not had opportunity to know God’s Law and those who have had such opportunity. He is speaking, of course, about the Law given through Moses to the people of Israel. Those without the Law are therefore the Gentiles.
It is not that Gentiles have no awareness of God or sense of right and wrong. The apostle has already established that, through the evidence of creation, all men have witness of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (1:20). Gentiles who have sinned without the law will therefore also perish without the Law, that is, they will be judged according to their more limited knowledge of God. That, of course, includes the vast majority of humanity of all times. Even with the increased ability to distribute God’s Word in the various languages of the world, and the remarkable new techniques and media for preaching the gospel, most people in the world today have never heard clear teaching from the Bible, much less grasped clear knowledge of its saving truths.
But because they have God’s natural revelation in creation, as well as the witness of right and wrong in their hearts and consciences (v. 15), they are guilty and accountable. They will therefore perish without the Law. Apollumi (perish) pertains to destruction but not annihilation. It basically has to do with that which is ruined and is no longer usable for its intended purpose. That is the term Jesus used to speak of those who are thrown into hell (Matt. 10:28). As He makes clear elsewhere, hell is not a place or state of nothingness or unconscious existence, as is the Hindu Nirvana. It is the place of everlasting torment, the place of eternal death, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (see Matt. 13:42, 50). All people are created by God for His glory, but when they refuse to come to Him for salvation they lose their opportunity for redemption, for becoming what God intends for them to be. They are then fit only for condemnation and destruction.
The lost Gentile will just as surely perish as the lost Jew, but, as Paul has already intimated (v. 9), their eternal tribulation and distress will be less than that of the Jews, who have had the immeasurable advantage of possessing God’s law. Jesus stated the principle clearly. Using the illustration of the slaves of a master who returned after a long journey, He said, “That slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:47–48).
It is Jews, those to whom the Lord had entrusted much, whom the apostle addresses next, declaring that all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. The person who has not had the benefit of knowing God’s Law will be judged according to his limited knowledge of God. But the person who has access to God’s Law will be judged according to his greater knowledge about the Lord.
Those who have knowledge not only of the Old Testament law but also of the New Testament gospel are also included in this second category of those who are judged. And because they have even greater knowledge of God than the ancient Jews, they will be held still more accountable. They will be like the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, which had heard Jesus’ teaching and witnessed His miracles but had rejected Him as their Messiah and King. They not only had God’s law but had been privileged to meet God’s only Son. The Lord scathingly told them it would therefore be better on the day of judgment for the pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom than for them (Matt. 11:20–23).
Though all unbelievers will be there, the hottest part of hell will be reserved for those who have wasted the greatest spiritual opportunity. That is why it is such a fearful thing to be an apostate, one who has known and even acknowledged God’s truth but ultimately turned his back on it. Of such people the writer of Hebrews says, “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (Heb. 6:4–6). Hebrews 10:26–31 adds:
For if we go on sinning will-fully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he has been sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Although those who have the opportunity to hear God’s Word have a great advantage above those who do not have such opportunity, if they fail to heed His Word they are much worse off than those others.
For not the hearers of the Law are just before God, Paul says, but the doers of the Law will be justified. Just as James does in his warning about those who hear God’s Word but do not do it (James 1:22–23), Paul here does not use the usual Greek term for hearing (akouō) but the word akroatēs, which was used of those whose business it is to listen.
The idea is much like that of a college student. His primary purpose in class is to listen to the teacher’s instruction. Normally, he also has the responsibility of being accountable for what he hears and is tested on it. If he is simply auditing, however, he is required only to attend the class sessions. He takes no tests and receives no grade. In other words, he listens without being held accountable for what he hears.
In many synagogues during Paul’s time, teaching did not focus on Scripture but on the system of man-made traditions that the rabbis had developed over the centuries since the Exile. Frequently, God’s Word in the Old Testament was merely read and listened to, without explanation or application. Most Jews, therefore, were simply “auditing the course,” hearers of the Law and nothing more.
But God recognizes no mere “auditors” of His Word. The more a person hears His truth, the more he is responsible for believing and obeying it. Unless there is obedience, the greater the hearing, the greater the judgment.
People who only think they are Christians merely because they do such things as attend church, listen to sermon tapes, participate in a neighborhood Bible study, and listen to Christian music “delude themselves,” James warns. “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was” (James 1:23–24). In other words, the person who is satisfied with superficially knowing God’s Word is living a spiritual illusion, thinking he is saved when he is not. By looking in a mirror, he judges himself by himself rather than by the Word of God that he knows much about but does not take to heart. His failure to obey what he hears proves he does not believe it or accept it. His disobedience proves he does not trust in the God whose Word he hears. And the more he hears without obeying the more he piles up guilt against himself for the day of judgment. Our Lord certainly had this on His mind when he preached the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. Matt. 7:24–27 records His words:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock. And everyone who hears these words of Mine, and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall.
The doers of the Law, on the other hand, are those who come to God in repentance and faith, realizing that His Law is impossible for them to keep apart from Him and that knowledge of it places them under greater obligation to obey it. The true doers of God’s law are those who come to Jesus Christ in faith, because the purpose of the law is to lead men to Him (Gal. 3:24). And after they have come to Him in faith, their obedient lives give evidence of their saving relationship to Him and of the fact that they will be justified. The idea here is not that obeying the law will produce justification, because Scripture makes clear that justification comes only through faith (Rom. 3:24, 28). But they will be demonstrated to be the just by the evidence of their doing of God’s holy law.
Again Paul is pointing to the same truth as James in regard to the relationship between faith and works, and, also like James, is using justification in the sense of completed or perfected salvation. The person who genuinely obeys God’s Word proves by his divinely-empowered obedience that he is saved and thereby will be recognized as justified on the day of judgment (cf. James 2:20–26).
Does that mean, then, that Gentiles are excused from eternal judgment and punishment because they have not had the advantage of the Law and therefore had no basis for obedient living? No, because as Paul has already established, the Gentiles, that is, those who do not have the Law, have God’s general, or natural, revelation of Himself in creation and know instinctively that they are guilty and worthy of death (1:18–32). But does not Paul say later in this epistle that “where there is no law, neither is there violation” (4:15), that “until the Law sin was in the world; but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (5:13), and “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law” (7:7)?
Anticipating such questions, Paul here states that Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, being a law to themselves. Explaining further, the apostle says, They show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.
There are four reasons why the heathen are lost. First, as already noted, their rejection of their knowledge of God available through His creation condemns them.
Second, as the apostle now points out, their conduct, based on the knowledge of the Law written in their hearts, condemns them. Throughout history there have been many unbelievers who have been honest in business, respectful of their parents, faithful to their wives or husbands, caring of their children, and generous to those in need-all of which good things God’s Word commends. God’s standard of justice is reflected in many secular judicial systems, wherein stealing, murder, and various other forms of immorality are considered wrong and made illegal. Many pagan philosophies, both ancient and modern, teach certain standards of ethics that closely parallel those in Scripture.
The Bible reports many good deeds done by pagans such as Darius (Dan. 6:25–28), the city clerk of Ephesus (Acts 19:35–41), the Roman military officers who protected Paul (Acts 23:10, 17–35), and the natives of Malta who befriended Paul and his shipmates (Acts 28:10). The fact that such people did good things, knowing they were ethically good, proves they had knowledge of God’s Law written in their hearts. Therefore if those people never come to trust in the true God, their good deeds will actually witness against them on the day of judgment.
Third, the heathen are condemned because of conscience. Gentiles who do not have the privilege of knowing God’s law nevertheless have a conscience bearing witness to His law. Suneidēsis (conscience) literally means “knowledge with,” or “co-knowledge.” Synonyms of that term, most with the same root meaning, are found in many ancient languages. The very idea behind the word testifies to the fact that men recognize they have an instinctive, built-in sense of right and wrong that activates guilt.
It is reported that a tribe in Africa had an unusual but effective way to test the guilt of an accused person. A group of suspects would be lined up and the tongue of each would be touched with a hot knife. If saliva was on the tongue the blade would sizzle but cause little pain. But if the tongue was dry, the blade would stick and create a vicious, searing burn. The tribe knew that a sense of guilt tends to make a person’s mouth dry, and a seared tongue therefore was taken as proof of guilt. The making of such a dry mouth is, of course, the work of the conscience.
Consciences vary in sensitivity, depending on the degree of one’s knowledge of and feeling about right and wrong. The person who has considerable knowledge of God’s Word will have a more sensitive conscience than someone who has never had opportunity to know Scripture.
But consciences also vary in sensitivity depending on whether they are obeyed or resisted. Some years ago it was discovered that, contrary to long-held medical thinking, the gross disfiguration of the extremities that is so common in lepers is not caused directly by the disease. Leprosy does not deteriorate or eat at the flesh but rather desensitizes the nerves. Unprotected by the warning signals of pain, the leper wears down his extremities or suffers cuts, burns, and infections without knowing he is being injured.
In much the same way, the neglected and resisted conscience becomes more insensitive and eventually may stop giving warning signals about wrongdoing. Paul speaks of heretics and apostates in the last days whose consciences will be desensitized as if cauterized by a hot iron because of their persistent opposition to God and His truth (1 Tim. 4:2).
God uses the consciences of His children as vehicles for His guidance. Paul therefore makes many appeals for believers to be faithful to the leading of their own consciences and to respect the consciences of other believers (see Rom. 13:5; 1 Cor. 8:7, 12; 10:25, 29; 2 Cor. 5:11). Consistent with his own teaching, the apostle was careful to obey his own conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16; Rom. 9:1).
Fourth, the heathen are lost because of their contemplation, their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them. This natural faculty obviously is closely related to conscience. Building on the instinctive knowledge of right and wrong that the conscience provides, even unbelievers have the obvious ability to determine that certain things are basically right or wrong.
Many ardent crime fighters and advocates for the poor, for example, do not get their motivation from Scripture or from a saving relationship to Jesus Christ. As human beings they simply cannot help but know that opposing crime and helping the poor are good things to do. Even the most God-less society becomes incensed when a child or elderly person is brutally attacked or murdered. Even pagans, agnostics, and atheists are able to discern basic right and wrong.
For those four profound reasons, no person can stand guiltless before God’s judgment. The fact that they do not turn to God proves they do not live up to the light God has given them. Jesus declared categorically, “If any man is willing to do His will, he shall know the teaching, whether it is of God, or whether I speak from Myself” (John 7:17). Paul assured his pagan listeners in Athens that God “made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26–27). The person who genuinely seeks to know and follow God is divinely assured he will succeed. “You will seek Me and find Me,” the Lord says, “when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
A man of my acquaintance is an excellent illustration of God’s honoring a genuine quest to find Him. This man grew up in one of the most primitive tribes in Africa. Because he was ill-behaved and incorrigible as a child, he was frequently made to stay outside when the family had guests. Although he was severely punished by the tribe as well as by his mother, he persisted in acts of pointless mischief and even cruelty. He reports that he felt guilty and heartsick even while doing the mischief but could not seem to help himself. He knew something was very wrong with his life and would often go into the forest and pound his head against a tree, crying, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I do such things?” More than once he considered suicide.
One day one of his friends returned from a visit to the coast. Among the many fascinating stories he told was that of some people who met together every Sunday to sing and talk. When the boy asked his friend why those people met together, he was told they were singing about and praying to the God who had created the whole world. They called their God Father and believed He heard and answered their prayers.
With that small bit of knowledge about the Lord, the boy over whom the tribe had despaired decided to pray to this God himself. “I had never heard anyone pray,” he recounts, “but I decided I would just talk to this God like He was my father. I can’t explain what happened but it was an exciting experience. I wanted to know more about this God but there was no one in our village who knew anything about Him. So for two years I kept praying by myself on Sundays, hoping that some day someone would come along who could tell me about Him.”
While working on a government road project, he visited his cousin in the village where he had been born and discovered to his great surprise and delight that a group of people met there on Sundays to sing and pray to the God he had heard about. “How excited I was,” he says. “I could hardly wait for Sunday. That morning I sat in the back. I listened to a man tell about God for the first time in my life. I found He was far more wonderful than I had ever imagined. The preacher said that God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son named Jesus to take away my sins. I wondered if He knew how terrible I was. I wondered if He knew the awful things I had done back in my village. But the preacher said no matter what I had done, God would forgive me and make my heart clean. I knew it was all true.”
Because that young man had been genuinely seeking God, when he finally heard the gospel the Holy Spirit confirmed its truth to his yearning heart. He knew that God had heard his prayers and had sent him to a place where he could hear the message of salvation. “I gave my heart to God that morning,” he testifies, “and it was nice to know He had a Son, too. He was really a Father, just like I had been praying to.”
on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (2:16)
A sixth principle of God’s judgment is that of motive. Here Paul makes clear that he is speaking about the final judgment, the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge.
Motive is a valid basis for judgment only because God is able to judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ. Because the Lord infallibly knows every person’s motives for doing the things he does, He can infallibly judge whether or not those deeds are truly good or bad, whether they come from the flesh or from the Spirit.
David counseled his son Solomon to serve God “with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts” (1 Chron. 28:9). In one of his most beautiful psalms David confessed, “O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me. Thou dost know when I sit down and when I rise up; Thou dost understand my thought from afar. Thou dost scrutinize my path and my lying down, and art intimately acquainted with all my ways” (Ps. 139:1–3). Through Jeremiah God said, “I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jer. 17:10). Three times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt. 6:4, 6, 18).
There is obviously such a thing as relative human goodness. Many unbelievers live on a high moral plane compared to most people. But that is not the kind of goodness that satisfies God, because nothing is truly good that is done from any motive other than His glory and done in any power but His own. Everything that is done in the flesh can only serve the flesh and is by nature tainted with imperfection and self-interest. It cannot be done out of the only right motive, that of pleasing and glorifying God. Whether done to impress others with one’s goodness, to react to peer pressure, to alleviate guilt feelings, or simply to feel better about oneself, anything that is not done for God and through His power is basically sinful and unacceptable to Him-no matter how outwardly good and self-sacrificial it may appear to be.
David committed terrible sins while he served as God’s anointed king of God’s chosen nation. As noted in the previous chapter, many of his sins, such as his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, were capital offenses for which God could justly have demanded David’s life. But the basic motivation and direction of David’s life were not selfish ambition and unrighteousness but the service and worship of God. He readily acknowledged and confessed his sins before God, throwing himself on the Lord’s mercy and grace. Judas, on the other hand, although outwardly upright and religious and a professed follower of Christ, was thoroughly self-centered. Inwardly he came to have contempt for Christ and His gospel of grace. The heart desires that moved those two men were open books to the Lord, and their respective guilt and deeds will be judged for what they truly were and not for the way they appeared to other men.
If Romans 2:6–16 teaches anything, it teaches that a redeemed life will produce holy living and that a life that reflects no holy living has no claim on eternal life. Right living, which can only come from right motivation, is the God-given evidence of genuine salvation. Lack of right living is just as certain evidence of lostness.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (pp. 125–144). Chicago: Moody Press.