By Bruce Mills
I recently received the following question regarding Romans 2:13-15 from a dear Christian friend with whom I periodically interact on theological issues: Does this passage lead us to believe that some who never heard of Christ—never had the opportunity—will still enjoy everlasting life in Heaven with God if by nature they have kept God’s law?
I would like to try to summarize my response to him, which as I look back on it, was far too long and detailed. But I figure that if a well-taught Christian with a good understanding of Scripture is asking such a question, there may be others who wonder the same thing. Since I recently taught this passage in my Sunday School class, I also have the advantage of having material ready-at-hand which I can boil down into a blog-sized version. So with that introduction, here goes.
In Romans 2, Paul is explaining the basis upon which God judges mankind. He is writing particularly to the Jewish moralists who would look at their being Jewish as eliminating the possibility of God’s judgment falling on them because they were God’s chosen people. So throughout this chapter, Paul is explaining why the Jews are just as guilty before God as the unbelieving pagans, and what bases God will use to judge them and the rest of mankind.
One of the principles upon which God’s judgment is based or by which it is characterized is God’s impartiality. This is discussed in verses 11-15: 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 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.
Verse 11 functions as the conclusion to the paragraph found in verses 6-10 about the deeds of the saved and the unsaved. And the conclusion is that God is impartial in how He judges. But verse 11 also functions to lead into another paragraph which ties together the two principles of judgment; namely, man’s deeds and God’s impartiality.
The word translated “partiality” means “to receive a face,” that is, to give consideration to a person because of who he is. That’s the idea behind the symbol of justice which is a woman who is blindfolded, holding a set of scales in her hand upon which she weighs the evidence. It signifies 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.
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. A person’s position, education, influence, popularity, or physical appearance will have absolutely no bearing on God’s decision concerning his or her eternal destiny.
Think about God’s impartial judgment of Lucifer. Here was the most magnificent, exalted, wise, beautiful, and important creature God made. But because of his prideful ambition to raise himself even above his Creator and to make himself “like the Most High,” even the highest-ranking, most majestic being ever created was cast out of heaven by God. The most exalted became the most debased. If there ever was a being whose position merited special favor before God, it was Lucifer. But his high position made him more accountable for his evil rebellion and therefore, he will receive the greatest punishment of any creature in hell.
If God was impartial in His judgment of Lucifer, why should any mortal man ever expect God to show special favor in judgment? So, in a similar manner to Lucifer, those of mankind who have the greater light of God’s revelation will receive greater judgment because they are more accountable for what they knew.
In other words, God’s judgment upon the unsaved of the United States will be harsher than His judgment upon the native of the Amazon rainforest who never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Both are responsible before God for their knowledge of the true God as revealed in nature, but those who have heard the gospel and rejected it will fall under greater condemnation.
Beginning in verse 12 and continuing through verse 15, Paul now ties together the two principles of judging people by their deeds with God’s impartiality, and He explains how these principles work together. He begins by mentioning that there are two distinct groups of sinners: those who have not had opportunity to know God’s Law and those who have had the opportunity to know it. He is speaking, of course, about the Law given through Moses to the people of Israel, and those who did not have the Law, who were the Gentiles.
Now, it is not that those without the special revelation of the Law have no awareness of God or sense of right and wrong. Paul has already established that, through the evidence of creation, all men have witness of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (1:20).
So then, it doesn’t really matter very much whether people have received the Law in a formal sense or not; all are under condemnation. 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. The lost Gentile will just as surely perish as the lost Jew, but as Paul has already implied in verse 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 slaves whose master went on a long journey, and He spoke of the differences between the slaves who were looking for the master’s return and those who ignored the possibility that the master would soon return. And then one day the master suddenly returned, and in Luke 12:47-48, He said, “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”
In other words, there were slaves who knew what the master expected and didn’t get ready, and there were slaves who had no idea what the master expected. Both were punished, but those who knew what the master expected got it much worse.
So too, it will be in hell. All mankind has the light of God’s revelation of Himself, but those who have greater light through His revealed Law and His Son and still reject Him will receive much greater punishment than those who have less light. All unsaved will be punished with eternal hell, but some will receive greater punishment in terms of its degree.
That’s what Paul means when he says to the Jew at the end of verse 12, “all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law.” They had the extra light of God’s revealed Word given to them, so if they rejected its truth, they will receive greater judgment.
However, the people who will receive the harshest judgment are those who have knowledge not only of the OT Law but also of the NT gospel, and still reject the truth. That describes many of the people here in our nation. They will be like the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, which not only had God’s Law, but witnessed God’s own Son in their midst performing miracles and teaching. Yet they rejected Him as their Messiah, and Jesus told them it would be better on the Day of Judgment for the pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom than for them (Matt. 11:20-23).
In verse 13, Paul says, “for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” Paul expresses the same idea that James does in his letter (James 1:22-23), and interestingly, they both use a word for “hearers” that is not the usual word for hearing. This word refers to 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 the course, he is only required 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.
But God does not recognize 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.
I fear for those unbelievers who attend sound, evangelical, Bible-teaching churches week after week and sit under the sound of the Word being clearly taught, verse-by-verse, with its truths expounded to them, yet walk away untouched, continuing to live their moral, but unregenerate, lives. Unless they turn in repentance to Christ, they will receive an eternal judgment which is far greater than their drug-abusing neighbor who drinks himself into a stupor every night at the local nude bar, then goes home and beats his live-in girlfriend, and has never darkened the door of a sound Bible-teaching church or heard a clear presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Doers of the Law” are those who come to God in repentance and faith, realizing that His Law is impossible for them to keep apart from His enabling power, and that knowledge of it places them under greater obligation to obey it. 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.”
I want to discuss this phrase “will be justified” at the end of verse 13. It is the Greek word which means “to declare righteous.” It is a forensic or legal term meaning “to acquit.” It is the normal word to use when the accused is declared “not guilty.”
Contrary to what some have said, it does not mean “to make righteous.” When a person comes to saving faith in Christ, he is not “made righteous,” but rather, he is “declared righteous.” In other words, he does not become guiltless, but rather God declares him to be “not guilty” based on the guiltless Son of God’s substitutionary atonement in his place. Jesus’ perfect righteousness is imputed to that person’s account, and when God looks at him, rather than seeing the person’s sin, He sees the perfection of His Son and declares the believer to be righteous.
It stands as a perfect contrast to the term “condemnation.” “To condemn” someone does not mean “to make wicked,” but rather it means “to declare guilty.” So too, “to justify” means “to declare just (or righteous).”
Now here at the end of verse 13, it says that “the doers of the Law will be justified.” Notice that the term “will be justified” is in the future tense; it is something that will happen to them at some future point in time. No one can be declared righteous in this life by obedience to the Law, so this is referring to the future Day of Judgment when God, who sees the heart, will examine those whose lives of obedience to His Law demonstrated the genuineness of their faith in Christ and will declare them righteous.
At this point, one of Paul’s Jewish readers might ask, “Does that mean that the Gentiles are excused from external judgment and punishment because they didn’t have the advantage of the Law, and therefore, had no basis for obedient living?” So Paul answers that in verse 14. He says, “No! The Gentiles may not have the Law, but they ‘do instinctively the things of the Law’ being ‘a law to themselves,’ and by 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, if someone ever asks you why you believe that the heathen who have never heard about Christ are nevertheless lost and condemned to eternal hell, let me give you four reasons which you can give them…four reasons why the heathen are lost.
First, as Paul states in Romans 1:18-21, their rejection of their knowledge of God available through His creation condemns them. God has clearly revealed His eternal power and divine nature to mankind, yet the vast majority of mankind rejected the true God and chose to worship false gods.
Second, their conduct, based on the knowledge “of the Law written in their hearts,” condemns them. The fact that mankind has established laws against certain things such as murder and theft, and values such virtues as honesty, respectfulness, faithfulness, and generosity across all cultural lines, simply proves that they have a knowledge of God’s Law which has been 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 that they had an understanding of God’s Law.
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. So the pagan who has never heard of the Bible or Jesus Christ is still guilty because his conscience tells him what is right and what is wrong. His refusal to listen to it is evidence of his fallen, sinful rebellion against God.
Fourth, the heathen are lost because of their contemplation. Paul says, “their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” This natural faculty is obviously closely related to conscience. Using their conscience which provides a basic knowledge of right and wrong, unbelievers have the obvious ability to determine that certain things are basically right and wrong.
Many people have a highly developed sense of what is just and fair, right and wrong, without ever having a saving relationship to Jesus Christ. Even the most godless societies become incensed when a child is brutally attacked or murdered. You can see this in our prison system where the most vicious drug dealers, murderers, thieves, rapists, and gang members are kept. When a child molester or child killer is sent to prison, the officials have to keep them isolated from the general prison population because if they do not, the prisoners will quickly administer justice by murdering the child molester.
So, for those four reasons—creation, conduct, conscience, and contemplation—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. Paul assured his pagan listeners on Mars Hill in Athens, that God “made from one man 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 would 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). And the person who genuinely seeks to know and follow God is divinely assured that he will succeed. In Jeremiah 29:13, the Lord said, “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.”