With Dale Ratzlaff
We pick up our study in Romans 2:12-16:
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (Rom. 2:12-16).
There are a number of important insights in this short section, especially for former or transitioning Adventists. In the first verse of this section we are told about people “who have sinned without the law”. In Adventism we were taught that “sin is the transgression of the law”. A defining key text we all learned in Bible Doctrines class was:
Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law (1 Jn. 3:4 KJV).
It was argued that Adam and Eve could not have sinned if the law had not been there. That is why the seminary at Andrews University has a pictorial garden illustrating Adventism’s great controversy between Christ and Satan. Right in the section representing the Garden of Eden there is an image of the Ten Commandments. This concept is necessary for them to claim the universal requirement for keeping the Sabbath. That sin existed before the law, however, is a major motif in Paul’s theology. Later in our Romans study we will find more evidence to support this fact. It is also clearly stated in Paul’s other epistles:
for before the law was given, sin was in the world, (Rom. 5:13).
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise (Gal. 3:16-17).
Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions (Gal. 3:19).
Paul shows that the sins committed by people who did not have the law do not get a reprieve; they will perish without the law.
Next, he considers the Jewish Christians who will read this letter:
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.
I have received dozens of letters, phone calls, and emails regarding this verse. Most of them use this verse to prove we must be doers of the law. They often say something like this: “True, we are justified by faith, but only the doers of the law are really justified. Without obedience to the law there can be no salvation.”
Two things must be said regarding the interpretation of the above verse. First, in Paul’s outline he continues to show that all people are under condemnation. In Romans 3 he will state this clearly,
…because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20).
The Jews felt as long as they could prove they were decedents from Abraham and were given the law through Moses they had an inside track to glory. The problem with being justified by doing the works of the law, however, is that no one does them perfectly. As Paul wrote to the Galatians,
For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh (Gal. 6:13).
One could say the same thing about those who believe keeping the Sabbath is necessary to please God. However, these very same people don’t keep the Sabbath according to the law. So in essence their Sabbath keeping actually serves to condemn them. And this is the thought of Paul when he says that the doers of the law will be justified. The problem is there are no real “doers of the law” that keep the law well enough to merit justification.
The next section of our passage must be studied as a whole. As we noted in a previous study, the Church at Rome was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Having just addressed the Jews, he now discusses natural theology that applies to the Gentiles.
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 (Rom. 2:12-16).
We note again, not to burden you with repetition, but to emphasize the truth that the Gentiles are not under the law; “Gentiles who do not have the law”… “these not having the law”. However, not having the law does not excuse them from sin. Written into the DNA of our nature is the natural law of conscience. All societies, with few exceptions, instinctively know murder is wrong, the same can be said for adultery, stealing, lying and doing harm to one’s parents. This knowledge Paul states, serves to either accuse them when they do wrong or else defends them when they do right. Couple this knowledge with the truth that all have sinned, either under the law (Jews) or against one’s conscience (Gentiles). God, knowing the secrets of our hearts, including our thoughts and actions, has more than enough data to show that we are all deserving condemnation.
Some have speculated that God, who knows the heart, may save some people who have never known the name of Jesus. Obviously, believing Jews who came before Christ would be saved without knowing the name of Jesus, but they would be saved on the basis of their belief in God’s promises. But what about Gentiles who demonstrated to God through acts of love, honesty, and other moral values of conscience that they believed in the God who made Himself known through what had been made (Rom. 1:18-20)? They would be saved on the basis of the merits of Christ even though they did not know Him. In fact, God who knows the heart has saved many who were outside of the covenant because God credits righteousness to those who, like Abraham, believe (Gen. 15:6).
But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. (Lk. 4:25-27).
At the time of Christ’s birth, wise men, who were not a part of the covenant people, were guided to see the baby born to be the Savior of the world. Similarly, today we hear stories of Muslims who have dreams about Jesus leading them to search out the truth of the gospel.
We may speculate how a just and loving God will deal with those who appear never to have had the opportunity to express saving faith in the prescribed way. Nevertheless, we must leave this mystery with God. Paul’s thought in this section in Romans is not how some Gentiles might be saved by following their conscience; rather, he is showing that the Gentiles have not always followed their conscience and therefore, come under the condemnation of sin.
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law.
In applying this section to our own lives several things come to mind. For those of us transitioning out of Adventism, or for those still there, the first application is for us to accept the truth that sin came to the human race long before there was law. Second, people before the time of Moses and those outside the perimeter of the Sinaitic covenant lived under the law of conscience, and this knowledge of good and bad is enough to show that even those without the law will perish as sinners were it not for the grace of God.
We must admit that we have not always done what is lawful by the standard of the law, nor have we always done what was right based upon the prompting of our own consciences. We now recognize that those in our family and the people we fellowship with at church as well as the sinner down the street or next door all stand in need of the grace of God. Our Savior said He came to seek and save those who were lost—in other words, all of us! We know the rest of the story because we have come to the cross and received His free, saving grace. Paul’s readers in Rome are only one chapter away from the really, really good news!
Dear Father, may I never trust in my own obedience to the law or in doing what I think is right for my salvation. May I look to Christ and His righteousness accounted to me when I believed and trusted my life to Him as my only hope. Help me live righteously out of the joy of knowing you. I will always be the son/daughter of my Father; may I live today like your beloved child.