SERMON FOR MAY 17, 1998 FROM ROMANS 2:12-16
Our text this morning is Romans 2:12-16. Paul writes, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”
This text, like last week’s is almost guaranteed to give the vast majority of North American evangelicals a headache if they study it for any length of time. It seems so contrary to what they understand to be the gospel of grace. It seems to be so inconsistent with what they know about justification by faith. Many people just skip over this text with the attitude, “I don’t know what it means, but it CAN’T mean what it seems to say.” Verse 13 makes no sense to so many today, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”
Where many get confused is when Paul says “God will declare righteous those who OBEY THE LAW.” We know that for God to declare someone righteous is to justify them. To be justified is to be declared righteous by God. And we know that we are justified by FAITH. Yet Paul says here in verse 13 in so many words that we are justified by obeying the law. This is where many Christians start flashing the TILT sign because it seems to contradict what they understand to be justification by faith alone. This can be even more frustrating when we look at 3:20 where it says, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law;...” This appears to be a direct contradiction to 2:13 “it is to those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” How do we settle this dilemma? We ran into this kind of tension last week when we saw in verse six, “God will give to each person according to what He has done.” Paul draws an airtight, unbreakable connection between what we DO and God’s judgment of us. He lays his emphasis on what we DO and most evangelicals have no place in their theology for that and immediately (and I might add, WRONGLY) label it legalism.
One reason we can get distressed is because what we hear Paul saying in 2:13 is, “You have to work to be saved” and we are ready to cry “legalism,” but when Paul says what he says in verses six and verse 13, he is not saying, “You must work to be saved.” Well, then just what is he saying? How can Paul be saying that works are connected to justification? I’m going to spend much of our time addressing this question because the lack of understanding as to the necessity of works in the believer’s life is the source of a huge and monstrous misunderstanding of what it is to be a true disciple of Christ. And it is having horrible effects on the church. Not having a solid understanding of the necessity of works in the Christians life drains the fear of God out of people, it causes them to be cavalier in their walk with God and reduces their motivation for holy living. Let me begin the explanation with an illustration. This is a complex illustration, but I’m making a complex point, here.
Assume there is an exclusive club which exists only for identical twins. To be a member of this club carries with it wonderful benefits which anyone in their right mind would want. The club is very sophisticated in that it screens all applicants to the club with a DNA test to confirm that the DNA of both siblings is identical. This requirement safeguards against allowing people in the club who, although they look alot alike, are not genuine, genetic identical twins. Now, let’s say you walk up with your sibling--you are tall, blond hared (the hair is your natural color), fair skinned and blue eyed, and your sibling is shorter, dark hared, dark skinned and brown eyed. You show up and boldly proclaim “We want to be in your club--we are identical twins and we have the evidence to prove it.” The registrar takes one look at you--your outward appearance and says, “Get out or I’ll call the cops--this is an identical twins club and you are not fit to be in it.” He doesn’t even give you a DNA test. He judges you solely on the basis of your “outward performance,” that is, how you look.
Let me ask you, within this context is that man a legalist--is he holding you to an unfair standard to get into the club? He didn’t give you a fair hearing. He totally dismissed your sincere and heartfelt profession of being eligible for admission into the club. He didn’t even look at your alleged evidence. Is he a legalist because he tells you that in order to get into the identical twins club you have to look like a set of identical twins? The answer is, NO! Because the truth of the matter is, if you have identical DNA, it is biologically impossible to have different colored hair and skin and eyes. That which is in your internal genetic code will always correspond to your outward appearance unless you have done something to physically alter your appearance.
Even though the rules of the club place their stress on the DNA evidence, it is patently obvious that in order to be allowed into the identical twins club, you must look the same. They admit people on the basis of their outward appearance. To put it in theological terms, they “justify” people on the basis of their outward appearance. The reason the rules stress the internal DNA test because they want to screen out siblings who, though they look quite alike, are not truly identical. THAT’S why they make the genetic issue a requirement. It is NOT because they think physical appearance is irrelevant in the arena of identicalness--which is the standard of entrance for the club. They ASSUME physical resemblance among identical twins. What is inside on the genetic code will correspond with what is OUTSIDE in the physical appearance. Its not wrong for them to say, “a requirement of our club is that you DO something--(you have to look the same)” because what you look like outwardly reflects an internal reality. Now, let’s start applying this. In order to get into this club, do you have to WORK to make yourself look the same as your sibling to get into the club? NO! You don’t have to make yourself look the same because YOU ARE the same. There is no WORK required to get into the club. You are either identical or you are not and God made you that way. If you try to work to make yourself look identical, the judge will disqualify you, because you can’t work to gain entrance into the club--it depends on the work of God.
This is basically the same argument Paul makes here. He assumes that if you have been transformed in the new birth which is a work of God, there will be an outward appearance which correlates with what has happened inside. One theologian has well said, “The transforming work of the Spirit accompanies and cannot be separated from the justifying work of God.” If you have the Holy Spirit--if God, through this glorious gospel has done a saving work in your life--your spiritual DNA has changed--you were dead, now you’re alive. You were lost, now you’re found. You are a new creature in Christ, recreated to become like Jesus and to manifest His character and carry on His ministry. That’s what the gospel does when it does a work on a person.
Will that effect your outward, external character, the way you live your life, your desires, your passions, your priorities, your value systems? You better believe it. Your spiritual DNA has been transformed by the power of God through the faith He has given you. The works, the value systems, the character, the priorities are simply the outward manifestation of the inward change. Granted the change is gradual, (and this is where the illustration with DNA is not an exact corollary) but the change is unmistakably there. James says it this way, “Faith without works is dead”--it is not saving faith. It is not the faith given by God through the gospel in justification.
Calvin says it this way, “We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone.” Luther’s makes the same point in his preface to his commentary on Romans which I quoted from last September when we spoke on James 2 says, “O it is a living, busy active might thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such good works, however is an unbeliever. In this sense, Luther is clearly saying that we are justified by works.
Now that we’ve said all that, let’s get back to the two seemingly contradictory texts. In 2:13 when Paul says”...it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” he is simply saying, “you will be justified by obeying the law in the sense that they are the unmistakable mark of faith. They are so closely related, you can’t separate them--where you have faith, you WILL have a changed life.” In 3:20, the context is different. The context is the total depravity of a lost person to the degree that nothing they can do can justify them, make them righteous. And so Paul says, “...no one will declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.” The context dictates that what Paul is saying is this, “There is no way a rebel sinner could ever do anything to attain the righteousness of God.” Let me ask you, are we justified by works? It depends what you mean? If you say, “A person cannot be justified unless and until they do such and such...” the answer is an unqualified, NO, anymore than two non-identical brothers can be identical twins by DOING SOMETHING to alter their appearance. That is legalism and Paul condemns it in the strongest language. But if, by justification by works you mean, “Works are such a strong, uncompromising indicator of the presence of saving faith, God will judge on the basis of works” the answer is an unqualified “YES.”
The question is NOT “Does God require obedience to escape His wrath?” Romans 2:13 says He does--its settled. God requires works! The question is this: Does God require works IN ORDER TO BE SAVED on the front end of conversion, or does he require works on the back end of conversion as a result of His transforming work? That’s the question and the answer is of course that he absolutely requires them on the back end of conversion as manifestations of His righteousness--the righteousness the gospel provides. And if you don’t have them, you will taste the wrath of God, pure and simple. That is not legalism, it is the truth of the gospel. Our response should be a sober evaluation of ourselves and to ask the Holy Spirit to powerfully convict us if we are not manifesting a transformed life to some degree.
Having said that, let’s read Romans 2:12-16 again. “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Notice a change of form here. In verses 1-11 and starting up again in verse 17, Paul speaks to the people directly. He says, “YOU.” He doesn’t do that here. In verses 12-13 Paul says, “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” For it is not those who hear the law who will be declared righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Paul is simply saying its NOT whether you have the law (and by those who have the law, Paul means Jews) or whether you are a Gentile and do not have the law, the crucial issue is whether you reflect the righteousness of God in what you do. The main group Paul addresses here and for the rest of the chapter is the Jews.
The Jews, as Paul points out in the beginning of chapter three are a people God has greatly blessed. They are, among other things, of all the people on earth, the group God gave the astounding privilege of revealing Himself to in a direct manner. The highest expression of his revelation to them was He gave them the law of Moses. This was not merely a set of rules for living--every culture had a set of those. He gave the Jews, of all people, an expression of His holy character--he revealed Himself to the Jews through the law. What an awesome privilege!
Without revealing what he says in the rest of the chapter, the Jews had long believed that because God had revealed Himself to them through the law, that assured their right standing with Him. They were God’s chosen people because God had given THEM the law. Paul says, “No, you prove you are my chosen people is you OBEY my law--having it is not the issue, OBEYING is the issue.” Today, all Jews who have not accepted Yeshua as their Messiah are lost and going to hell because, though they possess the external standard of the law as part of their cherished heritage, they are NOT saved by merely having the law. Anyone who holds that Jews will go to heaven apart from the righteousness of God available through the saving work of Christ in the gospel is grossly mistaken. Paul makes that very clear as he moves on in chapter two.
In verses 14-16, Paul is speaking of the Gentiles and says, “When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now defending them.” This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”
This is a difficult text. The question is, “Is Paul referring to Gentile Christians or unbelievers?” I think he’s talking about unbelieving Gentiles who occasionally obey the law, externally and let me tell you why. First, as we said before, he is not referring to “you”, the church, but seems to be speaking hypothetically. Second, the original translation of verse 15 does not say as the NIV says, “since they show the REQUIREMENTS of the law are written on their hearts.” It says, “In that they show the WORK of the law written in their hearts.” The promise of Jeremiah for the New Covenant people is that the LAW would be written on their hearts, NOT that the WORK of the law would be written on their hearts. Also, to quote Tom Shreiner, one of my New Testament professors, “To say that the Gentiles are a law to themselves, would be a very odd way to describe God’s law written on the heart...” Also, in the second half of verse 15, the work of the law leads NOT to salvation, but to accusing thoughts on the day of judgment. Again, to quote Shreiner, “Occasionally, they [these nice Gentiles] obey these moral norms, but usually they fail to keep the law, so their consciences will accuse them on...judgment day.”
The main truth of this text is similar to what we have seen in the past 11 verses. It is: If people are to escape the judgment and wrath of God, they must have Christ’s righteousness, not merely the external standard of righteousness or a humanly explainable, superficial righteousness. Let me just say this by way of application. There are lots of nice, sweet, seemingly kind hearted people in
our world. We meet them at the mailbox and they smile at us and we talk to them and they are so nice--they seem to be as nice as we are. That may be an indictment on our lukewarm lives. They may shovel our driveway for us--their marriages may be very happy-they may be ethical in their business dealings. They may teach their kids to do the same. The only major seeming difference they have with us is they have no place for religion in their life. Other than that, they seem to be almost “Christian” in their behavior. Its tempting to feel, “How could God condemn to hell such a thoroughly nice person?” Know this. God does not see them as nice or ethical or sweet but as cosmic rebels who are shaking their fist in defiance to him and unless they receive the gospel, they will suffer the torments of hell for eternity.
“NICE” doesn’t get you to heaven. And all those nice people we know need to know that. The need to know they are lost and hell bound and you may be to only person in their life to tell them that. You may be the person God has appointed to bring them the gospel. They may reject you and you may lose their friendship but at least their blood will not be on your hands. We who have this glorious, life changing gospel are called to tell all those without it the truth. May God give us grace to care more about offending him than those around us who need to know of their need for the gospel.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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