There are two very important issues that St. Paul is dealing with this morning as we continue on through the book of Romans. First, there is the issue of judgement and justification. Second, there is the issue of what happens if people do not have God’s revelation. Both of these issues affect the church in a very real way today, so let’s deal with them one by one as we look at the text for today.
As we turn to the text, let me give a brief review of where we have been. Paul begins Romans with a greeting to those he is writing to. He then gives a brief summary of what he is going to cover in the letter. Then, he offers a scathing condemnation of humanity showing how humankind is fallen because they have refused to worship the Creator of the universe and instead worshiped the creation. This causes God’s created order to unravel and we therefore experience hell on earth.
Last week, Paul pivots to deal with those who worship God–who think that by following the commands of God that they somehow are worthy of salvation. Paul shows that they have made an idol out of their goodness and therefore are hypocrites. They do the exact same thing that non-religious people do and are under the same condemnation of God
Today, Paul continues to cut through the reasons that people would give to justify themselves in his day as he writes: 12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. In these verses, Paul basically says, “It is not what you know that will justify you. It is what you do.”
I am reminded of a joke at this juncture. Forrest Gump dies and goes to the Pearly Gates. St. Peter meets Forrest there and says, “Welcome, Forrest. We are glad that you are here, but you need to know there is an entrance exam to get into heaven. You will need to answer three questions. The first one is, ‘How many days of the week start with the letter T?’
Forrest thinks a moment and says, “Two.”
Peter responds, “That’s right. Now, which ones?”
Forrest says, “Today and tomorrow.”
Peter is a little taken aback. He says, “Well, technically, that’s not right, but you did get two right. I will let that one slide. Now, the second question is, ‘How many seconds are there in a year?’
Forrest thinks for a while and says, “12.”
Peter is shocked by the answer and says, “Forrest. That’s completely wrong. How did you come up with 12?”
Forrest replies, “Well, there’s January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd...”
Peter scratches his head and says, “Well, you know. I never thought of it that way. You are right in that light there are 12 seconds. I guess I will have to give you credit. The final question is this, ‘Tell me God’s name.’”
Forrest quickly says, “That’s an easy one. His name is Andy.”
Peter stammers, “What?! How in the world do you think God’s name is Andy?”
Forrest replies, “You know, the song. Andy walks with me. Andy talks with me..”
Maybe you’ve heard that one before. What does it have to do with Paul’s comments? Nothing at all. I just wanted to tell the joke.
Well, maybe in a round about way because there were many Jews at the time of the writing of the book of Romans who believed that their knowledge of the Law–or Torah–the first five books of the Old Testament, would grant and guarantee them salvation. As God’s chosen people–as the people of the book–they believed that as long as they knew the Torah, had studied it, and had heard it, their salvation was guaranteed.
Paul says, “Not so fast.” It doesn’t matter if you know what law number 432 out of 613 is. What matters, Paul says, is whether or not you have followed law number 432. It’s not whether or not you know the law–it’s whether or not you follow the law.
For instance, if a DPS trooper pulls you over for doing 100 on I-10, he is not going to excuse you because you knew that the speed limit was 75. The point is not that you knew the speed limit–the point is, you didn’t follow it.
Paul unequivocally tells the Jews in his audience, “Your knowledge of the Torah and the Ten Commandments and the Law will not save you. If you want justification, you have to follow the commands. You have to do everything required of you. You have to be blameless before God.”
Is such a thing possible? Paul has just shown at the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two that it is not possible. He will reiterate this point in chapter three. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” The Law cannot be fully fulfilled. As a Jew, you have no advantage.
The application for those of us who are Christian is this: don’t pride yourself in being able to quote what is right and what is wrong. Don’t pat yourself on the back because you know what Jesus commands His followers to do. Don’t get a big head because you can quote all sorts of Bible verses about justice or peace or morality or sexual purity. It doesn’t matter a flip if you can do that–the important part in the eyes of God is whether or not you have done such things. And if you haven’t fulfilled them perfectly, you are in trouble.
But, and there’s always a but...what happens to those who don’t have such knowledge? What happens to those who have never heard the Law read? What happens to those who have never heard of the teachings of Jesus? What will happen to them? This is a big question in all reality. There are many from outside the church who question the nature and justice of God because of this. They ask, “Will God condemn a person to hell if they have never heard about Jesus?” Many cannot accept this and actually walk away from Christianity or refuse to engage it because they see God as vicious because of this.
Paul addresses this question next: 14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. Paul says that while not having the revealed Torah–or Law, the Gentiles still have a law. They still have a set of moral codes.
They still have an understanding of how to treat one another. They still have a conscience.
Scholars are actually have three different understandings of what is going on with the Gentiles and the Law here. Depending upon which scholar you read, you will get three options. To me, as I place this argument within the context of what Paul has just written and the points he has just made, I think he is returning to the concept of natural law. I think he is returning to the idea that deep down within each and everyone of us–written deep within our heart (and remember, the heart was considered the source of right and wrong and desire), there are ideas of justice, fairness, and peace. As we grow the axiom, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” becomes a good guide of what we should and shouldn’t do. Societies base all sorts of moral codes based upon this, and for the most part all societies share them. Where they have differed across history is that the laws usually only apply within their own society. If you are an outsider, you are fair game. But that is not the point Paul is making. The point is–Gentiles have a law–a Torah–deep within themselves. And their conscience helps them understand whether they are right or wrong.
Now, we need to understand that the concept of a conscience in St. Paul’s day was not like our understanding of conscience. We understand conscience as the source of our moral norms–whether or not we feel bad about something we do or don’t do. Paul is using the word differently. He is using it as a mechanism that we have deep within our hearts that helps us reflect upon whether or not we meet a certain norm. For instance, if I see that it is normal for people to refrain from stealing, my conscience helps me to see whether or not I meet that norm. If I am consistently stealing and no one else is, then I am not meeting that norm in the least. I am breaking the law. Paul says that this conscience accuses them when they do not measure up, or it excuses them when they do, and this will be the basis that God uses to judge them.
What does that mean? Just this: the Jew who is under the Torah, will be judged by the Torah. But the Gentile will be judged by the standards that he or she judges everyone else. Let that sink in a moment. The Jews will be judged by the standard of the Torah. Everyone else will be judged by the standard that they judge everyone else. None of us are Jews here this morning as far as I can tell, so I think this question is pertinent to each of us: think about the moral standard that you have for everyone else. Think about the moral standard that you have for young people; for older people; for fellow Christians; for those who work; for those who don’t work; for those who drive in their cars; for those who live a certain lifestyle; for those who are gay; for those who are straight; for those who are Republican; for those who are Democrat; think about the standard you hold for politicians; for police officers; for teachers; for preachers; for day laborers. Think about all those standards and then ask yourself: do you live up to those standards yourself?
The most blatant example of this that I have run across in my life came when I was serving in my last congregation. A gentleman who at one time was a bank president was chiding the senior pastor because the senior pastor felt like he didn’t get the raise he deserved. The former bank president said straight up, “You work for God. You are not supposed to want money.” To which, the senior pastor responded, “Well that works for you too.” The former bank president said, “No. It’s different for me.”
Paul would say, “No. No, it is not. To the standards you hold everyone else, you will be judged!” I think, if you are being honest with yourself, this is a terrifying thought. None of us live up to the standards we hold for other people. None of us fulfill the law that we have unto ourselves. If indeed we are judged by this standard, we are all in deep trouble. We are in need of a savior.
Fortunately, there is good news, but we will have to wait once more to hear it. Reflect upon your own nature for the time being. Reflect and ask yourself: are you content simply to know what God demands; what Jesus asks. Are you satisfied with knowing instead of doing? And, then wrestle with your heart. Ask yourself if you live up to the standards you hold for others. If you find yourself a bit uncomfortable with the answers to these questions, hold on–when you see what God has done, you will know why grace is truly amazing. Amen.