Is God Fair? (Rom 2:14-16)
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Is God Fair?
Romans 2:14 to 16, “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, 15 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, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.”
On Tuesday, during Training Center, Jeff Price, Chris Mueller and I are sharing a table–one of us would be up teaching the year-one men about Thessalonians and Corinthians. At the table, the other two guys would have election results up–we’re hitting refresh on our computers, tracking the initial returns. As more states began to report, the final picture continued to emerge.
Those who voted for Romney were disappointed. Not only did he not win, but it was not a close race. Of greater significance were the popular shifts visible on gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana. The Judeo-Christian ethic that has pervaded our country for many years seems to be on life support. Not since the second Great Awakening has there been any evidence of spiritual renewal in a national sense.
The American nation and culture appears to be descending into the cycle of sin described in Romans 1, where God gives a people group over to their depravity, and they fully worship and serve creation rather than the Creator. It’s a sad time, and yet a hopeful time. It was in a time like this that much of the New Testament was written. It has been in times like this that the Gospel has thrived and spread the most.
The middle way of Christian values without a Christian faith is fading. Familiarity with Bible stories is declining. It will become progressively harder to be a faithful Christian in our culture. Our challenges for the last fifty-plus years have come from those within the Church. Challenges ahead will come from outside, more often from our government and culture–and that would be just as true if Romney had been elected.
There are fresh opportunities for the spread of the Gospel because of this. This is not a time for sadness. This is not a time for despair. This is a time for humble boldness. This is a time for courageous living. Christians are to be different than the world, and that difference is going to become vivid. We need to be ready to speak about the hope that lies within us. We need to be ready to answer questions that are put to us. More and more often, you will have to be ready to make a defense for the hope that is in you.
Today, we’re going to tackle an objection people have to God and to salvation. People often accuse God of being unfair. How He deals with people seems capricious and whimsical. How can a good God only save some people, and not all? How is it just for Him to condemn those who have never heard the Gospel?
People often feel that God’s justice is not just. His saving choice of only some seems dishonorable. And even Christians, probably all of us, have wrestled with this feeling at times. How do you answer?
What do you say to the person who says that they could not believe in a God who condemns those who’ve had no chance to hear the Gospel? What do you tell yourself when somebody whom you love and pray for and witness to has died and never believed in Jesus? How do you respond to the person who asks how a loving God could only save some? Is God just? Do you believe that? Are you ready to worship God for that? What would you say?
We’re going to look into the book of Romans today to find answers. Paul is writing to a mixed church–it’s a church full of Jews and Gentiles. And he starts the letter by laying out the Gospel. Now he doesn’t do that in just a single chapter, but for about eight of them he walks step-by-step through the core of the Gospel.
The emphasis of the first three chapters is on our sinfulness. He wants everyone to understand that they are under judgment of God as rebels before Him. Chapter 1 describes how the whole of humanity, and particularly the Greek culture, is under the wrath of God for abandoning the worship of the Creator and worshipping the creature.
In chapter two he responds to the objections. The Jews would say, “Ah–but we are in a better place, for we are God’s chosen people and possessors of the Law of God.” And Paul says to them, “No. No–you are under judgment for failing to keep the Law which He gave to you.” Merely hearing the Law will not save you–being a possessor of the Law will not make you righteous.
And there are people like that today. They have a Bible at home, and assume that because they identify themselves as a Christian and have the right course materials, then they will be saved. Just like the Jews, there are many people today who think that because their family is Christian, then they also must be. Others think that going to church regularly will satisfy God, especially if you slip him a $20 sometimes. Still more would argue that your attendance to church doesn’t matter much, compared to how you live. If you live well, compassionately, and without any major no-no’s, then you should expect to enter heaven.
To the Jews back then, and to people like that today, Paul writes the second half of Romans 2. He says that being people of the Law, having the Law, and even hearing the Law won’t save you or make you righteous. That’s written to the religious. It’s written to Jews who saw themselves as God’s chosen people. But in the first half of Romans 2, he focuses on the non-Jews–the Gentiles, or 99.9% of us.
He tells us what governs God’s judgment of all people. He wants us to know that God’s judgment of people is fair. Paul wants you to understand that God is not unfair–He is fair. You heard the questions. You’ve wondered it yourself. This morning, we’re going to laser in on his explanation in verses 14 to 16. What he writes is a bit tricky the first couple of times you read it . . .
“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, 15 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, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14 to 16) So why is God fair in his judgment of all people?
1 We all know what’s right and what’s wrong Verses 14 to 15a
He’s pretty emphatic about this in verse 14. Two times Paul emphasizes that Gentiles (non-Jews) do not have the Law. He’s not talking about the Roman law, but about God’s Law. He’s saying that God didn’t specially reveal His Law to them in the way that He did the Jews.
Now you would think that they should therefore not be guilty. This is the argument that people make. How am I held accountable for something that God hid from me? How is it that I can be judged, if I am ignorant of God’s commands? To this Paul says that Gentiles “do instinctively the things of the Law.”
To each and every American or Ethiopian or Islander, this means that at birth you knew by instinct the things that God desired. God made it so that every person would know at the start of their life that physically abusing the elderly is wrong. He implanted a sense of morality into every person. You know that lying is wrong. You may do it, but you recognize that it’s wrong, because you don’t like to be lied to.
Romans 1:19, “That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.” This is proved throughout history by the many, many unbelievers who had integrity at work, cared for their parents, loved their spouse, and parented well.
Maybe you’ve seen the Duty-Free Shopping stores in airports, where they sell perfume and alcohol tax-free to international travelers? One of the founders of that, Chuck Feeney, has devoted his wealth to philanthropy. He would be in the top 25 wealthiest individuals in the world, but at age 81, he has given away $7.5 billion, and has about $1.5 billion left to give before he’s broke. He plans to die with nothing. And get this–he does not practice any form of organized religion.
Every man does instinctively the things of the Law. Men do not act evilly all the time. There are some great, and very kind, non-Christians around us. We should not think the worst of them. Paul describes it in verse 15 as, “the work of the Law is written in their hearts.”
We may not know God’s exact commands regarding rest, but there is still a weekend for a reason. People may not know the passage in Leviticus that prohibits incest, but there is still a universal understanding that it is wrong. A five-year-old who cannot read the Bible and has never been in church will naturally cry out when his brother steals a toy from him. He knows that wrong has been done.
The work of the Law is written on hearts, and I don’t mean just the commands to avoid. Universally, there is recognition that love is desirable, both to love and be loved. Universally, people have sought mastery over the earth and used its resources for our good. Universally, people believe that something or someone exists who should be worshipped.
Now there are people who try to live for God and obey all His commands that you can find. AJ Jacobs and Rachel Held Evans both did this for satire and book deals. But there are others who genuinely try to do all that they understand God wants, and hope that He will be satisfied by that. To people like that, back then and now, Paul says no, even unbelievers do the right thing sometimes and they will not saved by that.
We all have a foundational knowledge of what’s right and wrong–the work of the Law is written on our hearts. We know the basics of what God wants us to do and not do, and that’s the problem . . .
2 We will condemn ourselves Verse 15b
Because we instinctively know the basics of what’s right and wrong, then we have our mind and our conscience telling us what we should do. “They show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.” Here’s how you know that the Law is written on everyone’s hearts . . .
You have a conscience that starts talking before you do anything
You think about whether you did the right or wrong thing
Paul says that how God made us to think and feel evidences our knowledge of His law. If you look all through God’s creation, man’s conscience and self-consciousness are unique. A salmon swimming upstream through Alaskan rivers doesn’t reflect on whether it was wrong that he shoved ahead of the other fish in that slow area. Whether it’s a monkey, an elephant, a dolphin or a beetle–they can be social animals, have amazing memories, be trained by their environment and even be concerned for others, but they don’t have an internal filter for what’s right and wrong. They don’t sit and reflect on their actions afterwards. Man is unique in having a conscience.
In the Old Testament, they don’t have a designated word for the conscience, partially because men thought much more about their attitude towards God than their attitude towards themselves. But really, they understood the concept and attributed it to the heart.
1 Samuel 24:5, “It came about that David’s heart struck him because he had cut off the edge of Saul’s robe.”
2 Samuel 24:10, “Now David’s heart greatly troubled him after he had numbered the people.”
Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
The conscience is that sense of right and wrong within us that activates guilt. Whether we call it our conscience, our heart or our gut, we all have that. In the New Testament, the Corinthians speak about the conscience the most, using it as their guide in justifying some of their actions to Paul. And we see from how it’s described that the conscience depends on knowledge.
1 Corinthians 10:25 to 26, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.”
He says, don’t stoke your conscience with information about where the meat came from. Be confident that it’s all from the Lord, as Psalm 24 and 50 say. So think about this–your conscience depends on your knowledge. We all start life with an innate sense of right and wrong. Then our cultures, our experiences, and what we learn begins to shape how we think and act.
Your conscience is malleable–it’s changeable. It’s not a diamond, but a piece of copper. The longer that one lives and according to your lifestyle, your conscience will adapt to you. It is a skylight, not a lamp. It doesn’t provide light, but only works based on what you know. Though you are born with an intrinsic knowledge of good and evil, your conscience can be neglected, your conscience can become seared, your conscience can be deadened.
Titus 1:15, “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.”
The conscience, which starts off pure, can be defiled over time–or it can be fed, to stay pure and become more sensitive and trained with time. It’s fed by us and affected by our surroundings. So even Paul refuses to rely on his conscience as a reliable guide to truth.
1 Corinthians 4:4, “For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”
The conscience is not a guide towards truth–it’s a skylight, not a lamp. That means that your skylight, your conscience, can become filthy dirty. First Corinthians 8 describes how you can create callouses on a conscience.
The conscience is not a reliable guide for life–we forget that. Too often, you hear Christians relying on their conscience for decisions. “That movie was okay,” because you had no pang of guilt or remorse watching it. You believe God approved that decision because you felt peace about it. You are not at fault in that argument because you didn’t do anything wrong. All of these things are just ways of saying your conscience didn’t convict you. It’s possible that you were right, and it’s equally possible that you’re wrong. You may not be aware how deeply seared and scarred your conscience is.
But in each of those cases, the work of the conscience is mainly negative. Scripture presents the same thing, even here in Romans 2:15, “the conscience bears witness.” It can be a big red warning light, and it can be ignored.
About 30 years ago, an Avianca Airlines jet crashed in Spain. The pilots approached the runway in a non-standard way and hit two major hillsides. Investigators found the black box which recorded cockpit conversation. I read the transcript. In the final minute of the flight, there is the sound of the warning system saying, “Pull up, pull up, terrain.” The captain simply says, “Okay, okay,” and continues. After one more “okay”, the plane struck the hillside and split into five pieces.
Just like that plane’s warning system, the conscience is designed to warn us. It’s designed to keep us from danger, but we can ignore the noise in our head. And over time, we can even disable it. Like many things that God designed, we can mess this one up too.
So how is it that God can be fair in judging people? We are all born with His law written onto our hearts–we have a conscience which alerts us to wrong, but that we can and do suppress. And an unbeliever will stand on the Day of Judgment and be condemned by his own conscience and thoughts–that’s the point of verse 15. The conscience which we fed or neglected will testify on that day. The thoughts you’ve had, both good and bad, will give evidence in the courtroom.
Paul says, “Their thoughts will alternately accuse or defend them.” The grammar in the original language indicates that those defending thoughts will be rare. Your ability to think, to determine right and wrong, to reflect and analyze–it was all given to you by God. And it will all stand as a witness against you, for the times that you knew the right thing to do, and refused to do it. The testimony of your conscience and your thoughts will bear witness against you.
The scene being pictured here in Romans 2 is of the final day when we stand before God. On that day, you will not believe that God is unfair towards you or anyone else. Look at verses 15 and 16 one more time, “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, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.”
3 The Savior will be the Judge Verse 16
Your conscience and your ability to think and reason will stop serving you one day. On a day in the future, they will stand against you as witnesses of your secrets. There will be no secrets on that day. Every thought and every motive will come to light.
Jeremiah 17:10, “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.”
Luke 8:17, “For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
I cannot know what you’re thinking now. I cannot know what motives you have in your speech and actions. Sometimes we wrongly assume that we know them. Sometimes we assign motive. Sometimes we pretend to know what someone is thinking, but we can’t know. You yourself know, most of the time. But one day, it will all come out–every truth and lie. The good things done with bad motives will come to light–things that went bad but came from good motives will be revealed.
There will be no secrets–no one and nothing will be hidden. You will stand before Jesus–not the Father, but the Son. Whether you are a Christian or not, you will stand before Jesus. It says that God will judge through Jesus Christ. The One who was sent to die for the sins of God’s children will now be the Judge of the world.
He will hear the testimony of every man’s heart. He will know every thought you’ve ever had. He will consider the state of your conscience, whether it’s washed and clean, or abused and seared. And you ask–how is it just that God should condemn those who never heard the Gospel?
You misunderstand the foundation of God’s condemnation. Those who’ve never heard the Gospel will not be condemned for failing to obey and believe what they never heard. Those who’ve never heard the Gospel will be condemned for their flagrant violations of the moral consciousness within them. They will not be condemned for disbelief. They will be condemned for violating their conscience and the innate sense of right and wrong that God put within them from birth. We have all done this. Even worse off are those who have heard the Word and not responded . . .
Luke 12:47 to 48, “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, 48 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.”
Now there is another slave mentioned before these guys that represents the Christian–these two both represent non-Christians. Those who did not know the Gospel will be condemned. But their punishment will be light compared to what awaits those who have heard the Gospel and never responded to it. This means that you who sit here today, and especially those who come week-to-week–you will be worse off than the Islander who never heard the Gospel. You will be judged by the One who offered you life–the Savior will be the Judge.
We are all born with God’s basic laws imprinted onto our nature. He gives us a conscience to function as a big red warning light. Yet every one of us has violated our conscience. We have acted contrary to what we knew to be right. The Bible calls this sin–we are sinners. We are rebels against God, acting contrary to His desires throughout life.
Ever since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden, God has been promising a Savior. Before Jesus came, people looked forward to that promise and hoped in the One to be revealed. Then Jesus came, fulfilling more than 300 specific prophecies about the One God would send.
Though we cannot live without sin, He lived blamelessly, perfectly obedient to God. Though he was completely innocent, people hated Him and killed Him. And God permitted this so that on the cross, as Jesus hung there for three hours, He endured the wrath of God for our sins–the punishment which every child of God deserves for their sins, Jesus bore that. He felt it–a terrible and great wrath from the Creator of all things.
When it was over, He breathed his last and died. And three days later, he rose from the dead. He conquered death. His body left the grave and Jesus lives again. His resurrection providing proof that God had accepted the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus, so that ungodly people like us could be made righteous. When you recognize your sinfulness and believe that Jesus is Lord and that He died for your sins and was raised from the dead, then you are saved from judgment.
Acts 17:31, “Because He [God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
The Savior, who is the Judge, becomes the Judge, who is your Savior. How will you respond? How have you responded to Him? So many people hear that, and they do nothing. They think their sins are too big. They reject it as fable. It seems too easy, so they do more work on their part to earn God’s approval. And sadly, they heap more judgment upon themselves. Maybe you have been doing this?
Today, Jesus offers you forgiveness for your sins–but we see here in Romans that the offer won’t last forever. There will be a time when the Savior becomes the Judge. Your conscience and your thoughts will testify against you. You will condemn yourself, because you knew what was right and what was wrong.
God’s judgment is always fair. Jesus will judge according to a universal standard. Those who say that he is unfair believe that he judges by a hidden standard–that’s not true. God always judges us according to a standard of which we are aware. For the Jews, this was the written Law of God. For Gentiles like us, this is the inner sense of right and wrong that exists in all people. Both the Law and the conscience will each be a means of condemnation, except for the Christian . . .
The Christian will not be judged. Jesus has already been judged on our behalf. He has endured the wrath of God for every sin which every Christian will ever commit. The Christian will not be judged when Jesus returns. The Judge will only be the Savior for us. Are you ready for His return? Will you see a Judge or a Savior?
God is just. He has communicated his standards to you clearly. It is fair for Him to condemn every person that ever walked this earth. We have all violated our conscience at some point, failing to obey the right and wrong that you knew in your heart. He is exceedingly merciful to you who sit here today, hearing this message, as He has provided you with a chance to believe and be saved.
Maybe you need to repent of your foolish thinking and the way you’ve thought about God. Or maybe you need to follow Him in obedience to the things you know you should’ve been doing, but have neglected for too long. Maybe you need to leave here and go somewhere they’ve never heard, and bring the message of salvation to them. Rather than leave people in their condemnation, you need to be a bold witness for the Gospel, and be used by God to draw people and nations to Himself.
Our nation is not looking good. That means that opportunities to talk about Jesus Christ are going to become more available. We may suffer, but we will have opportunity to provide an answer for the hope that lies within us.