“For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” Romans 2:12-16
One of the questions I hear most often from both Christians and non-Christians is “what happens to people when they die if they never heard about Jesus?” The Apostle Paul is about to give us some insight.
Paul used this phrase twice in the previous sentences (vss. 9-10) – “the Jew first and also of the Greek.” A primary difference between the Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) in reference to God (Yaweh) is the Mosaic Law (Torah). God gave the Law to the Jews and promised from the giving of the Law that He would judge them according to the Law.
“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” Deuteronomy 10:12-13
That’s what Paul is saying in Romans 2 – “as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.” Jews, Paul wrote, would be judged by the Mosaic Law.
What about non-Jews? Would God judge them according to the Mosaic Law. The answer is clearly “no.” So what does that mean for non-Jews then and today? If God would not use His Law to judge them, what would He use? Let’s look at the evidence.
“For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.”
οσοι γαρ ανομως ημαρτον ανομως και απολουνται και οσοι εν νομω ημαρτον δια νομου κριθησονται
οσοι γαρ (hosoi gar) “as many as indeed”
ανομως (anomós) is an adverb that means “without law, lawlessly”
ημαρτον (hémarton) is a verb that means “miss the mark, sin.”
ανομως (anomós) “without law”
και (kai) “also”
απολουνται (apolountai) is a verb that means “perishing, lose, destroy.”
και (kai) “and”
οσοι (hosoi) “as many as”
εν (en) “in”
νομω (nomó) means “law”
ημαρτον (hémarton) “miss the mark, sin”
δια (dia) “by”
νομου (nomou) “law”
κριθησονται (krithésonati) is a verb that means “judge, decide.” Future tense, indicative mood, passive voice – “will be judged.”
“For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without [regard to] the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged and condemned by the Law.” Amplified Bible
Paul’s statement seems straightforward – sinning Greeks would perish without regard to the Mosaic Law and sinning Jews would be judged and condemned by the Mosaic Law. However, before coming to any conclusions yet, let’s see what Paul says next.
“(for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified”
ου γαρ οι ακροαται του νομου δικαιοι παρα τω θεω αλλ οι ποιηται του νομου δικαιωθησονται
ου γαρ (ou gar) “not indeed”
οι (hoi) “the”
ακροαται (akroatai) is a noun that means “hearer, listener.”
νομου (nomou) “law”
δικαιοι (dikaioi) is an adjective that means “just, righteous”
παρα (para) “with”
θεω (theó) is a noun that means “God.”
αλλ οι (all hoi) “but the”
ποιηται (poiétai) is a noun that means “a doer, performer.”
νομου (nomou) “law”
δικαιωθησονται (dikaióthsontai) is a verb that means “make righteous, justify, acquit.” Future tense, indicative mood, passive voice – “will be made righteous, will be justified, will be acquitted.”
This verse reminds me of what Jesus said in Luke 11:28 – “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” And what Jesus’ brother James wrote in his letter – “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)
Paul continues making his case by pointing out that “hearing” the Mosaic Law, which is something Jews did every Sabbath, was not enough. They also needed to be “doers” of the Law to be justified. But is that even possible? Can anyone obey every Law?
“for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves”
οταν γαρ εθνη τα μη νομον εχοντα φυσει τα του νομου ποιη ουτοι νομον μη εχοντες εαυτοις εισιν νομος
We are now entering into Gentile territority where Paul may answer questions about what happens to Gentiles who are not under Mosaic Law and don’t hear the Gospel of Christ. Will we find the answer here?
οταν γαρ (otan gar) “when indeed”
εθνη (ethné) is a noun that means “nations, Gentiles.”
μη (mé) “not”
νομον (nomon) “law”
εχοντα (echonta) is a verb that means “possess, have, hold.” Present tense, Participle Mood, Active Voice, Nominative Case – “having”
φυσει (phusei) is a noun that means “origin, inherent nature.”
τα του (ta tou) “the things of the”
νομου (nomou) “law”
ποιη (poié) is a verb that means “do, make, practice.”
ουτοι (houtoi) “these”
νομον μη (nomon mé) “law not”
εχοντες (echontes) “possess, have, hold.” Present tense, Participle Mood, Active Voice, Nominative Case – “having”
εαυτοις (eautois) “to themselves”
εισιν (eisin) “are”
νομος (nomos) “law”
“When Gentiles, who do not have the Law [since it was given only to Jews], do instinctively the things the Law requires [guided only by their conscience], they are a law to themselves, though they do not have the Law.” Amplified Bible
God gave Jews the Mosaic Law. What did He give Gentiles? A natural conscience – phusei. Paul addressed that earlier in Romans when he wrote these words –
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.”
“For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”
The words “natural” and “nature” are phusikos and phusis. God gave the Gentiles important gifts – the “truth” (alétheia) and their “inherent nature” (phusis). Paul was saying that Gentiles would be judged based on what God had given them even as God would judge Jews on what He had given them (Mosaic Law).
“who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)”
οιτινες ενδεικνυνται το εργον του νομου γραπτον εν ταις καρδιαις αυτων συμμαρτυρουσης αυτων της συνειδησεως και μεταξυ αλληλων των λογισμων κατηγορουντων η και απολογουμενων
οιτινες ενδεικνυνται το εργον του νομο (oitines endeiknuntai to ergon tou nomo) literally translates as “who show the work of the law.” Paul referred back to the Gentles in the previous verse “who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves.”
Paul now says that those Gentiles “show” the “work” of the “law.” What does he mean by that?
The Greek word endeiknuntai is a present tense verb that means “show forth, prove, make fully evident.” What do they “show forth, prove, make fully evident?” to ergon tou nomo – “the work of the law.”
ergon is a noun that means “labor, deed, action, task, employment.” The idea is that it is a deed or action that carries out an inner purpose, an inner desire.
This deed that carries out an inner desire is tou nomo – “of the law.” Gentiles “show forth, prove” the “deed, work, action” of the “law.” That’s an interesting statement in light of the fact that the Mosaic Law was not given to Gentiles. What did Paul mean?
γραπτον εν ταις καρδιαις αυτων (grapton en tais kardiais autón) translate literally as “written in the hearts of them.”
Paul meant that Gentiles had the “law” of God “written” in their “hearts.” What?
grapton is an adjective that means “written.”
kardiais is a noun that means “heart, inner life, inner intention.”
Paul meant that the “law” of God was “written” on the “inner life” of Gentiles. How does that work?
The next words will help our understanding.
συμμαρτυρουσης αυτων της συνειδησεως (summarturousés autón tés suneidéseós) translates literally as “bearing witness their conscience.”
summarturousés is a verb that means “bearing witness together with.”
suneidéseós is a noun that means “the conscience.” It comes from combining sýn, “together with,” and eídō, “to know, see.” It was understood as a joining of the moral and spiritual “knowledge” to know from right and wrong. The Gentiles didn’t have the Mosaic Law, but they did have an “inner conscience” that God gave them to know what was right and what was wrong.
και μεταξυ αλληλων (kai metaxu allelón) translates literally as “and between one another.”
των λογισμων κατηγορουντων (tón logismón katégorountón) is literally “the thoughts accusing.”
logismón is a noun that means “reasoning, thinking.”
katégorountón is a verb that means “accuse, charge, prosecute.” The word comes from agoreuó, which means means “speak in the assembly.”
η και απολογουμενων (é kai apologoumenón) is literally “or also defending.”
Apologists will certainly recognize the Greek word for “defending.” It’s apologoumenón and means “give a defense.” The idea of the word is to reason from a position of sound logic.
The Amplified Version translates verse 15 this way –
“They show that the essential requirements of the Law are written in their hearts; and their conscience [their sense of right and wrong, their moral choices] bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or perhaps defending them.”
This gives us a good sense in the English language about what’s going on in the mind and heart of an unsaved Gentile. God has placed inside every person the “essential requirements of the Law” and their conscience [sense of right and wrong, moral choices] bears witness inside of them in such a way that their own thoughts alternately accuse or defend them.
Greeks understood this idea as agraphos nomos (unwritten law). Expositors explains it this way –
“To the Greeks, however, this was something greater and more sacred than any statute, or civil constitution; to the Apostle it was less than the great revelation of God’s will, which had been made and interpreted to Israel, but nevertheless a true moral authority. There is a triple proof that Gentiles, who are regarded as not having law, are a law to themselves. (1) The appeal to their conduct: as interpreted by the Apostle, their conduct evinces, at least in some, the possession of a law written on the heart; (2) the action of conscience: it joins its testimony, though it be only an inward one, to the outward testimony borne by their conduct; and (3) their thoughts. Their thoughts bear witness to the existence of a law in them, inasmuch as in their mutual intercourse (μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων) these thoughts are busy bringing accusations, or in rarer cases (ἢ καί) putting forward defences, i.e., in any case, exercising moral functions which imply the recognition of a law.” Expositors Greek Testament, Dr. James Denney, 1900
“in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”
εν ημερα οτε κρινει ο θεος τα κρυπτα των ανθρωπων κατα το ευαγγελιον μου δια ιησου χριστου
Paul returns to his primary theme of God’s past and present righteous anger and His future judgment.
εν ημερα (en heméra) “on that day” refers to the same “day” Paul mentioned in 2:5 – “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”
οτε κρινει ο θεος (hote krinei ho theos) “when will judge God”
τα κρυπτα (ta krupta) “the secrets” (hidden secrets, inward nature)
των ανθρωπων (tón anthrópón) “of men”
κατα το ευαγγελιον μου δια ιησου χριστου (kata to euangelion mou dia iésou christou) “according to the gospel of me by Christ Jesus”
“on that day when, as my gospel proclaims, God will judge the secrets [all the hidden thoughts and concealed sins] of men through Christ Jesus.” Amplified Version
“in the day when judges the hidden things of men according to my gospel through Jesus Christ.” Wuest Literal Translation
What did Paul mean when he wrote that God would judge people according to his Gospel? God has a standard He will use to judge people on “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” and He revealed that standard to Paul.
We are reminded of when Paul preached a similar message to the Greeks in Athens. Judgment Day is a fixed day that God has determined to judge the world –
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31
God is going to judge the world in righteousness by His Son, Jesus Christ, whom He rose from the dead giving assurance that His judgment is coming.
So, what about the question we asked at the beginning of this study – “what happens to people when they die if they never heard about Jesus?” There have been and are Jews and Gentiles who have not heard about Jesus –
- God will judge Jews according to the Mosaic Law.
- God will judge Gentiles according to their conscience that contains the moral law written on their hearts. That includes the “secrets” of each person.
I think it’s important for us to remember that God knew what the Mosaic Law was going to be before He gave it to Moses. In fact, God knew what His Law would be before He created the heavens and the earth. God’s Law is part of His character, so it has an eternal heritage. What Paul told the Romans is that God “wrote” His Law in people’s hearts from the beginning. That is why Paul could write these words –
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” Romans 1:20-21
God knows what every person “knows” and has “done” and will judge them accordingly.
“Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:11-15
We will begin looking at Romans 2:17-24 in the next part of our study, Romans – The Gospel of God.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.