Should we untether the law from the gospel? Rom. 2:11-16
We are living in a time when age old standards of right and wrong are being radically up-ended at a breathtaking pace. Even professing Christians are being swayed into thinking that the Biblical norms for sexuality that only a generation ago were taken for granted are old-fashioned and outdated and downright bad. Just as the apostle Paul was described in his day as an “evil-doer” or “criminal” (2 Tim. 2:9), even so today those who hold to Biblical standards of right and wrong are increasingly seen to be not just wrong but evil and wicked. We are told all the time that the Bible is wrong on a host of issues and therefore we need to abandon it for the enlightened positions of modern man.
We also hear all the time the fact loudly proclaimed that Christians are on the wrong side of history. This is of course a bad argument, for it is ill-defined (who decides what it means to be on the right side of history in the first place , and where is that line drawn?) and proves too much (for a few generations ago being on the “right side of history” would have meant to be on the side of the slave trade). Nevertheless, it is used as an argument that Christianity is no longer relevant to modern man and his concerns. History has moved on and has left Christianity by the way-side. We are told that we too need to move on. If you don’t, then you are excess baggage, so to speak.
The end result of this enormous cultural pressure has been wholesale capitulation to the new morality, even by certain segments of the church. The question is, then, how can the church as a whole retain its integrity and faithfulness to Scripture and to the God of Scripture? I think the answer partly lies in the text of Romans 2:11-16.
Here is the problem: we will give in to the pressures that the culture puts upon the church when we focus on the threats of the moment and the present dangers to which we are exposed as a result. What about loss of relevance? What about cultural influence? What about persecution? If this is what we are focused on, then we will almost certainly give in.
The answer to this problem is where our text comes in. For Paul and the Biblical writers, the greatest danger facing every man and woman in this world is actually nothing in this world at all: it is the coming judgment of God. And that judgment is not based on the consensus of academics at a given point in history, nor is it based on some kind of democratic vote. Rather, it is based on God’s unwavering character which is expressed in his unchanging moral law. That is Paul’s point in these verses. And if we really were to focus on this reality, we would be less likely to be so easily blown over by the winds of cultural change.
Let’s look at the text. Paul begins in verse 11 by saying, “For God shows no partiality.” In the previous verses, he had stated that God’s judgment and blessing come to Jew and Gentile alike, and the reason is that God is impartial. No one gets a pass because of their privileges. Again, we must remember that the apostle is primarily addressing his fellow Jews here (though I think that today this is more relevant to people in the Christian church), who thought that they were exempt from God’s judgment due to their status as God’s covenant people. Paul says that this is not true, that both Jew and Gentile are exposed to God’s righteous judgment.
What the apostle then goes on to do in the following verses (12-15) is to explain how God’s judgment will proceed and how it can be universal in its scope. We noted last time that God will judge all men according to their works. The question is, how? What rule will he use to determine what is good and what is bad? The answer is that God’s law is the rule and the standard. It is universal in its scope, not only because God is the creator and rightful King over all men, but also because all men have access to this law (to some extent) and therefore are responsible to keep it and exposed to judgment when they break it.
The Jew has access to it in the written law of God handed down in the books of the Old Testament, and the Gentile have access to it by virtue of the fact that they are created in God’s image and have God’s law written in their hearts. It is to this law-in-the-heart that conscience witnesses, and it is by this law that Gentiles will be judged.
The time of this judgment is then located by the apostle in verse 16: “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” This is the final judgment, upon which there will be no turning back, no second chances, and no extra credit. There will be no more hiding and no more deceiving. God will judge righteously and perfectly. And on that day, it will not matter what people thought of you; the only thing that will matter is what God thinks of you and whether or not he relates to you as a Father and friend or as an enemy and traitor.
A False Implication
This text then serves as a warning against jettisoning God’s law in favor of man’s. But unfortunately it has also been used as a justification for jettisoning the gospel in favor of the law. We must not do either. The whole point that Paul is trying to make in these verses is to hold us to the standard of God’s law so that we will embrace God’s gospel. We must not turn this into an argument that undermines Paul’s central thesis: it is the gospel, not the law, that is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16-17).
But what do I mean when I say that this text has been used as a reason to jettison the gospel in favor of the law? What I am referring to is the argument that people can be saved apart from the gospel. This text is sometimes used as a way to justify that perspective. Some argue that the law written in the heart is a reference to a saving work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart, and that when Paul talks about the Gentiles “by nature do what the law requires,” he is referring to obedience which springs from a regenerate heart. So the argument goes that people don’t actually need the gospel to be saved; they just need to live up to the light that God has given them. If they do that, they will be saved. In other words, we can untether the law from the gospel and people can still be saved.
Also, when Paul refers to the Jews in verse 13, he writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” Does this mean that one can do the law (apart from any consideration of the gospel) and be justified? Can one actually be saved without ever embracing Christ in faith?
I don’t think so. Let’s take verse 13 first. The apostle is not saying here that you can be justified by the law apart from the gospel. After all, does he not say later on that “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:21-22)? Then, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). Paul is not contradicting himself here. He is not saying in chapter 2 that you can be justified by the law and then in chapter 3 say that you are justified by faith apart from the law.
Note carefully what 2:13 actually says. Paul does not say that a person can be justified by the law, but rather that those who will be justified (in the judgment at the last day) will be precisely those who have kept the law. Put another way, the apostle does not say that if you keep the law you will be justified on that basis, but that if you are justified you will keep the law. He is not describing how you get justified here; he is describing how to recognize a justified person – they are precisely those who keep the law. It’s like pointing out a police officer to your children: “He is the one who is dressed in the uniform and wears a gun.” Now neither the uniform nor the gun makes the man a police officer. But he can be described by his uniform and gun. Even so a saved person is not saved by obedience to God’s law, but they can be described by their obedience to God’s law, and that is what Paul is doing here.
He also does this in chapter 8: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (3-4). I think what the apostle is saying is that one of the things that results from our Lord’s redemptive work for us and the subsequent work of the Holy Spirit in us is that we are enabled to do what a person in the flesh cannot do (see verses 7-8): keep God’s law. Not perfectly of course, but so that our lives are genuine light and salt in a wicked world.
Again, we must keep in mind the apostle’s purpose in this text. His purpose is to undermine the false confidence of his fellow Jews that they need not worry about the judgment to come. He is not telling them how to be saved here but rather why they need to be saved. They need to be saved because hearing the law is not the same thing as doing it.
Next, let’s consider the apostle’s argument in verses 14-15. Is Paul talking about saved people here? After all, does not the prophet Jeremiah say that God’s law written in the heart is a part of the new covenant work of the Spirit of God in the hearts of those whose sins are forgiven? (See Jer. 31:33-34) Is that what Paul is referring to here? If so, then this would indicate that people can be saved without ever hearing the gospel. In other words, the law of God is all you need.
There are a number of reasons not to read the text that way. First of all, the whole thrust of this entire passage is not salvation but judgment. It is important to see that verses 13-15 are an elucidation of verse 12: “For all who have sinned without the law [the Gentiles, dealt with in verses 14-15] will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law [the Jews, dealt with in verse 13] will be judged by the law.” The key words here are perish and judged. The apostle is explaining why Gentiles and Jews will alike perish and be judged. The Jews will be judged because they don’t keep the law of God which is written in the Torah. The Gentile will perish because they don’t keep the law which is written on their hearts. This then can’t be a reference to any saving work of God in the heart.
There are other indications as well. If the phrase “by nature” is connected with “do what the law requires” – and I think this is correct – then the law written on the heart is not a reference to a work of grace but to a work of nature, not a reference to new birth but a reference to what we have by physical birth. “By nature” almost certainly means what we were born with. This is the use of the phrase, for example, in Eph. 2:3.
Also, the language of the law written on the heart is not quite the language of Jer. 31. When this is quoted, for example, in Heb. 8, what is actually said in reference to the new covenant blessing is that God’s law is put into our hearts, rather than simply written on our hearts. In other words, there is a slight, but important, distinction here. To have God’s law written on the heart means to have an awareness of right and wrong, and awareness testified to by the conscience. Every act of conscience is a testimony to this work of the law on the human heart. But of course conscience is no sign of saving grace but rather a mark of God’s common grace over all his creation. However, when God also puts his law into our hearts, he gives us a delight in his law, something those in the flesh do not have (Rom. 8:7-8). This therefore is not a reference to the new covenant blessing, but something common to all men everywhere.
Thus, there is no reason to take this text and to say that people can be saved who have never heard the gospel, by simply living up to the light that God has given them. For first, this text is not about people who are being saved but about people who are perishing. And second, the fact of the matter is that there is no evidence that anyone actually lives up to the light they are given. Instead, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Despite having God’s law written on the heart, we are blind to his glory and insatiably ravenous for our own. Any light that we do have we suppress over and over again (1:18). There is no hope for salvation in that.
There is another important reason not to read this text as an excuse to jettison the gospel in favor of the law. And that is what Paul will later say in chapter 10, where he makes this very clear statement for the necessity of the gospel: “’For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:13-15) The clear implication of this passage is that no one will call on the name of the Lord and be saved until they have heard the gospel and believed.
Now I know that it is not just a matter of the gospel being preached but that the Spirit of God must open a person’s heart to receive the gospel message. I also recognize that the sovereign Spirit who blows where he wills (Jn. 3:8) could reveal the gospel to a person without a human preacher being present. However, it seems to me that the overall thrust of the New Testament is that it is not God’s usual manner of working to do this apart from the means of the gospel being preached and proclaimed by human agents. In any case, we must never separate the work of the Spirit from the gospel. The ministry of the new covenant, which is the preaching of the gospel, is the ministry of the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:3-6). The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to open our eyes so that we see the beauty and relevance of the gospel message so that we will receive it and believe it. Belief in the gospel is necessary for salvation; we dare not say otherwise.
Now some will respond at this point and ask, “But what about infants dying in infancy? If we must hear the gospel and believe to be saved, will they not be lost?”
The wrong response to this is to say that infants do not need to be saved. The Scriptures nowhere teach such a doctrine. All who are descended from Adam are with him in his sin and condemnation. This is the clear teaching of Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15. It is summed up in Eph. 2:3, when the apostle says that we were by nature children of wrath – in other words, we were born that way.
But neither should we say that infants dying in infancy are forever lost. Though I don’t think any human being deserves salvation, and this includes infants, my understanding of the character of God as he is revealed to us in Scripture makes it impossible for me to believe that God would send a single infant to hell. Personally, I believe that every infant dying in infancy is among the elect and will be saved.
So what does this do to the necessity of the gospel? Well, we must remember one thing: the Scriptures that point to the necessity of faith in the gospel message are not addressed to infants but to those who can hear it and receive it. Obviously the gospel cannot be heard by infants and therefore those passages that refer to the necessity of the preaching of the gospel do not refer to them.
Ultimately, we must remember that it is not our faith per se that saves; it is Christ who saves. It is simply God’s purpose to justify and forgive his people when they exercise Spirit-birthed faith in Christ as he is revealed to them in the gospel. So fundamentally, infants are saved in exactly the same way as anyone else, by Christ and in virtue of his saving work. But this does not undermine the necessity of the gospel for those who can hear it since this is God’s chosen means to gather in his elect (cf. 2 Tim. 2:9-10).
Another category of person also brought up in this context are those who live and die without ever having access to the gospel. Isn’t it unfair for God to require a person to believe in the gospel when they never had a chance to hear it in the first place?
The answer is no. Salvation is by grace precisely because we don’t deserve it. And this includes people who will never have access to the gospel. God does not owe them a shot at salvation. He doesn’t owe them a chance to hear the gospel. Really, all he owes them is judgment because they have already sinned against him. The chance to hear the gospel is itself grace and the gift of God to us.
However, that does not give us the right to sit back and be careless about those who have never heard. I am always convicted when I think of William Carey weeping over his map of the world. I want to be more like our Lord who wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected him. I want to be like Paul who wept over his brothers and prayed and worked for the salvation of Jew and Gentile alike. If we have heard and been saved, we should want others to hear and be saved as well.
Let us beware of separating the law from the gospel or thinking that the law is enough. It is not. We need the gospel to be saved. The law is not the power of God for salvation but for judgment. It is the gospel which is the power of God for salvation. Let us therefore pray for those who have never heard. Let us pray for the missionaries we support who are taking the gospel to those who have never heard, and perhaps join them ourselves. And let us look for opportunities to share the gospel with those around us who don’t know what the gospel message is. As our culture grows more and more secular, we are going to see more and more ignorance of the gospel. Our own country will look more and more like a place where people have never heard. Let us therefore be a light and a witness to this saving message of life, doing what Paul exhorted the Philippian Christians to do: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:14-16).