“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, 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 even defending them” (Romans 2:14,15).
The Heart is the Ultimate Standard
Look how far God is willing to go to make things fair.
Here Paul is saying, forget the OT law. God is willing to use the law that people naturally have on their own. Yes, the law is perfect and beautiful and describes God’s character and His will for his people. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t already have a sense of morality. They do. The content is not always the same from culture to culture or age to age but everyone has a sense of what is right and wrong. There is some overlap. There is some agreement. It’s hard to argue with the fact that murder is wrong and stealing is bad. Apparently there isn’t a universal code of ethics that everyone can agree to but the concept of morality is still there. C.S. Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, uses that fact to show the existence of God.
Here Paul is showing that God is being more than fair with everyone in the world, whether they have heard of Christ and the Bible or not. And well he should. God doesn’t want anyone to perish. That’s the whole point. So Paul says that God will bend over backward to give us every advantage in the judgment on our deeds (the moral judgment). Whether it is condemning adultery, taking care of the elderly or the poor and the needy, or putting murderers in prison, pagan society has some things in common with the Jewish law.
God’s righteous judgment on that day of wrath will be according to the truth (vs. 2), according to each person’s deeds (vs. 6-11) and according to what each person believes in their heart is right and wrong (vs. 12-15). What could be more fair than that?
But wait. Houston, we have a problem. I thought you said that no one was righteous, not even one and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Well, yes. That is also true.
So then, you are saying that even though God is bending over backwards to give us every advantage in the moral judgment, we will still fail. We will still be condemned.
Yes, no one will be able to stand before God based on the moral judgment. And that makes sense doesn’t it? After all, what is more common to all of mankind than the fact that we all, each one of us, fail to live even by our own moral code, much less the law of God.
We all, every one of us, are violators of our own integrity. We do it time and again. Not only do our actions not live up to our words, but our lifestyle does not reflect our beliefs and values. We declare that love is the answer but fail to love at crucial moments when it might cost us more than we want to pay. We declare that we believe in fair play until that principle works contrary to our best interests. We would never steal anything unless we are desperate or our justification or rationalization is strong enough. There is no one who lives on principle all the time. Every single human being (except one) has failed in the attempt to live up to their own moral code. Everybody has violated their integrity at some point in their lives.
You see, the point that Paul is making in these first two chapters is simply that focusing on the moral judgment will get us nowhere. We keep ending up in the junk pile of moral bankruptcy. No one is righteous. Not even one. And the reason for that is that the heart is not in it.
One of the spectacular things about Martin Luther’s Introduction to the Commentary on the Book of Romans is his clear definition of terms used by Paul in his letter. And above all, Luther points out, we must remember that the law is spiritual (that is, relational) and that it cannot be fulfilled apart from the Spirit and cannot be accepted by God if it doesn’t come from the heart. The heart is the thing. The heart is the ultimate standard.
It is an offense to God to treat Him as if he were a taskmaster simply demanding obedience like some slave driver who doesn’t care about you. Not so. God cares deeply. As we have said, his wrath is the flip side of his love (as it should be). His justice and His love go hand in hand. The two things together are what makes God a good God. Without both justice and love, God deteriorates into nothing more than one of the many human-like gods of the Roman or Greek pantheon. It is about the heart. It is about the relationship. That is the lesson we must learn as impossible as it is to do on our own.
We cannot restore that relationship and we don’t really want to anyway. We need help. God must reach out and save us and he must do so on the basis of the cross. There is no other way. Paul points out in Romans 5:6-8 that “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In the OT, God promised to give us a new heart to replace our heart of stone (Ezekiel 36:26). Why do we think even for a minute that God is somehow less than human. Any woman (or man) worth her salt is interested in love, not just obedience.
One of the men in our congregation came up to me after church one Sunday and said, “You always say that God wants our love and not just our obedience. That is very demanding. How can I really love God? Obeying Him is much easier.”
I told him that he was right. We humans always find obedience (to a degree) much easier than heartfelt love. I often say that two things are free in life. Marriage and children. But they will cost you everything. That’s the nature of love. Obedience can be limited. Love is unlimited. You can pay for obedience but love is priceless.
I told my friend that he should go home and tell his wife, “Look, honey, I do the dishes, mow the lawn and do the groceries every week. What more do you want? That should be enough.” And see what she says. Many men do their duty at home but they are emotionally elsewhere. Maybe they are in love with their jobs. Maybe they are having an affair with their secretary. Whatever it is, the woman can tell. She doesn’t want only his obedience, she wants his heart. Why should God be any different?
That’s what the Jews didn’t get and what Jesus insisted on over and over again. If you get no other message from the Book of Romans than this one, take it to heart. God is interested in your heart. Obedience from the heart is the goal. Obedience to the letter of the law is worthless.
I feel the same way about my kids. They can obey me but do they love me? When I tell them “no,” I find out whether they truly love me or not (or they are only interested in the benefits). God is the same way. He wants a relationship with you and the only way to make that happen is to put the Holy Spirit in your heart to give you a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone. And the only way to do that is to exchange your sin for Christ’s righteousness so that we can be forgiven and start to live a new life with God. Otherwise the Holy Spirit could never live in us. We must become righteous in God’s eyes first (legally) the rest will come (sanctification) as the Holy Spirit teaches us how to love God again.
This is the gospel and it is great news. God’s righteous judgment is more than fair. Reality is our Judge. Obedience is the goal and the heart is the standard. What could be more fair than that? The fact that it is impossible for us to do, doesn’t change the fact that it is exactly right and just.
Jesus, himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, did the same kind of thing. He took the law as the Pharisees and Scribes interpreted it and said, “You have heard that it was said…” (Matthew 5) and then he would go on to give his own interpretation of the law. It wasn’t just about murder but about anger towards your brother even in your heart. It wasn’t just about your actions but about your thoughts. Adultery in your imagination is also sin. Jesus deepened the understanding of the law to include action, intention and motivation. Not just the outside man but the inside man.
But, in that case, who could fulfill the law? How can we ever be righteous in God’s eyes? Who can stand before God on that basis?
Exactly. Now you are getting it.
Perhaps you need to go to the sacrificial system and humbly plead for forgiveness. Perhaps you need to go to the fulfillment of the sacrificial system, to the perfect sacrifice, and ask for forgiveness. The heart is an impossible standard but the God of the impossible makes it possible through Jesus Christ. Isn’t that good news?
One final thought. Just because morality cannot earn you a new relationship with God does not mean that it isn’t important. You can’t get around the fact that Paul still believes that individual moral acts matter, especially to God. The passage above makes it clear that even non-believers who follow a path of evil (in terms of a godless lifestyle) can still do individual acts of moral good. And for that individual act, they will be rewarded or punished accordingly.
Certainly the separation of sheep and goats comes first (the relational judgment) but then comes the rewards and punishments based on our deeds (the moral judgment). For the believer there are only rewards. For the non-believer there are apparently levels to their experience of hell. Both are important. One for salvation (the relational) and one for sanctification (the moral) even for the believer. What we do matters and our faith is proven by our deeds when we “persist in doing good.”
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Yes, Lord, it is very good news. Thank you so much that you insist on a relationship with you from the heart. Thank you so much that you make it possible. It’s what we all really want but we have no way of doing it. Actually, a lot of times we don’t want it either until we get a taste of it and the Holy Spirit quickens us to want it more. Help me to hunger and thirst after you, Lord. I want to learn to love you more from the heart. In your name I pray. Amen.