The Fairness Of God:
Obeying Versus Hearing

In a Brief  Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 11a of 83


13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)” (Romans 2:13-15).

We have been studying the book of Romans.  We saw over the last few articles that the apostle Paul wants us to know that we are all guilty. In chapter 1, Paul tells us that the gentiles or heathen who know not the Word of God are guilty. In chapter 2, he teaches us that Jews and Christians, who know the Word of God are also guilty. 

One day, we will all have to stand before God in judgement. Whether we are Gentile, Jews or Christian, we will be judged.

We saw at our last study that at the judgement, God will make His verdict base on our persons rather than our deeds. The rightness or wrongness of our deeds in this life has already been determined. Our deeds, in other words, will only be brought up as evidences to substantiate God’s judgement. In this way, the elect or true Christians will be vindicated and rewarded for Christ’s sake. On the other hand, the reprobate or all who remain in unbelief will be condemned for their sin.

But the question that naturally arises is: “What is sin?” The Scripture tells us that sin is ‘lawlessness.’ Sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the Law of God (WSC 14). If that is so, then, how can those who have never heard of the Law of God be condemned for their sin?

If sin is lawlessness, and the Gentiles do not have the Law, then how can the Gentiles be condemned for their sin? Would not God be unfair to condemn the Gentiles for lawlessness when they do not have the law? In fact, if they do not have the Law, can they be charged with sinning, which is living lawlessly?

Or let me put it this way: Imagine that you are in school. The exam is round the corner. Your teacher announces that one of your papers will be based entirely on a particular book. But you know that this book is out of print, and no has it except the teacher, and a few of her favourite students. Would you not protest? Even if you were one of the favourite students, would you not protest?

Does not having the Gentiles judged according to the Law sound like having some students tested according to a book they do not have?

The apostle Paul anticipates and answers this question in verse 12—

“For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12).

That is to say: God is perfectly fair. The Jews and Christians who know the written Law, will be judged as those who know the written Law. Gentiles who do not know the written Law will be judged as those who do not know the written Law. It is kind of like there will be two exam papers: one for Gentiles, another for Jews and Christians. God is perfectly fair!

But how can the Gentiles be judged at all when they do not have the Law? Even if you can set a simpler paper for those who do not have the book, it is still not fair to test them on the content of the book when they simply do not have the book!

This is what the apostle Paul is seeking to address in the words found in the parenthesis in verses 13-15.

Paul is addressing the question as an aside (or digression) from his main theme. In the present study we want to consider this answer of Paul.

This answer will hopefully help us to address the question: Isn’t God unfair to judge the gentile when they do not have the Law? 

Paul’s answer has three parts: First, it is not so much the hearing of the law that is important, but the doing of the law. Secondly, the Gentiles have the works of the Law written in their hearts. Thirdly, the Gentiles have a conscience too.

1. Obeying Versus Hearing

For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified (v. 13).

Paul is anticipating the question: How can the Gentiles be judged when they do not have the law? This is his first answer. What is he saying? He is saying: “God is not so much concerned with whether we have heard the Law, but whether we obey the Law!”

The Jews may have heard the Law, but if they do not obey the Law, the Law will do them no good. In fact, the Law will condemn them, and in the end they will be worse off than the Gentles who have never heard the Law. This is why it is of utmost importance for those of us who know the Law to keep the Law.

Thus James warns us:

22 Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (Jas 1:22)

Those who know the Law, but refuse to obey the Law will be judged more severely than the Gentiles who know not the Law. The Lord himself teaches us that:

“…that servant, which knew his lord's will, and … did [not] according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes” (Lk 12:47).

On the other hand,

“… he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required…” (Lk 12:48).

God is perfectly fair. He does not judge us for hearing or not hearing the Law. He will judge us for what we do with the Law. It is not how much we know that is important. It is what we do with what we know that is important!

But bear in mind two things:

First, bear in mind that you are worse off if you know and do not obey. Someone said: The deepest and hottest part of hell is reserved for those who have heard the word, but remain unrepentant! I think this is largely true. It is better not to know than to know and not believe and obey.

But secondly, do not think that ignorance is bliss. In the first place, you must realise that it God has made us in such a way that true happiness and freedom can only be found when we are living according to God’s will and design for us. The law is to man what water is to fish. James call the law of God, the “perfect law of liberty” (Jas 1:25). And the Lord himself says: “the truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32). In fact, He came to free us from the bondage of sin, to give us freedom to live according to God’s Law. How then can ignorance be bliss? Ignorance is bondage.

And not only so, but those who have the opportunity to hear but would not hear will surely have to bear the consequence of their ignorance. Suppose you are arrested by the police for renting your flat to an illegal immigrant, and your flat is confiscated. Can you plead innocence by saying that you do not know that the law existed? The Law has been published. Whether you read it or not is not the question. Yes, you may perhaps plead for leniency because you have not read the law, but you cannot plead innocence.

It is the same in the case of God’s Law. If you are an unbeliever who have never heard the Law, you will be judged as one who do not know the written Law. But you can be sure that you will not be acquitted just because you have not read the Law.

Why so? Because the works of the Law is written in your heart.

… to be continued next issue

JJ Lim