For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. – Romans 2:12-16 ESV
For Paul, sin is ultimately unrighteousness. It is man’s inability to live up to God’s righteous standard. Earlier, in chapter one, Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed form heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The unrighteous behavior of men, their refusal to live according to God’s divine requirements, suppresses the truth regarding who God is and what His expectations are for mankind. God created man to live in a right relationship with Him, in fellowship, enjoying unbroken companionship and walking in step with God’s revealed will. But man chose to do what was un-right. He chose to sin against God’s commands and take the direction of his life into his own hands. Eve believed the lie of the enemy and did what God had commanded her not to do, and her husband willingly followed her lead. And since that fateful day, men and women have continued to live unrighteously and ungodly, apart from God’s will. And as far as God in concerned, that includes all men, whether they had been given the Mosaic law or not. Paul makes it clear that both Jews and Gentiles stand before God as unrighteous. The Gentiles, or those “who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law” (Romans 2:12 ESV). They are without excuse, because they “show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it” (Romans 2:14 NLT). All men instinctively know right from wrong. All cultures have laws or accepted moral standards against murder, cheating, stealing and a host of other “sins.” Paul says, “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Romans 2:15 NLT).
But the Jews are just as, if not more so, culpable. They have been given the law of God. God wrote it down on tablets of stone. He clearly articulated His righteous standards and requirements for morally acceptable behavior. He showed them exactly what was necessary to live righteous and godly lives. And Paul says, “all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12 ESV). They will be judged by what they know but, ultimately, by what they do. “For merely listening to the law doesn’t make us right with God. It is obeying the law that makes us right in his sight” (Romans 2:13 NLT). The Jews had the law, but couldn’t keep it. They knew what was expected of them, but were incapable of living up to God’s righteous standards. So their lives were marked by unrighteousness, in spite of the fact that they had the law. The Gentiles were also condemned as unrighteous, because they couldn’t live up to the law of God written on their hearts – “their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Romans 2:15 NLT).
So what’s the point? What is Paul trying to tell us? Remember, he is addressing the gospel of God in this letter. Paul is attempting to explain the divine nature of God’s redemptive plan for mankind – “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). The kind of righteousness God demands, Paul tells us, is only available through faith. It is not achievable through our own efforts, because as the Jews and Gentiles have clearly proven, no one can live up to the righteous demands of a holy God. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). Man inherently knows what is right. It is wired into his system. He knows instinctively what it is he should do and how he should live, but he lacks the ability to pull it off. It isn’t that he unaware of God’s expectations, it is that he is unable to live up to them. Later on in this same letter, Paul writes, “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature” (Romans 8:3a NLT). Even when God gave the Jews His perfect, holy law, eliminating all doubt about what His expectations might be, they could not pull it off, because of their sinful natures. But here’s the good news: “So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3b NLT). That is Paul’s point. That is the thesis of his entire letter. God did for man what man could not do for himself. He provided a means by which man could be justified, made right, with Him. And without faith in the saving work of the Son of God, no man, either Jew or Gentile, will be able to stand before God on the day of judgment. Their sins will condemn them. Even their most righteous acts will fail to measure up. The prophet Isaiah puts it bluntly. “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). But again, Paul always balances the bad news with the good news. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25 ESV). We are made right with God, we are justified before a holy God, not based on our own human effort, but because of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. And it is our faith in Him, not in our works, that leads to our salvation.