To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

Got to Have, Got to Be, Got to Do

Romans 2:12-16
Preached Sunday morning, July 3, 2005
Lexington Church of Christ

This week we’re continuing through Paul’s letter to the Romans. Last time, in chapter 1, we saw a picture of how disobedience produces every form of unrighteousness and how sin leads to darkness of mind. Paul had been writing primarily of moral shortcomings among Gentiles. Now, in Chapter 2, he begins looking at the shortcomings of the Jews as well. They seem to have felt that simply having the Law of the Lord somehow made them righteous, whether they followed it or not. Paul tells them differently. And in the process here of addressing both Jews and Gentiles, the apostle begins to deliver one of the most sobering and critically important messages in all the Bible.

First, we see that, while the Gentiles did not have the Law of Moses, they nevertheless have another image of God’s law—the law of conscience. In mature human beings, our consciences are those inner voices telling each of us what is right and wrong. Thus our own thoughts “accuse or even excuse” us (Rom 2:15). Because the Gentiles did not have the benefit of the Old Testament law, their consciences could not be as developed as those of the Jews. Yet every adult human being has some inkling of right and wrong down inside us. As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his book Mere Christianity, not every society agrees on the particular definitions and limits of marriage. But because all human beings have an inner sense of right and wrong, every society has agreed that the commitment inherent in marriage is necessary for a stable society. This passage in Romans simply reminds us that God holds each human being responsible for behaving righteously according to our own consciences—our best understanding of right and wrong. Paul will say more on this later.

In a sense, conscience is both a curse and a gift. The very fact that we know the difference between good and evil is a direct result of humanity’s first disobedience (Gen. 2:15-3:7). Yet now that we have the knowledge of good and evil, God uses our consciences to help bring us back to communion with him. Conscience is the voice of right and wrong, and that can be a good thing if we follow it. Human conscience is far from infallible, but if we really listen to it and follow its guide, we can come to righteous obedience to God. That’s good news.

There’s also very bad news, though. Although God gives each one of us the ability, through our consciences, to know the good, and to do it, in fact none of us follows it all the time (Rm. 3:23). God’s standard of righteousness is perfection. If we don’t live absolutely sinless lives, we have absolutely no place in the absolutely sinless Kingdom of God. So then, the bad news is that all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death (Rm. 3:23, 6:23). Conscience, then, can show us that we’re doing wrong, but once we’ve done wrong, it’s powerless to save us. That brings us back to the same, troubling message of Chapter 1—that we have no excuse for unrighteousness.

Yet in the knowledge of sin there is hope. In Christians, for example, our consciences guide us on the path of discipleship. Have you ever felt the tingling of conscience say you were going the wrong direction, and as a result you changed? Have you ever lain in bed at night unable to sleep because you knew you had been sinning? We’d better listen to that voice of conscience, Christians and sinners both. For Christians, our consciences can be an especially reliable guide, trained and shaped by the Word and Spirit of God.

In the lost person, conscience is part of the first step of conversion. Our internal sense of right and wrong allows us to see our need for God’s grace. When we sin, we ought to feel bad about it. When we feel bad enough, we begin to see the need for repentance. That’s why I don’t consider it my job as an evangelist necessarily to stand up and try to make people feel good. Sinning should make us feel bad—especially if we’re choosing sin and death over grace and life in Jesus Christ. As long as we haven’t repented of sin, we should be troubled at the deepest levels of our heart. We should never feel good when we sin. That’s why, I believe, the apostle James urged the recipients of his letter to “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection” (Jas. 4:9).

If we stop being dejected by our own unrighteousness, we’re in a very bad place. The more we resist the voice of right and wrong, the easier it becomes to sin. If we do it long enough, we eventually get to the point where we don’t recognize right and wrong anymore. That’s what Paul was saying about those who “became foolish in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). God have mercy on us if we ever get to that point.

Simply hearing the voice telling us what we ought to do isn’t enough, as Paul points out in Rom. 2:13. God expects us to demonstrate righteousness in our actions. The Jews in Paul’s day evidently believed that having the law did the trick—that being in the right church, so to speak, was all it took to be righteous. Of course, that’s not true. But do we Christians believe that simply attending the right church makes us righteous? Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the church makes us righteous by some kind of spiritual osmosis. It doesn’t. While we are redeemed only as members of the church, God expects each one of us to be righteous in our own hearts through faith and obedience in Christ Jesus.

The Jews had been proclaiming the law but not living it. There aren’t many things more ugly that those who know the truth but don’t choose to live it. We can excuse the innocent, but not the hypocrite. As Paul told the Romans, being a Jew on the outside is not enough (Rom. 2:25ff). Righteous actions are more important than rituals. God doesn’t want circumcision of the flesh, but of the soul (Rom. 2:28,29). Could we say the same thing for Christians? Immersion in water is not enough. God wants us also to be immersed in his will and his righteousness. We need to have not just the name of Christ but also his heart and his Spirit.

Paul reminds us here in verse 13 that our actions confirm our faith. Paul sounds a whole lot like the Apostle James who said, “What use is it, my brothers, for a man to say that he has faith if he does nothing? . . . Even so faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:14, 17). People who read the letters of Paul and James superficially sometimes say they disagree on the roles of faith and obedience in the lives of Christians. No, they don’t. Each apostle, in his own way, explains an important truth. Living our new life in Christ changes us—our souls, our minds, our actions. Our souls are made clean in an instant at baptism. Change in our behavior may move slowly, and it’s always incomplete while we are in these fleshly bodies. But God expects Christians to reflect the image of Christ in our actions. That’s because our actions are images of our hearts.

That’s where our consciences come back into the picture. That voice of right and wrong allows us to look at our actions as reflecting our hearts. How are we doing as Christians? Are my actions demonstrating a changed heart and a new life in Christ?

More seriously, for those outside Christ, are you listening to your own voice of conscience—the voice that says you are being disobedient to God? If so, you’d better heed its message. Eternal life and death lie in the decisions you make.

There is one more absolutely awe-inspiring idea in this passage from Romans. In 2:15 Paul writes that the thoughts of the Gentiles sometimes excuse them. God, it seems, makes allowances for innocent lack of knowledge about his law. But notice what Paul doesn’t say: that these Gentiles have thereby earned a ticket to heaven. On the contrary, “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:21). All of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23), meaning we have violated God’s law even as we understand it. Therefore all stand under condemnation, apart from salvation, who do not call upon the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12, Rm. 10:13). That makes these verses in Romans Chapter 2 some of the most haunting in the Bible.

Every human being without the Gospel of Jesus Christ is lost. And it’s absolutely awful to think that some of our fellow human beings are dying without ever hearing that good news [1]. How could that be? How could God allow anyone to die without hearing the gospel? The answer we see here is that everyone has a chance to live righteously—and everyone blows it [2]. Some of us, for some reason, receive a second chance through hearing the gospel. And God has entrusted the spread of that gospel to us—to fallen human beings. Humans got us into sin and death, it seems, and God is leaving it up to human beings to get us out. I think that’s why Jesus Christ came to earth as a man.

So spreading the good news of salvation depends on us. As Paul tells the Romans, “But how are men to call upon 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 a preacher” (10:14). Eternal salvation depends on Christians spreading the word. Nothing is more important than the gospel. That’s why proclaiming it is of utmost importance. And that doesn’t simply mean proclaiming it from the pulpit. Telling the good news of Jesus Christ is the duty of every Christian everywhere—on the mission field, at the plant, at school, at the grocery story, on the golf course—everywhere. The gospel is the best we have to offer to the world, for it “is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Rom. 1:16).

We need to commit to telling the good news. That means bringing the lost here to our worship services to hear the word preached. Better yet, it means telling them ourselves, each Christian here. If you are in Christ, please pray to have the courage, wisdom, and strength to proclaim the good news of Christ to the best of your ability. If you are outside of Christ, come to him to receive the greatest life—and the greatest life’s work—that ever was.


1. Norman Geisler,“Who Will be Saved, According to the Word of God?” From When Cultists Ask. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997. Accessed 28 September 2004.

2. Roy B. Zuck, “What About Those Who Haven’t Heard,” Kindred Spirit 18:4 (1994). Accessed 28 September 2004.

Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley


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