In this article on Romans 2:12, the death of unbelievers and pagans are discussed. The impartiality or favouritism of God is also mentioned, as well as the standard for judgment in the justice of God.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1991. 4 pages.

Romans 2:12 - Will Pagans Perish?

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.

Romans 2:12

The Bible teaches that pagans will perish. It makes no conditions or exceptions when it says: "God's wrath comes upon those who are disobe­dient" (Ephesians 5:6). General statements such as "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) show that all are wrapped up in the same plight and involved in the same con­demnation.

This is not a popular doc­trine with unbelievers, and even genuine Christians may find difficulties with it. There's one particular objec­tion that we want to focus on: "it's not fair that pagans perish; they didn't know any better".

You find that objection doing evangelistic door-to-door visiting: "these poor people", they say, "didn't know about Christianity; they had their own religion; they were only doing what they thought best. It isn't right to condemn them". You find it as a doubt lurk­ing at the back of the minds of some who accept the traditional Biblical teaching on the subject: "if salvation is through Christ alone, how can God justly condemn those who never heard of Christ?"

We want to explore the message of Romans 2:12 and see how it approaches this problem.

The Question to be Asked🔗

Before sitting an exam, we find out what the exam syllabus is. Prior to taking a driving test, we ask what manoeuvres we are expected to perform. If we have to face God, we should enquire: by what standard does God judge?

Paul answers this question here by giving two examples of how God will deal with different types of people. These help us to work out the standard which God uses to assess us.

There have always been great religious divisions in the world. Today there is Hindu and Buddhist in Sri Lanka; Arab and Israeli, Jew and Muslim in the Middle East; Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. But in the eyes of the Jews in Paul's days, there was only one great division: themselves and others, Jews and Gentiles. That division is referred to here as those "apart from the law" and those "under the law". The two examples Paul gives are taken from either side of the great religious divide which existed in his day.

Who They Are🔗

Those "apart from the law" are the Gentiles. So this passage speaks about folks who didn't have the privileges that the Jewish people enjoyed at that time. They had no special revela­tion from God, no written word from God in a permanent indelible record, saying: "Thou shalt not..."; "Remember..."; or "This is the way, walk in it."

They hadn't been brought into a special relationship with God. He had never said to them: "I will be your God and you will be my people". They hadn't been aware of God's special providence caring for them, guiding them, making them a distinctive nation with a remarkable history.

They hadn't received from God the system of sacrifice which displayed the important and lasting principle: without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.

In other words, they are in the same sort of position that many without the gospel are in today — those pagans throughout the world who haven't got the Bible, the written law of God or the message of the love of God and of the redeeming work of Christ. They correspond to people in Africa and India and many other places, in jungles or mountain villages or lost in the shanty towns of sprawling cities; or to people in our own land, immigrants and Scottish-born, who have never read the Bible or who have no immediate access to the true message of salva­tion.

This part of the verse speaks about the sort of people that folks have in mind when they say: "it's not fair if they're con­demned; they never had a chance; they never knew".

What Happens to Them🔗

This verse says very plainly: "they will perish".

To speak of them as perishing means that they are lost and lost forever. They lived cut off from God in the here and now; they will be cut off from him in the after life.

Remember how the word is used in John 3:16 "...he who believes shall not perish but have eternal life". "Perish" is set in con­trast to "eternal life". If "eternal life" consists in a warm welcome into the kingdom (Matthew 25:34) or pleasures at God's right hand for ever (Psalm 16:11), then "perishing" is the opposite of that. It involves being outside, in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12), under the curse of the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

But the teaching that pagans perish calls for an explanation — and this verse provides it.

How This Comes About🔗

On what basis will pagans be condemned? The answer is given quite plainly here. They shall perish "apart from the law".

They won't be held responsible for breaking the law, of which they have not been told. God won't condemn them because they didn't make the sacrifices which were commanded or because they didn't keep the Sabbath or because they breached the terms of the covenant he had made with his people.

How then will it be? Paul tells us more about this in v.15. These people have a conscience; this provides them with a law, written in their hearts; it provides them with an inner assessment of their actions — sometimes it approves, sometimes it accuses.

It's not my purpose to say how this works out today or in what way, if any, it affects our approach to evangelism. But we can see how this pro­vides an explanation of how pagans perish "apart from the law".

They are judged in accor­dance with the knowledge provided by conscience. This law, written in the heart, is not the same as the ten com­mandments; it isn't as full as the Bible; nor is it as accurate. But it still gives a person something to go on. And it makes him respons­ible.

His position is that sometimes his conscience excused him and sometimes it accused him. That is, sometimes he obeyed it and sometimes he didn't. Because he sometimes didn't, he will perish. If his conscience condemns him why shouldn't God?

By What Standard?🔗

If those "apart from the law" are the Gentiles then those "under the law" are Jews. They have had the benefit of God speaking more directly to them. They have had the written word which contains the record of God's dealing with his people throughout the ages; they have the covenant pro­mises which bound them to God; upon them fall the obligations that that special relationship with God involved. They have the law, the ten commandments, the rules and regulations that he gave to his people.

Their position then is very different from the Gentiles. And when it comes to judg­ing, there is a different stan­dard employed. They will not be asked if they acted in accordance with conscience. They have had more to go on. Therefore they will be judged "by the law" — in accordance with what they had — in accordance with the revelation given.

So Paul is plainly saying: people will be judged in accordance with what they knew. If they knew a lot they will be judged in accordance with that knowledge; if they had only conscience to go on, God will simply ask: did they do as conscience instructed or not? There are different standards for different people according to the knowledge they had.

This teaching is practically useful.

No Favouritism with God🔗

Paul uses it to show that there is no favouritism with God (v.11). His argument is this.

Jews think they have a special relationship with God, as indeed they did. They think they are his favourites; that at the end of the day, you can expect God to be biassed in their favour; that he'll go easy with them, because in a special way he has set his love upon them.

But this verse tells us that that is just not so. Indeed, the opposite is the case: because they have been given more, they will be judged the more harshly. The people, who didn't seem to be his favourites, will be judged less severely.

Paul here is hitting at a very prevalent attitude among the Jews: "we're God's favourites, we've had the law, the prophets, the covenant and its signs and promises, we're all right". Paul is contradicting that attitude. He is saying: beware, for there is no favouritism with God; you will be judged not as the heathen are judged but in accordance with the privileges you have received.

That leads on to an application which is directly relevant to ourselves.

Our Responsibility🔗

Which situation are we in — will we be judged by the law or by conscience? The fact is that we aren't in either of these situations. We've got something which goes far beyond both conscience and law.

We've not got some vague knowledge in our conscience; nor have we the relatively shadowy picture of God's redeeming love which the Jews had. We've got the clear picture of that love demonstrated at Calvary. We've got the full work of the Holy Spirit. Everything God wanted us to know has now been made known to us in the Scriptures.

God isn't going to say: did you do what an uninstructed conscience would teach you to do? Nor is he going to ask: did you keep the ten commandments, which were part of the obligation placed upon my old covenant people? He is going to enquire: did you produce that full righteousness which the Spirit creates in those who are brought to rest upon Christ? Did you have that full devotion that is the outcome of seeing Christ as Saviour and of resting upon him?

This then teaches us that we who are in Bible-believing churches have the greatest responsibility poss­ible. The hardest, most strict standard will be applied to us and the likes of us. When you look forward to the day of judgment bear that in mind. The judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah will be more tolerable than the judgment allotted to those who failed to respond to the privileges of God's grace. We may look down our noses at the paganism of benighted heathenism, but just remember our relative positions on the day of judgment.

Flee from the coming wrath. Ensure that you are in Christ and that you are producing the fruit that is fitting in those who have been transformed by grace. Take your responsibility to obey and to serve the more seriously in the light of Paul's teaching here.

Justice to Pagans🔗

This passage implies very plainly that those that didn't know about Christ aren't going to have that held against them. Just as they are going to be judged without reference to the law, so they are going to be judged without reference to the gospel. If they never heard of Christ, they are not going to be asked: why didn't you trust in him? They are not going to be condemned for their failure to believe in him. They are going to be condemned for not living in accordance with their conscience.

Of course, some might ask: does everyone have a conscience? And has everyone actually disobeyed the voice of conscience? It's not my purpose to go into these questions in depth. Obviously, the Bible says that that is the situation. Moreover, much animistic religion seems to work on the principle that guilt and fear and the need for expia­tion are felt. My own experience, meeting people from different religious backgrounds and from none, is that very few deny that they have a guilty cons­cience — and those that deny it with their lips often deny their denial by their actions. Observation seems to confirm the Biblical teaching.

The Need for Missions🔗

If we follow the (false) argument: pagans do not perish because they never knew, then certain conse­quences follow.

For example, this means the best thing we can do is to be silent about the gospel. If ignorance is indeed bliss, then long live ignorance. The presentation of the gospel to the pagan is doing them a disservice because it exposes them to a judgment they would not otherwise face. The gospel is, in fact, bad news. The worst thing a Christian can do is spread his faith.

But if pagans are perishing as Paul says they are, then the responsibility to take them the gospel is the more pressing. They are not "quite happy in their own religion". Their conscience accuses them and they are lost. The acceptance of Paul's outlook here involves also the assumption of the missionary task. What are we doing to fulfil that task?

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