Thursday, February 7, 2013

What Happens to Those Who Never Hear God's Word?

Let me begin by asking you a question: What happens to those who never hear the Word of God?  What happens to those who never see a Bible, hear it preached, or have any contact whatsoever with the Christian message?  What happens to those tribesmen who still today live in far off jungles, shut off from the rest of the world, never hearing about the one true God?

I imagine you’ve asked that question before.  Many Christians have.  How will God deal with these who never believed in His Son, never repented, but also never had an opportunity?  How can He count their sins against them?  How will He treat them?  This post will seek to answer that question as well as others.

The Context and Argument 

Read Romans 2:12-16.  Paul has just made a statement in verse 11.  That statement is that God shows no partiality.  God does not play favorites when it comes to His judgment.  He is absolutely fair and renders to each person what the law requires.  In verses 6-10 Paul argues that God will not judge Jews any differently than Gentiles.  The Jews will be judged first, but they will not be judged differently.  All will be judged according to their works.  Unbelievers will have their sinful deeds lifted up as evidence against them.  Christians will have their evil deeds covered by the blood of Christ, but the good deeds which God’s grace worked in them will stand as evidence of their union with Christ and they will receive heaven.  There will be no respecting of nationality or ethnicity or family tree.  God will be impartial in His judgment.

But there is an objection.  How can Paul say that God is impartial when God has chosen to give His law to some people and not to others?  Here is an objection that Paul may very well have had to answer time and again as he preached in city after city.  How can he call God’s judgment impartial when for centuries the Jews have had the law revealing to them what is good and what was evil while the rest of the world did not?  The rest of the world received no Scriptures from God, not law book, no tablets with commandments etched upon them.  How is it fair for God to condemn people for breaking commandments they didn’t know existed?  How can God hold them accountable for actions they did not know were wrong?  God chose not to give these peoples His law; how dare He judge them for not keeping it?

Paul’s answer to that objection is that not only will God judge all people according to their works, but He will also judge them according to the law that they possessed.  Those who had the most privilege and were given the greatest revelation of God’s law will be held accountable for all that they received.  Those who received less of God’s law will be held accountable for what they received.  God will be fair.

How Verses 12-16 Make the Argument

Now, let me show you how each of these verses (12-16) contribute to this argument.  Then I will bring out its implications for us.

Look with me at the first half of verse 12:  “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law.”  Who is being described here?  Look at the verse again.  Who is being described?  It is those who did not have the law.  The law here is the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, the commands of God given in Genesis through Deuteronomy that reveal how a righteous person should live.  The people described in the first half of verse 12 are the vast majority of people who lived on the earth in the days of the Old Testament and many who have lived on the earth up to this day.  These are non-Jewish people, Gentiles, who have never received the Law of Moses, never heard it, and never had access to it.

What does Paul say about them?  First, he says they are sinners.  How is that possible?  To sin is to break a law.  How can people who don’t have the law sin?  They must have some kind of law for their sin to be sin.  Paul does not tell us yet what kind of law they have (he will in a minute), but only tells us that they do not have the law, that is, the Law of Moses.  Nevertheless they are sinners. 

Second, he tells us that they will perish.  These Gentile sinners, these who have never had the Law of Moses, will perish for their sin.  For them, like everyone else, the wages of sin will be death. 

Third, Paul tells us that they will perish without the law.  In other words, on the Day of Judgment, it will not be the Law of Moses that condemns them.  They will perish, but it will not be because of the Law they never had.  The implication is that there is a law that they did have, a law that they did break, and it is that law which will condemn them.    

Now, look with me at the second half of verse 12:  “All who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.”  This is easier to understand.  The people described in this part of the verse are those who do have the Law of Moses, have broken it, and therefore will be held accountable to it on the Day of Judgment.  This is us.  Every one of us in this room has access to a Bible with the Law revealed to us not just in Genesis-Deuteronomy but in Genesis – Revelation.  We have had the privilege of having God’s commands revealed to us in black and white on the pages of His Word.  Yet all of us have all broken these commands.  Apart from Jesus, these commands will stand against us on the Day of Judgment.

So, to summarize verse 12, there are two groups of people that Paul put before us.  There are those who did not have the Law of Moses who nevertheless are sinners and will perish, but not because of that Law.  Then there are those who did have the Law of Moses and have broken it and will be condemned by it. 

Look now at verse 13:  “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”  Who are we talking about here? We are talking about a third group of people, a people who will not perish on the Day of Judgment, but be saved.  Paul is speaking here of those that are justified – that is, counted righteous – before God. 

Who will these people be?  Will they be the ones who had the Law of Moses and heard it?  No.  After all, there are many who have had the Law of Moses and have heard it yet remain rebellious sinners against God.  No, it is those who do the Law of Moses who will be righteous in God’s eyes.  Remember the verses before this?  Paul has in mind here the kind of person described in verses 7 and 10.  He has in mind a person who by grace through faith in Jesus has been changed, and is now being enabled and moved by the Spirit of God to keep God’s commands and to fulfill the Law of Moses.  These people, those who by grace keep the law (not perfectly, but the best they can as they depend on Jesus’ power), these are the ones who will go to heaven.  This is a call to us, to make sure we heed the words of the book fo James: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”  It is the doers who reveal by their actions that they belong to God and will be with Him forever.

So now we have three kinds of people before us:  1) Those who have never had Moses’ Law yet are still sinners and will perish.  2) Those who do have the Law of Moses and will perish because they have failed to keep it.  3) Those who have been saved by grace and reveal that they have been saved by keeping the Law of Moses.

Now, verse 14 is about that first group, those who have never had the Law of Moses.  Look with me at verse 14: “For when Gentiles, who 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.”

When people who do not have the Law of Moses do what the Law of Moses requires, they show something about themselves.  Namely, they show that they have some inward concept of God’s law.  When people who have never heard of Yahweh or Jesus and never seen or read a Bible honor their parents, or do not tell a lie, or do not murder, because they sense that there is something right or wrong involved in those actions, they are a law to themselves.  They do not have the external Law written on scroll or paper, but they do have an inward law, a law in themselves.  And of course, though they at times keep this inner law and do what they know is right, all people have at other times broken that inner law and done what they deep down know to be wrong.

So you see, we are getting now an answer to our earlier question:  What law do people sin against if they do not have the Law of Moses?  Paul is arguing that people naturally have a law in themselves, an innate sense of right and wrong. 

He says more in verse 15: “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.”

There are three important truths taught in this verse.  First, Paul says that these Gentiles, pagans without the Law of Moses, show that the work of the law is written on their hearts.  That phrase ‘work of the law’ is a difficult one; it is not found anywhere else in the New Testament.  Think about this with me: ‘The work of the law is written on their hearts.’  This isn’t ‘work’ as a verb.  This is ‘work’ as a noun.  You do work and the result is your work.  Well the law works and the result is its work.  What is the work, the product, the result of the law in our lives?  My best guess is this: the work of the law is the knowledge of right and wrong.  This is what the law does.  It informs us of right and wrong.  That is the issue here:  how can God judge people who have not known right or wrong?  The objection is that it is law that gives people this knowledge.  How can people without God’s law have that knowledge of right and wrong?  Answer: these Gentiles who do not have the Law of Moses nevertheless have an inner-law, and its result in their lives is an innate knowledge of right and wrong. 

This knowledge of right and wrong, this work of the law, is written on their hearts.  Let me ask you this: Who do you think wrote this onto the hearts of men?  Isn’t there only one possible answer?  God.  God and God alone has the power to write something onto the hearts of all people.  It is God alone who created us in His image and knits us together in our mother’s womb.  God gave the Jews a law, the Law of Moses, and they will be held accountable to that.  We have that law as well, and the full expression and application of it as it comes to fulfillment in Christ and the New Testament.  We will be held accountable to what we have written in these pages of our Bibles.  Yet even if we did not have these, the fundamental laws of God are written into the fabric of our beings and we will be held accountable to those laws. 

The second thing to see in verse 15 is that the human conscience bears witness to this.  Have you ever felt guilty before?  Even people who have never seen or heard the laws of God in the Bible feel guilty.  Yet what is guilt but your own conscience judging you, telling you that you have done something wrong.  How can your conscience judge you unless it knows that something is right or wrong?  Every time a human conscience, whether it is functioning well or not, causes someone to feel guilty, it bears witness to this truth that there is an inward law.

The last thing to see in verse 15 is that our thoughts bear witness to this inner law as well.  What happens when our consciences makes us feel guilty?  What thoughts go through our mind?  Do we say, “Oh, silly conscience.  There is no such thing as right and wrong.  You have no reason to make me feel guilty. There is no such thing as guilt since there is no such thing as doing wrong.”  Is that they way you think?  Some people might try and pretend they think that way, but no one really does.  No, when our consciences make us feel guilty, our thoughts go in either one of two directions: either our thoughts begin accusing us or they begin excusing us.  If our thoughts are accusing us, they are saying, “You deserve to feel guilty.  What you did was shameful.  What were you thinking?  Look at the harm you’ve done!”  Those thoughts show that we know right from wrong and have an inner-law.  Or, if our thoughts try and come up with excuses, saying, “You shouldn’t feel guilty.  You had no choice.  Other people do worse things.  How bad could it really be?” the very fact that your thoughts are trying to come up with excuses reveal that you know that there is a law, a standard of right and wrong by which you will be judged.  People who do not believe in right and wrong and consequences and judgment do not need excuses.  Yet no such people really exist.  So you see, whichever way our thoughts run, whether they accuse us or excuse us, they stand as yet another witness to this inner-law that God has written onto our hearts. 

How C. S. Lewis Taught This

We can now summarize the main argument: there is an inner law, written by God on the hearts of all people, which all people have knowingly broken and by which they will be judged on the Day of Judgment.  We’ve seen how Paul teaches this.  I would now like to let you hear how C. S. Lewis taught this.  Lewis certainly was not an apostle or a divinely-inspired writer, but there is no doubt that God has used his book Mere Christianity to bless His Church in mighty ways.  Many of you have heard of Chuck Colson, a popular preacher, founder of the Prison Fellowship ministry, a man who turned himself in for his crimes in the Watergate Scandal and served time in prison.  A friend gave Colson a copy of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis and it was as he read that book that the gospel was made clear to him and he believed and was saved. 

Lewis has done a fantastic job of explaining Paul’s message here in this section of Romans 2, so just sit back and listen as I read:

“Every one has heard people quarrelling.  Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kinds of things they say.  They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’ – ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ – ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm’ – ‘Why should you shove in first?’ – ‘Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ – ‘Come on, you promised.’  People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. 

Now what interest me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him.  He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about.  And the other man…nearly always…tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.  He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise.  It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed.  And they have.  If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word.  Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong.  And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be sense in saying that footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature…This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.  They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune.  But taking the race as a whole they thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one.  And I believe they were right.  If they were not, then all the things we said about the war[1] were nonsense.  What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised?  If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could not more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair.”

So you hear Lewis’ point.  Even just looking around at how people relate to each other everyday gives clear evidence that deep down there is an agreement among people about certain things being right and certain things being wrong.  This is the Law of Nature, the law written on the hearts of man by God.  This is the law that all people have broken and by which they will be judged justly on the law day. 


This teaching is under heavy attack in our day.  Here are just some of the objections people raise: 1) Isn’t it true that when we look at different cultures and societies who haven’t been influenced by Christianity or Judaism, they often have very different moral codes?  How can you say that God has written this law on the hearts of all men when all these different societies seem to disagree on what is right and what is wrong?  2) How can you be sure that our inner sense of right and wrong is not a human invention, something that we learn from our parents and our culture?  How can you be sure that naturally we have no sense of right and wrong and we only gain that sense by the way we are raised?  Maybe God had nothing to do with this at all, but rather, our parents are the ones most responsible for writing these laws into our lives.  3) Isn’t it more likely that our inner sense of right and wrong is a result of evolution?  Isn’t it more likely that human beings have evolved, and during our evolutionary history we learned to have negative feelings toward actions that would harm our species and positive feeling toward actions that would help our species?  In other words, how do you that there is not a scientific explanation for our inner sense of right and wrong?

Each of these objections is raised against the Bible’s teaching concerning natural law.  Each is important and deserving of our time.  In our next post, we will address each and everyone of them.

There is also a question that needs to be addressed, namely, how is this writing of the law on the hearts of all people different from what God says is true of Christians?  Speaking of His people in Jeremiah 31:33, God says, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’”  How is the writing of God’s law on the hearts of His people when saves them different from the writing of His law on the hearts of every person who has ever lived?

We will address that question in our next post as well.  Let me close by bringing us back to the issue with which we started this sermon: What happens to those who never hear the Word of God?  What happens to those who never see a Bible, hear it preached, or have any contact whatsoever with the Christian message?  What happens to those tribesmen who still today live in far off jungles, shut off from the rest of the world, never hearing about the one true God?

The answer, as we have seen, is they do have a law.  God has put within them a sense of right and wrong.  They have all broken that law.  They will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment and they will perish eternally in hell.  Dear friends, this is why the Great Commission is so important!  This is why Paul was passionate to get the gospel to as many places where it had not yet been preached as quickly as possible!  If never hearing the Word of God meant that those people would not perish, the best thing we could do would be to keep people from hearing God’s Word.  That is not how it works.  All people are sinners, all people are under God’s just condemnation, and all are in desperate need of the Lord Jesus Christ.  God has entrusted His gospel to His people and said, “Go!” 

People are perishing; are we going?  This is why it is of such important that we devote substantial time, money, resources, energy, and prayer to the task of reaching those who have never heard the name of Christ.  As long as there is no missionary among them, no Bible in their language, no evangelical church reaching out to them, these people have no access to hope! 

From Greenland's icy mountains,
  From India's coral strand,
Where Afric's sunny fountains
  Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
  From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
  Their land from error's chain.

What though the spicy breezes
  Blow soft o'er Ceylon's isle,
Though every prospect pleases,
  And only man is vile!
In vain with lavish kindness
  The gifts of God are strewn;
The heathen in his blindness
  Bows down to wood and stone.

Can we, whose souls are lighted
  With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
  The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
  The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
  Has learnt Messiah's name.

Waft, waft, ye winds, his story,
  And you, ye waters, roll,
Till, like a sea of glory,
  It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o'er our ransomed nature,
  The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
  In bliss returns to reign.

(Reginald Heber, 1819)

 Could it be that God is moving the heart of someone reading this to go to the unreached with the gospel?  Friends, we are never happy to see members leave our churches, but if we had members being sent out to Southeast Asia, to Latin America, to the Middle East, to Russia or China, how could we not rejoice?  There is more than a billion people with little or no access to the gospel.  Will you go?

Dear friends, if you are not willing to go, it ought to be because you are confident that you are where God would have you.  Yet even you have a role.  Those who are not goers must be senders.  We must be those who work in the offices and the schools and the hospitals and the factories to earn the money that will not only support our families but support our brothers and sisters in Christ taking the gospel to the world.  We work so that they can go.  Are you giving?  Sending also means supporting those on the field with prayer and with words of encouragement via letters, care packages, emails, and the like. 

Paul was a goer.  He longed for the church in Rome to partner with him and to act as senders.  There were millions perishing in his day and he knew that the Lord Jesus Christ was worthy of the honor and worship of all of them.  So today there are billions perishing and our Lord Jesus is worthy of their love.  Who will point them to Christ? 

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’  But how are they to call on 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 someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?  As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’

[1] He’s speaking of World War II

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