12 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
The same principle of judgment according to knowledge and performance is now applied more fully to Gentiles. Two complementary facts about them are self-evident. The first is they *do not have the law* (sc, of Moses). This is stated twice in verse 14. Externally they do not possess it. Secondly, however, they do have some knowledge of its standards internally. For Gentiles who do not have the law nevertheless *do by nature*, instinctively, *things required by the law*. This is not a universal claim, for Paul does not use the definite article and refer to ‘the Gentiles’. He is simply saying that some Gentiles sometimes do some of what the law requires. This is an observable, verifiable fact, which anthropologists have everywhere discovered. Not all human beings are crooks, blackguards, thieves, adulterers and murderers. On the contrary, some honour their parents, recognize the sanctity of human life, are loyal to their spouses, practice honesty, speak the truth and cultivate contentment, just as the last six of the ten commandments require.
How then are we to explain this paradoxical phenomenon, that although they do not have the law, they yet appear to know it? Paul’s answer is that *they are a law for themselves*, not in the popular – albeit mistaken – sense that they can frame their own laws, but in the sense that their own human being is their law. This is because God created them self-conscious moral persons, and *they show* by their behaviour *that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts* (15a). So then, although they do not have the law in their hands, they do have its requirements in their hearts, because God has written them there. This surely cannot be a reference to God’s new-covenant promise to put the law in people’s minds and write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33; cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), as Barth, Charles Cranfield and other commentators have suggested, since the whole context is one of judgment, not salvation. Paul is referring not to regeneration but to creation, to the fact that ‘the work of the law’ (literally), its ‘requirements’ (NIV), its ‘effect’ (NEB, JBP), its ‘business’, has been written on the hearts of all human beings by their Maker. That God has written his law on their hearts by creation means that we have some knowledge of it; when he writes his law on our hearts in the new creation he also gives us a love for it and the power to obey it.
In addition, *their consciences are bearing witness*, especially by a negative, disapproving voice when they have done wrong, and so are *their thoughts* in a kind of interior dialogue, *now accusing, now even defending them* (15b), as if in a lawcourt in which the prosecutor and defence develop their respective cases. It seems that Paul is envisaging a debate in which three parties are involved: our *hearts* (on which the requirements of the law have been written), our *consciences* (prodding and reproving us) and our *thoughts* (usually accusing us, but sometimes even excusing us.
Verse 16 concludes this section. Verses 14-15 seem to form a parenthesis (as in NIV). Verse 16 then resumes the theme of judgment, and NIV indicates this by adding the introductory words *This will take place*. Paul has stressed that we cannot escape God’s judgment (1-4); that it will be righteous judgment (5-11), according to our works, including the fundamental ambition or direction of our lives (what we ‘seek’); and that it will be impartial as between Jews and Gentiles (12-15). In both cases, the greater our moral knowledge, the greater our moral accountability will be. Now he adds three further truths about judgment day, ‘the day of God’s wrath’ (5).
First, God’s judgment will include the hidden areas of our lives: *God will judge men’s secrets*. Scripture tells us repeatedly that God knows our hearts (E.g. 1 Sam. 16:7; Ps. 139:1ff,; Je. 17:10; Lk. 16:15; Heb. 4:12f.). In consequence, there will be no possibility of a miscarriage of justice on the last day. For all the facts will be known, including those which at present are not, for example, our motives.
Secondly, God’s judgment will take place *through Jesus Christ*. He claimed that the Father had entrusted all judgment to him (Jn. 5:22,27), and he regularly spoke of himself as the central figure on the day of judgment (E.g. Mt. 7:21ff.; 25:31ff.). Paul declared in Athens that God had both fixed the day and appointed the judge (Acts 17:31), as Peter had earlier told Cornelius (Acts 10:42). It is a great comfort to know that our Judge will be none other than our saviour.
Thirdly, God’s judgment is part of the gospel. For *God will judge men’s secrets*, wrote Paul, *through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares* (16). Probably this means that the good news of salvation shines forth brightly when it is seen against the dark background of divine judgment. We cheapen the gospel if we represent it as a deliverance only from unhappiness, fear, guilt and other felt needs, instead of as a rescue from the coming wrath. (1 Thess. 1:10).