“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)
All of us, Jew and Gentile alike are at the defendants’ table in the court room. But are we all to be judged by the same standard? After all, don’t the Jews have an advantage? They have the Law of Moses, after all. Hasn’t God, in a sense, given them the answers before the test? Jew and Gentile may be at the same defendants’ table in the courtroom, but to claim that God is an impartial judge when he’s given an advantage to one group prior to the judgment seems a stretch. Yet this is precisely what Paul does claim.
Yes, it’s true; the Jews have the Law of Moses. So by what standard will they be judged? On the basis of that same Law. But the Gentiles are not without any standard of judgment. Their own hearts have a basic awareness of right and wrong. When they stand in the judgment seat, their own hearts and consciences will be sufficient to bring condemnation. It seems both Jew and Gentile have enough rope to hang themselves.
There remains this theoretical possibility Paul keeps hinting at that people can (again, theoretically) be justified by fulfilling the requirements of the Law. We will find, as Paul’s argument progresses, that he doesn’t believe anyone (save Christ alone) can actually meet that standard. But here Paul makes it plain that this theoretical possibility is equally true for both Jew and Gentile. Any Jew who fulfills the Law in all he does will be justified on the basis of those works in the final judgment. Any Gentile who can stand before this same Judge without his own heart and conscience accusing him will also be justified. Theoretically possible. Highly unlikely.
We should again remind ourselves of what Paul made clear in the previous section. The Judge is merciful. If we will come with soft and repentant hearts, we may just find that he’s made provision for both the satisfaction of his justice and the expression of his love and mercy.