Brethren, glory and honour and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. 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. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
This epistle was written by Paul probably around 55 to 57 A.D. during the latter part of his third missionary journey. This epistle is the most significant, the most logical and doctrinally orientated of his works. It is important to note that this epistle was written to the Church of Rome, which church he had yet to visit and certainly did not found – even though he may have known some of its members whom he refers to in chapter 16. It is also curious that the letter makes no reference to St Peter. This would have been strange indeed had St Peter been the founder of the Roman church or had he had been presiding over the church in Rome at the time of this letter writing. Further, as the letter does not identify any specific problems within it, the probability is that Paul wrote it to address gaps in the theological understanding of the Roman community, since he addresses such fundamental matters as righteousness, salvation, law, sin and the life of Christ. Rome was a place where both Jew and Gentile could be joined together in the faith and it was a great area to begin his teaching about the Universality of the church.
So, Paul declares that God shows no partiality whatever a man’s nationality may be. If a man does good then God will acknowledge that. If man does evil then God will acknowledge that. This is God’s judgement and God plays no favourites. You see, Paul was battling against the notion that somehow the Jews, because of their birthright had a privileged relationship with God that no other peoples had. They thought that God would pour more severely judgement upon those that opposed him – and favour his people Israel. This of course, is not the view of the great St John Chrysostom. His view is that the Jews have the heavier burden because they enjoyed a larger share of instruction from God. Therefore they would have known the severity and consequences of their disobedience and the vengeance that would have attracted if things were done lawlessly.
Paul now explains the basis of God’s judgement to Gentiles. The responsibility of the Gentiles to God is derived from their ability to discern good and evil by their conscience, and from their way of life in accordance with their perception. They had not been given the law as had the Jews so when they sinned against what they knew to be right, they sinned without law. They sinned, not necessarily in a deliberate way, but sinned in the absence of the law to guide them. In other words, if you do not know the law you cannot break the law.
Paul goes on to say that those who had the law, and sin under the law, will be punished under the law. Here’s the thing: the more you know the more you are held accountable for. The greater responsibility you have, the greater accountability you have to give. But for all that, do not think for one moment that ignorance is bliss. If you are deliberately ignorant, if you bury your head in the sand and refuse to understand your actions and their consequence then you will be judged on that basis – namely that you have wilfully kept yourself in ignorance. Consequently, you will suffer the harsher judgement.
So what is now important is that Christ has replaced the law. Christ tells us to follow him. This is an active step which demands our commitment. It is one thing to listen to the word of God but a far greater thing to do and carry out the word of God. For this reason, St James teaches us to be doers of the word. Let me now take you to a passage about the scribes and Pharisees. These eminent teachers of the law were precisely that. They were not doers. That is why Christ instructs his disciples as follows: “therefore whatever they tell you to observe, observe and do, but do not do according to their works, for they say, and do not do.” (Matthew 23:3) In other words, those that know the law and who preach the law but do not carry out the law themselves are the greatest sinners.
It is a fundamental tenet of faith that any righteousness or justification that rests upon man is the fruit of God’s grace which is poured out upon him by the work of Jesus Christ which culminates in the sacrifice of the cross and resurrection. This granting of grace is the work of the Holy Spirit. But observe that we are not passive recipients of God’s grace. Our response to God’s gift to us is the doing of good works. We are saved by good works (and that salvific act is at the behest of God) and by faith (and that is an act on our part), thus we become a new creation for good works.
We Gentiles are capable of showing what the law requires because even though we do not have the law it is written in our hearts. We know through free will that we are capable of doing good and we are capable of doing evil. We do not need a written law to tell us that doing evil is against the will of God and against what is best for us. This conscience is something that is innate within us. Make no mistake, there will be a day of judgement and on that day our works will assist in determining what happens to us. How it works, we do not know but what we do know is that we need to live our life in Christ and follow his teachings and his example. Nowhere in his teachings or in his examples does Christ manifest evil. So it stands to reason that we do good as an expression of our love for Christ. The rest – our salvation – and how we are saved is not for us to speculate. That is God’s judgement. All we can do is to live our life in imitation of Christ and at the end of the day we can say with confidence: into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit. Then we pray and trust in the mercy of the Lord.