Pastor Scott L. Harris
Grace Bible Church, NY
March 24, 2002
One of the most common questions used by people to deflect the gospel message is "What about the
pagan?" Though some may be asking this out of a sincere heart, and many may not realize the
implications of their question, the question is in actuality a challenge of God’s justice and goodness. Can
God be just and good if He condemns to eternal wrath those who have never heard the gospel? The
answer, as we shall see today, is "YES."
We have already seen this truth in part in our earlier studies of Romans 1:18-32. Most people do not
have much of a question on this issue if it is confined to the immoral pagan. Everyone has a standard of
conduct of some sort, and those who live in violation of that standard are seen as deserving of some sort
For example, it would be the rare individual in America that would not want to see Bin Laden and
his band of terrorists punished in some way. Most Americans would even agree that such terrorists are
deserving of severe punishment. People innately understand that there is right and wrong and those who
do wrong should be punished for it. It has been that way throughout the centuries and so people such as
Hitler and his henchmen, Mussolini, General Tojo, Stalin, Chairman Mao, the Khemer Rouges in
Cambodia, and those who carry out efforts of "ethnic cleansing," whether it is in the Balkans or
anywhere else, are viewed as deserving punishment for their great crimes against humanity.
Another example, what would you want to see happen to the person that steals your car or breaks
into your house and steals all your valuables in order to support their drug habit? Even if you are a kind
soul that would be more interested in seeing them rehabilitated instead of punished, you still want them
changed so they do not continue and to whatever degree possible, you would like to receive restitution
from them. Again, everyone has some system of right and wrong, and based on their system they would
advocate punishment of some sort for those who do wrong.
Paul is very straight forward about all who are unrighteous. Romans 1:18, "the wrath of God is
revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in
unrighteousness." While some may claim they were ignorant of God and therefore should not be
punished, the plain truth is that God has placed a knowledge of Himself in the heart of all people, and
further, He has given clear witness of Himself in all that He has made so that all people are without
excuse for their continuation in ungodliness and unrighteousness instead of seeking God out (Rom.
1:19,20). The reality is that though man knows God, they do not honor Him as the creator or give thanks
to Him. The resulting consequence is that their thoughts become futile and their hearts darkened to
understanding (Rom. 1:21). In their pride, they profess to be wise, but in actuality they become fools
who exchange the worship of the Creator for the worship of something created (Rom. 1:22,23).
The Immoral Unrighteous
We have already traced the spiral into depravity of the immoral unrighteous in our previous study of
the rest Romans 1. God’s judgement on such people is to pull His restraining hand back and let them go
further into their sin and experience sin’s consequences. For not worshiping Him properly, God gives
people over to the lusts of their hearts to impurity which results in shameful behavior and dishonoring
their own bodies. As people continue downward in their sinfulness and worship some aspect of creation
instead of the creator, God gives people over to their degrading passions. Their lust and emotions take
over control from their minds, and even though consequences of such sin should logically warn them
away from such behaviors, they pursue them anyway and reap to themselves the due penalty. Paul
presents homosexuality as a prime example of such a degraded passion. The horrible medical
consequences alone should scare everyone from such debauched behavior, yet the homosexual pursues it
anyway. As people descend even lower to a point at which they will no longer give thought to God in
daily life, He gives them over to depraved minds resulting in all sorts of sinful practices. Paul gives a list
of some of the resulting sins in verses 29-31,"being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed,
evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; [they are] gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God,
insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding,
untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful." They can descend even farther into not only doing such things,
but approving those who do them.
While it is true that the general decline in morality of our society has resulted in many of these
improper practices being accepted or even viewed as good, there are within this list those things that are
still understood by all to be immoral. As I mentioned some weeks ago, even the professional thief
believes it is wrong to steal from him, and he will seek vengeance on those who do. That such immoral
people should be judged by God is generally not much of an issue.
The Moral Unrighteous
However, what about those people who do have a high moral code of conduct and would even be
considered to be "good" by most people? They do not have a Bible and have not heard the gospel, so
they do not have the right understanding of God, but they are not sexual perverts, they are giving instead
of greedy, they are truthful, careful to protect the reputation of others, humble in an argument, obedient
and respectful to their parents, and are trustworthy, loving and merciful. Would God be good and just to
let His wrath be against such good and moral people? Would it be right for Him to hold them
responsible for their failures when they did the best they could with what knowledge they did have?
What about the poor pagan in a distant land who has not heard the gospel?
Condemned by Hypocrisy
That is the question that Paul addresses in Romans 2. We already began our discussion of this a
couple of weeks ago when we examined verses 1-10. Paul’s argument that God wrath does righteously
come upon such people in this section is very simple and is stated in verse 1. "Therefore you are without
excuse, every man [of you] who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself;
for you who judge practice the same things."
These people may live better lives than those who have been given over to depraved minds. They
condemn those who practice the things listed in Romans 1:29-31 while those with depraved minds
approve of them. Yet their very judgement of those immoral people will result in their own
condemnation, for they practice the same things. They may not be as flagrant or excessive in it, but they
still do the same things.
Their greed may not match the robber Barons of a century ago, the junk bond traders of the 80’s or
some government official who have an insatiable appetite for more taxes from us, yet, they are also
guilty of greed. Greed is in the desire to hoard for oneself instead of sharing with those who have need.
Greed is in the desire to amass and accumulate wealth at the expense of what God says is actually
important. Greed is in the effort to get more than the other guy in order to feel more important.
Greed often leads to stealing, and stealing is stealing whether it is a large amount or a little. You
don’t have to rob a bank, break into someone’s house or embezzle to be a thief. If you take what does
not belong to you without permission, it is stealing. This includes time. If you cheat on your takes, take
things home from work for personal use without permission, or extend your lunch hour beyond the time
your employer has set for it, it is stealing. The condemnation made about a convicted thief is self
condemning because the very judgement rendered on the one who is obviously immoral proves the
knowledge of right and wrong on the issue, and any failure to be perfect on the issue is wrong.
Paul’s point here is that when someone judges another person, they condemn themselves if they are
doing the same thing. They point the finger at another person, but there are three other fingers pointing
back at themselves. Is Paul saying that it is wrong for them to point out the sin of someone else? No, for
even if you fail to recognize the wrong that other people do, you will still have to deal with your own
sin. The point here is simply that no one will be able to excuse their sin before God because their
judgement of others demonstrates that they do know right from wrong and their own actions of
wrongdoing, even if less in degree to others, still condemns them.
God’s judgement rightly falls on all who practice sin, any sin, regardless of how great or small you
may personally think it may be. The sin is against the Creator of the universe, and He is the one that sets
the standards, not you or me.
God’s kindness, forbearance and patience should lead all people, including those who think
themselves moral, to repentance (vs. 4). Why, simply because God’s expression of these attributes
demonstrate how short we fall from His standard. It also demonstrates God’s desire to reconcile with
wayward people instead of punishing them. God’s kindness is expressed in all the various ways He
provides for our needs. God’s forbearance is demonstrated in the fact that He has not brought about your
punishment yet, though you deserve it. His patience is seen in that He continues to wait for your
response of repentance to Him. Paul pointed this out to the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill in Acts
17. God created them and in Him "they lived and moved and had their being," and though God in the
past had overlooked their ignorance, He was now declaring that all men everywhere should repent (Acts
But men do not generally respond well to what should be so obvious. Instead, they are stubborn and
hold to their own hypocritical standard of righteousness instead of repenting and seeking out God’s
forgiveness. The result is that they store up for themselves God’s wrath which will break out upon them
in the day of judgement (vs. 5).
God will judge people by the very deeds they have done. The very thing that most people think they
can use to justify themselves before God will be what condemns them. Most people, including those that
profess themselves to be "Christians," live by the simple idea that if their good works are greater than
their bad deeds, then the balance will tip in their favor and God will let them into heaven. The truth is
that there is no scale of justice. There is right, and there is wrong, both according to God’s standard. If
you do everything right, you have only done what is required. Jesus pointed this out in Luke 17:9 when
He stated "So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy
slaves; we have done [only] that which we ought to have done.’" But as James 2:10 points out, any deed
that is done contrary to God’s standards makes the person guilty. The better analogy here is that God
demands a clean white robe of holiness in order to enter heaven, and it only takes one stain to make your
robe dirty and disqualify you.
Revelation 20:12-15 should cause all those who are trusting in their own work to shudder. And I
saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another
book was opened, which is [the book] of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were
written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and
death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one [of them]
according to their deeds. 14 And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second
death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown
into the lake of fire.
Are you trusting in your own good deeds or the work of Jesus Christ in redeeming you from your
sins through His payment of His own life on your behalf? If you are trusting your own works, your very
works will judge and condemn you.
Condemned by Conscience
Now some at this point might begin to argue that God is not fair and that He gave the Jews an unfair
advantage in revealing to them the law. Paul addresses this in verses 11-16. For there is no partiality
with God. 12 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; 13 for not the hearers of the Law are just before
God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do
instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they
show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts
alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will
judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
First of all, the charge would be unjust because there is no partiality with God. People are partial for
all sorts of reasons, but God is not. People show favoritism based on either something they want to gain
from someone else or some obligation they believe they have toward the other person.
People show partiality based on what they think they can gain from someone else. There is a degree
of this that is expected, such as a salesperson paying more attention to a customer that appears ready and
able to purchase than one that is not. However, the scriptures warn Christians about being partial. James
2:1-6 states, My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with [an attitude of]
personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine
clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one
who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, "You sit here in a good place," and you say to the poor man,
"You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool," 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves,
and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this
world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But
you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into
God is impartial in part because there is nothing that He could gain from man. All our deeds of
righteousness are as filthy rags before Him who is perfectly holy (Isa. 64:6). Is there anything any man
could possibly possess that does not already belong to God? No. Is there any thing at all that is more
powerful than God by which God could therefore gain for Himself by showing partiality? Again, no.
People do have a greater obligation toward family members, so there is a proper favoritism that
occurs there when it comes to most things. That is, you are obligated to take care of your families needs
before you take care of the needs of others. As Paul said in 1 Timothy 5:8, But if anyone does not
provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than
an unbeliever. There is a greater obligation among believers toward other Christians than to non-believers. Galatians 6:10 tells us. "So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and
especially to those who are of the household of the faith." We have a special obligation to other
While God has a special relationship to His chosen people, the Jews, and to those who are followers
of Jesus Christ, His adopted children, and from that position God does show them special favor, the
context here, however, is of making judgement. In this, God is completely impartial. A human judge
would be unjust if he did not carry out the duties of the law even if it meant sentencing a family member.
The same is true for God. As already stated, God judges a person based on their actual deeds, and He
gives no favoritism to the Jews, though the basis of their judgement is slightly different because they
have been given the law. Both those who have the law and who do not have the law will be judged
accordingly without partiality.
Second, the charge that God has given the Jews an unfair advantage and is therefore unjust is false
because the supposed advantage that God has given them also brings upon them a stricter judgement.
They will be judged according to the law, and the law has much more detail to obey. The principle given
in Luke 12:48 applies here. To whom much has been given, much will be required.
Paul emphasizes this point in verse13 by pointing out that it is not the hearers of the law that are
made just before God, but those who are doers of the law. There is no advantage to hearing the law if
you do not obey it. In fact, for those who disobey it, it becomes a curse for they will be judged by it.
Only those that obey it will receive the blessing. The apostle James makes a similar statement in James
1:23-25 that applies to those of us who are Christians. "For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a
doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for [once] he has looked at himself
and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently
at the perfect law, the [law] of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an
effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does."
Never forget that true Christianity is about following Jesus Christ and being conformed into His
image. You will not be saved by hearing the Word of God if you do not follow what it says. Belief that
does not result in change is only intellectual assent and that will not get you to heaven. Jesus’ declaration
about the false teachers in Matthew 7 warns of this. Though they had even done many things in Jesus
name, He will declare to them on the day of judgement, "Depart from Me, you who practice
How then will God judge those without the law? Paul explains in verses 14,15 that it will be the law
of their conscience. "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law,
these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in
their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending
Some have taken these verse to mean that since the Gentiles will be judged according to their
conscience, then they might not be condemned if their conscience is clear. That idea runs into four
problems within the text.
First, verse 12 specifically states that as many as have sinned without the law will also perish
without the law. This is not a statement that those without the law may or may not have sinned. The only
qualifier here about sin is whether they sinned without having the law or having the law.
Second, verse 12 states directly that they will perish. This verb is in the middle tense meaning that
not only will destruction come upon them, but they will be involved in that destruction themselves. That
is in keeping with what Paul has already said in chapter one about the judgement of God in the present
which is His giving people over to their sins and letting them reap the natural consequences. The idea is
that God lets them be punished by their own actions rather than directly Himself. There will also be a
day in which He act directly and will deal out retribution to those who do not know Him and do not obey
the gospel of the Lord Jesus, and they will pay the penalty of eternal destruction shut out from the
presence of God (2 Thess. 1:8,9).
Third, as verses 14 & 15 point out, that because they naturally do the things of the law, it
demonstrates that God has already put aspects of the law into their conscience by which they will be
judged accordingly. In other words, their conscience establishes a knowledge and standard of law by
which they will be judged.
Fourth, their conscience bears witness of their guilt and condemns them. The standard of conscience
of various people will differ from one another, but every conscience will condemn. Even the sociopath,
who has seared his conscience to the degree that he or she can do horrible things without any indication
of remorse, still has a conscience and anything done in violation of the conscience will condemn them.
In addition, they were not born sociopaths and they did not become that way in a day. All the violations
of their conscience that contributed to searing it so severely will also condemn them.
What do I mean by a seared conscience? Paul speaks of it in 1 Timothy 4:1,2 stating "But the Spirit
explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits
and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a
branding iron, [men] who forbid marriage [and advocate] abstaining from foods, which God has
created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth." In Ephesians 4:18,19 the
same condition is referred to as hardness of heart and being callous. In Titus 1:15 it is referred to as
The conscience is fickle and people’s conflicting thoughts will both accuse them and defend them.
Humans are very good at self justification, but the very fact that such a rationalization for justification
has to be made is evidence of the guilt already there. The person with a seared conscience, a hard heart
or is callous, is someone who has rationalized their actions in the effort to justify themselves for doing
what they instinctively know is wrong.
For example, the child who is greatly startled when you catch him stealing from the cookie jar. You
have literally caught him with his hand in the cookie jar, but instead of being contrite and confessing the
sin, he begins to make all sorts of excuses and rationalizations. "You didn’t say I could not have one
now." "I didn’t get one after lunch, so I am getting it now." "But everyone else got one." As we get
older, we just develop more excuses to justify what we know we should not have done. As that goes on
long enough, we begin to believe our self-justification and in that way sear our conscience by training it
to accept evil.
The conscience is very important. If you violate it, it will condemn you before God. If you violate it
long enough, it will become seared and evil resulting in a heard heart and callousness. If you are
sensitive and train it according to God’s standards, then it will be a helpful guide to living in godliness (1
Tim. 1:5). Paul sought to maintain a blameless conscience before God and man (Acts 24:16). We should
not do less.
The final conclusion concerning the pagans who do not have the law is that they too are justly under
the wrath of God for their sins. On the day that God judges through Christ Jesus, the secrets of men’s
hearts will be exposed and they will be judged accordingly. They will be condemned by their own
Those who would seek to use the question of "what about the pagan?" as a means to deflect their
own response to the gospel, are in a more difficult position. Because they, like all people who have heard
the gospel, are now responsible for what they have heard and they will be judged accordingly.
What is the ramification of all this? Without the gospel of Jesus Christ, the pagan will perish into a
Christless eternity. They may be good people according to the standards of their society. They may even
avoid some of the more outward and flagrant actions of sin. But they do not meet God’s standards. They
do not even meet their own. They have no hope unless they hear the gospel and respond to it.
You don’t have to go to distant lands to find such people. A friend of mine related the story that
sometime after he and his wife were saved, they got together with some other friends for dinner. Not
long after they arrived, the friends told them that the most wonderful thing had happened to them, they
finally heard and understood the gospel message, that Jesus Christ had paid for their sins through His
own death on the cross, and then rose from the dead promising eternal life to all who placed their faith in
Him. They had done so and now were saved from sin and going to heaven. My friend said he began to
rejoice and then told them that they were also saved and that this was wonderful news. Their friends then
asked how long they had been saved, to which he replied that had been a while. They then asked him a
question that pierced his heart. "How could you have been with us so many times knowing the truth of
this good news and not told us? We could have gone to hell."
Those are sobering words even for us. How many around us remain ignorant and bound for hell
because we have remained silent? Apart from Jesus Christ, all people are condemned. It is this truth
that push us forward in witnessing both here and abroad.
Let me challenge you think beyond what is comfortable. Every great missionary, well known or
obscure, has been compelled to leave the comforts of family and friends to go to distant lands and face
all sorts of hardship and tribulation because of the crucial need to bring the hope of the gospel to those
who had never heard. Is it a lot to ask? Yes. It is a lot to give? Yes. But what is the value of human souls
for whom Jesus Christ has died, but have yet to even hear the story. They continue lost in their sins and
bound for hell. This is a personal challenge to every Christian. What are you doing to bring the gospel to
others? Perhaps some here, and not just you young people, need to give some serious thought about
missions. It is vital and needed to give finances so others can go, but does it always have to be others
that go. Why not you? There are plenty of opportunities, projects, short term and career. It is something
for each of us to make a serious matter of prayer.