In our study of Romans we've begun looking at a very pessimistic view of humanity. Paul doesn't mince words; the world is sinful and ruined.
After taking an apostolic shot at those who would be self-righteous and judgmental of other people's sins when, in fact, the critical ones are sinful, too (Rom 2.1-11), Paul then determines who will be guilty before God:
"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. " (Rom 2.12-13 ESV)
Do you notice the stark reality here? Paul says that...
1. Gentiles who sin will be held responsible for their sin.
Paul says they ανομως και απολουνται ("also will destroy themselves without Law"). The word for "destroy" is απολλυμι, a very strong (and unambiguous) word. They will destroy/ruin/perish themselves in hell.
2. Jews will be held accountable to the Law of Moses.
Clarke elaborates at his point in his Commentary:
"For as many as have sinned without law, etc. - They, viz. the Gentiles, who shall be found to have transgressed against the mere light of nature, or rather, that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, Joh 1:9, shall not come under the same rule with those, the Jews, who have in addition to this enjoyed an extraordinary revelation; but they shall be dealt with according to the inferior dispensation, under which they lived: while those, the Jews, who have sinned against the law - the positive Divine revelation granted to them, shall be judged by that law, and punished proportionably to the abuse of such an extraordinary advantage."
We will consider this in greater depth in another blog entry. Just know that Paul places the responsibility on his Jewish brothers as much as he does Gentiles.
Now, at this point, someone may say, "Gentiles go to hell without having the Law? What about that tribal native in [insert exotic place] who never knows the Law of Moses?
Well, for one thing, a tribal native--as a Gentile--isn't under the Mosaic Law, anyway. Still, he is held responsible before God for his conduct because of another thing: a violated conscience. Read Paul's thoughts on the matter:
"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." (Rom 2.14-16 ESV)
A tribal native (or any other Gentile) is held accountable even if he hasn't heard of the Law because he has violated his conscience and has done what he knows (in his heart) isn't right. He knows he's violated an unwritten moral law.
You may think, "But that's not fair!" Yes, it is fair--exactly fair and nothing but fair. It is fairness in the strictest sense. You sin once--you go to hell, be it Gentile or Jew. You don't sin once--you go to heaven, be it Gentile or Jew.
If you are planning on getting to heaven based on your own good words, how good do you have to be? Paul's answer is blunt: you must be sinlessly perfect or you go to hell. Since we have all sinned, we have to find another way to heaven. Our good works aren't going to cut it. It's sinless perfection or it's everlasting damnation.
Or, it's the gospel. But we're not there in Romans yet.
For now, Paul lets us in on an important truth: before a person can be saved he has to know that he is lost.