Paul mentions two basic realities that must be understood if we are to appreciate the message contained in the gospel. The first is that ‘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.’ And the second is that ‘it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.’ Paul is concerned about future destiny (expressed in the word ‘perish’) and spiritual reality (expressed in the words ‘righteous’ and ‘doers’).
The first principle is a reminder that God is fair. Paul is looking ahead to the Day of Judgement and says that different standards will be used by God on that day. Those who did not have the law in its written form – the Gentiles – will be judged according to the awareness they possessed (which Paul will explain in 2:14-16) and those that did have the law in its written form – the Jews – will be judged according to the awareness that they possessed (which Paul will explain in 2:17-25).
The first principle is also a reminder that excuses are invalid. Often, people speculate about the fate of those who never heard the gospel. While the Christian church sadly can be accused of failing to take the gospel across the street, never mind across the sea, we cannot deduce from their failure that God will ignore how people responded to the divine light they had received in other ways, especially through God’s revelation of himself in creation.
With regard to the second principle, that it is doers of the law that are acceptable and not only hearers of it, we are reminded that God’s standard is perfection, that he requires total conformity, inwardly as well as outwardly, to his law. Further, not only is the standard perfection, his requirement demands permanent obedience to God’s law – it is not sufficient to keep it perfectly for a short time and then break it even in a little way. This demand is also personal, in that each person who has the law has to perform it. It is not difficult to see that Paul’s principle is very extensive and disconcerting.
How would Paul’s readers in Rome, and indeed all who had heard him preach and teach, react to those two principles? We will look further at Paul’s words in subsequent readings.