A QUESTION IS POSED:
During spiritual conversations about the gospel, one question that an unbeliever may ask goes something like this: “What about the person who has never heard the gospel? What happens to them?” We who proclaim the gospel need to be clear about the answer to this question. Are those who have never heard the gospel treated differently from those who have heard? The gospel declares that all people are sinners and are under God’s just wrath and condemnation for their sin. The Bible states that, “The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23),” meaning eternal spiritual death. If a person has never been told this, would it be fair for God to condemn them when they were ignorant of their sin and its consequences? Romans 2:12 conclusively answers this question. In fact, the verse is so clear that there is almost no need to interpret the verse and to explain its meaning. Just read it and the message is clear. But in the interest of clarity I want to explain the verse to see how it answers our question.
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.
It will be helpful to have some background information before we plunge into the exegesis of the verse. At the time when Paul wrote Romans (~58 AD), the civilized world was divided into two groups of people: Jews and non-Jews, whom we call Gentiles. The Jews were an ethnic group, but they were much more than simply an ethnic group. The Jews were also religiously distinct since they were the people of God and had received the Law from the Lord on Mount Sinai. KEY IDEA: The Jews possessed (and venerated) the Law, and so the Jews were those “under the Law” in Romans 2:12. The Gentiles, on the other hand, did not have the Law and were, therefore, ignorant of what the Law taught. Thus, the Gentiles were “those without the Law” in Romans 2:12. Also note that the Gentiles would be “those who have never heard” in our question above.
Since the purpose of this study is to help us answer the question about the destiny of those people who have never heard the gospel, we will focus our exegesis on the first half of Romans 2:12, because this passage sheds light directly on our question.
The first word Paul uses is “For.” (Greek word “gar.”) This small word is what Paul commonly uses throughout his writing when he is about to make a statement of fact. What follows “for” is doctrinal truth. Since we see the word “For,” we know that Paul is about to make a statement of doctrinal truth.
Next, we see the phrase, “without the Law,” and we can see from the verse that this describes a group of people. We know from the “Background” study that those “without the Law” are the Gentiles. Remember the Jews had been given the Law and had been the keepers of the Law, while the Gentiles did not have access to the Law and were ignorant of the Law of God. So those “without the Law” equals Gentiles.
To complete the first half of the verse, we need to identify “All who have sinned.” One of the major themes of the book of Romans is the universal sinfulness of man. Proving man’s sin from history and from observation and from Scripture is Paul’s primary purpose in this section of Romans (1:18-3:20). This prosecution of the sin of man reaches its climax in Romans 3:23, where the Apostle declares, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From this it is clear that “all who have sinned” can be shortened to “all.”
Putting this together, then, renders, “For all the Gentiles . . .”
Yes, we are plodding through this, but by doing it this way we can see the way Paul presents his argument, we can understand how we can carefully interpret verses, and we can correctly apply Paul’s teaching to our own context.
The next phrase will go more quickly. Remember, with this verse Paul is making a doctrinal statement of fact, and in this phrase, he is making a statement about those who do not have the Law. They “will also perish without the Law.” The Greek verb used here is rendered “perish” or “be destroyed” and speaks about those who go to hell. Now, if we finished our exegesis here, we could accurately render the phrase about the Gentiles this way: “For all the Gentiles will go to hell without the Law.”
THE ANSWER TO OUR QUESTION:
Now we have arrived at the answer to the question we asked at the beginning of our study, namely, “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” Based on the exegesis that we have just done, we can make a few substitutions in the sentence about the Gentiles and see that, “All those (who have sinned) without the gospel (or “All those who have never heard the gospel”) will go to hell without the gospel.” In other words, not hearing the gospel does not exempt you from condemnation, but rather guarantees your condemnation. This is because the gospel “is the power of God for salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16).” The gospel is the good news that provides the sinner with the way of escape from God’s just judgment. If the sinner never hears the gospel, then there is no possibility of escaping the wrath of God, which is the judgment of God on their sin.
DON’T STOP THERE!
But now that we have answered our question about those who have never heard the gospel, we have arrived at a vastly more important question; namely, “Is there any hope for those who have not heard the gospel?” So, we can return to our key sentence and find out if there is a solution to this riddle. We paraphrased the first part of Romans 2:12 like this: “All those who have never heard the gospel will go to hell without the gospel.” The last three words of this sentence (“without the gospel”) are critically important, because they provide a glimmer of hope to an otherwise hopeless situation. These words imply that there is a condition that could reverse the judgment of hell. What am I saying?
The condition that ensures their condemnation is that these people have never heard the gospel. But just because they have never heard the gospel in the past, does not mean that they will never hear in the future. We might modify our sentence this way to emphasize this new hope: “All those who have never heard the gospel will go to hell if they remain without the gospel and they never hear the gospel.” But if someone preaches to them and they hear the word about Christ and believe in Christ and call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:14-15), then they will be saved.
In this study of Romans 2:12, we have learned several things. First, those who have never heard the gospel are not exempted from the condemnation of God, because the problem is not our lack of knowledge about our sin, but our problem is the wrath of God that is poured out on us because of our sin. Second, we have reinforced the fact that the gospel is the only solution for God’s just condemnation of our sin. “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).” And finally, we have seen that those of us who have heard and received the gospel have been sent by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth so that there will be fewer and fewer who can say they have never heard.
SDG rmb 5/5/2020