The Letter to the Romans



6. Curse of the law

Romans 2:12-16


Paul has introduced the idea that those who have the law are no less guilty of sin than are those who do not. As counterintuitive as it might seem, the law does not make people more moral. God will judge all people, even those who have the law, according to truth and according to their deeds.

He further expands on this idea of judgment for all in verses 12-16. Those who sin "apart from the law" will "perish apart from the law." Those who sin under the law, however, will "be judged by the law." The consequences for sinning when one has had sin clearly defined are more serious than are the consequences for sin committed in ignorance.

Moses told the Israelites that he was setting before them a blessing and a curse; if they obeyed the law God had given them, they would be blessed. If, however, they turned away from God and did what the law prohibited, they would be cursed. (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

Paul expands on this idea. In Romans 3:19 he says that the law's requirements are for all those under the law-in other words, all those who claim it as their standard for holiness. But, he says, the law justifies no one. Rather, the law is the means of our becoming conscious of sin. Because of Jesus and his death and resurrection, however, the law is no longer our accuser. The law's purpose is to point out sin, but sin, Paul emphasizes in Romans 6:14, is not our master when we are in Christ.

On this side of the cross, living under the law when we have Jesus and his finished work to redeem us is deadly. In Galatians 3:10, Paul says all who rely on the law are under a curse. Just as Moses told Israel at Sinai, the law promises curses for those who sin. Paul further compares the law to Hagar, the bondwoman, and Ishmael her son. He compares the promises of God to Sarah and her son Isaac, and he admonishes Christ-followers to "get rid of the slave woman" (see Galatians 4:21-22). When we have Jesus' death and resurrection available to us, if we hang onto the law as our standard and authority, we forfeit the grace of forgiveness and retain the need to generate perfection in ourselves.

In fact, no one can become righteous by keeping the law, no matter how hard he tries. Romans 3:10-12 declares that there is no one who is righteous; all have turned away from God. Verses of 19-20 of Romans 3 say further that no one will be declared righteous by keeping the law. The only thing the law does is to make us conscious of sin. In spite of this bleak condition of mankind, people everywhere continue to try to attain righteousness by their works and by observing the law.

If a person lives under the law instead of under the blood of Jesus and his finished work, he is placing himself under its curse. If a person sins under the law, he will be judged by the law. Its penalty will be fully carried out against such a sinner.



Sinning Apart from the Law

Similarly, if a person sins without knowing the law, he will perish "apart from the law." Those "apart from the law" are not without knowledge of God (see Romans 1:18-20). They do not, however, have the detailed revelation of God's expectations that the law provides. They are dead in their sins, and they sin, but they are not judged by the law. God will judge them without the law being part of the equation.

In Romans 2:14-15 Paul explains that the Gentiles, those who do not have the law God gave Israel, do have the requirements of the law written on their hearts. By nature they do things required by the law, and their consciences bear witness with them regarding their behavior. In other words, that fact that people do not know the law does not exempt them from judgment. Part of being created by God is the fact of having a conscience that convicts one naturally when he sins against another person. That conscience, however, can be seared; Romans 1:21-29 explains that because of their wickedness, humans suppressed the natural knowledge of God, so God gave them over to every evil thing they could imagine to do. Because of mankind's suppression of its knowledge of God, He will judge them for the sins to which they have abandoned themselves.

Amos 1:3 to 2:3 describes God's judgment against the pagan nations that perpetrated violence and inhuman treatment against other people. He will judge and punish all those who do evil, whether or not they have the law, because the knowledge of God is available to all people, and all are without excuse. (see Romans 1:18-20) Because of Adam's sin, all are born spiritually separated from God, and that intrinsic sin dooms every human being from birth. With or without the law, all people are sentenced to punishment for their sin.

This fact is the bad news to which we are born. It would be a hopeless situation for the entire race if it were not for the miracle of Jesus.

God had to intervene in Peter's life in order to show him that the Gentiles, those who did not have the law, were given the same hope for salvation as the Jews who did have the great blessing of God's revelation through the law. After his remarkable vision of the sheet filled with unclean animals which God told him to kill and eat, Peter suddenly understood that God was including even the Gentile "dogs" in his salvation. When Jesus healed the chasm of sin in the universe which separated men from God, all men, not just those who had the law, were now free to approach the Father through Jesus.

"I now realize," Peter said, "how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right." (Acts 10:34-5) Peter explained the source of that right doing in Acts 15:8-9: "God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted [the Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to ushe purified their hearts by faith."

In verse 13 Paul stresses that it will not be those who hear the law but those who do the law who will be declared righteous.

With Jesus' death and resurrection came the understanding that righteousness and good deeds were not the result of people trying hard to keep the law. Rather, they are the inevitable results of being filled with the Holy Spirit and having one's heart purified by faith in Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and the acceptance of Jesus' sacrifice for sin, a Christ-follower is covered with Jesus' righteousness. If a person is in Christ, he will be judged righteous and obedient to God's requirements expressed in the law because God will see Christ's obedience and righteousness covering him.


Secrets Judged Through Christ

This judgment of men's deeds will happen "on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ." (v. 16) This passage underscores that no one can know for sure whether or not another person's deeds are coming from his own sinful nature or from the power of the Holy Spirit. It also points out that those with no knowledge of the law might have hearts that desire and respond to truth, and only God can know those things.

Both the Old and the New Testaments emphasize that no person can hide from God. No matter how well a person thinks he camouflages his sin or his self-centeredness or his manipulation or arrogance or any other destructive attitude or motive, God sees it and ultimately will reveal it. Even if the motives are hidden from people's own consciousness, God will eventually judge them.

Ecclesiastes 12:14 says that God will "bring every deed into judgment," whether it is good or bad. Job said that God reveals the deep things of darkness and brings deep shadows into light. (Job 12:22)

In one of Moses' prayers, recorded in Psalm 90, he said that God has set all our iniquities before him; our secret sins are in the light of his presence. (Psalm 90:8) Even if they're hidden from others and we ourselves are in denial about our own evil motives and practices, they are always clearly visible to God. He always sees everything.

Paul explains in more detail how God will deal with our secrets. People's work will be revealed for what it is, he says in 1 Corinthians 4:5. "Day will bring it to light." Just as Moses said hundreds of years before, the light of God's presence reveals all our secrets. He will reveal whether our works have been motivated by him or not. If not, they will not last. If so, we will be rewarded. In the meantime, Paul admonishes, we are not to judge anything "before the appointed time." God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness. (1 Corinthians 3:13)

God has delegated the judging of humanity's secrets to Jesus Christ. While the Father is ultimately responsible for judgment and eternity, he does not actually judge humans. He has "entrusted all judgment to the Son," so all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. (John 5:21-22) Peter confirms this fact in Acts 17:30-31. He warned that although God "overlooked" men's ignorance in the past, the day is coming when he will "judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed," confirming his appointment by raising the Judge from the dead. Peter also admonished that we are to preach and testify that Jesus is the one whom God has appointed to judge the living and the dead (see Acts 10:42), and Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Because Jesus conquered death, he now has power over that archenemy of life. In Romans 14:8-9 Paul explains that Jesus died and returned to life so he could be lord over both the dead and the living. Peter also states that people will have to give an account to the One who judges the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:3-5)

Because Jesus experienced life, death, and resurrection, conquering death and swallowing it up in life, he is qualified to judge not only those who are alive but those who have died as well. Even though those who lived before Jesus came did not know him, Jesus is qualified to judge them because he, as God, knows the secrets of their hearts and the motives that drove their lives, and he has authority over death because he defeated it by his own resurrection and power.

From a spiritual and not only a physical perspective Jesus is also Lord of life and death. Because he is sinless and is the author of life, he is Lord of those who have eternal life. Because he became sin for us, because he took the curse of sin, he is Lord also of the spiritually dead. Because Jesus experienced the punishment each of us deserved for our inherent sin, he has made a way for all of humanity to have eternal life. Those who reject Jesus and his sacrifice will remain spiritually dead for eternity, but because Jesus made a way for them to be saved, they are under his authority. He is Lord of the spiritually dead as well as of the spiritually living.

The author of Hebrews explains what really qualifies Jesus to be our judge. Unlike the Old Testament judges, Jesus is also our high priest. In Jesus all the offices of the old covenant-the priesthood, the judges, and the kings-are fulfilled. Hebrews explains that because Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses and was tempted in every way like we are, we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. (see Hebrews 4:15-16) The book of Hebrews also explains that Jesus has a permanent priesthood. He can "save completely" everyone who comes to God through him because he lives always to intercede for them. He sacrificed himself once for all, and he meets our needs. (see Hebrews 9:24-28)

Because Jesus was obedient to the Father and took on humanity, experiencing every type of temptation we experience yet without sin, he was able to be the perfect sacrifice God required for sin. If Jesus hadn't been human, if he hadn't been perfect, if he hadn't been God, he could not have been the perfect substitute that took the place of all the imperfect humans that have lived on this planet.

Because Jesus became human and experienced our suffering, our temptations, and our pain, all without sin, he is the only one in the universe who is an appropriate judge for us. Because Jesus accomplished the task of living a sinless life as a human with a sinless nature on earth, because he died and rose from the grave, God gave him all authority on earth and in heaven.



The picture Paul paints of the human condition and of the future judgment is bleak. Left to our own devices, we humans would be hopeless. There is hope, however, through the miracle of Jesus' sacrifice. Paul says, in Romans 3:21-26, that God presented Jesus as a "sacrifice of atonement." The righteousness of God, he says, is now available "through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." (Romans 3: 22)

Paul wants to be certain, though, that all recognize their culpability before God. None of us can claim to deserve Jesus' sacrifice; every human ever born on earth is sinful and separated from God, deserving of death.

This judgment will take place on "the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ," as "my" gospel declares, Paul asserts. (Romans 2:16)

Paul calls the gospel he preached "my gospel" because it is the message he received by direct revelation from God. In Galatians 1:11-12 he states that the gospel he preaches he did not learn from any other man. "I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ," he asserts. His calling it "my gospel" is not a statement of arrogance or uniqueness; rather, it is a statement of acceptance and ownership. He is not a grudging witness to what God showed him, nor is he a hanger-on to the eleven apostles, learning the gospel from them and then teaching it on his own. Paul was personally called by the Lord Jesus, and the gospel he preached is the gospel of God taught to him by Jesus Christ.

This gospel, which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, (Romans 1:16) is the only hope for the world. Before each person can embrace the majesty and compelling force of the miracle of salvation, however, he must first know that he is without hope. The paradox of freedom is that in order to experience true freedom, a human must first acknowledge that on his own he is a slave to hopelessness. True freedom comes when a person admits his despair and need and embraces Jesus Christ. True freedom comes only when we admit the constant presence and power of the Lord Jesus into our lives. True freedom comes only when we give up our desire for total independence and submit ourselves to the sovereign authority of God.



God is calling you to be willing to surrender your secrets to him. The secrets that you keep hidden away color all your decisions and motives. Sometimes your secrets are hidden so deeply inside that they're hidden even from you. The more hidden your secrets, the more certain they are to motivate you to do things you do not understand. Those things you do that are born from the deep secrets you keep come from your brokenness and often result in harm to others and also to yourself.

God wants to bring those secrets into the light so they no longer drive you to do out-of-control actions. He also wants to shine light on the shameful things you know you do when no one else can see. Further, God desires that you admit you are out-of-control of your own life. He wants you to admit that you are hopeless and doomed without his intervention.

God wants to heal you. Jesus came and took the penalty of your sin so those painful, shameful secrets deep in your life can be brought to light and healed. He promises the Holy Spirit to everyone who accepts the death of Jesus as payment for his own sin, and the Holy Spirit will awaken new motives and bring deep joy and peace in the places where there used to be despair and pain.

Ask God to shine the light of truth into your heart and reveal your shame and sin to you. Accept the fact that you are hopeless in your secrets, pain, and sin. Tell Jesus that you accept his gift of death in your place, and ask him to be the Lord of your life. Ask him to be the Lord of your secrets and to make the places of shame his own instead of yours. Ask him to replace the shame and fear and out-of-control emotions in you with His Spirit.

Praise God for saving you and for changing you from the inside out by the power of his Holy Spirit. Thank him for his patience with which he drew you to recognition of your despair and brought you to repentance. Thank Jesus for his obedience unto death, for being sin for you and making you the righteousness of God. Praise the Spirit for making you one with God and for revealing Jesus to you.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2003 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted June 14, 2003.
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