One of the things that people argue when it comes to Christianity is, “How can God hold people accountable for what he has commanded if they have never even heard of the Bible?
We find the answer here in this passage. Paul starts by saying that judgment will be passed on all who do evil, first on the Jew and then on the Gentile. On the other hand, those who do good will be rewarded by God, the Jews first, the Gentiles second. Why? Because it was the Jews who received the law from God. And because they directly received it from God, they are more accountable.
Jesus puts it this way,
That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47-48)
Paul expands on this idea, saying,
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2:12)
In short, people will be judged by what they do with what they know. They will not be judged by what they didn’t know. If they know God’s law as given to the Jews, they will be judged by that. If they don’t, they will be judged by another standard. What standard?
One standard is their own laws, insofar as they coincide with God’s. Paul tells us,
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (14-15)
In other words, all people, no matter where they are or what culture they are from, have laws that conform to the law of God. They may not conform perfectly, but where they do conform, they will be held accountable for whether they keep them or not. So, for example, different cultures may have different definitions of stealing, but when they break their own laws concerning stealing, God holds them accountable because it falls in line with his laws.
The other standard God judges these people by is their own consciences. Sometimes, people may do things that are acceptable even to their own culture, for example, sleeping with their boyfriend or girlfriend. But the next day, their conscience tells them that it doesn’t matter what they culture said, they did something wrong. And God will hold them accountable for it because their own guilty feelings show that though they didn’t know the Bible, deep down they knew their actions were wrong.
This is not to say that our consciences are perfect reflections of God’s law. They are not, any more than people’s laws are in perfect conformity with God’s law. But insofar as they coincide, they will be held accountable.
One other point. Paul says in verse 13,
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
When Paul says this, I believe he is being entirely theoretical. He’s saying, “It’s not enough to know the law. You need to keep it.”
And theoretically, if you can keep the law perfectly, you will be declared righteous. But as we will see later, there is no one that fits that description.
The main point, however, is this. God is fair. He will not hold you accountable for what you don’t know. He will hold you accountable for what you do know.
So the main question you need to ask yourself today is this, “What are you doing with what you know?”