Kevin Labby is Senior pastor of Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida.

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Romans, Part 4 - "The Need for a Changed Heart" (2:12-29)

Romans, Part 4 - "The Need for a Changed Heart" (2:12-29)

Prayer for Illumination

Gracious God, give us humble, teachable, and obedient hearts, that we may receive what you have revealed, and do what you have commanded. Amen.


I enjoy watching House Hunters Renovation with Molly. There’s a certain formula to these shows, something noted often by comedians.

First, a couple armed with a ridiculously and suspiciously high budget, at least for their respective occupations, seeks a home fulfilling an exhaustive list of entirely contradictory features. For instance, a guy who makes balloon animals for children’s parties along with his far off, off, off-Broadway-playwright-wife seek a mid-century modern chalet at the top of a mountain yet within walking distance of both city and beach. They’re shown three properties; decide on one over craft beer and gourmet pretzels; and ultimately pick the options that least resembles what they originally said they wanted. They then begin the renovation, needlessly swinging sledgehammers at things that could be easily removed with a screw driver, usually taking some measure of comfort in their dubious DIY (do it yourself) handiness and design flair, only to find out shortly thereafter that they’re in way over their heads and over budget. Along the way, and usually right before a commercial break, they also discover (apparently for the first time) a major defect in the home that somehow escaped the professional home inspector’s notice (“I can’t believe it! This whole house is full of lead paint, asbestos, and rats!”). They finally come to the end of themselves, acknowledge their inabilities, and then, as if by magic, a designer appears - a deus ex machina - to fix it all!

I exaggerate, but not by much. These shows are often unintentionally hilarious, and they’ve succeeded - at least for me - on two levels. They’re fun to watch over coffee, and they’ve trained me to realize that very few repairs and upgrades are truly DIY projects. Most home projects require help, and lots of it.

The Law’s Diagnosis (2:12-13)

As we continue our study of Romans this morning, the Apostle Paul continues a home inspection of sorts over the entirety of the human race. His conclusion: salvation is not a DIY project. The only thing we can contribute to our salvation, as someone wisely noted, is the sin that makes it necessary.

Even so, many today view their relationship with God as a DIY project. In whole or in part, they consider salvation a reward earned by their hard work rather than a gift received by grace through faith. But what does the Bible say?

Our passage this morning starts by saying the salvation of your soul is a project well outside your abilities and expertise. Let’s begin by reading Romans 2:12-13:

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. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

Here, Paul tells his readers that all stand condemned before God, those with the law and those without it. By this, Paul intends to contrast both Jews (those with the law) and the Gentiles (those without it). Paul’s larger point is simple: all have sinned; all are guilty; and all are condemned. The Gentiles cannot find refuge in their ignorance; and the Jews cannot find shelter in their knowledge. If one would be justified before God by the law, it would be the one who does the law - all of it. I don’t know about you, but that leaves me out.

Paul’s emphasis on both Jews and Gentiles had very particular importance to the Roman church. It was composed of both Jewish and Gentile converts to the Christian faith, but - initially - more the former than the latter. We presume on good evidence that, originally, the church at Rome was primarily composed and led by Jewish converts to the Christian faith.

However, in the late AD 40s, all of that changed. The Roman Emperor, Claudius, issued a decree. This, according to the ancient Roman historian, Suetonius, involved “expel[ling] Jews from Rome because of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.” It’s noteworthy that Luke corroborates this event, referring to it in Acts 18:2.

Theologian Guy Waters suggests that, “Suetonius’s explanation for the riots (‘at the instigation of Chrestus’) may be his garbled accounting of Jewish public disturbances occasioned by Christians’ proclamations of the gospel.” One can only imagine how this decree transformed the church at Rome overnight, from a church led by Jewish Christians into a church composed and led entirely by Gentile Christians.

It was only years later, in AD 54, that Claudius died and his edict along with him. His successor, Nero, allowed Jews, both non-Christian and Christian, to return to Rome. As such, in the years immediately preceding Paul’s letter, the church at Rome experienced a large infusion of returning Jewish Christians. Undoubtedly, there were questions of how the Jewish and Gentile Christians should relate to one another. Should the previously expelled be restored to their leadership positions, or should the now predominantly Gentile church retain its Gentile leadership? It was into these questions, and to this newly reunited congregation, that Paul wrote.

One immediate benefit of Paul’s teaching here was that it leveled the playing field, so to speak. The Gentiles (who gained ascendancy in the church after the expulsion of the Jews) could not feel superior because of their power, and the Jew (who enjoyed a preeminent position because of their pedigree) could not feel superior to the Gentile. Whatever their power or pedigree, all were in desperate need of God’s grace. All ground was and remains level before the cross.

This would be a foundation for peace and unity in the church at Rome, and remains such for churches around the world today. The community of the church is a community of shared need. What unites us in Christ, our shared need of grace, is greater than whatever threatens to divide us in the world. It’s for this reason that Paul advised the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:16-17):

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

A knowledge of humanity’s truly dire and shared condition humbles us. It counsels us that no one is a more worthy recipient of God’s grace. Everyone, from the Nobel Prize winner to the crack addict on the corner, comes to God a beggar.

The Law Written on Hearts (2:14-16)

If you remember our message a couple of weeks ago, we noted that, from Paul’s inspired perspective, humanity is far from ignorant of God or God’s law. We might “suppress the truth,” but - deep down - we all know it’s there.

Apparently, there’s an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. In it, Calvin argues that the world is a nasty place, far too nasty for old fashioned, transcendent notions of right and wrong. He contends that if someone gets in your way, you just need to knock them down and get them out of the way; the ends, Calvin says quoting Machiavelli, justify the means. In the next panel, Hobbes pushes Calvin down. The latter objects, “Why did you do that?!” Hobbes simply replies, “You were in my way. Now, you’re not. The ends justifies the means.”

Deep down, we know what’s right. C.S. Lewis describes this expertly in Mere Christianity:

Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: "How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?"—"That's my seat, I was there first"—"Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm"— "Why should you shove in first?"—"Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine"—"Come on, you promised." People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups. Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man's behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: "To hell with your standard." Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

We talk a good talk and spill a lot of ink in our arguments against God and transcendent, fixed morality. Even so, brass tacks, we expect others to do for us what we all know, deep down, is right. We have a law written on our hearts. For this reason, Paul says:

14 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. 15 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 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

One major objection to the Christian faith is what I call the “remote tribesman” fallacy. Have you ever heard it? You probably have. It goes like this.

You say that only those who believe in Jesus can be saved. But what about the remote tribesman who has never heard of Jesus Christ? How can God condemn him for not knowing Jesus if he’s never heard of him?

At first, it sounds plausible. However, it rests on some faulty assumptions. First, it rests on the assumptions that the remote tribesman was innocent. Second, it rests on the assumption that his condemnation resulted from not hearing about Jesus. Neither is true.

For one, Paul says he’s not innocent. Here, he argues that the tribesman has the law of God written on his heart. Is it the detailed law written on stone and given to Moses, and treasured by the Jews? No. It’s the basic law written on the human heart, what C.S. Lewis called the natural law. He knows right and wrong. If he lived in obedience to the little law he had, he’d be saved by it; in the words of Paul, he’d be a doer of the law. However, he doesn’t obey; he, like every human being in history, goes against what he knows. He breaks the law, even the little law he has. In so doing, he shows himself a sinner, a rebel worthy of divine justice.

Therefore, and secondly, he’s already condemned. He’s not condemned due to his ignorance of Jesus. He’s not condemned because he didn’t hear about Jesus. He’s condemned because of his knowledge, and obstinance to, the law written on his heart. He’s a rebel and law breaker, just like everyone else.

The Law Written on Stone (2:17-24)

One day, I was running late to an appointment. Worse, I missed my turnpike exit. I had to drive an extra eight miles or so to the next exit, pay the toll, cross back over the turnpike, and re-enter heading the opposite direction. By the time I was headed in the right direction, panic gripped me. Adrenaline-fueled, I stomped on the gas. I was going 10MPH over the speed limit, or so I thought, when a trooper pulled me over.

Approaching the window, he was assertive to the point of aggressive. He said, “Why were you going so fast?!” I confessed that I was going 10MPH over the speed limit, and was very sorry. He responded that I wasn’t 10MPH over; I was 30MPH over - and in a construction zone!

In my panic, I didn’t pay attention to several signs on the on ramp, but they were there and plain to see. My guilt increased as I passed each one.

With that in mind, listen to how Paul speaks to the Jews of his day and age and now to us who have the fullness of God’s law in Scripture:

17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

What is Paul saying? Among other things, he’s saying that we can approach God’s law in a couple of different ways. We can see it as a ladder or as a leveler.

If we see it as a ladder, the commands of God are rungs to climb. By knowing where to step, so to speak, and putting one foot in front of the other, we can climb our way back up to God. Now, of course, that’s true. If we lived the law of God, we would live by it. You want to earn your salvation? Get to work. But don’t slip or stumble, not even once.

Instead of a ladder, we should see God’s law as a leveler. It doesn’t empower us; it exposes us. It doesn’t deliver us; it diagnoses us.

For this reason, Paul asks a series of questions designed to expose the hypocrisy of those Jews who rely upon their knowledge and obedience for salvation. If anything, they’re even more guilty.

Today, we’re the same. We have the law. We have the prophets. We have the fulness of Scripture. Until we find God’s forgiveness, our guilt is increased.

What Can Change a Heart of Stone? (2:25-29)

Paul concludes with a rhetorical argument. In so many words, Paul argues that God doesn’t value an outward appearance of humility and holiness if it does not correspond to an inward reality of the same. If the circumcised Jew isn’t circumcised (in covenant) from the heart, his circumcision signals nothing. If the Gentile lacks outer circumcision but is in covenant from the heart, by the Spirit, they are part of God’s people.

25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded[b] as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically[c] uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code[d] and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Now, what is it that changes this heart? It’s not what we do for ourselves by the letter of the law. It’s what God does for us, in our hearts, by the Spirit.

The Law Can Diagnose, but Only the Gospel Delivers

When I was a young seminary student and part-time student ministries director at a local church, my car broke down. The starter died. When I turned the ignition key, nothing happened. I didn’t have enough money to fix it, and was loathe to seek or accept help. I was too prideful, and so went without transportation for a bit.

A deacon at my church, a very nice man named Ron, called me. He said that he was on his way over the my house with a new starter and the tools to install it. Ron was a very handy guy, able to diagnose almost any broken machine system and repair it. At first, I objected. However, Ron was as kind as he was persistent. He showed up at my door and knocked.

After greeting Molly and our newborn son, he went outside to work on the car. I followed him, trying to offer any form of assistance I could. He told me to rest, that he was “on it” - and that I didn’t need to do a thing. Still battling pride, I tried to contribute something - anything - to the project. After many failed attempts, I came to the end of myself and realized two things - first, that the project was beyond my ability and, second, that Ron was more than willing and able to complete it for me. Kindly, Ron told me to get out the way. I did.

Similarly, Paul shows us that we cannot fix broken humanity; only God can. The law can diagnose our condition, but it cannot deliver us. It’s a leveler, not a ladder. It can expose us, but only God’s Spirit can empower us.

Your salvation is not a DIY project. Thankfully, Jesus stands at the door and knocks, ready to help you get your life started all over again.

Let’s pray.


Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. Harpercollins Publishers, 2017.

Waters, “Romans,” A Biblical-theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 172.

All Scripture quotations from The ESV Global Study Bible®, ESV® Bible. Copyright © 2012 by Crossway. All rights reserved.

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