Our Secrets Will Be Revealed

Romans 2:12-16

June 18, 2006 | Brian Bill

Last Saturday night as I was preparing to get my much-needed beauty rest, I heard a clarion call to come to the kitchen immediately.  When I arrived I saw that Beth was scrubbing something off the floor as she kept looking up towards the ceiling.  She told me to look up but I didn’t see anything.  She then pointed to the ceiling fan and then I saw something that made me scream, in a manly sort of way. There, perched on one of the blades was a baby mourning dove!  And then it hit me why Beth was cleaning up the floor.

I was just about to ask her why she hadn’t captured the bird when all five women in the house declared in unison, “Get it out of here.  You’re the man in the house!”   I studied the situation while the girls kept telling me to do something.  I finally grabbed a chair to stand on, and with an old tablecloth in my hand, I dove at the dove.  I missed and he started flying around the kitchen, sending all six of us for cover.  The resulting chaos and confusion could have won us something on America’s Funniest Videos.  This dumb dove made it into our laundry room and we quickly shut the doors so he couldn’t escape.  As I tiptoed toward him I saw that he had perched on my Packer hat!  This was now war.  As I tried to strangle him he flew around some more and then ended up behind our dryer.  

When Beth realized that I couldn’t capture this winged rat on my own, she helped me move the dryer so we could put a large bowl over him.  With the help of Emily we were able to secure the bird and took him outside where we set him free.  I smiled as he flew into our neighbor’s yard.  If you see us coughing today it’s probably because we caught the bird flu from this despicable dove.

As we’ve been studying Romans 2 over the last couple weeks, my guess is that most of us have been ambushed by the strong words in this section of Scripture.  Perhaps the sermons have caused some mourning for you.  Like the dove, the words are a bit elusive and difficult to catch because there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to embrace them.  Someone this week told me that he and a friend were trying to figure out a way to shut me down because they were tired of having their toes stepped on.  I understand that because my toes hurt as well.  Two weeks ago, we were all challenged to not be so judgmental and hypocritical because “God is More Kind than We Think.”  Last week our message was called “We’re More Stubborn than We Think,” as we learned about God’s wrath and the horrors of Hell.

Please turn to Romans 2:12-16 and follow along as I read: “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.  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.  (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.)  This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” 

This section is really an explanation of verse 11: “For God does not show favoritism” as Paul describes two different groups of people, both of whom are busted because of their behavior.  Whether someone has the law or someone has never heard the truth, both groups are guilty because of sin.  Let me put the issues into two questions that this passage answers for us:

  • What about those who have heard the truth?
  • What about those who’ve never heard the truth?

My guess is that you’re familiar with this second question, perhaps you’ve asked it yourself.  As we’ve been learning through our verse-by-verse study in Romans, Paul does not pull any punches.  In verse 12, he makes a summary statement that covers both groups and then in verses 13-15, he addresses each group, and then finally in verse 16, he comes back to the theme of judgment.

Let’s look at verse 12: “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.”  The ultimate issue here is that everyone sins, whether they have been exposed to the Bible or not.  Paul is laying the groundwork in this section that will hit a crescendo in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Those who have heard the law are judged by that law because they are sinners and those who have never heard will perish because they are guilty as well.  People perish because of their sin, not because they hear or don’t hear the law.

1 – What About Those Who Have Heard the Truth?

In verse 13, Paul makes it clear that it takes more than a familiarity with God’s law to be declared righteous: “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.”  The Jewish people were accustomed to just hearing the law read but they were not really taught how to apply it to their lives.  This is a common tendency among religious people even today.  We can hear the Bible so much that we never allow it to percolate down into our hearts and then out through our hands and feet.  Too many people approach the Bible like auditing a class.  When I was in college I audited a class, which meant all I had to do was show up and listen.  There was nothing more expected of me.  I didn’t have to write any papers or take any exams.  I could listen without being accountable for what I heard.  I tried to figure out how to do this with all my classes but I couldn’t make it work!  

When we just listen to the Bible, or just stare straight ahead during a sermon, in essence we’re just auditing a course, in danger of becoming like those who “hear the law” but don’t obey it.  These religious people heard the law, they talked about it, and we know from Romans 2:1-2, they even judged others according to it.  But they didn’t love the law, for if they did they would have been much more serious about living it.

Paul then says if one wants to be declared righteous they must obey the law.  This is just a hypothetical statement because it’s actually impossible to completely obey the law.  In fact, in Romans 3:20, he says: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”  When we measure our motives and behavior against God’s holy standards, we realize pretty quickly how far short we fall.  And James 2:10 adds that to break God’s law just once means that we’ve broken everything: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

While both groups are guilty before God, those who hear God’s truth will be judged more severely.  Jesus made this clear in Matthew 11:21-24: “Woe to you, Korazin!  Woe to you, Bethsaida!  If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the Day of Judgment than for you.  And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies?  No, you will go down to the depths.  If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.  But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the Day of Judgment than for you.” The Jewish cities of Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum had heard Jesus’ teaching but had rejected Him.  They were amazed by His miracles but they weren’t moved enough to obey Him.  They had the Law and were even privileged to have the Lord in their midst but they never repented.  Jesus told them that judgment day would be more bearable for the pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon, and even Sodom than it will be for them.  John MacArthur writes: “Though all unbelievers will be there, the hottest part of Hell will be reserved for those who have wasted the greatest spiritual opportunity.”

Fellow religious people, we are in the same precarious position of presuming upon God’s mercy when we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

2 – What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

Most of us understand that those who are exposed to truth should be held responsible for not doing what they know to be true.  That makes sense.  But, it doesn’t seem fair that those who have never heard the truth should be held accountable for what they’ve never heard.  The question is sometimes framed like this: What about the heathen in Africa who have never heard the gospel?  God couldn’t possibly send them to Hell for not knowing about Jesus, could He?  This passage shows us that people don’t perish for what they don’t know, but for going against what they do know, as revealed through their conduct and their conscience.

Verses 14-15 really serve as a parenthesis in Paul’s argument: “(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.)” One author suggests that there are four accusers, or witnesses that testify as to why the heathen are lost:

  • Creation.  God has revealed his eternal power and divine nature to everyone by what He has created.  We were introduced to this concept in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
  • Conduct.  The fact that people do good deeds shows that God has stamped his goodness on them.  Matthew 7:11: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”  The fact that people sin shows that they are guilty and accountable to live up to this standard of goodness.  While the Gentiles do not have the written law, they do have a law written on their hearts.  
  • Conscience.  The conscience gives inner witness to God’s moral law.  The Jews had a written code they could read; everyone has a conscience that reads them.  Creation is the witness outside of ourselves, while conscience is the witness within.
  • Contemplation.  Verse 15 states that our thoughts both accuse and defend us.  This is often accomplished through our memory.  That reminds me of the man who consulted his doctor, “I’ve been misbehaving, Doc, and my conscience is troubling me,” he complained.  “And you want something that will strengthen your willpower?” asked the doctor.  “Well, no,” said the fellow. “I was thinking of something that would weaken my conscience.”  That’s not a good idea.

Let’s look a little more closely at the role of the conscience and that of contemplation.  It was Adam Smith who said, “What can be added to the happiness of a man who is healthy, who is out of debt, and who has a clear conscience?”  That’s very similar to the goal that the Apostle Paul set for himself in Acts 24:16, “So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”

The dictionary defines conscience as, “The ideas and feelings within a person that tell him when he’s not doing right and warn him of what is wrong.”  The word itself appears about 30 times in the Bible where its primary meaning is, “to know together, or agree with.”  The Old Testament expresses the idea as having something on the heart and carries with it the responsibility to respond.  Job put it this way when he said, “I will maintain my righteousness and never let go of it; my conscience will not reproach me as long as I live” (Job 27:6).  Our conscience is the reflection of God in our soul; it’s where we agree with Him regarding right and wrong.  It is the one irreplaceable element about human beings and distinguishes us from all other life forms.

When asked to describe the place of the conscience, John Wesley pictured it as somewhere in the middle, under God, and above man: “It is a kind of silent reasoning of the mind, whereby those things which are judged to be right are approved of with pleasure; but those which are judged evil are disapproved of with uneasiness”  (Sermon 105).  John MacArthur writes: “When we violate our conscience, it condemns us, triggering feelings of shame, anguish, regret…anxiety, and even fear.  When we follow our conscience, it commends us, bringing joy, serenity, self-respect…and gladness” (“The Vanishing Conscience,” Page 37).

When our conscience is operating correctly, the reference point is God’s character and His standards

The conscience is that voice within us that struggles against our background and environment to declare that an act is right or wrong regardless of the standards that surround us.  When our conscience is operating correctly, the reference point is God’s character and His standards.  It’s that part of every person which, willingly or unwillingly, responds to a universal moral law.  The conscience communicates this awareness to the mind, urging us to do what is right and restraining us from doing what is wrong.  We can understand its role by thinking through what happens in a courtroom.  The courtroom of conscience is made up of at least three characters:

  • Witness.  Romans 2:15 states that the “conscience bears witness.”  Since God has placed within us an inner sense of right and wrong, the conscience stands up like a witness in court to give testimony between our outward actions and the inner law that is written on our hearts.
  • Prosecutor.  Verse 15 continues by saying that the conscience also serves as a Prosecutor: “…their thoughts now accusing…”  Just as is done in court, the conscience accuses us of things that we do wrong by presenting evidence on the screen of our minds.  This evidence is compiled, organized, and presented in a compelling fashion.
  • Defender.  Thankfully, the conscience not only accuses, it also excuses us.  It condemns and commends.  We see this in the last phrase of verse 15: “…their thoughts…now even defending them.”  There are times when we search our conscience to see if we’ve done anything wrong, and it defends us.  During those times when even others accuse us, our conscience may stand up and say, “You did nothing wrong.  You’re innocent of the charges.”  

While our conscience plays different roles in our life, its strength and ability to influence us varies.  When we contemplate an action, the conscience often speaks up rather abruptly.  When we’re in the middle of doing something we shouldn’t be doing, it’s often difficult to hear it.  But then, after we do something wrong, our conscience shouts loudly and urges us to make things right.  It warns us as a friend before it punishes us as a judge.  Or to say it another way: Before we do something, the conscience speaks subtly.  While we’re sinning, we often silence its influence.  Then, after we commit the wrong, it screams loudly.  H.L. Mencken once said: “Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.”  The conscience is not a guide to live by, but a goad that tells us the difference between right and wrong.

One time a court magician wanted to give his king a very special gift.  After careful thought and much work, he designed a ring which had a very special property.  Every time the king had an evil thought or unworthy ambition, the ring began to shrink tightly around his finger, thus warning him of impending danger.  The conscience is like that.  It’s a ring around the heart which tightens every time we violate the standards God has placed within us.  

Secrets Revealed

In the courtroom of conscience, it’s ultimately Jesus Christ who does the judging.  Romans 2:16: “This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.”  I like this Anglican prayer: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid” (As quoted by James Montgomery Boice, “Romans,” page 241).  David urged his son Solomon to serve God “with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.”  What would people think of us if they knew everything we were thinking?  One of the most frightening verses in the Bible is Hebrews 4:13: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Psalm 139:2: “…you perceive my thoughts from afar.” In Luke 12:3 Jesus said that ultimately there will be no secrets: “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.” 

For those who’ve heard, which includes us, we will be judged by what we do with what we know to be true.  For others, since everyone has a conscience and an innate sense of right and wrong, God will judge according to how well they lived up to their own moral standards.  The bottom line is that we’re all busted.  No one will be able to make any excuses.  A guilty conscience often shows up on our countenance as Isaiah 3:9 says: “The look on their faces testifies against them…”  Someone has said that in Hell the indestructible consciences of people will produce the chief torment for lost souls as every wrong attitude, every sinful action, and every caustic word will be constantly brought to mind.

In an effort to make sure that we don’t just hear the Word and not put it into practice, I offer these action steps to help us live the Bible we say we love.


1. Recommit yourself to the Great Commission.

Everyone you know at work or school or in the neighborhood has the law of God stamped on their souls.  That means God has gone before you and prepared them for the proclamation of the Word.

2. Treat every person with dignity. 

Every person you meet has value and worth in God’s eyes and should have in yours.  That’s why we stand up for the preborn here.  God has stamped his character on every individual from conception on and has placed within each person a conscience.  Don’t diss, despise or disapprove of someone made in the image of God.  Don’t ignore an individual just because they’re different from you.  Don’t hold a grudge against someone who has God’s law written on his heart.

3. What is your conscience telling you to do right now?

Did you know that ever since 1811 (when someone who had defrauded the government anonymously sent $5 to Washington D.C.), the U.S. Treasury has operated a Conscience Fund?  According to Chuck Swindoll, since that time almost $3.5 million has been received from guilt-ridden citizens (Swindoll, “The Quest For Character,” p. 70).  Did you catch the story this week about how President Bush teased a reporter for wearing sunglasses during his press conference on Wednesday?  After the conference, the President learned that this reporter suffers from a condition that causes degeneration of the retina and wears sunglasses to protect his eyes from ultraviolet rays.  Wanting to keep his conscience clear, the President of the United States made a phone call to this reporter and apologized for what he had said.  Friends, if the President can do what it takes to make something right, what about us?  Is there someone you need to call?  Something you need to confess?

4. Don’t go against your conscience.

I love one of Abraham Lincoln’s quotes that has to do with the conscience, “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.”   I’ve heard it said that the conscience is that thing that hurts when everything else feels good.  As someone else has said, “She won’t listen to her conscience.  She doesn’t want to take advice from a total stranger.” Keep your conscience a friend not a stranger, for it is designed to help, not hurt you.

5. Start being real with God and with others. 

Since our secrets will be revealed one day, let’s be authentic before the Almighty right now.  And, let’s open up to other people.  One of the safest places to do this is in a small group.  In our group last week, several of us shared some secret stuff.  It was refreshing and helped all of us be more real than we’ve been before, including me.

6. Keep your conscience clear by holding it captive to the Word of God.

Romans 9:1: “I speak the truth in Christ-I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit.”  Hebrews 5:14 tells us that a diet rich in God’s Word will give us the ability to discern correctly: “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”  Did you catch that?  It’s only by “constant use” of the Bible through individual reading, small group interaction, and congregational preaching that your conscience can go from weak to strong.  Martin Luther, the point man for the Protestant Reformation, understood the critical importance of keeping his conscience clear.  Listen to what he said: “My conscience is captive to the word of God.  To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.”  Friend, stay in the Word.  Get under its teaching and submit to its authority.  This will help keep your conscience clear.

Guilt is not a bad thing if it leads you to do the right thing

7. Let go of false guilt and shame. 

Guilt is not a bad thing if it leads you to do the right thing.  Unfortunately, many of us suffer from guilt and shame even after we’ve confessed and made restitution.  It was Garrison Keilor who said, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.”  Those of you who are grimacing under a load of assumed guilt would probably say that guilt is a curse, not a gift.

Some of you are so saturated with shame and grilled by guilt that you live under a constant weight of worthlessness.  Listen to me carefully.  You don’t have to stay that way.  The remedy for false guilt is to grow in grace and embrace the fruit of forgiveness.  Allow these Scriptures to soak up your shame as you focus on the forgiveness of your faults.  Psalm 103:10-12: “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”  And 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Sometimes we try to punish ourselves when we sin, don’t we?  It’s like we’re trying to pay the price for our sins.  Guess what?  It’s impossible so we might as well stop trying.  Friend, don’t minimize and marginalize the blood of Jesus by implying that it’s somehow not enough to purify you from all unrighteousness.  Revelation 12:10 says that Satan is the “accuser of the brethren.”  This word “accuse” carries with it the idea of a false accusation.  If you are a born again believer, and you regularly commit to confess your sins, then Satan has nothing on you.  John 3:18 reminds us that Jesus takes away the stain of shame: “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”  

Some of you are so tough on yourselves that when you mess up you’re ready to give up.  You’re accused by the evil one and by your own heart.  The remedy is to grow in grace by standing on the promises of Scripture.  Romans 8:1: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.”

8. Be forgiven of real guilt and the shame of sin.

It’s been said that there are few things in life more difficult to bear than a guilty conscience.  1 Samuel 25:31 refers to a conscience stained with guilt as a “staggering burden.”  The bird in our kitchen last Saturday caused quite a ruckus.  That reminds me of the classic Edgar Allan Poe poem called “The Raven.”  This black bird is a metaphor for his guilty conscience that constantly pokes and prods him: 

“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door…back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning, soon again I heard a tapping, something louder than before…open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and a flutter, in there stepped a stately raven…perched above my chamber door…perched and sat, and nothing more…then the bird said, ‘Nevermore.’  Then methought, the air grew denser, perfumed with an unseen censer swung by seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.  ‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee…‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil—prophet still, if bird or devil…tell me truly is there—balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me I implore!  Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’ ‘…Leave my loneliness unbroken…take that beak from out my heart, and thy form from off my door!  Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’  And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting…just above my chamber door…and my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted—nevermore!

The only way to have your guilt lifted is by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as Hebrews 9:14 states: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” Listen to these words of comfort from Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience…” 

Have you ever asked Jesus to forgive the guilt and shame of your sins?  He took our guilt so we can experience His grace.  He took our Hell so we can take His Heaven.  Listen to what God says in Isaiah 1:18 from the New Living Translation: “No matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can remove it.  I can make you as clean as freshly fallen snow.  Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you as white as wool.”  

Ray Pritchard sums it up well by focusing on three facts from Romans 2:16:

  • We must all face Jesus Christ sooner or later.
  • Either we face Him as Savior now, or we must face Him as judge later.
  • Those who prefer to face Him as Judge will live to eternally regret their decision.

Don’t make the mistake that so many religious people make by thinking that because they’re in church they’re OK.  This passage teaches that religious people have the most to fear.  We can wonder about the heathen who have never heard, but what about those who have heard, like you?  What will you do with what you know to be true?


“Lord Jesus, I admit that I’m a sinner and that I’ve been serving myself and not you.  I’ve been ignoring my conscience for much too long.  I believe that you paid the price for my sins and that you can remove my deep stains.  I turn from the way I’ve been living and invite you to come into my life.  I receive you as my Savior and my Lord, my Forgiver and Leader.  If there’s anything in my life that you don’t like, get rid of it and make me into the person you want me to be.   Amen.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?