For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed... (Romans 1:16-17)
The Gospel is something that reveals the righteousness, or rightness of God, and certainly it is true that the greatest right thing that God did was John 3:16,
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
Yet it is interesting that this is not what Paul goes on to talk about in Romans 1:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness... (Romans 1:18)
According to Paul the ungodly and unrighteous men that His wrath is poured out upon are characterized by the fact that they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Of course if one is met with the opportunity to respond to the good news of Messiah’s sacrifice and rejects it, you could see that as suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. However, in what Paul proceeds to write he does not go in that direction:
...because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)
He says that the truth they suppress is something that is evident within them (for God has made it so). It is an inborn understanding of God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature. Not only is that knowledge known deep within us, but it is also substantiated through what has been made.
Is this speaking of John 3:16? Is that what is known about God innately? Not according to Romans 10:14 and 17:
How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? ... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.
So John 3:16 is not instinctively known, but has to be heard. However, it says that all are without excuse in regard to knowing the things of Romans 1:18-32.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. (Romans 1:21)
What kind of knowing could they innately have of God within their very nature, and how could they honor Him as God according to that knowing? It is clear that there is a requirement put upon men based on what they are born with, which is apart from John 3:18,
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Here Yahshua says that the one who has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God is judged already. Paul would ask, “How can they believe if they haven’t heard?” Not believing indicates a conscious rejection of something that has been clearly communicated to you. It is understandable that God would hold you accountable for that. To say that God would hold accountable those who have not heard the message from a reputable source conceals, rather than reveals, the righteousness of God. Rather than giving the Gospel its power, it takes it away.
...it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for in it the righteousness of God is revealed...
The Gospel derives its power from the fact that it reveals His righteousness to man. When that is revealed, the heart of those who have a will to do His will is captured and the love affair begins. It is the love that compels a person to no longer live for himself, but live for the One who died and rose again on his behalf.1 The innate knowledge or understanding that Paul was talking about in Romans 1 is referred to in chapter 2 as the conscience — the law written in men’s hearts, and also a witness to their deeds. It is the knowledge God and man share2 as to what is good and evil. Considering this it can be understood how a man, according to the understanding he is born with, can honor God. If God put the conscience in us, then when we obey that inner voice we honor Him.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them... (Romans 2:14-15)
“Gentiles” refers to those who are not believers and are outside of the Commonwealth of Israel.3
Of course, there are verses like Romans 3:23 and Isaiah 64:6 to consider:
...for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God... (Romans 3:23)
For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and of course we fall short of the glory of God. But can it really be that there is no distinction between those who really try so hard and even suffer personal loss to do what is right according to the voice of conscience (that God gave them), and those who actively suppress that same truth4 and even exchange it for a lie?
For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator... (Romans 1:25)
This does not refer to worshipping and serving Christ, but rather worshipping and serving the Creator in the capacity of those who know Him through their inborn understanding. They do that by obeying the voice of their Creator that resides within them — their conscience.
The ones Romans 1:25 is talking about exchange that truth for a lie that suits them better at the moment, allowing them to do what they want, rather than what they know to be right. They elevate themselves to the stature of their Creator, saying in their hearts that there is no one greater or with more authority to determine what is right and wrong than themselves (the creature). They worship, or honor and serve only themselves. They say in their hearts, “There is no God,” having become the fools that King David wrote of in Psalm 14:1,
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have done abominable works; there is none who does good.5
Can one honestly say (with a good conscience) that there is no difference in the eyes of God between a terrorist and a hard-working farmer who rises early and goes to bed late, wearing himself out in his struggle to feed his family? Will God send them both to the same eternal destiny of the Lake of Fire simply because they never heard the Gospel?
This is not the impression of God that Abraham had when he made a plea for the lives of the few righteous in Sodom:
Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee... Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:25)
These considerations start to give understanding of the judgment in Revelation 20:
And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-15, NASB)
This judgment is based on deeds. Books are opened, which are the individual records of people’s deeds, as recorded in their conscience. What is written in each book is according to their deeds, not their religious beliefs. On that basis, a person’s name is either kept in or erased from the book of life.6
What we see in Revelation 20:11-15 is the separation of two types, or categories of people. They are all outside of the realm of John 3:18, having never been faced with the opportunity in John 5:25,
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead7 will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
They never heard the voice of the Son of God, either in person or through someone He has sent.8 They may have heard similar words spoken by those who claim to represent Him, but are actually seeking their own glory. For this the hearer is not accountable.
He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him. (John 7:18)
Those who stand in the judgment of Revelation 20:11-15 are the ones spoken of in John 5:28,
Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
So there are two categories of man clearly described in the judgment of Revelation 20, each with their own destiny. They are men living according to the knowledge of good and evil they were born with. They will go to a second life in the nations of the eternal age,9 or a second death in the eternal Sea of Fire.10
The point of this is not to justify those who have done good deeds and say that they don’t need a Savior. Apart from having a sacrifice for their sins, all men have an appointment with death,
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus [Yahshua] our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
As it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
Doing good does not mean that one does not die, but just that his death would not be eternal, and there would be a chance for a second life after one has paid the just wages of his sin. Of course, for a person to present his good works to God as a justification for rejecting His Son’s sacrifice for him would be as the stench of filthy rags. Man’s righteousness is not comparable to the righteousness of God that is through faith in Christ, as Paul described,
And may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:9)
That righteousness is only found through the Son of God. In fact as good as men can be when they strive to live by their conscience, they still remain in the enemy’s camp, needing to be made friends:
All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also. Our message is that God was making all mankind his friends through Christ. God did not keep an account of their sins, and he has given us the message which tells how he makes them his friends. Here we are, then, speaking for Christ, as though God himself were making his appeal through us. We plead on Messiah’s behalf: let God change you from enemies into his friends. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20, TEV)
No truly good man would choose his own righteousness over receiving God’s righteousness. He would not reject the opportunity to be God’s friend. Those who reject God’s kindness and mercy betray the true condition of their heart.11 And this rejection of God’s righteousness and friendship puts them in the category of the cowardly and unbelieving in Revelation 21:8,
But for the cowardly and unbelieving, and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
To understand that man is born with the possibility to do good is to begin to understand the value of what Yahshua did by paying for our sins. Rather than being helpless puppets doomed to a life of depravity, we sin because of choices we willingly make. To sin is to do what you know you should not do, therefore it requires suppressing the voice that gives you that knowing — your conscience. It is a matter of choice. The “cowardly and unbelieving” became that way because of choices they made, just as “the abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars.”
If sin were not a matter of our own choices, but merely our lot from being born incapable of doing good, then God sending His Son to die for our sins could hardly be called mercy. Even good people have gone to great lengths to save the life of a helpless victim like a baby. But the love of God far surpasses such human responses. It enters into a dimension of righteousness that is far above that which human beings can understand in their own experience: His mercy extended to our deliberate disobedience.
The Son of God partook of man’s struggle on this earth and overcame every obstacle that man faces. No man is without those moments when he has made choices he knew were bad. No man except Yahshua. He chose always to do the will of His Father, triumphantly conquering every obstacle. This qualified Him to be the spotless Lamb needed to pay for our sins. In death, He paid the full wages of our sins. We were truly worthy of the torment of death because of the choices we made. He definitely did not deserve it, yet He chose to receive the full wrath of God that was due for the sins of the whole world.
If a man cannot see the worth or value of what He did, how could he possibly make the right response? What you pay to gain something always reveals its worth to you.
The people of the nations must struggle to live according to the voice of their conscience. Yahshua spoke about them in Matthew 6:31-32 saying,
Do not be anxious then, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “With what shall we clothe ourselves?” For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
He was not condemning the Gentiles for their anxiety. Isn’t it normal that people would be concerned about how to get those necessary things for themselves and their families? They have no choice but to consume themselves with getting what they need. The issue for them is how they go about it, not the fact that they do.
However, Yahshua was speaking to those who wanted to follow Him. They were those who heard the “voice of the Son of God.”12 To them He said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”13 They were called to a higher dimension of righteousness than those locked in the struggle of working for what they need to live. They were called to His righteousness, to partake of it by trusting and obeying Him. It was a new dimension of righteousness that would cause those who followed Him to escape the chains of self-life and actually attain to bearing the fruit of His kingdom.
Such was the life recorded in the early chapters of Acts.14 The life of serving one another to meet each other’s needs rather than one’s own expresses His righteousness. This love between them was the sign that they belonged to Him.15 After all isn’t that why He died?
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that One has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised... For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-15,21)
Those who have become His righteousness are His holy people, who will rule together with Messiah eternally over those who did not abandon the natural righteousness of their conscience.16 For all eternity, God will dwell in His holy ones, who are His temple, and through them He will dwell with men17 — the restored men and women who were raised from the first death to stand in the Last Judgment and were not found worthy of the second death.18 Redeemed Man (having the righteousness of God) will rule over Restored Man (having the righteousness of man), and those who hated all righteousness will have their part in the lake of fire, which is the second death.19 These are the Three Eternal Destinies of Man.