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No Secrets!

Tom Pennington • Romans 2:16

  • 2015-05-17 AM
  • Romans
  • Sermons


This week I read, from James Montgomery Boyce, an account of how Jean Paul Sartre, the playwright and existentialist philosopher, desperately tried to banish God from his own private universe, ultimately, by becoming an atheist. But Sartre actually describes in his writings the events that led him to the position of atheism. He does so in a series of essays entitled, The Words, and specifically Sartre identifies two episodes early in his life that really lay at the foundation of his desertion of the true God.

First of all, he recounts that while he was in Catholic school he wrote a paper on The Passion of the Christ and when the awards were presented and he received the silver award rather than the gold award, that became an occasion for mounting bitterness against God. This is what Sartre writes, "This disappointment drove me into impiety. For several years more I maintained public relations with the Almighty, but privately I ceased to associate with him."

At that point, obviously, Sartre was not an atheist, he still believed in God's existence, but here's how he described the turning point for him, another episode in his life. He writes, "I had been playing with matches and burned a small rug. I was in the process of covering up my crime when suddenly God saw me. I felt his gaze inside my head and on my hands. I whirled about in the bathroom, a horribly visible live target. Indignation saved me. I flew into a rage against so crude an indiscretion. I blasphemed. I muttered like my grandfather, God damn it, God damn it, God damn it. He never looked at me again." End quote.

Those two episodes explain the troubled life and philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre. But Sartre was tragically mistaken in his conclusion. You see, all that happened that day in the bathroom, with the burning of the rug, was that he began to refuse to acknowledge that God saw him. But in fact, God never missed a single moment of Sartre's tragic life.

You see, our God, the true God, the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who sustains everything that is, the God who holds your very life and breath in His hands, that God, He is a God who sees every action. He hears every word we speak. He knows every attitude we display. He understands every thought that flits across our minds. And He understands thoroughly every motive behind every act. He knows us better than we know ourselves. And there's a day coming when He will expose every secret thing and will judge the life of every person who has refused to obey Him, who has refused to believe in His Son. He will judge him using those very secrets.

That's Paul's message in Romans 2:16. As Paul lays out his indictment in this chapter against all moral religious people, shows the Jews, but all who are moral and all who think of themselves as religious, that they need the gospel, Paul is correcting the typical flawed perspectives about God resident in the hearts of most moral religious people. We've seen how this unfolds. He corrects the typical flawed view about God's justice in verses 1 to 3. He corrects the typical flawed view about God's common grace, the good things that people enjoy in this life, in verses 4 and 5, and then in verses 6 to 16 he corrects a flawed view of God's future judgment.

You see, moral religious people often conclude that it's going to be okay for them at the judgment because, after all, they're not as bad as most people. They try to be religious, they try to show up at church, they try to do the right things, they acknowledge God in their lives, and so they think it's going to be fine. It's going to work out at the judgment.

To correct that skewed perspective, in verses 6 to 16, Paul lays out for us four foundational principles of God's judgment. We've seen three of these. The first principle is that the future judgment of unbelievers will be according to our deeds, verses 6 to 10. In verse 11, it will be without partiality. The last couple of weeks we have seen that God's future judgment of unbelievers will be according to God's Law. In verses 12 to 15 Paul deals with this issue.

Now, today we come to the final principle of God's judgment, that judgment of unbelievers that's still to come. It will be, according to verse 16, according to our secrets. Let me read this paragraph again for you, beginning in verse 12.

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; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when the 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, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Now, the message of verse 16 is pretty obvious on the face of it. At the final judgment God will expose and will include in His verdict and sentence, every human secret. Now, in this verse Paul explains for us four realities about the coming day of judgment, the day of judgment for unbelievers. Let's look at these four realities together this morning as we prepare our hearts for the Lord's Table.

First of all, the first reality that we learn here about that future day of judgment is that God will judge in keeping with the gospel. Notice again verse 16, "on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge." Now, by "my gospel" Paul's not saying that he's the source of the good news or gospel. He simply means this is the gospel to which God had set him apart. It's the gospel that God had commissioned him to preach. Back in chapter 1 verse 1 he says, "Paul a doulos, a slave of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God." There he says the gospel has its source in God, but he's been set apart, been commissioned, to proclaim that gospel. That's all he means by "my gospel."

Now, back in chapter 2 verse 16, he says that part of this message called the good news, that he has been commissioned by God to preach, is a message of judgment. Paul's point is that the gospel message includes the reality of a coming future judgment. Now, why is that? Because the future judgment is what makes the gospel necessary. The future judgment is what makes the life and death of Jesus Christ a necessity. Because at the judgment, at that future judgment, every sin will be exposed and will be shown for the rebellion against God that it really is, and God's justice, listen carefully, God's justice demands punishment commensurate with the crime.

This is part of the bedrock of God's character. How does God proclaim Himself in Exodus 34:7? He says here's how you ought to think of me, I am a God of unrelenting justice. I will not, by any means, acquit the wicked. God can't do it. You understand that? God, in His character, because He is perfectly just, He cannot excuse sin. He must punish it. His justice demands it.

This is where so many Christians are so sentimental about God. They think that God can just say, okay, you're sorry for your sin; I forgive you. You know, God can't do that. God can't do that. Why? Hebrews 9:22 says, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Why? Because God's justice demands that the guilty be punished and we all are deserving of the punishment of eternal condemnation. Look back at chapter 2 verse 12. All who sin will, what? Perish. Eternal perishing, that's what our crimes deserve.

So, understand then that the only chance we have is that the demands of God's justice be met in some way other than our eternal condemnation. This is where the good news of the gospel comes in, because the demands of God's justice have been met in Jesus Christ. Turn over to chapter 3, this seminal text that we'll come back to on numbers of occasions. Romans 3:25, "God publicly displayed Jesus Christ," that's a reference to the crucifixion, "God publicly displayed Jesus Christ as a propitiation," as the satisfaction of His just wrath against sin. Jesus satisfied the justice of God. How? In His blood. That is, by shedding His blood in the place of those of us who deserve to die. He satisfied the justice of God and we receive that, notice verse 25, "through faith."

Turn over to chapter 5 verse 6, "While we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for," the idea is substitution, "as a substitute for the ungodly." Verse 8,

God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having been declared right with God by Jesus's satisfaction of God's justice, we will be rescued from the wrath of God through Him. We were enemies, [verse 10,] but we've been reconciled to God through the death of His Son.

Understand then that there is forgiveness because there was shedding of blood, because the justice of God was satisfied. Therefore, He can forgive your sin. He couldn't just forgive. He had to meet the demands of His justice, "I will by no means lead the guilty unpunished," He says. And so, somebody had to pay for our sin, and the gospel says it was Christ.

Do you understand then why the future judgment is part of the gospel message? Because the gospel makes no sense apart from that coming reality. John Stott writes, "The good news of salvation shines forth brightly when it is seen against the dark background of divine judgment. We cheapen the gospel if we represent it as a deliverance only from unhappiness, fear, guilt, and other felt needs instead of as a rescue from the coming wrath."

You know, we live in a day when there is a very weak man-centered gospel that is typically preached. It pleads with people to believe so that they can have a better life. In some cases, so they can be healthy or they can have more money, they can have a successful life in that sense, or to get rid of their guilt feelings or to improve their relationships, and on and on it goes. But the true gospel, Paul says, always includes the reality of coming judgment. Leon Morris writes, "The Gospel does not preclude the thought of judgment, indeed, it demands it. Unless judgment is a stern reality, there is nothing from which sinners need to be saved and accordingly, there is no good news, no gospel." So, the first reality that we learn in verse 16 about the future judgment is that God will judge in keeping with the gospel.

Now, there's a second reality about the judgment there in that verse and it's that God will judge on a specific day. This is always the language of the Scripture. Notice verse 16, "on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge." You know, we tend to think of judgment as something ethereal, mystical, out there, some sort of legend; it's not really the stuff of reality. Again and again, the Scripture refers to the day of judgment as the day. There is a specific day. There is coming an awful and solemn and public day when God will judge every unbelieving human being before the entire assembled universe. That's what Scripture teaches. Hebrews 9:27 says, "it is appointed to men once to die and after this, judgment."

Paul's already described this terrifying day back in chapter 2, notice verse 5, he says, "because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart," speaking again to unbelievers here, "you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day," notice how he refers to the day of judgment, "the day of wrath," the day of God's anger, "and the day of the revelation," or the unveiling, "of the righteous judgment of God." He says, listen, it's coming and you may think because you're experiencing God's goodness now that everything's fine. You may, like those who watched Noah build the ark, may think, that's crazy, it's never going to happen, but it's coming.

You know, our own justice system often moves very slowly, but eventually, unless there is either a plea bargain or the charges are dropped, most people who have been accused of a crime will have their day in court. But there are different ways, if you think about it, a man in jail for a crime he has actually committed might try to deal with the fact of his coming trial, his coming judgment. He might, as he's there in the prison, just sort of shut it out of his mind. He might just simply try to deny the reality of it, just refuse to think about it as though it's not going to happen. That doesn't change the fact that there's the day coming.

He may just live in hope that somehow he will escape the sentence he deserves through some technicality or some loophole in the law. Or, he might tell himself that, you know, I've got a good attorney and maybe that attorney, even though I'm guilty, will present such a clear and compelling case that I will escape, I'll be acquitted. Or, he might put all his hopes in trying to escape from prison, run from the system, knowing that he's going to be found guilty. Or, he might just lose all hope and to escape the public humiliation of the coming trial and the exposure of his sin, he might just choose to take his life.

Now, in all of those ways human beings being tried in human courts can hope to escape justice. But when we talk about the coming day of judgment we're talking about God. None of those are possible. There are only two chances of remaining an unbeliever and escaping that day, only two chances. Either God lies or God dies. Those are the only two possibilities, if you remain outside of Christ, to escape that day and, of course, both of those are impossible.

And so if you're not a Christian, understand this, as surely as you sit here this morning, as surely as your heart is beating this moment, there is coming a day when you will stand before God. You will have your day in court and the entire intelligent universe will be assembled for that moment. God has set the exact day and we are marching inexorably toward that day and nothing can change it. It is as certain as death and far more certain than taxes.

Now, in verse 16 there's a third reality about this future judgment. It's that God will judge the secrets of every person. God will judge the secrets of every person. Paul says, "on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men." Here is the heart of Paul's argument in verse 16, in the flow of the context. This is the main point he's making and it's a sobering truth. Think about this for a moment. Contrary to the thoughts of most people in the world we live in, there are no secrets. They're all known to God, right now, this moment as we speak, and someday, according to Paul, they'll become known to everyone.

You know, I think people can tend to think that, you know, they are so good at being deceptive and at keeping human beings from knowing what's going on in their lives that somehow that's going to happen when it comes to God. This is why Job was challenged in Job 13:9, "Will it be well when God examines you? Or will you deceive Him as one deceives a man?" I don't think so, not going to happen that way. Ecclesiastes 12:14, "God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil." Our Lord, in Luke 12:2-3 says,

there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and whatever you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.

Now, when Paul says that He's going, at the judgment, God's going to reveal the secrets of men, he doesn't mean that God is only going to judge the secrets of men. Back in verse 6 he's already said that God will judge all the deeds, the entire life lived. All the conduct, all the thoughts, all the words, will be the basis of His verdict. So, why here in verse 16 does Paul specifically mention secrets? Well, remember where we are in the context. Paul is showing the Jews that they need the gospel. And remember, the Jews were especially prone, and to some extent still are, to externalism. If you do all the right things on the outside, God is satisfied. But Paul reminds us that when God judges it won't just be the things that are on the outside, it'll be the secrets of men.

Now, what does he mean by "the secrets of men"? Well, he means several things. First of all, he means the sins committed in secret. The sins committed in secret. The sins we commit in private under the cover of darkness without the knowledge of the people close to us, our parents, spouses, or without the knowledge of the authorities. But Paul says, there are no secrets. God knows.

Psalm 90:8, the Psalmist says, "You, God, have placed our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the blazing light of Your presence." Proverbs 5:21 says, "the ways of a man," it's the Hebrew word that implies the predictable patterns of behavior, the habits of our lives, "the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He watches all his paths." Isaiah 29:15, "'Woe to those,'" God says, "'who deeply hide their plans from the Lord, and whose deeds are done in a dark place, and they say, "Who sees us?" "Who knows us?"'" God answers that in Jeremiah 16:17. He says, "'My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity concealed from My eyes.'" Hebrews 4:13, "there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do."

Do you understand that sins committed in secret are not secret to God? You can delete your browsing history. You can hide your sexual sin with an abortion. You can create separate phone and email accounts to cover your adultery. You can hide what you shoplifted from your parents. You can hide whatever it is you've stolen. You can stash the money that you embezzled from your company in offshore accounts. You can so work it that even the I.R.S. doesn't know what you've cheated the government out of. You can hide the alcohol and the drugs that dominate your life. You can hide those from your spouse, from your parents, from your employer. And you can lie so well and so often that no one really knows the truth. But there are no secrets with God. He knows and unless He decides to, by grace in Christ, He never forgets, never, ever forgets. And someday He will expose the secrets and judge you on the basis of those secrets.

So, by "secrets of men" Paul means the secret sins, the ones that are done, committed, in secret. But he also means, secondly, the sins of the mind. When it comes to sins that we commit solely in our minds, we can convince ourselves that no one will ever really know. It doesn't really hurt anyone; it's just me. But God knows every flitting thought. First Samuel 16:7, "God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at" what? "the heart." He looks at the heart. First Chronicles 28:9, "the Lord searches all hearts." The Hebrew word has the idea of, He ransacks. "God ransacks all hearts, and He understands every intent of the thoughts." He understands not only what we think, but why we think what we think, the purpose for which we think it, the goals that we have. He understands it all. Psalm 139:2, "You understand my thought, O God, from afar." Jeremiah 17:10, God says, "'I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.'"

Listen, you and I can't hide the sins of our hearts from God. You can hide your bitterness from even your best friend. You can cloak your anger beneath the veneer of a smile. You can shield your pride beneath the cover of false humility. You can hide your lusts from your spouse. But not one sin you have ever committed in your mind has ever escaped God's notice, not one. Every thought will be exposed at the judgment.

The "secrets of men" also includes, thirdly, the motives of the heart. You see, God doesn't just observe what we do, but why. First Corinthians 4:5, Paul says, "do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes," and listen to what the Lord will do at the judgment, "He will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts."

You know, this is really important because we often do the right things, but for all the wrong reasons. But there are no secrets when it comes to our motives. God knows them better than we know them. He knows when our good deeds are done out of pride or when they're done for self-advancement. He knows when our good deeds are deceptive. He knows every time that we have not acted out of genuine love for Him and out of genuine love for others. He knows. And at the judgment of unbelievers He will judge every human motive.

But there's one other secret that's here in the context of Romans 2. It's the conviction of conscience and our thoughts. Notice the connection of verse 16 with the context. Look at verse 15,

Gentiles [really all men and women] show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bears witness to this, [by, of course, accusing them] and their thoughts [about their moral actions and the moral actions of others] alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Do you see the connection? Verse 16 explains when the second half of verse 15 will happen. When will conscience do its work? When will our thoughts accuse or defend? On the day of judgment. Now, obviously, both conscience and our thoughts are convicting the sinner and convicting us now. But Paul's point is that it will also happen at the future and final judgment.

God has placed within each of us a relentless all-seeing witness to every moral choice we make. And at the judgment our conscience and our thoughts about our actions will speak against us. You can ignore those things in this life. You can try to act as though they're not there. But understand, they cannot be silenced forever. You cannot erase the records of personal guilt that are embedded in your own mind.

Experts tell us that it's almost impossible to erase the data from your computer's hard drive. You can throw it in the computer's trash can and empty the trash can, but for an expert it's easy to recover that. You can even purchase a program or software, as many people do, designed to erase data, but even then some of that data is still able to be recovered.

That's how it is with the conscience and our thoughts. They collect and store data about our moral choices. You can ignore the data. You can pretend it's not there. You can even try to erase it from your mind and memory and you can even convince yourself that you've done that. But it's still there. And all the guilt that has been carefully recorded by the conscience and by your mind still resides. And if you are not in Christ, when you stand before Jesus Christ at the judgment of unbelievers, part of the evidence that will cry out against you will be the detailed records of your own internal courtroom. Your mind will have recorded the very evidence that will be played back against you.

Now, understand that the verdict that our conscience and our thoughts brings against us today when it accuses us and convicts us, that is like the trailer for the coming judgment. Charles Hodge puts it this way, in a very chilling comment, he says, "Conscience is only the reflection of God's countenance, the echo, often feeble and indistinct, of His coming judgment."

Now, there's a fourth reality about the future judgment in verse 16, and that is, that God will judge through Jesus Christ, "on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus." Scripture tells us everywhere that God has determined to judge every human being and to do so through His Son. John 5:22, "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son." Acts 10:42, Peter, talking to Cornelius, says "He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify," speaking of Jesus here, "that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead." Before the Areopagus there in Athens, in Acts 17:31, Paul finishes his sermon with these words, "He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed," Jesus, "having furnished prove to all men by raising Him from the dead." When God raised Jesus from the dead it was His proof that every human being will one day give an account to Jesus of Nazareth.

By the way, Jesus even spoke of Himself as the primary figure in the future judgment. He said, in Matthew 7:22, He says, "'Many will say to Me on that future day of judgment.'" "'Many will say to Me.'" He says, I'm the judge. In Matthew 16:27 Jesus says, "'the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and will repay every man according to his deeds.'" Jesus says, I am the judge at the day of judgment. By the way, this just proves who Jesus really is. The fact that He alone will judge everyone in the universe makes it clear that He is nothing less than God Himself.

Do you understand what Paul is saying here? The judge of all men will be the One who created them, the One who came into the world as one of them in order to die for the sins of everyone who would believe in Him, the One who, through His apostles, through the New Testament, has extended the genuine offer of salvation through His death to all men, that's the One who will be the judge. But in that day He'll no longer be on a cross in humiliation. Instead, Revelation 20 tells us, He will be seated on a huge white throne.

Do you understand what Paul is saying here as he lays out this judgment as part of the gospel? He is saying, there are only two options. There are only two options in front of you today. Let this sink into your mind. There are only two choices. You will either stand in Christ with no condemnation, no guilty verdict, no eternal sentence of death, or you will stand before Christ, and in fact, you will be eternally condemned. Those are the options.

You will either acknowledge Jesus as your Lord now, in this life, or you will stand before Him as Lord and be judged at the judgment. You will either accept His offer of forgiveness, extended to you now, or you will receive His verdict of guilty, then. You will either escape His wrath through His death on the cross in the place of sinners, satisfying God's justice, or you will bear the full fury of His wrath on the day of judgment, "the day of wrath," as Paul calls it, and forever. Those are the only two choices. It really comes down to where it always comes. The question is to you, what will you do with Jesus who is called the Christ? Those are your choices. Those are your options. It will be one or the other.

Charles Hodge writes, "He who died for the sins of men." Think about this now, let this settle into your mind. "He who died for the sins of men is to sit in judgment upon sinners. This is a just ground of fear to those who reject His offered mercy." Think about this for a moment. Imagine, really, what it will be like if you have sat in services like this one and again and again you have rejected His offer of mercy. You've rejected His death for you. You've rejected the reality of His coming in order to secure salvation, to rescue you from His own wrath. Imagine what it will be like to stand before Him on that day having rejected that offer of mercy. As Hodge writes, it is "a just ground of fear."

But I love this, many of us here are in Christ, Hodge writes, "The fact that He who died for the sins of men is to sit in judgment upon sinners is a just ground of confidence for those who trust in His righteousness." How could the One who died for us, the One whom we have acknowledged as Lord, the One whom we love and serve, how could that One, as Judge, ever condemn us? "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."

Here's the amazing reality, because, as Romans 3 described, Christ suffered in our place, He satisfied the justice of God. You, believer, will never stand at this judgment. I will never stand there and be judged for my sins; they were judged in Christ on the cross. All of those secret things, the sins committed in secret, the sins of the heart, the sins of motive, that only God knows, the sins illustrated by the work of my conscience and the work of my thoughts condemning me, all of those things remain with God and I am forgiven. That's the gospel.

Do you see why understanding the bad news is so important to appreciating the good news? This is what it would be like, what we've just studied, this is what it would be like for me, it's what it would be like for you, apart from Christ. But because of Christ it's all changed. It's gone. There will be no moment of public shame and terror and wrath, because, as we read in Romans 5, "we will be saved from the wrath of God through Him."

That's what we celebrate in the Lord's Table.

My sin - Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! – 
My sin, not in part but the whole, 
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more. 
[That's the reality.] 
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Let's pray together.

Our Father, we are overwhelmed by Your grace to us and Your wisdom to come up with such a plan. So that You could be both just and, at the same time, the Justifier of the sinner who believes in Jesus.

Father, thank You that in Christ Your justice was satisfied, so that we will not stand at that judgment that we have studied this morning. We have been saved from that day of wrath. O Father, we bless You, we thank You.

We pray as well for those here this morning who are not in Jesus Christ. Who still bear the full weight and load of their sin. Who will stand on that day and have every secret revealed, and be judged not on the external life, but on all the secrets as well. Father, may they turn to You today, receive Christ as Savior and Lord. In whose name we pray, amen.