46 "I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness.
47 "And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.
48 "He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him--the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day."
When you were growing up, didn't it drive you crazy when you were judged by rules you didn't yet know? Like the time you got in trouble for touching something you didn't know you weren't supposed to touch? Or the time you faced punishment for staying out late at a party your parents KNEW you were going to? Then when you pointed out that you didn't know their unspoken rules, your parents would say something like, "Well, you should have known..." How can we know the rules when we haven't been told them?!?
There are some rules we generally DO know innately--moral laws that govern our conscience--and there are others that we learn as we grow up--laws of the state, rules at work, guidelines for playing sports. Yes, there are still times when we don't know the specific rules in a situation, but we can generally be guided by conscience and experience when we get into situations like that. At such times, if we get in trouble for violating unknown rules, we may or may not face a judge (literally or figuratively) who will be nice to us and let us off the hook just that one time. Mercy is a wonderful thing in such circumstances.
12 For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law
13 (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified;
14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves,
15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)
16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
Of course, God's law CAN be known, and there is nothing hidden about it. He has given us the Bible whereby to know the rules, and so our only real excuse is that we didn't read those rules. I am willing to bet that right now you think I am talking about the Ten Commandments, but I am not. As Paul notes in this passage, not knowing the Law--the Ten Commandments and the accompanying laws recorded from Exodus through Deuteronomy--is not an excuse: one will either be judged by that law, or else one will perish without it. The Law is not the problem, because as Paul notes, we can still follow God's Law without knowing the particulars, because we have our consciences to guide us. No, God will not judge us by our adherence to the Law, but He will judge us by (or, more literally, through) Jesus Christ.
In one respect, we ought to be glad we are being judged through Jesus Christ, because He has already paid for our sins on the Cross, and so we bear that guilt no more. According to God's blessed mercy, our slate has been wiped clean on Calvary. However, we also ought to remember what Jesus said in today's verses: we WILL be judged by the words Jesus Himself has spoken--i.e. by the gospel.
2 Corinthians 5:14-17
14 For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died;
15 and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.
16 Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
Paul puts it so beautifully here (and in Philippians chapter 2), that we are no longer to live for ourselves but live for Christ. We are a "new creation." God doesn't clear the slate so we can get back to being our old selves again. He forgives our sin through Jesus Christ so we can, as Jesus said so often, go and sin no more. We are forgiven so we can start NEW lives, so we can see the world through new eyes and experience the world with new understanding. God has made us holy through Jesus Christ so we can live holy and set apart for His good will.
The one thing God asks of us is simple:
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."
We are to believe in Jesus Christ, believe that He has paid the price for our sins and has renewed our lives, believe that His words are truth, believe in His Spirit so we can live new lives for God and not ourselves.
35 Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying,
36 "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?"
37 Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
38 "This is the first and great commandment.
39 "And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
40 "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."
The rule is love.
When we love God first, and love others, then all the rest of it falls into place. But we cannot love God without loving His Son, and we cannot hope to love Him in any meaningful way unless we know His Word. And in coming to know His Bible and the gospel written therein, we come to know Him more and love Him more, and--no coincidence here--we know His law better and better.
It is not that we are judged by God's law but that we LIVE it in our hearts and homes because we love God so much. We are judged by the gospel, by our faith in Jesus Christ, the One who took our sin on the Cross and rose again to bring us into new life. Jesus put it so succinctly and so well in His first sermon, recorded in Mark 1:15: "Repent, and believe in the gospel." If we repent--literally, change our thinking and the way we live our lives--and truly believe in the gospel, then we will love the way that God loves, and we will live according to His law quite naturally. And the only times when we may fall will be when we lose sight of our love for God and thus forget His law. It is all tied to our love and faith in Jesus Christ.
I may not know all the intricate laws of the state in which I live, and I will freely admit I know just the basics of the rules for most popular sports, but I know enough to keep from speeding on the highway or committing a foul during a game. I thank God that, through Jesus Christ, He has written His law upon my heart, so that I don't have to "wing it" in my everyday life and risk condemnation. In fact, my one struggle is not so much avoiding doing wrong but simply remembering to do right--remembering to put God first in all things, remembering to return His love constantly, remembering the words of Jesus so I can live and be more like Him.
When we face the Lord at Judgment, we will not be judged by Pharisees, not be judged according to men's laws nor our past reputation for good or ill. We will be judged by our faith and love for Jesus Christ, and that faith will be witnessed by the way we have lived our lives after coming to Christ. So let's not get hung up on rules and regulations but focus on the words that matter: the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we turn our eyes upon Jesus, everything else fades into insignificance, and we realize that the words He spoke--the words by which we shall be judged--are more than sufficient to guide us in our lives.
Lord God of heaven and of earth, I praise You this day and every day for Your great mercy. I am so glad that You have chosen not to hold us to any rule but one: that we love You with all our heart and soul and mind, with everything we have. I pray, Father, that Your will and Your way will guide me in loving You, that the words of Your blessed Son Jesus Christ will steer me in my life. Thank You that the rule, precious Lord, is love. Amen.