Not only did Christ die for the ungodly, which—contra Pelagius—he used as a synonym for “unrighteous”—but even more scandalously he justifies those who are, in themselves, intrinsically, unrighteous. Not that they should remain unrighteous, not at all. No, Paul makes clear that, having been declared righteous for Christ’s sake alone, we ought to grow in sanctity and righteousness because we have been declared righteous. We know too that there are not two-stages of justification, initial and final. No, believers are as totally justified now as they shall ever be.
…when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rom 2:15–16.).
The world gospel means good news. The verbal form of the noun (εὐαγγέλιόν) Paul uses in v. 16 in secular Greek “is always used in a context of joy, at least from the point of view of the messenger: “I bring good words, happy news (logous agathous pherōn euangelisasthai) that I want to be the first to announce to you … they wanted to crown me for the good news (euangelia)” (Aristophanes, Eq. 643)….”1 That same idea is present in Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (ESV)
The Greek text of the v. 7 uses a participle of the same word (εὐαγγελιζομένου) for announcement of good news. In Isaiah 52 the announcement is peace, happiness, and salvation. This is the best news.
Sometimes, however, Paul’s language in Romans 2:15–16 is understood to mean that “gospel” can also mean bad news. It is true that the word gospel can be used in a broader sense and that may be the case here but we should look at this passage more carefully before we conclude that the good news can sometimes be bad news. Even if the word gospel can be “bad news” for some, even this passage tells us that it is always good news for believers, those who have been given news life by God’s Holy Spirit, who have been given the gift of faith (Eph 2:8:–10) and who, by the Spirit, through faith, have been united to Christ.
In context, beginning in 1:18, Paul has been explaining the nature and function of God’s law. He has been prosecuting the entire human race for its sin and the consequences of sin namely corruption and death. Because the law was given before the fall, because it is revealed in nature, because it is imprinted on the conscience of every human (1:20; 2:12–14) we are all without excuse. We voluntarily, freely (without any external compulsion) and mysteriously chose to disobey God. We chose to break the covenant of works (or the covenant of nature, covenant of life, or commandment of life.2
We had the ability before the fall to obey the law. We were “created in righteousness and true holiness that we might rightly know God our Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness.”3 Adam before the fall Adam was “good.” After the fall, that original goodness was corrupted. He, and we all in him (Rom 5:12–21) became bad by nature and therefore subject to the promised judgment: “The day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). We became fugitives. We covered ourselves pitifully with fig leaves and lied to our maker. Therefore, we should not be surprised when Paul, as he preaches the law to the congregation in Rome and to us now, should announce the coming judgment.
Our Lord Jesus repeatedly proclaimed the coming judgment:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire ( Matt 5:21–25; ESV).