We all probably know people who live pretty well - making good choices and just not living too far from moral excellence. What might amaze us is how many of these "good" individuals don't have a personal relationship with Jesus. They simply live "right" and adhere to this strong moral code of excellence for some reason other than wanting to follow what scripture teaches. In fact, many don't even know what the scripture says, much less seek to adhere to it! So, how can they live so "well" and not know these truths? I think scripture points us to the power of the conscience - it can be trained to respond in a variety of ways. Given the right input, the conscience can be trained to produce the right output. For example, if a parent teaches their child to respect their elders, adhere to the laws of the land, and to always treat others as they want to be treated themselves, they might grow up to be pretty solid citizens. Their conscience has been trained to guide them into pretty "good" actions. Whenever they attempt to drift from those actions, their conscience actually acts as a little "governor" to keep them from choosing that path. It is possible to obey God's commands and never have heard a word of them preached in your home - simply because the standards which are taught are based on those teachings, even when someone may not realize they are and the conscience acts to remind us of the importance of living by these standards.
Those people who don’t know about God’s Law will still be punished for what they do wrong. And the Law will be used to judge everyone who knows what it says. God accepts those who obey his Law, but not those who simply hear it. Some people naturally obey the Law’s commands, even though they don’t have the Law. This proves that the conscience is like a law written in the human heart. And it will show whether we are forgiven or condemned, when God appoints Jesus Christ to judge everyone’s secret thoughts, just as my message says. (Romans 2:12-16 CEV)
If the principles taught in God's Word can be taught without even knowing it, then how is it we who study it should make excuses when we don't obey it? The conscience is a powerful tool - provided the right input, it can actually aid us in walking according to the correct standards, even when we don't label them as "Christian"! The trouble still remains in the area of our "secret thoughts" and the actual condition of our heart. We cannot have a clean heart apart from the blood of Jesus being applied - even though we live by "good" principles. The scripture clearly defines the gift of eternal life as being entirely linked to having said "yes" to the redemptive work of Jesus in our lives. Apart from receiving grace, we are just living by a good moral code, not truthfully living with a heart made new by the transforming power of Christ.
Look at what our passage says again and you will see judgment is assured to those who hear the Word of Christ, but then don't choose to obey it. In the days this was written, there were basically two groups of individuals Paul was writing to - those who "had the Law of Moses" to guide their actions (the Jews) and those who did not (the Gentiles). His accusation is one which should make us sit up and take notice. His question isn't one of "possession", but of "using" what one possesses. The Jews had the Law - often hearing it preached, but not clearly embracing it as their way of living. The Gentiles didn't - but many lived by the right moral standards in spite of their "lack" of possessing the Law. The difference was one group had much, but didn't use it; the other didn't possess more than an example, and lived closer to the truth than those who possessed the truth themselves!
The conscience is like a law written in the human heart - this should give us a moment to reflect. If the conscience is capable of driving a man to "act right", then how is it those of us who have the Word of God as well can make so many wrong choices? It is often because we don't listen to our conscience warning us otherwise! We have BOTH - so we are without excuse for our disobedience. We cannot live right apart from the grace of God and the presence of a personal "tutor" in our lives to help us make truth the means by which we make our decisions in life. Words on a page will not save us. Words spoken out loud will not make us hear what is spoken. We need those words to impact our lives. God created us with this thing called conscience to assist us in this process. Our conscience is like a sponge - taking in what it is exposed to and what is modeled for it to see. When we take in the right stuff, we stand a chance of returning the demonstration of the right stuff - this is just simple logic.
To hear and not obey - this is the subject of our consideration today - not if people can live good lives apart from Christ. I do think there are people who live "good lives", but they still won't enjoy eternity with Christ because they haven't make him the center of their life. Their good actions don't gain them access into the kingdom of God - only grace does that! Those of us who have said "yes" to Jesus should be challenged to live differently because we possess both - a cleansed conscience and a clean heart! Just sayin!