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The doers of the law will be justified
A defense of a literal reading of Romans 2.12-16

by Tim Gallant

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 (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; 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, 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) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel. (Rom. 2:12-16 NKJV)

It is often suggested by Protestant exegetes that the above passage is in a sense hypothetical. If anyone could truly be a "doer of the law," he could stand in God's court and be justified. Indeed, even Gentiles, if they could perfectly work out and live out the law of God which is imprinted upon their conscience, could likewise be justified at the final judgment on that basis. Since, however, Paul is in the midst of an argument demonstrating that all fail before the law's judgment seat, it follows that none can be justified on the basis of law.

While it is doubtless true that none can be justified on the basis of keeping of the law (see esp. 3:19-20), I do not believe that this is what Paul is specifically arguing here. I believe that Paul is referring to Christian believers. (This is also a position taken by N. T. Wright in his commentary on Romans, as well as in his article, "The Law in Romans 2," in Paul and the Mosaic Law, James D. G. Dunn, ed; see esp. pp. 143-148. I will attempt to provide further defense for this position than Wright has argued for.)

Passage not hypothetical

I disagree with the hypothetical view of Romans 2:12-16 for the following reasons:

1. Although many Protestant interpreters (including John Calvin and John Murray) divide up Paul's argument, so that 2:1-11 is not hypothetical, while 2:12-16 following is so taken, this does not appear to be exegetically tenable. Here's why not:

a. Verse 12 opens with for (Greek gar); the foregoing is supported by what Paul will say here.

b. There is strong parallelism between the two sections. "Those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness" and who thus inherit wrath, both of Jews and Greeks, described in verses 9-10, stand parallel to those who have sinned being judged, both those "in the law" and those "without law," in verse 12. Likewise, verse 5 speaks of "the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God," while verse 16 speaks of "the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ."

Thus it is clear that if verses 1-11 are not merely hypothetical, it is highly unlikely that 12-16 are hypothetical either.

Nor will it do to push the problem back, and make both sections hypothetical, as some have attempted to do. This will not work, because Paul in verse 4, addressing the unrighteous judges, says, "the goodness of God leads you to repentance." But divine invitation to repentance presupposes God's providing means for forgiveness of sins (see esp. Murray, ad. loc. cit.). If that is the case, the passage clearly cannot be about a hypothetical perfection.

2. The language of "the work of the law written in their hearts" in verse 15 is too reminiscent of the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 to be merely coincidental. In the LXX, Jer. 31:33 (actually, 38:33 in the LXX; 31:33 is the place of the passage in Hebrew and English) says, "I will give my laws unto their understanding, and upon their hearts I will write them." The Hebrew can be rendered, "I will give my law in their midst, and upon their hearts I will write it." (This raises the difficulty of the usual understanding that Romans 2:14 indicates that the Gentiles in view "by nature do the things in the law"; we will take up this problem below.)

Moreover, this "work of the law written in their hearts" in verse 15 is not stated by Paul to be universal. The clause begins with the indefinite pronoun whoever (Greek: `oitines, from `ostis). Although this word can function as a simple relative pronoun (who, which), that is not the most common meaning, and certainly not the necessary one. No commentator argues that the "work of the law" here is perhaps non-existent due to the indefinite article, and that is clearly not my point. Rather, I am saying that Paul (1) assumes this work of the law to be a reality; and (2) thinks of it in non-universal terms: only some Gentiles have this work of the law written in their hearts.

Furthermore, the indefiniteness of verse 15 (whoever) matches the indefiniteness of verse 14: "For whenever (Greek `otan) Gentiles who do not have the law...do the things in the law...." Verse 14 must be indefinite, because otherwise we would have to conclude that Gentiles universally "do the things in the law," at least some of the time.

3. The parallelism between 1-11 and 12-16 is also echoed in the passages following, in particular 2:25-29, as Wright has so ably shown in his article, "The Law in Romans 2." This is made most evident in comparing the law-keeping Gentile of verse 14 with verse 27: "And will not the one, by nature uncircumcised, who keeps the law, judge you who through the letter and circumcision transgress the law?"

Yet standard Protestant exegesis acknowledges the non-hypothetical character of 2:25-29. This is inescapable. Verse 29 says, "he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God." The "by the Spirit" language indicates that Paul is thinking of real people who have received the promised new covenant Spirit; he is certainly not positing a hypothetical works-righteousness attained by native human strength.

4. Paul's concluding phrase here in verse 16, according to my gospel, also appears in 16:25; 1 Timothy 1:11; and 2 Timothy 2:8 (cf. Gal. 1:11). In no other case can it reasonably be argued that the situation in view is in any fashion hypothetical. Even further, and this is crucially important, Paul is describing here the character of the judgment of which he is speaking. It will be "according to my gospel, through Christ Jesus" (v. 16b).

5. The relationship of verse 16 to the preceding indicates that the accusing / defending exercise of the conscience occurs at the day of judgment. If we were to limit the "doing of the law" in this passage to occasional times in which a general proper behaviour was carried out, it is rather inconceivable that Paul would speak of a positive defense of the conscience. If Paul's point is the absolute character of God's law and His judgment, it seems unlikely that he would admit that unbelievers could stand before that judgment seat and have "law-informed" consciences (i.e. shaped by some "work of the law" functioning analogous to the written law) that would in part excuse themselves.

If, however, verses 12-16 are envisioning "doers of the law" who are Christian believers and who will be justified in the day of judgment, we are left with a few questions.

Legalistic Judgment?

First, does it not contradict Paul's entire gospel program if he posits that the doers of the law will in actuality be justified? Does this indeed not contradict 3:20-21?

In fact, no. For first, this passage does not actually say that the doers of the law will be justified on the basis of their law-keeping. (The earlier section, 2:1-11, which is only rarely seen as hypothetical, is in fact more difficult on this issue, because, as in other passages, Paul states that God will render to each according to his deeds, v. 6.)

Second, we need to examine what Paul means by the "doing of the law" here. It must be understood that especially in chapters 1-2, Paul often anticipates his argument well in advance, and only by careful consideration of the whole letter can we fully grasp his early cryptic statements. In this regard, we are helped out by the link between verses 14 and 27, on the one hand, and the link between 27 and 10:4, on the other. In 2:27, Paul speaks of the one who "keeps" the law; the word is telousa (from teleo). Paul uses the noun cognate to this verb in 10:4: "For Christ is the goal (telos) of the law unto righteousness to all who believe." In the context of 10:4, Paul has explained that Israel had stumbled, because although they "pursued a law of righteousness, they did not arrive at the law" (9:31). We would have expected Paul to say: they did not arrive at righteousness - but Paul's point is that the law itself was aimed at Christ. Thus, any approach to the law that does not aim at Christ will in fact fall short of the law itself.

Consequently, the chief "doing of the law" that Paul has built up to in this epistle revolves around owning Christ as Lord. Romans 10:6, which is citing a passage originally speaking of the commandments of the law, identifies that passage (Deut. 30:11-14) as referring to "the righteousness based on faith" - which Paul equally clearly refers to Christ (as we noted in 10:4). It is this righteousness that arises out of the gospel, and which confesses Jesus as Lord, confessing and believing unto salvation (10:9-10).

This is built upon everything that has gone before in the epistle, but we can note especially 8:1ff. The law was weak through the flesh, but in the hands of the Spirit of life, it has become the instrument of freeing us from itself as the law of sin and death (8:2). How so? God employed the law to put His Son to death as a sin offering, and thereby condemned sin in the flesh and satisfied the just judgment (dikaioma) of the law with reference to us (8:3). Already here we can see that the one who believes upon Jesus as Lord is "doing the law," because its purpose and its judgment are fulfilled in Him. The "fulfilling of the law" in the believer is also understood by Paul at the level of sanctification; the one who is in Jesus is led by the Spirit, and is thus no longer antagonistic toward the law; see the whole argument of 8:5-14. Such sanctification is of course not meritorious, but it does serve to identify those who are in Christ, who is the law's goal.

Third, and in line with the above, this final judgment which vindicates these "doers of the law" will be "according to [Paul's] gospel, through Jesus Christ" (2.16b). It is most certainly not a "legalistic judgment." It is a judgment in accordance with the gospel Paul preaches.

What is "by nature"?

A large issue remains unresolved. The common translation of 2:14 runs something like this: "For when Gentiles who do not have the law do instinctively [lit. by nature; Greek phusei] the things of the law, these, not having the law, are a law to themselves" (NASB).

There are two issues here that need to be addressed: identifying what by nature means; and identifying what it is supposed to modify.

1. First, contrary to what is widely assumed, Paul's usage of nature does not usually refer to what is innate or simply creational. In fact, in the related passage in 2:27, Paul can speak of the Gentile as one who is uncircumcised "by/from nature" - in implicit, but clear, contrast to the Jew who is circumcised "by nature." Now clearly, by nature as we use the term, all are uncircumcised: every normal male is born with a foreskin! Paul, however, is employing the term more generally with the idea of natural heritage. The Jew has received circumcision and Torah as part of his God-given heritage; the Gentile has not.

Likewise, in 11:27 Paul speaks of the Jews as the "natural" (phusin) branches of the olive tree into which the Gentiles have been engrafted. He is not saying that Jews are not partakers of original sin or anything of that sort! He is simply saying that they have received the grace of the covenant as part of their natural and customary heritage. (Cf. Gal. 2:15, which contrasts "Jews by nature" with "sinners of the Gentiles," a contrast which surely stretches beyond the natural idea of race; also 1 Cor. 11:14: it seems at least questionable that Paul is claiming that abhorrence of long hair for males is "innate.")

2. The phrase itself has probably been misplaced in our translations. In the Greek text (which of course, originally had little or no punctuation), the word order runs this way: "Whenever for Gentiles the ones not the law having by nature the things of the law do...." As can be seen, by nature stands squarely between two clauses: the first refers to the fact that Gentiles do not have the law; the second refer to these Gentiles doing the law. On the basis of the analogy with verse 27, there is a much better argument for understanding by nature as modifying not having, rather than modifying "do the things of the law."

Thus a smooth translation of the verse would run: "For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law by nature, do the things of the law, these though not having the law are a law for themselves." This then flows into verse 15: "...whoever demonstrates the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and between their thoughts, accusing or defending."

The Gentiles do not have the law as their heritage. Here again is a parallel to 9:30ff. As those who were not in possession of the law, the Gentiles did not even pursue righteousness, but it has come to them in Christ.

The relationship between 14-15 is thus evident: these are the ones who do the law and become a law for themselves: whoever demonstrates the work of the law written in their hearts. Those who have been granted the new covenant Spirit: these alone can truly fulfill the law.

It may be objected, however, that the present tense in verse 14 (not having the law) undercuts the notion that Christian believers are in view: for do they not now have the law? But this objection misses the fact that Paul does not see the new covenant as under the law's charter in the way the Jews were under the old covenant. The new covenant believer has the "work of the law written on his heart," but he is not under the law itself (see e.g. 6:14 and numerous other passages in Paul's epistles). In a very real and strong sense, new covenant Gentiles do not "have the law." (Remember that the contrast here is between Jews who possess the law and Gentiles who do not; the issue is not whether there is any sense in which the Gentiles in view "have the law." Paul's ostensible Jewish dialogue partner would have denied that an uncircumcised Gentile ever possessed the law, even if the latter viewed it as holy Scripture.)

Accused and justified

What about the accusing of the conscience in verse 16? Why would a Christian believer suffer such self-accusation at the final judgment? As I noted above, the conscience of the unbeliever would not likely defend him before the throne of absolute justice. But the converse is not the case. Even the most faithful Christian believer will not stand before God's judgment seat on the ground of a clean conscience; he will still recognize his own sins, although he will know them as washed away through the sin offering of Christ.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we may say that Romans 2:12-16 is a passage that we ought to take straightforwardly rather than hypothetically. The doers of the law are those who have found the law's goal to be Christ Himself, and who thus confess Him as Lord. They are also those who are, in becoming united to Christ, granted His Holy Spirit. They walk by that Spirit, and thus fulfill the true intention of the law (cf. 8:1-14; 13:10; Gal. 5:14-26). The doers of the law will stand uncondemned at the final judgment, because they are in Christ, who has encountered and fulfilled the sentence of judgment when He became their sin offering (8:3-4).

Postscript

Some interpreters who hold to a literal, straightforward (as opposed to hypothetical) reading of this passage have suggested that the Gentiles in view are God-fearers, rather than new covenant believers. In other words, they take the passage as looking retrospectively back to the period antedating the proclamation of the new covenant gospel.

I do not find this persuasive, for several reasons:

a. As we saw, Paul's argument is anticipatory, and this passage is built on throughout Romans.

b. Paul's allusion to Jeremiah 31 indicates that he specifically has the new covenant in view. (Cf. also the "circumcision of the heart" theme in the related passage at 2:29; this theme has an eschatological outlook in its OT source, Deut. 30:6.)

c. The present tense is more naturally taken to refer to the present period, particularly in view of the fact that when Romans was written, the gospel had been going forth for some 30 years.

This, of course, does not deny that believers under the old covenant period, whether faithful Israelite or uncircumcised God-fearer, would be able to stand in the judgment. Paul, after all, sees Abraham as the father of faith (see Rom. 4; Gal. 3:6-9). But that is simply not within his purview here, in my judgment. His overall intent here is to show that mere possession of the law does not grant Israel immunity from judgment, and conversely, that salvation from judgment can occur without the law. The focal point of salvation is not the law, but rather Christ who is its goal, over whom Israel has stumbled (9:30ff.). This is the contemporary setting; Paul has little reason here to address the historical issue of the salvation of Gentile God-fearers.

In a sense, it is true that Paul does establish Abraham within the God-fearer paradigm in 4:9ff. Yet even there, his point has nothing directly to do with historical Gentile God-fearers; it is rather to establish the precedent for the present full inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles in the new covenant. In context, Paul is working with the promise that God would make Abraham the father of many nations (4:17). It is clear from Galatians 3:8 that Paul took this class of Abrahamic promises to be eschatological, a proleptic preaching of his gospel which looked forward to the present age.

Consequently, Romans 2:12-16 should be understood as referring to new covenant believers.

tim gallant creative © 2006