Background and Contextual Considerations

The apostle Paul wrote to the Romans toward the end of his third missionary journey, probably from Corinth.[1] It was just prior to his visit to Jerusalem to deliver the large monetary gift from the Gentile churches as a gesture of love and unity for the sake of the gospel (Rom. 15:25–28). He wrote to church in the capital city of the empire to inform them of his intention to visit and minister to them (Rom. 1:13-15), and to use the Roman church as his base for pioneer missionary work into the western Mediterranean, as far as Spain (Rom. 15:20-28). As providence would have it, Paul would arrive to Rome under adverse circumstances, bound for the sake of the testimony of Jesus, and be confined to house arrest from which he would preach to all who came to visit him (Acts 28:30-31). We do not know with any degree of certainty whether he ever made it to Spain.[2]

As Paul writes to the church at Rome, he provides them with a sort of preliminary introduction to the main message of his ministry. He was zealously ambitious to preach the gospel to them (Rom. 1:15).[3] In the zeal of this apostolic eagerness, his epistle summarizes and communicates his gospel. It provides us with “the gospel according to Paul,”[4] giving us pure and undiluted gospel theology. Luther famously called it “purest gospel” when he praised it with words of highest esteem:

“This epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel. It is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but also that he should occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. We can never read it or ponder over it too much; for the more we deal with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.”[5]

Reflecting Paul’s brilliance, the entire epistle is structured according to a logical progression. The systematic and coherent lucidity with which Paul presents his gospel is a model for how gospel ministers should seek to communicate the truth about Jesus.[6]

Paul’s purpose and coherent structure in presenting his argument relative to that purpose is not superfluous to the passage under consideration. Romans 2:12–16 needs to be interpreted as an integral thread skillfully woven into the fabric of the broader context. His purpose in this passage is subsumed under his overarching purpose in the epistle. He speaks of sin, justice, and eschatological judgment in order to magnify the wonders of gospel grace. He strips men of their self-righteousness by the law in order that they may be clothed with the righteousness of Christ by the gospel. This broader context must formatively influence if not practically determine our interpretation of the passage.[7]

Assertion (v. 12): All People are Guilty before God based on the Law

Verse 12 begins the pericope with an assertion of mankind’s guilt: “For as many as without the law have sinned, without the law they shall likewise perish; and as many as have sinned in the law, by the law they shall likewise be judged.” Those “without the law” (ἀνόμως) are Gentiles, who did not have the same privilege as Jews, “unto [whom] were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). The Gentiles had not received the special revelation of the Word of God. They were ignorant of the Hebrew oracles, and this ignorance extended to a lack of knowledge of the preceptive will of God as that will was expressly published in God’s explicitly disclosed, inscripturated self-revelation. This ignorance was no ground for innocence, however. Though they had not received the objective revelation of the law, Gentiles are nonetheless guilty of sin against the law. Therefore, “without the law they shall likewise perish” (ἀνόμως καὶ ἀπολοῦνται). “Perish” describes not annihilation but eternal punishment (cf. 2 Thes. 1:9).[8]

Verse 12b condemns Jews as well: “as many as have sinned in the law, by the law they shall likewise be judged.” The Gentiles are described as ἀνόμως, as abiding in a state characterized by the absence of the law;[9] but the Jews are ἐν νόμῳ. This is often translated “under the law,”[10] but it is probably best to take the prepositional phrase as one of “association”[11] which is intended to convey the relationship in which the Jews stood relative to the law. Due to their reception of the law’s revelation, the Jews were “in” a state of relational identification with the law,[12] abiding in the sphere of the law’s objective knowledge.[13] In other words, their association with the law meant that they had full knowledge of it. They will therefore be judged διὰ νόμου–by means of the law;[14] based on the standard of righteousness summarized in the law that they objectively know. The law will be the means of their condemnation as its commandments thunder forth the damnation of its knowledgeable transgressors. They will be held accountable to the law they knew but did not keep.

We should keep in mind that all this follows verse 11 where we are told “there is no respect of persons with God.” The perfectly just judge will judge with equity according to his righteous standard. Gentiles stand condemned notwithstanding their ignorance; Jews stand condemned in spite of their knowledge. Ignorance is no copout; mere knowledge is insufficient. “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and all stand in need of the redemptive revelation of the righteousness of God in Christ.

Explanation (vv. 13—15): All Men are in the Same Condition Whether or Not they have Received the Special Revelation of the Law

Verse 13: The Jews’ Guilt Explained

Verse 13 begins a subsidiary explication that continues through the end of verse 15. The apostle seeks to establish his case by arguing that Jew and Gentile are on equal ground before God. The alternation from Gentile to Jew (v. 13) and then from Jew to Gentile (vv. 14 and 15) resembles a structural chiasm, reflecting the logical precision and circumspect intentionality with which the apostle articulates his argument. This was a master teacher whose argument has a rhythm and flow to it. Every word matters.

“Because it is not the hearers of the law that are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.” There was nothing groundbreaking or novel in these words as such. Paul was echoing the common Rabbinical position that knowledge of the law without obedience would not be acceptable to God.[15] Keener notes that “few would challenge Paul’s argument on this point.”[16] That is part of the effectiveness of his argument. Establishing his case by appealing to common ground will position him to persuade his Jewish kinsmen that not only does obedience matter, but it is essential for justification.

Implicit in these words, however, is the conviction that no fallen son or daughter of Adam has been obedient to the law. Paul agrees with Jewish interpreters that obedience is necessary, but he elevates the concept of obedience to such a degree that no obedience will suffice before the holy God except that which is perfect. For Paul, common Jewish views of obedience were much too low, too shallow before the omniscient judge who will judge not mere external conduct but all “the secrets of men” (v. 16). Paul probably has Leviticus 18:5 in mind: “Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them.” In Romans 10:5, he quotes this and applies its principle to the concept of a covenant of works, specifying that the requirement of absolute obedience is the condition for receiving the reward of eschatological life, in order to demonstrate that none can possibly do so. F.F. Bruce confirms the link between Leviticus 18:5 and Romans 10:5 as illustrative of the meaning of verse 13 here and concludes: “The course of his argument goes on to indicate that, while one who was a ‘doer’ of the law would be justified, yet, since no-one does it perfectly, there is no justification that way.”[17] Those who keep the law will indeed be justified—but no one has kept it! Paul’s argument coincides with Jesus’ scathing indictment of the Jews: “Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law?” (John 7:19). Increased light means increased accountability to God, not increased partiality or favoritism from him.

Verses 14–15: The Gentiles Guilt Explained

What about the Gentiles who did not receive the law? Will they be held accountable and declared guilty for transgressing a law they never had? Paul addresses these possible objections to his prior assertion that those who sinned without the law will be condemned. He knows that “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).[18] As he will later affirm, “sin is not imputed where there is no law” (Rom 5:13) and “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15). If the Gentiles have condemnable transgression (i.e. sin that is imputed to them as penal guilt), what law did they violate?

He explains: “For when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are a law to themselves” (v. 14). The law that Gentiles “do not have” cannot be referring to any possible law. They had law in numerous forms. But “the law” that is in view must be the law that has continuity of testimony with the law of nature written on their hearts (v. 15) and must also be the law that was clearly known to Jews. This cannot be the entirety of the Mosaic legislation (who would argue that all the kosher laws are written on men’s hearts by nature?). It must be the moral law, as that law is summarized and comes to verbal expression in the Ten Commandments.[19] The Ten Words were the core of the old covenant and they summarily comprehend the entirety of the preceptive will of God for all men.[20]

Paul argues that Gentiles do transgress the law based on three premises. First of all, the Gentiles’ conduct demonstrates they know the law. They “do by nature the things of the law,” “by native instinct or propension” according to “that which is engraven on our natural constitution.”[21] Their actions demonstrate some natural knowledge of ethical principle, and that ethical principle coincides with the moral law. This is none other than natural law, which was even acknowledged in Paul’s day by popular philosophy.[22] Second, the Gentiles’ nature substantiates they know the law. Their actions indicate that “the work of the law [is] written in their hearts.” This is not a description of Christian Gentiles who had experienced the regenerating grace promised in the new covenant (cf. Jer. 31:31–33) but unbelieving Gentiles who, by virtue of their creation in the image of God, have the internal testimony of divinity and morality inscribed upon the depths of their human constitution.[23] Third, the Gentiles’ consciences confirm they know the law: “their conscience bearing witness and their reasonings either accusing or defending them.” The conscience functions as the internal, imperfect-yet-formidable, echo of the divine judge; it is a testimony in the human consciousness that reflects the testimony of the law which the Creator inscribed on man’s heart. Reasonings that reflect on moral conduct accuse or excuse, demonstrating that every man has an ineradicable moral nature.[24] Though the Gentiles never received the special revelation of God’s law, they do know its testimony by means of general revelation.

The “work of the law” [τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου] that the Gentiles “show” is that which evinced itself in all Gentiles—it is the practical function of the law in its testimony-bearing role as revelation of God’s righteous standard. Therefore, Gentiles transgressed the same moral law as the Jews did. What differed was not the nature of the sin committed, nor the standard of the law against which the sin was committed—but what differed was only the mode of revelation by which the knowledge of the law came to both parties. Gentiles are worthy of God’s just judgment, just as are the Jews.

Conclusion (v. 16): All People are Condemnable in the Eschatological Judgment

Verse 16 is intended to conclude verse 12. The Gentiles shall perish and the Jews shall be condemned “on the day when God will judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, through Jesus Christ.” It is called “the day” because a fixed day is appointed with certainty.[25] This judgment has an exhaustive scope, encompassing “the secrets of men.” It is revealed and confirmed by Paul’s apostolic testimony (“according to my gospel”). And it is “through Jesus Christ” (διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ), who is the Mediator of all of God’s works of Creation, providence, redemption, and yes, judgment also (see 2 Cor. 5:10).

Eschatological wrath will be unleashed against all the unrighteousness of men. Trusting in one’s imperfect obedience will result in sure damnation. Forsaking one’s own righteousness in order to embrace the righteousness of Christ by faith is the only way of salvation. We are to be mindful of the judgment day that is fast approaching and ensure we are prepared to meet our Maker. All of us are worthy of condemnation, but the apostle shows us that even though our guilt is great, God’s grace through the provision of Christ’s righteousness is even greater; so that, where sin abounded, grace may abound all the more.

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References: 

[1] Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2012), 13.

[2] Early church tradition indicates that Paul was released from imprisonment in Rome c. A.D. 62 and continued to travel and preach until his re-arrest and martyrdom under Nero. Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 96) possibly suggests he may have gone to Spain, and the Muratorian Canon (A.D. 175) states that he did travel to Spain. See discussion and pertinent references in Robert Reymond, Paul: Missionary Theologian: A Survey of his Missionary Labours and Theology (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 246.

[3] “So, as much as in me is, I am ready [πρόθῡμος] to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also” (Rom. 1:15). “Ready” translates πρόθῡμος, which denotes in this context not merely preparedness but eager willingness, even zealous ambition, to preach the gospel. Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1481. To put it in modern terms, Paul ‘could not wait’ to get to Rome to preach the gospel to them! So he does not wait! He writes and sends them an extended gospel tract! Do we have this same kind of zealous ambition to preach the gospel?

[4] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 1977), 325.

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 365.

[6] Apparently, Calvin sought to emulate Paul’s systematic structure in his own magnum opus. “Calvin built his Institutes on the logical progression of Romans.” Douglas. J. Moo, “Romans,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 291. The same could be said for Melacthon’s Loci Comunes and Bullinger’s Decades

[7] At the very least, it should rule out what Paul was not saying. Paul’s structure and argument in the logical flow of Romans makes it difficult to severely misinterpret the details, though many have done that. We must not “miss the forest for the trees.” If we understand the discussion of our passage to be framed by the predicament of God’s wrath against individuals (Rom. 1:18) ensuing in eschatological judgment (2:5) which has its only solution in the penal satisfaction of Christ’s wrath-assuaging sacrifice (3:25) which is provided by the sovereign grace of God alone (3:24) and received by faith alone (3:28), it is impossible to make sense of Roman Catholic interpretations as well as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Mere ceremonial code and covenantal nomism are not really in view in the context, which excludes the possibility that the law spoken of in Romans 2:12-15 could be limited to the ceremonial code as Romans Catholics and proponents of NPP have asserted. Paul’s logical framework and structured argumentation strongly support the tradition Reformed view of Romans.

[8] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 119.

[9] To be more specific, ἀνόμως is used adverbally to describe how “they sinned” (ἥμαρτον). When they sinned, they did so in a state of ignorance to the objectively published law. As we will see, the absence of the law of which the apostle speaks is not an absolute absence but a qualified one, because in a very real sense, the Gentiles possessed an innate and functional knowledge of the law. Paul will address this issue in verses 14-15, but first he continues to establish his assertion.

[10] Hence the King James Version. Most major English translations follow suit (e.g. ESV, NASB, NIV, etc.). This manner of translating it does not miss the point, but perhaps it is imprecise.

[11] For this category, see Richard A Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek: A Linguistic and Exegetical Approach (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman, 1994), 96.

[12] The New King James Version captures this precisely: “as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.”

[13] It may even connote a covenantal union with the law: they were in the law by the bond of covenant. The relationship of association signified by this use of the prepositional phrase can take on a locative connotation if contextual indicators suggest as much, and this could very well be the case in this verse. The Jews stood in the sphere of the law covenant and therefore they had the full knowledge of the what the law demands.

[14] See Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek, 94, for the category of διὰ followed by the genitive to indicate “means.”

[15] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1988), 123.

[16] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Ro 2:13.

[17] F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 96.

[18] I do not mean that he knew of 1 John at this point, only that he knew and embraced the principle that the very definition of sin consists in transgression of the law.

[19] R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 1981.

[20] This is often contested by evangelicals today, but the Reformed and catholic position is that the Decalogue summarizes the moral law. See Robert Reymond’s excellent discussion of “The Pauline Ethic” in Paul: Missionary Theologian, 469-91, where he argues biblically and exegetically that Paul views the Ten Commandments as the moral law of God for all people, even Christians.

[21] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), 73.

[22] Schreiner, Romans, 123.

[23] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 43–44 [1.3.1; cf. 1.4.1].

[24] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 75–76.

[25] John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 2, The Baptist Commentary Series (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 427.