When I first heard that Romans 2 is one the most difficult chapters in the book I have to admit I was surprised, however having studied and taught through it, I can now wholeheartedly agree! While the overall thrust of Romans 2 is easily discerned – Jews are also without excuse before God (Rom 2:1) – the difficulty is in the details.
Arguably, the most difficult section of Romans 2 is Romans 2:12-16, the identity of the “Gentiles” that Paul introduces into the argument. Well, they’re Gentiles. Case closed. Right? Not exactly; the issue turns out to be more complicated when one looks closely at Paul’s actual words. Here’s the text in question:
12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Now, the question is: who are these Gentiles who shame the Jews by “doing” what the law/Torah requires?
- A popular view is to see them as unbelieving Gentiles who “do” the law when they follow their conscience, thereby showing that the Jews have no inherent advantage simply by having the Torah. Although they don’t have the entire Torah, they do actually obey its commands occasionally when they obey natural law that all possess.
- Another view sees these Gentiles as believers, who “do” the Torah by fulfilling it (see Rom 8:3-4; 13:8-10). Christian Gentiles being able to fulfil the law puts unbelieving Jews, who have not obeyed it, to shame. How it is fulfilled is another matter.
There are solid arguments and scholars on both sides of this issue, and I’ll admit to having changed my mind a few times when I studied the section! I noticed something important that I didn’t run across in the commentaries that I consulted, so I thought I’d share these thoughts out on the blog and get feedback!
Romans 2:14-16 and the New Covenant Promises
That the “work of the law is written on their hearts” (Rom 2:15) is an important factor for identifying these Gentiles. Those who see these as unbelieving Gentiles will argue that this refers to how God’s commands (law) are at times obeyed through one obeying their own conscience. Others, who see these as Gentile Christians, will argue that this is a reference to Jeremiah 31:33 and the New Covenant. It seems to me that much of the discussion on this issue focuses too narrowly on the immediate context and misses other hints in the passage that this is indeed referring to Jeremiah 31.
If we allow Rom 2:15 as a New Covenant reference, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we find more elsewhere in the chapter. I think Paul may be alluding to New Covenant language as early as verse 5:“But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” Paul is not just using generic words (“hard heart”) to say these Jews are rebellious, he is drawing on specific OT language used to refer to Israel’s sin problem and need for the New Covenant promises:
- Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deut 10:16)
- And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut 30:6)
- And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek 36:26-27)
What these verses have in common is describing Israel’s sin as hardness of heart towards the Lord, leading to an inability to obey Him. While the connection to Rom 2:5 may seem at first to be a stretch, it is more clear that Paul draws on these ideas again in Rom 2:29: “…circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter”. This means that in Rom 2:5 and 29 he is referring to New Covenant promises, making the allusion in Rom 2:15 even more likely.
I think these three texts help the case for those who see Gentile Christians in view here. The history of the Jews up until Paul’s time was filled with disobedience and hardheartedness leading to exile. What’s more, the New Covenant promises of restoration have come and they have missed them. Even Gentile Christians are fulfilling the law (Rom 2:14-16) and are the true circumcision (Rom 2:25-29).
“What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.” (Rom 9:30-31)
So I realize that for many this reading of Romans 2:14-16 will be unfamiliar and/or unconvincing. I was initially unsure too, but am seeing more consistency now. So yes, comments are very welcome! Thankfully, the overall thrust of Romans 2 is mostly unchanged depending on where one lands on these more disputable issues.