Who are the Gentiles who have the work of the Law written on their hearts?

Read time: 10 minutes

There is a group of Gentiles in Paul’s eschatological narrative who do not have the Law of Moses, who nevertheless do the work of the Law, and who “will be justified” on a day of judgment and earn “glory and honour and peace” (Rom. 2:12-16). The question of the religious or rhetorical status of these Gentiles came up for discussion at last week’s research conference at the London School of Theology.

Critical scholars mostly think that these are unbelieving Gentiles, which is the view that I took in The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom. The preference of more conservative scholars would be to suppose either that Paul is speaking only of a hypothetical pagan righteousness for rhetorical purposes, or that these are Christian Gentiles who have been regenerated by the Spirit. I’ve thought through my position again in light of the discussion and I’ve come to the same conclusion, with one or two novelties picked up along the way. This is a fairly sketchy presentation of my reasons, beginning with a translation that attempts to show the syntactic structure of the passage:

12 For all who sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. 13 For not the hearers of the Law are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For whenever Gentiles not having the Law by nature do the things of the Law, these not having the Law in themselves are the Law; 15 such people exhibit the work of the Law written in their hearts, with their conscientiousness bearing witness, and with the thoughts accusing or indeed defending in the midst of one another, 16 on that day when God judges the hidden things of people according to my gospel through Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:12-16)

1. In the preceding paragraph (Rom. 2:6-11) Paul made reference to a judgment of each person “according to his works”. To people who consistently do good works and seek glory and honour and immortality, God will give the life of the age to come. For people driven by selfishness, who are obedient to unrighteousness rather than to truth, who do evil, there will be “wrath and fury”. This judgment will apply first to the Jew, then to the Greek, for “God shows no partiality”. Whether these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God is not a consideration.

2. The “Greek” here stands not for general non-Jewish humanity but for a pagan civilisation that has for centuries opposed the God of Israel and oppressed his people (cf. Joel 3:6 LXX; Zech. 9:13 LXX; 2 Macc. 6:8-10). God has long overlooked the religious ignorance of the Greeks, but now, through the apostles, he calls pagans across the Greek-Roman world to repent of their idolatry and to serve instead the living God. He has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world (oikoumenē) in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). This is what Paul had in mind, I think, when he wrote of “that day when God judges the hidden things of people according to my gospel through Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16).

3. The focus on Jewish and Greek identities and the social-ethical nature of the outcomes (glory, honour, peace, on the one hand; tribulation and distress, on the other) suggest that this is not a final judgment of all humanity but a putting right of the immediate historical situation. It is a judgment comparable to that foreseen by Habakkuk—a judgment against the Jew first, then against the Chaldean. Paul has directly appealed to this narrative by quoting Habakkuk’s “The righteous shall live by faith” in Romans 1:17. This is why it can be meaningfully pictured as a judgment of Jews and Gentiles according to what they have done, without taking account of a group of people who have been preserved from the wrath to come by their belief in Jesus (cf. 1 Thess. 1:9-10). Paul is realistic enough to understand that the concrete behaviour and attitudes of people across the Greek-Roman world will have a bearing on how things turn out for them in the age to come, under a new régime. We may compare Jesus’ inclusion of righteous Gentiles in the kingdom of God (Matt. 25:34).

4. When Paul goes on to speak in the passage under consideration about Gentiles who either have “sinned without the Law” or “do the things of the Law”, the same prophetic-historical perspective determines the scope of his argument. He has in view the Greek who either consistently does good, etc., or selfishly rejects truth—perhaps the naturally perceived truth that the creator God is one (cf. Rom. 1:19-23; Acts 17:29)—and does evil (cf. Rom. 1:24-31).

5. The connections between 2:6-11 and 2:12-16 seem to me to weigh decisively against the view that the Gentiles who do the work of the Law have been regenerated by the Spirit.

6. Simon Gathercole has argued that the expression “the things of the Law” has an “inclusive and comprehensive” scope, so that in some sense these Gentiles are said to do the whole Law. He thinks that “the reference is to the fundamental knowledge of God and orientation to his will that is lacking in the Jewish contemporaries of these Gentiles”.1 This seems to me questionable. When Jesus says to Peter, “you are not setting your mind on the things of God (ta tou theou), but on the things of man (ta tōn anthrōpōn)” (Matt. 16:23), he does not mean absolutely all the things of God or of man; he means the things relevant to the particular context of the dispute about suffering. I would take Paul to mean by “the things of the Law” in Romans 2:14, therefore, those parts of the Jewish Law that it would be reasonable to expect a righteous or God-fearing Gentile to embody. Arguably, he simply has in mind Gentiles who do not steal or commit adultery, who reject idolatry, who do not rob temples—and such like (Rom. 2:21-22).

7. The key word in #4 is “consistently”. In the preceding paragraph Paul made reference to pagan Gentiles who patiently or steadfastly (kath’ hypomonēn) do good and seek glory, honour and immortality. If this is another way of saying that some Gentiles “do the things of the Law”, then the emphasis is not—quite unrealistically—on the comprehensiveness of their Law observance but on the consistency of their generally righteous behaviour. We might then perhaps translate syneidēseōs in Romans 2:15 as “conscientiousness” (BDAG s.v. 3): on the strength of their consistent, conscientious doing good some Gentiles will publicly bear witness against unrighteous Jews on the day when God judges the ancient oikoumenē (cf. Rom. 2:27).

8. Our problematic group of good Gentiles is contrasted, on the one hand, with Gentiles who “sinned without the Law”, and on the other, with Jews who have heard the Law, have not done the work of the Law, and will be judged accordingly (Rom. 2:12-13). This determines the group quite emphatically as Gentiles who do the work of the Law even though they do not have the Law, have not heard the Law, and are uncircumcised. No more, no less. The line of thought becomes hopelessly confused if they are also meant to be Christians who have been justified by faith and live by the Spirit.

9. The phrase “by nature” in Romans 2:14a sits right in the middle of the clause, so the question arises whether it qualifies what goes before or what comes after. Does Paul mean that these Gentiles do not have the Law by nature or that they do the things of the Law by nature? Are they naturally Gentiles or naturally Law-doers? The second part of the verse presents the same ambiguity: do these Gentiles not have the Law in the themselves, or are they the Law in themselves?

14a Gentiles not having the Law ← by nature → do the things of the Law

14b these not having the Law ← in themselves (heautois) → are the Law

Elsewhere in Paul physis is used to qualify Gentiles and Jews in similar fashion: “the one who is uncircumcised from nature” (Rom. 2:27); “We are by nature Jews and not sinners from the nations” (Gal. 2:15). It may be significant that in these instances the reference to “nature” is built into the definition: hē ek physeōs akrobustia, hēmeis physei Ioudaioi (also Gal. 4:8: tois physei mē ousin theois). But the grammatical evidence remains somewhat inconclusive.

10. The point is that if these are Gentiles by nature rather than Law-doers by nature, the door is left open to an interpretation that makes them Law-doers by the Spirit. If, on the other hand, they are Law-doers by nature, we would have to suppose that Paul has in mind unregenerate Gentiles who do not have the Spirit but who are living according to a natural law that brings them up to the standards of the Jewish Law. I don’t see any obstacle to the view that Paul believed—quite pragmatically—that some Gentiles, for all the failings of the culture as a whole (cf. Rom. 1:18-32), exhibited a standard of moral and religious behaviour that would put the Jews of the diaspora to shame on the day when God would finally bring the pagan hegemony to an end.

11. Paul gives an explanation for the phenomenon of Gentile Law observance: “such people exhibit the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15). On the face of it, this looks like a reference to Jeremiah 31:33: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” But significantly it is not the Law but the “work of the Law” that is written on their hearts, which seems to me to reiterate the basic point that these Gentiles do not have the Law in themselves but they nevertheless do the work of the Law.

The echo of Jeremiah 31:33 may, in fact, have misled interpreters quite badly. A passage in Testament of Judah suggests a quite different way of reading the metaphor:

And the things of truth and the things of deceit are written upon the chests of people; and the Lord knows each one of them. And there is no time at which the works of men are able to hide, because on the bones of your chest it has been written down before the Lord. And the spirit of truth testifies to all things, and accuses all, and the one who sins is burnt up in his own heart, and is not able to raise his face to the judge. (T. Judah 20:3–5)

The works of men, whether good or bad, cannot be hidden because they have been written on the chest or on the bones of the chest. Paul does not attribute human actions to the distinct spirits of truth and deceit, but the language otherwise is remarkably similar, and there is the same thought that a section of humanity innately bears witness to what is good and right and stands as an indictment of those who persistently sin.

So perhaps Paul’s meaning is that the good deeds of Gentiles who instinctively do the relevant things of the Law are written on their hearts as evidence (endeiknuntai) to the world, as a matter of conscience or conscientiousness. That is, the “work of the Law” is written not before they do good deeds, which hardly makes sense, but after they do good deeds, as a record of their just behaviour, to be taken into account on a day of judgment.

12. Apart from the questionable allusion to Jeremiah 31:33 there is no explicit indication in the passage that these Gentiles believe that Jesus is the exalted Son of God, or have received the Spirit, or have been renewed and transformed in their moral and spiritual lives. In fact, there is no mention of a salvation in Christ in the whole passage from 1:18 to 3:20.

  • 1S.J. Gathercole, “A Law unto Themselves: The Gentiles in Romans 2.14-15 Revisited” (JSNT 85, 2002), 34, 36.
VANGO | Tue, 04/24/2018 - 18:36 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for posting this. I wasn’t aware of the believing Gentile hypothesis until recently. This doesn’t seem to be that difficult of a passage to decipher.

Gentiles can do by nature the things of the Law, ie, do not murder, steal, adultery, etc. They can do this by nature, as Paul explains throughout the whole of Ch1, because natural man knows God, knows God’s commandments, and can willfully choose to obey or disobey. Natural man can observe and interpret creation as evidence of God, and has a moral conscience to discern God from not-God.

I can only imagine some of the confusion has arisen with certain theologies, esp Reformed, which tend toward categorical statements, total depravity, etc.

Instead, natural man can be justified /condemned by obeying his conscience, without being JUSTIFIED or CONDEMNED as a final judgment for all eternity. A man who does not steal is justified by his conscience (and even before God for that act), but he may still perish in the final judgment Paul speaks of a few verses earlier.

It seems ironic that with all the over-emphasis on atonement, justification, works, etc, in the past two decades, the language and definitions haven’t gotten that much better, and perhaps, even created more obscurity.


Instead, natural man can be justified /condemned by obeying his conscience, without being JUSTIFIED or CONDEMNED as a final judgment for all eternity.

As a matter of New Testament interpretation I would put this in historical-eschatological terms: natural man who acted righteously would be justified or condemned when YHWH judged the oikoumenē and established his own rule over the nations of the ancient world; at the final judgment all humanity, all the dead, will be judged according to what they have done. It is because the biblical God is a God of history—and not just of Old Testament history—that both Jesus and Paul find it necessary to acknowledge the empirical righteousness of at least a small number of people who are not members of the covenant commuinity.

I presume these righteous gentiles described in Romans 2 stand outside of and before the story of God’s decision to give authority over the nation to his son? The urgency and religiosity of Paul’s mission to the gentiles seems to imply that this kind of general righteousness is not enough to inherit the next age. Greeks need to among other things accept Jesus as Lord, receive his spirit, and recognize that the pagan οἰκουμένη is doomed.

Have you written on Rahab’s significance among the early Christians? The story of Joshua at Jericho appears relevant to your historical-eschatological model: Like he did with the nations of Canaan, God has given the Greco-Roman nations to his son and to those in his son but these nations are not yet subjected. Gentiles who acknowledge the victory of God in Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are like Rahab who betrayed her Canaanite identity in light of what God had done for Israel (Joshua 2:9-11). Christians existed within this painful and marginal space by faith, waiting for the walls of Babylon to collapse.

@Alex :

Yes, Romans 2 is predicated on the understanding that the God of Israel, who is God of the whole earth, will judge the Greek-Roman world. A preliminary to that judgment will be the judgment of Israel, but the final outcome will be 1) that the old pagan system is overthrown, 2) that Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations, and 3) that the people which has consistently acknowledged the lordship of Jesus in faith before this final outcome will receive the authority over the nations that had previously been in the hands of the pagan hierarchy. Something like that.

The role of righteous Gentile women in the Old Testament came up at the conference. I haven’t written anything on Rahab, but I think the analogy is valid to a degree. The process by which the church took possession of the empire is not dissimilar to the process by which Israel took possession of the land—except, of course, that the church did not resort to violence. The other difference is that perhaps a few Canaanites were assimilated into Israel; but the Gentiles who came to believe in this new future soon overwhelmed the Jewish-Christian contingent.

Christians existed within this painful and marginal space by faith, waiting for the walls of Babylon to collapse.


I think VANGO is right and over the years this passage has been made much more complex then it was meant to be.

Paul says Jews know right from wrong because they have the Law. Then he says, although Gentiles do not have the Law, they can instinctively do what the Law requires because their consciences “show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts.”

It seems Paul is saying the work of the Law was to differentiate right from wrong, so that Jews could know what was sinful. Paul says the fact that Gentiles have competing voices in their heads when it comes to moral issues proves that God placed in them knowledge of right and wrong.

peter wilkinson | Fri, 04/27/2018 - 11:34 | Permalink

I continue to challenge your claim (#3) that the context of Habakkuk (judgment on Israel first then the Chaldeans) is intended by Paul to parallel that of Romans (judgment on Israel first, then “Greeks”). Paul’s quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 does something rather different, to my mind, and at the least contrasts faithfulness as law-keeping to faith (or faithfulness) apart from law-keeping in/towards Jesus. (I’ve supported this in a further response on the “Nearly 10 things” thread). There is no reference by Paul to parallels between Israel/Chaldea and Israel/Rome, and while it may be a background, he does not develop it at all. That is your invention.

Which brings us to Romans 2:12-16 (and Romans 2:6-11). I got lost in some of the detailed intricacy of your argument (over physis in particular), but I think most would agree anyway that the thought about these unbelieving gentiles is “cryptic”. On the face of it, there might appear not to be a problem, and the straightforward sense is to contrast Gentiles whose behaviour is closer to law-keeping in the broadest sense than some unfaithful Jews in the diaspora.

But Paul’s argument is not simply about broad aspects of behaviour. It is about “being righteous in God’s sight”, being “declared righteous”, or “justified” (Romans 2:13). If we are to be connected-up in our thinking about Paul, the issue then becomes a question of how it is that “those who obey the law will be declared righteous (same word as ‘justified’)” in Romans 2:13, when in Romans 3:20 “no one will be justified by observing the law”, and in Romans 3:28 “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law”?

There may be various answers to this, one of which may be that Paul is not being strictly consistent in his use of “declared righteous” or “justified” between Romans 2 & 3. This would have to be how you see it. On the other hand, perhaps he is being consistent, and there is a hint in Romans 2:15 of the Spirit fulfilling the requirements (ergon, “work”) of the law in the heart, as predicted by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and echoed in 2 Cor 3:3. 

It should also be emphasised that in Romans 2:15, it is “the work” of the law (ergon) which is “written on their hearts”, not “works” of the law. It is looking at motive behind the actions, which is to “do the things of the law” — Romans 2:14. The motive may be a praiseworthy innate honouring of God according to their best lights, that of conscience, which Paul may be contrasting with faithless Jews who have the best light in their law but ignore it. Still, the broader issue of the rest of Paul’s argument about righteousness in Romans 3, culminating through 4 in 5, remains. 

Maybe this is why Tom Wright still holds to the view (Paul and the Faithfulness of God 1088, 1380) that Paul is presenting in cryptic form in Romans 2 what he will elaborate more fully as the argument develops: the justification and Spirit-reception of Gentiles, as well as Jews, through the faithfulness of Jesus, and faith in him.

@peter wilkinson:

There is no reference by Paul to parallels between Israel/Chaldea and Israel/Rome, and while it may be a background, he does not develop it at all. That is your invention.

Well, if it’s in the background, it’s not really my invention, is it? I agree that Paul makes no explicit reference to the historical context of Habakkuk 2:4, but that was not my point. My argument is that to his Jewish mind the saying from Habakkuk would have naturally and probably unreflectively suggested or presupposed a historical context such as the one that Habakkuk was addressing—rather than the existentialist conceptuality of Reformed theology, for example. This seems to me to have an a priori probability, but the fact that Paul unequivocally highlights the two political-cultural entities represented by the Jew and the Greek confirms it. The only Jewish-scriptural framework we have for interpreting the “wrath” of God is the historical one.

@Andrew Perriman:

The invention is to say that Paul is making the parallel. He doesn’t. You do. The way Paul handles Habakkuk 2:4 suggests he is drawing a different meaning from the OT prophecy. He is not joining up the dots from OT history, but reading entirely new meaning into OT verses, as he does elsewhere, and as Jesus does. It’s also standard 2nd Temple practice.

@peter wilkinson:

This makes me think that you didn’t read my comment very carefully.

Here’s my take on this one:

“Law written on their hearts” was a common phrase used in the OT to describe YHVHs covenant people.

YHVH only gave his laws to people He was in covenant with.

Deu4 talks about Israel being scattered and worshiping other gods (not worshiping yhvhs law).

Rom2 talks about the children of that audience and says even though they weren’t observing yhvh’s laws (they were paganized), they still did things of yhvhs laws, showing the law was written on their hearts. It was showing their heritage basically.

Why would a pagan out in the nations naturally do something in the law of moses? Heritage. “law written on their hearts”.

Only literal Israel was ever given YHVHs laws.

Imo, Paul’s “gentile” (nation) audience were the elect scattered of Ephraim. Scattered paganized mix bred Israelites who did not observe Torah but were ‘called’ by YHVH for the New Covenant.

I’m looking forward to your response on this one. Love your site!

@David King:

I think it is important to note that Paul says that the work of the Law, not simply the Law, is written on the hearts of some Gentiles. It’s a matter of what the Law requires people to do—acts of righteousness and justice.