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.