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.
Extending his argument that God is impartial in his judgment of humanity, Paul tightens the dragnet around Jews and Gentiles. Now for the first time in this epistle it is the law and people’s inability to keep it that condemns everyone, and law has an ally in the human conscience, which testifies against violation of the law in the human heart.
As we’ve come to expect in chapters 1 and 2, every passage requires careful interpretation. To understand this one, we will explore the meaning of a few key words and phrases.The law
In verse 12 Paul implicitly differentiates between Gentiles, who are “without the law,” and Jews, who are “under the law.” What the Gentiles do not have and the Jews have is the law God gave to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and that is what Paul means in this verse, especially the moral commandments of the Decalogue. It becomes clear in the following verses that both categories of humanity are judged equally by the law—Gentiles through the vehicle of conscience, Jews by failure to do what their own law requires.
The reason for judgment in each case is that they “have sinned.” Joseph Fitzmyer points out that this is the first instance in Romans of the verb hamartanein, “miss the mark, sin.” He writes, “Paul thus insists that there is no distinction between those without the law and those under the law when it comes to the final outcome of sinful conduct or sinful life.”
Gentiles will “perish”; Jews will “be judged.” As Paul says in 3:22–23, “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Verse 13 specifically targets Jews, who listened to the law but did not obey it. They thought their Scripture in combination with their covenant relationship with God would give them immunity from God’s judgment. Like the Jews, we too can fall prey to the deception that knowledge of God’s will suffices for its enactment. This we do if we say amen to a sermon, yet walk away with no change in our lives.Justify
This important theological verb, making its first appearance in Romans, means to “make right” or “deem right.” Here it refers to God’s judicial decision to declare or reckon a sinner “just” or “innocent” as he or she stands before God. Paul develops this concept at length in chapter 4.
For good reason the word justify shows up here in the context of the law. Fitzmyer says, “It is only in the light of divine judgment according to human deeds that the justification of the sinner by grace through faith is rightly seen. Hence there is no real inconsistency in Paul’s teaching about justification by faith and judgment according to deeds.”
So what does Paul mean in verse 13 where he says doers of the law will be justified? Scholars note that Paul implicitly echoes Leviticus 18:5: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” But there is a catch to this promise. “The law can justify only when it is obeyed,” Douglas Moo states. “Reading it, hearing it taught and preached, studying it—none of these, nor all of them together, can justify.” Paul aligns with Jesus (Matthew 7:24–27) and James (1:22–25).
Here, then, is what Paul means. For the sake of his argument, Paul concedes that a person could be justified were he or she to live perfectly by the law’s standard. Jews thought they could meet that standard, but Paul rejects that mistaken belief by calling them sinners. Their conduct does not merit justification but rather deserves judgment.Conscience
The conscience is aptly defined by Fitzmyer as “the capacity of the human mind to judge one’s actions either in retrospect (as right or wrong) or in prospect (as a guide for proper activity).” The conscience is not flawless, even at peak performance. It can be sharpened by exposure to Scripture or dulled by repeated sin and worldly instruction and influence.
Paul refers to the innate moral sense of right and wrong that the conscience uses to condemn or excuse a person’s conduct. Conscience functions in the Gentile the way the written law functions in the Jew.
Commentators point out that the OT does not explicitly refer to the conscience—though it is implied in such passages as Genesis 42:21 and 2 Samuel 24:10—and that Paul picked up the concept from its popularity in Greek culture. Moo says that Hellenistic Jews used the concept to hold Gentiles responsible for basic moral standards.
Paul’s argument comes to a head in verse 14 where he counters Jews’ presumption that their possession of the law gives them an advantage over Gentiles. He claims that Gentiles do what the law requires through their innate sense of moral standards. This Gentile “law,” while far from the complete Mosaic law, overlaps with it. God has planted in the heart and conscience of every human being the sense of right and wrong that corresponds with certain requirements of God’s law. For example, many Gentiles try to obey parents, speak truthfully, avoid theft and murder, and so forth. And when they fail, conscience tells them so.
So we see that the phrase “they are a law to themselves” does not mean Gentiles invent their own moral standards (though people indeed do that). It means that many Gentiles do live in general accordance with divine moral standards and thus demonstrate that the law is written on their hearts. Here law would denote the “demand of God” generally, as Moo puts it.
This part of Paul’s argument is particularly clever. He strips away any advantage the Jews thought they gained from their possession of the law by showing that even though Gentiles are “without the law,” they do have “law.” Not only do Gentiles have law in this general sense, they actually do what the law requires. Paul makes his point even if only some Gentiles observe the law sometimes (there is no article before “Gentiles,” so Paul intends it not as all Gentiles but as some of them in a nonspecific sense).
In 2:25–26 Paul develops this theme further. There he uses the possibility of Gentile obedience to shame Jews for trusting in circumcision as a guarantee of their approval by God.Nature
Gentiles do by nature what the law requires. Some scholars—none I consult—have thought this text establishes a theology of natural law. If so, it is only a half-step toward such a theology. Richard Longenecker affirms Fitzmyer’s comment that what Paul says is “certainly not a complete treatise on these matters; yet one has to respect the snippets of such teaching that are really there.”
Longenecker understands Paul to say that Gentiles obey “certain precepts of God’s law instinctively, that is, by the natural order of things, without being in possession of any special revelation.” According to Moo, Paul is “almost certainly pressing into service a widespread Greek tradition to the effect that all human beings possess an ‘unwritten’ or ‘natural’ law—an innate moral sense of ‘right and wrong.’”The law “written on their hearts”
This innate sense of moral standards God stamps on the hearts of all people, Jews included, though Paul refers here specifically to Gentiles. Charles Cranfield and Colin Kruse, who think verse 15 refers to Christian Gentiles, believe the law written on the heart refers to Jeremiah’s promise in 31:33. I am persuaded by Moo, Longenecker, and Everett Harrison that is not the case. Harrison (citing Anders Nygren) points out that if the Jeremiah passage were in Paul’s mind, Gentiles would have the law in a more intimate sense than the Jews have it. That is true of Christians but is far beyond what Paul teaches here about Gentiles.
This verb should be translated “bears witness with.” The conscience evidently is one of at least two witnesses, one other being the requirements of the law that are written on the heart. This witness may be to the individuals themselves, and it may also take place at the judgment seat of God.
Scripture testifies in multiple ways that God peers into our thoughts and motives, and he sees and records everything we do. (See, for example, 1 Samuel 16:7, Matthew 6:1–6, 1 Corinthians 4:5, and Hebrews 4:12–13.) This Judge of every human being is both privy to all the evidence and just in all his rulings. He may condemn some acts we deem praiseworthy and commend some we condemn. Although God takes motive into account, he looks foremost at what we do.
God’s judgment will be executed “through Jesus Christ.” Failure to cry out to him for salvation now will mean facing his judgment later. (See John 5:27, Acts 17:31, and 2 Timothy 4:8.)Conclusion
Longenecker captures the essence of Paul’s argument: “obedient Gentiles shame disobedient Jews.” Jews have neither privilege over Gentiles nor shield from God’s judgment. Again, God judges Jews and Gentiles equally.
Paul the prosecutor continues to build his case for God’s universal condemnation of humanity’s sin. The apostle is relentless in his exposé of human sin in preparation for the gospel message in chapter 3. Moo, reliably perceptive, says this of Paul’s charge against Jewish presumption: