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Three Troubles in Romans 2

When I think of difficult passages in Romans, I think of Romans 5.12-21, 7.7-25, and all of 9-11. It wasn’t until I sat in on Lindsay Kennedy’s Romans class at CCBCY that I found out that many scholars think Romans 2 is the most difficult chapter in the letter. Why is this? There are three sections in Romans 2 that can be understood in a few different ways.

1. Romans 2.13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”

2. Romans 2.14-16, “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. 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 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

3. Romans 2.29, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”

In the first point, is Paul saying that those who do the law are justified? Doesn’t he say that we are released from the law (7.6) and so we can now serve in the way of the Spirit? In the second point, who are these Gentiles? They don’t have the law, but they show that the work of the law is written on their heart. Does the pagan Polynesian show that somehow he ‘knows’ God’s commands? Or are these Gentiles Christians who, fulfilling Jeremiah 31.31-34, have God’s law written on their hearts? And thirdly, in perhaps the most well-known verse on the list, does Paul mean to say that Christian Gentiles are true Jews? How would that work?

This series will continue looking at Tom Schreiner’s revised Romans (BECNT) commentary because Schreiner has changed his interpretation of 2.14-16 since writing his first edition, and his understanding of the other two sections is helpful. I may write up separate posts on each text because that will make them shorter and more ‘bite-size.’


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