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Romans 2.14-15; Christian Gentiles Who Do the Law

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.”

In my previous post I looked at Tom Schreiner’s interpretation of Romans 2.13, which reflects what Paul says in 2:6 that God “will render to each one according to his works.” Schreiner, saying that verse 13 reiterates the essence of verse 6, says, “Those who do good works will receive justification” and they “who do the required works will be declared to be righteous by God, the eschatological judge, on the day of the Lord” (128).

Hypothetical

Paul could be speaking hypothetically about “doers of the law.” The Jews (though not the Jewish Christians hearing the letter being read) thought they were acceptable before God because they had his Torah. Paul could be saying, “Look, those who keep the law perfectly will be justified by God. The gentiles sure don’t keep it, but neither do you. Thankfully, there is Christ’s sacrifice.”

General Gentiles

Could verses 14-16 be speaking of general gentiles? Schreiner understood it that way in his first edition. Here, gentiles have the work of God’s law on their hearts so that they know and keep aspects his law, though they don’t realize that their morality reflects upon God’s handiwork. They will be judged based on whether they obeyed those “norms” pressed upon them by their conscience. If so, Paul would be saying that both the Jews and gentiles will be judged for not keeping the law, as all know the law (or at least aspects of it): The Jews through the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament and the gentiles though “natural law,” that is, they are born naturally knowing that certain moral actions are correct to do. 

Christian Gentiles

However, Schreiner now believes Paul to be speaking of Christian gentiles. The flow of thought could be represented like this: 

Those who only hear the law will not be righteous before God,

but those who do the law will be justified.

How do we know this?

For the Christian gentiles who do what the law requires show that the law is written on their hearts, fulfilling what Jeremiah prophesied in Jeremiah 31.31-34 about what God would do for those who are in the new covenant.

So these gentiles are in the new covenant. Jeremiah 31.31-34 says,

31 “Look, the days are coming”—this is the Lord’s declaration—“when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors on the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt—my covenant that they broke even though I am their master”—the Lord’s declaration. 

33 “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”—the Lord’s declaration.
“I will put my teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 

34 No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least to the greatest of them”—this is the Lord’s declaration. “For I will forgive their iniquity and never again remember their sin.

Israel was given God’s Torah in Exodus 20-23. The gentiles were. Gentiles who converted to Judaism took on the task of following the law, but gentiles all across the world weren’t given God’s law. Israel, at Mt. Sinai, received God’s law. So how do these gentiles, who do not have the law, do what the law requires?

They do it by nature. They have a new nature. They are new creations, and they have God’s Spirit working in them. Paul brings up this same idea in Romans 8.3b-4 when he says, “[God] condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” 

I didn’t include verse 16 here because I’m still trying to figure it out. In my final post, I’ll look at what Paul says about Jews and true circumcision and how that relates to Christian Gentiles.


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4 comments

  1. That is quite a change in interpretation from his first edition. Gentiles in general vs gentiles who have entered the new covenant. Regrettably, those who really do ‘the instruction’ [I prefer instruction as somewhat more personal than law] seem quite rare. It is a very hard path though filled with joy.

    1. Hey, Bob. Yeah, it is quite a change. In his revised edition he still gives the arguments for the first view, and they make good sense, but I think he gives a good defense for the Christian gentile view. And Peter Gentry refers to God’s torah as ‘instruction’ because he thinks ‘law’ makes God sound more like a government than a Father.

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