July 26: Romans 2:12-16

This note will discuss Romans 2:12-16, which can be divided into two portions:

    • Vv. 12-13—a declaration that all human beings (Jews and Gentiles both) will be judged according to the Law
    • Vv. 14-16—an argument that the Gentiles are under the Law, and thus will be judged on that basis (along with Jews)

Romans 2:12-13

This declaration actually consists of two distinct, connected statements:

V. 12: “For as (many) as sinned without (the) Law [a)no/mw$] also will perish away (themselves) without (the) Law; and as (many) as sinned in (the) Law [e)n no/mw|] will be judged through (the) Law”

At first glance, Paul seems to be affirming a traditional Jewish viewpoint, by referring to Gentiles as those “without (the) Law” (a&nomo$), which can also be rendered “lawless”. Here the word no/mo$ (“law”) is used specifically in the sense of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah), just as it is throughout Galatians. However, Paul is subtly laying the groundwork for the argument in vv. 14-15—that Gentiles are actually under the Law and will be judged accordingly.

V. 13: “For (it is) not the (one)s hearing (the) Law (who are) just [dikai/oi] alongside [i.e. before] God, but (rather) the (one)s doing the Law will be made/declared just [dikaiwqh/sontai]”

Paul continues to use “Law” in the sense of the Torah, alluding to Leviticus 18:5—”you shall guard my statutes and my judgments, (of) which the man (who) does them will also live in them”—a verse he also alludes to, in a similar context, in Gal 3:12. The distinction between hearing the Law and actually doing (i.e., performing or observing) it was a common point of teaching and exhortation in Judaism and early Christianity (cf. Matt 7:24ff; Luke 8:21; 11:28; Jn 12:47; James 1:22-25). For Paul, in this context, “hearing the Law” is a shorthand way to refer to Israelites and Jews generally—i.e. those who have inherited the Law and hear it proclaimed and taught (cf. 2 Cor 3:12-16).

There would seem to be problem in v.13b, where Paul states (along with Lev 18:5) that those doing the Law will be made/declared just (dikaiwqh/sontai) by God, since this contradicts what he has declared elsewhere (and often) in Romans and Galatians (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:16; 3:11, etc). There are two possibilities:

    1. The verb dikaio/w is used here in a slightly different sense than elsewhere in Romans (and Galatians)
    2. Paul is playing on a traditional Jewish line of argument, which he will modify and qualify

The second option seems to fit better the rhetorical context, as Paul is in the process of addressing a hypothetical/imaginary Jew. He does much the same thing in Gal 2:15ff, drawing upon traditional Jewish understanding of Gentiles as lawless “sinners”, in contrast to Jews who live under the Law. And yet, according to his argument in Galatians, “works of the Law” only result in placing Jews under a curse. Gentiles, of course, are effectively under the same curse, as Paul will argue in Romans 3 (see also Gal 4:1-11), but here in Rom 2:12ff, he is specifically building his argument that God’s judgment on human beings is based on the Law. For more on the verb dikaio/w and the ancient background for Paul’s use of the dikaio- wordgroup, see the article on Justification.

Romans 2:14-16

In these verses, Paul suddenly modifies the scope of no/mo$ (“law”), applying it directly to Gentiles:

V. 14: “For when (the) nations, the (one)s not holding (the) Law, by nature do the (thing)s of the Law, these (people) not holding (the) Law are (the) Law in/unto themselves…”

The verb e&xw can be understood generally as “to have”, but more concretely it means “to hold”; so there is a slight ambiguity to its use here—Paul may be saying that they do not know the Law (Torah), or that they do not observe it, or both. Actually, as he makes clear, many Gentiles do observe the “things of the Law” (i.e., the things prescribed or commanded in the Law), even if they are unfamiliar with the Torah. This primarily means the ethical and moral aspects of the Torah, since it would not be possible for Gentiles to observe many of the specific ritual/ceremonial laws. In this regard, though they are not specifically under the Torah, they are still under the Law (of God). Paul’s way of phrasing this here “they are Law in/unto themselves [e(autoi=$, dative of advantage]”, strongly suggests that some sort of internal guidance is involved (such as the “conscience”). This contrasts with Rom 1:18ff, where people respond to the evidence of God in the natural world, or Gal 4:1-11, where Paul speaks of Gentiles as being “under the ‘elements’ [stoixei=a] of the world” (a kind of parallel to being “under the Law”). The meaning is clarified in verse 15:

V. 15a: “…the (one)s that show forth the work of the Law written in their hearts…”

The expression “the work of the Law” [to\ e&rgon tou= no/mou] is carefully chosen to echo “works of the Law” [e&rga tou= no/mou] (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10, cf. also Rom 4:2, 6; 9:12, 32; 11:6), as a collective which epitomizes the deeds prescribed by Law (the Torah and wider “Law of God”). The idea of the Law “written in the heart” seems to echo the famous passage in Jer 31:31-34; however, while this may foreshadow the Christian understanding, it is not what Paul is referring to here—rather, he is describing something akin to the human conscience, for which the corresponding Greek word is sunei/dhsi$, used by Paul in the second half of the verse:

V. 15b: “…their seeing (things) together [i.e. awareness/consciousness] (is) witnessing together, and between (each) other their reckoning/reasoning [pl.] is speaking openly against (them) or even giving account for (them)…”

Paul’s phrasing is difficult to render accurately, in a literal manner. The word sunei/dhsi$ means “seeing (things) together”, i.e. seeing/knowing things clearly, especially in the sense of being aware, or conscious of things. Often this means from a moral or ethical standpoint, i.e. awareness/consciousness of what is right and proper—in other words, a conscience, and so it is commonly translated in English. The verb summarture/w means “witness together (or, jointly)”; the prefixed particle sun- (“with, together”) probably should be understood in a sense parallel to its use in sunei/dhsi$, i.e. of a full, clear witness. There is no precise English equivalent for the plural of the noun logismo/$ (“counting, reckoning, reasoning”), it is often rendered simply as “thoughts”, which relate and discuss “between each other” (metacu\ a)llh/lwn)—alternately speaking out against the person and offering a defense on their behalf.

The statement concludes, with a return to theme of judgment in verse 16:

V. 16: “…in (the) day when God judges the hidden (thing)s of men, according to my good message [i.e. the Gospel I proclaim], through (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

In other words, the thoughts and conscience of Gentiles will be the basis for judgment, just as Jews will be judged according the Torah (which represents the terms of their covenant with God). So, both Jews and Gentiles alike will be judged according to the Law, and on the basis of their deeds (“work[s]”). It is something of a complex argument, not always easy to follow, in part because Paul is working from traditional Jewish language and patterns of thought to forge a new (and decisive) Christian understanding of things. He begins with the idea of the judgment of human beings before God according to their deeds, and places it alongside of the (new) Gospel message of the justice of God which is found and realized through trust in Christ. This is summarized here in verse 16—

“when God judges… through Christ Jesus”

and will be expanded and expounded upon in the chapters which follow.

This note is part of the series on “Paul’s View of the Law in Romans”

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