“The Doers of the Law Will Be Justified”
Since the issue has arisen here recently, I’d like to comment on a well-known and controversial passage: Romans 2:13. To set the text in context, Paul leads up to the passage we’re considering by saying:
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law (Rom. 2:6-12).
One thing to note here is that there is no mention whatsoever of “perfect law-keeping” or “spotless obedience.” Instead what the apostle says is that there are two groups of people who will be judged on the last day according to their works. One group will receive wrath and fury because of their self-seeking and refusal to obey the truth. The other group will also be judged according to their works, but they will receive eternal life, and the reason Paul gives for this is not that they were legally perfect (either through their own or someone else’s perfect obedience), but because they patiently do good, and thereby seek for immortality. So to read this passage as though it were setting forth a covenant-of-works kind of arrangement according to which absolute perfection is demanded is to ignore what Paul says and put different words in his mouth.
Further, the prior context is “the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience… [which] is meant to lead you to repentance.” If this were a hypothetical arrangement intended only to set forth a way of salvation that sin has now made impossible, then why would Paul couch his words in the language of repentance (for which, last I checked, sin is a necessary prerequisite)?
We now come to the verse in question, which reads:
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
If context means anything (and I’m told it does), then the “doers of the law” in v. 13 are not a group of non-existent sinless law-keepers, but rather those who seek immortality by patiently doing good. The question that arises, then, is whether any such people actually exist in the world.
Paul seems to think so. In the very next few verses he writes:
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 (vv. 14-16).
A couple things to note here. First, Paul refers to this message as “his gospel” and not, as many would prefer, “the law that precedes the gospel that he will eventually get to in the next chapter.” Secondly, note that he begins v. 14 with the word, “… the doers of the law will be justified. For the Gentiles…” Beginning an argument in this way (by building on what was just established) is not the kind of thing one would do if what he had just got through saying was hypothetical and not normative. In other words, if there are no “doers of the law,” then there are no people on earth to whom Paul could appeal to illustrate what they’re like. But this is precisely what Paul is doing by appealing to these Gentiles: he is illustrating the kinds of people he has in mind when he writes of the doers of the law.
This cannot be emphasized enough: If v. 13 were hypothetical rather than normative, then Paul’s argument would be as silly as my saying to an often tardy co-worker, “Hey, if you want to be on time, you should do what my Uncle Bill does and teleport to work,” and when my co-worker says, “Your uncle teleports to work?” I respond, “No, I don’t really have an uncle. Plus, teleporting is scientifically impossible.” If you’re going to suggest something impossible, you can’t appeal to a real-life person to illustrate it. And if the person you appeal to in order to illustrate a suggestion is real, then it follows that the suggestion is not impossible.
What are these Gentile doers of the law like? Paul explains:
So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (vv. 26-29).
Again, if no one “kept the precepts of the law” and thereby “rendered his uncircumcision as circumcision,” then the argument would make no sense. The actual existence of these Gentiles is the key to Paul’s whole argument.
But how can there be actual Gentiles who fit Paul’s description, who “keep the precepts of the law”? He tells us quite clearly that they do so because the work of the law is “written on their hearts” and thus they are not “Jews outwardly,” but “Jews inwardly,” whose circumcision is not the Old Covenant, Mosaic kind that is characterized by “the letter.” Rather, their circumcision is “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.”
And as I hope to show in my next post, the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10 is a perfect illustration of Paul’s argument in Romans 2. But to conclude my point here, Paul teaches quite plainly (1) that justification has a future aspect to it, (2) that it is according to our works, and (3) that those works are not the result of perfectly obeying the letter of the Mosaic law, but come rather from the New Covenant work of the Spirit who (as Rom. 5:5 says) infuses the love of God into our hearts.