The view that the argument of Romans 2 1-16, and then 2 25-9 concerns Gentile Christians is not a novel one. But it is becoming a fairly dominant interpretation. One can find it, for example in Simon Gathercole's Where is Boasting? (Eerdmans, 2001) as well as in N.T. Wright's book on justification, and in other places. For example, Gathercole says that there is a considerable body of opinion that accepts that 2.25-9 talks of real Gentile Christians. (127)
The traditional view is that the argument is part of the overall Pauline argument that all people, Jew and Gentile, have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and so face divine judgment. They face this judgment equitably, since all have the knowledge of the law. To show this Paul claims that as the Jews have the Torah, so the Gentiles have a law; indeed, they have the law written on their hearts. And as Jews have the experience of keeping and transgressing the law, so the Gentiles have the experience of the law accusing them and excusing them. They do not escape judgment because they have no Torah, for they do have the law God in foro interno. (This harks back to 1.20.) So God’s judgment will be fair with respect to these two groups. He is no respecter of persons. The argument goes something like this:
The Judgment of God is based upon the law of God
The Law of God is equitably administered in the case of both Jew and Gentile
All are therefore bound by the terms of the law; obedience brings reward, disobedience delivers punishment.
So Paul’s argument in these verses has to do with the standard of divine judgment and its fairness as between Jew and Gentile, and with nothing more. It states terms, it does not make predictions. It is a major error to suppose that Paul is here dealing with the method of justification by faith, or even hinting at it, or with the destiny with the justified at the final judgment. Sometimes upholders of the Gentile Christians view register their dissent from the idea that Paul’s language is hypothetical, that Paul is hypothesising the case of those who are vindicated at the judgment, even though no one ever will be aside from pardon and righteousness procured by Christ.
But why, on the traditional view, is Paul said to be hypothesising? Certainly holders of the traditional view must also hold that it was Paul’s position that ‘If any Gentile were to keep the law of God, then he would be justified’. But that’s not a hypothesis, in the sense of a possible or likely outcome, but a straight inference from the argument just given. Paul is simply stating the terms of justification or judgment by personal fulfillment of the law. Anyone, by those terms, if they keep the law will be justified. So it needs to be noted that
The keepers of the law will be rewarded
Is consistent with each of
There are none who are keepers of the law
Therefore, none will be rewarded
If A were to be a keeper of the law, then A would be rewarded
For these are the terms of the law viewed as the way to procure deliverance from judgment.
On the ‘Gentile Christian’ view, this short section and 2.25-9 is the beginning of Paul’s argument regarding the method of justification by faith through Christ, of course developed in extenso in the central chapters of Romans, the theme announced at the beginning of the letter, that the Cross is the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The difference between the views may be expressed as offering different answers to the question, When in Romans does Paul begin a positive argument for this? The traditional view is that the argument begins at Romans 3.21 ‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith to all who believe’. The ‘Gentile Christian’ view is that the argument begins earlier, in the introduction of a theme which has ‘forward echoes’ as N.T. Wright puts it (166) to 2.26 and thus to the central argument of Romans. Referring to those who are considered in 1.16f. Dr Wright says ‘These people are Christians, on whose hearts the spirit has written the law, and whose secrets, when revealed (see .2.29 again) will display the previously hidden work of God.’ (166-7) Simon Gathercole, says that 'the gentiles who have the Law written on their hearts will be justified on the final day' (126), (though it has to be said that the place that this view of Romans 2 plays in his overall understanding of Romans 1-5 is rather different from that of Dr Wright).
So on the Gentile Christians view, while Paul argues that all are under the just judgment of God, the section 2.1-16 is not a direct contribution to that argument, but it is a section within it which takes us forward to the last judgment, and anticipates what Paul has to say later about those who face the judgment and are vindicated at it by their works. (158) (Or, in Gathercole’s case, since justification by works is impossible, this reference must therefore be to people who are under grace and not under the law – Gentile Christians).
But such a claim might simply be a begging of the question at issue. Whether or not Paul is anticipating matters later in the chapter (we shall look at this lower down) or anticipating his account of justification dealt with at length in the body of Romans, cannot simply be assumed. It is only a reasonable assumption if Paul has in mind Gentile Christians, which is precisely the issue we are considering.
To try to resolve that question, the question of whether or not Paul has Gentile Christians in view, more attention should be paid than has perhaps been paid to what Paul actually says about the context of his remarks, and then what he says about these alleged Gentile Christians referred to in Chapter 2.
What does Paul say?
He says that not the hearers of the law, but the doers of it, will be justified, and that the Gentiles on occasion do by nature the things contained in the law. Obviously this is a claim that is based upon empirical evidence. And there is plenty of evidence that they do. They respect property, honour contracts, marry, recognize the obligations that children have to parents, and so on. And on those occasions when they do such things, Paul says, it is in view of the fact that ‘the work of the law’ (the ‘matters’ of the law) are written in their hearts, in their consciences. In such situations, a person’s conscience either vindicates his practice, or accuses him of falling short, in anticipation of the day of judgment when the secrets of men and women are revealed by Judge Jesus. Incidentally, when Paul says that the secrets of men by Christ Jesus is ‘according to my gospel’, this does not mean that justification by works is a part of that gospel, but that the last judgment is. (As for example, in Acts 17.31).
That’s it. These are the data. So how do those who take the Gentile Christian view get from these statements to that view? I think, by two pieces of interpretation.
First they seem to take the expression ‘the work of the law written on their hearts’ to be a reference to an aspect of the regenerating work of the Spirit who according to Jeremiah's prophecy, for example, will write his law on the hearts of men and women. As we have noted, N.T. Wright says ‘on whose hearts the spirit has written the law’ and Simon Gathercole ‘the gentiles who have the Law written on their hearts will be justified on the final day’. (126) Clearly there is an equivalence being claimed here between the law being written on the heart and regeneration. And perhaps such a view also has in mind Paul’s language in Romans 7 about the regenerate person delighting in the law of God in the inner man, though of course this view cannot be taken if the language of Romans 7 is judged to that of the unregenerate person, as these days it frequently is. (Another issue!)
But in terms of Paul’s argument at this point this equivalence seems rather gratuitous. Regeneration, the work of the Spirit, and so forth – these factors are not in view. Paul is referring to the matter of the law, ‘not isolated parts but the Torah in its entirety’, including its writing on the Gentiles’ inner selves as a witness to the law expressed in Torah, in a parallel way to the Jews who have Torah as part of special revelation. The replacing of the heart of stone with the heart of flesh and all such associated matters do not arise here. Paul is quite simply maintaining the symmetry between the situation of the Gentile and the Jew, blocking the possible inference that since the Gentiles do not have the law they will escape the judgment of God.
And the phrase ‘their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them’ does not refer to the procedures on the day of judgment but provides a phenomenological description of how (for the Gentile) having the law written on the hearts operates here and now. The Gentiles’ consciences bear witness to the 'matters' of that law, t its various commands and prohibitions, and sometimes they observe that law and are excused, they experience an internal relief; and sometimes they disobey it and are rightfully self-accused.
What Paul is arguing is that the Gentiles are acquainted with the content of the law by possessing it ‘internally’, not through the divine revelation through Torah, but innately, or connaturally. He is not discussing inner motivation, but the equity of an arrangement according to which both Jew and Gentile are judged by the law - the Jew by written Torah, the Gentile by an inner representation of that law in the conscience. God can only be impartial in judgment of Jew and Gentile alike if to the Jewish Torah there corresponds another representation of the law made evident to Gentiles. At that judgment whether or not Jew and Gentile have obeyed that law from the heart will be made clear when God judges the secrets of men. And such judgment will reveal hypocrisy in the lives of all men, including those of the Jews, as Paul has already stated (2.2-5), and will state again (3.9f.)
Second, the Gentile Christians view takes the words ‘glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek (2. 10) …..God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ’ (2.16) to imply the moral and spiritual vindication of a class of Gentiles. And those who interpret the words thus also believe that Paul asserts that the vindication of these Gentiles, of some Gentiles, is established when their lives are judged at the last by the measure of his gospel. For in an overall argument designed to establish that there is no one that does good, and that both Jews and Gentile are ‘under it’ we find Paul writing (in anticipation) of those who go good and are vindicated at the last. Surely (as Paul is going to argue) these are Gentile Christians. Otherwise the language does not fit.
But in fact Paul is saying nothing about actual outcomes, but stating how law operates, what its demands are and how these are satisfied. (To use the language of Deuteronomy 30, he is setting out the alternatives of ‘life and good, death and evil’ (Deut.30.15) This passage also contains its share of conditional sentences.)
That’s one step.
Further, it is claimed that what just might have been hypothetical language in 2. 6-11 or 2.25-6 simply cannot be in 2.27-9. (Gathercole 129) The hyothetical interpretation is not an essential part of the traditional view. Nevertheless, let us turn to 2.25-9.
Does what Paul goes on to say in 2.25-29 overthrow this older view, showing us that when the chapter is taken as a whole he has a class of Gentile Christians in view throughout? In my view, to go in this direction is to misunderstand the force of 2.27-9, which (as with the earlier passage about the Gentiles having the law) is not observational but definitional, answering the question, who is a true Jew? How is true Jewishness to be defined? Answer: in terms of the circumcision of the heart. (Deut 30.6) Such circumcision is sufficient for true Jewishness. If it is present, then physical circumcision can only be part of the bene esse of true Jewishness, but not essential to it, for he is a Jew who is one inwardly, whether physically circumcised or not.
From this definition some conditional sentences are implied. Paul mentions two.
(1) If a person who is uncircumcised and keeps the law he is in effect circumcised
(2) If a person is physically circumcised but breaks the law that physical circumcision is cancelled, made null and void.
And from the passage we are surely warranted in adding a third:
(3) If a person is uncircumcised but keeps the law (and so is circumcised in the heart) then such a person condemns anyone who is physically circumcised but a lawbreaker.
We might also add: Such circumcision of the heart is a fruit of the Spirit in who ever it occurs, and it is inward, known to God alone, who alone knows the secrets of the hearts of men, whose praise it receives.
N.T. Wright says that Paul may be teasing his readers at this point, ‘wooing a reader on from the challenge in 2.1 to a different way of approaching the whole moral task’. (166) There is a course a different method of justification about to be set forth than the method of works-righteousness. But Paul is not yet ready to make that move. One step at a time. At this point he sets out the scheme of salvation by works. He follows this by setting out what true circumcision is. These are definitions, reminders, stage settings: divine justice and equity, divine judgment, circumcision, true Jewishness. The implication of these definitions is that the Jews, because of their hypocrisy (2.17-24) are condemned, as were the Gentiles earlier. (1.18-2.11, 2.1-5)
Is this section all definitions, no observations? By no means, for Paul claims that the Gentiles by their hypocrisy (like the Jews later (2.17f.) are storing up ‘wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed’. (2.5)
That’s a second step.
Finally Paul reproduces the scriptural verdict on the moral state of all mankind, both Jew and Gentile. (3.9-20) ‘All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin’. All are under the law, and all are therefore to be held accountable to God. (2.19)
That’s a third step. And then, having taken these steps, he takes the final step. (‘One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind’)
There is an explosion: ‘But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe’! (3.21-2)