One of Paul’s goals, as we know if we’ve spent much time in Romans, is to contend that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, falls short, comes up empty, is sinful. But Romans 2:12-16 goes beyond that to argue that the Law is written into the pulse of every heart, even if they are Gentiles, and everyone is held accountable to that Law. But there is more here, and I hope I can do it some justice.
Paul explicitly states here that it is not those who “hear the Law” (Jews) but those who “obey” the Law who will be justified (2:13). Now very few escape the point that this sounds like salvation by works. What does Paul mean?
It appears most likely that the sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles is central here. It is not those who hear the Law (Jews) who will be justified, but those who obey the Law (whether Jew or Gentile). Possession is not the point; just because Jews have the Law does not mean they follow it; and just because Gentiles don’t have the Law doesn’t mean that they aren’t somehow doing the Law.
I for one don’t think Paul is actually saying one can do the Law so well that the final verdict will be “justified.” His point is much more an indictment of those who think possession of the Law, ethnic privilege and superiority, is enough.
On the other hand, there is something staring at us that will crop up more than once in this wondrous letter: those who are justified, those who are indwellt by the Spirit, have what Paul earlier called the “obedience of faith.”
This becomes clear, at least to me, in vv. 14-15 when Paul says that some Gentiles apparently do the Law, even though they don’t know it the way the Torah-covenant folks do.
Who are these folks? Tom Wright gives three options: which do you like?
1. Pure hypothesis: no Gentile actually does the Law; so Paul must be making a rhetorical point.
2. Actual humans who live righteously before God: that is, whether Jew or Gentile, some people obey the Law their entire life.
3. Christian Gentiles (Wright’s view): some Gentiles, who are now Christians through God’s grace, obey the Law (now that they follow Christ and live in the Spirit).
Let me add one: why not consider that Paul’s point is not so much that they actually “get the job done and follow the whole Torah” but that the evident obedience of Gentiles (the good deeds they do) proves that the Law is written in their hearts?
Ron Fay there to help us out?