Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Law within

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?

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posted June 1, 2006 at 8:12 am

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posted June 1, 2006 at 9:59 am

If Paul understood the laws of pagan Rome, the Roman system would be evidence that the gentiles were aware of aspects of the law and sought to have it applied and carried out by the government. Isn’t that also evidence of the universal nature of God’s law? And how else would Rome have developed a legal system unless the law was written on gentile hearts also?

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posted June 1, 2006 at 11:50 am

***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.***
Yes! All of this is leading to the first crescendo: All [A.L.L.] have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is the glory previously described as God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.
Now, we have more than a bold assertion which Paul makes early on. Paul seems to be saying that as the drama of human life has unfolded it is obvious to see that people are without excuse before our God and Creator, whose eternal power and divine power can clearly be seen in creation.

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posted June 1, 2006 at 12:03 pm

I agree Romans 2 is not mainly hypothetical, and that those who are justified by faith do obey God and fulfill the law (though incidentally, not as the ground or basis or their right standing with God). And so in that sense I think 2:13 has a bit of a double sense. And the Gentiles at the end of Romans 2 are definitely Christians.
However…not so sure about the first group of Gentiles in 2:14-15, etc. Wright, unfortunately, pre-judges the issue unfairly in his 3 options, the first two of which–by the way he puts them–are clearly not true. But I find Wright’s explanation of why these supposedly Christian Gentiles will have accusing thoughts at the judgment (because they don’t actually have the Torah in their hands, but only in their hearts?! NOOO!!) to be fantastical and radically unlikely. It seems the best explanation, far and away, is still that these are actual (non-Christian) Gentiles, not hypothetical, who will be condemned apart from Torah because their occasional obedience to Torah has clearly shown it is written on their hearts, thus they have no excuse. Or so it still seems to me.

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Ted Gossard

posted June 1, 2006 at 5:08 pm

I see Romans 2:12-16 as simply saying that all are accountable to God due to God’s law given: in the case of the Jews: written as oracles of God; in the case of the Gentiles: written in their hearts, with their consciences being an arbiter of their conduct.
Paul says a little later that it is only those who are circumcised in their hearts by the Spirit, who are the true Jews. It seems he is trying to turn the table against Jews who think that by just having the Law (Torah) they are “in” with God.
2:12-16 is likewise a revelation to Jews that in a true sense God’s law is not unique to them, as Jews. What is said is that ALL are accountable to God because of God’s law revealed to them, even to those who have it written only in their hearts, not having Scripture.
The “righteousness of God” revealed in Romans is tied to faith in Jesus Christ, and to his death and resurrection. This is the only answer given to the problem of lawbreakers, of which Romans says includes the whole world: Jews and Gentiles.

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posted June 1, 2006 at 5:36 pm

We are going through Acts in our church. I have not the gift of being specific, but hopefully, some will recognize the story in Acts. I believe the point of the story in Acts was to reveal to Peter, then to the rest of the world, that salvation through Christ is for the whole world – Gentile as well as Jew. Peter has the vision and Cornelius is visited by an angel. But, Acts says positive words about Cornelius being God fearing and respected for it, though a Gentile trying to do the Jewish thing. So, here we have a Gentile, Cornelius, ripe to hear the Gospel and finish connecting the links to his faith through Peter. Apparently his faith, pre knowing Peter, is praised because his heart was open and seeking God. He was a knocker, and the door opened.

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posted June 1, 2006 at 6:02 pm

Yes a Christian Gentile will obey the spirit of the law, by God’s grace, but I think Paul’s main point is that Jews and Gentiles are equal before God. They both have the law, in one form or the other. The Jews cannot hide behind their Torah and the Gentiles can’t hide behind their ignorance. And they (we) all fall short of God’s glory.
But if the law is written in the heart of man, what about the Gospel? Is the Gospel also written in the heart of man? If I can obey the law unwittingly, can I also believe in God’s grace unwittingly? Or is preaching necessary? Cf. Romans 10,12-18

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posted June 1, 2006 at 10:46 pm

First, since Matthew is fresh in my mind and heart these days I can’t help but hear in v. 13 an echo of Jesus’ ‘parable’ of the two sons one of whom says he will do what his father says but then never gets around to it, and the second son who flat out says,”No.”(!) to his fathers direction but then thinks better of it and goes ahead and does the work requested. Who obeyed the father?
Second, at first sight, I too would want a fourth or fifth option to NT Wright’s suggestion. I wouldn’t at this point in Paul’s movement (i.e. Bill, post #3) want to introduce gentile Christians here. It seems that some above are getting at the gist here- There is an ongoing conversation about ‘natural law’ and it’s place in Christian theology and understanding, with the Catholic development seeming to have the best take on it to date. Is Paul referring here to something like ‘natural law’?
Third, it seems that Paul is bringing forward in some way what he starts with in 1:18-21 (i.e. again Bill, post #3).
Fourth, that a gentile would come to understand a moral code (i.e. the ‘good life’ of Greek philosophy; the fact that when Jonah called Nineveh to repentance, they knew what he was talking about; Noah did right in the sight of the Lord; Abraham seemed to have some concrete consciousness of “the law” even to the point of tithing hundreds of years before Moses…) and that that gentile would try to live accordingly seems to at some level be an act of faith as any true obedience to the law would be at least at the level that one would believe that circumscribing their behavior according to a civil code would be the moral thing to do.
Sixth, and this seems to be something of Paul’s point here, it’s not that such a gentile is justified but that her awareness of the human condition is apparent within her as her highly developed conscience gives her ‘fits’ when she does something wrong, and then her rationality kicks in to gear either making her feel guilty for doing that wrong or helping her excuse her violation because of circumstances (“…thoughts alternately accusing or else defending her.”). Reflection of a courtroom scene?
Finally, since Paul is “leading to the first crescendo” I’m not sure the point is so much one more level of condemnation, as moving us to the realization that there is an answer to our human plight of “unrighteousness” that is the common human experience of just simply not having it in us to live rightly whether Jew with direct revelation of God’s will or the more indirect understanding of the gentile. Were there not gentiles who were aware of the human condition and looking for an answer?
That’s my 2 cents worth.

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