Olevianus On Romans 2:13

muller-church-and-schoolIn 1529, one of Luther’s principal opponents, Johannes Eck (1486–1541) published the first edition his Enchiridion Against Luther and Other Enemies of the Church a refutation of the Protestant errors. Under the heading, “De fide et operibus” he proposed the thesis that “faith does not suffice without works and that works are to some degree meritorious of eternal life by the accepting grace of God. One of the many biblical texts he cited as proof of this doctrine was Romans 2:13, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous with God but the doers of the law who will be justified.” In the early editions he argued that “good works of their own kind are pleasing to God and meritorious of eternal life.” Of course these good works proceed from the beginning of spiritual life, grace, love, and faith but human cooperation is essential in all these.

In 1532, near the end of his life, the other of Luther’s chief adversaries, Tomasso de Vio Cajetan (1469–1534), whom T. H. L. Parker describes as the “foremost scholastic theologian of his day,” published his brief commentary on Romans. In his comments on Romans 2:13 he read it principally in terms of the problem of the relations between Jews and Gentiles. He also deduced, however, a general principle about the relations between works, merit, law, and justification.

Whoever does good works without the law, will be justified without the merit of the law. And similarly with the saying is, ‘and whoever sins under the law through the law will be judged,’ the contrary is likewise signified as also whoever doers of good under the law, through the merit of law they will be justified.

He continued by noting that Paul’s principle intent in the passage was to explain “the ground of merit.”

According to Caietan, Paul was addressing a “a great question against his doctrine….” (magna questio adversus doctrinam eiusdem). He argued that Paul here is not discussing “merits absolutely” (de meritis absolute) but the “merits of works” (de meritis operum). This is why Paul says, “the doers of the law shall be justified with God.” Paul is explaining the ground of works, which is merit which leads to justification with God. He does not thus, however, exclude “the merit of works or the merit of faith which far exceeds the merit of works.”

In other words, for Caietan, Paul, when he says “It is not the hearers but the doers of the law who shall be justified” teaches a motive for good works, which we can do, grace and cooperation with grace, which results in the accumulation of condign merit toward acceptance with God. For Caietan, this potentiality was not mere theory but a real possibility.

Like Caietan almost fifty years before, Olevianus recognized that the immediate context was the question of the relations between Jews and Gentiles and like Eck and Caietan, he deduced from this passage teaching concerning justification but by contrast when Olevianus read Romans 2:13, he he came to rather different conclusions concerning Paul’s doctrine of justification and he did so not only because of his Protestant theology but because of his Protestant hermeneutic. According to Olevianus, Paul spoke as he did in Romans 2:13 in order that “we might know sin and that we might flee to Christ. Both Jews and Gentiles need this knowledge and this Savior. He exhorts the reader to consider two classes of humans, those who have only the natural and those who have the written. If we ask those under the natural law, “how do you think you will be saved?” He answers “If do not steal.” If we ask one who knows the written law, but who does not know the gospel, the same question “he answers,’if I love God with all my heart etc and my neighbor as myself.’” Then, if we ask the question, whether they escape by such a response? Paul says “No.” It is not the hearers but the doers of the law. Jews, who are under the written law (he cites Leviticus 18 as proof) are condemned by their own law.

“Next,” he says, “sin is discovered in the Gentiles.” The gentiles, who are under the natural law (legem naturae habuerunt), are condemned by the “judgement of conscience” (iudicio conscientiae). We know that they have the natural law “1) because they do good good works, 2) because they know the judgment of God accusing them in their conscience.” Like Caietan, he also found a corollary to Paul’s requirement for proper, personal righteousness. Unlike Caietan, however, his corollary was not a second form of law but the gospel.

We Gentiles who are called to Christ, unless we have embraced Christ by true faith and carry out repentance we are convicted of damnation: by the first judgement of our own conscience and then by the decalogue. And finally by the Gospel itself, which will be a testimony to us, who refused the grace offered.

Even though Olevianus agreed with Caietan that this passage teaches a sort of law, his analysis of this passage was fundamentally different. For Olevianus, in contrast to Caietan, the law condemns sinners. It promises something that, through it, sinners, even by grace, can never achieve. For Olevianus, in contrast to Caietan, for believers, the gospel is not just the New Testament form of the law. It is categorically distinct, it is another kind of word. Just as law and gospel both promise something but upon different conditions, so too, law and gospel threaten something to impenitent, reprobate unbelievers: condemnation.

Given Olevianus’ Lutheran language hitherto, one might be surprised to find him speaking thus but he explained that the Gentiles will be be accused first by the natural law in their consciences, then by the decalogue itself, and third everyone will be chiefly accused by the gospel. He says, “For it is not the hearers of the Gospel, but those who embrace the Gospel by a living faith and who do penance who will be justified through the grace of Christ.

This material is taken from R. Scott Clark, “Law and Gospel in Early Reformed Orthodoxy: Hermeneutical Conservatism in Olevianus’ Commentary on Romans,” in Jordan J. Ballor, David S. Sytsma and Jason Zuidema editors, Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “If we ask those under the natural law, “how do you think you will be saved?” He answers “If [I] do not steal.” If we ask one who knows the written law, but who does not know the gospel, the same question “he answers, ’if I love God with all my heart etc and my neighbor as myself.’” Then, if we ask the question, whether they escape by such a response? Paul says “No.” It is not the hearers but the doers of the law.”

    Exactly. Hypothetically speaking doers of the law would be justified (Romans 2:13), but the reality is there are no such doers of the law who can justify themselves in the eyes of God because “none is righteous, no, not one… no one seeks God. All have turned aside… no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:9-12; Romans 7:14-25). We are all mere hearers of the law which requires perfect obedience (James 2:10). James 2, in contrast, speaks of justification in the eyes of mankind; all 5 instances in James 2 of “show me/you” [vs. 18,20] and “you see” (vs. 22,24] refer to human observers, not God. When it comes to God’s sight (Romans 3:20):

    19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
    20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
    21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—
    22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:
    23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
    24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
    25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
    26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
    27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.
    28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
    29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also,
    30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
    31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

    “For Olevianus, in contrast to Caietan, for believers the gospel is not just the New Testament form of the law. It is categorically distinct, it is another kind of word.” Since now we have been reconciled to God, justified by Christ’s blood/death, “much more” shall we be “saved by [Christ’s] life” of obedience, his life of perfectly doing of the law (Romans 5:9-11):

    09 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
    10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
    11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

  2. I suspect that a lot of Paul’s indictment of both Jews and Gentiles in Romans 2:17ff and i:18ff. respectively renders Rom. 2:13 a very grave warning about how there is none who does the law.

  3. “The law Paul is referencing in Rom. 2:13 is not the Sinai code. He is referencing the law that was added by and after the Lord’s ascension.”

    Verse 2:14 is a continuation of verse 2:13; see the word “for.” Verse 14 states twice that Gentiles “do not have the law” mentioned in verse 13. Given this immediate context, according to your interpretation the “law that was added by and after the Lord’s ascension” would then have to be for only Jews and no Gentiles. But we know there is now no such bifurcation (Rom. 4:9-11,16,23-25; Galatians 3:7-9,14,28-29) for the “law of faith” (3:27).

    This “law of faith” (3:27) which you imply is treated at 3:21ff and 1:1-17, but in 1:18 to 3:20 the law mentioned is the law of nature for Gentiles and the Mosaic law for Jews.

  4. Yes, Romans 2:12 and 2:14ff reference the Mosaic law. And, Rom. 2:13 is between those verses. There is nothing in that immediate context (and the larger context of Rom. 1:18 to 3:20) to conclude another changed/added law being referenced amidst the discussion of the Mosaic law (and its similarity of punishments and rewards to the natural law). See also the succession of “For”s to start each of verses 2:11, 2:12, 2:13, and 2:14, showing the law referenced in those verses is the same, the Mosaic law.

    The “law of faith” (3:27) (aka law of Christ), in contrast, is discussed in 1:1-17 and 3:20ff. This law of faith is not “an addition” to the Mosaic law that was supposedly changed after the ascension, because it was millennia before (before Moses) through this law of faith that Abraham was justified who “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3,5,6,8,9,22-24), by faith “apart from works”(4:6,3,5,9,11,12,13,16,17,18,19,20,22,24; 5:1,2). “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his [Abraham’s] sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:23-25).

    The law referenced in Acts 7:53 (“the law as delivered by angels”; see the context 7:38 “at Mt. Sinai”) and Gal. 3:19 (“law… put in place through angels by an intermediary”) are references to Deut. 33:2, which clearly refers to the Mosaic law (see Deut. 33:2,4). The “change in the law” mentioned in Hebr. 7:12 brought about by Jesus is not “an addition” to the Mosaic law, but a different and “better covenant” (Hebr. 7:22), a “new covenant” (8:8) in which God says, “I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more” (8:12), and guaranteed by an intercessor (8:25) who “offered up himself” “once for all” time (7:27) and “is able to save to the uttermost” “since he always lives to make intercession” (7:25); “Christ obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (8:6). The Mosaic law was not abolished but was completely fulfilled by Christ (Mat. 5:17) so that we are no longer under the captivity and condemnation of any law of works (added, modified, infused, or otherwise); “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:23-26).

  5. Romans 7:6: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

  6. Hi, Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this excellent post. I keep coming back to Heidelblog for primary resources on this crucially important issue. I was saddened when you took down your blog a few years ago, and I am thankful that it is back.

    As one who firmly believes that the law-gospel distinction was taught by our Reformed forefathers, I would like to be sure that I articulate it as accurately possible when explaining it to other people. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask for your clarification on one of the statements you wrote. You said, “Just as law and gospel both promise something but upon different conditions, so too, law and gospel threaten something to impenitent, reprobate unbelievers: condemnation.”

    Is it right to say then that in a certain sense there are threats attached to the gospel? Opponents of the law-gospel distinction tend to make the argument that those who promote this principle deny that that there are so-called “gospel threats.” How should we answer such a charge?


    P.S. The current “Office Hours” series is just amazing. Thank you for the labors.

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