As I mentioned in an earlier post in Romans 2:13 Paul writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV).1 The chapter begins with matter of judgment. Since 1:18 Paul has been prosecuting the Gentiles on the basis of their natural knowledge of God, which we suppress. Because of the effects of sin all our faculties and desires are corrupted. Because we all know the moral law of God in our consciences we are without excuse before God. Chapter 2 begins with a reiteration of this law principle: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (ESV). Now he turns his attention to Jews, those who had received the old covenant, the Mosaic law, the national covenant (Romans 9:4–5; 3:1–3; ESV). The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them, the Mosaic law. God had exercised forbearance with the Israelites but because of the hardness of their hearts (vv.4–5) they are storing up judgment instead. Judgment will be rendered according to “works” (v 6). Those who seek “for glory and honor” by patience will receive eternal life (v. 7). Those who do not “obey the truth” (v. 8) will be judged. Because God is impartial, both Jews and Greeks will be judged according to their works (v. 9–11). Those who sinned under the Mosaic law will be judged by that standard and those who sinned under the natural law by that standard (v.12). The rest of the chapter after v. 13 continues in the same vein. The Gentiles have the substance of the moral law written on their conscience (vv. 14–15). The Jews, who boast about having the Mosaic law, will be judged by the standard of the law given at Sinai (vv. 16–29). Thus, when Paul contrasts “hearers” and “doers” it is hearers and doers of the law. Both Jews and Gentiles are under substantially the same law: love God with all one’s faculties and one’s neighbor as himself (Matt 22:37–40) but, as Paul shows in chapter 3, no one does this. In chapter 5 he explains why this is, because, as the New England Puritans put it, “In Adam’s fall, sinned we all.” The only reference to the gospel in this section is the broad use of the word, the promise that God will judge law breakers. There is no good news for sinners here.
The magisterial Protestant interpretation of Romans 1–3 was that these chapters were largely a presentation of the law, with the intent of demonstrating to Jews and Gentiles the impossibility of sinners of meeting the standard of righteousness. As quoted in the earlier post, Calvin’s interpretation reflects this reading:
They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a sophistry: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law.
For Calvin, this passage is law, an expression of God’s righteous demand. Anyone who would present himself to God on the basis of the law must actually keep the law. The only thing that satisfies justice is actual, complete, perfect fulfillment of the law. The slightest disobedience to God’s holy law merits only one thing: condemnation. Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section of Romans.
In light of its overwhelming thematic and conceptual unity, in light of the Reformation reading of Romans 1:18–3:20, it is difficult to see how or why any confessional Protestant could or would read this section differently but in 1978 a professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (PA), Norman Shepherd, in the midst of what would become a seven-year long controversy over whether a Reformed Christian may teach justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness” proposed 34 theses for discussion and debate. Among them was this one:
20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 3:21; James 1:22-25).
This reading dispensed with the historic Protestant (Lutheran and Reformed) distinction between the two principles of law and gospel. Instead, this reading proposed that, in Romans 2:13, Paul was not prosecuting sinners on the basis of the law, that he was not pressing the righteous and holy demands of God upon them to teach them their sins and misery and to drive them to Christ. Rather, according to this re-reading, Paul was speaking of Christians who will so cooperate with grace as to be sufficiently righteous as to be accepted by God was a radical re-reading of this passage.
This radical re-reading of Romans 2:13 continues to reverberate in some Reformed circles to the present day.
Next time: Romans 2:13 in its original setting and the impulse to distinguish between initial and final justification.
1. The NA28 says: “οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ [τῷ] θεῷ, ἀλλʼ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται.” The Vulgate reads: “non enim auditores legis iusti sunt apud Deum sed factores legis iustificabuntur.” Theodore Beza’s Latin New Testament has “(non enim qui audiunt legem justi sunt apud Deum; sed qui legem praestant justificabantur.” Arguably the Vulgate is a more straightforward translation. What make’s Beza’s interesting is the insertion of the prepositional phrase apud Deum (with God), the insertion of parentheses (in my 1834 edition) which extend to v. 15, and the use of the somewhat more ambiguous praestant in place of factores. Praestant has a number of senses among them “to fulfill.” It seems as if Beza wanted to make clearer the sense that the law is something that must be performed completely or perfectly and not merely attempted. One of the two notes on this verse in the Geneva Bible (1599 edition) says: “Shall be pronounced just before God’s judgment seat: which is true indeed, if any such could be found that had fulfilled the law: but seeing Abraham was not justified by the Law, but by faith, it followeth that no man can be justified by works.”