Leon Morris On Romans 2:13

13. For ties this in with the preceding and explains it. Those who hear the law reminds us of the circumstances of the day. People did not normally read for themselves (the scribe was a member of a skilled profession). They heard it read. For righteous see the note on 1:17. It means the state of being “right” with God, of being acquitted when tried by him. The hearing of the law is not enough to bring this about; it is those who obey the law who are accepted (cf. Lev. 18:5). The expression is more exactly “the doers of the law” (AV, NASV). The word “doers” is not common; in fact Paul uses it only here (James has it on four of its six occurrences; cf. Jas. 1:22–25 for the importance of “doing”). When he says that doing the law matters much more than hearing it, Paul is stating a position often put forward by Pharisaic teachers. Josephus tells us that Eleazar of Galilee said to Izates (a convert to Judaism who became king of Adiabene in A.D. 31), “you ought not merely to read the law but also, and even more, to do what is commanded in it” (Ant. xx.24). Similarly the Mishnah cites a saying of Simeon, son of Rabban Gamaliel (under whom Paul studied, Acts 22:3): “not the expounding (of the Law) is the chief thing but the doing (of it); and he that multiplies words occasions sin” (Ab. 1:17). But there seems to have been some dispute, at any rate in the early second century, and sometimes hearing was regarded as most important. Thus Eleazar of Modiim said, “ ‘If you will hear’ (Exod. 15:26) is the most universal rule (the fundamental principle), in which the (whole) Law is contained.” Such a position must have had its attractions. But actions speak louder than words, and Paul is making it clear that the Jew cannot plead his privileged position. If he is relying on the law as his way of salvation, then his concern must be with keeping the law, not preening himself on the fact that he possesses it; even hearing it constantly will not do. Paul is not saying that people are saved by law-keeping. He is laying down the principle from the standpoint of law. Where the law is concerned, deeds, and deeds only, matter. For declared righteous (= “justified”)…1


1. All told Paul uses the verb δικαιόω in 27 of its 39 New Testament occurrences, 15 of which are found in Romans (the next most frequent is Luke with five). Clearly Paul uses the term significantly more often than does anyone else, and equally significantly it is an important category in Romans. The word is a forensic or legal term with the meaning “acquit”. It is the normal word to use when the accused is declared “Not guilty”. We see its significance in an Old Testament passage: “When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting (or, justifying) the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut. 25:1). Here the legal meaning is plain, and this remains with the word throughout the range of its biblical use. Some argue that it means “to make righteous”, but this cannot be demonstrated. The impossibility of making righteous is clear when the word is used of God (3:4). It is plain also in the use of the future tense “will be justified” (2:13), for the reference is to Judgment Day and no one will be “made righteous” on that day. Moreover, that passage refers to “the doers of law” as “justified”, but by definition “doers of law” are righteous: they cannot be “made” righteous. The declaratory meaning is clear.177 It is to be inferred also from the fact that it stands in opposition to condemnation. “To condemn” does not mean “to make wicked”, but “to declare guilty”; similarly, “to justify” means “to declare just”.

Paul is quite definite that “no one will be justified in (God’s) sight by works of law” (3:20; cf. 4:2). Justification, on the contrary, is God’s good gift: people are “justified freely by his grace” (3:24). Several times Paul links justification with faith, making it quite clear that it is only by believing that anyone can appropriate this gift of God (3:26, 28, 30; 4:5; 5:1). The cross plays a necessary part in justification, for “we have now been justified by his blood” (5:9). Paul repeats the truth that justification is brought about by God (3:26; 8:30 [bis], 33), and this is, of course, implied when justification is used with reference to grace or to faith. The grace in question is always the grace of God, and the faith is faith in God; Paul stresses faith because that is the means whereby the sinner appropriates the gift of God.
In some modern discussions justification is understood in eschatological terms. This is to be accepted inasmuch as there is certainly a future, eschatological aspect to justification (3:20; Gal. 3:11; cf. Rom. 1:17; 5:9–10). Nowhere do the early Christians see justification as something fully realized in the here and now. Its eschatological dimension is important, and it would be a poor, maimed thing if it were bounded by this life. But this must be held in conjunction with the other reality that believers are justified now. Their justification can be spoken of with a past tense (5:1, 9; 8:30; 1 Cor. 6:11). It is characteristic of the New Testament view that justification has been established by Christ’s saving work.

The justification of sinners is the great basic problem for all religion. God is good and man is not. How then can man, the sinner, stand before the high and holy God? Every religion must answer this question, and its value for us depends on the adequacy of the answer. What characterizes Christianity is that its answer centers on the cross. Justification does not take place because people in some way work out a means of dealing with sin. They do not and cannot. They can neither overcome it so that for the future they will live without it, nor blot it out from their past. But God can and does. Paul sees justification as brought about by Christ’s death, for it is in this manner that our sin is done away. We are thus “acquitted”, declared “not guilty”. It is not that sin is treated as though it did not matter. No one who takes the cross seriously can think that. But the cross means that sin has been dealt with and put away. Since this is so, it no longer remains to disqualify people and thus they can be said to be justified.
Justification by way of the cross means that God saves us in a way that accords with right. He does not save us at the price of saying “Morality does not matter. Though people have sinned they will be accepted just as they are.” Sin is an evil, and God never condones it. It must be dealt with. When we speak of justification by way of the cross, we are saying that it has been dealt with. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” asked Abraham (Gen. 18:25). In the cross we see that he has done so.

Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 123–24, 145–47.

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