Romans 2:13 As An Acid Test

I had the privilege of talking with my friend Pat Abendroth last night. He is the senior pastor of Omaha Bible Church. He is a gospel preacher. We were recording an episode of his excellent podcast, The Pactum and we discussed what the bible means when it says, “do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Luke 10:28). During our discussion Pat turned our attention to Romans 2:13. Regular readers of this space will know that this passage is of special interest (see the resources below). The Reformation era Protestants generally were clear about how they understood this passage but the Reformed have been consistently clear about how they understood Romans 2:13 until the last 40 years or so. Then, for a variety of reasons that we discussed last night—you will have to wait for the episode—we became muddled.

Scripture says: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13; ESV). Remarkably, implausibly even (if the Reformation reading of Romans is to be believed) some have proposed that here Paul is making a promise to the Christian, who is united to Christ, about the outcome of his “Spirit-wrought sanctity.” They take this as a promise that the Christian, by grace and cooperation with grace, will be those “doers of the law” who will stand before God justified, at least in part, because of or through their doing.

There could hardly be a more wrong-headed interpretation of Romans 2:13 but that a significant number of people have found such a reading plausible says a great deal about the state of the Reformed understanding of Romans in recent decades. Why is this interpretation incorrect?

First, it ignores the entire structure of the epistle. Romans is in three parts:

  1. Guilt/Law (Rom 1:18–3:20)
  2. Grace/Gospel (Rom 3:21–11:36)
  3. Gratitude/Sanctification (Rom 12:1–16:27

Paul’s brief in the first section of Romans is to prosecute Jew and Gentile alike for our original transgression in Adam and our own actual sins and sinfulness. He is preaching the law in its first use to convict sinners so that we might know, as we say in Heidelberg 2, “the greatness of our sin and misery.” In the second major section of Romans Paul is preaching the gospel, that we might know (again in the words of Heidelberg 2), how we are “redeemed from all” our “sins and misery.” The third section of Romans is devoted to the Christian lived by grace alone, through faith alone, in union with Christ and in communion with the visible church, in God’s world. The three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, guilt, grace, and gratitude (or sin, salvation, and service) were patterned after the book of Romans. This is basic, essential, Reformation Christianity. It recognizes that there are two different kinds of words in Scripture, the law and the gospel and that Paul speaks those two words in Romans—indeed, he structures the whole book with them.

Second, such a reading, that Paul is making a promise to Christians that they will finally be justified or saved because or through their Spirit-wrought sanctity, ignores the immediate context of Romans 2. In Romans 1:18–32 Paul has been indicting humanity for sin and illustrating the wickedness, blindness, and foolishness of human depravity. In Romans 2:1 he turns to the self-righteous and issues a devastating condemnation: “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). God, Paul says, has been patient, forbearing, but we have been impenitent and disobedient. Then, in vv. 6–8 he foreshadows what he will announce in 2:13: “[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (ESV). He is saying, in effect, “Alright you self-righteous, let us see how you are faring. The test is set in terms of “works.” He is talking about works righteousness. Verse 11 is important: “For God shows no partiality” (ESV). This is the language of judgment. This a courtroom scene.

Then, to drive the nail into the coffin, in this subsection, he turns to the law: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12; ESV).  This is not about grace but law. Remember Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” As a principle, law is one thing and grace is another. This is why it is unhelpful, so confusing, to speak about “the grace of the law.” Yes, I understand that antinomians abuse this distinction but it will help no one to overreact to antinomianism by obliterating an essential biblical and Reformation distinction. Relative to our standing before God, grace is underserved favor and law represents another principle: do this and live.

Before the fall, the law came to Adam in a covenant of works in which God summarized the entire moral law in one sentence: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16b–17; ESV). Adam was to love God with all his faculties and his neighbor (Eve and all of his posterity) by abstaining from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the history of salvation, after the fall, the moral law came to expression in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20; Deut 5) and in the temporary Mosaic judicial and ceremonial laws. Insofar as Paul’s use of law here is directed at the Jews it has reference to the Torah, the Ten Commandments and the rest of the 613 commandments (as the rabbis counted them). Theologically refers to the law principle: do this and live. The moral law was known universally as Paul says in Romans 2:14–15. The Jews had the moral law in the Torah and the Gentile pagans had (and have) the moral law in their consciences. Remember too that Paul says that death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:14). The Gentiles fell in Adam and they were under the moral law, which they also broke.

Leading up to and surrounding 2:13 Paul is discussing the law and its demand, upon both Jew and Gentile, for what the Westminster divines characterized as “perfect and personal obedience” (emphasis added). When Paul announced that it is not the hearers of the law who will be justified but the doers he was re-stating the law principle, the “do this and live” principle, or what Reformed theology calls “the covenant of works” (or the covenant of nature, or the covenant of law, or the covenant of life). He is articulating what God demands of his creatures: “If you intend to present yourself to God on the basis of your obedience this is the standard. Get cracking.”

In our discussion last night Pat said that one’s reading or Romans 2:13 is an “acid test.”  The phrase “acid test” referred originally to the process of determining whether or not a metal is gold. It has become a metaphor for determining the quality or nature of a thing. If an interpreter of Romans does not see its threefold structure and/or does not understand Romans 2:13 to be an expression of the law (as distinct from the gospel) or should she reject the law/gospel distinction in principle, then that interpreter is not a reliable guide to the meaning of the epistle to the Romans. As Luther said, “Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian.” Whoever, however, does not know how to distinguish law from gospel, is not a theologian and not to be trusted with God’s Word.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Dr Clark what would be your recommendations for commentaries on Romans from the Reformation tradition? I greatly appreciate your blog and podcast, very helpful in my growth and understanding of the Reformed Faith.
    Thank you,

    • Hi Ed,

      I like Calvin on Romans. Over the years I’ve looked at lots of them but honestly I don’t find many of them all that helpful. Most of the modern commentaries are either laded with the New Perspective stuff or completely ignore the history of interpretation. Brown’s commentary on Romans in the Anchor series—which is Romanist—is an exception here. Chris Gordon likes an 18th-century commentary on Romans. Olevianus (untranslated) was helpful at points. Calvin found Melanchthon’s commentary helpful. Bucer’s commentary was huge and unwieldy. So is Olevianus’. Luther on Romans is helpful. Barth on Romans is not helpful. Mr Murray is good in places though I disagree with his postmillennial turn in volume 2. Hodge on Romans is useful.

      Off the top of my head that’s what comes to mind.

    • On this point, Charles Hodge, Richard Longenecker (NIGTC), and Frank Thielman (ZECNT), as well as the FIRST edition of Moo’s NICNT vol are solid resources. Most modern commentaries, in my opinion, struggle with theological coherency, meaning they might nod to certain doctrines but hardly ever deploy theological categories consistently throughout their discussions. I think this is probably because bib studies scholars are often trees rather forest thinkers. But for the point in question, these works were helpful. I have been finding Richard Longenecker particularly interesting as I’ve read more of his works; Galatians in WBC is a strong contribution.

  2. I agree with Harrison that the Moo Romans in the NICNT, 1994 first edition, tries pretty hard to be consistent in a law/gospel distinction (however perhaps as I recall maybe on Romans 8:13 is a possible exception).

  3. January 27
    The Apostle has just dealt with the guilt of the Gentile and the justice of their exposure to God’s displeasure, and now in Romans 2 looks directly to the Jews and shows that they too were liable to wrath, and could not be justified by the works of the law. As the fearless Italian Diodati says: “The law cannot bring any salvation to man, by the knowledge or profession thereof, as the Jews believe, but by the perfect observing of it, which being found no more on them than in other nations, they are also comprehended within the general curse, and bound to seek after their righteousness in Christ.” The primary demand of the law is love to God. The Scripture reveals: impossible! The test results are darkness, death and the devil! Jesus enters the experiment and accomplishes for us the righteousness of God! “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” This I agree is basic, essential, and may I might add, marvelous and miraculous Reformation Christianity!
    PS An underrated and refreshing Commentary on Romans – William S. Plumer

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