For there is no partiality with God. 12 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; 13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
I preached from this text on December 27. I traced the main argument from verse 11 - the statement that "there is no partiality with God" - through to verse 16 and tried to show how Paul answered the objection that it seems like God is being partial, because he judges people "according to their deeds" (2:6), and the Jews have the advantage of possessing the Law to tell them what deeds they should do, but the other nations don't. So God seems like he is being partial to the Jews - it seems they will have an advantage in the judgment. Paul answers this objection in two steps. 1) He says that it is not having or hearing the Law that will show you are justified at the judgment, but doing the law (verse 13). 2) The Gentiles do, in fact, have the law (verse 15a) - its works are written on their hearts, and their own behavior and consciences show this to be so (verse 15b).
A Weight of Seriousness We Ought to Feel
I won't retrace that argument in detail. But I promised you that we would come back to the statement in verse 13b, "The doers of the Law will be justified." This statement raises tremendously important questions. The phrase "will be justified" carries a weight of seriousness that none of us feels the way we ought.
The phrase "will be justified" expresses getting right with God. The magnitude of this is greater than any of us feels. There is almost nothing in our culture - inside or outside the church - that prepares us to feel the weight of this statement. The twentieth century has been the century of the self, and the care of self called therapy. Even Christians are thoroughly saturated with the atmosphere that God and salvation have to do with my present mental well-being. If God doesn't give me good experiences, he will at least give me the ability to cope with bad experiences. That is what we feel about salvation. So God is about as weighty as the greatest emotional or health crisis we can think of, say, depression or cancer.
That may feel weighty, but it is not, compared to what the gospel is really about. To see what it is really about, look at verse 16: ". . . on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus." What is the gospel about? It is about future judgment. Paul says that "according to his gospel" - not according to the law or according to some theological Puddleglum, but according to the gospel, God will judge the very secrets of your heart through his Son, Jesus Christ. The gospel is mainly the message about how to be right with God at the day of judgment. The gospel is not mainly about good experiences here, but about safety at the judgment and glory beyond the judgment.
Eternal Benefits or Losses
Whose judgment? God's judgment. According to Paul's gospel, "God will judge." If God renders a negative judgment against us, we will go to hell, and be tormented forever. And if God renders a positive judgment for us, we enter eternal life, and have ever-increasing joy in the presence of God. All the benefits and losses in this life are as nothing compared to the importance of this judgment. Our physical and mental state in these few years is like dust on the scales compared to the Mount-Everest significance of the judgment of God.
Note this very carefully in verse 16: it is the gospel that speaks of judgment here. This means that you can't feel the glorious seriousness of the gospel of Jesus Christ unless you know that it is a gospel about future judgment. The gospel is glorious not to the extent that it solves our problems with depression and cancer, but to the extent that it removes the wrath of Almighty God against us at the last judgment, and brings us to everlasting joy.
John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress, suffered tremendous darkness in his soul as he struggled with the assurance of his salvation. He was appalled at what he saw among ordinary Christians in his day - not unlike our own, in this regard.
I saw old people hunting after the things of this life as if they should live here always . . . [and] I found [professing Christians] much distressed and cast down when they met with outward losses, as of husband, wife, child, etc. Lord, thought I, what ado is there about such little things as these. What seeking after carnal things by some, and what grief in others for the loss of them. If they so much labor after and shed so many tears for the things of this present life, how am I to be bemoaned, pitied, and prayed for. My soul is dying, my soul is damned. Were my soul but in a good condition, and were I but sure of it, ah, how rich should I esteem myself, though blessed but with bread and water. I should count those but small afflictions and should bear them as little burdens. (John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners [Hertfordshire, England: Evangelical Press, 1978], p. 36)
So I say, this phrase in verse 13, "the doers of the Law will be justified," carries a weight and seriousness and greatness and glory that we do not feel as we ought. But may God help us. Being justified by God, being given a positive sentence at the last judgment is greater than all our mental well-being and all our physical health in this whole life on earth.
What does Paul mean by it in verse 13?
"Doers of the Law" - Hypothetical?
Does Paul mean that this is a hypothetical statement? - "The doers of the law would be justified, if any actually did what the law required, but they don't." This is, perhaps, the most common interpretation. John Stott says, "This is a theoretical or hypothetical statement, of course, since no human being has ever fully obeyed the law (cf. 3:20)" (Romans: God's Good News for the World [Downer's Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994], p.86). His main argument is from Romans 3:20 where Paul says, "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin."
Doesn't that settle the matter? Could it be plainer? "By works of the Law no flesh will be justified." So Romans 2:13b, "The doers of the law will be justified," must mean: this is a principle, not a reality: sinless, perfect law-keepers would be justified - but they don't exist. So all people, both Gentiles and Jews, are under judgment and need the gospel of forgiveness through Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
Now there are some profoundly right things about that interpretation. 1) It is true that there are no sinless, perfect law-keepers besides Jesus (Romans 3:9,23). 2) It is true that all people, Jews and Gentiles everywhere in the world, need to know the gospel of forgiveness in order to be saved (Romans 3:21-24).
But is Romans 2:13b a hypothetical statement? When Paul says, "Not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified," does he really mean: They would be justified if there were any, but there aren't any "doers of the law." Or to put it another way, Does "doers of the Law" refer to sinless, perfect law-keepers? Could Paul call a person a "doer of the law" who sins, but who loves God and loves the law and hates his own sins and confesses them and casts himself on the mercy of God revealed in the law itself?
I think he could. And I think he does. So I believe verse 13 means: Not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the ones who will be acquitted at the last judgment will be those who 1) love God's law, and 2) depend on his help to live according to the truth that they have, and 3) trust God for his mercy when they stumble.
Hearing the Gospel Is Essential for Salvation
But now listen carefully, lest you misunderstand: Apart from the preaching of the Gospel, and the awakening work of the Holy Spirit that leads to faith in Christ, nobody is saved today* in this way. That's Paul's point in these first two-and-a-half chapters of Romans. The reason for this - the reason no one is saved in this way, apart from hearing the gospel of Christ - is that everyone without Christ "suppresses the truth in unrighteousness" (Romans 1:18). Everyone hardens his heart against repentance (Romans 2:5).
In other words, you might ask me (as some of you have), "Theoretically, could people be saved today who haven't heard of Christ, if they were "doers of the law" the way you described (namely, people who 1) love God's law, and 2) depend on God's help to live according to the truth that they have, and 3) trust God for his mercy when they stumble)? And I would answer, "Yes, theoretically they would be saved" (and God would cover their sins by the blood of Christ, similar to the way he did for the saints in the Old Testament), but it never happens. The reason we need aggressive, loving evangelization among all the peoples of the world is because people everywhere suppress the truth and will not yield to God without the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in their lives (Romans 1:18), and this Spirit works savingly only through the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. God has shut all men up in disobedience (Romans 11:32) so that his Son, Jesus Christ, will be the conscious Object of faith among all the peoples (see Acts 4:12; Romans 10:13-15). (See further support in John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993], pp. 131-166.)
But now someone may ask, But don't you end up just where John Stott and many others do? They say that "doers of the Law will be justified" is a hypothetical statement, because it means you have to be sinlessly perfect to be justified without Christ, and there aren't any people like that. And you say being a doer of the law means that you love God's law, and depend on God's help to live according to the truth you have, and trust God for his mercy when you stumble, but nobody does that without the Holy Spirit and faith in Christ. So doesn't it come out to the same thing?
"Doer of the Law" Doesn't Mean Sinless Perfection
No. There is a difference. I think that when Paul says, "doers of the law will be justified," he means that there really are such people, and they are the only people who will be acquitted at the judgment. This is not a hypothetical statement. It is a statement of actual, experienced fact. When Christ comes into a person's life by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in the Gospel, that person becomes a "doer of the law." Not a sinlessly perfect law-keeper, but one who loves the law of God (= the law of Christ), and depends on God's help to live according to the truth (which now includes the cross of Christ and the work of the Spirit), and trusts God for his mercy when he stumbles (according to 1 John 1:9).
Now why do I think this? What reasons are there for this interpretation? I'll mention four.
1. Doers of the Law will be justified
Romans 2:13b says, "Doers of the Law will be justified." It does not say, "By doing works of the Law you will be justified." It simply says that the ones who will be justified are also those who are doers of the law. There is no causal connection asserted. So the verse is not a contradiction of Romans 3:20 which says, "By the works of the Law no flesh will be justified." There is nothing in Romans 2:13b that keeps us from believing in justification by faith alone. Faith is required by the Law, and faith is the sole means of union with Christ whose righteousness vindicates us at the judgment. All the other obedience that comes from faith is the fruit of that union, not the means of it. So Romans 2:13b is not a contradiction of Paul's teaching of justification by faith alone.
2. Does not sound hypothetical
The statement, "Doers of the Law will be justified," does not sound like a hypothetical statement. It does not say, "'Doers of the Law' - if there were any - would be justified." It sounds like a statement of fact. So if the statement can stand in Paul's thinking, I want to let it stand.
3. Examples of real "doers of the law"
There are real "doers of the law" in the New Testament. It is not just a hypothetical category. For example, Luke 1:5-6 says, "In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord." Now here is a real couple, not a hypothetical couple. And Luke says that they were doers of the law. Not that they never once had an evil thought or a bad attitude or other sin, but that they availed themselves continually of the means God provided in the law for forgiveness and cleansing.
Not only that, but in 1 Corinthians 7:19 Paul himself says, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God." In Galatians 5:6 he says, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." So for Paul, justifying faith "works through love" and this is "the keeping of the commandments" - that is, doing the law. In this way, people who trust Christ are "doers of the law."
It's the same thing Paul says in Romans 8:3-4, "What the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." That is who we are as Christians: when we walk according to the Spirit, we "fulfill the just requirement of the law," we are "doers of the Law" - not sinlessly perfect law-keepers, but radically transformed people who love the law of Christ and trust Christ for help in living the new way.
So Romans 2:13 does not have to be made hypothetical. "Doers of the Law" is exactly what Christians are.
4. Harmony with the rest of the passage
Finally, the flow of thought in Romans 2:6-13 commends this interpretation of "doers of the law." Verse 13 is part of Paul's defense of God's impartiality, which he asserted in verse 11: "For there is no partiality with God." But verse 11 is a defense of the way Paul spoke of God's judgment according to works in verses 6-10. So there needs to be a harmony between "doing the law" in verse 13b and the "doing good" in verses 7 and 10.
And what does it mean there? Verse 7 says that, at the judgment, those who "by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [will receive] eternal life." So here in this very context, Paul is teaching that eternal life (which is essentially the same as being justified or acquitted at the last judgment) is given only to those who have been so transformed by faith that they "persevere in doing good" (see sermon on Romans 2:6-11, December 7, 1998, "The Final Divide, Part Two"). But if this was his teaching in verses 6-10 (which, interestingly, John Stott agrees with, Romans, p. 84), then that is probably his teaching in verse 13.
For all these reasons I take Romans 2:13 as a simple statement of actual fact, "Doers of the law will be justified."
The One Who Forgives and Empowers
Now ponder this very seriously as you leave today. There is coming a final day of judgment. We will all give an account of ourselves to God. Faith in Christ as our righteousness will be our only hope for acceptance with God (Romans 1:16-17; 3:20-26). This is the essence and heart of the gospel. Christ lived for us, Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns for us, Christ intercedes for us, Christ will come for us, and Christ our advocate will be our final judge. Faith in him is key to assurance and life. But beware: faith that produces no hope (Colossians 1:23), faith that produces no love (Galatians 5:6), faith that produces no obedience (Romans 1:5) is no saving faith. Embrace Christ today as the One who forgives our sins and the One who empowers our obedience.