Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Here’s an email question, a pretty common question we get a lot about the role of faith and works in the Christian life. “Hello Pastor John, my name is Anthony, from Spain. Romans 2:13 says it is the ‘doers of the law who will be justified.’ How am I to understand this verse in light of Romans 5:1 and other verses that speak of our justification coming by faith alone and not works? Why would Paul say the ‘doers’ of the law are justified?”

This is huge and wonderful. It is such a crucial, crucial question. So I hope I can tackle the verse, but also state the bigger issue at stake; namely, the relationship between being justified by faith apart from works of the law as any foundation for our being in God’s favor on the one side, and the necessity and inevitability of the fruit of good deeds or law-keeping in order to show that that faith in Christ is real. That is what is so hard for people to get a handle on these days. And so let me make a go at it.

“Obeying the law is not the basis of our being in God’s favor, it is the evidence that we are trusting Christ and united to him.”

Let’s make the context clear if we can. In Romans 2:11–13, Paul is concerned to show that the Jews, even though they have the law, will not be shown any partiality at the judgment day. He is explaining how the judgment, the last judgment, will proceed on the last day for those who have had the law and those who have not had the law — nations that have not had any access to the law. In Romans 2:11, he lays down the principle: “God shows no partiality.” And then he explains how that works. Even though the Jews have the law, which seems like, “God, that is partial,” and the nations don’t. He says, “For all who have sinned without the law will perish without the law” (Romans 2:12). Which means, God is not going to bring in the law of Moses to condemn anybody who has never heard of the law of Moses. He won’t need to. They are going to be judged on the basis of accesses that they had to the law written on their heart or the law written in nature or the law written in conscience. But he is not going to be partial in using a standard that somebody had access to that you didn’t have access to.

And then the verse continues, “. . . and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12). We are all going to be judged by the divine standards that we have access to, and everybody has access to divine standards that we fall short of. That is the point of Romans 1–2.

And then he adds the verse that Anthony is asking about, verse 13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” In other words, merely having the law and being able to hear the law, because you have it, will be of zero advantage at the judgment day, because no one will be able to say, “We have got the law, so we are going to pass judgment at the last day.”

No, it is how you respond to God’s will, the law — not whether you have possession of it. That is what verse 13 is saying. And then he proceeds to show in the following verses that the nations have a form of God’s law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15), and he had already said in Romans 1:19–20 that they have a form of God’s will written in the skies and in nature — and now in their conscience (Romans 2:15).

Now in that context, a lot of very great teachers, people that I love and admire, have argued that verse 13 describes a hypothetical situation, not a real one. So when Paul says, “Not the hearers of the law are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” — referring to the last judgment. He is not saying that anybody actually does this. This is a hypothetical. Hypothetically, if there were doers of the law, they would be justified by the law because, if you are perfect, you are perfect. But nobody does this, and therefore it is just hypothetical and he is stating a principle.

So that is one way to understand Romans 2:13 so that it fits with Romans 3:28, for example, or Romans 5:1, which was mentioned. “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). And this way of understanding 2:13 as hypothetical is one way to keep those checks in perfect harmony.

Now my point is that there is another way to understand Romans 2:13 that also coheres with Romans 3:28 understood that way and the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, meaning that the only foundation of our justification is Christ, his blood and righteousness, and that the only instrument that unites us to Christ and his righteousness is faith and faith alone. And I believe that is what the Bible teaches.

Being doers of the law need not mean being perfect doers of the law with no failures at all. If being doers of the law means perfect, then clearly it has to be hypothetical. It may mean that one loves the law, trusts God for forgiveness when he stumbles or fails to measure up to God’s will, leans on God’s provision for perfect righteousness, and seeks to walk in a way pleasing to the Lord.

In other words, a person today that I am thinking now in the 21st century. A person today may be a doer of the law who trusts Jesus as the only basis of their justification before God who, in the power of that faith by the Spirit, walks in a manner worthy of the Lord and then at the last judgment Christ will be the basis of our acceptance, Christ alone, the basis of our acceptance with the Father and our life of obedience, doing the law will be brought in to confirm, just confirm, that our faith was real, because faith works through love (Galatians 5:6). So, doing the law will not be the basis of our being in God’s favor, but the evidence that we are trusting Christ, united to Christ, and, thus, necessary at the last day.

“All the obedience that the Christian performs is fruit that comes from a faith-established union, not a works-established union. You become a good tree in union with Jesus.”

Now why do I think that is, in fact, what the verse teaches? And here are a few reasons:

1) The statement “doers of the law will be justified” does not sound, in the context, like a hypothetical statement. It just sounds like that is true. That happens. It sounds like a statement of fact. So if the statement can stand as is in Paul’s thinking, then I want it to stand.

“All the obedience that the Christian performs is fruit that comes from a faith-established union, not a works-established union. You become a good tree in union with Jesus.”

2) Romans 2:13 says, “Doers of the law will be justified.” It does not say “by doing the works of the law you will be justified.” That would be a really big problem from my view if it said that. It simply says that the one who will be justified is the one who is a doer of the law. There is no causal connection asserted between the two at all. So the verse is not a contradiction of Romans 3:20 that says by the works of the law no flesh will be justified. There is nothing in Romans 2:13 that keeps us from believing in justification by faith alone.

Faith is required by the law. Faith is the sole means of union with Christ whose righteousness vindicates us at the judgment. All the other obedience that comes from that faith is fruit — fruit of that union, not the means of that union. That is so crucial. Let me say that again. All the obedience that the Christian performs, all that obedience, is fruit that comes from a faith-established union, not a works-established union, a faith-established union with Christ, and so that fruit is not a means of being a good tree. It is the result of being a good tree. And you get to be a good tree by faith alone in union with Jesus. And then the Holy Spirit is moving. So Romans 2:13 is not a contradiction on my reading either of Paul’s teaching of justification by faith alone.

3) There are real examples in the New Testament of real people who are doers of the law. This is not hypothetical. For example, consider Luke 1:5–6, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zachariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord,” period. Not hypothetical. That is the way they were described.

And of course they were sinners. Of course they needed to be justified by faith. But they were so in tune with the heart and mind of God that they were described as righteous. They were described as walking blamelessly. They were described as keeping the commandments, because every time they stumbled, they took the law’s and the gospel’s opportunity to repent, to apply themselves to the sacrifices in the Old Testament and now to Christ in the New Testament to cover their sins so that they could be described in their path of general obediences as blameless and righteous. So it is a real couple, not a hypothetical couple, who would be described as doers of the law.

Here is another one. Paul says, “Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Now he is saying that to Christians. And he had just said in Galatians 5:6, in Christ circumcision doesn’t matter. Uncircumcision doesn’t matter. What matters is faith working through love.

So if you lay those two texts on top of each other, faith working through love is described as keeping the commandments of God, because in Paul’s understanding in Romans 13:10, love is the fulfillment of the law. Love does the commandments of God that the law requires. And so the works of love that come through Christian faith is a keeping of the commandments, and the person who does them can be described as a doer of the law.

Here is a third example: “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,” — so that is substitutionary, penal atonement, — “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3–4).

Now that is who we are as Christians. When we walk according to the Spirit, we fulfill the just requirement of the law. That is, we keep the commandments. That is, we love. We are doers of the law, not sinlessly perfect law-keepers: nobody is nor nobody ever has been except Jesus, which is why we depend on him — but rather, radically transformed people through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit leaning on the grace of God that comes to us through Jesus Christ. So Romans 2:13 does not have to be hypothetical. There are doers of the law in the New Testament as we have just seen in those three examples. And here is the last thing that I would say in favor of taking this verse rather than as a hypothetical statement.

4) It fits the context in Romans, in the verses just gone before it. So first, the context. Here is what Paul says in Romans 2:6–7: “He [God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing,” — now that is, I think, the same as saying those who are doers of the law, — “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life,” which is just another way of saying they will be justified at the last day.

So in the very context where we find 2:13, Paul has already been teaching that eternal life, which is essentially the same as final justification, Paul is essentially teaching that we must be so transformed by our faith in Jesus Christ and through his atonement and blood that we persevere in doing good and that becomes the narrow way. Then that leads to life and that will be brought in at the last day, not as the ground of our acceptance, not as the ground of being in God’s favor, but as evidence that we have trusted God.

So my answer to Anthony is that he is right to be jealous to safeguard the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law as the basis of our acceptance. And he is also right — I hope he will be right — that he is jealous to preserve the biblical truth that saving faith always bears the fruit of doing the will of God just like we saw, say, in 1 John 1:9 where we repent and then he is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness, provided that we are walking in the light as 1 John 1:7 says.