by J. Angus Harley

“(for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves;” (Rom.2:14, ASV).

I maintained previously that phusei in Romans 2:14 should not be interpreted as the NASB states (“do instinctively the things of the Law”). It is preferable to follow a reading such as the ASV’s, “(for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves” (Rom.2:14). The lexical range of phusei did not conform to the idea of an adverb, but adverted to a state, identity, status, or condition.[1]

I deferred saying anything theological on phusei in Romans 2:14, and now will respond to Moo’s understanding of it in his commentary. He follows the majority translation of phusei.

Moo on phusei

Moo’s epic commentary on Romans uncharacteristically cites no contextual, syntactical, or lexical arguments for his understanding of phusei, and, instead, he resorts solely to the argument that Paul is “ “baptizing” “ a “popular Greek conception” that said that “all human beings possess an “unwritten” or “natural” law”.[2] Why Paul, saturated in Jewish thought and the OT, would suddenly rely exclusively, when writing to Jewish and Gentile Christians, upon a pagan piece of ‘wisdom’ is rather bewildering. Paul is not addressing the pagans in Athens, or elsewhere. Added to this, Moo makes the all-to-common misstep of linking the Mosaic ‘Law’ with a creational, moral, ‘law’: “For Gentiles certainly have some knowledge of God’s moral demands- “law” in the generic sense.”[3] It is certainly true that all people have an awareness of God’s moral demands (Rom.1:18ff.), but nowhere does Paul, or any other writer in Scripture, ever call this knowledge ‘law’. Nor is there any suggestion in the Scripture that this innate knowledge of the divine will is executed by any pagan Gentile, as I will now argue.

Pagan Disobedience

Romans 1. Moo’s claim that pagan Gentiles keep the things of the Law is in direct opposition to the context of Romans 1-3 as a whole. Moo himself notes that Gentile Christians keep God’s will by grace. This fact is trumpeted throughout Romans, especially in Romans 1:1-17, which declares the Gospel of Jesus Christ and faith in it. The Gospel has to go throughout the world, and Paul thanks God that the ‘Romans’, who were Gentile and Jewish Christians, were co-partners with him, by grace, in this work. Paul underscores God’s calling of him and its obligation, stating that he was obliged to bring the Gospel to the ”rest of the Gentiles” of the world- outside of Rome- to both “Greeks and to barbarians” (1:8-14).

Paul then proceeds to detail why it was that these Gentiles (both the Greek and Barbarian) needed to hear the Gospel. Romans 1:18-32 describes in detail how humans have an innate sense of God the Creator from his creation, only in their ‘wisdom’ to reject this divine revelation and to exchange the invisible God for worship of idols. This rejection of God then leads to the same man rejecting fellow men and the duties of a human toward both God and humans. The Gentiles, who worshiped the creature rather than the Creator, are given over by God to their depraved lifestyles that accompany such idolatry. It is a package, it seems, with idolatry and depraved behavior going hand-in-glove. This relational perversion takes many manifestations:

24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Rom.1:24-32)

The reader will perhaps have seen that Paul does not specifically identify this spiritual and moral debacle with Gentiles as such, although it is no doubt in his mind given the previous context. The above description of depraved idolaters is equally applicable to the Jews themselves, in that their history is peppered with idolatry and moral perversion. However, by the time of the epistle to the Romans, the Jews were disciplined enough not to indulge in outright idolatry, or the kind of moral depravity that the Gentiles daily enacted in their lives. 

All of this is relevant to the discussion over whether the Gentiles kept a moral, creational version of ‘law’. It cannot be doubted that, Paul’s teaching in Romans 1 is in its totality against the common rendition of Romans 2:14 that says the pagan Gentiles keep a form of morality. The universally recognized division of the Ten Commandments into two tables- toward God and toward man- was/is, in its most general, rudimentary, creational form, present in all humans. But as said before, this is not ‘law’. It is, rather, the innate knowledge that creatures have due to having been made in the image of God. Nor will it do to say that this is semantics, since this whole debate hinges on the claim that pagan Gentiles kept the ‘law’. It is incumbent upon the traditional reading, therefore, to exegetically demonstrate this creational ‘law’. Paul is clearly teaching that all idolaters (Jew and Gentile) are depraved morally, so that they violate their duties to the Creator and to the created. Moreover, Paul’s account addresses the so-called wisdom of the Greeks (and barbarians), who “[p]rofessing to be wise, they became fools” (1:22). This is a teaching consonant with 1 Corinthians 1, for example, that exposes the “wisdom” of the Greeks as being foolishness, and as set over against the “foolishness” of the cross. It is apparent, then, that any innate sense of God and of duty toward him and to man is strangled by man and replaced lock, stock, and barrel with idolatry and spiritual and moral depravity.

Romans 3. Romans 3:9-20 confirms this negative interpretation of the ‘wise’ Greeks, and of the Jews, too:

9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; 10 as it is written,

“There is none righteous, not even one;
11 There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,”
“The poison of asps is under their lips”;
14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,
17 And the path of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

As in Romans 1, the two themes of duty to God and to man are obliterated by Jew and Greek. Paul is so adamant about this, brooking no dissent, that he even includes himself- either as Jew, or as a Christian- within the guilty mass of humanity, “Are we better than they? Not at all”. His terminology draws out the universal, individual, moral depravity and guilty of Jew and Gentile:

“none righteous, not even one…none who understands…none who seeks for God…All have turned aside, together they have become useless; none who does good, there is not even one….every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God”.

When all this information is taken together, from Romans 1 and 3, it destroys the argument that pagan Gentiles are morally upright at times. They are not, but are idolaters and wicked and evil men. Put another way, there is not the slightest suggestion that they are wrestling with their conscience, or enter into some kind of moral judgment of one another.

Pagan-Gentile morality?

What, then, about those times when the wicked do behave with some semblance of morality?

This is an interesting question, but it is irrelevant to Paul’s teaching in Romans 1-3, for his comments utterly exclude such a possibility. But, so as not to dodge the issue, I will make a few comments on the matter. 

First thing is that Scripture nowhere records that the pagan Gentiles outside of the Gospel are in any way morally upright. Secondly, it reverses the polarity of the Scripture’s ethical standard to suggest that because the pagan Gentiles are able to do good in some instances that they are, by extension, capable of “doing the things of the Law”. Evil is measured not only in actions but internally. Evil comes from the heart. That “evil” people (see Matt.7:11) are able to pull off a measure of uprightness hardly constitutes, in the Scripture’s eyes, a morally ‘sound’ person, even in a temporal sense. Let’s look at the example of King Nebuchadnezzar. Didn’t he praise God and exalt his name (Dan.4:34-37)? Yes, he did. But how did this come about? Was it by the natural course of an innate moral ‘law’? By no means! It was entirely due to God not only humbling him to be an animal, but the implication is that the period of punishment ended due to God’s timing (as he was the one who started it). Nebuchadnezzar as a creature blasphemed, made himself like a god, and rejected the Creator’s way. Just as Paul in Romans 1 and 3 depicts. Only by grace did Nebuchadnezzar, who was still a pagan king, recognize the God of Israel as Creator and Lord. Balaam had a nigh identical experience. A godless, God-hating, anti-Israelite, false prophet, he was brought to his knees by the Angel of the LORD’s intervention, and instead of cursing Israel and its God, he blessed both (Num.22-24). Neither man was relying on a creational impetus, or some innate ‘law’; both men owed their godward attitude, actions, and words exclusively to Yahweh’s sovereign intervention. Similarly, the noble Berean Jews of Acts 17:1–12 were not propelled by any natural or innate sense of morality, or ‘law’. We know this because the Thessalonican Jews revealed the heart of Jewish man in action (Acts 17:1-9). Any nobility or uprightness present in the Berean Jews, before only some of them embraced the Gospel by faith, is the result of God’s intervening grace in their lives in the form of the many mercies given to Israel.


Both Romans 1 and 3 tell the tale that pagan Gentiles are rotten to the core! There is no uprightness or innate morality in them. They do not keep a ‘law’ of any kind, nor even the most basic creational order that is implanted in them due to the image of God. Instead, they have cast off the knowledge of their Creator, and abused their duties to him and to fellow men. Thus, Paul’s ‘wise’ Greeks are in radical contrast to Moo’s: Paul’s pagan Greeks are idolaters and men-haters; Moo’s pagan Greeks are wise enough to “do the things of the Law” due to an innate morality and law.

The next article delves into Romans 2 and the subject of the value that Paul sets upon the Gentiles who do the things of the Law.

[1] J. A. Harley, “Some comments on phusei in Romans 2:14”, All Things New Covenant, May 9, 2023,

[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018): Kindle, Rom.2:14.

[3] Ibid.