by Angus Harley
In two previous articles, I have argued that the term phusei in Romans 2:14 is used to describe the Gentiles as not having the Law; it has nothing to do with actually keeping a form of the Law of Moses. I then defended this thesis from Romans 1 and 3 by showing that Paul’s record of the pagan Gentiles is that they are the darkest of idolaters and perverts. There is not a smidgeon of hope in Paul’s record that these pagan Gentiles are capable of resembling a righteous person.
In this article, I put forward the argument that the Gentiles of Romans 2:14-15 are, therefore, Christians, New-Covenant Gentiles. To set the scene, we’ll take a look at Paul’s general argument in Romans 2.
Paul’s general argument
Romans 2 is the missing link between Romans 1 and 3 and their negative assessments of Jew and Greek. Romans 1:38-32 and 3:9-20 refer to pagan-Gentile depravity. Whereas, Romans 2 and Romans 3:9-20 teach the Jews’ moral depravity.
In Romans 2, the arrogant claim of the Jews was that they were totally unlike the pagan Jews, and were morally upright, following the commandments of the Law of Moses. Paul destroys this argument in Romans 2. Let’s look at it in closer detail.
Paul sets out his stall in v1, and could not have been any clearer when he said that the Jews were as guilty as the pagan Gentiles:
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.
Paul leaves no room at all for any qualification, just as Romans 3:9-20 details.
He goes on to tackle the Jews according to their own reliance on the Mosaic Law and the OT’s teaching about Judgment Day. Paul cites examples of Jewish behavior, in which they violate the Mosaic Law and thereby place themselves into the category of those awaiting God’s condemnation on Judgment Day:
21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? 22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? 24 For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.
From the above we see that, just as the pagan Gentiles rejected their duty to God and man, so did the Jews, yet they had the Mosaic Law, at the center of which was the Ten Words.
Moreover, just as the Gentiles double-down on their depraved and reprobate behavior, so the Jews, knowing the mind and will of God from Scripture, nonetheless ignore the divine warnings about judgment, to plunge headlong into one violation after another of God’s revealed will:
3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God….
The Gentiles of Romans 2
The Gentiles of 2:14-15 are so utterly different to the pagan Gentiles of Romans 1 and 3, that there is no way we can say that they are the same. Who are they, then? They are the same Gentiles Paul talks to in 1:1-17, namely, the Romans and their like: Gentiles who had believed in the Gospel. Commentators have artificially divided 1:1-17 from 1:18-3:20. Both Jewish and Gentile converts are ‘in play’ even though Paul is directly dealing with why the Gospel had to come to both Jew and pagan Gentile in the first place. This allows Paul to weave the story of converted Gentiles into his argument against the Law-breaking Jews to make a radical contrast, to magnify and consolidate his argument that the Jews are guilty before God.
That these Gentiles are different is drawn out by various comments that Paul makes.
Generic. Paul doesn’t use an article with “Gentiles” (ethnay) in 2:14, giving to the term a generic meaning. For generically speaking, “Gentiles” are wicked, yet some “do the things of the Law”.
No sliding scale. A major factor is that Paul’s divisions in context are absolute. You either please God by doing his will, or you don’t. There’s no middle ground. Either the Jew is obedient, or he is not; either the Gentile is obedient, or he is not. Judgment Day will reveal who was, and who was not, obedient: Plainly, the Jews of Romans 2 do not keep the Law of Moses. Why, then, would Paul contrast them with pagan Gentiles? By definition, a pagan Gentile is incapable of keeping God’s will. Even the common view that these same pagan Gentiles can muster up righteous behavior is insufficient an argument contextually. For the Jews did not commit every sin imaginable, and did, externally at least, uphold a form of ‘righteousness’, in that they did not bow down to physical idols. Nor did the first-century Jews commit the exact same sins as the pagan Gentiles, such as, for example, eating meat offered to idols and fornication (Acts 15:20). Why does not Paul say of those Jews that they are “doing the things of the Law”? After all, this would be exactly the same as pagan Gentiles who managed to be righteous in certain things. What is the difference between a pagan idolater who eats meat sacrificed to demons, but who does not steal or sleep with his neighbor’s wife, and a Jew who doesn’t worship idols, doesn’t eat food offered to idols, yet does steal? Put another way, the traditional reading of Romans 2:14 is, effectively, a sliding-scale of righteousness, ranging from pure evil to mainly righteous. Paul’s thinking is the exact opposite: you’re either fully in or fully out, obedient or disobedient. There’s no in-between status, no sliding scale of righteousness. For if there were, every Gentile and Jew would be acceptable to God, for there is not a person alive who has not done some good, and not pulled off a series of upright behaviors!
Romans 2:25-29. In these verses, Paul has not broken off from the same subject matter and groups brought up in 2:13-15:
13 for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. 14For 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….25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law?
Given the above, there can be little doubt that the Gentiles of 2:13-14 and 25-29 are valued as Christians.
This value is drawn out by Paul’s concept of a true Jew. If a ‘true’ Jew is one who is spiritually a Jew, not physically, and if true circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the Law, then these ‘Jews’ are NC believers. Now, because vv25-27 are concerned with the contrast between obedient Gentiles and fleshly Jews, we are to assume that these Gentiles are Spiritually circumcised, too. The Gentiles who keep the requirements of the Law, and fulfill it, will judge those Jews who do not keep the Law. In the sliding-scale interpretation of the traditional reading, such an outcome is impossible, for in that paradigm the Gentiles are idolatrous, depraved, and yet, rather bizarrely, righteous at the same time! Such Gentiles could not judge even themselves, for they are all the same (a point I will come back to). The Gentiles of 2:25-29, on the other hand, are those who do obey God.
The logical terminus of this argument is that the Gentiles of 2:25-29 are described as being, effectively, ‘Jewish’ Christians:
25 For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 29 But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
In the above, Paul makes what can only be described as an outrageous statement about the true Jew. I say “outrageous” because traditionally to be a Jew one had to be physically a Jew, to the point that, the males were circumcised in the flesh to mark the physicality of Israel’s relationship to Yahweh. Even so, Paul says that circumcision of the flesh is rejected, “not by the letter”! What is monstrous is that Paul says these things about a true Jew immediately after saying that the Gentiles who are obedient will judge the Jews of the flesh. This is “monstrous” partly because, like before, the idea that Gentiles would judge Israelites is anathema to the setup of the Law and the OT. The other reason it is “monstrous” is because Paul is implying that these obedient Gentiles are effectively behaving as true Jews, those circumcised in the heart, by the Spirit. If we take a moment to process Paul’s language, we would have to conclude that he is now operating with a wholly different definition of a “Jew”, for up unto the first-century, a Jew was one born physically a Jew, or a Gentile who attached himself/herself to that physical community. To entirely remove this completely physical standard and entryway was to erase traditional Jewishness itself! To locate Jewishness in the heart was, conversely, an exclusively new definition and standard, which opened the door for Gentiles not merely to attach themselves to ‘Jews’, but to become ‘Jews’ themselves. As long as one had a circumcised heart, by the Spirit, one was a ‘Jew’!
Paul pursues this same argument in Romans 9-11, where he argues that there are two Israels: one of the flesh, and one of the promise, “That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants” (9:6). Abraham’s seed were measured solely by the promise, the flesh being entirely rejected. This opens the door for all the Gentiles of faith to be identified directly as Abraham’s true seed, as Romans 4:9-19 argues:
9 Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. 18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.”
Law to themselves
Reflecting back to the Gentiles in Romans 2:14-15, we see the NC nature of their condition and actions. The Gentiles are said to be a “law unto themselves” (heautois eisin), a highly unusual phrase, which is explicated in v15. It says, “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”.
“the work of the law written on their hearts”. This is taken by the majority reading to denote an innate moral law given at creation to man. I am not going to rehearse the arguments I made previously that the Scripture does not anywhere condone such a view.
The above phrase is undeniably NC language referring to a new-order blessing. Jeremiah 31:33 states, ” “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it” ” (see Jer.38:33, LXX). Why would Paul, theologian par excellence, potentially mislead and confuse his readers with the notion that pagan Gentiles could not only ‘keep the Law’, but that, in essence, the very core of the NC blessing was in their hearts? The closest the OT comes to the language of Jeremiah 31:33 is that of the man of God David saying that he had put the Law in his heart (Psa.37:31; 40:8), and when Isaiah writes of the righteous Israelites, ” “Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, a people in whose heart is My law; do not fear the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings” (Isa.51:7). The evidence is incontrovertible: only those truly righteous had the ‘law’ of God in the heart. Pagan Gentiles who were supposedly outwardly ‘good folks’ is the furthest thing from Paul’s mind, therefore.
“their conscience…defending them”. This verse is taken as evidence that the ‘moral’ pagan Gentiles had a keen sense of right and wrong. However, as argued in other places, the Gentiles of Romans 1 and 3 were entirely depraved. To be pointed, a characteristic of both Jews and Gentiles is that they mistreat one another, the result being there is no notion of a sense of moral accountability between them. Just as there is no evidence in the NT that the Jews were willing to accept their status as sinners until Jesus and John came along (Matt.9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31), so there is no evidence in the NT, or OT, that the Gentiles complied with the knowledge that they were perverted. Contrary to yet another majority reading, Romans 7 does not imply that Jews naturally wrestle with right and wrong. Indeed, the whole context is about Jews being showed, by the Law, the enslaved status of their flesh, only to find relief for the soul in the mercies of Christ Jesus. To be more specific, Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 is not that of Joe-blo Jew who wrestles with the Law’s potency. On the contrary, Paul is testifying that, with the appearance of the Gospel, the Law of Moses was exposed in its true value, so its ‘goodness’ was revealed: it entrapped men in sin. Put another way, Paul’s commentary in Romans 7 is, ultimately, about the power of the Gospel and its knock-on effects. But this ought not to surprise us, for he has already used the precisely same approach here in Romans 2 (see ahead).
The conscience of these Gentiles is part of a dual witness (summartureo) (Rom.8:16; 9:1). This extra witness might refer to the mere fact of the work of the Law being written on the heart, but it is more likely that it is that the Gentiles “show” (endeiknumi) this work of the Law that is written on the heart. Their actions combined with the testimony of the conscience form a dual witness to the reality of the work of the Law written on the heart.
The particular form of “showing” this work of the Law written on the heart is further refined to say, “their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them”. That is, completely unlike the pagan Gentiles and fleshly Jews, these Gentiles actually do take each other to task and expect compliance with the work of the Law written on the heart. In other words, these Gentiles were not wrestling with something negative such as a stained conscience; nor was it about the individual’s conscience as such that was doing some internal wrestling all on its own. It is the Gentiles as a group that is referred to, and their interaction with one another. Their conscience was at work as they evaluated one another, witnessing on that basis, in the same way that Paul’s conscience witnessed to him in regard to his attitude toward the assemblies (see Rom.9:1; 13:5; 2 Cor.1:12; 1 Tim.1:5, 19; 3:9; 2 Tim.1:3). Specifically, their “thoughts” accused or defended them. This, again, is not referring to an individual’s wranglings, but to the public witness. Thus, Paul refers to the logismos, which in 2 Corinthians 10:5- its only other usage- refers to public arguments or speculations. In simple terms, Paul is effectively saying that the Gentiles were engaging in the same form of internal evaluation that each assembly goes through in regard to the Gospel, and which his own letters exemplify.
Embodying the things of the Law
These NC Gentiles were a “law to themselves”, a condition similar to that describing other believers in the NT. In the OT, the Jews ‘wore’ the Mosaic Law on their flesh, meaning that it was all about their external, material, fleshly condition. They were physically circumcised, the Ten Words were written on physical stones, they physically tied commandments to their arm, the Jews were born according to the flesh, they lived in a physical land, were rewarded with material blessings, cursed with material and physical curses, worshiped through the human senses of the body, used literal animal sacrifices, and worshiped within a literal ‘bricks ‘n’ mortar’ temple. Thus Moses ‘wore’ the temporary divine glory on his actual physical face (2 Cor.3:7-11). By sharp contrast, the believers in Christ, even those who were Gentiles, were Spiritual beings, whose “inner man” was glorified with the permanent and growing glory of the Christ (2 Cor.3:16-18; 4:6, 16). Their glory was not, in other words, in the flesh.
A similar condition to the Gentile believers is found in 2 Corinthians 3. Paul writes that the Corinthian believers were written on the hearts of the apostolic band, and that this is in direct contrast to the letter of the Ten Words that were written in stone (2 Cor.3:1-3). By implication, Paul is teaching that the New Covenant model is that people are the embodiment of the law and letter of Christ. The law of God is metaphorically incarnated, fixed in the realm of the “inner man”, not of the flesh. This is in direct opposition to the actual written precepts of the Mosaic Law that were on stone, on two tablets. It is not commandments and precepts that constitute the law of Christ, therefore, it is the Spirit’s glorifying presence in believers’ inner man turning them into the very image of the Christ himself (see Rom.8:1-4). Hallelujah, what a Savior!
James 1:23-25 conveys a similar model of the NC law. It is fascinating that the Gospel-law and its message is described metaphorically as being like a mirror, and the believer when looking into it does not see commandments and precepts, but sees himself, the inner man!
Judgment according to Paul’s Gospel
The final subject I want to talk about is that in 2:16 Paul refers to judgment according to his Gospel upon the final day. Why does Paul refer to a judgment by “his Gospel” when, in context, God’s judgment on Judgment Day is measured by the Mosaic Law: those under it, those outside of it?
It is of crucial importance to Paul’s position that in 2:1-16 he is taking away from the Jews their own claim to righteousness by the Law (Rom.10:3-4), so that, eventually, he comes back to the Gospel. This is the same theme pursued throughout Romans 1 and 3. The Jews claimed they were Mosaic Law-keepers, but they grossly violated this Law. In sharp contrast, the Gentile believers did the “the things of the Law”, by the power of the internal Spirit, thereby showing the radical divide between the Law and the power of the Gospel and the blessing of Abraham- the Spirit (Gal.3:14).
Now, if ‘law’ per se were Paul’s focus in Romans 2, why would he mention “Gospel”? Indeed, why goes as far as to refer to “my Gospel”? The Law has nothing to do with the Gospel. What possible connection does the presumed obedience of pagan-idolaters have with Paul’s Gospel? The factor of Paul referring to his own Gospel is so decisive that it makes it impossible to defend the majority reading of Romans 2:14. For the Gospel’s measurement is an absolute measurement: you’re either in or out! Paul calls it his Gospel because, just like the Gentile believers of 2:14-14, his conscience is bearing witness to his apostolic authority and to the NC Gospel. They mimic him; he mimics them. There is in this utterly and entirely no room for the slightest semblance of the idea that pagan Gentiles can perform a partial form of righteousness, or even a temporal form of complete righteousness.
I appeal to the reader: remove, for the moment, the interpretive spectacles of the majority view, and replace them with NC lenses. Now, what do you see? Do you not see a Gospel message? And do you not observe NC language, and NC behavior, by, of all people, the Gentiles? Is this not the remarkable, ineffable, glory of the Gospel, that it takes pagan Gentiles, and hypocritical Jews, and saves them by faith in the cross of Christ?
I am aware that Moo’s argument is far deeper than I’ve conveyed. Nor have I made clear how the believer within the NC can have the “things of the Law” in the heart. How can believers have the Mosaic Law on their hearts, as proposed by Gathercole, for example? I will interact with Moo and Gathercole in my final article, and come to different conclusions to both scholars.
 J. A. Harley, “Some comments on phusei in Romans 2:14”, All Things New Covenant, May 9, 2023, https://allthingsnewcovenant.com/2023/05/09/some-comments-on-phusei-in-romans-214/?fbclid=IwAR16RmvfpB3R8Y3cjpJCB3aa1sYxKaruvD3bRL57tegWfrjqGoUT2orKySs.
 J. A. Harley, “Some more comments on Romans 2:14,” All Things New Covenant, May 10, 2023, https://allthingsnewcovenant.com/2023/05/10/some-more-comments-on-romans-214/.