Considering Paul’s use of diatribe, what is Paul arguing in Romans 2? Clearly he is arguing against a Jewish fleshy supremacy over gentiles. According to Paul, being a circumcised Jew is not anymore beneficial before God then a gentile. He deconstructs his Jewish opponent’s arrogant stance in several ways. Firstly, in 2:1-5 Paul says that their prideful stance makes them oblivious to their need for God’s mercy. Secondly, in vv. 6-11 Paul appeals to the impartiality of God the judge; He gives to each person his due, to the Jew first and also the Greek. The Jew receives no special benefit before the throne of God. Thirdly, he exposes their hypocrisy in vv. 17-24. Though they have been given the law and the wisdom of God they still do not obey their own teachings. They say don’t steal yet they steal and etc. Lastly, Paul deals with works and covenant identity. This is probably the most controversial aspect in this chapter of Romans so I will deal with it with more care.
In v. 13, Paul writes, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” This verse alone seems contradictory to Grace. How can anything man does justify him before God, especially in light of the fact that Paul has already condemned the deeds of the gentiles and exposed the judgmental hypocrisy of the Jews? Who can do the works necessary to be justified before God? It is at this time that we need to take a closer look at the text.
In v. 12-16 Paul is contrasting the Jews and the Gentiles. In v. 14 he writes, “For when the Gentiles, who do not have the law by nature, do what the law requires, they are law to themselves.” Paul reiterating the fact that God is impartial. The Jews who have the law but do not obey it will be condemned. The Gentiles who do not have the law but do the deeds of the law will be judged worthy. The problem is what gentiles actually do the deeds of the law? It is certainly not the idol worshipping Gentiles from Romans 1.
I believe the solution is to be found in Paul’s understanding of redemptive history and eschatology. Paul has eschatological categories in mind in Romans 2. He is thinking of the future judgment of God as demonstrated by his use of the phrase “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment is revealed.”43 He also writes in vs. 16, “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Paul is clearly working with an eschatological framework.
This is important to consider when answering the aforementioned question, “what Gentiles are the doers of the law?” According to v. 15, they are the ones who “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts…” Paul is alluding here to Jeremiah 31:33, “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” 44 The main difference between these Gentiles and both Jews and Pagan Gentiles is that they are in the New Covenant. It is those who belong to the New Covenant that have the law written on their hearts and obey God. It is not an obedience of the outward flesh but an inward change of the heart that bears the fruit of good works. The Jews have the law in letter but Gentile Christians have it in their heart.45 It is the inward heart that God judges.
This is made clear in v. 16, “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” According to Paul’s gospel, God judges the secrets (κρυπτα) of men. What are these “secrets of men” that God will judge? Paul makes this clear in vv. 25-29. Here Paul is discussing the relationship of covenant identity (i.e. circumcision) with obedience of the law. Verses 28-29 are very significant when he states, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one secretly (κρυπτω), and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” The “secrets of men” that God judges are whether or not people are inwardly Jews. God’s judgment is not about ethnicity but it is about the work of the Spirit which creates a new covenant identity. This covenant identity entails bearing good fruit. Outside of this new covenant community it is impossible to bear the fruit of God. Therefore, both Pagans and Jews are equally condemned outside of Christ. Circumcision of the flesh is no benefit.
What are the implications of this understanding of Romans 2? Firstly, justification (in this instance) is considered forensic in nature, meaning that it is God declaring his people righteous. Secondly, works are a result of our covenant status (i.e. circumcised heart) and not the vice versa. We do not work our way into the covenant but we are recreated into the New Covenant people through the Holy Spirit. The New Covenant was created because of the grace of God. Lastly, this justification happens in the future when “God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” In the Day of Judgment, God will declare us righteous based on the ontological renewal He has worked in us through the Spirit of Christ.46
It is important to remember that Romans 2 is not a comprehensive nor systematic understanding of justification. Rather, Paul is framing justification in a specific way in order to humble his fictitious Jewish opponent. The status of the New Covenant members is not based on ethnicity but on the preeminent grace of God who circumcises hearts in Christ. As we will see he continues this argument into the next chapters of Romans as he brings up how the atonement also justifies those who have faith. We have to keep our understanding of Romans within a polemical framework.