Understanding Romans 2:13: Did Paul contradict himself?


“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. (Romans 2:13)

In Romans 2, the apostle Paul shifts from his polemic against the idolatrous and immoral Gentiles back in Romans 1 (something which all the nationalist Jews of his era would have likely uttered an hearty “amen” about) and shines the spotlight on the Jew. His logic is straight forward. God’s judgment is just. If the Jew is breaking God’s law then he will be condemned just as verily as the rebellious Gentile back in chapter 1 because there is no partiality with God.

“Who will render to every man ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS 7 To them who by patient continuance IN WELL DOING seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life:8 But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,9 Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man THAT DOETH EVIL, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man THAT WORKETH GOOD, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:11 For there is no respect of persons with God (Romans 2:6-11)

If anyone reads this and somehow misses the focus on deeds then there is a strange blindness upon them. Let’s keep reading.

“For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law (Romans 2:12)

Here, Paul explains how God’s judgment will be impartial. Both the Jew and Gentile will be judged according to their deeds but the Gentile sinners, who had not received the revelation of God’s law like the Jews had, will perish apart from it. The Jews, on the other hand, who had received the law will be held accountable to it. You see the Gentiles had received God’s law but in a generic sense. The Jews, on the other hand, had it as an explicit revelation, literally written down. Paul continues on to explain how the law works as the basis of God’s judgment for both Jew and Gentile in a parenthetical clause. That’s why it’s in brackets.

“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. (Romans 2:13)

Paul’s statement here is unambiguous. Those who shall be justified in the day of God’s judgment are not those who hear the law but those who do it.

Now pay close attention here. Paul did not say that those who do the law are therefore justified. That would be putting the cart before the horse and make him contradict himself. God forbid! Rather Paul is explaining the lawful behavior of the justified. They do the law! Nothing surprising there.

Let’s continue with his parenthetical statement because it will become even more clear as to how this doing of the law is happening with this unusual class of Gentiles.

“For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, DO BY NATURE THE THINGS CONTAINED IN THE LAW, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:15 Which SHEW THE WORK OF THE LAW WRITTEN IN THEIR HEARTS, THEIR CONSCIENCE ALSO BEARING WITNESS, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) (Romans 2:14, 15)

By an amazing miracle of God’s grace, these Gentiles have God’s law written in their hearts! While they never received the explicit revelation of God’s law like how the Jews did they are nevertheless obeying what they perceive of God’s law by conscience. Their works show that God’s law has been written in their hearts. That is New Covenant theology, if you know its promise.

So what is happening here? Is the law justifying them? No! What is occurring is that these Gentiles have accepted the revelation of God that was given to them (Romans 1:20, 32). They perceive something of His law. While it is generic, when compared to the Jew’s express knowledge of God’s law, these Gentile hearts were open to YHWH. Thus God’s Spirit, having written the law within their hearts, guides them accordingly. Thus they were actually keeping God’s law in a generic sense. That puts them in a better position that the disobedient Jew as Paul explains later on:

“Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?27 And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? (Romans 2:26, 27)

Paul’s point here is that it was better to be an uncircumcised Gentile who was following the law of God generically, as revealed by nature, than it was to be a circumcised Jew who was breaking God’s law specifically. Paul knew and taught that the Jew had an advantage over the Gentile in that the Jew possessed the form of knowledge and truth in the written law and could therefore know God’s will much better and approve the things that were more excellent, by means of the instruction therein.

Anyhow, getting back to the salient point, the law written in the heart, which is the work of the Spirit, produces a doing of the law. That is why the doers of the law will be justified “in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel (Romans 2:16)

So what are we saying? Just this, Romans 2:13 teaches us that the doing of the law reveals the justified but it does not teach us that doing the law is the root of salvation. It is a fruit or product, not the root. It is the work of Jesus that justifies and His gift of the Spirit received (remember the Spirit writes the law in the heart under the New Covenant thereby producing works in harmony with it), that is the root of justification. Thus Paul has not contradicted himself or his larger point in Romans about the inability of any man to earn his own justification by means of the law.

For Paul there is a dual truth when it comes to doing the law and justification. Here it is:

Dual Truth Part 1:

A justified person does God’s law from out of the heart because the Spirit causes a turning away from sin and a doing of righteousness.

Dual Truth Part 2;

An unjustified person can never earn justification by his own efforts to keep God’s law because the law, in and of itself, has no power to produce righteousness but serves to identify sin.