The moral law within
(Rom 2:1 ESV) Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
Paul continues to demonstrate why God can fairly hold Gentiles accountable for their sins, even though they didn’t have the Torah or other scriptures. And his argument is simple: everyone condemns other people for sins that they themselves commit.
We all get upset when someone breaks in line ahead of us, and we’ve all broken in line. Men get mad when someone ogles our wife, and we men have all ogled the wives of other men. We all condemn those who steal from us, and we’ve all cheated on our taxes or failed to return excess change.
(Rom 2:2-3 ESV) 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself — that you will escape the judgment of God?
And so God can fairly judge and damn everyone according to his own standards. You may not know all of God’s will, but you instinctively know enough about what is right and wrong to condemn others for what you yourself do. Therefore, God’s judgment rightly falls on us all.
(Rom 2:4-5 ESV) 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
Paul now introduces a new idea: the kindness, patience, and forbearance of God.
God’s patience appears later in —
(Rom 9:22-25 ESV) 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? 25 As indeed he says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.'”
For thousands of years, God did not call the Gentiles to account — so that when the time was right, they would accept God’s grace and enter the Kingdom.
This fits in with the larger story, also suggested by —
(Rom 3:22b-25 ESV) 22 For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.
In short, although God could have justly damned the Gentiles for their sins before the sacrifice of Jesus, he chose not to. I don’t think this means they received eternal life, because in chapter 5, Paul declares that death prevailed during that time. Rather, I think it means they died without judgment and punishment.
(Rom 5:14 ESV) 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
(Rom 5:17 ESV) 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Both in Rom 2:4 and Rom 11:22, Paul refers to God’s “kindness” toward the Gentiles. God was kind to forbear to punish their sins until Jesus came. He was also kind to invite them into the Kingdom through faith.
(Rom 11:22 ESV) 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
In short, Paul argument is that God was kinder to the Gentiles before Jesus than they deserved — passing over their sins, leaving them unpunished other than by physical death. But God was even kinder after Jesus’ sacrifice, inviting them into the Kingdom so that they may enjoy eternal life with God. But the price of this second act of kindness was the risk of judgment — punishment after the end of time.
Now, is any of this fair? No. As Paul convincingly demonstrates, justice would have been punishment of the Gentiles for the sins they were accountable for. But God was more than fair in his kindness, forbearance, and patience.
But God did an amazing thing. In fulfillment of his promises to Abraham (as explained in chapter 4), God invited the nations into the Kingdom when the Messiah came and the Kingdom was established. At this point, the rules changed. The Gentiles, having been called, became subject to both the blessings and curses that come with the call. They have the potential to enjoy eternity with God or to suffer a just punishment.
They will not suffer anything less than fair; they will either receive justice or grace.