I’ve written quite a bit on the “available light” theory over the years. But reader and regular commenter Price has suggested I need to do a better job of explaining how Romans 2 fits into my understanding. I think he’s right.
For those new to the discussion, the “available light” theory is that, for those who’ve never heard the gospel, God will judge them based on what portion of God’s will they know and not hold them accountable for that portion of God’s will they’ve not become aware of — either through the Scriptures or from Christians, their culture, their own moral natures, or observing nature.
This much I think is true and clearly demonstrated by a close reading of Romans, especially Romans 5. We are only accountable for so much of God’s will as has been revealed to us.
However, the available light supporters further argue, based on Romans 2, that some who’ve never heard of Jesus will meet this standard, that is, that they’ll actually merit salvation based on their limited understanding of God’s will. Others would say that, no, none will be saved by their own merits — by works — but they’ll be saved by God’s grace in response to their limited “faith” — believing in God to the extent of revelation received.
I critiqued this view at length in a series posted recently called “A Conversation Over Lunch” (type that phrase into the search box above, within quotation marks, and the series will pop right up), and I’ll not repeat my criticisms here (it was a very long series). Rather, the purpose of this post is to attempt an interpretation of Romans 2 that takes into account my recent studies of the Old Testament background of Paul’s theology discussed in the “Faith That Works” series still ongoing, particularly —
You see, when you read Paul in light of the Law and the Prophets, particularly in light of the prophecies regarding the “new covenant,” “circumcision of the heart,” and the Spirit, our understanding of Romans 2 shifts. A lot.
The Book of Jubilees
That my interpretation of these passages was commonly understood among First Century Jews is evidenced not only by the way Paul treats them in Romans and Galatians but also by the Book of Jubilees, an uninspired work written about 150 years before Paul.
1:21 But they are Thy people and Thy inheritance, which thou hast delivered with thy great power from the hands of the Egyptians: create in them a clean heart and a holy spirit, and let them not be ensnared in their sins from henceforth until eternity.’
The author applies David’s prayer in Psalm 51:10 to the Jews in general.
22 And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘I know their contrariness and their thoughts and their stiffneckedness, and they will not be obedient till they confess their own sin and the sin of their fathers.
He quotes from Deu 31:27, from the Song of Moses.
23 And after this they will turn to Me in all uprightness and with all (their) heart and with all (their) soul, and I will circumcise the foreskin of their heart and the foreskin of the heart of their seed, and I will create in them a holy spirit, and I will cleanse them so that they shall not turn away from Me from that day unto eternity.
The author associates Deu 30:6 with Psa 51:10.
26 And do thou write down for thyself all these words which I declare unto thee on this mountain, the first and the last, which shall come to pass in all the divisions of the days in the law and in the testimony and in the weeks and the jubilees unto eternity, until I descend and dwell with them throughout eternity.’
“Dwell with them throughout eternity,” of course, anticipates God descent to earth in Rev 21 as well as his presence dwelling within the church via his Holy Spirit.
In sum, when Paul speaks of “circumcision of the heart,” he is referring to a theme that a good First Century Jew would immediately recognize, indeed, a theme that in their minds was part of God’s promises dealing with the Kingdom and the Messiah — a time in world history that had been fervently prayed for by the Jews for centuries.
Romans 2, Taught Backward
Sometimes you have to start with the conclusion.
(Rom 2:29 ESV) But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Paul is building his case on Deu 30:6 —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
This passage is ignored in much Christian teaching, but it’s the basis for a series of important prophecies addressing the new covenant, the outpouring of the Spirit, and God’s re-shaping the hearts of the people when his Kingdom is established — all as explained in earlier posts in the Faith That Works series.
An old promise fulfilled in a new way
Paul announces not so much a new doctrine as the fulfillment of a very old promise. But he draws the truly startling conclusion that the promise applies not only to Jews but to Gentiles!
His point is that Gentiles are saved and joined into Christian community by the same means by which Jews are saved and joined into Christian community: receipt of the Spirit from the hand of God. And because his readers have seen and experienced exactly this, circumcision of the flesh is plainly no barrier to the entry of Gentiles at all.
If a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law
(Rom 2:26-28 ESV) 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised [a Gentile] keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically [by nature] uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.
This would truly be shocking to a Jewish reader. After all, they expected God to redeem Israel by pouring out his Spirit on the Jews and by circumcising the hearts of the Jews! But by the time Paul wrote Romans, Cornelius has been saved, the Jerusalem council had met and approved admission of the Gentiles without circumcision, and many thousands of Gentiles had not only confessed Jesus and been baptized, they’d received the Spirit.
Keeping the law
Now, here’s the hard question: How could Paul say that a Gentile “keeps the precepts of the law” or “keeps the law”? After all, if by “law” Paul means the 613 commands contained in the Law of Moses, obviously not. For that matter, if Paul is referring to moral perfection, obviously not.
And yet his argument hinges on the assumption that his readers know the Gentiles keep the law? What on earth does this mean?
I think the answer is found way over in chapter 7, in the only other reference to “written code” in Romans —
(Rom 7:6 ESV) 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Paul does not explain himself — at least not very clearly — in Romans 2, because he’s setting up a much more complete discussion in chapters 7 and 8, when he discusses the work of the Spirit in some detail. Rather, he’s setting up the principle, planning to explain later.
Thus, to “keep the law” or “keep the precepts of the law” is the same thing as “serve in the new way of the Spirit.” In other words, “keep the law” in Rom 2:27 is to keep “the law of the Spirit of life.”
(Rom 8:2 ESV) 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Now, if we’ll allow Paul to span 7 chapters in this thoughts, this makes perfect sense. After all, his point in Rom 2:29 is that the Gentiles are saved because they have the Spirit as evidenced by their circumcised hearts, evidenced by their Spirit-filled lives.
He’s not saying that the Gentiles earned their way into heaven. Obviously. He’s not saying that the Gentiles are more obedient than the Jews. No, he’s saying that the Gentiles who’ve been converted show by their hearts that they’ve been accepted by God — because God circumcised their hearts just as he promised to circumcise the hearts of the Jews (and did, for those Jews with faith in Jesus).
This is actually how most of us read these verses, but we get there by ignoring the literal words and applying the obvious sense. We ignore the fact that Paul speaks of “keeping the law” and instead emphasize the Gentiles’ eligibility for salvation as shown by their receipt of the Spirit.
Matthew Henry’s commentary says,
It is the heart that God looks at, the circumcising of the heart that renders us acceptable to him. See Deut. xxx. 6. This is the circumcision that is not made with hands, Col. ii. 11, 12. Casting away the body of sin. So it is in the spirit, in our spirit as the subject, and wrought by God’s Spirit as the author of it.
In fact, David Lipscomb, in his commentary on Romans in the Gospel Advocate series, concludes,
He is a true Jew approved of God who is one inwardly, and the circumcision is that of the heart. He alone who is such commends himself to God, who sees the secrets of the heart. The hidden man of the heart, and not the outward Jew, with his outward circumcision and mere letter, will meet with the approval of God.
While Lipscomb ignores the work of the Spirit, he acknowledges that the passage is speaking of God’s judgment of the heart rather than literal obedience to the law of Moses, as though anyone could earn salvation that way.
J. W. Shepherd adds this editorial comment–
In the word “inwardly” Paul lays his first cornerstone of the foundation of the edifice in Jesus Christ, and breaks the ground for the gospel. In this soil it is to take root and grow. Faith is within—”with the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (10:10)—and justification is by faith (5:1).
Thus, in this passage, all agree that by “keeps the law” Paul is not speaking of the Law of Moses or morality or the ethics of one’s culture, but the condition of a believer’s heart before God — in particular, whether the heart has God’s law written on it by his Spirit, that is, whether he keeps the Torah of the Spirit of life.
As we considered earlier in the Faith That Works series, the question is thus whether the believer acts in accordance with the character of God/image of Christ written on his heart — not perfectly, of course, but as evidence of receipt of the Spirit and a penitent walk with God.
Remember, Paul is writing within the prophetic background in which Jeremiah and Ezekiel plainly declare that the giving of the Spirit will produce obedience to the law —
(Eze 36:27 ESV) And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
(Jer 31:33 ESV) 3 For 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.
Now, to a Jewish rabbi steeped in the Prophets, of course, it’s proper to refer to those with the Spirit as obeying the law! God promised it!
On the other hand, anyone who has spent much time in church knows that Christians obey God’s law imperfectly — at times, very poorly. Sometimes we push the Spirit nearly entirely out of lives and our congregations. Ezekiel’s promise doesn’t always come true.
Nonetheless, so long as we remain in grace — until we fall away — in God’s eyes, we are judged righteous. And it’s the nature of grace and the Spirit to urge us forward, toward ever-increasing obedience.
The Spirit within us may glow in glory or may be an ashen ember, barely on fire at all, but so long as the Spirit is present at all, it has some influence, and that influence produces obedience to God’s law — enough obedience that God counts us righteous — because of our faith.