There are, of course, passages that the Available Light advocates argue from. I covered them in the Available Light series some time ago.
The most heavily relied upon passage, in my experience, is —
(Rom. 2:6-8 NET) 6 He will reward each one according to his works: 7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, 8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.
If Paul is speaking of those outside the Kingdom who’ve never heard the gospel, then these verses reads like a promise of works salvation for those people. And as soon as I say that, the problem with such a reading becomes manifest. The reason God gives us grace is that no one will be justified by works.
Second, it’s hardly obvious that this passage is limited to those who’ve never heard the gospel. V. 8 refers to those who “do not obey the truth,” which surely means those who do not believe in Jesus. And it seems to plainly include those who’ve heard the gospel and rejected it. (Regarding the meaning of “truth,” see this series.) So how do the same rules apply to those who’ve rejected the gospel, and those who’ve never heard the gospel?
Third, in Paul, “righteousness” generally refers to covenant faithfulness. See these posts:
Thus, to be unrighteous is to violate the covenant — but God is in covenant relationship only with his children, Christians. (Technically, the unbelieving Jews are in covenant relationship but remain in exile due to their unbelief. Hence, God’s promises to them will be kept if they come to faith in Jesus.) You can’t breach a covenant you are not a party to. And only Jews and believing Gentiles meet this qualification.
Now, this is a New Perspective argument that our preachers and teachers are largely unfamiliar with, and so it’s not obvious to most readers. But it’s there.
Verse by verse
A note on hermeneutics
Now, I’m going to suggest a very different way of reading Romans 2 than what is found in most commentaries. The traditional readings are heavily biased by Medieval and Reformation theology — which brings the wrong questions to the table. The New Perspective on Paul, beginning with J. P. Sanders and built on by Richard Hays and N. T. Wright, urges that we read chapter 2 (and all of Paul) in light of the First Century Jewish worldview and expectations. So they begin with a historical investigation as to how the Jews of Paul’s day thought.
Not surprisingly, the historians find that First Century Jews thought in OT categories — not Reformation categories. They were steeped in the scriptures. And they knew these passages especially well because they speak of the coming of the Kingdom and the Messiah.
So Paul considered it sufficient to merely allude to these passages using familiar turns of phrase. He builds Rom 8, 12, and 13 on top of the OT revelations about the scriptures. He doesn’t create a new Spirit theology. He takes the existing theology taught by Moses and the Prophets and fleshes it out in light of the work of Jesus.
This results in a radically different interpretation of chapter 2, but it works far better than the traditional reading — which largely ignores the OT background and instead begins by trying to answer questions about faith and works raised by the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences during the time of Luther and Calvin.
Indeed, the usual reading is that Paul sets up a straw man — the idea of being saved by obedience to the law — which is impossible. In fact, Paul says that salvation only comes by obedience — and obedience only comes by the indwelling Spirit. He’ll then explain in chapter 8 that the possession of the Spirit and allowing the Spirit to lead us satisfies “the law of the Spirit of life” or “the Torah of the Spirit of life” — the law that matters, the law as interpreted in light of the cross. And this, we are told, is “love one another” and “love your neighbor,” which takes us to back to very familiar territory — the very words of Jesus.
Notice that the OT prophecies (I’ll quote some but not all) say that the indwelling Spirit will produce obedience to the law. Paul takes that promise very seriously. We don’t. One reason is that we see “law” as being about rules for how to worship and organize a church rather than love. And the Spirit does not write “no missionary societies” on anyone’s heart. But if we were to follow the scriptures and take Paul and Jesus seriously about what laws matter, we’ll see that they’re the same laws the Spirit is busily writing on our hearts — the perfect law of love.
Here’s a highly abbreviated explanation. Notice that my interpretation is based on key OT passages about the Spirit. We try to interpret Paul without regard to the OT and so run astray routinely. Paul assumes that we know our Hebrew scriptures — and his arguments make much more sense and are much easier to follow if we are familiar especially with the OT passages on the Spirit (which we’ve covered many times).
(Rom. 2:14-16 NET) 14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. 15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, 16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.
Notice v. 15. It says that the Gentiles “do by nature the things required by the law” they show that “the work of the law is written in their hearts.” Paul is paraphrasing Jer 31:31ff, which prophesies that, under the new covenant, God’s Spirit (not mentioned directly but the reference is clear in light of other prophecies, some of which I quote below) will write God’s law on the hearts of his covenant family.
(Jer. 31:31-34 NET) 31 “Indeed, a time is coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt. For they violated that covenant, even though I was like a faithful husband to them,” says the LORD.
33 “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the LORD. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.
34 “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”
Compare Eze 11:19-20.
So Paul is talking about people who have the Spirit. In fact, he’s previewing the first half of Rom 8. If you have the Spirit, God will write his laws on your heart and you’ll be obedient — not sinless but in a state of grace and growing holiness.
He concludes the chapter with —
(Rom. 2:26-29 ESV) 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically 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. 29 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.
Again, Paul divides people between those whose hearts are circumcised by the Spirit (Deu 30:6; Rom 7:6) and those who don’t have the Spirit. Those with the Spirit are the ones whose hearts are circumcised by the Spirit and who keep the law.
Now, Paul is not saying that they keep Torah. Rather, he is looking at something deeper, which isn’t fully worked out until we get all the way to Rom 13 —
(Rom. 13:9-10 ESV) 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
See this post for a deeper look at this question. (It helps to think of chapters 1-3 as an executive summary of what follows. Paul states what he intends to prove, then he proves it. Chapter 2 is where he anticipates his conclusions about the Spirit before he’s made his full argument in chapters 7, 8, 12, and 13.)
Therefore, chapter 2 is about those who obey the law of the Spirit, who have circumcised hearts, as one class, and about those who may well be physically circumcised but whose hearts are not circumcised and so who fail to obey as the Spirit would move God’s people to obey.
(Rom. 2:5 ESV) 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.
Who does Paul have in mind as having a “hard and impenitent heart”? Well, those who’ve not received the Spirit.
(Deut. 10:16 ESV) 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn [LXX: “hardened”].
(Ezek. 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Those without the Spirit have hardened, stone hearts. The OT routinely contrasts those with a hard heart with those who have the Spirit. Therefore, when in Rom 2:5 Paul refers to those with a “hard and impenitent heart,” he is speaking of those without the Spirit, whether they are Jew or Gentile.
(Rom. 2:6-13 ESV) 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. 12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Paul is setting up the rest of the chapter. He states the standard, but he subtly shifts the ground underneath the argument as he goes. Yes, to be saved, I must obey the law. But if I would recall Moses and the Prophets, the way God will bring about obedience to the law is by giving his Spirit (Deu 30:6 and several passages in Isa, Jer, and Eze). The new covenant promised by Jeremiah, and the Spirit who provides a heart of flesh in Ezekiel, will result in obedience to the law. Those with the Spirit are therefore the true circumcision and saved. Those without the Spirit are not.
The rest of Romans
If we take the Prophets seriously, then the obedient people are the people with the Spirit — a point Paul makes at the end of chapter 2 and then returns to in more detail in chapter 7 and then chapter 8.
But Paul doesn’t end his discussion of the law of the Spirit in chapter 8. Chapters 12 and 13 are also about how to live the law of the Spirit. These aren’t mere commands. They are what it means to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” And it’s Jeremiah in chapter 31 who promises a renewed mind by the Spirit for those under the new covenant!