Faith That Works/Available Light: An Interpretation of Romans II, Part 1

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 —

Faith that Works: Meandering from Romans 6 to the Spirit

Faith that Works: Romans 8 — The Torah of the Spirit of Life

Faith that Works: Romans 6 – 7 Read With the Spirit

Faith that Works: The Indwelling Spirit

Faith that Works: Slavery, Sonship, Suffering and Glory

Faith that Works: Attaining to the Image of God and Torah

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to Faith That Works/Available Light: An Interpretation of Romans II, Part 1

  1. Jim H says:

    Two possibilities: 1. When Paul went to a Gentile region to evangelize, he first went to the synagogue (Acts) where he could speak to the “Jew” first, but also to Gentiles (proselytes to Judiasm). Could Paull be speaking primarily about these Gentiles? 2. I lean to the second possibility. When the Pharisees asked Jesus which was the most important teaching of the Law he said it was in essence love- to love ones neighbor as oneself. The whole Law hang on these two commands.

  2. Price says:

    Jay, it makes a HUGE difference to understanding the intent of the applicable Rom 2 passage to understand that the “written on their hearts” is something done by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus (as prophesied) rather than merely a “moral code” that is extended to all mankind. It also seems to indicate a man is responsible to how he responds to a personal influence by the Holy Spirit, rather than whether he accepts CENI as acceptable dogma.

  3. Jerry says:

    Now, if the heart of the matter of salvation is our hearts, the question remains: can one’s heart be turned to God who knows naught of Jesus? If so, does this mean that the Spirit of God is active in the absence of faith in Jesus? After all, the argument has been that the circumcision of the heart is by the Holy Spirit. Can circumcision of the heart take place without faith in Jesus?

  4. Alabama John says:

    Having faith in God is faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit as one of the three.

    Having faith in the fire, and the cloud was also faith in Jesus even though they didn’t know that was Jesus in disguise so to speak.

    The point I want to always come back to is we all are operating and believing according to Available Light available to us and our understanding of it.

    Thank God that He considers our knowledge and ability to understand and obey according to each of our available light at judgment day.

    I doubt any will stand before God and be slapped on the back and be congratulated as being smart enough and having had all the right information translated correct and fully understood to do and believe it all perfectly.

    We ALL are doing and believing and will be judged according to our available light from the savage to the smartest on here.

    I thank God for that understanding judgment because I do not have the capacity to understand it all just right and have doubts about many things we all differ on and discuss back and forth.

  5. Emmett says:

    C. S. Lewis seems to have held this belief, not surprisingly considering his respect for George MacDonald. In his children’s book, “The Last Battle”, a noble Calormene, Emeth, (whose god, Tash, is evidently an idol) is accepted by Aslan, who tells him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash … if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” Many have and still do condemn Lewis over this…

  6. hank says:

    What many are forgetting is that there WAS a time when there were two folds of God’s sheep, prior to them all becoming one fold. The Jews had their law and system of faith and the non Jews had theirs. The non Jews for sure knew less of God and his plan than did the Gentiles who were without the oracles of God. It was in this sense that they were allowed “to walk in their own ways”. That does not mean they were lost and had no way of being faithful to God, only that back then, and compared to the more knowing Jews, they were in “times of ignorance”.

    However, once the church had accepted and contained Geentiles and the two folds became one, the “times of ignorance” were ended and the Gentiles were no longer able to be faithful while “walking in their own ways”. Now, there is ONR body of the saved and that body is the church. And Nobody is added to the church apart from faith in Christ. Nobody…

    We need to remember that Romans 2 is talking about a time that existed before the existence of the church, the one fold. A time wherein the Gentiles WERE allowed to walk in their own ways and a time of ignorance which Hod ovwerlooked.

    Those times are ended. That much is certain.

  7. Price says:

    Hank, I don’t think that is a correct understanding of Romans 2 although I shared your understanding up until perhaps even today…I believe that the information that Jay has provided clearly shows that there was no “moral law” by which someone was justified. There may be some mercy extended to those that then and now that have not been given any information at all about Jesus but Romans 2 doesn’t argue for that premise as I now understand it. The Gentiles who have had God’s law written on their hearts are those who had believed and were given the Holy Spirit to direct them. I think what has been presented makes that abundantly clear.

  8. Jay quotes Matthew Henry: “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.”
    I think this is carefully and very effectively said. One of the hardest things is to articulate the nature of God working in us. This is an excellent effort to that end.

  9. I still have to wonder if there is a grace God extends to those who diligently seek Him, even if they are never led to Christ.

    That grace would not be given because of some merit “earned” by good works for this seeker any more than it would be for the believer, for no one can earn the blood of Christ. That’s where the phrasing — as Jay relates it — of “available light” goes awry.

    The question is whether God shows unmerited favor to a person who has lived a life that speaks of faith, even without knowing (fully) the One in whom that faith exists.

  10. hank says:

    “I still have to wonder if there is a grace God extends to those who diligently seek Him, even if they are never led to Christ.”

    No, there is no salvation today for those who are “never led to Christ”.

    The Lord declared that those who knock will find. Sinners are not save by knocking, but by finding.

    I believe a proper understanding of the times past when God allowed the gentiles to “walk in their own ways” and overlooked the “times of ignorance”, would help here.

  11. So those who diligently seek Him but do not find Him will not be rewarded?

    Does scripture says that the blood of Christ saves those who believe, or ONLY saves those who believe? It’s an important difference, and I’m not anxious to add a word or concept that isn’t there.

  12. hank says:

    Jesus promised that whoever seeks SHALL find.

    He also said that whoever does NOT believe is condemned already.

    He said both of those things.

  13. I guess we won’t resolve this, Hank; we see God too differently.

  14. hank says:

    And the Bible…

  15. Let me just ask a few things: Is Jesus talking to people who have never heard of God in Matthew 7 when He says, “The one who seeks, finds”? Are they the audience of John 3 when it says “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”?

    Is it reasonable to hold someone responsible for not believing something they have never heard? (Romans 10:13ff)

    Doesn’t it put salvation right back into the category of being earned by works if we say God judges them guilty because they didn’t try hard enough to find Him?

  16. hank says:

    Pretty sure that in the sermon in the mount, Jesus was speaking to everyone. From “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”, on. When he said “whoever seeks shall find”, I’m sure that he meant “whoever”.

    When he said whoever does not believe is condemned, I believe he meant “whoever” there, as well.

    And no, just because God expects ALL men to seek after him… it does not mean that they are saved by works and that their salvation is in any way earned.

    But, what it says it means.

  17. John says:

    The two great realities that conservative religions have trouble in coming to terms with are the diversity of human beings and the imperfection of each one. But, to eyes wide open, human diversity has the beauty of autumn leaves, while imperfection, and that includes the imperfection of knowledge, is recognized as the birthing pains of love. It is imperfection itself that creates the necessity and realness of love.

    The apostle Paul, in all his writings of what children of God should know and how they should live, paused often to say, and even to confess, that our knowledge fails, and much of what we do know is never reached. Romans 7 and 1 Cor.13 humble us when we actually read them; they cause us to bow to our neighbor and let God be God.

  18. Alabama John says:

    When people pray and worship God, they are recognizing the Father, Jesus as well as the Holy Spirit even though they may call them by many different names or by one name we haven’t even heard of.

    The Greeks at Athens on Mars Hill according to Paul were by worshiping the Unknown God ignorantly doing so in Acts 17:23-28.
    23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. 24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; 26 And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; 27 That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: 28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.

    Point is they were worshipping Him. Ignorantly, but still worshipping Him as Paul declared and pointed out. This has been done throughout history and even today.

    Alter, Idol, or symbolism? I know men that will not pray or baptize anyone without a Bible in their hands. Is that Idol worship? Of course not, no more than praying standing, kneeling, or prone is required, its what’s in the mind and heart, not the method or symbolism that matters.

    Throughout history I don’t recall how many names God (Godhead) has been called, but saw a list once and was surprised by how many names God and Jesus has been called. Were those calling by different names than the ones we use wrong? Do we in our English translation have the names wrong? Does it matter? No!

    It doesn’t matter as in our heart, and mind, we are worshiping God which includes all three that make up God.

    In the OT the cloud and pillar was called God and in the NT, it says they were Jesus. Which is right? Both are! They were both at the same time.

  19. Alabama John says:

    I never forget the wonderful story of Lydia. What hope that brings to so many in the past and up to today.

  20. Jerry says:

    Alabama John, early in this thread, wrote:

    Having faith in God is faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit as one of the three.

    AJ, does this mean that only those who accept a Trinitarian position will be saved by faith? Or is it possible that some might have differing concepts of the relationships that exist within the Godhead and still be judged faithful? If it is the first of these, that may be getting close to “salvation by correct understanding of God” rather than by simply “believing that He is and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6).

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