(Rom 2:17-24 ESV) 17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
In this section, Paul bursts the bubble of those Jews who claim moral superiority to the Gentiles. In fact, he accuses them of violating the Ten Commandments despite their superior opportunities due to their having the Torah.
Notice that he picks sins against God’s moral will, not violations of positive commands such as circumcision. He picks the sins that even Gentiles would recognize as wrong.
It’s no coincidence that in Romans 13, he’ll declare that the very same commands are summed up by “love your neighbor.” Paul is actually accusing the Jews of failing to love –plainly showing that their hearts are not circumcised by the Spirit.
Indeed, as Paul explains in Romans 13, “love your neighbor” constitutes fulfillment of the law, that is, keeping the precepts of the law. The law, as thus interpreted by Paul, is thus more about the state of our hearts than our scrupulous adherence to the rules.
And this makes sense given that the prophets speak of the Spirit transforming our hearts —
(Eze 11:19-20 ESV) 19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
(Jer 24:7 ESV) 7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
As we dig more deeply into Paul’s words, in light of the prophets, to keep the law is — of course! — to have a heart re-shaped by God. The test isn’t whether we ultimately obey the rules perfectly but whether our hearts have been re-formed to be a “heart of flesh” and “a heart to know that [God is] the LORD.”
You see, to understand a phrase as seemingly elementary as “keep the precepts of the law” we have to read Romans and the Law in light of the prophets.
And this produces exactly the result anticipated by even extremely conservative commentators.
Gentiles, who do not have the law
(Rom 2:14-16 ESV) 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
“The work of the law is written on their hearts” sounds an awful lot like —
(Jer 31:33 ESV) 33 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.
But Jeremiah is speaking of the new covenant, that is, the church! Is it possible Paul is speaking of saved Gentiles?
If so, then the Gentiles “who … do what the law requires” are the same as the Gentile “who is uncircumcised [but who] keeps the precepts of the law” (Rom 2:26).
But is it fair to say that a Christian Gentile does not “have the law”?
(Rom 2:12-13 ESV) 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.
In v. 12, Paul divides the world into those “without the law” and those “under the law.” Clearly, those “under the law” are Jews and those “without the law” are the Gentiles. And so, in 2:14, when Paul speaks of those who are “without the law,” he simply means the Gentiles — not suggesting that there were no Greeks without a copy of the Torah or that Christian Gentiles never got to read the Old Testament. His point is that the Jews were a privileged race by virtue of having been entrusted with the Scriptures, but that this privilege does not mean you have to be a Jew to be saved.
(Rom 9:4-5 ESV) 4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. 5 To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
But doesn’t the modifier “by nature” in Rom 2:14 suggest that Paul is speaking of Gentiles who obey the law “by nature” and hence not by the Spirit?
That’s certainly the meaning suggested by the translation, but it doesn’t really make sense. After all, the nearest use of the same word is in —
(Rom 2:27 ESV) 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.
Thus, “by nature” means “by nature of his race.” Is there anyone who is, by nature of his race, obedient to the law? Of course, not!
(Eph 2:1-3 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
It would be quite a dramatic departure from Paul’s theology to suggest that any Gentile is by nature obedient to the law! In fact, he just spent a large portion of chapters 1 and 2 arguing exactly to the contrary.
Thus, N. T. Wright argues that the comma is in the wrong place: “by nature” should be taken as modifying the preceding clause, rendering v 14 —
(Rom 2:14 ESV) 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
“Who do not have the law by nature” thus closely parallels “he who is [by nature] uncircumcised” in Rom 2:27. This possibility is noted in the NET Bible translation notes:
Some (e.g. C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans [ICC], 1:135–37) take the phrase φύσει (phusei, “by nature”) to go with the preceding “do not have the law,” thus: “the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature,” that is, by virtue of not being born Jewish.
It makes sense, avoids having Paul flatly contradict his words in Ephesians, and fits the flow of Paul’s argument in close parallel with Rom 2:27-29.