Paul has already stated his great theme—that the just shall live by faith. This is the great epistle of justification by faith, apart from works of the law. At the same time, it is quite striking that there is no more of a contradiction between Paul and James than there is between Paul in the latter part of Romans and Paul in Romans 2.
“Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel” (Rom. 2:6-16)
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT:
In the judgment that is sure to come, God will render to each man according to his deeds (v. 6). Those who seek glory, honor and immortality through good deeds, God will grant eternal life (v. 7). But for those who are stiff-necked, and do not obey truth, God will pour out on them indignation, wrath, tribulation and anguish (vv. 8-9), to the Jew first and then to the Gentile. But glory, honor and peace to those who do good, to the Jew first and then to the Gentile (v. 10). This is because God does not play favorites (v. 11). Those like the Gentiles who have sinned apart from the Torah shall perish outside the Torah. Those like the Jews who sinned under the Torah will be judged by it (v. 12). God doesn’t care what you listen to, He cares what you do with it (v. 13). And when Gentiles, who do not have Torah, do by nature the precepts contained there, they demonstrate that they have access to a natural law, a general law (v. 14). This natural law is within them, and is read by their consciences, enabling them to accuse or excuse one another (v. 15). When will this happen (v. 12)? It will happen on the day that God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, and all this in accordance with the gospel that Paul calls “my gospel” (v. 16).
TORAH AND NATURAL LAW:
One of the great problems we have with interpreters of Paul is that they rarely have minds as supple as his. They want to define a term, and they want it to stay put. A great example of this would be Paul’s use of law. Interpreters want it to mean the Mosaic Torah, or they want to mean a timeless code of moral truths, and they don’t like it when Paul jumps back and forth between meanings, frequently within the space of one verse (v. 14). The Gentiles don’t have the Torah, but they do have nature, and this nature teaches them a number of the tenets found in the Torah. So they don’t have the Torah, but they do have natural law, and these two are consistent with one another. The idea of natural law is thoroughly Pauline.
THE DOERS ARE JUSTIFIED:
It is a commonplace for Christians to see a tension between Paul and James. Paul says that by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified (Rom. 3:20). And James famously says that we are not justified by faith alone (James 2:17). So what about that? But let’s solve a different problem first. Paul says that by deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified (Rom. 3:20). But here he talks about those who in “patient continuance in well doing seek for glory, honour and immortality,” and he promises “glory, honour, and peace” to every man “that worketh good.” Listening to the law won’t justify you, Paul says, but the doers of the law shall be justified (v. 13).
Any attempt to make Paul the master of raw faith, with a few necessary good works sprinkled in there by James, is a futile and silly task. Paul and James extended to one another the right hand of fellowship (Gal. 2:9), which means that James was good with what Paul said about faith alone, and Paul was good with what James said about the necessity of good works. The necessary connection between living faith and living works is organic, and this is as clearly stated in Romans 2 as it is in James 2. The solution? Obey the truth (v. 8), and this includes the truth that autonomous good works will only send you deeper into Hell. Christ alone, grace alone, by faith alone. Obey that, and God will raise you to life, and life is not possible unless the body and spirit are together (Jas. 2:26).
SO WHICH GENTILES?
Some have suggested that the Gentiles of vv. 14-15 are believing Gentiles, Christians. This gets us away from the possibility that some pagans might actually be justified, if their conscience excuses them on the day of judgment (v. 15). But this is unlikely for two reasons. First, if these were Christian Gentiles, then why would nature have to teach them these things. Christian Gentiles have the Old Testament, and by this point, they have a bunch of the New Testament. Paul is talking about natural law here, not a fuller form of special revelation which the Gentile Christians had.
Secondly, we are solving a problem we don’t really need to solve. The Gentiles prior to Christ did not occupy a place that is occupied today by non-Christians. Now that Israel has become international in scope, it is necessary for everyone to become an Israelite, to come into the Christian Church, which is the new Israel. But the old Israel was to be a priestly nation on behalf of all the nations. While a Gentile could become an Israelit if he wanted to, there was no obligation to do so. A Gentile while remaining a Gentile could be saved, and many tens of thousands of them were.
Melchizedek was no Jew, and was a priest (Gen. 14:18), and yet Abraham, the father of all the faithful, paid tithes to him ( ). Jethro was a priest in Midian, not in Israel, and yet was a godly man (Ex. 3:1). Naaman the Syrian became a worshipper of the true God (2 Kings 5:17). The Lord referred to the fact that God had mercy on a Sidonian woman (Luke 4:26). Many thousands were saved in Nineveh, under the preaching of Jonah (Jon. 3:6-10), much to the prophet’s dismay. When Solomon dedicated the Temple, he did so with the prayer that God would heed the prayers of Gentiles directed there (1 Kings 8:41-43). The Temple had a dedicated court for the Gentiles, because it was to be a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). The truth of God—from any and every quarter—is for the world, and always has been.