NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part XII)
Early church scholar Origen questions which Law Paul is talking about here. He writes: “When the apostle says that those who are without the law will perish without the law, the question arises as to whether this should be understood only of the law of Moses or whether it should be extended to cover the law of Christ or even some other law under which mortal men may live. Will such a person be judged according to the law under which he has sinned, or will he perish as if he were outside the law because he is outside the law of Moses, even if he lives under some other law?”1
Then, Chrysostom has several things to say. First, “Paul says that the Jews have a much greater need of grace than the Gentiles. Because the Jews said that they were justified by the law and therefore did not need grace, Paul shows that they need it even more than the Gentiles, given that they are liable to be punished more severely.”2 And second, “Those who lived before the giving of the law will not receive the same sentence as those after the law. Those sinning after the giving of the law will undergo heavier penalties.”3 In either case, both are God’s laws. Whether they be those of nature or those in the hands of Moses.
Also, early church scholar Pelagius writes: “‘Will perish’ means the same thing as ‘will be judged,’ for the man who perishes, perishes by God’s judgment, and the man who is judged a sinner perishes.4 Paul puts Jews and Gentiles on the same level when he says that doers rather than hearers of the law are righteous and then adds that the Gentiles will be judged on the day of the Lord. For does anyone doubt that those under the law will perish just as those who lived without the law, unless they have believed in Christ?”5
John Calvin offers the following explanation of what Paul means here: “In the former part of this section Paul assails the Gentiles; though no Moses was given them to publish and to ratify a law from the Lord, he yet denies this omission to be a reason why they deserved not the just sentence of death for their sins; as though he had said — that the knowledge of a written law was not necessary for the just condemnation of a sinner… As the Gentiles, being led by the errors of their own reason, go headlong into ruin, so the Jews possess a law by which they are condemned; for this sentence has been long ago pronounced, condemned; for this sentence has been long ago pronounced, ‘Cursed are all they who continue not in all its precepts.’6 A worse condition, then, awaits the Jewish sinners since their condemnation is already pronounced in their own law.”7
Henry Alford sees a dichotomy between the Jews and Gentiles being judged as those having sinned against the Law of Moses and those who sinned against the Law of Conscience. Of those who did not have the Law of Moses, Alford says: “Whether that will ameliorate [make it more tolerable] their case, is not even hinted, – but only the fact, as consonant [in harmony] with God’s justice, stated. That this is the meaning of without law is clear from 1 Corinthians 9:21.” Alford goes on to say: “The Apostle constructs his argument, asserting it with regard to the Mosaic law in the case of the Jews, and proving that the Gentiles have had a law given to them in the testimony of their consciences… It may safely be assumed that whenever the word law is used, without any further definition, in this Epistle, the law of Moses is intended by it. These last [listed in this verse] shall be judged by the law: for that will furnish the measure and rule by which judgment will proceed.”8
Adam Clarke gives his view: “For as many as have sinned without law, etc. – They, viz. the Gentiles, who shall be found to have transgressed against the mere light of nature, or rather, that true light that lights every man that comes into the world,9 will not come under the same rule with those, the Jews, who have in addition to this enjoyed an extraordinary revelation; but they shall be dealt with according to the inferior dispensation, under which they lived: while those, the Jews, who have sinned against the law – the positive Divine revelation granted to them, shall be judged by that law, and punished proportionally to the abuse of such an extraordinary advantage.”10
H. A. Ironside states: “‘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.’ No principle could be sounder. Men are held responsible for what they know, or might know if they would. They are not condemned for ignorance unless that ignorance be the result of the willful rejection of light. ‘Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.‘11”12
Then Charles Hodge adds his understanding: “In the preceding verse it was stated that God is just and impartial in all His judgments. This is confirmed not only by the previous assertion, that He will judge every man according to his works, but also by the exhibition of that important principle contained in this verse. Men are to be judged by the light they have independently enjoyed. The ground of judgment is their works; the rule of judgment is their knowledge. For as many as sinned without law. That is, God is impartial, for He will judge men according to the light which they have enjoyed. Our Lord teaches the same doctrine when He says, ‘Now the servant who knew what his master wanted but didn’t prepare or act according to his will, will be whipped with many lashes; however, the one who did what deserves a beating, but didn’t know, will receive few lashes.’13”14
Charles Spurgeon then comments: “Mark you, Moses does not tone down the law to suit our fallen state, or talk of our doing our best and God’s being satisfied with our imperfect obedience. No, he says only, ‘He that does those things will live by them.’ He demands perfect and entire obedience, if life is to come of it. He does not say that if you have broken the law you may still live by some other means. No, if the law is once broken it is all over with you as to salvation thereby: one single fault takes away the possibility of your ever being justified by the law. ‘He that does those things,’ that is, always, without exception, with all his heart and soul and strength— ‘he will live by them;’ but nobody else. Be he Jew or be he Gentile, his only righteousness by law must come through the doing of the law.”15 This is a reiteration of Chapter 1 where Paul said that Gentiles have no excuse even without the written Torah.16
Verse 13: Hearing what the law says does not make people right with God. They will only be right before Him if they do everything the law says.
To comprehend this portion of Paul’s writing, we must understand that he is trying to help the Jewish converts realize the price of continuing to live by and judge others by, the Law given to Moses. But even more, he is also attempting to help them see the hypocrisy of this approach, especially when trying to judge without meeting the demands of the Law themselves. So it is also with believers and the Word of God. Hearing the Word, and using what we hear to judge others, is totally invalid if we are not in compliance with God’s Word ourselves. Therefore, if we think that because we condemn the sinner that they will also be held accountable before God, we are wrong. Paul is telling us that the one who will be held responsible is the one who judges others without first judging themselves.
For the apostle Paul, even among those who did recognize the Law, there was a difference between those who knew what the law said, and those did what the law said. Moses laid down this principle early on in Israel’s history. He told them: “Now, Israel, listen to the laws and to the commands that I teach you. Obey them and you will live.”17 Today we would say it this way: Don’t just hear what is said when the law is read, but listen to what the law is saying. That’s why Moses had to call the people together again and tell them: “Israelites, listen to the laws and rules that I tell you today. Learn these laws and be sure to obey them.”18 Was that enough? No! Moses had to call them together again and tell them: “Israelites, listen carefully and obey these laws. Then everything will be fine with you.”19
Years and years later, some elders came to the prophet Ezekiel seeking advice from the LORD. So when Ezekiel sought the LORD for an answer, God said: Why should I listen to what they have to say when they did not listen to what I have to say. The Almighty continued to point out that He had gone to great length to get the message to them of what He desired from them. But unfortunately, they turned against Him and did not follow the rules He gave them.20 God finally told Ezekiel: “And now about you, son of man. Your people lean against the walls and stand in their doorways talking about you. They tell each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear what the Lord says.’ So they come to you as if they were my people. They sit in front of you as if they were my people. They hear your words, but they will not do the things you say. They only want to do what feels good.”21
Jesus ran into the same situation. So He made it clear that no matter what people thought about their chances under the old agreement, under the new agreement they would be held to an even higher standard: “Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter God’s kingdom. The only people who will enter are those who do what my Father in heaven wants. On that last Day, many will call me Lord. They will say, ‘Lord, Lord, by the power of your name we spoke for God. And by your name we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ Then I will tell those people clearly, ‘Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you.’”22 Oddly enough, when Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him, He told those who informed Him they were there: “My mother and my brothers are those who listen to God’s teaching and obey it.”23
1 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 5, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Chrysostom: Homilies on Genesis 18.2
4 Psalm 37:20
5 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Deuteronomy 27:26
7 John Calvin, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 18
9 John 1:9
10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 John 3:19
12 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Luke 12:47-48
14 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.
15 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
16 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Deuteronomy 4:1
18 Ibid. 5:1
19 Ibid. 6:3
20 Ezekiel 20:13
21 Ibid. 33:30-31
22 Matthew 7:21-23
23 Luke 8:21