NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part XIII)
The Apostle Paul was not the only one who understood this principle of practice what you preach. The Apostle James made it quite clear how he felt about it: “My dear brothers and sisters, always be more willing to listen than to speak… Do what God’s teaching says; don’t just listen and do nothing. When you only sit and listen, you are fooling yourselves. Hearing God’s teaching and doing nothing is like looking at your face in the mirror and doing nothing about what you saw. You go away and immediately forget how bad you looked.” James had a valid suggestion for them: “When you look into God’s perfect law that sets people free, pay attention to it. If you do what it says, you will have God’s blessing. Never just listen to His teaching and forget what you heard.”1
Early church scholar Ambrosiaster has this to say: “Paul says this because those who hear the law are not justified unless they believe in Christ, whom the law itself has promised. This is what it means to keep the law. For how does someone who does not believe the law keep it, when he does not receive the One to whom the law bears witness? But the one who appears not to be under the law because he is uncircumcised in his flesh, if he believes in Christ, may be said to have kept the law. And he who says he is in the law, i.e., the Jew, because what is said in the law does not penetrate to his mind, is not a doer of the law but a hearer only, for he does not believe in the Christ who is written about in the law, as Philip said to Nathaniel: ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote.‘2”3
Chrysostom makes this point: “Well does Paul say ‘before God,’ because if they may appear before men to be dignified and to boast of great things, before God it is quite different: only the doers of the law are justified before him.… But how is it possible for someone who has not heard to be a doer of the law? Paul insists not only that it is possible but that those who have heard it might not be doers of it.”4 To this we can add the words of Theodoret: “The law was given not to tickle our ears but to lead us to good works.”5
Reformer John Calvin shares this insight: “This anticipates an objection which the Jews might have concluded. As they had heard that the law was the rule of righteousness,6 they gloried in the mere knowledge of it: to obviate this mistake, he declares that the hearing of the law or any knowledge of it is of no such consequence, that any one should on that account lay claim to righteousness, but that works must be produced, according to this saying, ‘He who will do these shall live in them.’ The importance then of this verse is the following, — ‘If righteousness be sought from the law, the law must be fulfilled; for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.’ They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of exposing so futile a false belief: for the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, — That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law.”7
John Bengel believes that this principle applied not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. But especially to the Jews because it would be mandatory to perform every requirement of the whole Law.8 This obligation was clearly understood by the Apostle James as incumbent upon Christians when it came to the Word of God.9 Henry Alford believes this comment was meant to explain to the Jews the fact, that not their mere hearing of the law read in the synagogue, (which was possible because their being born a Jew gave them this privilege,) will justify them before God, as long as they still keep to general principles, while not addressing the impossibility of being justified, instead of doing all that the law requests.10 We can also say that this is good information for Christians. Some think that just by going to church it will meet all the requirements for justification, forgetting that just hearing the Word is not enough, the principles of what God says must also be put into practice..
Wesleyan scholar Adam Clarke gives his interpretation: “It does not follow, because one people are favored with a Divine revelation, that therefore they shall be saved; while the others who have not had that revelation, shall finally perish: this is not God‘s procedure; where He has given a law – a Divine revelation, He requires obedience to that law; and only those who have been doers of that law – who have lived according to the light and privileges granted in that revelation, shall be justified – shall be finally acknowledged to be such as are fit for the kingdom of God.”11
H. A. Ironside offers this: “The parenthetical verses of Romans 2:13-15 emphasize the plain principle already laid down so forcibly. Judgment is according to deeds. To know the law and fail to obey it only increases the condemnation. Doers of the law will be justified, if there are any. But elsewhere we learn that from this standpoint all would be lost, for ‘by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight.’ The Jew prided himself upon being in possession of the divine oracles and thought this made him superior to the Gentile nations round about. But God has not left Himself without witness; to these nations He has given both the light of conscience and the light of nature. They show ‘the work of the law written in their hearts.’ Observe, it is not that the law is written in their hearts. That is new birth, and is the distinctive blessing of the New Covenant. If the law were written there they would fulfil its righteousness. But the work of the law is quite another thing.”12
Charles Hodge also makes several points here: “Those are just in the sight of God, or are justified, who have done what the law requires, and are regarded and treated accordingly; that is, are declared to be free from condemnation, and entitled to the favor of God. In obvious allusion to the opinion, that being a Jew was enough to secure admission to heaven, the apostle says, It is not the hearers but the doers of the laws that are justified. He is not speaking of the method of justification available for sinners, as revealed in the gospel, but of the principles of justice which will be applied to all who look to the law for justification. If men rely on works, they must have works; they must be doers of the law; they must satisfy its demands, if they are to be justified by it. For God is just and impartial; he will, as a judge administering the law, judge every man, not according to his privileges, but according to his works and the knowledge of duty which he has possessed. On these principles, it is his very design to show that no flesh living can be justified.”13
F. F. Bruce makes this note: “Paul may have in mind Leviticus 18:5, ‘You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live’—a scripture which he quotes later in 10:5. The course of his argument goes on to indicate that, while one who was a ‘doer’ of the law would be justified, yet, since no-one does it perfectly, there is no justification that way. The antithesis between merely hearing the law and actually doing it is elaborated in James 1:22–25. The expression ‘the doers of the law’ is found in Qumran literature.”14
Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern points out that the reason why Paul speaks of “hearing of the Word” is because back in those days scrolls were rare and there were few who knew how to read such documents. So, says Stern: “Torah knowledge came from hearing them read aloud [in the synagogue] and memorizing them, but if they don’t do what it says they are sinners who will die.”15 Another Jewish writer adds: “Once again, Paul makes clear that Torah-based works are part of faith. This is not to say we earn our salvation. Rather, thankful obedience is both commanded, and a sign of [having] a right relationship with God. Paul is also sending a message to any Jews who may have regarded their privileged status as not requiring observance to the Torah.”16 This also works for Christians who think that just by going to church is enough. They don’t understand that hearing the Word of God preached is part of going to church, and obeying God’s Word they heard is the purpose of having gone to church.
Verse 14: The people who are not Jews do not have the Law. When they do what the Law tells them to do, even if they do not have the Law, it shows they know what they should do.
Paul is continuing his argument, that people born into cultures that are not as advanced as the Jews’ in knowing about God and His laws,17 have nonetheless developed rules for living based on their intuitive understanding of what is right and wrong. The apostle Paul explained to the people in Lystra and Derbe how God provides the impetus for such laws through nature. He wrote: “In the past God let all the nations do what they wanted. But God was always there doing the good things that prove He is real. He gives you rain from heaven and good harvests at the right times.”18
As we know, Paul was a student of Greek literature. The Greek philosopher speaks about how common sense and nature teach us ethics. In one book on the lives of the great philosophers we read: “Plato distinguishes the law ‘into written and unwritten:’ The written law, is that which was used in commonwealths; and the unwritten law is that which was according to custom or nature, such as not going to market naked, nor [for men] to be clothed with women’s clothes; which things were not forbidden by any written law, but these were not done because they were forbidden by the unwritten law; which he calls ‘unwritten,’ because not written on tablets, or with ink; otherwise it was written in their minds, and which by nature and use they were accustomed to.”19
1 James 1:19, 22-23
2 John 1:45
3 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, loc. cit.
4 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 5
5 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, loc. cit.
6 Deuteronomy 4:1
7 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 226
9 James 1:22
10 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 18
11 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, Vol. 6, p. 96
15 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc cit.
16 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Deuteronomy 4:7-8; See Psalm 147:19-20
18 Acts of the Apostles 14:16-17; See 17:30
19 Diogenes Laertius: Lives of Eminent Philosophers l. 3. in Life of Plato