No Partiality with God


How do you interpret Romans 2:1-16?


One of Paul's main goals in Romans was to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers in the church. To do this, he argued first that both Jews and Gentiles were guilty before God and in need of salvation, and then that they both received this salvation in the same way. In chapter 1, Paul laid out some obvious crimes committed by the Gentiles that merited God's wrath. But the Jews were guilty too, even of some of these same things, as shown in chapter 2. His point in Romans 2:1-16 was that the Jews were just as guilty as the Gentiles, and that they too would perish on the day of judgment because they were guilty of sinning against God and his Law (even though they might assume that their status as Jews would protect them).

In the latter verses of this passage, Paul also indicates that God's Law is known instinctively to all men,* and that when Gentiles obey this instinct they do not displease God. He also says that Jews who obey the Law please God. However, as he will argue in Romans 3, while it is true that some people please God some of the time, it is also true that no person pleases God all of the time, and therefore it is true that we all stand condemned to death for our sin. However, we can learn from Romans 2:1-16 that our punishment with be commensurate with our crimes -- the more we sin, the more we will be punished. The more we refrain from sin, the less we will be punished.

*John Frame argues that Paul refers to Gentile Christians at this point, not to Gentiles at large. Theologically, this makes sense insofar as having the Law written on our hearts is a covenant blessing, and insofar as unbelievers cannot please God. I myself am not persuaded that the literary context makes this reading the most obvious. In my reading, when Paul speaks of the Gentiles being "approved" on the basis of their consciences on the last day, I think he is saying that God judges us on the basis of our actions. There is some good in what unbelievers do, and they won't be condemned for the good they do. However, nothing they do, seen in all its parts, is purely good insofar as their actions flow from their God-hating hearts (cf. Rom. 8:5-8).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.