Exposition of Romans 2:12-13, Jews and Gentiles deserve to die

The spread of sin is universal. How can we tell? Because the spread of death is also universal. Yet humanity persists in thinking that some special privilege or status can be found to guarantee heaven. Some have thought all Jews go to heaven, but certainly not Gentiles. Others give the special mark to Roman Catholics, but not Protestants.

Paul makes it clear that all such concepts amount to wishful thinking. Humanity’s problem is much too severe for such a simplistic solution.

(ESV) Romans 2:12-13

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.

It is unusual for a subsequent verse to clarify a prior verse, but 2:13 defines the meaning of 2:12 for us; the original readers did not need this clarification. In 2:13, it is clear that law refers to the Law of Moses, and Paul tells us that hearing the law is not sufficient. Doing the law is the only way to be justified under the law. However, no one was ever able to do that until Jesus did it (5:17 and Hebrews 5:7-9). Paul later tells us, For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (3:20).

Knowing that the law in question is the law of Moses allows us to go back into 2:12, where the Greek adverb anomos means lawlessly, and know for sure that the law in question is the Law of Moses. The phrase without the law is how ESV and HCSB translate anomos in 2:12.

The Gentiles did not have the Law of Moses, and so they sinned without the law. The Jews fared no better for having the law, because they could not keep it. Both Gentile and Jew perished due to sin. Grant Osborne explains, The key is that both have equally sinned, one outside and the other inside the law, and so both must suffer the consequences of their depravity.[1]

If you are wondering how anyone was ever saved under the Law of Moses, or before it, Paul will get to that a bit later in his letter; for now we will say their salvation was a result of God’s mercy received by the faith of those who served him (4:22-25).

Since it is the doers of the law who will be justified (2:13), and since we will see that no flesh will be justifiedin his sight by the works of the law (Rom. 3:20, HCSB), humanity has a problem that only God can solve.

No magic talisman

Some Jews in Paul’s time held up their possession of the law as if it were a magic talisman that would ward off adverse judgment from God. Paul tells us that doing the law — not possessing it — is what God had required of the Jews. Osborne explains how this idea applies to us: “Today this is an important message to churchgoers who think being active gives them a distinct advantage before God.”[2] He adds that some of these people will hear Jesus say: “I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!” (Matt. 7:23, NET).

1. Carrying a Bible does not guarantee eternal life; neither does attending church or serving as a group leader. Such ideas resemble the magical thinking of those who possessed an alleged relic from Peter, James or some other revered person. What role has magical thinking played in your Christian journey? What does it take to get real with God? [Hint for last question: see the context on each side of Matt. 7:23.] What false ways to eternal life do people follow today? What does guarantee eternal life?

2. Many people are accustomed to thinking that America has a special place in God's heart. Europeans used to think like that before Christianity almost disappeared from there. What drives these thoughts of belonging to a special, heaven-bound group (whether political, ethnic or religious)? How does belonging to such a group threaten to replace an actual relationship to God?

No group of people can validate your passport to heaven. The only way to get there is to deal with God and go to heaven his way.

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004)67.

[2] Osborne, Romans, 68.