Exposition of Romans 2:14–16 Conscience-judged behavior sometimes pleases God

The fact that all people are sinners does not mean they are as bad as they could possibly be. Sometimes conscience — given by God in creation — may guide even the unsaved to meet God’s requirements in limited situations.

It is a mistake to elevate ourselves by demonizing others. Sometimes they get it right and we do not.

(ESV) Romans 2:14–16  For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Romans 2:14 clearly says one thing: Gentiles sometimes do what the law requires. What is less clear is how to position the phrase “by nature.” English translations all agree with ESV that by nature modifies the verb “do.” Other authorities think Paul is saying that “Gentiles do not have the law by nature,” letting by nature modify the verb “have.” While the former view seems more likely, the real point is not lost either way: Gentiles sometimes do what the law requires.

Douglas Moo correctly summarizes: “Paul pursues his policy of putting the Jews and Gentiles on the same footing. The Jew does not have in the law a decisive advantage when it comes to knowing and doing the will of God, Paul suggests; for Gentiles have some of the same benefits.”[1]

Looking at the Gentiles, Paul says (2:15) that “the work of the law,” the conscience and the thoughts mix in a complex way that often accuses and sometimes excuses them. Grant Osborne says, “Their minds form a type of law court in which actions are judged.”[2] But it is vital to realize that even within the court of their own minds the Gentiles are not exonerated; so, they will certainly stand guilty before a holy God.

C.E.B. Cranfield discusses the concept of conscience by saying, “The basic idea conveyed is that of knowledge shared with oneself.”[3] Sometimes this information is shared after the behavior and sometimes before; the verdict reached is by no means guaranteed to be the same that God would reach!

In Romans 2:16, Osborne correctly points out that “Paul elsewhere uses ‘the day’ for the Day of the Lord at the end of history (e.g., Rom. 13:12; 1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:14; Eph. 4:30; Phil. 1:6, 10).”[4] No matter what Jews and Gentiles think about their own behavior, God has set a day when he will judge “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (2:16).

Romans 2:16b closely resembles Paul’s speech in Athens: “he [God] has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31, NET).

Humanity’s good is not good enough

The Jews have been busy justifying their own righteousness by wrongly relying on their possession of the law. The Gentiles have sometimes managed to meet God’s requirements as evaluated by their own conscience, but they too fall short.

1. Why do you think people spend so much effort justifying themselves and their group by comparison with other groups, races, classes, genders or ethnicities? How do people try the same thing with God?

2. If you were convinced that self-justification was futile, what would you do next to become acceptable to God?

Perhaps these questions seem contrived, but they are not. Various cultures have spent millennia trying to figure out how human works relate to acceptance before God. The sad thing is that our culture does not even want to know. By God’s grace, you can prove to be an exception!

Copyright © 2012 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials developed for Christ Fellowship (McKinney, Texas). Used by permission.

[1] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 151.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 70.

[3] C.E.B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark Limited, 1975) 159-160.

[4] Osborne, Romans, 70.