Question Box: How are gentiles a "law unto themselves"?

Question or Topic Scripture
How are gentiles a "law unto themselves"? Romans 2:13-15

There is a parenthetical statement that appears in Romans 2:13-15, that is difficult to understand. The statement reads:
  1. Romans 2:13-15
  2. (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
  3. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
  4. Which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)


To understand this statement we must consider the context of the chapter. The writer was addressing the brethren in Rome, both Jews and Gentiles. The Jewish brethren were inclined to boast in the law, and take pride in the favored position that they had enjoyed as God's chosen people.

No Respect of Persons

The principle being taught is that "there is no respect of persons with God" (Romans 2:11). The Jew would have no advantage over the Gentile, nor should the Gentile boast himself against the branches of the good olive tree (see Romans 11). They are told that there will be: "Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile" (Romans 2:9-10).

Doers of the "Law" Justified

"For 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" (Romans 2:12). It is this statement that is being amplified by the parenthetical statement in question. They are then reminded that "not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified" (v. 13).

It is important to note that the word "law" does not necessarily refer to the Law of Moses. The word law in the New Testament is taken from the Greek nomos {nom'-os}. This may relate to the Mosaic Law, but it can also refer to any law, ordinance, principle or custom. When we consider the message of the chapter, it is the "spirit" and not the "letter" of the law that is involved. That spirit was available in the Mosaic law, and portions of it can also found in many of the laws of society.

Those who demonstrate the principles of God's truths, through their behavior, are more likely to be justified than those who only hear the letter. There is nothing in the parenthetical statement that would suggest that these Gentiles would obtain salvation just for having the spirit of the law written on their hearts. Their behavior was commendable, and as doers of the law they had the potential for justification. Part of their obligation in doing the will of God would certainly be to believe the gospel and be baptized, and then to continue in well doing. Our doctrine (faith) and our lifestyle (works) are like the two blades of a scissors – one is useless in the absence of the other.

Doing by Nature?

The statement continues with: "When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves" (v. 14). The implication here is that the Gentiles instinctively or naturally seem to do the right things. We should be careful with this conclusion.

The Jews had been given the oracles of God. They knew exactly what God expected of them. They knew that they should not steal, and yet some of them stole. They knew that one should not commit adultery, but some of them did anyway.

The Gentiles, on the other hand, had no formal education in the precepts of God, and yet their conduct was often very reputable. The principles that guided their society were indirectly patterned after principles that were godly. The result was that their behavior was apparently superior to the habits of those who professed to be the teachers of the law. The moral codes that these Gentiles adhered to "by nature" were the product of their environment. They had learned certain principles of right and wrong in a society that contained many decent people.

The Powers That Be

The Jews were by no means the only children of God who blasphemed the name that they bore. The Corinthians provide us with an illustration of moral abuse within the household. This helps to demonstrate the morality of the Gentiles during that period: "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife" (I Corinthians 5:1). The Ecclesia was encouraged: "to deliver such an one unto Satan (the governing authorities), for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (v. 5).

The principle that was involved is described in Romans 13: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God" (Romans 13:1-2). The Gentile powers were "not a terror to good works, but to the evil" (v. 3).

Society then, encouraged people to follow principles that were not all that different from those that we would consider to be the spirit of the law. There were Gentiles who were naturally inclined to be good citizens, and they showed "the work of the law written in their hearts".

Their Conscience Bearing Witness

One of the more difficult parts of the statement that we are considering is in the closing words, which read: "their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another" (Romans 2:15).

The NIV rendering of this phrase helps somewhat: "They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

Not only were these Gentiles subject to the moral principles established by their society, but they also had been sufficiently "trained up", so that their own conscience was a reliable guide for them. We contrast this to the latter day believers who would depart from the faith, "having their conscience seared with a hot iron" (I Timothy 4:2).

In order for our conscience to serve a useful purpose in our conduct, it must be developed around godly principles. It is apparent that those who were referred to in Romans 2 had the kind of conscience that would help them to discern between good and evil. Their own thoughts would accuse them when they were tempted to do wrong, and defend them when their intentions were good.

We are encouraged to develop this type of conscience:

  1. I John 3:18-21
  2. My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.
  3. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.
  4. For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.
  5. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.
In Conclusion

We must be doers of the laws of God, and not just hearers, (who try to be sure that others do). We should emulate those in Rome who had a conscience developed that would result in the demonstration of godly principles. The principles of Truth should be written on our heart and manifested in our behavior.

Today, in our own society, we encounter people who appear to live better moral, "Christian" lives than many of us do. We must be careful not to boast that we have "the Truth"; that is, that we understand the correct Biblical doctrines. While this may be true, "Faith without works is dead" as James so vividly reminds us (James 2:20). God spared not the natural branches to allow us an opportunity to be grafted in. He may choose to replace us also, by calling others who have already demonstrated that they are more inclined to manifest his glory.

  1. Romans 2:28-29
  2. For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
  3. But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.

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