Is the following passage concerning pagan gentiles or Christian gentiles?

For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law; 13 for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified: 14 (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves; 15 in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them); 16 in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ. (Romans 2:12-16 ASV)

5 Answers 5


It refers to all gentiles in general. The NT authors concerning the arguments for God's righteous judgment or justice never make discriminate between believers and non-believers. The very passage talks about impartiality in God's judgment. The context speaks about people doing righteous works without the revealed law through the conscience. The doers of the law are righteous not the hearers. By "law" the moral requirements are in question. The argument is that the Jews must not feel arrogant and superior thinking that only they can be justified while the rest of the world (goyim or gentiles) are like animals, meant to be hell dweller. The Gentiles should not assume they have been totally overlooked by God. The point of emphasis is that all men are judged by their works.

(Romans 2:6-11) 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

Cf: Rom 14:12; Gal 6:2-9 ; 2Cor 13:5-6; 5:10; 1Cor 7:19.

Danield Whedon commentary: (Rom 2:14)

things… in the law—The apostle does not affirm but assume the fact that the law is sometimes truly fulfilled by the Gentiles. A law unto themselves—They are their own regulators. That law may not perfectly coincide with the written law nor with the absolute law; but it is a law to them, and available in their behalf. Nor under a heathen dispensation any more than under a Jewish, must an obedience be absolute in order to be accepted. As we have shown above, there may be a virtual Christian faith and acceptance where there is no known Christ—a faith that secures pardon for shortcomings in keeping the law. Aristotle is quoted by Wetstein as saying (Nic. Rom 4:14) that the enlightened man will “so carry himself as being a law unto himself.” Another Greek writer says: “So will I be a law to the multitude, not the majority to me.” Philo says of Moses that he was “a living and rational law.” (Notes on Luk 12:47-48; Luk 12:57.)

Charles Ellicot commentary (Rom 2:12)

Jew and Gentile alike will be judged, each by the method proper to his case; the Jew by the written Law against which he has sinned, the Gentile by the unwritten law of conscience against which he too has sinned. The mere hearing of the Law will bring no exemption to the Jew; and, on the other hand, the Gentile, who, at the dictates of conscience, acts as if he were subject to law, shall have the full benefit that law can give him. In fact, his conscience is to him a law. He undergoes precisely the same conflict of self- condemnation and self-acquittal as one who has a written law to refer to. All this will be done, this strict measure of justice will be applied, at the last great day of judgment.

In the law.—Rather, in law. Here, as in the phrases which follow, “by law,” “the hearers of law,” “the doers of law,” “the Gentiles which have not law,” &c., the article is wrongly inserted by the Authorised version. Its absence shows that the Apostle Lad in mind, not the particular Mosaic law, but the abstraction of law. “Behind the concrete representation—the Mosaic law itself—St. Paul sees an imperious principle, an overwhelming presence, antagonistic to grace, to liberty, to spirit, and (in some aspects) even to life—abstract law, which, though the Mosaic ordinances are its most signal and complete embodiment, nevertheless is not exhausted therein, but exerts its crushing power over the conscience in diverse manifestations. The one, the concrete and special, is ὁ υόμος; the other, the abstract and universal, is νόμος” (Lightfoot).


As far as I know, Paul never really uses the term 'Christian gentile' - the point was that they were 'grafted in' and so were without distinction, and this is the larger teaching which Romans develops throughout its text:

"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree... Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. " Romans 11:17, 25

...which is consistent with Paul's other contemporary writings:

"Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham." Galatians 3:7

"...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" Galatians 3:26-28

There are Christians of varying attributes, but none of these are so defining that we should ever group them together - we wouldn't talk about "black Christians" and "white Christians", and so we also shouldn't separate "Jewish Christians" and "non-Jewish Christians". 'Gentile' is really just another word for 'the nations' who are outside of God's Kingdom, and so this can't be correctly applied to any Christian. The Pharisee group of Jerusalem in Acts 15:5 continue to call them 'gentiles' in a negative sense - the passage quite naturally reads 'they aren't Christians until they're circumcised' until the council concludes this is not true. Given the writings of the New Testament, it's somewhat unnatural to imagine Paul using such an idea in his letters.

This is stated quite plainly at the end of the same chapter you're examining:

"A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code." Romans 2:28-29a

We see that Paul is urging the Roman Christians to not divide along their old ethnic lines, and that it is only the 'circumcision of the heart', salvation through Jesus/Yeshua the Messiah, which enters any man or woman into the Kingdom of God. The true children of Abraham are the ones who put their faith in God (Galatians 3:7), and beyond this we should make no distinctions among us. Thus, Romans 2:14 is referring to 'gentiles', who in Paul's understanding are those who have not yet been 'grafted in' to the Kingdom through Jesus.

  • Are you saying that when gentiles believe they become Jews?
    – user10231
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 12:37
  • "There is neither Jew nor Greek... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" - no, I'm not saying that gentiles become jews. I'm saying that when jews or gentiles believe, they become children of God, of the Kingdom. Just as the jews were once adopted as God's children through faith and obedience, so too are gentiles. It's only all-together through Christ we're 'made perfect', so there's not really any merit in either status outside of him (Heb 11:40).
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 13:40
  • What are you quoting for "made perfect"? Thanks.
    – user10231
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 13:49
  • @woundedego - didn't I say Hebrews 11:40?
    – Steve can help
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 19:42
  • Sorry, yes you did, however that doesn't refer to "through Christ" at all.
    – user10231
    Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 22:14

Without a doubt Christians.

Throughout his epistles, Paul confronts objections to his teachings. In this case he is responding to potential objections to Romans 2:6-11.

Rom 2:6 who “will pay back to everyone according to their works:” Rom 2:7 to those who by perseverance in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, eternal life; Rom 2:8 but to those who are self-seeking, and don’t obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, will be wrath and indignation, Rom 2:9 oppression and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Rom 2:10 But glory, honor, and peace go to every man who does good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Rom 2:11 For there is no partiality with God. (WEB)

Paul's argument goes something like this: If God is truly impartial in His judgement (2:11), judging both Jew and gentiles according to the same standard, where does that leave the law? Paul understood the validity of this looming question. Because the gentiles were not recipients of the law (see Eph 2:12). Only the Jews were "under the law" given to Moses. Gentiles had no knowledge of the law, and by implication could not attempt to follow it.

Given those facts, Paul must present a strong argument to defend his conclusion that God is impartial. If not, one might conclude that gentiles should be judged by strict conformity to the Mosaic law, including circumcision like many of the early Jewish Christians. But Paul counters this notion. God is not going to judge Gentiles by a law never given to them. But God favors those who are doers the law not those who are only hearers (those who heard it read in synagogues).

Paul then points to a mysterious group of gentiles who are:

  1. Called righteous and justified.

Rom 2:13 For it isn’t the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified

  1. Have a law written on their hearts/regenerated. (Jer 31:33, Heb 10:16).

Rom 2:15 in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts,

  1. Have thoughts accusing them (as all seed of Adam) but have thoughts excusing them on the day of judgement.

their conscience testifying with them, and their thoughts among themselves accusing or else excusing them) Rom 2:15b

One may wonder how pagan gentiles could ever be called doers of the law. Especially given Paul's indictment against them in Romans 1:21-32. They only way they could be doers of the law is by following the law of righteousness found in Christ.


One reoccurring theme throughout Paul's writings is gentile inclusion into the people of God. As mentioned in the above answers, both believing Jews and gentiles were formed by the Spirit into one new man (Eph 2:15).

In Romans 2 the text does not seem to imply Paul was making a hypothetical statement. Its contexts points towards judgement "according to works", which we find throughout the Hebrew scriptures and NT. No one doubts those spoken of in Romans 2:25-29 are Christians, yet they are described in the same terms as those in 12-16. That leads me to believe Paul's rebuttal to the potential objection goes something like this: Although Gentiles were not given the law, they (by the nature of the Spirit's work) obey the very requirements of the law through faith in Christ. Two supporting passages of this makeshift paraphrase is below. Check them out.

Rom 8:3 For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; Rom 8:4 that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Rom 9:30 What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who didn’t follow after righteousness, attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith; Rom 9:31 but Israel, following after a law of righteousness, didn’t arrive at the law of righteousness.


Romans 2:12 thru 2:16 does not qualify the gentiles by saying "when believing gentiles" or "when the saints"... so there is no reason to assume that he is only speaking of certain gentiles.

However, this passage seems to fly in the face of his argument later on:

Rom 5:13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

In Romans 2 no man is without a law by which they will be held accountable because conscience serves as a law but in Romans 5 the absence of an express law means there are no law-breakers. In Romans 5 death is still "reigning" over those with no law because the effects of Adam's transgressions get passed on.

Like most of us Paul is comfortable with a bit of cognitive dissonance if it makes for a good polemic.


The expression in Greek translated as "Gentiles" is τα εθνη- ta ethnē and is appropriately translated as "the nations" (the singular form το εθνος is even used to refer to Israel - John 11:50).

The English word "Gentile" can trace its origin through Norman French back to the Latin translation of ta ethnē in the Vulgate - gentes (nation) - and its genetive form - gentilis (of or pertaining to a nation).

The expression ta ethnē would have been well known by the Hellenic Jews in Rome that Paul was writing to, as it is used hundreds of times in their Greek Septuagint to refer to non-Jewish (generally pagan) nations. For example:

Joshua 24:18 LXX
And the Lord cast out the Amorite, and all the nations [Gr. τα εθνη, Lat. gentes] that inhabited the land from before us: yea, we will serve the Lord, for he is our God.

Isaiah 9:1 LXX
Drink this first. Act quickly, O land of Zabulon, land of Nephthalim, and the rest inhabiting the sea-coast, and the land beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles [Gr. τα εθνη, Lat. gentes]

1 Maccabees 2:12
And, behold, our sanctuary, even our beauty and our glory, is laid waste, and the Gentiles [Gr. τα εθνη, Lat. gentes] have profaned it.

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