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Romans 2:12-16 (ESV) says:

12 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. 14 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.

Is this passage saying that the unevangelized Gentiles, who die never hearing the gospel, can still be saved and make it to heaven if they live a righteous life according to God's law? If so, isn't this by definition works-based salvation?

Edited second question

Is Paul saying that All who were before Christ died and have been condemned. Weren't they were condemned without a chance at Grace? Since we are no different from them save the fact that we are Post -Jesus's work on the cross

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    @Faith Mendel It is unfair to add an extra two questions after the main one, after others have posted their answers to the original. One question is supposed to be asked at a time. The extra two inject personal opinions as if they form a solid basis for asking them. To even hint at the possibility that all before Christ were condemned without a chance at Grace is out of order. My recent answer could not deal with that (as that idea had not been inserted), though it briefly does. I'm not going to add any more in case further insertions are made.
    – Anne
    Dec 17, 2023 at 16:34
  • It's important to define the pluralities in your question before proceeding with any attempt at answering. The Mosaic law applies directly only to the people of covenant and is part of the covenant. Once the covenant is void (Zach 11:10) or the person is dead the law is void. The baptism is freeing from the covenant as it is the baptism of dead into new life. The gospel is partially addressed at the people of covenant, then at those freed from it through death and finally at all people in the world. Your question is intermingling those pluralities. Half of the answer is in the question.
    – grammaplow
    Dec 19, 2023 at 7:22

12 Answers 12

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+25

I’m going to rephrase the question to fit Paul’s context better: Can a person (even a Gentile) get into heaven by keeping the law?

The context in Romans 2

We start out with verse 12:

  • “Ὅσοι γὰρ ἀνόμως ἥμαρτον, ἀνόμως καὶ ἀπολοῦνται· καὶ ὅσοι ἐν νόμῳ ἥμαρτον, διὰ νόμου κριθήσονται·” (Ῥωμαίους 2·12 THGNT-T)
  • “For as as many as there were sinning outside of the written law, then perished outside of the written law. And as many as there were who were sinning with full knowledge of the law, through that same law they will be condemned.”

So the point is fairly clear: Whether a person has God’s word (and especially knows the 10 commandments) or not, that person still sins continually (imperfect tense). As a result, that law judges/condemns them because of their sin.

Verse 13:

  • “οὐ γὰρ οἱ ἀκροαταὶ νόμου δίκαιοι παρὰ τῷ θεῷ, ἀλλ’ οἱ ποιηταὶ νόμου δικαιωθήσονται.” (Ῥωμαίους 2·13 THGNT-T)
  • This is true because it is not the ones who are hearers of the law that are declared righteous in God’s sight, but instead the ones who get God’s laws done (are justified).”

The point that Paul makes here is important. There is a way to get into heaven by oneself. All you have to do is continually keep all of the 10 commandments perfectly—all the time, for all of your life. As Paul explains it to us here, God is not just concerned about the intention (planning to do good or avoid the evil), but the actual carrying out of the intention. Indeed, if a person is able to continually keep (carry out) these commandments, then that person could get into heaven (be justified) outside of Jesus.

That, then, gets us to the next thought though: Can a person keep the law? And in this context then, he focuses in on the Gentiles:

Verse 14:

  • “ὅταν γὰρ ἔθνη τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα φύσει τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιῶσιν, οὗτοι νόμον μὴ ἔχοντες ἑαυτοῖς εἰσὶν νόμος,” (Ῥωμαίους 2·14 THGNT-T)
  • “How so? Whenever the Gentiles, who do not have God’s law [written out for them], naturally carry out what is commanded what comes from the law, these very same ones who do not have the law [make the law exist] for themselves.”

Paul expands on his point. The Gentiles do not know God’s word since it hasn’t been revealed to them. So they are “off the hook”, right? They cannot be held accountable on Judgment Day, right? Not so. For every-time they set up a law on their own naturally (φύσει) that corresponds to the written, 10 commandments and then break their own commands, they show that they have a semblance of conscience and commandments. But this ‘law code’ isn’t written on parchment. Instead, it’s written in their hearts. They are condemned even though they never heard of the 10 words in Deut. 5 & Exodus 20 because they have their own made up law (that overlaps with the 2nd table of the law) and don’t even carry that out.

Verse 15:

  • “οἵτινες ἐνδείκνυνται τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου γραπτὸν ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν συνμαρτυρούσης αὐτῶν τῆς συνειδήσεως καὶ μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων τῶν λογισμῶν κατηγορούντων ἢ καὶ ἀπολογουμένων,” (Ῥωμαίους 2·15 THGNT-T)
  • These sorts of people show that the work demanded by the law is written on their hearts. Because their consciences testify along with their own thoughts, even though the testimony might either condemn or acquit them.”

This is a difficult verse. But the point is clear. The dual testimony of the conscience and internal discussion within them is very active. It is not perfect. It is not always accurate. Since they have laws that come to them ‘by default’, by nature (naturally), they are not whole, complete, and reliable like the 10 commandments are. They shift with seasons and situations. And as a result, they can accuse them in one moment, and then defend them in the next.

But when these made-up laws overlap with God’s laws, it is enough to prove on Judgment Day (vs. 16) that they could not keep (carry out completely) these laws. And since they could not keep them, they are condemned by the very same laws they could not keep.

Conclusion

Paul’s conclusion that he has been building to is that there is a way to be justified and get into heaven by oneself. But the bar is high—too high for anyone to keep: perfection in thought, word, and action for all of your entire life.

No one has kept this expectation. And everyone is without excuse. For those who have the 10 commandments do not keep it (even though we have it.) And those who do not have (or even know about) the 10 commandments condemn themselves because even their own made-up laws that overlap with the 10 commandments, they do not keep.


Hermeneutical Considerations

The key to understanding chapters 1-3 of Romans (and the rest of the bible) is having a proper understanding of the role and function of law and gospel.

Professor Siegbert Becker outlines this most vital distinction very well:

  • The Law is written in the heart of man, and is therefore known by nature (Ro 2:15).

  • The Gospel is a mystery unknown to man by nature (1 Cor 2:7ff; Ro 16:25).


  • The Law demands perfect obedience from men (Gn 17:1; Mt 5:48).

  • The Gospel makes no demands but only offers the grace of God to men (Eph 2:8,9).


  • The Law promises salvation and life to those who obey all its demands (Lk 10:28).

  • The Gospel promises salvation to those who have broken the Law (Ac 16:31).


  • The Law says that the doers of the Law shall be justified (Ro 2:13).

  • The Gospel says that those who have not kept the Law shall be justified (Ro 4:5), and that a man is justified without the deeds of the Law (Ro 3:28).


  • The Law says that God will not forgive sin nor acquit the sinner (Josh 24:19; Na 1:3).

  • The Gospel says that God has acquitted all men, that He has forgiven the sins of the world (Ro 5:18; 2 Cor 5:19).


  • The Law says that every sinner is to be cursed (Ga 3:10).

  • The Gospel says that all the families of the earth are blessed in Christ (Gn 22:18; Ga 3:16).


  • The Law says that God hates sinners (Ps 5:5; 11:5; Ho 9:15).

  • The Gospel says that God loves all men (Jn 3:16).


  • The Law says that God is angry with sinners (Na 1:2; Ro 1:18).

  • The Gospel says that God is favorably disposed toward all men and reconciled to all men (Tit 2:11; 2 Cor 5:19).


  • The Law has the effect of arousing men against God (Ro 4:15).

  • The Gospel has the effect of reconciling men with God (2 Cor 5:20).


  • The Law terrifies men and is intended to terrify them (Ex 20:18f).

  • The Gospel is intended to cast out all fear. "Fear not" (Lk 2:10 et al.).


  • The Law must be preached to make the comfortable distressed (Ro 3:20).

  • The Gospel must be preached to make the distressed comfortable (Is 40:11).

(cf. pp. 217-218 The foolishness of God)

Reconciling these tensions and paradoxes is only found at the cross of Christ. Luther writes:

Now when both Law and Gospel meet, and the Law declares me a sinner, accuses and condemns me, the Gospel however says, 'Be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee,' 'thou shalt be saved,' and both are God's Word, which am I, then, to follow? St. Paul tells you. 'But after that faith is come,' he says, 'we are no longer under a schoolmaster,' the Law has come to an end. For as the lesser it should and must give way and place to the Gospel. Both are God's Word, the Law and the Gospel, but the two are not equal. One is lower, the other higher; one is weaker, the other stronger; one is lesser, the other greater. When now they wrestle with each other, I follow the Gospel and say, Good-bye, Law!

(St. L., IX, 808, P, III, 232)

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  • Still dosen't answer the question. are you saying that all Gentiles then before Christ are Lost? Dec 17, 2023 at 2:10
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    @FaithMendel, As Paul says, everyone outside of Christ (both in the OT & NT), i.e. not believing in Christ is lost. Conversely, those who believe in Christ (both in the OT & NT) are saved. In the OT, we have specific examples of those who were Gentiles (Melchizedek, Naaman, Queen of the South, Widow of Zarepheth, etc) and yet were saved through the gift of faith that, unasked, unearned, unforced, God gave to them. (I answered the initial question, but, should I edit my answer to correspond to your edited question?)
    – Epimanes
    Dec 17, 2023 at 11:46
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The passage is part of Paul's case that he builds up over several chapters to show that Jews and Gentiles alike are equally condemned as law-breakers. When push comes to shove, the Jews who were directly given the law through Moses, mediated by angels, have broken it, and all Gentiles who went by other laws broke those ones. Every single person who has Adam as their ultimate forebear, stands condemned before God as a law-breaker.

To get the answer to the question, Paul's argument must be followed on into chapter 3 (though, preferably, to the middle of chapter 8). But by the end of chapter 3 Paul has shown the following, and note how this starts with a "Therefore...", showing that he is giving a conclusion:

"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets: even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe, for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth, a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forebearance of God.

To declare at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is the boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith,

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision [Jews] by faith, and the uncircumcision [Gentiles] through faith" Romans 3:20-30 K.J. Bold emphases mine

The answer is that nobody can hope to secure a works-based salvation, whether Jew or Gentile, whether evangelized or unevangelized. The Bible verses where I have made bold highlights spell that out with crystal clarity. God forebears to save sinners who exemplify the law of faith in Jesus Christ.

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I should declare my unashamed bias here - I VERY STRONGLY believe in justification/salvation by:

  • faith alone (Rom 3:28)
  • Christ alone (Acts 4:12)
  • grace alone (Gal 3)
  • based on the teachings of Scripture alone
  • to the glory of God alone

Further, such salvation is available to all people (Rom 1:18-22) which Paul wants to expand upon here in Rom 2 to demonstrate how universal salvation's plan was/is.

Paul is using phrases in Rom 2:12-16 that are very common to the Bible and Hebrew idiom, for example:

  • but the doers of the law who will be justified - this is the same idea as in James 2:14-25, especially v24, "a man is justified by his deeds and not by faith alone".
  • work of the law is written on their hearts - this is a direct allusion to Jer 31:33 which is quoted by Heb 8:8–12 and 10:16–17. It is also a direct reference to what Paul said in another place, namely, Eph 2:8-10 -

For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life.

This idea of doing good works BECAUSE we are saved (and not in order to be saved, Rom 3:20) is very common in Scripture:

  • Rom 2:6 - He will judge everyone according to what they have done. [This quotes Ps 62:12.]
  • Rev 20:12, 13 - And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne.
    And there were open books, and one of them was the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their deeds, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead, and each one was judged according to his deeds.
  • Rev 2:23 - I am the One who searches minds and hearts, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.

... and so forth. Thus, Rom 2:12-16 uses identical language for gentiles, as for Christians; the latter have a knowledge of Christ and His revealed will in the Bible.

All this is saying that a saved person is a transformed person whose actions match their profession. Look at what Jesus says about His disciples:

Matt 5:16 - In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

See also:

1 Peter 2:12 - Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

See also James 3:13, Heb 10:24, 1 Tim 2:10, 5:10, 6:18, Titus 2:14, I wish that more Christians were thus transformed rather than simply speaking about grace! Note the severe warning in Titus 1:16 - They profess to know God, but by their actions they deny Him. They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good deed.

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  • So, in short, you answer is "No, there is no works-based salvation for unevangelized Gentiles", correct?
    – user38524
    Jan 14, 2021 at 22:40
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator - agreed - the basis for salvation is the same for all people in all times - by the merits of Christ alone (whether people understand that or not). All good things come from God and if gentiles are doing good works, then they must have some connection to God
    – Dottard
    Jan 14, 2021 at 23:26
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator - It is the faithfulness of Christ that saves us. If my weak faith is to save me I am lost! Note the phrase in Rom 3:22, 26, Gal 2:16, 3:22, Rev 14:12 which is “pistis Iesou” (note the genitive) - the faith of Jesus, or better, the faithfulness of Jesus. Faith is NOT a work we do to earn salvation - salvation is God's initiative (that is another question as well!). Salvation is received by trusting in something outside ourselves - and THAT is faith whether we understand that Jesus is responsible or not.
    – Dottard
    Jan 14, 2021 at 23:55
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    "What you have done to the least of my brothers & sisters you have also done to me", Jesus said. It seems that if we believe in Jesus we believe that love towards our neighbor is to love God, who is love. If we hear theses words preached, or if we read these words in the Bible, and don't believe in them we wouldn't follow them either. But if we have never heard these words but think and act in line with them, because we think it is just and right, we would fulfill Jesus words without knowing that we did. Jesus also said that it is the doers and not the hearers that will be declared righteous. Jun 5, 2021 at 10:03
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    Jesus also said that It will be forgiven us if we speak against the Father and the Son, as long as we don’t speak against the Holy Spirit. Jun 14, 2021 at 22:59
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St Paul says here that those Jews who happened to live before Christ and adhered to the Law not only by words but by deeds also, would not lose their reward in eternity, for they did maximum in what was entrusted to them - the Law. And also on their level are those non-Jews who heard not of Moses law, but understood in their God-given hearts and minds what is good and what is evil and acted accordingly: choosing good instead of evil. Thus, neither such will lose their reward in Eternity, as St Paul explicitly states here, for they also did maximum: utilized their God-given reason and ethical feeling and behaved accordingly - nobly.

Otherwise there will be injustice in Lord, for He will not reward for good efforts and workings good men just because they were born before the Incarnation. Is it a guilt of any person that he was not born after Incarnation? Or can any pagan be punished for a guilt of not accepting Christ, if this pagan was not even preached about Christ by anybody? Both those born before Incarnation and those who had no chance to hear about Christ after His Incarnation are exempt from guilt. In fact, the time of birth is a matter of accidence, not of essence; it is absurd to suppose that Lord wishes to reward a man due to his good deeds, but cannot do so, due to the time of his birth; such a Lord will be weaker than the principle of accidence, the goddess Τυχή, and to assert this is a paganism, in Christian terms, also a blasphemy.

To give an analogy: USA tells South Korea to stand firm and fight courageously for 48 hours against the intruding North Korean army and then the US army will come and provide a victorious aid through superior weaponry; now, even though the South Korean soldiers and officers are unable to defeat the enemy through inferior weaponry, their valor and courage, even in such dire circumstances will be rewarded, for that was maximum they could do. Of course, it is a bit rush and on the border of rusticity to compare the Lord’s advent to the coming of the US army, but it can work as an analogy.

Thus, does Paul suggest here, in this passage a possibility of salvation of virtuous pagans? This can be supposed, but it is not 100%; what Paul says here 100% is that pagans, who have no Law, will be judged by Christ according to their inner law, written in the fleshly tablets of their hearts. Does this "will be judged" mean that they can be saved? Probably, yes, just like pre-Incarnation time faithful Jews can be saved.

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The question is making a divide between two groups of humanity - 'unevangelized gentiles and evangelized gentiles'.

The question then says that the first group 'may be saved' . . . . by keeping the law.


There are, indeed, two humanities, that under the headship of Adam and that under the headship of Christ.

Paul deals with this in detail in Romans 5:12-21.

'In Adam - all die'.

Some die never having heard the law. These, says Paul, 'perish'.

The rest, who have the law and are under the law - are judged by it. But none keeps it. Thus all of these, also, perish.

Salvation is only under the headship of Christ. Those born anew. Born again. Born of water and of Spirit. Born from above. Born of God.

Begotten.

And under the headship of Christ.

Under the anointed, under the flow of the Spirit which flows down upon the head, to the beard and down to the skirts of garment - to all under his skirts, as Ruth, the Moabitess, not of Israel.

And 'I, through the law, am dead to the law, that I might live unto God'.

Only being dead frees from law. And only then can God be served.

Dead with Christ. Crucified with him in the sight and in the view and in the estimation of God.

Then - one is dead indeed.

And risen with Him, in newness of life.

It is no more I that live, but Christ that liveth in me.

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  • All die , without hearing of Grace? How is it then grace if they were condemned without a chance at Grace? Since we are no different from them save the fact that we are Post -Jesus's work on the cross Dec 17, 2023 at 2:12
  • @FaithMendel I stated 'in Adam all die' (Paul's words). Then I enlarged on that.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 17, 2023 at 12:42
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This clearly is an understatement about the effects of the law, first as to Jews, and then enlarged to all mankind. This is clearly established by the statement in verse 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.

So, what hearer of the law under the law was ever justified by the law, other than the giver of the law, Jesus, the Christ?

Then, what about those not under the law? Remember, God said in Exodus 20:1-26 KJV:

And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt... (on and on). Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.

These were bullet points of the law that required chapter after chapter of our now-separated-by-chapter text to set out strict specifics as to that law. These specifics cause headaches of Jews who were schooled in that law to attempt to understand so as to try vainly to keep that law.

CONTINUING, in Romans 3:1-9 Paul compares Jews with Gentiles as to advantage:

What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?

and ANSWERING--in perfect context--in the very next verse:

Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.

The Jews were those hearers of the law referred to in the OP's question.

What about the Gentiles? The OP's text cites verse 14:

For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, ... .

Now that's something way beyond the ability of any man on earth to do. Remember, The verse before just said, "Not the hearers of the law"

When did God ever bring a Gentile out of the land of Egypt? When did any Gentile ever do those things that are contained in the entire law, let alone only the bullet points of the ten commandments, ESPECIALLY without ever hearing those things that the "law saith".

Paul concludes with this answer to the OP's question, in Romans 3:19-20 KJV:

Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

(That is "all the world", not just the hearers--the Jews--shut your mouth, you are guilty)

How could any man, having a sinful nature, possibly do, by his sinful nature, those righteous things contained in the law?

THEREFORE by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

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Law and "the" Law
Unfortunately, most translations fail to preserve the distinction between law, or "a law" and the law (the Mosaic Law) Paul makes throughout this passage.

Romans 2 (ESV):

12 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. 14 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.

Where Paul did not use the article, [the] indicates a translation ellipsis. In the ESV, only verse 14 properly captures this distinction: 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.

The idea in verse 14 is straight-forward: When Gentiles who do not have the law (the Mosaic Law) do what that Law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have that Law. An example would be: honor your father and mother. When Gentiles, who are not under the Mosaic Law, honor their father and mother, they are obeying the Law, despite not being under the Law. In doing so, they are "a" law to themselves. At the same time, the particular law is also found in the Law.

The passage continues. The Gentile does not have the written law, but the work of the Law (eg. honoring your father and mother) is written on their heart and their conscience bears witness (for or against them) when judged by God διὰ, that is through, Christ Jesus. It is important to note work of the law is singular. This is not speaking about works (plural) of the law. Therefore, the simple answer to the question is no; this is not speaking about works-based salvation.

Jew and Greek
One of the curious distinctions Paul makes in Romans (1:16, 2:9, 2:10, 10:12), Galatians (3:28), and Colossians (3:11) is between Jew and Greek. One expects Jew and Gentile, which encompasses all people. In writing to Romans, does Paul's Jew and Greek intend to exclude some in the intended audience?

Romans 2:

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.

Notice it is every human being who does evil and good. I believe the distinction of Jew and Greek becomes evident in what follows. In some respect, Greek philosophy is similar to the Mosaic Law when it seeks to proscribe righteousness and consequences for doing wrong. It is a man-made code of behavior which philosophically defines right and wrong. In effect Paul is saying, whether you use God's Law or your man-made philosophy, you know and have done evil, and will be judged through Christ Jesus.

This does not mean Paul is accepting Greek philosophy as a means of salvation. He is saying those who deny or reject God, will prove they know there is a God by their own actions.

Romans 1:20:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Everything in the passage except making images, applies to Greek philosophy. It is just a more sophisticated man-made attempt to replace God.

Summary
I believe work of the Law written on the heart is describing what God does to the sinner who is "sophisticated." They do not make idols to replace God; they use their own ideas. Their approach is, of course wrong, but some man-made ideas are consistent with God's Law. When the two intersect, it is a work of the Law written on the un-believer's heart. It shows they know there is a God and are without excuse from their attempt to implement their law instead of seeking righteousness from God.

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One's understanding of what Paul really means here depends on one's soteriology, especially whether a person's conscience can bring them to salvation without hearing the gospel and receiving baptism. While opinions vary, I would point out that contemporary Catholic theology holds that non-believers may indeed be saved when they "by nature do what the law requires... even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness."

The Second Vatican Council's Lumen gentium, teaches that people:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.

These are exactly the kinds of people Paul speaks about here. However, elsewhere in his writings Paul states fairly clearly that there is no salvation except through faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice. In the end, this question is up to the reader's interpretation, guided by his/her conscience and denominational teachings.

However, since the OP asks about hope for works-based salvation, my answer would be that any such salvation would not be works-based. Rather the person would be moved by God's grace through their conscience to engage in works of charity that manifest the fruit of the Spirit. So in the end, it is still salvation through grace, not works.

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Q1 - “Is this passage saying that the un-evangelized Gentiles, who die never hearing the gospel, can still be saved?”

No, this passage is not talking about the un-evangelized Gentiles. This passage is talking about the evangelized and converted Gentile Christian believers.

This is clear from the verse “the law is written on their hearts”. This is a clear allusion to a great prophecy from God that a time is coming when He will make a Second Covenant and write His Law (the same Law written on the tablets of stone in the First Covenant) on the hearts of all the called out ones.

God is very clear: He will write the Law on the hearts in the Second Covenant, which was again intended for the children of Israel (Jer 31:33). But since the majority rejected Jesus Christ, God opened the door of the Covenant for the Gentiles (Heb 10:16).

The very word “church” in the New Testament is equivalent of the Greek “ekklesia”, a combination of 2 Greek words: “ek” means “out/from” and “kaleo” means “call”. So a church or ekklesia is a group of people who are “called out”.

Who “called” them “out”? God “called” them “out”. (God is always the One who takes the first initiative!).

Where from were they “called out”? They were called out from the world (John 17:11).

Could they have achieved salvation without knowing Christ and His Law on their own? No, they could not have because then the word “ekklesia” would become meaningless. The church will become just a social club where people assemble for entertainment!

But a church is a group of “called out” ones in whose heart God wrote His spiritual Law.

So, the above passage is talking about the converted Gentile Christian believers.

Q2 – “If so, isn't this by definition works-based salvation?”

It is a very tricky question. No one can follow the spiritual Law from God unless converted (Rom 8:7). Without consciously and willfully accepting Christ, no one can receive salvation (Acts 4:12; Rom 10:9-10). So it is a moot point that the un-evangelized gentiles can have works-based salvation without Christ.

But at the same time, the people who accept Christ have to be “doers of the Law”! Christ also said that if anyone wants to enter into life, he has to keep the commandments.

Q3 – “Is Paul saying that All who were before Christ died and have been condemned”?

No. Paul doesn’t say that. In fact, though startling it may sound, the Scripture says emphatically that it is God who shut everyone in unbelief!!!

“For God has shut up ALL in unbelief, so that He might show mercy to all” (Rom 11:32)!!!

There is a difference between “judgment” and “condemnation”. God will judge everyone. That doesn’t mean that God will condemn everyone.

Judgment is a long process. When God judges one person, God “corrects” that person.

“But being judged, we are corrected by the Lord” (1 Cor 11:32).

In fact, God started judgment from the His own Church. “For the time has come for the judgment to begin from the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17).

This is why, the verses in the OP says that only those within the Law will be judged by the Law.

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There is no salvation through works, as clearly stated in the first few chapters of Romans.

For we have already charged both Jews and Greeks all to be under sin. As it has been written: “There is none righteous, not even one; There is none understanding; there is none seeking after God. All have turned away; together they have become worthless; there is none who is practicing good, there is not so much as one. Roman's 3:19

OP's second question;

"Is Paul saying that All who were before Christ died and have been condemned. Weren't they were condemned without a chance at Grace? Since we are no different from them save the fact that we are Post -Jesus's work on the cross"

Further in Paul's letter, one can see where there is, hope to be found for all of those who never heard the gospel before Christ was born.

One can find the answer in Romans chapter 5.

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If Paul intended to suggest a works-based salvation for the unevangelized Gentiles, he shouldn't have stopped at Romans 2:15 without further elaborating his argument. In Romans chapter 2, the Jews despised the Gentiles, thinking they had the Lord's favoritism. Paul made an argument to them that if they have the law and are not able to comply with it, would be inferior to the Gentiles who don't have the law but are able to work it out in their heart.

Therefore, Paul is not validating a work-based salvation, but rather making a negative argument against the wrongful thought of the Jews who think the Lord has favoritism towards them. In Romans 2:11, he said, "For God does not show favoritism".

In the Bible, works are cited as proof of faith. For instance, in Revelation, all the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor include this requirement;

  • To the church in Ephesus - 2 I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. .....5 Repent and do the things you did at first. (Rev 2:2-5 NIV)
  • To the church in Smyrna - 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. ..... Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Rev 2:10 NIV)
  • To the church in Pergamum - 16 Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev 2:16 NIV)
  • To the church in Thyatira - 19 I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first (Rev 2:19 NIV)
  • To the church in Sardis - I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (Rev 3:1b NIV)
  • To the church in Philadelphia - I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Rev 3:8 NIV)
  • To the church in Laodicea - 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! (Rev 3:15 NIV)

The book of James also deals with the relationship between works and faith. Paul's teaching emphasizes faith as the origin of good works, which are submissive to the Holy Spirit. In Romans chapter 2, Paul mostly talks about the failure of works among the Jews, not specifically the good works of the Gentiles. The particular verses of Romans 2:12-16 illustrate a contrast, not a proof.

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Life from Life

According to the Law of Biogenesis in science, life can arise from pre-existing life only. The theory of Spontaneous Generation was discarded into the dustbin of history after Louise Pasteur.

And when we go back tracing the origin of life, we reach to the ultimate and original Life; God, who is the Source of all life. Thus real life can come only from God.

Law does not generate Life

The spiritual Law of God cannot generate life because life can come only from the pre-existing life.

But, importantly, once we receive life, it is our moral responsibility not to lose it. And the spiritual Law helps us in maintaining the received life! “Sin” is detrimental to life. Through sin, which actually is the breakage of that life-sustaining Law, we lose life.

The Law cannot resurrect a dead person but God, the real pre-existing Source of all life, can. But the Law can “maintain” an already live person.

So, the crux of the whole matter is this: it is God who gives eternal life as a free gift of grace to a believer. Because of the baggage of past sins (2 Pet 1:9), a “dead” person cannot earn this eternal life. It is a free gift from God. But once he becomes living he should not sin (i.e., break Law) but “maintain” that life.

A sinful person is an already “dead” person. No amount of further “law keeping” will impart life to him because life can arise from pre-existing Life only.

Looking at Romans 2:12-16 in the above background, we can segregate the entire humanity into four categories:

Category 1: The saints of the children of Israel who have the oracles and Law of God. The holy patriarchs and prophets of God come under this category who received the promise of eternal life from God. They know the spiritual Law of God. These are “the doers of the Law” who are justified. This is the minority of all the four. Scripture calls them the elect; “The elect obtained it” (Rom 11:7); they knew God and His Christ (Psalms 110:1).

Their future:- These saints are the “firstfruits” and will be resurrected to glorious eternal spiritual life at the second coming of Christ (1 Cor 15:52) to rule the world (1 Cor 6:2) with Jesus Christ.

Category 2: The rest of the children of Israel who have the oracles and Law of God. The unconverted Israel comes under this category. They are aware of the spiritual Law of God but these are “the hearers of the Law”. They are the majority of Israel. It is about them the Scripture says, “the rest were hardened” (Rom 11:7) without the promise of eternal life.

Their future:- All of these unconverted Israel will be brought back to “physical” life in a grand general resurrection. This is so graphically described in Ezekiel 37th chapter. Then God will convert and “cleanse them” (Ezek 37:23).Then they will know God and will obey God’s spiritual Law (verse 24) “and so all Israel will be saved” after the Second Coming of the “Deliverer” (Rom 11:26).

Category 3: The converted Gentiles who did not originally have the oracles and Law of God. But they came to know about God and His Christ though the Gospel proclamation. Thus they received the promise of eternal life from God and are “grafted in” “the root and fatness” of the cultivated olive tree (Rom 11:17). They absorb all the promises and spiritual Law from God through the root and fatness of spiritual Israel. They “show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Rom 2:15). It is crystal clear that these are not pagan Gentiles but are Gentile Christian believers who are part of the Second and better Covenant as prophesied in Jeremiah 31:33 (Heb 10:16).

A Great Misunderstanding:- there has been a great misunderstanding through the past centuries that “somehow” God had planted His spiritual Law in the hearts of the barbarous unconverted heathens and they “somehow” knew it by nature. Those who advocate this lie cite Romans 2:14-15.

Truth cannot be farther!!

Paul clearly says that the Gentiles “show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (verse 15). This is a clear allusion to a prophecy made by God through prophet Jeremiah.

The author of Hebrews quotes that prophecy thus:

“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord; I will put My Laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them” (Heb 10:16).

Jeremiah says in 31:33,

“After those days, declares Jehovah, I will put My Law in their inward parts, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people”.

So it is plainly obvious that the Gentiles Paul mentions here are the Gentile Christian believers who are very much a part and parcel of the Second and better Covenant. These are not random barbarian heathens!!!

God doesn’t write His laws in a heathen’s barbarous heart, unless God converts him (Matt 7:6)!

Their future:- Same as the Category 1. These are also part of the “firstfruits”.

Category 4: The majority of the pagan Gentiles; the unconverted, un-evangelized whole world who never had the oracles and Law of God. They are neither hearers nor doers of the Law. They do not know God.

They sin without Law and will perish(*) without Law (Rom 2:12).

These un-evangelized people cannot form good conscience and follow the spiritual things of God, on their own.

The Unconverted World is Evil

We may have our own opinions but the Creator of the human race witnesses this about His creation: “every inclination of people's (an unconverted human’s) thoughts becoming only evil on a continuous basis” (Gen 6:5) and “human inclinations remain evil from youth” (Gen 8:21).

We may say that this was in the Old Testament times, especially in the antediluvian period. But postdiluvian, the situation is the same.

“For there is not a single righteous man on earth who practices good and does not sin” (Ecc 7:20). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer 17:9).

This is the same even in the New Testament times.

“But a natural man (the unconverted human) does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). “And so people become enemies of God when they are controlled by their human nature (the unconverted mind); for they do not obey God's law, and in fact they cannot obey it” (Rom 8:7;GNB).

Jesus’ Testimony

No wonder, Jesus Himself didn’t trust any man because He knew, as the Creator of man, what was in man! “But Jesus did not trust himself unto them, for that he knew all men, and because he needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man; for he himself knew what was in man” (John 5:24-25).

Jesus also testifies this about the whole world: “the world ………hates Me, because I testify concerning it that its works are evil” (John 7:7).

So now it is amply evident that the unconverted Gentiles, “the un-evangelized Gentiles, who die never hearing the gospel” cannot, on their own, do good and be saved.

Un-evangelized Gentiles cannot be Saved (Please, I am not cruel to them)

The unconverted Gentiles do not know God and they do not have any knowledge about God’s spiritual Law.

True, as C S Lewis said, every human/human society has some sort of higher moral standard. But that is NOT the same as God’s spiritual Law. Even the chosen people, the Jews, entrusted with God’s oracles and Law were unable to see the “weightier matters” of the Law. Then the possibility of the Gentiles who do not have any idea of God’s Law following it in its entirety is out of consideration.

Even if we give the benefit of doubt by saying that they have some notion of God’s Law, the Scripture says it is pointless! “For whoever shall keep all the Law, but stumbles in one, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).

Besides, the notion that the un-evangelized Gentiles passively get saved flies against the following Scriptures:

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works in righteousness which we had done, but according to His mercy, He saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ, our Savior” (Titus 3:4-6).

The un-evangelized Gentiles did not receive such grace!

Also, the above verse states that for anyone to be saved, he needs to be “washed”, “regenerated”, and “renewed” through the Holy Spirit! Without these, there is no salvation.

“But if by grace, no longer is it of works; else grace no longer becomes grace. But if of works, it is no longer grace; else work is no longer work” (Rom 11:6).

“For by grace you are saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, that not anyone should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

What the Un-evangelized Gentiles Can Do

True, even the heathens have some notion of doing good and Jesus agrees and explains what good they can do.

They love those who love them back. They do good to those who do good back to them. They lend to those who return a profit back to them (Luke 6:32-34).

Though this attitude may be thought of as “love” in a secular world, Jesus doesn’t approve such good deeds because these are based on selfishness and are not worthy of eternal life.

Here Jesus Himself proves beyond any doubt that God does not put His moral law in the hearts of the heathens!

The Law is Spiritual

I am sure that no one will deny the fact that we need to obey God. But obey God in what?

The one common factor in both the First and the Second Covenants is the Ten Commandments, which are “holy”, “just and good” (Rom 7:12) and “spiritual” (Rom 7:14).

In the whole Bible, the Ten Commandments are the only writings God wrote with His own finger (Exo 31:18; Deu 9:10)!!

God prophesied through Jeremiah that what He Himself has written on the stone (the Ten Commandments), He Himself will write in the hearts and minds of people (Jer 31:33; Heb 10:16).

Jesus demands keeping the Commandments

This is why Jesus replied, when asked, to keep the commandments to enter into life (Matt 19:17) and He points to the Ten Commandments (verses 18-19).

However, without accepting Jesus, it is pointless to keep the commandments. This is what Jesus asked the rich man to do, to follow Him (verse 21).

What Rom 2:12-16 Says

Everybody has sinned. But those unconverted Gentiles (Category 4) who sinned without the knowledge of God and His Law will also perish(*) in their ignorance. But those converted believers (Category 1 and 3) who sinned with the knowledge of God’s Law will be judged through the Law.

The Gentiles mentioned here are converted believers (Category 3). They, originally, did not have the Law with them because they were not part of the chosen people of Israel. But they are part of the Second and better Covenant. God has already written His Law in their hearts (verse 15) as per His prophecy through Jeremiah! That is why they are able to “do the things of the (spiritual) Law”.

Note on Perish:- Perish (Apollumi) does not mean that the un-evangelized, unconverted are eternally lost! It means to destroy, to die or to lose. For example, in Matt 10:6, Jesus asks to go to the lost (Apollumi) sheep of the house of Israel. These are not eternally lost. If so, there was no point in going to them!

So, the un-evangelized, unconverted Gentiles are not eternally lost!

A Question; their future:-

Now, the question remains: what about unconverted Gentiles (Category 4)? Will God show mercy to them?

Scripture says that God has 1) a Secret Plan; and 2) a Time Table for them!

“God ……….. made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ. This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation (including Category 4!) together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head. All things are done according to God's plan and decision” (Ephes 1:9-11;GNB).

Jesus Himself gives the clue:

“I assure you that on the Judgment Day God will show more mercy to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah than to the people of that town!” (Matt 10:15).

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  • Titus 3 Eph 2:8 talks about the cause of Jesus sacrifice (our salvation) not being given due to anyone's righteousness but by God's grace. This doesn't nullify the fact that is described in Romans 2 and the whole Bible consistently that righteous man is saved or righteous works is counted righteousness in God's eyes, not faith or religion. A good Samaritan is saved whereas the Jewish high priest is condemned if he is bad. You're inserting traditional dogmas to counter and change the direct meaning of the passage (eisegesis) . Search for "judged by works" in Blueletterbible site.
    – Michael16
    Dec 10, 2023 at 6:23
  • Does the Scripture say that the good Samaritan is saved or the high priest is condemned in that parable? A Samaritan has the Torah with him and knows YHWH. Jesus says that even the very bad people are capable of doing good (Luke 6:32-34) but He doesn’t approve that! I am not against good works or command keeping. All I am saying is that a person is justified not because of good works (Rom 9:11) but a person does good works because he is justified by God freely (Eph 2:10). I think Dottard has said it correctly somewhere. Dec 10, 2023 at 9:22
  • Samaritan was not a bad man, he did not help someone who did good to him, but he helped a stranger. He went to heaven, whereas sinful high priests go to hell. Seek the wisdom in parables, they are cryptic stories revealing the basic truth in illustrations. You also misunderstood the meaning of election in Romans 9.11. Follow Jesus, not Dottard or the high priests and Pharisees.
    – Michael16
    Dec 10, 2023 at 9:28
  • @Michael16 - You sound to be in a fighting spirit. Dec 10, 2023 at 14:05
  • I said the good Samaritan had the Torah with him and he knew YHWH. But Jesus/Scripture doesn’t say he went to heaven or the high priest to hell. That’s eisegesis. Jesus used the parable to show who one’s neighbor is. I am ready to correct my misunderstanding if you explain that. Just because we quote someone doesn’t mean we necessarily follow that person. Dec 10, 2023 at 14:06