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?

  • I hold at the moment, until proven otherwise, that the heavenly New Jerusalem suburb of Jasper was built by righteous American Indians, of the tribe of Gad. (1 Cor 1:28) Jan 15, 2021 at 12:53
  • Could you be specific as to which part of the texts suggests the "hope" for the un-evangelized Gentile?
    – Sam
    Dec 4, 2021 at 2:08
  • This still hasn't gotten an answer May 22, 2022 at 0:25

3 Answers 3


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.

  • So, in short, you answer is "No, there is no works-based salvation for unevangelized Gentiles", correct?
    – user38524
    Jan 14, 2021 at 22:40
  • @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
  • So if the unevangelized Gentiles cannot be saved on the basis of meritorious works, the only other option is salvation based on faith, right? So the question now is: faith in what?
    – user38524
    Jan 14, 2021 at 23:33
  • 1
    "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
  • 1
    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

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.


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. Time of birth is a matter of accidence not essence; if Lord wishes to reward, but cannot due to the time of birth, then such Lord will be weaker than the principle of accidence, the goddess Τυχή, to say which is a paganism and in Christian terms, 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.

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