Gentiles Doing the Deeds of the Law – what does Paul mean?

Paul says in his epistle to the Romans,

Rom. 2:12 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.

In the above Paul refers to sinful acts, not to some kind of “sin nature”. I have dealt with the idea in another post.

Paul then he continues:

Rom. 2:14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires {i.e. loving God with one’s whole heart, mind and strength; and loving one’s neighbour as himself) is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Notice that Paul is not talking about Gentile converts who has the Spirit, but about those Gentiles who “by nature” do the works of the law. The term “by nature” doesn’t mean “by regenerated nature”, the thought is far from the context, Paul is not talking about Gentile converts who had the Scriptures to refer to, but about those who only had their conscience to approve or disapprove their actions. The Gentiles in Paul’s mind are naturally good, and there are certainly such people, just as we find them on the pages of the Tanakh.

Is it not a possibility that the argument is hypothetical, and there are no such people at all? Well, Paul is setting these Gentiles up as an example before the Jews, for according to him “the doers of the law who will be justified”, and in his example these Gentiles are indeed the “doers of the law”. If such Gentiles didn’t exist, Paul doesn’t have an argument.

So these Gentiles do the works of the law not because they have the law and thus received training in the law (or they can look up in the law what is right or wrong), but because they have a sensitive conscience. Certainly, God can work through conscience as we see it in Gen. 6, though the term itself is not mentioned:

Gen. 6:3 Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in {or with} man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God was trying to restrain sin in the ancient world by His Spirit, but in the end He gave it up. They were simply obeying their own sinful desires – they “saw” and “took” as they chose, just as in Gen. 3. But then there is the statement:

Gen. 6:8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.

Gen. 7:1 Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation.

Noah is an example of a Gentile who by nature, without having the law, did the works of the law, and was, therefore, counted as righteous before God. Job is another one, and there are many more.

In the earlier post I argued that people need training in righteousness. What was said here doesn’t contradict it. There are people who are naturally good. All others need training. We may elaborate more on this in another post

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  1. […] In an earlier post I argued that it was possible that some Gentiles fulfilled the requirements of the law of God simply by their good nature. Traditional Christian theology discounts such possibility. Let me add a few more thoughts on the subject – verifying the context and the usage of terms will shed more lights on the meaning of the passage. […]

    Regenerated or “Natural” Nature? » ZWorld - The World to Come

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