Commentary on Romans 2:1-16

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things.

The best solution is to understand the “therefore” to relate, not to the description of (mainly) Gentile sin in 1:21-32, but to the announcement of God’s wrath and the reality of the knowledge of God in 1:18-19. For 1:18-19, which functions as a kind of heading for all of 1:18-3:20, includes reference to all humanity. On this reading, Paul would be saying in 2:1 that because God’s wrath is revealed against all people, and because all people have been given knowledge of God, therefore even the person who judges is “without excuse” before God. Although it might be objected that connecting 2:1 with 1:18-19 skips over too much intervening material, it can be said in response that 1:18-19 establishes what is Paul’s main point in 1:18-32, so that the “therefore” in 2:1 resumes the main sequence of Paul’s argument.1

In 1:18-32 Paul used the third person plural (‘they’) when depicting the sins of humanity. But in 2:1ff., where he exposes the hypocrisy and impending judgment of those who take the high moral ground in relation to those who practice evil, the apostle uses the second person singular (‘you’). (The use of the second person is dropped in 2:2, 6-16, but resumed again in 2:17ff.) It is a mistake to think that Paul’s use of the second person singular indicates that he is addressing directly one of his Roman Christian audiences or even all of them — elsewhere in the letter he makes quite clear that he has a high opinion of their Christian standing (cf. 1:8; 15:14). It is better to regard his use of the second person singular as an application of the rhetorical device known as the diatribe. Using this device, an orator/author does not address his audience directly, but instead engages a hypothetical dialogue partner. The dialogue between orator/author and the hypothetical dialogue partner is intended to be heard by the audience and to be a vehicle for their instruction. In the case of 2:1-16 Paul is explaining for the benefit of his audience that people who know what God requires but do not carry it out are left exposed to the righteous judgment of God.2

When Paul claims that such people ‘have no excuse’, he uses an expression also found in 1:20, where he says that humanity is ‘without excuse’ for practicing idolatry because from the creation of the world God has revealed his eternal power and deity to them through the things he has made. Thus, as far as accountability before God is concerned, Paul implies that those (primarily Jewish people) who know enough of what God requires to pronounce judgment upon others while being guilty of the same things themselves, are no better than the rest of humanity; no better than idolaters.3

The idea that condemnation is due to judging itself, though initially plausible, is mistaken. It cuts short the flow of the argument of verse 1 in that Paul proceeds to explain why those who judge and condemn others are themselves condemned. They condemn themselves because (gar) they practice the same things (ta gar auta prasseis ho krinon, for you, the one judging, practice the same things). Judging itself is not condemned, for Paul expects Jews to agree that Gentiles who engage in such behavior are deserving of wrath.4

[T]he similarity of “you are doing the very same things” and “those who are doing these things” in 1:32 suggests that we should look to 1:29-31 rather than to 1:20-28 for the sins Paul has in mind here in 2:1. Many of these sins–for example, pride, arrogance, gossiping, maligning others, and lack of affection–are as prevalent in the Jewish as in the Gentile world. In fact, Paul will accuse the Jews of some of these same sins in vv. 17-24.5

2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things.

In saying that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth “Paul is affirming that God’s judgment against sin is fully in accord with the facts, that it is just.”6

3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment?

4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance?

The “or” at the beginning of this verse does not set forth an alternative to v. 3 but introduces a rhetorical question that brings to light the false assumptions of the person who is addressed in v. 3. Paul wants to show the person who thinks she can sin and yet avoid judgment that she is, in fact, “showing contempt for” God’s mercy. Three terms, all dependent on “riches,” describe this mercy of God. “Goodness” is attributed to God by Paul in Rom. 11:11a and c (where its opposite is “severity”) and in Eph. 2:7; Tit. 3:4. It is used several times in the LXX of the Psalms to designate God’s goodness toward his people. “Forbearance” and “patience” denote the expression of God’s goodness in his patient withholding of the judgment that is rightfully due the sinner.7

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed!

The root problem of the Jews is uncovered in verse 5. The kindness and patience of God were intended to lead them to repentance. Yet they failed to repent “because they had a hard and unrepentant heart” (kata de ten skleroteta sou kai ametanoeton kardian). In saying that their evil actions stemmed from a hard and unrepentant heart, Paul was probably influenced by Jewish tradition, which located human inability to obey in an uncircumcised (Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4) or hard heart (T. Sim. 6.2; 1 Enoch 16.3). Indeed, verse 5 foreshadows by way of contrast the end of the chapter (v. 29), where a circumcised heart becomes a reality only by the work of the Holy Spirit. What Paul suggests here is that Jews who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah have not yet been the beneficiaries of the new covenant work of the Spirit by which the law is written on the heart. Their disobedience shows that they have not yet received the circumcision of the heart (Deut. 30:6) that the Jews were to receive after the exile. In other words, the Jews of Paul’s day who did not believe in Jesus had still not experienced the future promises of salvation pledged in the prophets. Israel expected to rule the world, but Rome ruled the world instead. Israel’s punishment was due to disobedience rooted in a hard heart that had no inclination to keep God’s commands.8

The word thesaurizeis (you are storing up, v. 5) is probably ironical, for it typically denotes the future bliss Jews would have because of their good works (Tob. 4:9-10; 2 Esdr. [4 Ezra] 6:5; 7:77; 8:33, 36; 2 Bar. 14.12). Paul does not dispute that good works would lead to future bliss. Rather he asserts that those good works are lacking, and therefore the Jews are storing up wrath for themselves. They will experience this wrath on the day of the Lord (compare esp. Zeph. 1:15, 18; 2:2-3, where the day of the Lord and wrath are linked) in which his eschatological wrath and righteousness will be revealed.9

6 He will reward each one according to his works:

The phrase “will reward each one according to his works” is almost exactly the same as the phrase in Prov 24:12 LXX.10

7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality,

In the ancient Greco-Roman world to receive honor was to be publicly acknowledged or praised for one’s worth. It was something much sought after, and its opposite, to be exposed to shame, was to be avoided at all costs.11

“Immortality” involves the resurrection of the body (1 Cor 15:42, 50, 53-54; 2 Tim 1:10) not (just) the immortality of the soul.

8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness.

Paul contrasts those who by ‘doing good seek glory, honor and immortality’ with those who ‘are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil’. The word translated ‘self-seeking’ is found only in the writings of Aristotle prior to NT times. There it ‘denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means’. While the meaning of the word in the NT is debatable, translations such as ‘selfishness’ and ‘selfish ambition’ make good sense in each of the contexts in which they occur (2:8; 2 Cor 12:20; Gal 5:20; Phil 1:17; 2:3; Jas 3:14, 16). It would appear, then, that Paul is saying that those who disobey the truth are motivated by ‘self-seeking’.12

The “truth” in question is God’s truth, his revelation.

9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek,

In an ironic twist, Paul uses the same phrase that maintained the priority of the Jew as the recipient of the good news of salvation (1:16) to assert the same priority in judgment. As the word of the promise has gone “first” to the Jew, so does punishment for failure to respond to that word go “first” to the Jew. In contrast to the Jews’ tendency to regard their election as a guarantee that they would be “first” in salvation and “last” in judgment, Paul insists that their priority be applied equally to both.13

In this context the formula, ‘first for the Jew, then for the Gentile’, carries the idea that there will be no special considerations for the Jewish people when it comes to judgment.14

10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.

11 For there is no partiality with God.

The words, ‘God does not show favoritism’, could stand as the heading over the whole of 2:1-16, and what Paul means by it is spelled out further in the verses that follow (2:12-16). Paul’s emphasis here upon the fact that God does not show favoritism reflects the fact that his hypothetical dialogue partner in 2:1-16 is indeed a representative Jew, one who would expect to receive favorable treatment from God because he is a Jew.15

12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

The “law” is the Law of Moses. Gentiles are those “apart from the law” and Jews are those “under the law”. Verses 14-16 imply that the Gentiles are judged fairly because they are conscious of moral norms but do not consistently keep them.

13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.

Paul’s point here is that being a ‘hearer’ of the law does not guarantee righteousness in God’s sight. One must be a ‘doer’ of the law as well. His purpose is to show that Jewish knowledge of the law is no ground for being ‘declared righteous’ by God. Jewish people will be judged in accordance with their obedience to the law. And shortly Paul will argue that his Jewish dialogue partner and those whom he represents are guilty of disobedience to the law, despite their possession and knowledge of it (2:17-24). When Paul says that ‘it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous’, he employs the future tense, suggesting that it is future justification that he has in mind (cf. 2:16).16

14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves.

What is the significance of ‘by nature’ in this clause? Does it qualify the verb ‘do’, thus yielding a translation like that of the NIV: ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law’. Or does it qualify ‘Gentiles’, thus yielding a translation like ‘Gentiles, who by nature do not have the law, do the things required by the law’. There are good reasons for adopting the latter option, including the fact that when Paul uses ‘by nature’ elsewhere it always qualifies a state of being, never an action, and the fact that in 2:12 he speaks of those ‘who sin apart from the law’ (Gentiles) perishing ‘apart from the law’ and so characterizing the Gentiles as those who do not have the law by virtue of being Gentiles. In 2:14, then, it is better to see ‘by nature’ qualifying what the Gentiles are (those who do not have the law) than what they do (the things required by the law). So Paul’s point is that these Gentiles who, as Gentiles, do not have the privilege of possessing the law nevertheless do what the law requires.17

Scholars are divided as to the identity of the Gentiles who do the things required by the law. Some believe Paul describes Gentile Christians who manifest the new life of the Spirit by their obedience to the law. Others believe he describes pagans who occasionally obey the law but that this is not sufficient for salvation.

The following arguments are made in support of the position that Gentile Christians are described:

  1. The “for” that opens verse 14 connects to verse 13b: “those who do the law will be declared righteous.” Since verse 13b speaks of obedience to the law bringing justification it is most natural to believe that verse 14 speaks of obedience to the law bringing justification. Those Gentiles who are justified are Christians, not pagans.
  2. The phrase “the work of the law is written in their hearts” (v 15) clearly alludes to Jer 31:33. Since Jer 31:33 refers to a godly moral disposition, not just an innate moral sense, a reference to Christians is more likely.
  3. The conflicting thoughts (v 15) indicates that the obedience is imperfect but not that it is insignificant. The Gentiles in view could still be Christians benefiting from the work of the Holy Spirit.

The following arguments are made in support of the position that pagan Gentiles are described:

  1. The “for” that opens verse 14 connects to verse 13a: “it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God.” The point of verses 14-15 is that Gentiles possess the moral norms of the law. This moral law is written on their hearts and attested by their conscience (v 15). The Jews do not possess an advantage by merely hearing the law.
  2. Verse 15 does not say the law is written on their hearts, rather it says the work of the law is written on their hearts. Therefore, there is no allusion to Jer 31:33. The “work of the law” refers to the moral commands of the law.
  3. To say the Gentiles are “a law to themselves” is an unusual way of describing Christians. Normally Paul describes Christian obedience to the law in term of fulfillment (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14) or as enabled by the Holy Spirit (Rom 2:26-29; 8:4). The phrase better fits the conception of a natural law written on the hearts of all people.

I believe it is more likely that pagan Gentiles are in view in verses 14-16.

15 They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them,

Paul does not view the conscience as moderns often do, as primarily a negative inner voice. In his view conscience can either approve or disapprove, commend or condemn, render an account of what has been thought, said, or done.18

The clause “their thoughts among themselves both accusing and excusing them” might add a second, independent idea to the witness of the conscience, but it probably expands it: the witness of the conscience consists in the mixed verdict of one’s thoughts.19

Some have seized on the reference to “excusing” as evidence that this final verdict could bring salvation to some Gentiles apart from the gospel. But this misses the connection in which the idea stands. Bengel is on the mark: “The concessive particle, even, shows that the thoughts have far more to accuse, than defend, and the defense itself . . . does not extend to the whole, but only to a part of the conduct, and this very part in turn proves us to be debtors as to the whole. . . .”20

16 on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

There is considerable doubt whether “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” is original. The oldest extant witnesses support “Christ Jesus”.21 Verse 15 describes the present work of the conscience while verse 16 describes the final judgment.

The accusing and defending work of the conscience in the present will reach its consummation, full validity, and clarification on the day of judgment, when God will judge the secrets of all. Käsemann observes rightly that the work of the conscience without God’s judgment leaves the passage hanging in the air. God’s judgment brings the entire passage to a climax and recalls the introductory words in verse 12. Not only is his judgment climactic; it is also comprehensive. He will judge the secrets of all, assuring the reader that the judgment will truly be impartial (v. 11) since it is based on a thorough understanding of both actions and motives (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5). Moreover, by appending this verse Paul defends his gospel against Jewish critics who believed that he diminished the importance of good works. The gospel that Paul preaches to the Gentiles does not invalidate the law. On the contrary it teaches that Jesus Christ will judge all people according to their obedience of the law.22

When Paul refers to “my gospel,” he does not mean a particular form of teaching peculiar to him, but the gospel, common to all Christians, which has been entrusted by God to Paul for his preservation and proclamation (cf. 1:1).23


Justification by Works?

This passage speaks of people being judged on the basis of their works (2:6, 9-10, 13-15). This appears to contradict 3:20: “For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law.” It is debated how Paul reconciles both beliefs.

Douglas J. Moo states:

First, to what degree and in what sense does Paul regard the law as a means of justification? The view that God gave the law to Israel as a means of justification is now generally discredited, and rightly so. The OT presents the law as a means of regulating the covenant relationship that had already been established through God’s grace. But, granted that the law was not given for the purpose of securing one’s relationship before God, it may still be questioned whether it sets forth in theory a means of justification. We would argue that it does. Verses such as Rom. 2:7, 10, 13, and 7:10 suggest that Paul agreed with the Jewish belief that justification could, in theory, be secured through works. Where Paul disagreed with Judaism was in his belief that the power of sin prevents any person, even the Jew who depends on his or her covenant status, from actually achieving justification in that manner. While, therefore, one could be justified by doing the law in theory, in practice it is impossible. This issue is related in traditional Reformed theology to the debate over the existence and nature of the “covenant of works” and the place of the Mosaic law within that covenant.

Second, how does our suggestion that Paul assumes the impossibility of fulfilling the law square with contemporary Jewish beliefs? Sanders claims that they cannot be reconciled. He argues that Jews in Paul’s day considered it possible, indeed easy, to “do the law.” Perfection was not considered necessary; the intention to obey was what was important, along with repentance and other means of atonement when failures occurred. How, then, could Paul assume that no one can do the law?

Sanders’s own answer is to call into question whether Paul indeed teaches that it is impossible to do the law. But, contrary to Sanders, Gal. 3:10-13, along with 5:3, seems to imply just this. It must be said, however, that Paul never makes this clear in Romans. But what he does make clear is that everyone has failed to match up to the standard necessary to secure justification (compare 2:13 with 3:9, 19-20). Another possible answer is to say that Paul views the law as impossible to do only after the coming of Christ. But Paul’s whole purpose in this part of Romans is to justify the need of “the revelation of the righteousness of God” in Christ (1:17; 3:21). He can hardly establish the need for this revelation by citing the problems people face after it has arrived.

The best answer appears to be that Paul takes a more radical viewpoint of what “doing the law” involves. Because he denies any salvific value to the Mosaic law and the covenant of which it is a part, he recognizes that it is not enough–and never has been–to seek to do the law, however sincerely. For, from the first, it has been faith in the promise of God, and only faith, that justifies (cf. chap. 4). This being the case, only a perfect doing of the law would suffice to justify a person before God. True, an insistence on perfect obedience is a departure from the Jewish view. But this is just what Paul has implied by putting Jews and Gentiles on the same footing with respect to works and judgment in 2:1-16. What he says here plainly implies that the covenantal structure within which the Jews thought their sins could be taken care of was itself denied by Paul. The enormity of God’s Son being crucified led Paul to take a far more pessimistic view of human sin than was typical of Judaism: sins that, for the Jews, simply needed to be atoned for within the covenant meant for Paul a breaking of the covenantal structure itself.24

Thomas R. Schreiner writes:

The main reason Paul introduced the issue of repayment according to works is to show the Jews that God is impartial, that there will be no special favoritism for them. The connection forged between verses 5 and 6 supports this view. The Jews are storing up wrath for themselves because God renders to each person in accord with his or her works. He states twice that repayment in accord with works applies “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (vv. 9-10). By underlining the priority of the Jews Paul stresses that they are not exempt from the principle of retribution according to works. Indeed, like Amos (Amos 3:2) Paul implies that the special privilege of the Jews involves greater responsibility. One should conclude, then, that Paul’s primary purpose is to argue that Jews who lack good works will not escape judgment.

The main purpose of this section is to demonstrate that the Jews fall short of God’s righteousness. Nonetheless, one must still account for the assertion that those who do good works will be granted eternal life. Probably the dominant interpretation is that these verses are hypothetical. Eternal life would be given if one did good works and kept the law perfectly, but no one does the requisite good works, and thus all deserve judgment. The advantage of this interpretation is that it retains the focus of this section of Romans: judgment on all who sinned. It also neatly harmonizes with 3:19-20. No one can ever be justified by the works of the law since no one practices what the law commands.

Others argue that Paul is snared in a contradiction here, in that righteousness by works is enunciated in Rom. 2 and then declared to be impossible in 3:19-20. Still other scholars claim that the text refers to those who are justified by observing the law. Such keeping of the law is the result of God’s grace, but it does not necessarily involve the hearing of the gospel. Finally, many scholars contend that Paul describes Christians whose obedience to the law is a means by which they will be saved in the eschatological day. The possibility that Paul speaks hypothetically is attractive, especially since it explains satisfactorily how Paul can say justification is by works in chapter 2 and then disavow it in chapter 3. Interestingly, the claim that Paul speaks hypothetically and that he contradicts himself is called into question by the same piece of evidence: Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:21). Since Paul asserts that works are necessary for salvation and also that one cannot be justified by works of the law, it is probable that he did not see these two themes as contradictory. Paul’s insistence elsewhere that works are necessary to enter the kingdom suggests that the similar theme here cannot be dismissed as hypothetical. The promise of eternal life for those who do good works in Rom. 2:7, 10, in any case, seems straightforward enough. At this stage in the argument of Romans, however, it is impossible to argue conclusively against the hypothetical interpretation. The flow of the argument in Rom. 2-3 could very well indicate that Paul depicts hypothetical obedience in this particular context. Even less evidence exists in these verses to discern whether hearing the gospel is necessary to observe the law. When examining 2:25-29, I will argue that these verses are the key to resolving this dispute, and that this passage tilts the scales decisively toward the view that in verses 7 and 10 Paul is speaking of Christians who keep the law by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can also conclude from this that Paul is not as far from James as some suggest, for he shared in common with the latter the conviction that good works are essential for participation in the coming age.25

Ben Witherington III says:

There are two viable explanations for this seeming contradiction: (1) Paul could indeed be focusing here on Gentiles outside of Christ (even though the critique of judgmentalism could also apply to those in Christ), and he does indeed believe that they will be judged on the basis of their works, just as he believes Jews outside of Christ will be judged on the basis of what they do in relationship to the Law’s requirements. But of course Paul also believes, as 1.18-32 shows, that people will be judged, or, better said, are being judged, on the basis of what they have done with what they know of God as well. (2) While Paul believes that initial justification or conversion is by grace through faith, he also affirms that Christians’ works, what they do after conversion, will be judged by God. This is clear from 1 Cor. 3.12-15, but 2 Cor. 5.10 is even more transparent: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” That is, while Paul certainly affirms salvation by grace through faith, he also affirms a judgment on the works of every human being, whether Christian or not. What is not made clear is the relationship between salvation by grace through faith and a judgment on all persons’ works. Perhaps, 1 Corinthians 3 gives a clue: while a minister’s works may prove to be worthless when tested on judgment day, he nonetheless will escape judgment of himself as a person, but only just–as through fire.26


Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.

  1. Moo 1996, 129-130 
  2. Kruse 2012, 119 
  3. Kruse 2012, 120 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2440-2444 
  5. Moo 1996, 131 
  6. Moo 1996, 131 
  7. Moo 1996, 132-133 
  8. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2464-2475 
  9. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2479-2484 
  10. Kruse 2012, 124 
  11. Kruse 2012, 125 
  12. Kruse 2012, 126-127 
  13. Moo 1996, 139 
  14. Kruse 2012, 128 
  15. Kruse 2012, 128 
  16. Kruse 2012, 129 
  17. Kruse 2012, 131 
  18. Witherington III 2004, 82-83 
  19. Moo 1996, 153 
  20. Moo 1996, 153 
  21. Metzger 2005, 448 
  22. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2785-2793 
  23. Moo 1996, 155 
  24. Moo 1996, 155-157 
  25. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 2564-2596 
  26. Witherington III 2004, 80-81 

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