‘For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature the things of the law (viz., the things prescribed in it), these, though they have not the law, are to themselves the law, being such as shew the law’s work written in their hearts, their con science jointly bearing witness, and their thoughts (or judgments) among one another accusing or also excusing.’
I take this to be a section by itself, and cannot concur with those commentators (including, certainly, some men of note—Calvin, Koppe, Harless, Hodge), who would connect what is said in Rom_2:14-15 about Gentiles doing the law, and being a law to themselves, not with the immediately preceding verse, but with the statement in Rom_2:12, that those who have been without the written law shall be judged without it, and those who have been under such law shall be judged by it. This seems arbitrary and unnatural, and could only be justified if the statement in the immediately preceding verse were obviously parenthetical, and incapable of forming a suitable transition to the assertions that follow. But such is by no means the case. The apostle’s line of thought proceeds in the most regular and orderly manner. There are (he virtually says) grounds for judgment in the case of all, whether they have been placed under the written law or not, and ample materials for condemnation; for the mere privilege of hearing that law does not give any one a title to be called righteous in God’s sight; this does not make the essential difference between one man and another, which turns mainly on their relation to the doing of what is required; the doers alone are justified, and though the heathen have not been hearers like the Jews, they may be viewed with reference to doing. It is no proper objection to this view of the connection, that it seems to bring in out of due place the subject of justification, and to represent the apostle as indicating the possibility of some among the heathen being justified by their works. Justification, in the full Gospel sense of the term, as acquittal from all guilt, and being treated as righteous, does not come into consideration here. The question contemplated is a narrower one—namely, what, in regard to particular requirements of the law, forms the proper ground of approval, or constitutes a good character? Is it hearing or doing? Doing, says the apostle; and then goes on to add that, on this account, Gentiles may justly be placed in the same category with Jews. ‘For when’—here comes his matter of fact proof or reason—‘Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature the things of the law, these are to themselves the law.’ It is not said of the Gentiles as a whole that they do this, but only when they do it, or in so far as any of them do it—implying, no doubt, that what is done by some may and should be done by others, yet this only as matter of inference. The want of the article, therefore, has its meaning—not τὰ ἔθνη, but merely ἔθνη; for, though the latter is sometimes undoubtedly used of the Gentiles in their totality (as at ch. Rom_3:29, Rom_9:24), yet this is only when the things affirmed are applicable to them universally, which is palpably not the case here. The statement is indefinite, both as to what proportion of the heathen might be characterized as doers of the law, and to what extent they were so. To do the things of the law is indeed to do what the law prescribes (x. 5; Gal_3:12); but (here we concur with Dr Hodge) ‘whether complete or partial obedience is intended depends on the context. The man who pays his debts, honours his parents, is kind to the poor, does the things of the law; for these are things which the law prescribes. And this is all the argument of the apostle requires, or his known doctrine allows us to understand by the phrase, in the present instance.’ Indeed, that such is his meaning, we have only to look to the examples which the apostle himself adduces a few verses afterwards, which include merely the law’s precepts against stealing, adultery, and sacrilege; and the qualification which the whole current and tenor of his argument oblige us to put upon what he states here as to the doing of the law, confirms the perfectly similar qualification that we have shewn, ought to be put upon the justifying spoken of in the verse immediately preceding. It has respect simply to the actions which, in a legal point of view, are worthy of approval on the one side, or of condemnation on the other. And as regards the performance of what is ascribed to such heathen, the law-making (we are told) is of themselves—that is to say, it is the dictate of their own instinctive sense of right and wrong, forming, to a certain extent, a substitute for the written law; so also the law-doing is by nature (φύσει, causal dative, and undoubtedly to be coupled with the doing), it is such as arises from the impulse and energy of the moral faculty, naturally implanted in them, as contradistinguished from the discipline of a formal legislation, or the gift of sanctifying grace.
The description in Rom_2:15 is to be taken as a further characterizing of the heathen in question, with reference to the power of being to themselves as the law, and observing it: ‘They are such as shew,’ in their behaviour outwardly exhibit, ‘the law’s work written in their hearts;’ so it is best to put the apostle’s statement in English, rather than ‘the work of the law written,’ which leaves it doubtful whether what is said to be written is the law or the law’s work. The construction in the original leaves no doubt that it is the latter—τὸ ἔργον τοῦ νόμου γραπτὸν, the law’s work written. This, however, according to some, is all one with the law itself, ‘the work of the law’ being regarded as a mere periphrase for ‘the law.’ But this is not tenable; nor is it quite correct to say with Harless, (‘Ethik,’ sec. 8.) that the work of the law is accusing and judging; so that the import of the apostle’s statement respecting the heathen comes to be, ‘They accuse themselves in their hearts and judge themselves, thereby shewing that what is the work of the positive law is written upon their hearts.’ This is to make what ought to be regarded as but the incidental and secondary effect of the law, its primary and distinctive aim. Its more immediate aim, consequently its proper work, is to teach and command; its work is done, if people know aright what they should do, and yield themselves to the obligation of doing it—failing this, it of course becomes a witness against them, a complaining and judging authority. But when the law’s work simply is spoken of, it is the direct aim and intention of the law that should be mainly understood: by doing the things of the law, they shew that they have prescribed for themselves as right what the law prescribes, and imposed on themselves the obligation which the law imposes. And then, in fitting correspondence with this testimony without, the testimony of a morally upright conduct, is the testimony of conscience within—‘their conscience co- testifying’ (so it is literally, συμμαρτυρούσης, testifying along with, viz., with the practical operation of the law appearing in the conduct), ‘and among one another, their thoughts accusing or also excusing,’ defending. The μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων, as is now generally allowed, is most exactly rendered by ‘among one another,’ μεταξὺ being taken as a preposition. But what is the reference of the ‘one another?’ Does it point to the diverse sentiments and judgments, sometimes swaying one way, sometimes another, in the minds of the individual? Or, to a like diversity among different individuals? I am inclined, with Meyer, to take it rather in the latter respect; both because, if the reference had been to the thoughts in the same mind, the τῶν λογισμῶν would naturally have been placed before μεταξὺ ἀλλήλων (the natural order being then, their thoughts among one another, or their thoughts alternately, accusing and excusing); and also because the αὐτῶν, in the preceding clause, and the ἀλλήλων, in this, appear to stand in relation to each other—the former referring to those who do the works of the law, or have its work written in their heart, conscience therein concurring and approving; and the other to the heathen generally who, in their thoughts and judgments, were ever passing sentence upon the things done around them, and thereby shewed that they had a judging power in their bosoms, according to which they accused what was wrong, and excused or defended what was right. It is so put, however, that the accusing was much more frequently exercised than the other—‘accusing or also (perhaps) excusing.’ In other words, the moral sentiment, when working properly, and exercising itself upon the doings of men generally, found more materials for condemnation than for justification and approval. This, however, is implied rather than distinctly stated; and the leading purport of the apostle’s announcement is that, beside the approving verdict given by conscience, in the case of those who understood and did what was required in the law, there was ever manifesting itself a morally judging power among the heathen, condemning what was wrong in behaviour, and vindicating what was right. But all, of course, only within certain limits, and with many imperfections and errors in detail.