(vv. 12-16)—Here Paul introduces “the law” into his argument which serves as the reference for judgment of sin. It also, however, serves to distinguish Jew from Gentile; those who have the law, possess the law, or live “under the law” from those who do not have it, who live “apart from the law” (v. 12). So, yes, there are two classes of people: the Jews with the law and the Gentiles without it. But when it comes to sin, there are two types of Jews: those who only hear the law and those who do it, and it is the latter “who will be justified” (v. 13). As for the Gentiles, we should expect, since they do not have the law, that the whole of their lives is degenerate: their since committed “apart from the law” mean hat they shall likewise “perish apart from the law” (v. 12). The Gentiles are, in short, “lawless.”
But Paul confronts the reader, especially the Jewish reader, with an unexpected class of person, one who defies all prior categorization, namely, the so-called righteous Gentile. Such a person does not have the law, but does “what the law requires” anyway, which Paul asserts is “written on their hearts” (v. 15); thus, they obey the law “instinctively” (v. 14), as a matter of “their own conscience” (v. 15). Indeed, their conscience itself “bears witness” to the law and to its deep-seated inscription on heart and mind; thus, the ongoing adjudication that is characteristic of the human conscience, with its “conflicting thoughts," will either “accuse or perhaps excuse” the Gentile on the day of judgment.
This is not the only occasion on which Paul calls for judgment of the self in preparatory, even pre-emptive, anticipation of the final judgment (cf. 1Cor 11:31-32). But here he associates it very closely with the core of what he calls “my gospel,” according to which “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all” (Rom 2:16).
Thus, where the external distinction between the Jew and the Gentile is initially assumed and posited in terms of the law, that distinction is shortly set aside by way of the internal and “secret” matter of the heart and the conscience; this hidden, internal life alone can account for the instinctive obedience one sometimes sees among Gentiles who, if they are doers of the law, will be justified before any unrighteous Jews who merely hear the law and stop short of doing it. [That Paul can assert, as part of his argument, “the does of the law … will be justified (2:13), suggests that the claims of James (2:14-26) regarding “works” in relation to justification are not a theological aberration, and are not in conflict with Paul's gospel.]
Nevertheless, all this is strictly by way of comparison in the social order of the human sphere; it has nothing to do, at this point, with a human—whether Jew or Gentile—claiming righteousness apart from Christ. On the contrary, Paul is on his way to showing how Jew and Gentile are equally needful of the righteousness that Christ alone can impart, for “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9).
(vv. 17-24)—Here Paul turns to address the Jewish reader specifically, and it soon becomes clear that, whereas the Gentiles are by and large regarded by Jews as idolaters, the Jewish predicament is that of hypocrisy, which is arguably worse than idolatry, since the Jew should know better and judges the idolater as though he did, but compounds his problem by doing the very same thing. No doubt Paul’s description of the Jew who considers himself on solid ground hits very close to home, for it closely resembles his accounts of his own life as a Pharisee (in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Acts). In this description, however, we note the law is mentioned five times:
“if you … rely on the law … and determine what us best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? … You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (2:17-23)
Such hypocrisy on the part of the Jew, Paul laments, has the effect of discrediting the God of Israel among the Gentiles. He quotes Isaiah: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (2:24; cf. Isa 52:5). In short, those who were to serve as a light to the nations, drawing the Gentiles toward God have, by participating in idolatry, besmirched God’s reputation and thereby driven the Gentiles away from him.
(vv. 25-29)—Now Paul takes the distinction between Jew and Gentile to an even more personal level: circumcision, the sign of the covenant by which Jewish males were physically distinguishable from their Gentile neighbors, he declares—like the law—to be “a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (2:29). This distinction between spiritual and literal matters recalls a similar point in the Corinthian correspondence (2Cor 3) that Paul makes regarding the reading of the Torah, but here we should stress that the sign of circumcision is not just another example of keeping or breaking the law (as in the previous references to theft, adultery, and idolatry (Rom 2:21-22). Rather, circumcision is a sign of the promise given to Abraham, which (as Paul takes pains to point out to the Galatians) predates the law by several centuries. Thus, the breaking of the law reveals conduct inconsistent with one’s identity as a participant in the covenant, as one whose outlook, priorities, and ‘walk’ are guided by the promise. Such inconsistency, he declares effectively cancels the covenant: the circumcision of the lawless becomes uncircumcision, or (put in more precise chronological terms) the lawlessness of the circumcised becomes uncircumcision; while one who is outside the covenant community but conducts himself in accordance with the law—such a person shows himself to be a Jew inwardly, whose heart is circumcised, even if he does not bear the physical sign of circumcision.
Paul’s final comment here is striking: “Such a person receives praise not from others but from God” (2:29). Imagine that! The God whom we praise and adore, to whom we give worship and thanks, has praise to bestow upon the obedient. This is something we should bear in mind as we explore the entire epistle, written as it is with the aim of bringing us—the individual reader and the church in all its rich diversity—to “the obedience of faith” (1:5; 16:26).