Why would Paul say the ‘doers’ of the law are justified?”
This is huge and wonderful. It is such a crucial, crucial question. So I hope I can tackle the verse, but also state the bigger issue at stake; namely, the relationship between being justified by faith apart from works of the law as any foundation for our being in God’s favor on the one side, and the necessity and inevitability of the fruit of good deeds or law-keeping in order to show that that faith in Christ is real. That is what is so hard for people to get a handle on these days. And so let me make a go at it.
“Obeying the law is not the basis of our being in God’s favor, it is the evidence that we are trusting Christ and united to him.”
Let’s make the context clear if we can. In Romans 2:11–13, Paul is concerned to show that the Jews, even though they have the law, will not be shown any partiality at the judgment day. He is explaining how the judgment, the last judgment, will proceed on the last day for those who have had the law and those who have not had the law — nations that have not had any access to the law. In Romans 2:11, he lays down the principle: “God shows no partiality.” And then he explains how that works. Even though the Jews have the law, which seems like, “God, that is partial,” and the nations don’t. He says, “For all who have sinned without the law will perish without the law” (Romans 2:12). Which means, God is not going to bring in the law of Moses to condemn anybody who has never heard of the law of Moses. He won’t need to. They are going to be judged on the basis of accesses that they had to the law written on their heart or the law written in nature or the law written in conscience. But he is not going to be partial in using a standard that somebody had access to that you didn’t have access to.
And then the verse continues, “. . . and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12). We are all going to be judged by the divine standards that we have access to, and everybody has access to divine standards that we fall short of. That is the point of Romans 1–2.
And then he adds the verse that Anthony is asking about, 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.” In other words, merely having the law and being able to hear the law, because you have it, will be of zero advantage at the judgment day, because no one will be able to say, “We have got the law, so we are going to pass judgment at the last day.”
No, it is how you respond to God’s will, the law — not whether you have possession of it. That is what verse 13 is saying. And then he proceeds to show in the following verses that the nations have a form of God’s law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15), and he had already said in Romans 1:19–20 that they have a form of God’s will written in the skies and in nature — and now in their conscience (Romans 2:15).
Now in that context, a lot of very great teachers, people that I love and admire, have argued that verse 13 describes a hypothetical situation, not a real one. So when Paul says, “Not the hearers of the law are righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” — referring to the last judgment. He is not saying that anybody actually does this. This is a hypothetical. Hypothetically, if there were doers of the law, they would be justified by the law because, if you are perfect, you are perfect. But nobody does this, and therefore it is just hypothetical and he is stating a principle.
So that is one way to understand Romans 2:13 so that it fits with Romans 3:28, for example, or Romans 5:1, which was mentioned. “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). And this way of understanding 2:13 as hypothetical is one way to keep those checks in perfect harmony.
Now my point is that there is another way to understand Romans 2:13 that also coheres with Romans 3:28 understood that way and the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, meaning that the only foundation of our justification is Christ, his blood and righteousness, and that the only instrument that unites us to Christ and his righteousness is faith and faith alone. And I believe that is what the Bible teaches.
Being doers of the law need not mean being perfect doers of the law with no failures at all. If being doers of the law means perfect, then clearly it has to be hypothetical. It may mean that one loves the law, trusts God for forgiveness when he stumbles or fails to measure up to God’s will, leans on God’s provision for perfect righteousness, and seeks to walk in a way pleasing to the Lord.
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