A Summary of Romans 2:12-16~The Jews shall be judged according to their own written Law. And although the pagans had not the Law of Moses, yet they were not without a rule of conduct which they were obliged to follow, and this was the law of nature written on each one’s heart. It was this natural law that clearly indicated to them what things God had forbidden under pain of death (Rom 1:32), and that made them responsible for having failed to render to God the honor which was His due (Rom 1:18-28). By the law of nature, therefore, the Gentiles shall be judged on the last day.
Rom 2:12. For whosoever have sinned without the law, shall perish without the law; and whosoever have sinned in the law, shall be judged by the law.
To show the impartiality of God’s justice the Apostle here says that all men will be judged according to their knowledge; and hence the Gentiles, who have sinned without the law, i.e., without the written Law of Moses, will be judged by another, namely, the natural law, written on every man’s heart (Rom 1:18-28, 32). On the other hand, the Jews will be judged according to the Law of Moses, which they have violated.
The term law, νομου (= nomou), without the article means here the Jewish Law as distinguished from the natural law of the Gentiles.
In the Vulgate et (also, likewise, etc., when used as an adverb) should precede peribunt (perish), to agree with the Greek και (kai).
Rom 2:13. For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
Paul now explains how the Jews can be condemned, although they have the Law of Moses. Every Sabbath they heard this Law read to them in the synagogues, but it was not given to be heard only; it was to be put into practice. Therefore, those who did not practice the precepts of the Law could not be considered just before God.
The Apostle is not saying here that justification comes from the Law; he is speaking only of God’s future judgment, without at present making any allusion to justification or to the manner by which it is effected. He will later (Rom 3:20 ff.) show that justification comes not from the works of the Law, but from faith, and from works performed through the grace of Christ’s redemption. Hence the doers of the law shall be justified only on condition that they act through faith and with the aid of grace; without faith in Christ and the help of God’s grace “no flesh shall be justified before him” (Rom 3:20).
Rom 2:14. For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these having not the law are a law to themselves:
Having pointed out (verse 13) how the Jews can be condemned in spite of their having the Law, St. Paul now goes on to show in this and the two following verses, how the Gentiles can be saved, although they have not received the Law. The Jews held that it was the Gentiles’ fault that they had not the Mosaic Law, and that, consequently, they were bound to observe its precepts (Apoc. Bar. 48:40, 47 see note below). But while St. Paul admits the culpability of the Gentiles, he does not reproach them for not having received the Law. He takes it for granted that the Law is not their express rule; but he supposes, nevertheless, that in certain instances, by following the light of reason, they have fulfilled its essential obligations and thus have become a law unto themselves (Lagr.).
Note: The above references to the Apocalypse of Baruch read as follow: Because each of the inhabitants of the earth knew when he was transgressing. But My Law they knew not by reason of their pride (48:40). And as regards all these their end shall convict them, and Your law which they have transgressed shall requite them on Your day’ (48:47).
By nature does not here mean that the Gentiles could observe all the moral precepts of the Law without the supernatural aid of grace, but only that they were able to do this without the written Law of Moses. The Apostle is speaking of those Gentiles, like Job, Melchisedech and Cornelius, who, assisted by God’s grace, were able, without any help from the written Law, to know the true God, to observe the precepts of the natural law and thus attain to salvation.
Nature, i.e., the light of natural reason, in the absence of the Mosaic Law, dictated to the Gentiles what they should do and what they should avoid. Thus “The Apostle shows that even in early times before the giving of the Law, mankind had the benefit of a perfect Providence” (St. Chrysostom).
The Pelagians used this verse to prove that man without grace can observe all the precepts of the natural law. Baius was condemned (Denzing., 1022) for teaching that it was Pelagian to interpret this text of those Gentiles who had not received the grace of faith.
Rom 2:15. Who shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts between themselves accusing, or also defending one another,
That the Gentiles who obeyed the moral precepts of the Law were therefore a law unto themselves, is manifest in the first place from their good moral lives, of which their own consciences were witnesses. The law inscribed on their hearts gave them a knowledge of moral good and evil, and by the help of grace they were able to do the former and avoid the latter. The second proof that they were a law unto themselves comes from the thoughts and judgments which they formed concerning one another’s lives and actions. The common and impartial judgment of men regarding good or evil is a proof of the reality of natural obligation.
According to this interpretation, which is that of S. H., Lipsius, etc., there are two guaranties of the certitude of the natural law: (a) the conscience of each one; (b) the verdict of man. According to Cornely and others, however, there is here given only one witness, i.e., the conscience, and St. Paul explains how it asserts itself, namely, in the struggle of the thoughts (λογισμων = logismon), of which some condemn, others approve. Our English translation here should read: “accusing them, or also defending them,” i.e., the thoughts accuse or condemn, not themselves, but their subject or possessor (Cornely). This interpretation agrees better with the following verse.
Rom 2:16. In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
This verse is a conclusion to what has been said in the two preceding verses. The existence of the natural law having been proved for the Gentiles, they, like the Jews, are in a condition to be judged. The dictates of conscience which condemn or approve the actions of the pagans will be manifested on the day of judgment, when there shall be needed no other witness for their condemnation or justification than the voice of their own conscience.
The secrets, etc. Only God can read the heart with certainty, and hence He only can judge the secret sins which the Gentiles committed against the law written on their hearts. For the Jew it sufficed to refer to the text of the Law, which condemned also secret sins; but for the pagan there was only the testimony of his conscience.
The incredulous Jews judged only those things which were external, and so they condemned all pagans as not obeying the Law simply because the latter had not the external written Law; but God, who is no respecter of persons (verse 11), will judge all, Jews and Gentiles, not according to things external, but according to what is written in the heart and conscience. This He will do through Jesus Christ whom He has constituted judge of all men (Matt 10:31; John 5:22, 27; Acts 17:31).
According to my gospel means according to Paul’s preaching, which was not different from that of the other Apostles, and clearly indicated that Jesus Christ would judge men by the secrets of their hearts (1 Cor 3:13; 4:5; 14:25). We are not, therefore, to understand Paul’s preaching as the manner or norm according to which God will judge, since Paul himself has plainly insisted that this norm will be the law, natural or written, as obeyed or disobeyed according to each one’s conscience.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on Romans 2:14-16:
- CCC #1777~Moral conscience (Rom 2:14-16), present at the heart of the person, enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil. It also judges particular choices, approving those that are good and denouncing those that are evil (Rom 1:32). It bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking. (see also 1766; 2071).
- CCC #678~Following in the steps of the prophets and John the Baptist, Jesus announced the judgment of the Last Day in his preaching (Cf. Dan 7:10; Joel 2–3; Mal 3:19; Mt 3:7–12.). Then will the conduct of each one and the secrets of hearts be brought to light (Cf. Mk 12:38–40; Lk 12:1–3; Jn 3:20–21; Rom 2:16; 1 Cor 4:5.). Then will the culpable unbelief that counted the offer of God’s grace as nothing be condemned (Cf. Mt 11:20–24; 12:41–42.). Our attitude about our neighbor will disclose acceptance or refusal of grace and divine love (Cf. Mt 5:22; 7:1–5.). On the last day Jesus will say: “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). (See also CCC #1470)