A law unto themselves: virtuous pagans in Romans 2

I’ve been struggling through the beastliest book about the beastliest book in the Bible: Doug Campbell’s 1000 pager on Romans called The Deliverance of God. Campbell has been pummeling the exegetical claims of the Four Spiritual Laws gospel of Bill Bright (aka “decision for Christ,” “sinner’s prayer,” “getting saved,” etc) that has become such a brilliantly successful commodity in the evangelical salvation industrial complex that most of today’s evangelicals cannot really imagine any other purpose for Christianity. What’s interesting is that to Campbell, Calvin and Luther are not the problem behind the disaster of the evangelical gospel; the problem is the 18th century British empiricist/rationalist lens (Hume, Locke, et all) through which Calvin and Luther are studied and interpreted. I’m only about a third of the way in and only that far because I skipped a hundred or so pages. But one of the hugest potholes in the Romans Road I’ve discovered is the presence of virtuous (perhaps even heaven-bound?) pagans in two places in Romans 2. Let me share the passages and briefly reflect on them.

Romans 2:14-16

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law unto themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

Romans 2:26-29

So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God.

Now it is true that Romans 3 quotes a psalm which says among other things, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (v. 10). The standard Romans Road move is to use Romans 3:9-20 as a trump card that annihilates all the nuance in the discourse before it by claiming that God expects everyone to be perfect; nobody is; therefore we’re all hell-bound without Jesus. But the statements about God’s judgment within Romans 1-2 do not suggest a nihilistic infinite perfectionism on the part of God’s judgment but simply that people who do evil get “anguish and distress” while people who do good get “glory and honor and peace” (2:9-10). Paul would have written those verses differently if doing good were an impossible hypothetical that we’re supposed to be discouraged from striving to emulate. Furthermore, it’s important to read exactly how Paul words Romans 3:20: “No human being will be justified in his sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” He’s essentially recapitulating what he said in 2:26-29 about circumcision being inward and not external. The way Romans 3:20 is written, it does not condemn the pagans who are inward Jews with instinctively lawful dispositions. It merely condemns trusting in technical rule-following as a means of bringing about the deep connectedness with God that the Bible calls “eternal life.”

The common tactic for dealing with the distressing virtuous pagan passages is call them “hypothetical” by editing Romans 2:14 to say, “What if Gentiles could follow the law” instead of “When Gentiles follow the law” (v. 26 already opens with an “if” clause). But such interpretations don’t adequately account for why these wrinkles are even in the text at all. If Paul’s point is simply to say everybody’s screwed, why detract from his argument with speculations about people who can be good without making a “decision for Christ”? Of course, I think Paul has a completely different agenda than the one Bill Bright encoded into his wildly successful pamphlets.

I think the telos of Paul’s entire rhetorical strategy of Romans 1-3 is revealed quite well in Romans 3:27-29: “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.” Paul is undermining any basis his Jewish readers have for looking down on Gentiles. When we put together the examples of virtuous pagans in 2:14-16 and 2:26-29 with Paul’s vicious attacks on judgmental Jews in 2:1-5 and 2:17-24 along with the sobering nihilism of 3:9-20, it suggests a rhetorical strategy of putting the Jewish Christians in their place and eliminating arrogant self-righteousness as opposed to Paul browbeating his readers, Jewish and Gentile, into fearing God’s damnation, throwing themselves on God’s mercy in despair, and saying a sinner’s prayer. Remember that this letter was written to people who were already Christians, not heathen masses on the street who needed to be converted.

Paul’s passion throughout his epistles is tear down the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles. This key verse captures that goal perfectly:  “There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:23-24). Jesus atonement is what makes it possible for Paul to say, “There is no distinction.” This is completely in line with the account of Jesus’ unifying sacrifice in Ephesians 2:14-16, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”

It’s gotten late so I don’t have the energy to tighten this up. I just think it’s important to recognize that no Biblical text, even Romans, has been explained exhaustively. There’s still new mystery to be uncovered.

17 thoughts on “A law unto themselves: virtuous pagans in Romans 2

  1. “My contention which moves against the mainstream evangelical view is that God does not view sin from an abstract retributive perspective but from a perspective of solidarity with those who are sinned against.”

    Can you give examples of practical application?
    Let’s say in relationships (marriage) or human interaction.
    In other words, How would your challenge to the orthodox be realized, seen and applied in everyday life?

    • Okay so here’s an example from 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16: “You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.” God responds with wrath to those who cause His people suffering. All I’m saying is that sin is more than just breaking rules in the abstract. The rules exist for a reason.

  2. One other point?
    “I’m concerned about the modern evangelical fixation on retribution because people who are under the mercy of God should not be infatuated with retribution.”

    How do you form this conclusion?

    It seems you have ventured into the Law-Grace arena.
    Would that be a valid assessment?

    • I’m kind of trying to move independently of the systematic categories that often filter our interactions with these texts. Basically I would say that God makes us just by showing mercy to us so that we will let His Holy Spirit transform our hearts. The more that our hearts are transformed, the more likely we are going to plead with God for other sinners the way that Abraham did for Sodom and Moses did for the Israelites after the golden calf as opposed to being invested in an abstract justice that isn’t grounded in solidarity with the victims of crime or oppression. My contention which moves against the mainstream evangelical view is that God does not view sin from an abstract retributive perspective but from a perspective of solidarity with those who are sinned against. There is no such thing as a victim-less sin because when we sin through idolatry against God rather than violence against another person, we are deforming ourselves in such a way that makes us dangerous to other people. Everything we do to hurt other people is rooted in a fundamental disrespect that we have for God. When you truly fear the Lord not in the passive-aggressive, cowardly sense but in the reverential loving sense, then your love for your neighbor will follow from that.

  3. By ” juridical metaphor ” you mean?
    To say God does not or will not fill the role of Judge I would disagree with.
    I would not see the Judicial as metaphoric.
    That conclusion is based on many Biblical passages
    I also do not see the covenant relationship as metaphoric.
    The only thing metaphoric is it is not in contract form.
    The conditions of the covenant are clearly written and understandable.
    Christ makes clear the “ifs” of the covenant and Paul goes in greater in later chapters.

    You see “righteousness and mercy” as a “binary dichotomy”?
    Please explain why

  4. Morgan
    You picked a great topic.
    I have not read the book but chances are anyone familiar with the topic will know the controversy surrounding the text.
    You wrote:
    “Paul’s point is simply to say everybody’s screwed, why detract from his argument with speculations about people who can be good without making a “decision for Christ”?”

    Isn’t that exactly what Jesus does when He says:

    “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” Matthew

    The text calls them evil with the ability to do good.
    Does that make them saved?
    If they were saved would they be called evil?

    What has God placed in all of mankind”s hearts?
    The Word

    Those things placed in mans heart make man responsible.
    Man is not without guidance so they have no excuse.

    • I don’t disagree that we need to be delivered by Christ in order to spend eternity with God. But I would contend that we are not being saved from a sort of bureaucratic inflexibility on the part of God but rather our own inability to stand His terrifying holiness without atonement (cf Isaiah 6, Hebrews 10).

      I would argue that when Paul uses retributive logic, which you’re reflecting when you write, “Those things placed in mans heart make man responsible. Man is not without guidance so they have no excuse,” it is more to put everyone in their place (“There is no distinction [between Jew and Gentile] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) than to say that because God is a slave to logic, He has no choice but to punish people eternally.

      Campbell’s point is that we have so thoroughly superimposed a modern juridical framework onto Romans that it’s impossible for us to read juridical terminology as one of several metaphors for describing our relationship to the “One in whom we live, move, and have our being.” The reason the wages of sin is death is because God is the source of existence. In modernity, God has become a humongous invisible human being who lives outside the universe and superimposes judgment externally rather than His wrath consisting in the corruption of creation when it rebels against His beauty (c.f. Romans 1). It’s true that in the cross God says sin is not okay and I want to spend forever with all sinners whom I love. But I’m convinced that the obstacle to God’s desire for “all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” is not God’s inflexibility but our lack of trust. Our “punishment” is that God “hands us over” to our hardened hearts like He did to Pharaoh.

      • So….What I hear is Campbel rejects the judicial and our inability to trust is the problem?

        The judicial is hard to escape. The very covenant we are under is judicial and that “juridical framework”
        is right from God.
        Scripture describes a righteous God, who because of his mercy, attempts to bring man into submission or have a change of heart towards God.
        I read this is an informed decision by man to reject God.
        You will notice with Pharaoh all the plagues he faced were to bring Pharaoh to God.
        Pharoah’s rejection of God was deliberate.

        God does not say He wishes to spend all of eternity with sinners.
        God says because of Christ you have been made clean.

        Christ says:
        John 18:37
        “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

        If the above is true then those that reject truth do not listen to God.
        It is truth man has a problem dealing with.

        Paul says those that reject truth fall deeper into sin and become of a reprobate mind.
        (A person rejected by God and beyond hope of salvation.)

        “28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done.” Romans 1

        So no matter how you decide the why’s & wherefores……..there is agreement that sin exists.
        There are the lost persons, those in Christ and those that are beyond help.
        Would you agree?

        • “Scripture describes a righteous God, who because of his mercy, attempts to bring man into submission or have a change of heart towards God.” You seem to be presuming a binary dichotomy between righteousness and mercy (maybe I’m misreading you). Tzedek (righteousness) means faithfulness to covenant. God’s righteousness does not refer to His intolerance for our inadequacy but His willingness to over-fulfill His covenant to us unilaterally through Jesus’ atonement for the sake of our communion with Him. Our enmity with God is a problem that has to be resolved, but what God does to resolve it proves that He’s not a dispassionate, inflexible bureaucrat. The juridical metaphor is part of the text as are sacrificial, therapeutic, battlefield, and other metaphors. They are all analogical terms for describing an infinite divine reality that we cannot describe or understand more than partially. I’m concerned about the modern evangelical fixation on retribution because people who are under the mercy of God should not be infatuated with retribution. It suggests to me a deficiency in our regeneration when we are (c.f. Matthew 18:21-35) though I’m not sure quite what it is.

  5. I have thoughts, but I don’t know what they are yet. I need to go back and read Michael Bird on this. He had a thoroughly convincing explanation that wasn’t just “hypothetical” pagans. I will just point out that the pagan conscience also condemns as well as defends.

    Then there is the hypothesis that the Gentiles were not actually pagans, but Christians. Not sure I buy that one.

  6. John Wesley’s writings are pretty clear on the topic of you post:

    “3. The strange imagination of some, that St. Paul, when he says, “A man is justified without the works of the law,” means only ceremonial law, is abundantly confuted by these very words. For did St. Paul establish the ceremonial law? It is evident he did not. He did make void that law through faith, and openly avowed his doing so. It was the moral law only, of which he might truly say, We do not make void, but establish this through faith.”

    The “moral law” is established by faith.
    Voiding morality by voiding the law is slanting toward gnosticism.
    The leaning toward the gnostic is increasing as the hot topic facing the Christian Church heats up.
    The law as well as the physical matter.
    It matters what you do in the physical.


    • Maybe you could post what he writes.
      When reading this particular text I think it is important to see thru the eyes of the Jew to understand what Paul is saying.

  7. Romans chapters 9-11 also call very much into question the idea that we must “accept Jesus” to be saved. And I write this from the perspective of having served on CCC staff in the early ’70’s. Bill Bright was a man passionate about Jesus and sought to open the doors as far as he could so people could be set free. But he was no theologian.

    • I fail to see where to accept Jesus is eliminated in Romans 9 & 10.
      Could you explain?

      In the following, who is him?
      “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
      and a rock that makes them fall,
      and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame Romans 9

      “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation;
      I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.
      Who is “I”?

      Who is the “I” and “him” that is written will be sent to save O.T.

      26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” John 4

      • I don’t think Jesus is eliminated anywhere. But it is important, at least for me, to read this whole section together and the end of Romans 11 indicates that God’s grace is extended to everyone.

        • The best I can come up with to understand all this is to say that the same unconditional love from God that goes out to all is wrath to me when I haven’t opened my heart in trust. If I remain perpetually in self-justification, then I have fortified myself against God’s love ever being anything other than a lake of fire insofar as He pursues me relentlessly and an outer darkness insofar as He lets me live on my own miserable little universe.

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