“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13). This verse is among the most misinterpreted verses in the Bible. Some find in this verse the doctrine of justification by works plus faith, while others – rightly insisting that justification is by faith alone (Rom 3:28, et al.) – understand the Apostle to be speaking of works as the fruit of faith (i.e. justification is by faith alone, but that faith is never alone in the person justified.). Both approaches miss the Apostle Paul’s point entirely.
Properly interpreting this verse does not depend so much on the grammar as it does on the context and it illustrates how far afield we can go by viewing verses as mere proof-texts without proper consideration for their context. Paul is not here discussing the relationship of works and saving faith. He approaches this subject in chapters 6 and 7. His topic is the condemnation of the law and verse 13 does not represent a parenthetical comment on another subject, but it is rather the crux of the matter.
To understand Paul’s argument we must follow it from the beginning. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul states his purpose in giving a full presentation of the Gospel and presents his thesis statement, “the just shall live by faith.” The section that follows, however, does not speak of the grace of Jesus Christ, but of “the wrath of God” (v. 18). God’s mercy has no meaning if it were not for God’s holiness and his righteous judgment and wrath against sin. Grace is nonsense without law.
As the first chapter unfolds Paul parades the sins characteristic of the gentiles. When he wraps up his case against the heathen he then rather surprisingly states that this sinful condition belongs to all people universally. “You who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things” (2:1-2). Such a bold statement needs explanation, so he continues by quoting the Old Testament: God “will render to every man according to his deeds.” That is, one’s works, or obedience to the law determines where one will be for eternity. He will “render” as a waged earned. This is what he explains later, “now to the one who works, his wages is not reckoned as a favor, but what is due” (Rom 4:5).
Paul continues to tighten the screws – “to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitions and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation” (7-8). These verses present parallel ellipses. This suggests that we must supply the same word/concept for both. We know that God graciously grants eternal life to those who believe, but we cannot say that he graciously grants wrath and indignation. It should be clear that the word to be supplied is “earn” or “merit.” By our deeds we will either merit eternal life or eternal death. Paul is not here speaking of “evangelical obedience” as verse 12 makes clear with its emphasis on the law which will judge both Jew and gentile.
At last we arrive at verse 13 where Paul argues that it is the “doers of the law who will be justified.” Paul’s point here is not to safeguard the doctrine of justification by faith from the error of antinomianism. Paul has not even mentioned justification by faith! He does not even begin to address the gospel in general, the atonement of Christ, or justification by faith until the pivotal point in chapter three.
Paul makes a play on the verbs of hearing and doing. Many of you are probably aware that “to hear” in Hebrew idiom is a synonym for “to do.” If you hear the word of God, then you do the word of God. Paul is saying “it is not those who make a solid effort to do the law, but those who REALLY DO the law – as in every jot and tittle, in thought word and deed, perfectly and perpetually – who will be justified.”
James makes the same point when he writes “for whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). The point Paul and James are making is that the law is rigid, and in its very nature excludes grace.
Paul continues by addressing how it is that gentiles are condemned under this law. They did not receive it engraved on tablets of stone as the Jews did, but God wrote the law on their hearts. God will judge those who know right and wrong from nature by what they know and did not do (2:14-15).
Here we understand clearly the nature of the relationship that God established with Adam in the beginning. “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with the power and ability to keep it” (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.1). Although we no longer have the power and ability to keep God’s law, yet, by virtue of our creation, we – with Adam – have the law written on our heart, and this law will accuse or defend us on the Day of Judgment.
Everything in Paul’s argument is driving to the conclusion that “we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all are under sin” (3:9), that “there is none righteous, not even one” (3:10), so that “every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (3:19). The law brings only wrath and condemnation. Although “the law promised life” (Rom 7:10), as sinners we can never cash in on that promise. Commenting on Romans 2:13, John Calvin writes,
That if righteousness be sought from the law, the law must be fulfilled; for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works. They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works, deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children. For the Apostle only urges here on the Jews what he had mentioned, the decision of the law, – That by the law they could not be justified, except they fulfilled the law, that if they transgressed it, a curse was instantly pronounced on them. Now we do not deny but that perfect righteousness is prescribed in the law: but as all are convicted of transgression, we say that another righteousness must be sought. Still more, we can prove from this passage that no one is justified by works; for if they alone are justified by the law who fulfill the law, it follows that no one is justified; for no one can be found who can boast of having fulfilled the law (Commentary on Romans).
Paul still holds in his mind what he wrote earlier, that “the doers of the law will be justified” when he states the conclusion of the matter, “by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20).
The next verse represents the pivot point. When Paul writes “but now apart from the law” (3:21) he begins his exposition of another way of salvation, which is by grace. Even as the law excluded grace, so grace now excludes the law. “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28). As the corollary to law is merit, the corollary to faith is grace. The law is not of faith, and grace is opposed to merit. “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works” (Rom 11:6).
If anyone should keep the law then they are rightly said to merit God’s approbation. “The one who works, his wages is not reckoned as favor, but as what is due” (4:5). God would justify such a person according to their righteousness. But as sinners we have no claim to such a reward. But by faith we receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ. “To the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (4:5).
The corollary to the covenant of works/grace is this sharp distinction between law and gospel. The law through its doing promised life on the basis of merit. The gospel through faith promises life on the basis of grace. Such a distinction between law and gospel is essential for our understanding of the gospel, and why the Protestant Reformers taught it as such.
For further study on Romans 2:13 see the commentaries on Romans by John Calvin, Charles Hodge and Robert Haldane, and Geerhardus Vos, “Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification.”