Romans 2 is Not about General Human Conscience

Romans 2 is Not about General Human Conscience June 11, 2024

Protestants routinely but mistakenly interpret Romans 2:14 as if to say that humanity has God’s Law written on their hearts via their conscience (i.e., all Gentiles universally have an inherent moral compass that aligns with God’s Law). Paul writes,

For when Gentiles, who do not have the Law, by nature do what the Law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law.

In contrast to popular readings, Romans 2:14–29 indicates that Paul speaks specifically about Gentile believers in Christ who, through the New Covenant, have the Law inscribed on their hearts. This view is crucial to properly understanding the passage’s implications on who exactly demonstrates the Law written on their hearts.

An initial observation helps to clarify Paul’s meaning. The Law defines each group that Paul contrasts in 2:12–14. Thus, the Law specifically marks Jewish “insiders” as distinct from Gentile “outsiders” (from a Jewish perspective).[1]

The Meaning of “By Nature”

Moreover, the phrase “by nature” (physis) in verse 14 needs careful interpretation. Grammatically, physis can modify either what comes prior (not having the Law) or the following verb (doing the Law). Traditionally, interpreters choose the latter, saying Gentiles by nature obey the Law’s requirements. However, context favors the alternative: physis explains why Gentiles do not have the Law.

Verse 27 provides clarity:

“he who is physically [physis] uncircumcised but keeps the Law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the Law.”

Both verses use physis and belong to the same stream of thought. Inexplicably, people use different translations for the same word. In 2:27, physis cannot mean “by nature” since all males are born with foreskin. If physis is translated as “by nature” in 2:27, the sentence and its contrast make no sense. No one is circumcised by nature.

Consider also Paul’s usage of physis elsewhere in his letters (e.g., Galatians 2:15), where it clearly refers to the state of being that one is born into—Jews by birth under the Law and Gentiles outside of it. In Romans, “by nature” should be understood as referring to the Gentiles’ original condition outside the formal covenant with God.

How then can Gentiles keep the Law? Verse 15 explains that these Gentiles “show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts.” Traditional Jews held that the Law set Israel apart as God’s people. However, Paul extends this covenantal privilege to the Gentiles under the New Covenant, signifying that through Christ, they now also have the Law written on their hearts. This is not a universal human trait but a specific mark of those who have entered into a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Paul’s argument here pivots on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, who inscribes the Law on the hearts of believers, both Jew and Gentile. This inward circumcision, a metaphor for the heart being set apart for God, is described in Romans 2:29 as the true circumcision. It contrasts with the physical circumcision of the Jews, which, while a sign of the old covenant, does not guarantee adherence to God’s Law as shown by their failure to live according to its requirements (Romans 2:17-24).

Universal Hope of the Gospel

This spiritual transformation among Gentile believers highlights a critical aspect of Paul’s theology—the universality of the gospel and its breaking down of barriers between Jews and Gentiles. By fulfilling the Law through love, as articulated in Romans 13:8-10, these Gentile Christians demonstrate that they are indeed part of God’s people, not by birth, but by the new birth into Christ.

Other Pauline texts support this interpretation. For instance, in Galatians 3:28-29, Paul states that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ and that all are one in Jesus Christ. Similarly, Ephesians 2:11-22 discusses how Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles, creating one new man from the two, thus making peace. Together, these passages underscore that under the New Covenant, the defining feature of God’s people is not ethnic lineage or adherence to the Law as a code, but a heart transformed by faith in Christ.

Further, the practical implications of this understanding are profound. It means that the ethical and moral life of Gentile Christians is a direct result of the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, who enables them to live out the requirements of the Law, not through external adherence but through internal renewal.

This internal renewal, or what Paul calls having the Law written on the heart, is a fulfillment of the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:33, where God promises to write His Law on the hearts of His people under the New Covenant.

Conclusion

Thus, Romans 2:14-29 should not be read as a commentary on the universal moral capabilities of humanity but as a profound theological statement about the nature of the New Covenant. It speaks to the reality that Gentile Christians, though previously outside the covenantal promises, are now fully incorporated into God’s people, not through their own righteousness but through the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ. This faith manifests itself in a life that naturally fulfills the Law’s requirements, not as a means to righteousness but as a fruit of having been made righteous through faith.

Romans 2:14ff is not a text about the general conscience of humanity directed by God’s Law, but rather a specific declaration about those Gentiles who, through Christ, have entered into the New Covenant and consequently have the Law of God written on their new hearts. This new identity as part of God’s people transcends ethnic boundaries and is marked by a life that reflects God’s righteous decrees, as evidenced by their love for others and their fulfillment of the Law through this love.

 


For more on this view in the broader context of Romans, see Reading Romans with Eastern Eyes.

[1] Paul simultaneously introduces the Law and reintroduces the term “Gentile,” having used “Greek” four times since last mentioning “Gentiles” in 1:13. “Gentile” better represents all non-Jews. “Greeks” only signifies a small subset.

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