Romans 2: 12-16 (The Law)


I am currently working my way through Romans. I was reading chapter 2. After I read verses 12-16 I was confused. Could someone please explain the meaning behind these verses? Thanks.

Justified by Faith Alone cf. James 2:24

Hi Bryce,

12 All those who have sinned without the Law will perish without the Law; and those under the Law who have sinned will be judged by the Law.

13 For the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law.

14 So, when gentiles, not having the Law, still through their own innate sense behave as the Law commands, then, even though they have no Law, they are a law for themselves.

15 They can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness; since they are aware of various considerations, some of which accuse them, while others provide them with a defence . . . on the day when,

16 according to the gospel that I preach, God, through Jesus Christ, judges all human secrets.

Without going over each verse, the message is this : everyone is bound by the moral law, whether you are Jews (under the Law of the Torah) or Gentiles (without the Law of the Torah) Everyone has the moral law “engraved” on their hearts.

PS I take this opportunity to ask everyone who cites scripture to cut and paste the passage, so that we wiil know what they are talking about without having to look it up and paste it.



St Augustine gives the best answer in his famous Essay On the Letter & The Spirit, Chapters 43-47. Basically, the Gentiles with the law written on their hearts mentioned here are not regular Gentiles, but rather Gentile Christians. That’s the key.
I’ll briefly quote Augustine’s words:If therefore the apostle, when he mentioned that the Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the law, and have the work of the law written in their hearts, Romans 2:14-15 intended those to be understood who believed in Christ—who do not come to the faith like the Jews, through a precedent law,— there is no good reason why we should endeavour to distinguish them from those to whom** the Lord by the prophet promises the new covenant, telling them that He will write His laws in their hearts**, Jeremiah 31:33. There is therefore a good agreement of this passage of the apostle with the words of the prophet so that belonging to the new testament means having the law of God not written on tables, but on the heart—that is, embracing the righteousness of the law with innermost affection, where faith works by love. Galatians 5:6 Now what the apostle attributed to Gentiles of this character,— how that they have the work of the law written in their hearts; Romans 2:15 must be some such thing **as what he says to the Corinthians: not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. 2 Corinthians 3:3 **
So when you look at how the Bible uses “written on their hearts” elsewhere, namely Jeremiah 31:33 and 2 Corinthians 3, this refers to people entering the New Covenant. Thus, when Paul says “written on their hearts” in Romans 2:14-15, then it’s not a stretch to say this is Gentiles entering the New Covenant.


The law is just: it’s holy, spiritual, and good as St Paul tells us elsewhere. So we’ll be rightfully judged by it. But it cannot justify us; it can only show us what our justice, our just state, “looks like” so to speak. Only God can justify us, only as we enter communion with Him, He truly becoming our God again, as per Jer 31:34, receiving His grace, can we become wholly who He created us to be. In this relationship He begins to place His law in our minds and write it on our hearts (Jer 31:33). And this begins with faith.

But the Law is already in us, just dimmed and obscured by the Fall. As St Augustine wrote, speakng of the Decalogue: “God wrote on the tables of the Law what man did not read in his heart.”

IMO Rom 2 is speaking of Gentiles who act upon that law already written in the hearts of all men, even though they haven’t heard the Law, much less the gospel. And we’ll all be judged by that Law because it reflects the righteousness God created man to have. In any person who lives in obedience to the law, unconscious of its existence by any formally revealed means as the law was revealed to Israel through Moses, there is an implicit faith IMO, and grace accordingly as well.


Thank you all for the very insightful responses! After reading through the entirety of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I can say that I definitely have a better understanding of the “law.” The law is obviously referring to a moral law that we should all follow.


Paul was writing about the Old Testament Law of Moses.

He was speaking specifically about the Levitical law of the Old Testament. That was the whole point of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Jewish Christians were telling Gentile Christians that they still had to obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved. Paul was addressing this issue and speaks specifically about the Law of Moses.

Gentiles did not live under the Law of Moses.

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. (Romans 2:14)

Jews however, lived under the Law of Moses.

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God (Romans 2:17)

The entire book is about the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. Paul was a Pharisee, the strictest sect of Judaism. He was also a Rabbi, a highly educated Jewish scholar of the Old Testament. He was speaking about the Old Testament to Jewish Christians.



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