Paul’s epistle to the Romans is well known for presenting the nature of faith. One commentator claimed, more broadly, that knowing Romans well will keep readers from heresy. Amen! Yet there are some interpretive shoals to navigate.
Let’s consider one, in chapter 2:14-15. Competing views of this text have produced very different and competing versions of faith.
To remind you of the text—and please pick up a Bible to see for yourself—Paul spoke of “Gentiles, who do not have the law” but who “by nature do what the law requires” and “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts”.
Paul set these Gentiles over against Jews who felt superior because they had grown up in Synagogue-School and knew God’s commandments by rote.
The prospect Paul seems to raise is here is that every human has an innate moral capacity to be righteous: that every person in the world retains a basic moral capacity for good by having “the law [of God] written on their hearts”. And if that’s the case this capacity is the logical basis for God deciding who deserves divine aid in achieving salvation. In effect God helps those who are inclined by this natural law to ask for his help.
In this view all humanity is damaged by sin from Adam onward but we still retain enough moral capacity to be guilty if we don’t use this innate moral law. And God gets the credit for providing this capacity if and when we do use it. It’s a neat and simple solution to the question of who does and who doesn’t get saved.
But there’s another reading to be had and, with it, a version of faith that doesn’t feature innate human morality as the basis for salvation.
It comes by our asking, who are these “Gentiles”?
The label, Gentiles—or its synonym, “the Greeks”—is sometimes used for all non-Jews who are separated from God because of their individual and collective unbelief. Paul, for instance, used this sense in 2:24—“The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
Yet there is another type of Gentile in Romans: those who are not Jewish by birth yet who have come to faith in Christ. And, in the alternate reading of the text, it is this group Paul has in mind in 2:14 as he spoke of Gentiles who obey God’s laws as “written on their hearts”.
What’s the basis for this distinction?
It begins in Romans 1:13 where Paul spoke of his apostolic calling to “harvest” those from “among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.” This suggests at least some Gentiles are among the believers in Rome.
And later, in 9:30, Paul spoke again about these Gentile believers or converts who have “a righteousness that is by faith.” And, again, in chapter 15, Paul repeatedly spoke of his ministry in bringing about such conversions—pointing to his aim in the epistle to resolve a divide between some of the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers in Rome.
With this crucial discrimination in mind—between unbelieving and believing Gentiles—Paul is clearly telling a group of the Jews in Rome to quit insisting that Gentile converts must keep up with the demands of Jewish law-keeping (something the Jews themselves weren’t even doing!) because, in fact, these Gentiles were already devoted to God’s laws “from the heart.”
As he makes clear at the end of the chapter (in 2:29) a person’s heritage is not the key to being a proper “Jew” but the inward change “of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” is the basis for salvation. And, by logical extension, this inward change is never a feature of non-believing Gentiles.
This reading is reinforced by Paul’s next point, in 3:9-11, “that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” and that “no one seeks for God”. He goes on to say that the only practical benefit of the Jewish moral laws is that they make people aware of their innate lawlessness, “since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (verse 20).
So, given this tracing of Paul’s actual distinctions in Romans, how is anyone saved if “no one seeks for God”? His answer is what we read in 2:29—it “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit”—and as we read later in the epistle, in 5:5, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” The “us” refers to active sinners who now believe: “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us” (verse 8).
So is faith based on our own innate morality?
Paul is similarly blunt about this in another epistle, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” but God—rich in mercy and grace—saves all who believe from among those who were “dead” (Ephesians 2:1-8). Is this faith a product of our effort? Listen to Paul once again: “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
So what is our role in salvation? Nothing more than our response to the Spirit telling us, “God loves you!” Faith, in other words, is our response to the Spirit’s wooing love and not a responsibility based on our innate morality. So our only boast is in what Christ has done in and for us.