For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 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. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
God is impartial in His judgment. He holds everyone to the same standard: if you keep the law, you will be justified; if you break the law, you will be condemned. Simple as that. Except it is not that simple. If it was that simple, Romans would be a very short book. But Paul goes on to show that everyone, Jew and Gentile, breaks the law, and that the only way to keep the law is by grace through faith in the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. This is fulfilling the law by the Spirit and not by the works of the flesh. Of course, this anticipates Paul’s argument a bit, but it is certainly where the argument is going.
Those who sin without the law are the Gentiles. The Gentiles were not given the written code of the law, so they are “without law.” Those who sin “under the law” are the Jews. They were given the law written upon tables of stone. The law was to be read in its entirety every seven years and portions read by Levites each Sabbath in the villages and cities of Israel at their local holy convocation, which was the forerunner of the synagogue. Israel was given many opportunities to hear the law. However, Paul reminds his audience that simply hearing the law was never enough. Israel was commanded to do the law.
James addresses this same idea in his epistle: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). Both Paul and James are alluding to Moses’ warning to Israel that they must keep the law by doing what is commanded (Deuteronomy 4:1; 5:1; 6:3; 30:12-14; cf. also Ezekiel 20:11). And both Paul and James quote Moses’ warning that if a man breaks one point of the law he is guilty of the entire law (Galatians 3:10; James 2:10; alluding to Deuteronomy 27:26).
Moses emphasized that the man who keeps the law by doing the commandments shall live in it. Of course, this is exactly the point that Paul makes. Only those who keep the law perfectly can live by the law. And here is the catch: no one can keep the law! Thus, no one can live by the law. All who attempt to keep the law in the flesh will die. Paul will show us later that this is why God gave the law to Israel “according to the flesh.” God gave them the law to demonstrate that fallen man cannot keep the law without the indwelling power of the Spirit, and no man can be righteous apart from the righteousness of Christ.
Yet, the larger point that Paul is making here is that Gentile Christians are keeping the law, in the sense that they are fulfilling the law by faith through the Spirit. Paul argues that his Gentile converts “who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires” and “they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” Further, “they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.”
The deep irony of this passage is that Israel, who was given the written code of the law, failed to keep the law, while the Gentiles, who were not given the written code of the law, were now fulfilling it! And they were doing so without circumcision and the ceremonial observance of temple rituals. Paul contrasts the hearers (Israel) with the doers (Gentiles).
Paul turns the argument of the Judaizers on its head. He uses the momentum of their argument against them. The Judaizers seek to disqualify the Gentiles from the New Covenant because they are not circumcised and do not keep the law. But Paul will show that those who are truly circumcised and really keep the law are the Gentiles. He will reverse the argument here and show that the Judaizers are the ones who are disqualified because they are uncircumcised in heart and do not truly fulfill the law by the Spirit. This is theological jujitsu at its best!