This week Dr. R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California wrote a post on the exegesis of Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” He gives an overview of the verse’s literary context and describes its “magisterial Protestant interpretation,” quoting Calvin himself as an example of this supposed historic consensus.
The upshot of Clark’s interpretation is this: when Paul says that the “doers of the law” will be justified, he is actually referring to an empty set. Hypothetically, one could gain justification by perfect, sinless law-keeping, but since no one is sinless, this verse is merely intended to present the law’s impossible standard, which drives readers to despair and trust in the gospel alone for their justification. In other words, there are no “doers of the law” except Christ. Clark contrasts his own interpretation with that of Norman Shepherd’s, who taught justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.”
Reading his post, one would get the impression that only two alternatives are available: either you side with Clark, or you side with Shepherd. And if you side with Shepherd, you sacrifice Protestantism’s fundamental distinction between law and gospel (for my own thoughts on the law/gospel distinction, see my post here). However, I would suggest that these aren’t the only two options open to us. And not only that, but Clark’s own interpretation—though amply attested in the Reformation tradition—was not as monolithic among early Reformed interpreters as he suggests.
In Justification: Five Views (IVP, 2011), Michael Bird presents a “third way” of reading this text. Along with an increasing number of scholars, he suggests that this verse refers to Gentile Christians, who fulfill the requirements of the law by walking according to the Spirit (p. 142; cf. Rom. 8:3-4). Whether such law-obedience constitutes the basis of a future justification (as N.T. Wright argues—mistakenly, in my opinion) or merely its evidence (but see Bill Evans’ comments here), the point is that we do not need to read the phrase “doers of the law” as an empty set, and we don’t need to import artificial categories like hypothetical works-righteousness.
Bird’s position is labeled the “Progressive Reformed” view, to which Michael Horton responds with his own “Traditional Reformed” view. To be sure, Horton agrees with Clark’s reading of Romans 2:13. But Horton admits, “Even so, I’m open to Bird’s interpretation, and his distinction between a judgment according to (kata) works rather than through, much less on account of (dia/ek) works is well attested in classic Reformed treatments” (p. 159). Although Horton does not specify which classic Reformed treatments he has in mind, he is likely referring to Samuel Rutherford, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. In his famous treatise against antinomianism entitled The Spiritual Antichrist, Rutherford writes, “Holy walking is a way to heaven… and Christ maketh a promise of life eternal to him that doth his Commandments.” (2:37-38). In his exegesis of Romans 2, Rutherford argues that works, though not the condition of our justification, are nevertheless required of those who are saved (2:40).
So it turns out that there might be “doers of the law” after all. And I don’t think this confuses law and gospel. Rather, I believe that the proper way of understanding the law/gospel distinction (which Clark rightly argues is Protestant, not merely Lutheran) is not as a distinction between two valid ways of justification—one hypothetical and one actual—but between an invalid way and a valid way. The law was never intended as a means of justification. As Paul himself writes, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The law does indeed promise life, and it gives it to those who obey it (which we can actually do, by the Spirit’s power). But the “life” promised by the law is not forensic justification, but rather the abundant life of blessing for God’s children. This is what Moses meant when he wrote, “The one who does these things shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5).