“Doers of the law” in Romans 2:13

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).

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One response

  1. Incidentally, Calvin refers Romans 2:7 to believers (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38.vi.ii.html): “6. Who will render to every one, etc. As he had to do with blind saintlings, who thought that the wickedness of their hearts was well covered, provided it was spread over with some disguises, I know not what, of empty works, he pointed out the true character of the righteousness of works, even that which is of account before God; and he did this, lest they should feel confident that it was enough to pacify him, if they brought words and trifles, or leaves only. But there is not so much difficulty in this verse, as it is commonly thought. For the Lord, by visiting the wickedness of the reprobate with just vengeance, will recompense them with what they have deserved: and as he sanctifies those whom he has previously resolved to glorify, he will also crown their good works, but not on account of any merit: nor can this be proved from this verse; for though it declares what reward good works are to have, it does yet by no means show what they are worth, or what price is due to them. And it is an absurd inference, to deduce merit from reward.
    7. To them indeed, who by perseverance, etc.; literally, patience; by which word something more is expressed. For it is perseverance, when one is not wearied in constantly doing good; but patience also is required in the saints, by which they may continue firm, though oppressed with various trials. For Satan suffers them not by a free course to come to the Lord; but he strives by numberless hinderances to impede them, and to turn them aside from the right way. And when he says, that the faithful, by continuing in good works, seek glory and honour, he does not mean that they aspire after any thing else but the favor of God, or that they strive to attain any thing higher, or more excellent: but they can not seek him, without striving, at the same time, for the blessedness of his kingdom, the description of which is contained in the paraphrase given in these words. The meaning then is, — that the Lord will give eternal life to those who, by attention to good works, strive to attain immortality. 66”

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