The “Law” in Romans 2: Mosaic Covenant or Decalogue?
There has been a lot of confusion over Paul’s use of the word “law” in Romans and his other epistles. I want to look at Paul’s usage of the word “law” in this particular passage, and by looking at the context, determine what Paul is referring to.
I will argue from the text that the word “law” in this passage is referring to the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments as apposed to the entire Mosaic Covenant (which would include the priesthood, temple sacrifices, food laws, and civil statutes that governed the people of Israel). Here is how I arrive at this conclusion:
- In v. 14, Paul is speaking about Gentiles. He says that they “do not have the law”. Yet he continues and says that the Gentiles “by nature do what the law requires.” Now, if the “law” here is referring to the Mosaic Covenant in its entirety (ritual, priesthood, food laws, civil statutes, etc), Paul would be wrong. The Gentiles did not build a temple according to God’s standards, nor did they have a priesthood as described in the Exodus. The Gentiles did not have access to, nor were they required to fulfill the commandments with regard to the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Mosaic Covenant. They were not “by nature” performing the ritual sacrifices with all their specific instructions (Leviticus). So, we must conclude that what the Gentiles were doing “by nature” was not the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law.
- Romans 2:1-11 lead right up to the “law” section in question. This portion addresses those who judge other according to a standard that they themselves do not keep. What was the standard? Was it that they were not performing the rituals as prescribed, or carrying the sentence of judgments according the the Mosaic Covenant? No. He compares those who do good works (“well-doing”, v. 7, ESV) against those who act selfishly (“self-seeking”, v. 8). These are moral categories, not ritual or ceremonial categories.
- Later in Romans 2:17-29, Paul specifically addresses the Jews and continues to use the word “law” with no apparent change in meaning. He accuses the Jews of being instructor of the “law” that do not practice the law. Look at what he accuses them of break: stealing (v. 21), adultery (v. 22), idolatry (v. 22). He accuses them of “breaking the law.” (v. 23) So, it wasn’t that they were disobedient with reference to the ritual sacrifices or of defiling the temple. He was accuses them of breaking the moral law of God as codified in the Decalogue.
From the beginning, man has had the moral law of God written on his heart. Theologians have referred to this as Natural Law. It is where man get their innate sense of right and wrong. And here’s an important bit of information. Look up Exodus 31:18. Everything in the first 5 books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) was written down by the hand of Moses, EXCEPT the 10 Commandments. Those were given to Moses written down on tablets of stone by the very finger of God! (See also Ex. 24:12; 32:16; 34:1; Deut. 10:1-5) The “law” that was written on tablets of stone by the finger of God is the same “law” that was written in the hearts of men.