R. Scott Clark recently wrote a lengthy post Romans 2:13: Justified Through Our Faithfulness? As is often the case, Clark’s defense of sola fide is helpful and encouraging, while his handling of historical theology is not. Clark has a tendancy to always paint the reformed tradition to be in complete agreement with him, even when it is not.
In this particular post, Clark addresses Norman Shepherd’s erroneous reading of Romans 2:13 (“the doers of the law will be justified”) as referring to the believer at the final judgment. Clark rightly explains how “The whole of chapter 2 is a prosecution of the Jews according to the standard that had been revealed to them,” but he misleads the reader into thinking that has been precisely the reformed interpretation until 1978. He neglects to mention that many have interpreted 2:7 (“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life”) as referring to believers at the judgment.
v7 = Gospel
Clark says “Calvin found no good news for sinners in this section [ch. 1-3] of Romans.” Yet commenting on v6-7, Calvin says “[A]s he sanctifies those whom he has previously resolved to glorify, he will also crown their good works… The meaning then is, — that the Lord will give eternal life to those who, by attention to good works, strive to attain immortality.”
On v.7 John Brown wrote “tho good works have no casual efficacy or influence on our salvation, as any meritorious cause, either procuring a right to life, or the actual possession thereof, (Christ’s merits being the sole procuring cause) and so are not necessary upon that score; yet are they necessary as the way carved out by infinite wisdom[.]”
Even Gill says “[S]uch who believe in Christ, and perform good works from a principle of grace, shall receive the reward of the inheritance, which is a reward of grace, and not of debt.”
Examples could easily be multiplied. Most of these men hold to a “mediating position” wherein they view v7 as referring to the gospel, but v13 as referring to the law. This has always seemed quite inconsistent to me. Sam Waldron agrees: “I find such a position somewhat contradictory and certainly unsatisfying.”
v6-7 = Law
Recognizing this inconsistency, others have held that v6-7 refers to the law. The Geneva Study Bible (1560) notes “Glory which follows good works, which he does not lay out before us as though there were any that could attain to salvation by his own strength, but, he lays this condition of salvation before us, which no man can perform, to bring men to Christ, who alone justifies the believers, as he himself concludes; see (Romans 2:21-22).”
Those that endeavour to procure God’s salvation by their sincere obedience to all the commands of Christ, do act contrary to that way of salvation by Christ, free grace, and faith, discovered in the gospel… Christ, or his apostles, never taught a gospel that requireth such a condition of works for salvation as they plead for. The texts of scripture which they usually allege for this purpose, are either contrary to it, or widely distant from it… They grossly pervert those words of Paul, Rom. ii. 6, 7. Where they will have Paul to be declaring the terms of the gospel, when he is evidently declaring the terms of the law, to prove that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, and that no flesh can be justified by the works of the law, as appeareth by the tenor of his following discourse, Rom. iii. 9, 10.
The words there [Rom 2:7] are used in a law sense, and are declarative of the righteousness of God in rewarding the keepers of the law of nature, or the moral law, according to the law of the covenant of works. This is evident from the whole design of the apostle in that place, which is to convince all men, Jews and Gentiles, of sin against the law, and of the impossibility of the obtaining the glory of God thereby.
The question at his bar will be, not whether a man is a Jew or a Gentile, whether he belongs to the chosen people or to the heathen world, but whether he has obeyed the law. This principle is amplified and applied in what follows, in vers. 7-11… [I]t is more pertinent to remark, in the second place, that the apostle is not here teaching the method of justification, but is laying down those general principles of justice, according to which, irrespective of the gospel, all men are to be judged. He is expounding the law, not the gospel. And as the law not only says that death is the stages of sin, but also that those who keep its precepts shall live by them, so the apostle says, that God will punish the wicked and reward the righteous. This is perfectly consistent with what he afterwards teaches, that there are none righteous; that there are none who so obey the law as to be entitled to the life which it promises; and that for such the gospel provides a plan of justification without works, a plan for saving those whom the law condemns… The principle laid down in ver. 6, is here [v7] amplified. God will render eternal life to the good, indignation and wrath to the wicked, without distinction of persons; to the Jews no less than to the Gentiles.
and in his Systematic Theology, Part II, Ch. VI, S6 “Perpetuity of the Covenant of Works“ he says
[W]hile the Pelagian doctrine is to be rejected, which teaches that each man comes into the world free from sin and free from condemnation, and stands his probation in his own person, it is nevertheless true that where there is no sin there is no condemnation. Hence our Lord said to the young man, “This do and thou shalt live.” And hence the Apostle in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, says that God will reward every man according to his works. To those who are good, He will give eternal life; to those who are evil, indignation and wrath. This is only saying that the eternal principles of justice are still in force. If any man can present himself before the bar of God and prove that he is free from sin, either imputed or personal, either original or actual, he will not be condemned.
According to his deeds. – That is to say, either according to his righteousness, if any were found in himself righteous, which will not be the case, for all men are sinners, but it will be according to the judgment to require righteousness… [I]t will regard solely the works of each individual, and that their deeds will comprehend everything that is either obedience or disobedience to the law of God… a perseverance with resistance to all that opposes, namely, to all temptations, all snares… It is not meant that any man can produce such a perseverance in good works, for there is only one, Jesus Christ, who can glory in having wrought out a perfect righteousness… But here the Apostle only declare what the Divine judgment will demand according to the law, to which the Jews were adhering for justification before God… This shows how ignorantly the Church of Rome seeks to draw from this passage a proof of the merit of works, and of justification by works, since it teaches a doctrine the very contrary; for all that the Apostle says in this chapter is intended to show the necessiry of another mode of justification than that of the law, namely, by grace, which the Gospel sets before us through faith in Jesus Christ, according to which God pardons sins, as the Apostle afterwards shows in the third chapter. To pretend, then, to establish justification by works, and the merit of works, by what is said here, is directly to oppose the meaning and reasoning of the Apostle…
Eternal life – The Apostle does not say that God will render salvation, but ‘eternal life.’ The truth declared in this verse, and in those that follow, is the same as that exhibited by our Lord when the rich young man asked Him, ‘What good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ His reply was, ‘If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,’ Matt. xix. 16… Luke x. 25… The verse before us, then, which delcares that eternal life shall be awarded to those who seek it by patient continuance in well-doing, and who, according to the 10th verse, work good, both of which announce the full demand of the law, are of the same import with the 13th verse, which affirms that the doers of the law shall be justified. In all these verses the Apostle is referring to the law, and not, as it is generally understood, the Gospel…
Note what else Haldane says.
I know that the view here given of these verses is contrary to that of almost all the English commentaries on this Epistle. I have consulted a great number of them, besides those of Calvin, and Beza, and Maretz, and the Dutch annotations, and that of Quesnel, all of which, with one voice, explain the 7th and 10th verses of this chapter as referring to the Gospel…
I have noticed that from this passage the Church of Rome endeavors to establish the merit of works, and of justification by means of works.
Accordingly, Quesnel, a Roman Catholic, in expounding the 6th verse, exclaims, ‘Merites veritables; necessite des bonnes oeuvres. Ce sont nos actions bonnes ou mauvaises qui rendent doux ou severe le jugement de Dieu!’ ‘Real merits; necessity of good works. They are our good or bad actions which render the judgment of God mild or severe!’ And indeed, were the usual interpretation of this and the three following verses the just one, it must be confessed that this Romanist would have some ground for his triumph. But if we take the words in their plain and obvious import, and understand the Apostle in this place as announcing the terms of the law, in order to prove to the Jews the necessity of having recourse to grace, and of yielding to the goodness and forbearance of God, leading them to repentance, while he assures them that ‘not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified,’ then the whole train of his discourse is clear and consistent. On the other supposition, it appears confused and self contradictory, and calculated not merely to perplex, but positively to mislead, and to strengthen the prejudices of those who were going about to establish their own righteousness. For in whatever way these expressions may with certain explanations and qualifications be interpreted in an evangelical sense, yet unquestionably, as taken by themselves, and especially in the connection in which they stand in this place, they present the same meaning as is announced in the 13th verse, where the Apostle declares that the doers of the law shall be justified.
v13 = Gospel
It is in the context of a great many commentators holding to a contradictory “mediating position” that Norm Shepherd argued that v13 refers to the gospel, just like v6. Thus it is not entirely out of nowhere, as R. Scott Clark implies (recall also Marshall above, who was writing against Presbyterian neonomians in his day). Shepherd said
20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).
In his rejection of the Covenant of Works, Shepherd was very much following in the steps of John Murray (see Murray on Lev. 18:5 – Why Did John Murray Reject the Covenant of Works?). On Romans 2, Murray held to the mediating position. On v7 he said
The reward of this aspiration is in like manner the eschatology of the believer, “eternal life”… Could God judge any unto the reward of eternal life (cf. vs. 7) if works are the criteria? ‘The apostle thus speaks, not in the way of abstract hypothesis but of concrete assertion… He says not what God would do were He to proceed in accordance with the primal rule and standard of the law, but what, proceeding according to that rule, He will actually do.’… The determining factor in the rewards of retribution or of glory is not the privileged position of the Jew but evil-doing or well-doing respectively.
His rejection of the Covenant of Works left no reason for him to not follow through and carry this view on to v6, but he slammed on the brakes and argued for the hypothetical view of v13.
It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of this epistle in later chapters. Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture…
This holds true as a principle of equity but, existentially, it never comes into operation in the human race for the reason that there are no doers of the law, no doing of the law that will ground or elicit justification – ‘there is none righteous, no, not one’ (vs. [3:]10)
Recall Sam Waldron
Though Murray clearly argues in his comments on verses 6-11 that the judgment in view is not hypothetical and that the works in view are evangelical works which vindicate one’s saving faith in the dya of judgment, yet to my surprise Murray also takes a hypothetical or empty-set view of Romans 2:13… Let me hasten to add that, though I respect John Murray a great deal and have sometimes named him as my patron saint (!), I find such a position somewhat contradictory and certainly unsatisfying.
John Kinnaird was an OPC elder who taught Shepherd’s false gospel. He was brought to trial but was defended by Richard Gaffin. Note what Gaffin said during his testimony
[W]hile a large number of Reformed exegetes have understood the scenario there, the final judgment scenario there, on the positive side, in verse 7 and 10 and 13, have understood that in a hypothetical sense… there have also been other exegetes, within the reformed tradition, that have questioned that hypothetical understanding. And you see that at least for verses 6 to 11 very clearly in John Murray’s Romans commentary.
The prosecutor brought up Murray’s comments on v13 and said “Can you reconcile the two statements by John Murray here?” Gaffin replied
I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said, and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcome. But he does, as you are pointing out, back away from that. But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here.
John Kinnaird was found guilty of teaching a false gospel, but he appealed to the OPC General Assembly where he was exhonerated. Why? Because the OPC had just prior voted to add Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof texts to WLC 90. For more on this see OPC Report on Republication – Background.
So the issue really has a lot to do with a long history of inconsistent exegesis of Romans 2:6-7 and 2:13 that we have to wrestle with. I agree with those who see 2:6-7 and 13 as both referring to the law.