COULD YOU PLEASE EXPLAIN ROMANS 2:14?
by Shawn Brasseaux
I would be glad to!
The best way to understand any “obscure” Bible verse is to first look at its general context (the surrounding chapters, for example). Concerning Romans 2:14, let us consider the fact that the first five chapters of the book of Romans discuss salvation by faith alone in Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork at Calvary as sufficient payment for our sins. As we will see later on, Romans 2:14 relates to that general context.
Romans chapter 1 examines mankind’s moral and spiritual deterioration, his various sins of the flesh in which he engaged when he rejected the God of heaven and earth. In that chapter, God is accusing the nations (Gentiles) of the world of willfully rejecting Him and preferring their vain idols, sinful deeds, and so on. Perhaps read Romans chapter 1 on your own in order to grasp the chapter’s thought flow. It sounds just like our local and global news reports!
Romans chapter 2 deals with various objections that man makes in attempting to defend himself against God’s accusations listed in chapter 1 (some spill over into chapter 2). The Jews believed that they were not as sinful as the Gentiles (non-Jews) so the Jews would attempt to argue that God should grant them some leniency when He would judge them—“We are not as depraved as those pagan Gentiles, so do not be so harsh on us!” In fact, some Jews believed that because they were Abraham’s children, they were inherently sinless! However, Romans 2:11 says, “For there is no respect of persons with God.” When it comes to judging sin, God does not treat any one nation or ethnic group different from another nation or ethnic group; no nation escapes because He judges them all in the end. Romans 2:12-16 is a further explanation of verse 11, and this is the passage that contains the verse that concerns your question. With that said as background, we can proceed to looking now at the verse’s immediate context (the surrounding verses).
We read in Romans chapter 2, remembering to note the immediate context of the “enigmatic” verse 14: “ For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;  (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.  For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)  In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”
Verse 12 is talking about how sin needs to clearly be identified. The Ten Commandments are God’s standard of righteousness; we do not have to wonder what God accepts as “good” and what He rejects as “bad.” The Mosaic Law (Exodus chapter 20; Deuteronomy chapter 5) was given to the nation of Israel through Moses as irrefutable proof of man’s sin, in order to prove to Israel that they as sinners could not keep God’s laws, that they could not honor them and they could certainly not obey them (see Galatians 3:19). However, a Gentile at that time did not have the God of Israel as his God (see Ephesians 2:11-12; cf. Exodus 19:3-6; Deuteronomy 4:1-13; Romans 9:4-5; et cetera). In Romans 2:12-16, God is addressing the Jews’ argument that they should be dealt with less harshly because they were (supposedly) “less sinful” than the Gentiles. God is replying to the Jews that the Gentiles are certainly not going to get away with their sins because although they did not have the Law engraved in stone like Israel did, the Gentiles had the Law written in their hearts, conscience. Israel is without excuse because even the Gentiles have some sense of right and wrong. Again, God is fair in judging both Jew and Gentile. The Jew is without excuse (because he had the written law of God in stone) and so is the Gentile (because he had the law of God written in his heart); neither group can blame-shift to the other. They are equally guilty of being law-breakers before God.
Okay, let us return to Romans 2:13-16 and try to summarize. Please note that the verse you are inquiring about is part of a parenthetical statement (verses 13-15) that interrupts the thought flow of verses 12 and 16: “ For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;  (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.  For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:  Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another; )  In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”
It is written in the heart of every person—in the conscience—which beliefs and behaviors are acceptable and which are not acceptable (“their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another”). This very concept of conscience governs any and every society, whether the society is Christian or non-Christian. Conscience is what keeps law and order, even if it is in a very primitive form. The Gentiles know right from wrong by virtue of their conscience, even though they did not have the written laws of God in stone like Israel had. Often, people ask, “What about those who have not heard about Jesus Christ?” Well, the Bible says they have a consciousness that there is a righteous Creator God and they know that they will face Him in judgment (Romans 1:18-20). If they are receptive to this spiritual light that they do have, then they will be willing to hear any missionary or read any Bible they come across in order to learn about Jesus Christ and trust Him to be saved.
When all lost people stand before God Almighty one day to be judged (even those who live in remote jungles), whatever spiritual light they were exposed to, they will be held accountable to God. Revelation 20:11-15 speaks of this “Great White Throne Judgment.” No one will be able to say that they did not have a chance to know the Lord Jesus Christ. As Romans 1:20 says, everyone is “without excuse” in that regard. Those who rejected what spiritual light they did have (a conscience of right and wrong), they actually rejected a chance to later hear or read Paul’s Gospel—1 Corinthians 15:3-4 “Christ died for our sins, He was buried, and He rose again the third day.” They do not want to know any further truth. As Peter said, they are “willfully ignorant” (2 Peter 3:5).
Romans 2:14 means this—the Gentiles did not have God’s Laws written in stone like Israel did, but the Gentiles naturally have orderly societies that punish murder, theft, adultery, lying, et cetera because the Gentiles have a conscience that leads them to govern themselves. That fact makes Israel unable to use the “we-are-not-as-sinful-as-the-Gentiles” excuse. If the Gentiles act more decent or better than the Jews, and the Gentiles do not have God’s laws written down like Israel, then Israel is that more accountable because they had those laws written down in stone and broke them anyway.
» What happened at the Tower of Babel? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» Why did God create the nation Israel? (LINK TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE)
» Were Gentiles saved before our Dispensation of Grace?