Paul is arguing that “it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be declared righteous” (v 13). Everyone agrees that the following two verses are an illustration of this truth, and the declaration of righteousness picks up at v 16 where Paul concludes that this will happen “on the day when God judges the secrets of everyone according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.” This is why the NIV puts vv 14-15 in parentheses. So far no problem.
But what to do with vv 14-15? The problem partially is due to an ambiguity in the Greek word order with φύσει. Word for word the Greek reads, “for when Gentiles (ὅταν γὰρ ἔθνη ) the not law having (τὰ μὴ νόμον ἔχοντα) by nature (φύσει) the things of the law do (τὰ τοῦ νόμου ποιῶσιν).
If you take φύσει with the preceding, Paul is thinking of Gentiles who are born apart from the (Mosaic) law; nevertheless, they obey the law and hence they must be Christian Gentiles (so Cranfield).
If you take φύσει with the following, Paul is describing Gentiles who naturally keep the law. This, of course, could not be the Mosaic law, but would be the natural sense of right and wrong that God has embedded into the conscience of people generally (so Moo).
Almost all translations go with the second option. The ESV writes, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires” (so also NIV, HCSB, NASB, NRSV, KJV, NET, NLT, TEV, NJB).
Whoever these Gentiles are, their obedience to (some of) what they know of God’s law is evidence that Jews “who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law,” that being born Jewish is not enough to save them from God’s judgment.
One of the problems I had with the majority opinion (apart from the fact that I believe Cranfield’s commentary to be the best commentary ever written on any biblical book) is that I could not fit obedient Christians into the flow of the argument in chapter 2. I am not used to seeing Christians in Romans until 3:21.
Part of the solution, though, is to recognize that Paul does not say “the law” but simply “law.” This is not obedience to all the Mosaic law; no obedient Christian of any ethnic background is able to obey “the law”; that place of primacy belongs to Jesus. However, I do understand that the anarthrous “law” can refer to the Mosaic law.
But today, I am going to go with the majority position. I wonder when I will be teaching Romans next?William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and is the general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV. Learn more about Bill at BillMounce.com, and visit his other blog on spiritual growth, Life is a Journey, at BiblicalTraining.org.