12All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
17But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God 18and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, 19and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, 21you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?22You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24For, as it is written, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."
Jews regarded Gentiles none too positively, religiously speaking. Jews considered themselves vastly superior because they had the Mosaic law, while the Gentiles did not. This biased perspective created a whole lot of tension in the early church. Religious Jews, like the ones in Rome, wrestled with the question whether they should keep to the dietary laws and the religious sacred days. Some Jewish believers of Jesus even stipulated that Gentiles should become Jews first, by getting circumcised and then maintaining, as good Jews, the Torah in all its various demands.
Against this Judaizing pressure and demands, the Apostle Paul said a firm, No! The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah is sufficient for both Jews and Gentiles. Nothing is to be added to make the Cross of Jesus necessary and sufficient unto salvation. Faith in Jesus will do.
The argument in this section of Romans is Paul's case that even though Gentiles do not possess the Mosaic law, there is a working moral law within the hearts of non-Jews. They are given by God a moral conscience of what should be done and what should be not done. And on this basis, the Gentiles will be judged. The Jews will be judged based on what has been given them: the Torah (the Law). God judges justly, in other words. God judges according to the light available to people, whether Jews or Gentiles.
The Apostle Paul, in his argumentation, is trying to level the theological playing field. As long as Jewish believers are of the mind that the Torah has to be kept, that the Law of Moses is needed for Gentiles to make them "complete" Christians, then there is a gross distortion of what Christ has done on the cross. Namely, that the Cross of Jesus is not sufficient. Something else needs to be added, implying that besides faith, a type of "work" must be added to the salvific mix. Paul will have none of it!
Two reflections arise out our reading. One is the thought that God has not abandoned humanity so completely that there is no sign of his moral imprint. God has created moral beings, whether they affirm this aspect or not. Their conscience gives witness to their sense of right and wrong. It's like a moral compass that's given in creation. This moral compass can be overridden and harmed. A moral hardening can take place as people deny and ignore what their conscience is saying. But the fundamental gift of this moral sense is, nevertheless, a gift from God. The other thought, which isn't fully developed here in this section, is the sufficiency of the Cross of Jesus. The religious spirit, the religious demands, the religious presumption that something more needs to be added to the cross is roundly rejected by the defender of the gospel: the Apostle Paul. That he was once the embodiment of Jewish religiosity, pomposity, and condescension testifies to the fact that the Gospel of Jesus can make a radical transformation of a sinful person. The encounter with the Living God can make all the difference. And the simple truth of the Gospel can convert the mind as well.
Let's pray: Lord Jesus, we thank you for your life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. We thank you for pouring out the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. We thank you that in you is found salvation. We thank you that in the grace of our created-ness there is a divine sign of our origins, in the form of our moral conscience. We pray for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles even now. We pray for their salvation in Bethesda and the DC area. For us, we pray for the joy of salvation today. In Jesus' name, amen.