IF ROMANS 1 CONDEMNS the entire human race, Romans 2 focuses especially on Jews. They have enormous advantages in that they were the recipients of the Law — the revelation from God mediated through Moses at Sinai. But here too, Paul argues, all are condemned; possession of the law does not itself save. By Rom. 3:19-20, the apostle explicitly insists that those “under the law” are silenced along with those without the law all are under sin. This prepares the way for the glorious gospel solution (Rom. 3:21-31).
Here in Romans 2, however, there is one paragraph that has generated considerable discussion (Rom. 2:12-16). In verse 12 Paul makes the general point that God judges people by what they know, not by what they do not know. Hence: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Jesus had similarly tied human responsibility to human privilege: the more we know, the more severely we are held accountable (Matt. 11:20-24). Mere possession of the law isn’t worth anything. Those (Jews) are righteous who obey the law.
Then Paul adds, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them” (Rom. 2:14-15).
Many writers take this to mean that some Gentiles may be truly saved without ever having heard of Jesus, since after all, Paul says that some Gentiles “do by nature things required by the law,” and insists their consciences are “even defending them.” Others try to avoid this implication by arguing that the positive option is for Paul purely hypothetical. But Paul is not arguing that there is a subset of Gentiles who are so good that their consciences are always clean, and therefore they will be saved. Rather, he is arguing that Gentiles everywhere have some knowledge of right and wrong, even though they do not have the law, and that this is demonstrated in the fact that they sometimes do things in line with the law, and have consciences that sometimes accuse them and sometimes defend them.
His argument is not that some are good enough to be saved, but that all display, by their intuitive grasp of right and wrong, an awareness of such moral standards, doubtless grounded in the image of God, that they too have enough knowledge to be held accountable. For Paul is concerned to show that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9).