Romans 2:14-15 – Moral Pagans?

Romans 2:14-15 seems to refer to Gentiles who are moral, “doing the law by nature” and that they “have the law written on their hearts.”   After reading Romans 1:18-32, we might have had the impression that the Gentile world was a seething pit of sensual hedonism.  But now Paul says that there is a category of people that might be called “righteous Gentiles.”  Who are these “moral Gentiles”?  C. E. B. Cranfield lists the following possibilities:

  • Pagan Gentiles who fulfill God’s law because of their own morality and therefore merit his favor.
  • Hypothetical moral pagan Gentiles.
  • A secret hidden faith known only to God that is mysteriously in some Gentiles hearts, or to the works that expresses this faith.
  • Gentile Christians, with two variations.  Some take the “who do the things of the law”  as referring to the Gentile Christian’s faith, others take the phrase as referring to a Gentile Christian’s  works of obedience (Sabbath? Alms?).

Cranfield rejects the first possibility because it is incompatible with Romans 3:9, 20, 23.  he rejects the second because there is nothing in the context that indicates Paul is speaking hypothetically.  He settles on the last possibility, that Paul has in mind Gentile Christians who are acting ethically. Edwards makes an excellent point against Cranfield  by point out that these cannot be Christians because Paul has not even mentioned Jesus yet, nor has he introduced the idea of salvation (Romans, 70).  At this point in the argument, men are still trying to please God on their own, whether a Law keeping Jew or a Moralist Gentile.

Aristotle (Wikipedia)

James Dunn seems to take the first possibility. He understands “nature” as belonging to the phrase “do the things of the Law.”  This means there are Gentiles who, by their nature, respond to “general revelation” and are in fact rather moral in most respects.  Aristotle may be an example who Paul has in mind.  His Nicomachean Ethics often has the same high moral standard of the Jewish Law.  There are many examples of Roman Moralists who encouraged honesty, loyalty, and other excellent virtues.  Obviously no Greek or Roman would argue for a Sabbath, or circumcision as a sign of one’s loyalty to God, but those things were given specifically to Israel anyway.  (After I wrote this post I ran across this wikipedia “virtuous pagans.”  Check it out….)

This might be a bit of a surprise to learn that there are non-Jews who were generally moral and upright people.  We tend to have a fairly low opinion about the morality of the Gentile Roman world, but some were in fact more “moral” than some Jews!  (Compare Seneca with Herod the Great, for example!)  One cannot say that all Romans are hedonistic pagans, some were in fact  ethical and moral.  Paul points out they are still in need to Christ because they cannot live up to their own moral knowledge, but they are “closer” than the Gentiles described in Romans 1:18-32!

This observation has some fairly important application for our lives.  Christians cannot say things like “atheists are unethical and immoral.”  While I disagree with their conclusions on the existence of God, there is a possibility that they are living their life as ethically and morally as me (perhaps even more ethically!)  Seems to me that Christianity represents itself as “holy” when in fact individual Christians seem to sin in the exact same (skanky) ways as the world.  Are there “Moral Atheists” and “Immoral Theists”?  Absolutely!

How would this observation effect our interaction with people outside of the Church?

17 thoughts on “Romans 2:14-15 – Moral Pagans?

  1. This observation would effect our interaction with people outside of the church, in one aspect, that we need to respect our government. Polhill talks about this in chapter 14, “He (Paul) pointed out that secular rulers are established by God and that to oppose them is thus to oppose God… Christians must thus be subject to them…In concrete terms, this means that Christians should render respect to officials…” (Polhill 298). Especially within the last few years, there has been much disagreement and disrespect towards the government, while we are allowed to disagree with things that the government may do or decide, it does not mean that we can be disrespectful to them. If we are called to live a life glorifying and pleasing to God and with high morals, how can we go against other people so harshly sometimes and be okay with it?
    When we see other people (non-Christians) being ‘more moral’ than us, it should take us a-back and make us look at our own selves and wonder what in the world are we doing? Why is it that someone who does not know God can live a ‘better’ life than we can? We should be the ones being friendly and telling the truth and helping strangers, etc. If anything, seeing other moral non-Christians should make us strive to be who God really calls us to be and to live a life glorifying to Him in everything we do.

  2. This group of moral non-believers has always made me sad. To have come so close and still miss the point is so disappointing. They try so hard but to no avail. It’s often hard to convince these people that they’re sinners because they think of themselves as moral as though that counts as something without salvation. Christians fall into the same trap of comparing down on a moral scale. The “at least I’m not as bad as” snare. This highlights the severity of sin to me. To think that someone could behave so morally and that it doesn’t matter because they still have sinned and they don’t have Christ. The idea that someone could be more moral than me but I’m heaven bound and they’re not seems strange.

  3. One aspect that could affect our interaction with people outside the church is that we should love one of neighbor. Polhill states, “In this context the word neighbor probably reaches beyond the Christian community and includes conduct toward those outside,” (Polhill 298). It is true that we should love one another, even if we don’t agree with their beliefs. God taught us to love one another, even if they believe that there is no God. Even though that there could be people with higher morals than some Christians, we can still have our morals intact if we listen to what God has to say to us. Jesus gave us two commandments, love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus didn’t say to love our neighbor only if they believe in what we believe. He just says love our neighbor.

  4. I think that we as Christians can take a lot from “moral Atheists”. It is sad to see when the world looks at the Christian body as judgmental and almighty. This is how we may acts especially when we encounter non-believers every day. even though we are to be at a higher standard, we need to see that the non believers are just as moral. not everyone that doesn’t believe in God are bad morally. there is always something inside us that wants to to the right thing. We need not to think of us as believers as a high society of people but the same. we are all human and we all have struggles but the separation comes with Jesus Christ. even though there is a separation spiritually, i believe that everyone has that wanting to do right inside them and wants them to become a better person.

  5. There are a lot of great observations in this post. Often we, as the church, think of those outside of Christianity as immoral, heathens, but there some non Christians that can put Christians to shame in the way they live. There is a huge danger in lumping all of those outside of Christianity in a low position of “immorality”. In doing this we fail to see past the label and see the person. When we cannot see the person there is low motivation to save the person. Instead we see somebody too broken to be saved by the blood of Christ, which is ludicrous. When we see past cultural labels and act as the church by befriending non Christians, then we can get to their hearts and be more effective in spreading Christ

  6. Man…this would be great! I we Christians could show people that we are not high and mighty holy people, and that because you have a relationship with Christ does not mean you’re a “Fag Hater” or a “Perfect Saint”. But to show people we have struggles like every human being, the only thing that is different, is that our means to change is greater than our own self seeking satisfaction of that change. We change for He who is greater than us, it is for Him who objectively reconciled all things unto Himself, that we might subjectively experience the salvific objective reconciling atonement of Christ. I am uncomfortably comfortable with saying that I, am positive, that out of the seven billion people in this world there is a non believer or atheist that lives more morally and ethically sound than I do. I am sure there is. And I am sure that out of that seven billion people, there is at least one theist that lives more morally and ethically corrupted than both that atheist and I combined. But By preserving that question “Are there “Moral Atheists” and “Immoral Theists”?”, and pushing people to committing to answer it, I believe the church would take off its facade and be more real with people. And of course not all people would change their emotion towards the church but I am hopeful to think many would change their attitude from hostile to welcoming and becoming inviting to learn and see what the Church, the Body of Christ is. Most importantly people would see Christ magnified more radiantly than before. I believe it would be a good thing if the answer to that testimony was the attitude of believers in Christ.

  7. It is sad that this is true, that there are moral atheists and immoral Christians. Just because someone does not believe in God, does not mean that they are completely immoral. Paul was finding this to be true in Rome and we can relate to it today. As the body of Christ, we need to be reaching out to non-Christians. It is good to keep in mind, that although they do not believe in God or even know about God, they still may hold to some morals or values. We have to be careful not to judge people who are not Christians and automatically think that they are immoral people. On the flipside, we need to be careful in assuming that good people that we know are Christians. If we are aware that people can be good people and not know God, then we will be able to still minister to them in a way that affects them. It is also important to remember this so that we can reflect on the way we live our lives, and ask ourselves if we are living out our faith and being a light to those non-Christians around us.

  8. I definitely know non Christians who live very moral lifestyles. It is more than possible to live a moral life without knowing God. I guess in the end, righteous morals all stem from God’s divine command…even if you are not a Christian. What I can’t wrap my head around is what gives a non-Christian the motive to live a moral lifestyle, but have no desire to know God? Especially because the root of “what is good” comes from Christ’s character and commands.

    Even though some non-Christians may live a moral life, the body of Christ still needs to be cautious when interacting with them. It is very easy for Satan to get a foothold in these people’s life, and use them to falsely teach believers. I’m not saying that anyone who is a non-Christian tries to manipulate Christians by getting them to stray away from the Lord, but I think there could be some cases of that.

  9. Not too long ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop and I struck a conversation with one the shop’s baristas about the essence of creation (simple metaphysics). Anyways, long story short, I ‘ve known this woman for quite a while now and we’ve had our fair share of interactions in the past 6 months or so. As long I have known her, she has had to be one of the more caring women that I have ever befriended (even more so than some of my Christian friends). If you couldn’t tell already, she is an Atheist.
    According to Polhill, “The basic point to 2:1-16 is that God judges all people impartially on the basis of what they are; their conduct, not their privilege, is the sole criterion of God’s judgment (Polhill, 285).” Thus, God does judge people on the foundation of their faith, however, there are people who hold to a high standard of moral conduct but in the end it is on the basis on who they are, not on how they act.
    Furthermore, this is a situation that you run into quite frequently in within the Christian sphere. When we become Christians, it is almost subconscious to believe that we have achieved a healthier and more improved life. This is not the case, however. We are still tempted by the customs of the world but because we become hardheaded in our Christian thought, we lose sight that we are acting just as bad (if not more so) as the people who follow such a lifestyle. And, because we view such worldly acts as abominable, we put anyone who does not follow the dogmas of Christianity as “bad people.” Again, this is not the case. Like it was aforementioned, there are such people as “moral atheist.”

  10. This observation effects our interaction with people outside the church in one major way that I can think of. That is how we love those outside of the church and how we interact with those outside of the church. We should love those around us and respect them and try our best to reflect Christ to them. There are many people that have different beliefs but yet are still moral and hold strong to ethical values. I have met some people that would seem more generous than Christians but yet they have faith in some other god.

  11. This observation would effect our interaction with people outside of the Church because there would be less categorizing of “we” and “they;” in reference to people within the church and people outside. I have met some very moral non-Christians who are very skeptical of Christians because they had known a Christian who had an affair, or their Christian friends partied harder than the rest of them. This depiction of “hypocritical Christians” has really had a huge negative impact on our ministry in the secular world. Of course, we all sin and those in the church who pretend that Christians don’t sin is an altogether separate conversation. However, by beginning to see past the separation of “Christian” or “secular,” where we can have real conversations with people we can see one another all as in need of Christ with the separation being those who have realized their desperate need for Christ and those who have not. It may create a whole new avenue for ministry.

  12. I find it refreshing to read a generally “orthodox” Christian scholar/blogger making points like this. The “moral pagan” concept is one often not accepted in Christian circles (or even “moral progressive Christian”). One of the issues the concept opens up along the way is that of salvation for those never hearing of Christ or any part of the Bible. Personally, I don’t see “salvation” at all as it is in orthodoxy. But “inside” Paul’s (or “biblical”) theology, the issue is a thorny one, with no easy resolution. And PART of the reason is that there indeed DO seem to be other ways than Christian redemption that people are able to control their behavior, channeling it into moral, ethical, compassionate paths. Far too often have I heard Christians glibly saying or implying that this isn’t possible.

  13. “a generally “orthodox” Christian scholar/blogger” – I am thinking of adding that to my CV.

    I think I would want to avoid the issue of salvation for the Moral Pagan, but I do agree with CS Lewis that we will likely be quite surprised who is “in heaven” and who is not there.

  14. Phillip: Glad I apparently “got you right”. I do try to be careful in my wording, with heavy doses of words like “generally”… I absolutely hate absolutes 😀

  15. How would this observation effect our interaction with people outside of the Church?
    I believe the Christian world looks down on people outside the church, and views them primarily as sinners. While it’s true that all people are sinners (Romans 3:23), all includes Christians as well. Christians are often very judgmental toward nonbelievers, and this is what society sees in Christians. Non-believers are being driven away from Christianity because of our judgmental attitudes. While Christians are supposed to be the ones shining like lights in the sky and bringing the gospel to unbelievers, we often act like self-righteous pharisees and instead become like whitewashed tombs. I think that anyone who truly understands the gospel will have the attitude of Paul in his letter to Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (1 Timothy 1:15). In his life, Paul was raised as a Pharisee (spiritual leader in the Jewish world) and was a prominent one. Then after seeing the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, his life and attitude was changed. He went from boasting of his own abilities and righteousness, to realizing just how enslaved to sin he was.
    Christians today, myself included, should take a page of out Paul’s book and respond to unbelievers with humility and forgiveness first, instead of judgement.

  16. I think if everyone would read this article and understand it than the Christian appearance to non believers would be much better. Often you see Christians down talk non believers and make them feel bad about not believing God and following his word. And in actuality they themselves are also not following Gods word. I think this similar to the belief that Jews had in that they could be saved by doing works and through referring to themselves as a Jew. Many Christians sin more than non believers who just have great moral compasses even though they don’t know exactly what Gods word is. So if Christians stopped judging and realized this could probably help someone understand more that they are so close to salvation and led them down the right path.

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