For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend31 them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus. (NET Bible)
Douglas Moo, in his detailed commentary, lists three possible interpretations of who the gentiles are referred to in this passage:
1. Gentiles who fulfill the law and are saved apart from explicit faith in Christ
2. Gentiles who do some part of the law but who are not saved
3. Gentile Christians who fulfill the law by virtue of their relationship with God.
If we take for granted that option one is immediately ruled out as un-biblical, most commentators opt for option two. Paul is referring to non-christian gentiles who are not saved. Indeed, so wide spread is this understanding that there are only two scholars who opt for option three – Karl Barth and C Cranfield (who is massively influenced by Barth anyway).
Chapter two of Romans is typically thought to be addressed to Jews. Although it is not until v17 that the Jew is directly addressed, the language throughout v1-16 is consistent with having Jews in mind. Leon Morris argues that the way ‘Jew’ is used in v17 does not look like the introduction of a new topic.
If indeed the Jew is being addressed here, the charge from Paul is quite condemning. Paul’s argument is that the Jew is storing up wrath for himself by judging others. In fact the things the Jews judge others for, are the very things that they themselves do! Yet it would appear that the Jews believed they would not be judged for doing such things (2:3).
By their actions and their complete apathy towards any judgment Paul asks his readers a rhetorical question, “Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience…” (v4). He is saying that the very fact that you are not judged right at this moment is because of God’s patience and kindness. It is this patience and kindness which should lead one to repentance (v5). It is not by covenant or birth that judgment is deferred. In fact He (God) will repay according to each ones deeds (v6). Hence a Jew will be judged by what he does not who he is. The question then becomes ‘what is it that we should do.’ The answer is ‘by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality.’ You can only seek glory, honor and immortality through and by a living relationship with God. The negative side of this equation is not that if you are not a jew you are in trouble but the emphasis is on action, for those who are self seeking and who do not obey the truth there will be wrath and fury (v8), anguish and distress, first for the jew then for the gentile (v9).