There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy: Four Categories of People in Romans 2
by DAN JUSTERFEBRUARY 16, 2020
I got into trouble with some of the leaders in Israel because of a paper I did some 12 years ago refuting the wider hope view of one of my Messianic Jewish leadership friends. My paper was called the Narrow Wider Hope.
My paper was partly misunderstood because I used the word salvation for people who were in a pre-salvation state of grace because they were seeking the Truth and responding to the Truth though they did not know the Gospel. They had not refused the Gospel. However, I did not claim that they would be entering an eternal good destiny without accepting Yeshua or that they would be given a post-death opportunity.
My conclusion, in my original paper, said that I believed that such people would be led on to accept Yeshua sometime in their life and before death, though I said I could not absolutely prove this. My point is that there are not two categories of people, the saved who have been born again through Yeshua and the lost who are on their way to Hell unless through the Gospel they repent and are born again. Certainly, these two categories exist and are primary.
But the Bible clearly teaches that there are other categories by which to understand people. Romans 1, and 2 show four categories of people that have not yet accepted the Gospel.
Romans 2 is speaking of people who have not yet embraced the Gospel. There are two categories of Jews. In Romans 2:7 Paul describes Jews who “By perseverance in doing good are seeking glory, honor, and immortality,” these will receive according to 2:10, “Glory, honor and shalom, (eternal life), to everyone who does good—to the Jew first.
The second category of Jews are those who according to 2:9, “Are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” For them, “There will be trouble and hardship.” (2:9) Also, he says for them there will be, “wrath and fury.” (2:8)
Of these Paul notes that though circumcision is of value, if one keeps the Torah, but “if one breaks the Torah, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” (v. 2:25)
Then there are two categories of Gentiles who have not yet heard the Gospel. He uses the same verses to describe Gentiles, the first category are those who, “By perseverance in doing good are seeking glory, honor, and immortality—eternal life,” these will receive according to 2:10, “Glory, honor and shalom to everyone who does good… and also the Greek.”
Then there is the second category of Gentiles or the fourth overall. Those Gentiles who in 2:9, “Are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” For them, “ There will be trouble and hardship.” (2:9) Also, he says for them there will be, “wrath and fury.” (2:8) Of this one, Paul says that though he is not circumcised, “Keeps the righteous decrees of the Torah, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision.” (2:26)
Paul says that God’s judgment is according to the revelation given and that the Jews who “have sinned according to the Torah will be judged by the Torah.” Gentiles can also be judged by the revelation of God in nature and culture, by what the Reformers called common grace. He says in v. 14, 15, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the Torah, do by nature the things of the Torah, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the Torah. They show that the work of the Torah is written in their hearts.”
Paul even notes in this that the one who is not physically circumcised will “judge you who with the written code and circumcision, break the Torah.”
There are other texts that support this Pauline perspective. I will just name two. Acts 10:34 is very strong. Peter before preaching the Gospel to the household of Cornelius says, “I truly understand that God is not one to show favoritism, but in every nation, the one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Also, John 1:9 shows that truth is revealed to people who have not heard the Gospel. “He is the light that lights every man.” (KJV)
There are other comments that are important. First, we should not think that Romans 2 is teaching works righteousness either by keeping the written Torah or by keeping the Gentile understanding of the law for Gentiles. Much has been written on this and we agree with this perspective. Upholding and keeping the Torah does not mean that one by his own works is saved. Nor does it mean that one can live up to the detailed commands of the Torah. The emphasis on blood sacrifice shows that upholding the Torah did not mean that and was not expected. Rather it was a matter of faith/faithfulness or a heart of faithfulness to God and his covenant though one falls short. For the Gentile, it is the heart that is seeking the truth and willing to obey it when revealed. All comes down to the right heart.
Secondly, Romans 2 is part of an argument building to Romans 3 where Paul declares that the general condition of Jews and Gentiles is that they are lost. The category of those who are saved in Yeshua and those who are lost are the categories that most encompass human beings. The two categories of those who are lost in Romans 2, who do not seek glory and honor and immortality, are the largest categories of mankind. The Scriptures indicate that those who do seek the truth readily and easily embrace the Gospel, for Yeshua said if people had really known the Father they would have accepted him. (John 5:46, 8:42) Missionaries sometimes find tribes who are prepared and ready for the Gospel. It is an easy persuasion.
My point is that if anyone really is seeking the Truth and glory, honor and immortality, they will be led on to Yeshua. God will bring the missionary and in some cases, we have known, has given visions and dreams leading people to Yeshua.
In addition, Yeshua and Paul make it clear that there are two categories of those who profess to believe in Yeshua. Those who continue in sin will not enter the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9,10). These are those that Yeshua warns in Matthew 7:21-23, and in Luke 6:46, that they will not enter the Kingdom of God but will be told to depart from Him in the judgment.
In conclusion, another way to speak of categories of people is to say that the Bible gives us three categories of people that include both Jew and Gentile, the saved, the lost and those who are seeking the Truth sincerely but have not yet come to Yeshua. They are seeking by the work of the Spirit (John 1:9).
Again, this third category includes Jews and Gentiles.
The lost are those who are not seeking the Truth and also includes those who profess to believe in Yeshua but are continuing in sin. They are still lost. Romans 3 makes it clear that outside of an explicit profession of Yeshua and walking faithfully with Him, the overwhelming state of people is that they are lost.
But thank God, there is an opportunity for lost people to hear the Gospel and be saved!