I’ve touched on this subject more than once. Paul tells Christians that they can and should keep the law by loving one another. His condemnation of boasting is not necessarily aimed at the claim to have kept the law. When the Bible speaks of “keeping the law” it refers to something that sinners are able to do, by the Spirit, despite their inherent sinfulness.
So in this post, I want to add one more point about Romans 2.13. When Paul writes, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” This is obviously no contradiction of justification by faith alone.
First, the law commands faith in Jesus Christ. You can’t be a doer of the law if you refuse to entrust yourself to Jesus for justification, sanctification, and eternal life. Thus the writer of Hebrews can exhort Christian using the lesson of the Israelites who were gathered around Mt. Sinai:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’”
Second, no one truly obeys the law unless they trust their Lord and Savior who gave them the Law and the Prophets. So it is not as if faith just happens to be on a list of requirements; it is the sole means of justification. I owe pastor and theologian Norman Shepherd thanks for understanding this, not necessarily because of all that Shepherd has written, but because of his recovery of Francis Turretin on the subject (from before an English translation of Francis Turretin was widely available).
Francis Turretin is a leading exponent of classical Reformed orthodoxy in the latter part of the seventeenth century. In answer to the question whether faith alone justifies, Turretin observes: “The question is not whether solitary faith [fides solitaria], that is, separated from the other virtues, justifies, which we grant could not easily be the case since it is not even true and living faith; but whether it alone concurs to the act of justification, which we assert: as the eye alone sees, but not when torn out of the body. Thus the particle alone does not modify the subject but the predicate, that is, faith alone does not justify, but only faith justifies; the coexistence of love with faith in him who is justified is not denied, but its coefficiency or co-operation in justification [Ita particula sola non determinat subjectum, sed praedicatum, id est, sola fides non justficat, sed fides justificat sola: non negatur coextistentia charitatis in eo qui justificatur, sed coefficientia vel cooperatio in justificatione].
Turretin is saying that “alone” must not be understood as an adjective modifying “faith” so that justifying faith would have to be viewed as “solitary,” or in isolation from its working or from its manifestation in obedience to Christ. Rather, “alone” is to be understood adverbially as pointing to the distinctive role played by faith in relation to the other gifts and graces with which it is invariably associated. Only faith justifies. Only faith to receive, accept, and rest upon Christ for justification and salvation from eternal condemnation. This is what Turretin means when he says that faith alone concurs to the act of justification.
But this faith which alone concurs to the act of justification is not, in fact, alone. It is not solitary. A solitary faith is not a true and living faith and therefore cannot be a justifying faith. Turretin does not deny the coexistence of love with faith; for faith without love would be a dead faith just as love without faith would be a dead work. But he does deny the coefficiency of love with faith in justification. Turretin is here insisting that although justifying faith must be true and living – otherwise it could not justify – the ground or cause of justification is in no sense to be found in the believer himself. The ground and cause of justification is Jesus Christ and his righteousness. To be justified one must abandon all personal resources and lean wholly upon Christ. This is what is done in faith. Faith is wholehearted trust in Christ and by this faith the believer receives, accepts, and rests upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone for justification.
The analogy of the eye which Turretin uses is one that is frequently found in Reformed authors to accent the distinctive office of faith in relation to justification while preserving what must be said about the vitality of this faith. The eye alone sees. The ear or the nose or the arm do not see. There is no other instrument of vision but the eye alone. However, there is no such thing as a seeing eye in isolation from the body. The eye sees only as it is organically joined to the body. Similarly, justification is by faith alone, but a faith, which is alone, does not justify. This is the teaching of James and Paul and it has been characteristic of Reformed theology.
So there is no need for Protestants to agonize to assert that Paul is speaking “merely hypothetically” in Romans 2. That simply isn’t Paul’s argument.