The book of Romans is Paul’s magnum opus. He is writing to a Church he did not found, and one that is heavily works based. He lays out a systematic way to understand his ministry and methods of righteousness. In Romans 2 he talks both about Gentiles that have never heard of Christ and Jews that are under the law. We read:
Rom 2:9 Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;
Rom 2:10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:
Rom 2:11 For there is no respect of persons with God.
Rom 2:12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;
Rom 2:13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
In verses 9 and 10, we see Paul is not talking about symbolic law of the Old Testament (like clothes and food), but instead is talking about moral law. Verses 12 and 13 expand on 9 and 10, showing that the law (which he is talking about) is the same as the evil and good in the previous verses. In Romans 2:13 he says that the “doers of the law shall be justified”.
A short while later Paul begins talking about his new dispensation.
Rom 3:21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
Rom 3:22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;
Here Paul is again talking about the “law”. We see from Romans 2 that the “law” is the moral law (people doing evil and people working good). Paul says there is a righteousness “apart from this law” “on all who believe”. He then points out, although works once justified, no one was able to attain that justification (a reiteration of the first verses of chapter 3):
Rom 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Rom 3:24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Rom 3:25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed,
Rom 3:26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
God has “forbearance” and “passes over” previous sins. This is the moral code, and this moral code was once required for justification. Paul is specifically stating that although works were once required for righteousness, now a Christian only needs faith apart from the moral code.
When Christians claim that faith alone always made individuals righteous, or that Paul only taught against symbolic law, they are mistaken.