Many people use this passage (Rom. 2:12-16) to argue for the salvation of people outside of Christ or people who were not be regarded as circumcised according to verse 26. If it doesn’t mean that then what does it mean?
At the time Paul was writing this letter to the church at Rome the Gentiles had no written law like the Jews did. From the time of flood no one had a written law from God except the Israelites. After God delivered them from Egyptian bondage he gave them the law of Moses at Mt. Sinai, Deut 5:1-4. The only law the Gentiles had was handed down by tradition from Noah and his family.
In romans the first chapter Paul shows that the Gentiles were in a lost condition and the only thing that could save them was the gospel of Christ which was Gods power to save all men, both Jew and Gentile. The Gentiles were lost because they did not obey the things they knew in their heart to be right, therefore they sinned against the only law they had. Any gentile that died under those circumstances will in the day of judgment will be judged by that unwritten law.
The Jews were not in the same catagory, they had been favored by God with the written law of Moses which he gave them at Mt. Sinai 1500 years earlier. The Jews felt they were far better than Gentiles because they had the rite of circumcision and the law of Moses. They felt that no circumcised Jew would be lost. It is said of one of the Jewish Rabbis that he stated in his writings, “Father Abraham stands at the gates of hades and will not allow any circumcised Jew to be cast into hell.” Paul is telling the Jews they are lost the same as the Gentiles because they have not kept the written law that they have and in that case circumcision will be worthless.
God had made an agreement with Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his seed, that is through Jesus Christ, and he gave Abraham the rite of Circumcision as a seal of that agreement.
Gen 17:9, God said further to Abraham, ?Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.
10 This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.
11 And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.
Gen 17:23, Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham?s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him.
24 Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.
26 In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son.
27 All the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
Abraham had a lot of descendants who were Gentiles, that is they were not included in the Israelite nation that received the law of Moses.
All the descendants of Ishmael, the Arab nations. The descendants of Esau, the Edomites. Abraham had 6 other sons by Keturah and possibly daughters also.
Gen 25:1, Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.
2 She bore to him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah.
3 Jokshan became the father of Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim and Letushim and Leummim.
4 The sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Hanoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah.
All these would be included in the Gentile nations. There was never any saving power in being circumcised, it was the seal of an agreement God had made with Abraham, that through his seed, Jesus Christ all nations would be blessed.
While the Israelites were living under the Law of Moses, the Gentiles were living under the law of their conscience and nature, but each was obligated to obey the law that they knew. After Christ came and died on the cross the law of Moses ended and the law of Christ, was preached to all nations alike. The Jew still felt he would be favored and saved just because he was a circumcosed Jew, but Paul tells them they are no better than the Gentile and if they are saved they must obey the gospel of Christ.
The Jew wanted to be saved on his own terms, many people today also want to have it their way, but no one will be saved short of obedience to the commands of Christ.