The Fairness Of God:
Obeying Versus Hearing

In a Brief  Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 11b of 83


13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)” (Romans 2:13-15).

[We have been considering, in this tranche of studies, the apostle Paul’s parenthetical remarks on how God could possibly judge the Gentles fairly when they do not have the written Law like the Jews or like Christians. Paul’s answer comprises three parts. Firstly, God is concerned more with obedience than knowledge. Those who know more will be judged more severely than those who know little. We saw that in the previous article. But secondly, Paul will demonstrate how the Gentiles are not entirely ignorant. This is what we will see in the present article. In the final article, we shall consider the part which the conscience plays.]

2. Works of the Law 
in the Heart

This is what Paul says:

14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts (v. 14-15a).

The argument is very simple. The Gentiles do not have the written law. They are not taught the Law. But they do the things contained in the Law! What are the things contained in the Law?

Think of the Ten Commandments, —which is a summary of the Moral Law. It is obvious that the Gentiles do not do all the things contain in the Ten Commandments. But do they not clearly abide by some of them?

·    The Law says, “Honour thy father and thy mother!” Do not the Gentiles know that they must honour and obey their parents?

·    The Law says, “Thou shalt not kill!” Do not the Gentiles know that murder is a terrible crime? Do they not take life for life?

·    The Law says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery!” Do not the Gentiles observe marriages and observe it as a fact that adultery is sin?

·    The Law says, “Thou shalt not steal!” Do not the Gentiles know that stealing is wrong? Do they not punish thieves?

·    The Law says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness!” Do not the Gentiles know that it is wrong to tell lies? Whether they often tell lies or not is not the question. The question is: Do they not know it is wrong to tell lies? Is there not a natural restraint?

The Gentiles, then, are a law unto themselves. That is to say: they have in their own nature, a rule of duty. They have a knowledge of what is right, and a sense of obligation.

And this knowledge is consistent with the written Law of God which Jews and Christians have! What does this prove? Does it not prove that the Gentiles have the works or requirements of the Law written in their hearts (cf. Jn 6:29 where ‘work of God’ means duty required of God)? This is what Paul means when he says “these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work [or requirements] of the law written in their hearts.”

This is a very important doctrine. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of Christians as having the law of God written in the heart (Isa 51:7; Jer 31:33). But that is in a different sense. They are speaking about regeneration. They are speaking of how the Law of God is in the heart of believers, in that they not only have a fresh knowledge of the law, but a new desire and ability to keep the Law.

Paul, on the other hand, is referring to something else. He is speaking about the moral constitution of man by nature. The Law of God is written in the heart of all men. Paul is speaking in the context of Gentiles. But the same is true with Jews and Christians, except that in addition they also have the published laws. The work of the Law of God is written in the heart of all men as part of their nature. Man is created in the image of God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Col 3:10; Eph 4:24; WSC 10).

The Fall would destroy this image, so that Paul would later affirm: “There is none righteous, no, not one:  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Rom 3:10-11).

Man lost the essence of the image of God. He would remain the image bearer of God having the natural attributes of rationality, spirituality, morality, creativity and immortality. But the essence of the image is not so completed obliterated that man is left without any sense of the requirements of the Law of God. We may say that an imprint of this knowledge is left in the heart. This is what Paul mean by the works of the law written in the heart. It is this imprint which, working together with the natural attributes of man such as morality and rationality, renders man accountable to God.

Animals do not share these qualities. They are not made in the image of God. Animals do not know they have to honour their parents. They do not know it is wrong to murder. There is no such thing as murder in the animal kingdom. They do not know what is adultery. They do not know it is wrong to steal. Animals do not have any sense of right or wrong. They live by instinct. They do not have a moral nature.

Man does. Man has a soul. He has a moral nature. He has the works of the Law written in his heart.

It is for this reason, that there is no such thing as an innocent pagan. It is for this reason, that God can rightly judge the Gentiles for sin, although they do not have the written Law like the Jews. God will judge the Jews and Christians based on what we have heard and read. But he will judge the Gentiles based on the work of the Law written in their hearts.

No one can claim he does not know what God requires. God has written the work of His Law in all our hearts.

You may plead leniency if you are arrested by the police for breaking a law you do not know. Many years ago, while driving in Canada, I overtook a car at a stretch of road that does not allow overtaking. When I was stopped by the police, my immediate reply was that I did not know that there was such a law. The policeman scoffed at my explanation, but nevertheless did not fine me for that offence.

When the world stands before the tribunal of God, no one will be let off so easily. No one can claim ignorance. If you have the written law, God will judge you by the written law. If not, He will judge you by the works of the law written in your heart. You can have no excuse whatsoever.

And you know that deep in your heart, don’t you? I know you know it because you have a conscience. Your conscience is something given by God to remind you that you will stand before God to be judged one day. Your conscience is a deputy of God in your soul. Not only do you have the Law of God, but you have a conscience to remind you to keep the Law.

This is true for all of us. We all have a conscience. It is also true for the Gentiles who do not have the written Law.

Though they do not have the written law, they have two things that will ensure a fair trial for them at the Last Day. First, they have the work of the Law written in their heart. Secondly, they have a working conscience in their soul. The conscience not only bear witness to the fact that the work of the law is written in their heart, but it works in conjunction with what remains of the knowledge of the law in the heart.

… to be continued next issue

JJ Lim