Sermon preached on Romans 2:12-16 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/13/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
The Written Law
So far in our study of Romans, Paul has been focusing on what you might call the bad news. He’s talked about how bad man’s depravity is. He’s especially talked about how that leaves man under God’s wrath. In chapter 1 he particularly said that man had no excuse in this, because deep down inside every person knows there is a God and that he ought to be worshipped. That alone would be a damning enough appraisal of man. But now he takes it another step further. Not only is mankind without excuse and under judgment because they really do know God and don’t worship him. Man is also without excuse and under judgment because every man know God’s holy law, and yet breaks it in unrighteousness. That is what this passage brings to us. It’s a great complement to last chapter. Every man knows God’s law internally, and so is without excuse, and therefore is under condemnation for their breaking of that law. This internal knowledge of God’s law is what we call “natural law.” Natural law. That’s what we’ll study today from this passage.
And so as we think about this today, we’ll consider it in three points. First, we’ll talk generally about natural law; what it is and how we see its existence demonstrated in this world. Second, we’ll see how the existence of natural law is confirmed by the conscience. Third, we’ll think about how all this relates to God’s standard he uses in judgment.
And so let’s begin then by thinking about natural law and how we see it to exist in this world. We find the concept of natural law specifically stated in verse 15. There it talks about the work of the law written on people’s hearts. This is what we are referring to today as “natural law”. It’s something everyone has written on their insides. Of course, for Paul to talk about it written like this, is to point out that it’s not written. At least not in a traditional way. This natural law is not written on stone tablets. It is not written on scrolls of paper. No, it’s written on hearts.
In other words, this natural law is distinguished from the revealed moral law of God. We remember that way back in the book of Exodus, God gave Moses at Mount Sinai Ten Commandments. They were written down physically on stone tablets. And many other laws which flush out the moral law of God have been given through the ages in Scripture. They were given by the prophets through inspiration by the Holy Spirit, and ultimately written down on scrolls so that we can have them here today before us. But you see that is the contrast given in this passage. The issue that Paul has before him, is that the Jewish people had this heritage of the written law. The Gentiles did not. Paul will make the point later that we aren’t guilty if there is no law. Romans 4:15, “Where there is no law, there is no transgression.” And yet it would be a mistake, Paul says, to think that the Gentiles then are not guilty. It would be a mistake to think that they were completely ignorant of the God’s moral laws just because they didn’t have the written Word. Just because they didn’t have the Ten Commandments sitting on tablets in their temples. You could appreciate how someone might think that. But Paul says that’s not right.
Rather, instead you may have noticed the subtle play on words in my title, which actually comes from this passage. The title of our sermon is the “Written Law”. Well, which law does that refer to? The revealed moral law given at Sinai? Well, yes. Or the law said in verse 15 to be written on our hearts. Well, again, yes! Reformed thinkers have tended to agree on this point, that ultimately there’s not a difference in substance between the two. The moral law of God revealed in the Scriptures is the same in substance as the natural law of God written on hearts. There’s a difference in delivery mechanism for sure. And surely the light of Scripture brings God’s law to us with abundant clarity. But it’s not like God’s standards of morality differ. God’s truth abideth still. His law is consistent. What he writes on people’s hearts is not in conflict with what he’s written in his Word.
Verse 14 further explains this natural law concept, and shows us how we know it to exist. It says that we can look at the actions of the Gentiles. Yes, he’s already made the case about how there can be so much sin and depravity among the Gentiles. But he now points to the fact that often Gentiles do things that are consistent with the revealed law of God. It says that though they don’t have the law, that by nature they sometimes do the things at least outwardly demanded by the law. In that, they are a law to themselves. In other words, their very natures show forth this law at different points; this law that is naturally written on their hearts by God. That’s why you find principles of ethics and morality among the nations over the centuries. It wasn’t just the Jewish people who had laws of morality and ethics. Other pagan societies and governments also had laws that often looked similar in nature. Paul’s saying that when a pagan’s actions reflect God’s law in some ways, that it’s demonstrating the concept of natural law. That even the pagan has God’s law within them. They may not have the supernaturally revealed moral law of God. They may not have been privileged to have prophets infallibly reveal such details to them. But they nonetheless have God’s law within them.
That’s point one. Now let’s turn to point two and consider this in light of our consciences. Look with me at verse 15 again. There we see the conscience referenced. Notice that the conscience is said to bear witness. It is bearing witness to us about the existence of the natural law written on our hearts. We already mentioned that externally we can observe the natural law at work when we see people living out the revealed law of God, who’ve never read or heard the Bible before. Externally, we can witness that in people. But now this is showing how someone internally can recognize the natural law. It’s through their consciences. Their consciences bear witness to us of the reality of the natural law. This means, of course, that our conscience, is not the same thing as the natural law written on our hearts. The law is there separate from the conscience, and then ours conscience show us that we have the law on our heart.
How this works is pretty simple. It’s what’s described in verse 15 of how our thoughts either accuse or excuse us. In other words, when someone is evaluating a choice of some action, if it’s a moral choice that at least outwardly conforms to the law, your conscience may excuse you. In other words, if you do something that your conscience doesn’t find issue with against this natural law inside you, then your conscience is at peace. On the other hand, if you do something morally against God’s law, you conscience might accuse you of wrong doing. Inwardly you feel guilty and know you did something you should not have done. This is the natural working of our consciences. God gave us consciences to help us to critically think about how we are to live in light of God’s law.
And let me point this out. We see the positive role of the conscience here. But don’t mistakenly think that the conscience is infallible. What I mean is that your conscience is part of you. Humans have a conscience. Humans are not infallible, and this means that your conscience is not infallible. That’s true for a Christian. It’s especially pertinent when thinking of the unregenerated person. Romans has already talked about the depth of depravity and spiritual darkness such a person could fall into. For such people, you will find that their consciences have little to say to them. Either their consciences have become dull to God’s law within them, or they have become good at ignoring their conscience.
This explains why even though everyone has the natural law on their hearts, not everyone agrees on what is morally right and wrong. There’s a common acknowledgement that there is right and wrong. We just don’t always agree what are the standards. For the nation of Israel, they were guided by the Mosaic law. There should have been no question on that, because it was clearly revealed the statutes of God. For Christians, we too have the Bible which spells out God’s revealed will; revealed by Scripture. But for the unbelieving nations, they don’t have that. They rely on their darkened minds to try to understand the natural law written in their hearts. The point I’m making is that sin has affected this analysis. They don’t see clearly to understand properly the law written on their hearts. That means their consciences aren’t a perfect witness to the truth of this moral law. The work of the conscience reveals they have this law within them; but their sinful natures means that even their consciences don’t work quite right. That they don’t analyze things biblically. This is why Paul could say in Romans 1, that some people in the height of their depravity are not only at home with their sin, they approve of others doing the same thing. This is related, of course, to why Christians as well don’t always agree today on what’s right and wrong. Though born again, Scripture tells us that we will still have struggles with our old sinful natures, before we go to heaven. That means our consciences will still make mistakes, somewhat similar to what I just mentioned for the unbeliever.
And so in point one, we looked at the basics of natural law and its existence. In point two we’ve seen how the conscience further shows us that the natural law is there. This is true even when our consciences struggle to get it right. Now we turn to consider how God’s judgment is relevant to all of this. You see, this is really Paul’s whole point here. This discussion of natural law is not just a nice theoretical point for Paul. Paul’s overall point has been that man is under God’s wrath apart from the salvation that comes in Jesus. He’s made that point time and again. A big part of his point has been about the unrighteousness of man. That both Jews and Gentiles have broken God’s moral laws. But at this point he anticipates a possible objection. How can man be held guilty for breaking a law that he was never told about. In other words, how can Gentiles be held accountable to a law that was given only to Jews?
Paul’s simple answer is that the premise is false. All have the same law of God. Whether it be written on hearts or on tablets. Jew and Gentile are without excuse. In fact, last passage ended with Paul asserting that there is no partiality with God. Both Jew and Gentile will find themselves guilty if trying to be right before God by their own unrighteous deeds. Paul wants us to see how just and equitable God is toward people. It seems that’s what’s motivating him here too in this passage. His point is that God measures people with a just standard. He judges people on the law that they do know, not the law that they do not know. That’s the point of verse 12. Those who sin without the law, will also perish without the law. And those who have sinned in the law, will be judged by the law. Either way, Paul says that God is dealing with sinners here. Paul’s describing how God will judge sinners. God will not judge the pagan who didn’t have the revealed law of God by the revealed law of God. God won’t judge someone according to a standard they weren’t given. And yet they’ll still perish for their sins.
That’s because of the point we’ve already made about the natural law. Verse 14 says that this becomes a law to themselves. That which is written on their hearts will be used in their judgment. They’ll be judged by the standard of the natural law. Of course we’ve already made that point that they are in substance the same. The natural law and the revealed moral law are not fundamentally different standards. Surely the light of the revealed moral law is a greater light and clarity. And yet the natural law still explains enough to leave the sinner guilty. The point is clear. The Gentile who has never been told the Ten Commandments or shown the Bible, can’t claim he didn’t know any better in terms of morality. Sin, verse 12, is still the issue. Unbelievers today don’t want to deal with that word, do they? But that’s the issue of guilt, Paul says here. They’ve sinned and thus are judged even by that natural law written on their hearts.
But Paul brings this back to the Jew too. Just because the Jew has received the revealed moral law of God doesn’t mean that they are in a good place. Verse 13. It’s not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the law, who will be justified. Just because a Jew has as his heritage the Ten Commandments, doesn’t mean he’s right before God. Just because those laws are posted on their door posts, or if even they are posted in the classroom or city hall, that doesn’t solve man’s problem. If man thinks he can be right before God with his works, and if he has the revealed law, he has to keep that law. The sense you get here in verse 12 is that such a person is held even more accountable before God. God judges them by that revealed law. God judges them by what they did with the light they did have.
And so again, the claim people will make that God is unjust to send people to hell, if they never learned the Bible, is wrong. It’s not unjust. In fact, God is very just. His standard is based on what the people do know, even if they try to suppress some of that knowledge. It’s like what we read in Luke’s gospel today. There is a degree of punishment, based on what you’ve received. God is abundantly just. But this doesn’t mean that people who’ve never heard the Bible or about Jesus get off without any punishment. No, that’s Paul’s very point here.
I’ve been saying the last few weeks how Paul has been telling us about all the bad news. The bad news is what we end up with in verse 16. That there is coming a day when God will judge the hidden things. Men’s secrets will come before Christ on that final Day of Judgment and those without Christ will not be justified. And yet verse 16 says that all of this is part of Paul’s gospel. Verse 16 ends, “as my gospel declares.” I’ve been saying this is all part of the bad news, in order to tell you the good news. And though that’s true in a sense, Paul actually just groups it all together as part of the good news. But that makes sense. The good news is that in Christ, we are freed from this judgment! According to the gospel preaching of Paul, we need to know about this, because it tells us how good our salvation is. As Paul will go on to say, that we can be forgiven of our sins and justified by faith in Christ. That’s because on the cross Jesus suffered and died in our place, to bear our penalty. As the only one who knew and understood and kept God’s law perfectly, he went to the cross to die in our place. The gospel says that if you believe and trust in Christ, then this forgiveness is granted to you. On that final Day of Judgment, you will ultimately be acknowledged and acquitted, and ushered into an eternal reward.
But this passage today reminds us that our salvation is not only about being forgiven. You see, when we think about the law today, we think about it being written. God’s law was written on tablets, but especially on hearts. The problem is that though it is written on our hearts, our sin has wanted to cover that up, obliterate it. Cover it up like with black paint so we don’t have to look at it written on our hearts. I believe that’s why Scripture use this imagery in another place to talk about one of the benefits we have in Christ. Jeremiah 31:33 promises that in the new covenant, God will write his law on our hearts. Well, obviously per this passage the law is already written on our hearts! What’s Jeremiah getting at? Well, it seems he’s getting at the fact that apart from the Spirit’s work in our life, we ultimately have rejected this law. We’ve ignored it or tried to cover it up. So, part of our salvation is to change that. The Spirit of Christ is rewriting his law on our hearts. It’s being written in such a way that we begin to love the law of God! Deuteronomy 30:6 is getting at the same idea when God promises that in the new covenant he will circumcise our hearts so that we will love God.
Do you see how great our salvation is? Not only do we find justification by faith, something we desperately need because we are sinners. But God also works in our hearts that his law will really be something we love and look to keep. Our natural selves have the law naturally on hearts. Our fallen state has found that natural law hard to see clearly and difficult to love. God in Christ through his Spirit is rewriting this law in a beautiful way. That we will love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That indeed we’d be not only hearers of the law, but doers of the law.
As we conclude our message for today, I’d like to point us to two final points of applications from this passage. First, note how Paul’s uses this evangelistically. It’s part of how he’s preaching the gospel to people. Well, we too can and ought to incorporate this in how we witness to people. I’m particularly referring to do to the natural law. This is a point of contact we have with people. Even under the bondage of sin, people still tend to acknowledge some sense of morality. The Bible explains that here with the concept of natural law. Help the unbeliever to see that this sense of morality is really only explained as a proof for the all holy God who has created them and instilled this moral standard on their heart. But then we also should then help people to see how they fall short even with their own perceived sense of morality. Use this to bring them to the point Paul has brought us. That all have fallen short of God’s standards. All find themselves deserving judgment. Our only hope is Christ. Point them then to Christ!
A second and final point of application is in regards to our personal discipleship and holiness. As we look to grow as Christians, a temptation we have to be aware of is to listen chiefly to our conscience’s interpretation of what we inherently thing is right. Now to be clear, we ought not to go against our consciences. But our consciences are not perfect. And our understanding of the law written on our hearts is not always so clear. But what we find here is that there is a supremacy in terms of clarity between natural law and the revealed moral law of God. Now that we have the Scriptures, we should look there for our answers on morality. In other words, we must be educating our consciences with the clear light of God’s Word. So often, when people have to make a tough moral decision, they jump to what they instinctively feel is right, instead of asking what God’s Word has to say. Look to be constantly informing your conscience with the clear light of God’s Word. The Word reveals God’s law to us with amazing clarity. Let us not forsake it, but embrace it, and so learn to love God’s law more and more. That he would be growing us as doers of the law, and all the more, as we see the day of Christ approaching. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.