10 March, 2017

Romans 2:14-15—“… the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law … their conscience also bearing witness …”



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: 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 (Rom. 2:14-15 KJV).


COMMON GRACE ARGUMENT:
This passage is often used to support the doctrine of a gracious, inward operation of the Holy Spirit in the world of the unregenerate, by which men not only possess a certain knowledge of God’s law and its demands, but which also enables the unregenerate to do “good works” that are pleasing in God’s sight.



(I)

Prof. Herman C. Hanko


1) It must be remembered that this passage is written particularly in the context of the Roman Empire. Pagan Rome had developed a vast system of jurisprudence, a system which has even become the basis for Western legal theory. The question which the apostle is answering is: How was this possible? After all, the Romans had not the gospel of Jesus Christ. How could they develop such an intricate and elaborate system of law?

2) The apostle is not saying that these same Romans have not discovered and codified laws which reflect the law of God and which are important for the survival of society. Indeed this is the case. But it must also be remembered that this same Rome is the nation that gave itself over to every form of idolatry and was judged by God with every form of sexual vice including homosexuality. They, therefore, have not the law in the sense in which Israel had it, but they do the things contained in the law (v. 14).

3) This doing of the law does not mean that they kept the law of God perfectly or in any sense as a duty and obligation to be obedient to the God of heaven and earth. They do the things contained in the law because they are able to see that this is for their own advantage. Laws against murder and theft are codified and enforced. To do anything different would result in the dissolution of society and the fall of the empire. It does not take grace, not even common grace, to understand this. Anyone can see that.

4) How do they know the law? The apostle says that they “show 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” (v. 15). Notice, the apostle does not say that they show the law written in their hearts. This is true only of those who are saved by grace. But they show the work of the law written in their hearts. That is, God testifies through their conscience the work of the law. He testifies of what is in keeping with His law and what is contrary to His law. Every heathen knows this. It is implied in the fact that all men not only know that God is God, but they know too that God alone must be served.

5) This also takes place through God’s manifestation of Himself in creation. After all, when God created all things, He imbedded in the creation His own law. It is woven into the warp and woof of creation. It is part of man’s obligation which he knows by virtue of his own creatureliness and the created character of the creation within which he lives. He cannot escape knowing that the creation clearly shows that murder and theft, adultery and fornication are wrong. Creation itself shows that God alone must be served. And God so impresses this truth upon man’s conscience that they accuse or else excuse one another.

6) But again, there is no mention of grace, even and especially a grace shown through some gracious revelation of God. It is, in fact, the way in which the wicked become accountable in the judgment.


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(II)

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

[Source: Common Grace Considered, pp. 101-102]

[In this passage, Paul] is explaining why the Gentiles, unsaved as they are, nevertheless do things in conformity with the external demands of the law. This was especially true in the Roman Empire, famous for its advances in jurisprudence. The wicked, even those who have not the gospel, keep these outward demands of the law because they really know the law.

Not all unsaved people commit fornication, steal from their neighbor, murder those whom they hate, seek divorce when they weary of their spouses. There can be found among unsaved people an external conformity to the law. These are the heathen who have no Bibles and have never heard of the law of the Ten Commandments. The gospel is foreign to them. Especially in Paul’s day, this ignorance of the gospel was true of most of the people within and beyond the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. And the law, given from the fire of Sinai, was unknown to them. How is it to be explained that they do by nature the things contained in the law?

Again, many explain this knowledge of the law and conformity to its external demands as being evidence of God’s common grace. But there is no mention of this in the text and we ought not to introduce that which God does not introduce.

The same reason for this phenomenon of an external conformity to God’s law is given here as in Romans 1:19-20. The wicked know the law of God even though they never heard of the Ten Commandments. The wicked have the works of the law written on their hearts. They do not, the apostle points out, have the law written in their hearts; this is salvation. But they do know what the law teaches and demands, namely that they must serve God. They not only know that they must serve God, but they know how to serve Him, that is, by keeping His commandments. They do not have the law as given from Sinai, but they do know what the law of God requires. God has seen to it that through creation itself every man, woman and child knows the difference between right and wrong. And all men know what is right and what is wrong in their relationships to their fellow men. This knowledge of the law is also made known through the creation, for it is imbedded in the creation as a creation ordinance.

That the works of the law are written on the hearts of all men is explained further by the fact that the text clearly states that men’s consciences testify of the rightness and wrongness of a deed. Every man has a conscience. It is the subjective testimony in the consciousness of man of God’s judgment upon every thought, word and deed he does. But that word of God in the conscience men suppress. That God is displeased with their sin and pleased with obedience is a truth they suppress. Yet they conform their lives outwardly to the demands of the law. This fact is proof that they know God’s law and understand well what God requires.

But that they conform their lives in some measure to the outward demands of the law is also understandable. It does not take regeneration or grace, though it be common, to see that defiance of even the outward demands of the law leads to chaos. Thus they heed the voice of their conscience in an outward obedience, which is only evidence of man’s desire to seek his own good. But if he could sin and get away with it, he will do it. Abortion is a case in point. The threat of pregnancy following fornication is a deterrent to sexual immorality; but given abortion and the removal of the deterrent, soon total moral chaos results. But these wicked who know the law and conform outwardly to its demands do not and will not love the Lord their God with all their hearts and minds and souls and strength. Apart from such love for God and the neighbor, there is no true keeping of the law at all.

This knowledge of this is not common grace; this knowledge is given so that men may be without excuse when God judges all men (2:16). The creation itself teaches that God is God alone and that because He is God, the Creator, He must be worshipped and served. That they know what is right and what is wrong is evident from and proved by their lives in which they maintain some outward conformity to the law. It is not grace that enables them to live lives in conformity with the law of God externally, but simply that even wicked man can see the social benefit of keeping the law outwardly. Society and life in society would be impossible if people stole and murdered without any restraint. It does not take regeneration or grace to see that laws defining what is right and what is wrong are necessary and that society is better preserved when law enforcement agencies are given the authority to punish violators of the law.

Dr. A. Kuyper and his followers claim this outward conformity to the law is common grace. But such is not the case … Scripture speaks indeed of a general knowledge that all men have of God and of morality … [but] this knowledge is not common grace, for its sole purpose is to leave men without excuse; and that only by faith in Christ is there salvation.


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(VI)

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

[Source: The Standard Bearer, 15 February, 1964, vol. 40]

[Some suppose], on the basis of [Romans 2:14], that the heathen are able to keep the law of God, and, in fact, that they do keep it …

If this were true, the heathen would be saved without Christ.

What, then, is the meaning of Romans 2:14?

Literally, the text, according to the original reads: “For when the Gentiles, having not the law, do by nature the things of the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves.” And in verse 15, which really belongs to verse 14, we read: “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.”

What does it mean? The text certainly does not mean that the Gentiles keep the law, but it does mean that without revelation they themselves do what the law did for Israel. And what did the law do for the Old Testament people of God? The law distinguished, in the various departments of life, between what is good and what is evil: it is good to serve the true God, to keep the Sabbath, to obey those that are in authority over us, to preserve the neighbor’s life, to live chastely, to speak the truth; on the other hand, it is not good to serve false gods, to desecrate the Sabbath, to violate or go against authority, to kill, to steal, to swear a false oath, etc. Those are the things which the law did for Israel. And those are the things which the Gentiles did, in a general way, for themselves.

In making laws for and unto themselves, they plainly revealed that they could distinguish between good and evil. But this surely does not mean that they kept the law even as far as they knew it. The law was not written in their hearts, but the work of the law. And having that work of the law in their hearts, they, nevertheless, transgressed the law. And thus they were without excuse in the day of the righteous judgment of God.


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(IV)

Rev. Herman Hoeksema

[Source: A Triple Breach in the Foundation of the Reformed Truth]

The second passage to which synod referred appears to be more weighty. It is Romans 2:14: “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.” Berkhof offers a brief interpretation of this text: “The things contained in the law” (“the things that are of the law” according to the Greek) are things demanded by the law. Berkhof appeals to Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 to support his interpretation: “Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5). “The law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3:12). According to Berkhof, both passages clearly teach that the man who does the things demanded by the law is righteous and shall live. He acquires the righteousness that is of the law.

If Berkhof’s contention is correct—that the phrase “the things contained in the law” in Romans 2:14 signifies things that the law demands, as in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12—it follows by rigorous logic that Paul teaches in the first passage that the Gentiles are righteous and live by the works of the law, for he declares that the Gentiles do by nature the things of the law, for he declares that the Gentiles do by nature the things of the law. But this interpretation refutes itself, for it is evident from the context in Romans 2 that the apostle purposes to prove the very opposite, namely, that no man is justified by the works of the law. All have sinned and are condemned. All perish, whether they have sinned with or without the law. The Gentiles do not have the external proclamation of the law, yet they sin and are accountable.

In Romans 2:14–15 the apostle does not contradict this statement by saying that the Gentiles keep the law and do good, but he explains how it is possible that those who have not the law can nevertheless sin, be held responsible, and be judged. They show in their lives and walk that they have the work of the law written in their hearts (v. 15). What is the work of the law? To declare what is good and what is evil, to draw the lines of demarcation between light and darkness, and to proclaim the will of God concerning our lives. The Gentiles have in their hearts the work of the law, natural light by which they can discern between good and evil. They are a law unto themselves (v. 14). Thus they do by nature the things of the law, that is, they do things that the external law does among Israel: they draw the lines of demarcation between good and evil.

Although they show the work of the law written in their hearts and clearly reveal that they discern between righteousness and unrighteousness, between light and darkness, yet they follow after darkness and wallow in the most terrible iniquity, as the apostle sets forth in Romans 1:18–32. Therefore, they are responsible, for they sin consciously as moral beings, and they will perish without the law. Berkhof’s interpretation must be rejected as wholly contrary to the meaning of the apostle, and synod erred seriously when it offered Romans 2:14 as proof of the contention that there is a general operation of the Holy Spirit on men whereby they are enabled to do good.


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(V)


Rev. Martyn McGeown

[Source: An Answer to Phil Johnson’s “Primer on Hyper-Calvinism”]

When Gentiles do “the things contained in the law,” they do not obey God’s law, which is impossible (Rom. 8:7), but they display external virtue and avoid external vice. When they display “the work of the law written in their hearts,” this does not mean that God has written the law on their hearts—that is regeneration (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10)—but it means that God has written the knowledge of right and wrong in their hearts, and He testifies it to their consciences. All men know the difference between right and wrong. This does not make them good, or even partially good, but inexcusable!


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(VI)

More to come! (DV)



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