Questions from the Book of Romans
“Please explain the phrase ‘law of sin’ in Romans 7:25. Also, in what sense were the Gentiles under a ‘law written in their hearts’ during the time of the Mosaic era (Rom. 2:15)?”
The “Law of Sin”
It appears that the phrase “law of sin” is a figurative expression that describes the continuing urges of the flesh that war against our better goal of pursuing the law of God.
Even though we have become Christians, and have fixed our allegiance toward Heaven, still, the weaknesses of the flesh tend to tug at us in the wrong direction – almost like a “magnetic” attraction force. Thus, there is the constant need to exert the mind (as directed by the Scriptures) over the flesh, in fulfilling Heaven’s will.
A “Law Written in Their Hearts”
There are several observations that may help shed light on the expression “law written in their hearts.”
It is important to note, in the first place, that in the initial chapter of his letter to the saints in Rome, Paul indicted the ancient Gentile world because, for the most part, it had departed from God.
- Those pagans had “hindered [suppressed] the truth” (18).
- They were without excuse because, though there was adequate evidence for God’s existence as reflected in his creation, they glorified him not.
- The pagans allowed their minds to be shrouded in spiritual and moral darkness (20-21).
- They acted as fools in that they changed the glory of God into the baser creatures of the biological world (22-23).
- They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and immersed themselves in idolatry (24-25).
- This estrangement from the true God, and the holiness that is characteristic of him, led the Gentiles into vile practices (e.g., homosexuality) which were contrary to the very nature of human beings (26-27).
- Other egregious transgressions also followed in the wake of rejecting the Creator (28ff).
Paul’s next line of argument was to demonstrate that the Jews also had miserably failed in their responsibility to God. Many of the Hebrews had given themselves over to the practice of “the same things” (2:1).
Did the Jews labor under the illusion that they would “escape the judgment of God”? (3). If so, they were deceived; such rebellion was but a “treasuring up” of wrath which would be inflicted at the “day” of the revelation of God’s righteous judgment (5). Every soul, either Jew or Gentile, who refuses to “obey the truth” will give account to the Judge of the earth for his conduct (8-11).
The inspired apostle then shows that the Jewish people sustained a greater degree of responsibility before God than did the Gentiles. And why was that the case? Because they had a written revelation from God, the law of Moses. That law was given, of course, in view of the coming Messiah (Gal. 3:19ff). It was designed to sharpen Israel’s awareness of sin, and to provide precise definition to violations of Jehovah’s will (cf. Rom. 7:7,13).
By way of contrast, the Gentiles had only that “law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:15). The question is then: what was this “law written in their hearts”?
First, note that the expression “their hearts” is the equivalent in the passage with “their conscience” or “their thoughts” – the region that is the depository of one’s “secrets” (16). Paul is clearly affirming that there is an element within man that, to some degree, holds him religiously and morally accountable. Even without a written communication from God, one is responsible for a certain level of right conduct. His understanding may be skewed, and veiled, nevertheless, a threshold standard is there.
The further question becomes then: What is the source of this “sense” within the pagan’s soul, that makes him chargeable to God in the day of reckoning?
Paul says the knowledge resides in their conscience by virtue of “nature” (14). But what is the significance of that?
“Nature” can be used in different senses. It may denote the intrinsic constitution of a thing (cf. “divine nature,” see 2 Pet. 1:4). For instance, it is the nature of a tiger to be ferocious (cf. Jas. 3:7). Homosexual conduct is “against nature” (Rom. 1:26), i.e., this vile practice is contrary to the natural order of human sexuality as designed by God, hence, is not “natural” (26-27; cf. Jude 7).
On the other hand, nature can have to do with that which has become habit over a period of time (J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 660). Human beings become “by nature” (by sustained practice) exceeding sinful, hence, deserving of the wrath of God (Eph. 2:3). Human beings are not “children of wrath” by “nature,” i.e., birth, as denominationalists allege. For a further discussion of this passage, see our “Archives” article (January 25, 1999) "Are Infants “By Nature” Children of Wrath?".
In view of the foregoing diversity of definitions, two basic views of “written in their hearts” have been advanced.
- Some hold that there was a residue of moral sensitivity in the Gentile heart that had been handed down traditionally from earlier times of human history. Moses Lard called it the “unperished traditions of the divine will, communicated to the early fathers of mankind” (Commentary on Romans, Cincinnati: Standard, n.d., p. 89).
- By far the more common interpretation, however, is the view that “by nature” is an allusion to the moral sensitivity of the human soul, reflecting the fact that it has been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26; cf. Col. 3:10), and therefore possesses an ethical “oughtness.”
In the book, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), C.S. Lewis argued for what he called “the law of human nature.” He talks about certain instinctive criteria to which people of all classes and ages appeal. These reflect such values as “we ought to share,” “we should help others,” “that’s not fair,” “that would be cruel,” etc. He says that human beings constantly appeal “to some kind of standard of behaviour” which they expect others to know about (pp. 17ff). No animal possesses this sense of ethics, but humans surely do.
E.M. Blaiklock, a well-informed classical scholar, has observed that the ancient Greeks had much to say about the “law naturally written in the heart.” Aristotle, in his work on Ethics, said that the “truly educated man will behave as if he had a law within himself.”
And five centuries before Paul wrote his words to the Romans, Sophocles has Antigone saying (to a certain tyrant who was demanding full obedience to all that he commanded) that “there are unwritten and irrefragable ordinances of Heaven,” which those who are aware of them simply cannot break (“Romans,” Daily Devotional Bible Commentary, Arthur Cundall, Ed., Nashville: Holman, 1973, Vol. IV, p. 31).
John Stott has noted that in Romans 2:14 the term “Gentiles” (ethne) is not qualified by an article (as in “the Gentiles”). This grammatical hint, he suggests, merely asserts that some Gentiles exercise the quality of a morally delicate conscience (Romans, Downers Grove, IL, 1994, p. 86). Many of them may have been wholly corrupt – or, as Paul will say elsewhere, “past feeling” (Eph. 4:19).
However, there have always been those who feel that murder, cheating, lying, parental or child abuse, etc., are wrong. They may not have known why these things are wrong, i.e., that they are a violation of the holy nature and will of the one, true God, but they know that such acts are evil.
And so, though the ancient Gentiles did not possess a written revelation from God, as did the Hebrews, they still retained a residue of the divine image, a sense that there is such a thing as “right and wrong.” Though that “awareness” had been seriously tarnished in many, nonetheless they were expected to live up to their noblest concepts of moral truth. God would judge them accordingly.
Of course now, the gospel of Christ, with written instructions containing sharply defined moral precepts, is available to the entire world. And to that system all men are amenable (Rom. 1:16-17), and by it they will be judged (2:16; 2 Cor. 5:10).