“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14–15).- Romans 2:12–16
Many translations of Martin Luther’s words to the Diet of Worms read something like, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by evident reason I cannot recant. For my conscience is held captive to the Word of God.” However, we are mistaken if we think “cannot” indicates Luther lacked the power to recant his statement of the Gospel, for he did have the intellectual and vocal ability to change his mind. But what Luther did not have was the ability to recant with impunity. He was subject to the higher authority of the Lord Himself and could not expect to submit to a contrary law without punishment.
Our Father is the supreme authority because He is the author of all things. He created the earth and all that is in it (Gen. 1:1), and thus He answers to no one. Lesser authorities, such as the civil magistrate or our parents, have the right to command us only because God has delegated some governance to them. Yet only His moral law can bind the conscience absolutely, and we are obligated to obey Him even if it means disobeying lesser authorities in select circumstances.
Many espouse moral relativism today, but the existence of any law at all in society testifies that a supreme authority exists. Mankind creates law because we, in some sense, have it innately in our hearts. This is one point of today’s passage. In Romans 2:14, Paul is not telling us the Gentiles have the right to determine for themselves what is right and what is wrong. He is simply demonstrating how the ethical standards of the Gentiles reveal that we are all made in God’s image, and thus His moral principles are in the consciences of all people.
Even those without divine revelation forbid things like murder. These laws may not conform to God’s law in every way; for example, some tribes have been cannibalistic. Yet even these cultures reflect the divine fiat against murder in that not everyone is allowed to be eaten!
This universal sense of right and wrong is the lex naturalis, or natural law. It has a long tradition in Western jurisprudence and is still reflected to an extent in our judicial system. Nevertheless, immorality and relativism prevail today because public education, law schools, and elected officials deny natural law in word and deed.
Without a supreme authority, individuals decide what is right and what is wrong. However, we cannot reasonably expect others to submit to standards not based on a higher, eternal, and universal authority. Though moral relativism is confessed, the cry, “That’s not fair!” assumes a universal, binding justice that all of us recognize. If someone espouses moral relativism, ask him how he can then expect anyone to believe that things like murder and theft are wrong.
Passages for Further Study
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343