The Work of the Law on the Heart

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, while their conscience also bears witness” (vv. 14–15a).

- Romans 2:14–16

We cannot read verse 13—“the doers of the law … will be justified”—in any kind of prescriptive way that sinners can actually fulfill. In other words, while Paul does say doing the law of Moses will justify us, he is not at the moment dealing with whether fallen human beings can do the law. We will address this subject repeatedly over the next few months, but at this point we must note that if the Apostle is clear on anything, it is that sinners cannot do the law to the extent the Lord requires for justification. If we seek to be justified by keeping the commandments, we must keep them perfectly, and no one but Christ has the moral capacity to do that (Rom. 5:12–21; 7:7–25). Romans 2:13 introduces in a subtle way the contrast between doing and believing in regard to justification. One is justified by believing God or one is justified by keeping the law perfectly; there is no middle way that combines belief in Christ and imperfect obedience. If we try to justify ourselves—attain a right status before God—by the law, we must keep it flawlessly. Otherwise, we are cursed (Gal. 3:10). John Calvin comments, “If righteousness be sought from the law, the law must be fulfilled; for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.”

In stating that “doers of the law … will be justified,” the Apostle attacks any notion of Jewish privilege that says birth into Judaism ensures that one will be safe on judgment day. Paul continues this argument in Romans 2:14–16, telling the Jews that mere access to the Lord’s standards does not set them apart from the Gentiles. Even pagans know enough of our Creator’s requirements to do what He requires (v. 14). By this, they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts (v. 15). The Apostle speaks here of the innate sense of right and wrong implanted in every conscience. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary on Romans: “Before we ever took a breath, God planted in our soul an immediate knowledge and awareness of himself. This revelation is given apart from our reading the Bible or looking at nature.” Human beings do not need Scripture for a basic knowledge of good and evil. Because we are fallen, we need to train our consciences by the Word of God in order to discern with clarity what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph. 5:10), but even the most depraved of sinners has a sense of what God demands. What is more, sinners even do things that we can call good in some sense, though not what is fully good according to the exacting demands of God’s law. Tomorrow we will consider this thought in more detail.

Coram Deo

John Calvin comments, “There is no nation so lost to every thing human, that it does not keep within the limits of some laws.” Although human beings suppress the truth in unrighteousness apart from the grace of God (Rom. 1:18), they still retain a knowledge of the Lord and His basic moral requirements that is reflected in society’s laws. We should be grateful for this. It evidences God’s restraining hand so that life can continue and the gospel can go forth.

Passages for Further Study

Genesis 20
Matthew 5:46–47
Acts 17:22–34
1 Corinthians 5:1

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