Author: Ron Graham


Natural Law
—A study in Romans

Some people regard natural law as making man accountable to God. That is to say, even where man has no revelation from God, he is still able to know God and be accountable to God, because God has made his will sufficiently known through his creation, and through the instinct and conscience he has built into man. In this lesson we think about creation, instinct, and conscience to see whether Paul believes that people can, by these, know God’s law naturally without divine revelation.

1 Creation

When Paul says that the Creation leaves mankind "without excuse" (Romans l:20) he does not mean that man is accountable to God apart from God's revealed word. In his expression "the things which are made" (Romans l:20) Paul does not exclude God's revealed law. It is in the nature of God's providence that people of his creation should know his law.

The creation, apart from revelation, is perhaps sufficient to let us know God exists, and even to know God's nature. It does not teach us God's law however. Had God made man, yet not made law, then man would not have been able to sin, for "where there is no law, there is no sin imputed" (Romans 4:15, 5:13). No man can know the things of God unless the Spirit of God reveals them (cf 1Corinthians 2:11).

Paul understood that God's revealed word was part of the world God made. In the beginning, the creation of the world included God's revelation of himself and his will. Indeed, as the early chapters of Genesis teach us, it was the very word of God that spoke everything into existence. Adam and Eve knew God because he revealed himself and his will to them. Men have suppressed that revealed law, and exchanged it for a lie, but God's revealed word is still evident enough to render the world without excuse (Romans 1:18-32).

2 Instinct

Paul says that Gentiles, meaning people not under the Mosaic law system, may do "by nature" the things in God's law which is "written in their hearts." (Romans 2:14-15). It has been interpreted by some, even by some translations, that this means God's law may be done “instinctively”. This seems to suggest that the world at large had no revelation from God, and had to fall back on instinct. That is manifestly not so, because God's revealed law has been in the world from ancient times.

A newborn baby, who suckles without being taught, demonstrates an instinct. When flesh and blood creatures do things by instinct, they do them without training or instruction. The knowledge is somehow programmed into them so they don't need to be taught it. Most behaviour, however, is learned behaviour. Obedience to God's law is learned behaviour, not instinctive. If it were an instinct, it would be done automatically and would not be disobeyed. The law Paul is talking about can be disobeyed. Therefore Paul is not talking about a law that is done instinctively.

When Paul says that people knew God's law "by nature" he does not mean “instinctively”. He refers rather to the nature and course of human existence and to the ubiquity of God's law in the created world. There is no evidence at all that God has provided man with a basic instinctive knowledge of his will. God's word comes to man by revelation. [See Is God's Law Known by Instinct?]

3 Conscience

Conscience is not instinct, because a conscience has to be educated. A newborn child has a conscience, but as yet it has no knowledge of good and evil and the child is innocent. Paul uses this example: "I would not have known about coveting if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet'" (Romans 7:7). So a conscience does not know what is right and wrong until it is taught, and it should be taught by God's law rather than somebody else's rules and regulations.

Paul recognises, however, that a person's conscience may be miseducated with obsolete or man-made law which, in Paul’s view, renders it "weak" (Romans 14:1-2, Romans 15:1, cf 1Corinthians 8:10-13). Nevertheless, while it is being carefully strengthened with the knowledge of the gospel of Christ, and being liberated from other law, a conscience should not be violated. Paul warns that if a person believes in his conscience that something is wrong, even though God's law has not bound it upon him, then he ought not to do it. He sins if he offends his own conscience. Moreover, we also sin if we encourage him to offend (Romans 14:14-23, cf 1Corinthians 8:7-13).

Incidentally, in Paul’s mind this principle does not work in reverse. If a person's conscience has been perverted to approve of something that God's law says is wrong, then that cannot be a right or good thing for that person to do (Romans 1:32). There is a higher principle at work here: Man's conscience is always subject to God's soveriegn will. When God's law makes something wrong, man's conscience cannot by any means make it right. It is also true that when God's law makes something right, man's conscience cannot make it wrong. For example when God's law makes it right to eat meat, it cannot be wrong to eat meat. However if you mistakenly believe it to be wrong, then you are wrong to eat it. The sin is not in the physical act of eating meat. The sin is in eating without the faith that it is right to eat — a faith that comes the gospel (Romans 14:23, Romans 1:16-17, Romans 10:17).

Now coming back to the point that we sin if we cause or encourage people to violate their consciences, there is one thing I need to clarify, and then the lesson is yours: By respecting a person's conscience we are not being bound by it. We are bound to nobody's conscience. We are bound only to God's law, the gospel. We must protect our own liberty in Christ as much as we protect the weak conscience of another person. The point is that conscience is not the master, but the true Master requires us to be tolerant and nurturing while he educates the weak consciences with the faith and knowledge that his new covenant imparts.