Author: Ron Graham
Is God’s Law Known by Instinct?
—Doing by nature the things of the Law
Are humans born with a set of basic laws already written on their hearts —laws which they do not have to learn but know instinctively in their conscience? What does it mean to "do by nature the things contained in the law"? (Romans 2:14).
1 “Nature” is not “Instinct”.
¶“14For when Gentiles who don't have the law are doing by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they don't have the law. 15They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their conscience also bears witness, and their thoughts accuse or excuse them” (Romans 2:14-15).
¶“3We all once lived among the disobedient, in the passions of our flesh, obeying the desires of body and mind. We were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:3).
Certain translations, by using the word "instinct", instead of "nature" have made these verses seem to contradict others (which we quote below). There is no need to impose on these passages the notion of an instinctive knowledge. The word "nature" here refers not to instinct, but to environment, to the surroundings in which one lives and learns.
The Gentiles might not have had the law of Moses, but in the course of their lives they would still have occasion to read or be told things which God had originally revealed. God’s basic laws have always been in the world, originally by supernatural revelation, and afterward passed on by natural teaching.
2 Human instinct is like animal instinct
¶“10But these speak evil of things they don't understand, and what they understand naturally like unreasoning animals, in those things they corrupt themselves” (Jude 8:10).
Jude says that what people know naturally or instinctively they know "like unreasoning animals" or "as brute beasts". Jude would be wrong about that, if our instincts included a basic set of moral laws. We would not be like the animals.
Animal’s instincts do not furnish them with knowledge of God’s moral law. But Jude is not wrong, he's right. Our instincts tell us nothing about our moral accountability to God. That accountability is something we have to learn.
3 Man was created without moral instincts
¶“17But you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17).
¶“6The woman saw that the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise. Then she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he also ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover their loins” (Genesis 3:6-7).
Adam and Eve were created innocent, without instinctive knowledge of good and evil. That knowledge was placed by God in a tree so that when Adam and Eve ate of its fruit they received the knowledge of good and evil by revelation. They had not understood it by instinct. Nor was it by instinct that they knew not to eat of the tree. That was revealed and taught them by God through commandment.
4 Laws are incribed on the heart by teaching
¶“10The LORD declares, 'This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my laws into their minds; I will write them on their hearts; I will be their God; and they shall be my people.” (Hebrews 8:10).
¶“10God has revealed these things to us through the Spirit* —for the Spirit searches everything, even the very depths of God.” (1Corinthians 2:10).
* “The Spirit of God” (v11).
¶“13We speak this message in words taught not by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit. We explain spiritual truths with spiritual words” (1Corinthians 2:13).
The laws of the new covenant were going to be written on people's hearts through "words which the Holy Spirit teaches". This is how every covenant from God ever came, including the new covenant of the cross, the saving gospel of Christ. He revealed it in words, and his word was then taught and preached to people. The Bible tells us of no other way by which we can know God’s laws.
5 The natural man cannot know the things of God
¶“11Can anybody know a person’s thoughts except that person’s inner spirit? Likewise, no one knows the thoughts of God except God’s Spirit” (1Corinthians 2:11).
¶“14The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they seem foolish. The things of the Spirit are not naturally understood. Rather, they are spiritually discerned.” (1Corinthians 2:14).
Nobody as a natural man can know the things of God. They have to be revealed and taught to him by the Spirit of God. The Bible does not make any exception to this. All our knowledge of God’s will is learned knowledge, not instinctive knowledge. We learn it when we are taught and when we hear what God has revealed.
6 Man cannot sin except through revealed law
¶“7So then, shall we say that the law is sin? Certainly not! I would not have even known sin except through law. For example, I would not have known coveting if the law had not said to me, 'You shall not covet'” (Romans 7:7).
Paul says, "I would not have known sin except through law" and he gives an example: "I would not have known about coveting if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet'". Paul had to be taught from the revealed word of God before he was able to sin. He did not have a pre-programmed conscience.