What of Those Who Do Not Have the Bible?
Romans 2:14, 15 – ‘(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them).’
On Thursday [March 6, 2014] an army of volunteers began the daunting task of cleaning up the mess left by weeks of flooding in Somerset. The water level has receded in a number of the villages leaving behind tons of mud and debris that will have to be cleared by hand. Somerset County Council and Sedgemoor District Council are in overall charge of the clean-up operation, but more than 500 volunteers from across Britain have completed an online form offering help. Some have specialist skills needed to plaster walls, fix damaged floors and repair electrical wiring. Others offer their physical strength or even their ability to make tea. 150 homes need complete refurbishment. The volunteers will tip out manky carpets and empty freezers full of rotting food. They will be clearing debris from the roads and filling skips. One man, Mr. Smith, has been a car salesman, but he has given up his job to help with the relief operation. For the past month he has been living off his savings. He says, ‘This experience has helped me become the person I wanted to be, and I will be here for as long as it takes.’ The floodwater was heavily polluted by leaks from septic tanks, fuel from flooded vehicles, and farm slurry.
One of the volunteers named Florrie says, ‘It is amazing. Doing this has completely restored my faith in humanity. If there’s anything positive that’s come out of this it is that we have all made friends for life.’ The donations are being organised by a classroom in a village school, from rubber Wellington boots to tins of pet food. And that part of the rescue work is being organised by Mormon missionaries. There are also a couple of dozen Muslim volunteers from Birmingham and the Midlands.
What we hear about in the Somerset flood volunteers is not unusual is it? When a little local girl was abducted a year ago hundreds of volunteers went to Machynlleth every day to search for her. When a typhoon hit the Philippines last year then friends went from as far away as the USA to help the people who had lost their homes, possessions and churches. This is the common experience – a spontaneous assistance given by many to suffering people. These volunteers come from all faiths and no faith at all. Why do men and women do this? Because all mankind consists of people who are made in the image and likeness of God, even though the majority of men and women do not believe in God. And though man is fallen and depraved the image of God has not been erased in anyone. But we also believe what Jesus said that many are tramping along the broad road of ungodly unbelief, the way that leads to destruction. As Christians we’re not surprised that many people who are not Christians are wonderfully generous and thoughtful. They sacrifice much to help others. They are fine caring parents whom we love deeply. I suppose we should be surprised that not more men and women are acting in this way.
What are other reasons for this phenomenon of concern for others and concern for our own souls, and ultimately concern for God? Paul is explaining it in our text today. Firstly let us see the category of people he is talking about. He is not talking about the Jews.
1. THERE ARE GENTILES WHO DO NOT HAVE THE LAW.
Paul repeats and book-ends verse 14 with that description of the natural man. They are people who don’t have the law of God. That word, ‘law’ can mean the five books of Moses, or it can refer to all the Scriptures of the Old Testament, or it can refer to the ten commandments. You have to look at the context to see what the writer has in mind, and here it is clearly referring to this latter case, the two tablets of stone with the ten words that God gave Moses on Sinai. Israel alone had these; the Gentiles weren’t given that law. Of course the Old Testament people of God travelled and planted synagogues and spoke of their faith in all the surrounding nations of the middle east and north Africa. So there were pockets of believers and Gentiles who thus came to trust in Jehovah everywhere, but the majority of the Gentiles did not have the ten commandments, especially those living continents away from Israel. So you see one consequence of that truth? What an extraordinary blessing it is to freely receive from the Creator of the universe his divine requirements for daily living. We know the mind of God! What about the others? This is the question people still ask today. ‘What about the people who never heard the gospel?’ Is it better never to have heard than to have heard and defied the message from God? What does Paul say?
2. GENTILES DO BY NATURE THINGS REQUIRED BY THE LAW.
There are Gentiles who don’t have the law and yet instinctively they do the things of the law. They hear of an abducted child and take days off work to search for her. They apply as volunteers to help people with their flooded homes. They are loving their neighbours as themselves and so are doing some of the things that the law of God requires – even though they might never have read the ten commandments. It is a significant fact that the law codes of those ancient civilizations that existed in Old Testament times contained many of the ten commandments – though none of them contained the tenth commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet.’ Such law-demands and law-keeping is an observable, verifiable fact acknowledged by anthropologists everywhere. Not all human beings are violent men; not all men are blackguards, and thieves, and murderers and so on. A national catastrophe brings out the best in people. There are many people who don’t have the law who yet honour their parents, love their children, recognize the sanctity of life, keep their marriage vows, speak the truth and cultivate contentment. The Times announced this week that a man in north eastern Japan, Yasuo Takamatsu, is still looking for the body of his 47-year-old wife Yuko who was drowned in the tsunami of three years ago. He has learned to dive and he explores the seabed and he will not be satisfied until he finds her remains. Yasuo did not have the law of God, but quite naturally and instinctively he cared for his wife and loved her very deeply. What a happy family they were. God said in the beginning that it is not good for man to be alone, and God made woman for him and made them one flesh. There are many happy families in the world who live without the law of God.
Paul says that it is by nature that people who are ignorant of the given law of God (a revelation from heaven) yet do the things required by the law – by native instinct and spontaneous impulse they fulfil some of the requirements of the law. Paul doesn’t say, quite deliberately, that they fulfil the law. They fulfil the things of the law, things stipulated by the law – ‘Thou shalt not murder . . . thou shalt not steal . . .’ They care for the sick and the poor, for the widow and the orphan. Those are the things that the law says men should do. Without ever knowing the law of Moses they yet do some of the things that the law of Moses requires us to do.
C. S. Lewis asks us to listen to people arguing with one another. One person assumes that the other person recognizes that there is some basic standard of behaviour. He is also aware of the ‘requirements of the law. Even children indicate this. They say, ‘How would you like it if someone did that to you?’ They say, ‘That’s my seat. I sat on it first.’ They say, ‘Let him alone. He hasn’t done anything to bother you.’ They say, ‘Why should you jump the queue and cut in before all of us?’ They say, ‘Give me a piece of your chewing gum; I gave you a piece of mine.’ They say, ‘Come on . . . you promised.’ Everybody all over the world, both the people with and those without the law of God, children and adults, educated and uneducated all say things like that. ‘You are not behaving fairly and justly,’ they are saying, and they are appealing to a standard of behaviour that they know the other person is also recognizing.
You never hear the other boy or girl arguing back by saying, ‘I don’t accept your standards.’ What you get is some excuse for why he is behaving as he is, and that he feels he really isn’t going against those standards, or that there is some good reason for not doing what the peeved friend wants. Both parties naturally recognize that there are things of the law that both of them ought to be obeying. There is such a thing as fair play; there is decency; there is some kind of law which both of them recognize. You understand that it is not one of the ten commandments that they are appealing to, but some link with them, something that is a echo of the law of God, and they are trying to show in the light of those things of the law that the other person is wrong. It is like the experts in ‘Match of the Day’ who debate whether the footballer had really committed a foul and the referee was just in showing him a red card. ‘Let’s look at the alleged foul from this angle. Did he go for his ankle rather than the ball?’ Going for the ankle is simply ‘wrong.’ It was an ‘unfair tackle’ and once you say there is a category of behaviour that isn’t right then you are agreeing with what Paul is saying here that they are naturally doing things that the law requires. I am saying that all people have a sense of right and wrong within them, and that sense causes them to condemn some kinds of behaviour and commend others. Certainly by that law we are going to be judged.
3. THE GENTILES ARE A LAW FOR THEMSELVES.
There is a popular saying which might have come from this verse. We talk about a boss, or a tyrant, or a football club owner, or a preacher who has been in a church for fifty years, or a patriarchal figure in a large family where the old man dominates everyone – behaving like an Italian godfather. We say of such a figure, ‘He is a law unto himself,’ in other words, that he does what he pleases. He doesn’t submit to the laws of the land or the laws of family life or the laws of the Bible. He doesn’t have the law of God (verse 14). What he does is to frame his own commandments and laws.
However, that is not what Paul is saying here. He has told us that the requirements of the law are written on a man’s heart, and that a man will do those things quite instinctively. In fact this Gentile without the law of God is able to appeal to other people and to say that they also know that it is right to behave in the way he is behaving. The rules he lives by are implanted in all our natures. That is where we get the information concerning what is right and what is wrong. From our own instincts; the requirements of the law have been written on our hearts. They are inside and within us. It is not that God has personally convicted us and illuminated us as to how we should live. God is not in our hearts at all. God is not the law for ourselves or to ourselves. We are! We are the law for ourselves. People say, ‘I don’t believe that it is wrong to do this or to do that. I think that it is OK to do this,’ and so they are a law for themselves. And so when we are our own arbiter of what is right and what is wrong then there is a great possibility of moral abuse. On the one hand becoming utterly pernickety, a total tyrant and a legalist and saying things like ‘Eating bacon and drinking fizzy drinks and wearing jeans is wicked.’ Or on the other hand being a total wimp and denying that there is an objective given morality, ‘If somebody likes to do certain things then who am I to disapprove.’ That’s the danger of having no other external law but your own idea of right and wrong. You rely on your ego telling you how you should behave. It told the cannibal how to behave, and the communists of Cambodia in the ‘killing fields’, and the Nazis in Belsen.
4. THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE LAW ARE WRITTEN ON THEIR HEARTS.
That is what the apostle says about all mankind in verse 15; ‘They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.’ They show this by their natural behaviour, that cowardice in battle, or failure to support and help your dependents are actions recognized as bad behaviour in every place and race in the world. So what is written in marks of indelible common grace on the heart of Mr. and Mrs. Everyone is the requirement of the law, or the effects of the law, or the business of the law.
Now what is written on their hearts is God’s own law, not the law of 21st century European man; not the law of the tribes of the Brazilian rain forest; not the law of North Korea. We are talking about the requirements of the law of God the Creator of all mankind. It is the same law that God gave to Moses on Sinai. It simply comes by a different means of revelation. Moses received it as God had written it on two tablets of stone. But people without the law of God receive it as God writes it on the fleshly tablets of our hearts. Almighty God has given to every child of Adam a soul or a spirit, and he has also written the business of the law on their hearts. No matter how educated or handicapped you might be, the things of the law are written on your heart. By that law you are to live; by that law you will be judged; by breaking that law you are going to be condemned in the day of judgment. There is that famous quotation of Immanuel Kant in which he said, ‘Two things strike me with awe; the starry heavens above and the moral law within.’
But you notice a very important distinction and word of caution. Paul does not say that God has written the law on the hearts of all men. What he says is that God has written the requirements of the law on their hearts. They are not fulfilling the law. They are not loving the law. That is the blessing of salvation; that is what comes to favoured men and women at the new birth; that comes about when the Holy Spirit illuminates our understanding and we know who God is and how we are to love him with all our hearts and minds. There is a glorious new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31 and verse 33 when the prophet announces that there is going to be a covenant which will supersede the Mosaic covenant. It is a brand new covenant and in that covenant believers will not simply know the contents of the ten commandments and that the law of God is hidden away in the ark of the covenant and what the commandments say. Now God will come very close and he will give us new hearts and on those hearts will be written his law, not the requirements of the law but the law itself.
Paul is not speaking here in our text of the fruit of regeneration. He is speaking of the results of creation. He is speaking here of the day of judgment and how no one will have any excuse, and no one will plead ignorance of the law. The things required and stipulated by the law have been written on every heart. You cannot plead, ‘But I didn’t know. I didn’t have a Bible. I didn’t have a preacher to tell me how I should live. No missionary came to my village to preach Christ to me.’ Certainly God will take all that into account, but he’ll say, ‘Didn’t I write the things of the law on your heart?’ But when we are born again and God writes his Word deeply and eternally on our hearts then, at that time, he also gives us love for his law. ‘Oh how I love thy law’ the believer says. And God also gives us the desire and energy to obey the law, and God points us to Jesus Christ for mercy every time we break the law that he has written on our hearts. He assures us that though our sin abounds his grace super-abounds.
Do you see how different men are from apes? Animals don’t possess the requirements of the law. They have no commandment to love God with all their affection. They have no law to tell them not to kill or steal or deceive or keep a day of rest and holiness. When a member of a family of animals grows weak and defenceless, their own parents will eat them. On our hearts the things of the law are written.
5. THE CONSCIENCES OF ALL MEN BEAR THEM WITNESS.
Paul is not repeating the same thing here (verse 15). He is developing the Christian doctrine of the state of man by nature. Here he is saying something more about being a man in God’s image and some of the ways in which we are different from the highest of the primates. There is a vast difference between ourselves and monkeys. Here is another example. We have a conscience, and notice that we are told here that it also speaks up. In other words there are the things of the law that are increasingly exhorting us, ‘Go and help clear the floods in Somerset’ and also your conscience agrees with the law, saying, ‘Amen! Yes, that’s a good thing for you to do.’ There’s an actual pair of inner voices – two witnesses – telling every person what is right and what is wrong, the law and conscience. They come into operation, and they cry together, ‘Stop!’ Conscience is the voice of a moral consciousness that we all possess but the beasts do not.
Where does your conscience come from? Think of a ventriloquist. The dummy has no independent existence. He only speaks when his master is operating him and gives him words to say. Each of us has a conscience, and thank God for that. Because of conscience we know that there’s a God in heaven. Conscience is proof for the existence of God. Conscience is God’s monitor, God’s deputy, God’s spy, God’s preacher in the heart, God’s domestic chaplain, God’s personal tutor and trainer. William Gurnall calls conscience, ‘God’s policeman.’ By our consciences God arrests us. It is higher than all the voices of men and angels. Every conscience is primed by God. It is thus that God stamps on human nature an awareness of how he requires us to live, and if you are careful to keep a good conscience then you may leave it to God to take care of your good name. Don’t disdain your conscience. You know how some people keep a watchdog. By his barking he will tell them that there’s a thief prowling around outside. Wouldn’t you be glad of the sound of such a watchdog and that you don’t have a whimpering puppy who cowers at the back of the kennel and lets you be robbed?
Your conscience is the best treasure you could have, the best pleasure you ever tasted, the best honour God could give you. Imagine you were a painter and you had Leonardo da Vinci as your teacher. Imagine you were a composer and Mozart was your instructor. Imagine you were a dramatist and Shakespeare was your tutor. Imagine you were an architect and Christopher Wren was your professor. Imagine you wanted to excel in ethics – and the mark of the Christian is that he hungers and thirsts after righteousness – and the living God himself took complete responsibility for your values and your daily living, and that God came into your life sitting on the throne of your heart. He didn’t disdain to come so close to you as that, though you were weak and sinful. What an honour to have God’s voice telling you day by day how you should live!
How wonderful to have a conscience! It can save us from prison; it can save us from shame; it can save us from moral shipwreck, but conscience alone cannot redeem us from hell. It warns us of hell, and it confirms our decision to go to the only Saviour who can deliver us from hell, but conscience never said, ‘Come unto me and I will give you rest.’ Conscience never died for us or rose on the third day. Conscience commands us to go to the Lord Jesus for salvation. It will never let you rest on anyone else. Conscience can scare us when we sin, but it doesn’t have enough saving power to deliver us from sin. It is the voice of God, but it is not God.
Does everyone here have a good conscience? Do you have that soft pillow to lie on each night? It is our best tranquilizer. What a wonderful blessing to have such a friend before the Great Day when it certainly will speak up to God as our judge. A happy life depends on a good conscience. There are men who won’t listen to their conscience. I think a reason for that is they don’t want to take advice from a total stranger. Conscience is not their friend. Conscience will advise you well, ‘Keep making Sunday special! Keep hearing the Word of God! Keep bearing witness to Jesus Christ the Saviour. Don’t neglect the assembling of yourselves together with other believers.’ Blessed conscience!
6. THEIR THOUGHTS WILL EITHER ACCUSE THEM OR DEFEND THEM.
Ah! Your mind! Your reasoning powers! Your thinking! At last Paul brings that to assist his great work of convicting you of your sin and your need of the Lord Jesus Christ. Until now God has not been in all your thoughts; in fact you have shut and locked the door of your thinking to any interference from God. You have kept him outside your mind, but when the requirements of the law of God begin to come alive and convict you, and when your conscience starts to touch on patterns of conduct and events in both your past and present then you start to think about the God you’re ignoring and your relationship with him.
I have been reading some contemporary Christian biographies the past couple of weeks, just to keep my taste in reading fresh, and I have never considered the influence of our thinking on our conversion as much as reading how those people came to know the Lord in conjunction with the words of our text, ‘their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them’ (verse 15). Let me bring some witnesses to tell you how their thinking both accused them and excused them when they became Christians.
i] Richard P. Belcher.
A pastor, lecturer in a Christian university and author. He was 16 years of age, and in a new school and a group of boys and girls in the school made him think. He writes,
They were so friendly and happy. Then I noticed that they even carried their Bibles with them among the books that they took to their classes. I found out that they were the kids who attended the high school Bible club meetings, and they witnessed to the other students whenever they had an opportunity. I tried to stay out of their way, because I didn’t need any of this stuff they were peddling, I thought, at this time in my life. I was still mad at God.
They continued to invite Richard to their meetings but he kept them at arm’s length. Then something else happened. There was a family wedding hundreds of miles away and this Christian family travelled there together in a coach, and Richard says,
I don’t think I have ever laughed as much in my whole life! . . . all the way we were joking and kidding till our sides were sore. I never knew Christians could have so much fun. Uncle Frank was as big a jokester as one could ever meet, though he was such a mild-mannered and humble man to begin with. That summer trip left an impression upon me, and now in the fall of the same year, when I saw those happy Bible club kids in my new high school, I didn’t know exactly what to think . . . unexpectedly, one Tuesday night I found myself in the very meeting that I said I would never attend. There was such a warm welcome there . . . I am not sure how long it was before I came to the Lord, but I saw what a fool I’d been in seeking to walk my own way, and then to get mad at God for dealing with me for my rebellion. Before long a prayer of repentance and dedication went up to God’s throne, and my life was reversed for ever.1
Through the mercy of God Richard’s mind was transformed. His thoughts began to accuse him of blaming God for the mess that he himself had made of his life, and then his thoughts defended his decision to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
ii] Karim Shamsa-Bashi.
Born into a Muslim home in Damascus in 1965. He had met Christians growing up in Syria, and he went to the USA to study. There he met other Christians and he admired them and Christianity too, and for a while thought of himself as a Christian Muslim or a Muslim Christian, but not of Jesus Christ as his God and Saviour. He would not consider going to heaven without his parents and brothers and sisters. Then he met an Arab Christian named Dana and Dana made him think. One night as they spoke on the phone she asked him this crucial question; ‘You say you are a Christian, but is Jesus Christ your Lord and Saviour?’ Karim was angry with the question; ‘I am for sure a Christian, but I do not “do” those words.’ Dana was not put off; ‘You can’t be a Christian if you don’t “do” those words, Karim.’ He was very angry; ‘how dare you tell me what I am and what I am not. I am a Christian and I don’t care if you believe me.’ He hung up and was mad. The next morning the phone rang again early. It was Dana and she said to him, ‘I may have a solution for your problem.’ Huh! ‘You do, do you?’ So this is what she said to his mind and his thoughts; ‘Your family is in the hands of God; what about just you, Karim, and Jesus?’ Those words went deep into his mind. What if were only Jesus and himself? The challenge of that relationship focused everything on just two people in heaven and earth. No one else. What was it today between him and the Son of God? After a long silence he said to her, ‘If it’s just Jesus and me, well . . . he’s my everything. He can be my Lord and Saviour. But . . .’ She cut him short. ‘There’s no “but” Karim. You have just confessed with your mouth that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour. You’re a Christian, Karim,’ and Karim saw it, and he began to cry and she wept too.2
The emotions came after the mind and thinking had been engaged and challenged. His thoughts accused him of his error in trying to be a Muslim as well as a follower of the Lord Jesus, but they defended him when he acknowledged that Jesus was his everything, his Lord and Saviour.
iii] Mike Milton.
Former President of Reformed Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. Abandoned by his family he had been raised by godly Aunt Eva. Then he threw aside every Christian conviction and lived wastefully and prodigally getting increasingly empty. The things of the law condemned him; his conscience convicted him. He was a salesman calling on oil wells in the southern states of the USA. These were the words that record the beginning of the lengthy process of the great change which began in his thoughts, accusing him and then defending him.
I was thinking [that is how be begins] that my life was a long way from the faith that Aunt Eva had prayed for me. The days of hearing her teaching, bowing with her hand on my head, seemed like a sweet but far away dream. During these days I listened to Christian radio. I became burdened about being in the hog pen of life. I wanted to return to the Father’s House. But how? During one of my sales calls on a Tuesday morning in Morgan City, Louisiana, I was so burdened that I had to find a minister or someone to express my heart to and to find the way home. I was thinking about how my life was so messed up and how Aunt Eva had taught me better, when all of a sudden I came across a sign: ‘Morning Prayer at 10:30 on Tuesdays.’ It was a small Episcopal church. I did not think twice. I pulled over, and like a man rushing into the emergency room, I rushed into that church!
I paused, caught my breath, and took in the scene. In this small, rather ordinary looking sanctuary, there was the vicar, another person whom I assumed was his wife, one other lady (a rather older woman), and me. I sat down in my own pew. The liturgy started. I had never been in an Episcopal church before, and while the ‘ups and downs’ were different to me, I could hear the Bible in the Morning Prayer service. Between the sonorous voice of this small-town vicar, talking a bit louder than usual to drown out the coughing of the window air conditioner unit, and my own thoughts condemning me, I came to understand that I was a sinner. In fact, I will always remember his text: ‘And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me’ (Matt. 10:38).3
Again you see the pattern of his thoughts now accusing him, and now defending him for entering a church and hearing the Word of God read and preached.
That is the way God is working with some of you now. The things required by the law written on your hearts are affecting you so that you know that you are not yet a Christian. Your conscience is also bearing witness to you that you need grace and mercy from God and as again and again your minds turn to the theme of your relationship with God your thoughts are accusing or defending you. God is dealing with you. You are treading where real Christians have been treading for years, how they came this same way, to Jesus Christ. Ask God to give you some assurance, some sweet testimony that you belong to him. Remember that ultimately it’s just Jesus and you. What exactly is the relationship? Is it one of a sinner and his Saviour? Do you bow before him and say, ‘My Lord and my God’?
- Richard P. Belcher, A Journey in Christian Heritage (Richbarry Press, 2008), pp. 53-55.
- Karim Shamsi-Basha, Paul and Me: A Journey to and from the Damascus Road (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), pp. 136-138).
- Mike Milton, What God Starts, God Completes (Christian Focus, 2007), pp. 77, 78).
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