“Word for Today” – Romans 2 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

May 8, 2009 at 4:45 am 3 comments

kindle-11The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend about the merits of Kindle, an electronic unit from Amazon.com on which you can purchase, download, and read books. “I don’t know if I could ever read a whole book on a computer screen,” I told my friend. “It doesn’t look like a computer screen, though,” my friend informed me. “It’s designed to be easy on the eyes.” “I still don’t know,” I responded skeptically. “Well,” my friend finally said, “I think it’s pretty cool. Although I don’t do a whole lot of reading.”

As much as it frustrates me, because I love to read, I, like my friend, don’t read as regularly as I’d like to. Commitments, appointments, and the affairs of daily life cut, sometimes deeply, into my reading time. That is why today’s text from Romans 2 is of special interest to me:

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. (verses 14-15)

Paul here speaks to those who have not had a chance to catch up on their reading. In the first century, it was the Jewish people who were the keepers of the written law of God. And they were fervently devoted to reading it, parsing it, and memorizing it. Indeed, an ancient rabbi would have the entire Old Testament memorized. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were not familiar with the Word of God. For they lived in a pagan context in which there were no readily available Bibles. Thus, any Gentile convert to a nascent first century Christianity had some reading to catch up on – the whole of God’s written revelation!

Paul, however, in these verses, says that even those who do not read Scripture have some knowledge of what it says: “Even though they do not have the law…the requirements of the law are written on their hearts.” In theological parlance, we call this “natural law.” That is, even someone who has never read the Bible still has a basic “moral compass,” as it were, because God has etched his laws into each and every human heart. That is why, for instance, societies, whether Christian or not, consider murder to be wicked. It is part of God’s natural law. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo states it thusly:

The world is in harmony with the law, and the law with the world, and the man who observes the law is constituted thereby a loyal citizen of the world, regulating his doings by the purpose and will of nature. (On the Creation, 3)

In other words, Philo maintains that there is an unwritten inexorable order to this world, by which people are encouraged to live and by which we judge. And that unwritten inexorable standard is natural law. C.S. Lewis states similarly:

Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say…[For in quarrels, a man is often] appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which expects the other man to know about…It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of law or rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed…Now this law or rule about right in wrong [is] called the law of nature. (C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity, 3-4)

Standards that are not written, but simply known, agreed upon, and assumed. These are the standards of natural law.

Evil, therefore, has no excuse. One cannot say, “I didn’t know it wasn’t okay not to murder.” Or, likewise, “I didn’t know I had to tell the truth.” Yes, you did know. Even if you’re not much of a reader. Thus, we all stand convicted by the law of God. For what we do not know from the pages of Scripture we know from the guilt which riddles our hearts.

It is for this reason that Paul writes the book of Romans. For Paul knows that Jews and Gentiles alike stand condemned under God’s written and natural law. But Paul wants to free them from this condemnation and bring them into salvation in Jesus Christ. As Paul later writes, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law [whether written or unwritten] of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).

This, then, is why we should read: for although we can know God’s law apart from reading the Scriptures, we cannot know Jesus apart from reading the Scriptures. Without the Scriptural gospel, we stand condemned. What’s written on our hearts can lead us only to despair and not hope, only to guilt and not joy, only to slavery and not freedom. So perhaps it’s time for us all to do a little more reading of and a little bit more listening to the gospel. For it is in the gospel that we find hope and healing from Jesus. And that’s something I love to read all about. I hope you do too.

Entry filed under: Word for Today.

“Word for Today” – Romans 1 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com “Word for Today” – Romans 3 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Molitor  |  May 8, 2009 at 7:12 am

    Good morning Pastor Zach. There is a common question that I hear regarding this topic. What about those people that have never heard about Jesus? They may have the law written on their hearts but can they be saved if they’ve never heard the gospel message? I’ve read a couple of different responses to this question but haven’t heard the LCMS view. Just wondering. Thanks.


    • 2. zachkvet  |  May 8, 2009 at 8:33 am

      Hey John,

      You ask a terrific question and one that is common regarding this passage from Romans 2. Whatever a person might say about those who have never heard the gospel message and their destiny upon death and then in eternity upon the Last Day, I would not use Paul’s words in verses 14-15 to try to say that a person who has never heard the gospel will still be saved. The reasons for this are twofold.

      First, Paul is not talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ, he is talking about the Law of Moses. This becomes infinitely clear when Paul writes in verse 17: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God…” What “law” is this? Well, this is a law that includes a prohibition against stealing (verse 21), against adultery (verse 22), and even circumcision (verse 25). Sounds like the Mosaic, with a touch of Abrahamic, law to me. Paul later makes it clear that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). So clearly, the discussion here has nothing to do with salvation, for Paul has yet to outline the way to salvation, which is through Christ alone. Rather, the discussion here is whether those who do not have the written Law of Moses have a natural law etched on their hearts. Paul’s answer is “yes.”

      Second, the language that Paul uses here to describe these Gentiles relationship to the law is quite ominous. Paul opens his discussion concerning those who do not have the law with these words: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law.” Terms like “sin” and “perish” do not sound like terms of salvation to me. Note also what Paul says earlier about these Gentiles who do not have the Law of Moses: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who supress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:18-20). God’s wrath does certainly not lead to salvation.

      In short, Paul’s words here seem to be accusing the Gentiles of breaking God’s law and warning them of impending doom rather than holding out some sort of oblique hope of salvation. Thus, I would say that there is no way to salvation except through the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no “second way” to salvation reserved for those who have not heard of Jesus. Indeed, the reason that God has etched his law on our hearts is so that, if we do not know him, we, as Paul says, might “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). The law of God, therefore, is meant to drive us to Christ, not to offer another way to salvation. Thus, those who have never heard are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20), for the law written on their hearts should drive them to try to learn more about God and about his Son, Jesus Christ.

      One final note: If I am right on this, this raises the stakes on our evangelistic efforts. God has made it clear that his law, written on every human heart, drives people to want to know more about him. But “how can they hear [more about God and his Son] without someone preaching to them” (Romans 10:14)? Thus, we are to preach the good news of Christ to those who are seeking, for God has deployed us to make sure that there is never a situation where someone wants to know about God, but can never find out. May we, by our lack of sharing, never put a human soul in such a perilous predicament.

      Well, this is quite a lengthy answer, but I hope it’s helpful.


  • 3. John Molitor  |  May 8, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Thank you for the quick response. It does raise the stakes of our evangelistic efforts to a new level. My heart breaks for the countless millions that have been and are being lost. The law condemns but it is by faith that we are saved.


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