Dr. Robert R. Seyda



From his point of view, early church scholar Origen puts into perspective the responsibility of doing what you know is right: “The Gentiles need not keep the sabbaths or the new moons or the sacrifices which are written down in the law.1 For this law is not what is written on the hearts of the Gentiles. Rather it is that which can be discerned naturally, e.g., that they should not kill or commit adultery, that they should not steal nor bear false witness, that they should honor father and mother, etc.2 It may well be that since God is the one Creator of all, these things are written on the hearts of the Gentiles.”3

Calvin then continues: “For the natural law may agree with the law of Moses in the spirit, if not in the letter. For how would anyone understand by nature that a child should be circumcised on the eighth day?4… But we who feel that such things must be understood in a spiritual sense believe that we are not merely hearers of the law but doers of it also, being justified not according to the letter of the law, which in any case is so difficult that nobody could ever do it correctly, but according to the Spirit, which is the only way the law can ever be kept. This then is the work of the law which the apostle says even the Gentiles can fulfill. So when they do what the law says, it seems that they have the law written on their hearts by God, “not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.56

Later, John Calvin offers his thoughts: “He [Paul] indeed shows that it is in vain to pretend ignorance as an excuse by the Gentiles, since they prove by their own deeds that they have some rule of righteousness: for there is no nation so lost to every thing human, that it does not keep within the limits of some laws. Since then all nations, of themselves and without a monitor, are disposed to make laws for themselves, it is beyond all question evident that they have some notions of justice and rectitude, which the Greeks call preconceptions, and which are implanted by nature in the hearts of men. They have then a law, though they are without law: for though they have not a written law, they are yet by no means wholly destitute of the knowledge of what is right and just; as they could not otherwise distinguish between vice and virtue; the first of which they restrain by punishment, and the latter they commend, and manifest their approbation of it by honoring it with rewards. He sets nature in opposition to a written law, meaning that the Gentiles had the natural light of righteousness, which supplied the place of that law by which the Jews were instructed so that they were a law to themselves.7

Methodist Adam Clarke explains his understanding: “It does not follow that the Gentiles who have not had a Divine revelation, shall either perish because they had it not; or their unrighteous conduct goes unpunished, because not having this revelation could be considered as an excuse for their sins. Do by nature the things contained in the law – Do, without this Divine revelation, through that light which God imparts to every man, the things contained in the law – act according to justice, mercy, temperance, and truth, the practice of which the revealed law so powerfully commands; these are a law unto themselves – they are not accountable to any other law, and are not to be judged by any dispensation different from that under which they live. Rabbi Tanchum8 quotes the Supreme Being as saying: ‘When I decreed anything against the Gentiles, to whom I have not given laws and statues, and they know what I have decreed; immediately they repent; but the Israelites do not so.’910

John Bengel has an interesting thought here concerning the grammatical construction of verses 14 and 15. He says that the first part of verse 14 is explained by the last part of verse 15, and the second part of verse 14 is explained by the first part of verse 15. So let’s put them in that order to see what he implies: The people who are not Jews do not have the Law…Their own hearts tell them if they are guilty. When they do what the Law tells them to do, even if they do not have the Law, it shows they know what they should do… They show that what the Law wants them to do is written in their hearts. In many ways, this makes sense. Bengel goes on to say that Paul did this in order to show that God does have reason to judge the Gentiles based on what their conscience tells them. He does this to point out that because the Jews have the Law written on tablets of stone and have been taught from their youth what it means, they will be dealt with more strictly.

Bengel then summarizes: “The Gentiles are by nature (that is, of themselves, as born, not as men, but as nations), destitute of the (written Law; the Jews are by nature Jewish, Galatians 2:15, and, therefore, by nature have the (written) law, Romans 11:24. There is no danger of losing the force of the intention, which most adopt, [they] do by nature those things which the law [demands]; for what the Gentiles, who do not have the Law, do, they surely do by nature.11 The whole point of Bengel’s narrative is designed to point out that both Jews and Gentiles will have their moral character judged by the law. In the Gentiles case, it will be the law that by nature is written in their conscience. In the Jews case, it will be the law of Moses that by nature of being Jewish is part of their upbringing and ethics. But, when it comes their being judged by their acceptance or dismissal of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of sinners, both will be judged by whether or not they have heard the Gospel of Christ. Thus, in all cases there will be no excuse, only pardon.

Henry Alford also points to the phrase “by nature.” This he equates to the promptings of their own minds as to what is right and wrong. He makes it clear that Paul had no intention of suggesting that when it came to the Law of Moses that Gentiles would be required to fulfill those laws just like the Jews. Rather, God has given them a law of their own and that is their conscience. He then points out: “A law may be just or unjust, God’s law or man’s law: there is but one law of God, partly written in men’s conscience, more plainly manifest in the law of Moses and fully revealed in Jesus Christ.12

H. A. Ironside calls what Paul is talking about here “a ministry of condemnation.” He teaches: “Gentile sinners who never heard of the Sinaitic code have a sense of condemnation resting upon them when they live in violation of the dictates of their divinely-implanted conscience which testifies either for or against them – ‘accusing or else excusing one another.’ This is experimental proof that they are on the ground of responsibility and that God will be righteous in judging them in that solemn day when the Man Christ Jesus will sit upon the august tribunal of the ages and manifest the secret motives and springs of conduct.13 Too often, today’s Christians believe that all mankind from Adam to the Day of Judgment will be judged by the same law and protocol as they. But from what we read, God – who is a just and fair Judge – will judge based on the evidence of what they knew about what He revealed to them during their time.

Charles Hodge concludes: “The Gentiles, then, are a law unto themselves; they have in their own nature a rule of duty; a knowledge of what is right, and a sense of obligation. As the absence of all moral acts among the lower animals shows that they have no sense of right and wrong, that they are not under a moral law, so the performance of such acts by the Gentiles, shows that they have a law written on their hearts.14

F. F. Bruce thinks this: “The word order strongly suggests that ‘by nature’ (physei) is to be construed with ‘do’ (as in the RSV); since, however, it comes between the two clauses in the Greek text it could just be taken with what precedes. Gentiles, that is to say, are born with no knowledge of the law, but when they come to faith in Christ they do, not ‘by nature’ but by the Spirit (cf. 8:4), what the law requires (see Cranfield,15 ad loc.). But this construction is less probable. Despite the dark picture drawn above (1:18–32), Paul and his readers knew pagans who led upright lives in accordance with the dictates of conscience (although this was not their ground of justification before God).16

A more modern commentator states: “This signals that Paul gives the basis for maintaining that a Gentile without the law of Moses will perish in God’s judgment. Based upon the natural circumstances of their birth, Gentiles do not have the law, but sometimes do instinctively the things of the Law, probably a reference to its moral requirements (e.g., loving one’s neighbor; not bearing false witness) rather than the ceremonial aspects (sacrificing a red heifer). When those who do not have the law sometimes do some of the things prescribed by the law of Moses.17

Jewish scholar David Stern says: “To stress the priority of deeds over head-knowledge of the Torah or status as a Jew, Paul pointedly speaks of Gentiles, who by definition don’t have Torah but nevertheless do naturally what the Torah requires, as being for themselves already Torah because their lives show that the conduct the Torah dictates is ‘written in their hearts.’ The quotation from Jeremiah 31:32( 33) speaks of the ‘new covenant’ which Adonai is to make with Israel, when he says, ‘I will put my Torah in their inward parts and write it in their hearts.’ (see Hebrews 8:8–12).”18 Another Jewish writer notes: “Like any good teacher, Paul knows repetition is important. Again, he stresses that God will judge Gentiles based on what they should know. This raises the discussion of those who never hear the word of God but know to repent when they sin. Will God ‘save them’ without their knowing who the Messiah is? (Genesis 18:25b).19

Stern then goes on to say: “That non-Jews have knowledge of the eternal moral law of God set forth in the Torah is further proved when they come to explicit and conscious faith in God — on a day when God passes judgment on people’s inmost secrets, which, according to the Good News as Paul proclaims it and as Yeshua himself proclaimed it (Jn 5:22–29), he does… through the Messiah Yeshua. On the day people come to faith they, at last, admit that God was right and they were wrong. Some of their behavior may prove not blameworthy so that their consciences… sometimes defend them, but some of their behavior they will then perceive is falling short of God’s standard, and their consciences will accuse them.20

1 See Colossians 2:16-17

2 See Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5

3 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

4 Leviticus 12:3

5 2 Corinthians 3:3

6 Origen: On Romans, op cit., loc. cit.

7 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 It appears from the Jewish Encyclopedia that Rabbi Tanḥum bar Ḥanilai was active as a preacher (in the 3rd century AD) and that he once preached with Abba bar Zabdai and Josefa. His sayings were of a high ethical and moral character.

9 Tanchum, folio 43b

10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

11 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 227-228

12 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 18-19

13 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

14 Charles Hodge: On Romans, loc. cit.

15 C. E. B. Cranfield: Romans, International Critical Commentary, 2 Vols.

16 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit. Vol. 6, pp. 96–97

17 Vanlaningham, Michael. Romans: From The Moody Bible Commentary, (Kindle Locations 695-699). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

18 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

19 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

20 Stern: ibid.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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