NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWO (Part XV)
Verse 15: They show that what the Law wants them to do is written on their hearts. Their own hearts tell them if they are guilty.
Just like the Greek philosopher Plato, Paul elaborates on what he sees as the intrinsic ability that God placed in His creation of man that we know as man’s will being an arbiter between the mind and the conscience. Psychologist Sigmund Freud taught that man has both an ego and a super-ego. The ego (the mind) contains thoughts developed from learning by which we guide ourselves in selecting those things needed for sustenance, health, safety, and comfort. But the super-ego (the conscience), helps the mind determine which of those choices are the best, the most helpful, and the most timely. For instance, when the body (the Id), sends a signal that it needs food, a list immediately pops up in the mind (the Ego) from which to chose. So from the list, the mind suggest to the body that it reach for certain types of cuisine to satisfy that need. However, the conscience (Super-Ego) knows that this particular food contains fats and sugars that are detrimental to one’s health, so it overrides the mind’s choice and directs the mind to reach for something healthier.
Paul is saying that the same process is used when it comes to our choices based on ethics, morals, motivation, and intended outcome. Remember, Adam and Eve did not have any written laws. They went by what God had communicated to them. Yet, after they disobeyed and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, their conscience immediately went into gear: “The Lord God called out to Adam and asked, ‘Where are you?’ Adam replied, ‘I heard You walking in the garden, and I was afraid. I was naked, so I hid.’ God said to Adam, ‘Who told you that you were naked?‘”1
On another occasion, when Joseph’s brothers remembered what they did to him as they faced this high official in Egypt who was arbitrating their attempt to get some food for their families back home, they were discussing why things were not going well. We read: “They said to each other, ‘We are being punished for the bad thing we did to our younger brother Joseph. We saw the trouble he was in. He begged us to save him, but we refused to listen. So now we are in trouble.‘”2 This also was before the law was given to Moses. Yet their conscience told them that what they were doing was the wrong thing to do.
But this influence of the conscience to keep us on the right side of ethics and morals does not stop once a person becomes a believer. The Apostle John wrote: “By this we will know [without any doubt] that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart and quiet our conscience before Him whenever our heart convicts us [in guilt]; for God is greater than our heart and He knows all things [nothing is hidden from Him because we are in His hands].”3 Paul knew that it was so convenient for people to say, “I didn’t know,” or “I wasn’t taught.” But this was just an alibi to cover a person’s lack of discipline.
This concept was not new to the Jewish people. In their writings, we read: “A man’s soul testifies against him, for it is said: Keep the doors of your mouth from her you hold in your arms.4 What is it a man holds in his arms? You must agree, it is the soul.”5 But they were not alone, ancient Greek writers also expressed such dependency on one’s conscience. Some of their sayings read: “Carefully distinguish between things, and examine all things well.” “Leaving yourself to always be guided and directed by the understanding that comes from above, allowing it to control your destiny.”6
In the early church writer Ambrosiaster’s work, we find this explanation: “The meaning here is that those who believe under the guidance of nature do the work of the law not through the letter but through their conscience. For the work of the law is faith, which, although it is fully revealed in the Word of God, also shows itself to be a law for the natural judgment. Faith goes beyond what the law commands. Faith trusts in Christ. These people believe because of the inner witness of their conscience because they know in their conscience that what they believe is right. It is not illogical for the creature to believe and worship his Creator, nor is it absurd for the servant to recognize his Lord.”7
John Calvin adds his thoughts here: “He could not have more forcibly urged them than by the testimony of their own conscience, which is equal to a thousand witnesses. Having done what’s good according to their conscience, men sustain and comfort themselves; those who are conscious of having done evil, are inwardly harassed and tormented. Hence came these sayings of the heathens — ‘A good conscience is the widest sphere; but a bad one is the cruelest executioner, and more fiercely torments the ungodly than any furies can do.’ There is then a certain knowledge of the law by nature, which says, ‘This is good and worthy of being desired; that ought to be abhorred.’”8
Calvin then goes on to say: “But observe how intelligently he defines conscience: he says, that reasons come to our minds, by which we defend what is done right, and that there are those which accuse and reprove us for our vices; and he refers this process of accusation and defense to the day of the Lord; not that it will then first commence, for it is now continually carried on, but that it will then also be in operation; and he says this, that no one should disregard this process, as though it were vain and evanescent. And he has put, in the day, instead of, at the day, — a similar instance to what we have already observed.”9
From John Bengel’s point of view, he feels that what Paul is dealing with here is the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law. The Jews had the letter of the Law while the heathens had the spirit of the Law. The letter of the Law deals with “operation,” while the spirit of the Law encompasses “circumstance.” Says Bengel: “The writing precedes the doing of those things, which are in the law; but subsequently, when a man has done (or has not done) the things commanded, the revelation [or right and wrong] follows, and the permanent writing appears more understandable.”10 With the heathen, acting according to the conscience came before becoming aware of the writing of the Law.
Henry Alford asks the reader to notice the similarity of this strife of conscience, and its testimony to the higher and more detailed form of the same conflict that Paul describes in chapter 7:16.11 Alford also suggests that what was already a thought process of lawfulness in man’s conscience, made the writing of the Law that much more necessary. Therefore, being aware of right and wrong already existed before the Law was written. This goes against the idea that until the Law was written, there was no compulsion to obey it.
Adam Clarke notes: “At this point, [knowing] they have a law and act according to it, is further proved from their conduct in civil affairs; and from that correct sense which they have of natural justice in their debates, either in their courts of law, or in their treatises on morality. All these are ample proofs that God has not left them without light; and that, seeing they have such correct notions of right and wrong, they are accountable to God for their conduct in reference to these notions and principles. These seem to be the true meaning of this difficult clause.”12
Charles Spurgeon offers this explanation: “Paul tells us that those who have sinned without law shall be punished without law; but the Jewish nation, having received the law, if they broke it, would become peculiarly liable to the curse which was threatened for such breach. Yet further, all nations that dwell upon the face of the earth are also subject to this curse, for this reason: that if the law was not given to all from Sinai; it has been written by the finger of God more or less legibly upon the conscience of all mankind. It needs no prophet to tell an Indian, a Laplander, a South Sea Islander, that he must not steal; his own judgment so instructs him. There is that within every man which ought to convince him that idolatry is folly, that adultery and unchastity are immoral, that theft, and murder, and covetousness, are all evil. Now, inasmuch as all men in some degree have the law within, to that degree they are under the law; the curse of the law for transgression comes upon them.”13
A modern commentator has this to say: “Gentiles indicate that they have their own moral code that overlaps with the law. God created humanity with a sense of right and wrong (cf. 1:32), and while Adam’s fall damaged that, it did not erase it altogether. One’s moral code may be as rudimentary as ‘treat everyone fairly’ or ‘be nice to everyone.’ That moral code is an imperfect reflection of the morality God instilled in humankind, seen most clearly in the law. The problem is that no one lives up to whatever moral code he or his culture approves.”14
Jewish writer David Stern gives us this to think about: “Just below the surface of these verses is the question of whether it is possible for a person to be saved without explicitly having put his faith in God through the Messiah Yeshua. For verses 14–15 speak of doing what the Torah requires and having the conduct the Torah dictates written in one’s heart; and it sounds very much as if such a person would, in fact, be trusting and loving God with all his heart and soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5, Mt 22:37). Skeptics sometimes ask, ‘How can God be so unfair as to condemn to hell some “primitive tribesman” who hasn’t even heard of the Bible?’ They often raise the issue not out of concern for the ‘pitiful lost heathen’ but as a dodge to justify their own unbelief; the very form of the question assumes that God is unjust and not worthy of their trust, that the ‘primitive tribesman’ is an innocent ‘noble savage’ and God the guilty party.”15
At this point salvation through the work of Christ comes into focus. Since all humanity will stand before the judgment seat of God to give an account of their actions, those whose punishment for sin has been eliminated by their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior will only be judged on how they handled their freedom of grace in Christ. However, all those who have never heard of Jesus or never been given the opportunity to seek forgiveness will be sentenced based on their entire record and what their conscience has told them.
1 Genesis 3:9-11
2 Genesis 42:21; See Job 27:6
3 1 John 3:19-20 – Amplified Bible
4 Micah 7:5
5 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Hagigah, folio 16a; See also Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 11a
6 Golden Verses of Pythagoras: #68, #69
7 Ambrosiaster: On Paul’s Epistles, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 John Calvin: On Romans, op., cit., loc. cit.
10 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 228
11 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 19
12 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
14 Vanlaningham, Michael. Romans: From The Moody Bible Commentary (Kindle Locations 700-704). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
15 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.