After a brief “life” interlude, we now return to the series of articles addressing the Law of God and related topics. For the Christian, God’s Law is our rule of life. By grace alone, we love God’s Law and delight in it as it burdens us not (Psalm 1:2, 119:97; Romans 7:22; 1 John 5:3). But for the nonbeliever, God’s Law brings a curse (Galatians 3:10). It is a curse because God’s Law reveals who He is – righteous – and His Law reveals what man is – not righteous. Man’s sinful nature is therefore contrary or opposed to God’s holy nature.
Those in Christ recognize how far short we fall of the glory of God, and the Law serves to continuously point us to Jesus. However, those under the Law of God are condemned and guilty before God the Lawgiver, and the only hope for them is the cross.
What then is the Law of God? The full scope of that question will not be answered in this article, though we will consider a significant aspect of God’s Law. While it is critical to understand how the Law of God is manifest throughout redemptive history, especially for New Covenant believers, our discussion here will be limited to the eternal Law of God universally expressed for all people of all time. The implications are of no small significance if one does not rightly understand what the Law of God is and what it is not. The purpose of this article will therefore serve to positively assert what is the Law of God as it is expressed in nature.
What is the Law of Nature?
In describing the view of God’s Law in the mind of 19th century Dutch statesman, theologian, and philosopher Abraham Kuyper, Dr. David VanDrunen notes in his work Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms:
Like his predecessors, Kuyper not only affirmed the existence of natural law but also emphasized its divine origin and hence divine authority. The law of nature is the law of God. Kuyper also spoke of the law of nature as written upon the human heart, associated it with the conscience, and identified it with the Decalogue (287).
It is essential to emphatically reject that the phrase, natural law, is meant to convey the notion that law as it pertains to morality is subjectively determined by human reason. “Natural law” is not derived from naturalism, a pagan philosophy largely developed during the Enlightenment, which rejects all things supernatural and posits only the physical world exists. For naturalists, science is god, and it determines what is “moral” as derived from evidence-based beliefs. Neither does “natural law” derive from such philosophical quagmires as moral relativism, which claims right and wrong is determined by the context (whether the context of the culture or the individual). For the moral relativist, self is god, for self determines the standards by which one should live according to what self believes to be true.
For Kuyper, he faced a dilemma in his day in much the same way one using the term “natural law” finds today, only his was a different context. Unlike opposition from today’s neo-Calvinists and their rejection of “natural law” as if it was a product of naturalism, Kuyper’s context compelled him to amend his terminology due to his naturalist opposition. VanDrunen notes:
One distinctive feature of Kuyper’s position is terminological. He clearly preferred the language of “divine ordinances” to that of “natural law,” though, as observed above, he does in fact use the latter terminology at times. The former term was perhaps more amenable to Kuyper in light of his understanding of this contemporary context. As suggested in the introduction of the present chapter, in an age in which his bitter opponents, the apologists for the French Revolution and the worldviews that it reflected and spawned, could speak glowingly about things natural, the language of “divine ordinances” was perhaps better suited to express a key truth that his opponents denied, namely, that natural law was not simply natural but was imposed upon nature by God (287).
The point I am attempting to drive home here, is that the law of nature is not law according to naturalism or, as theonomists wrongly assert, human autonomy. Rather, natural law is of divine origin. The law of nature is no less a divine ordinance, as it were, than natural revelation is of divine origin. In fact, the law of nature is doubtless an intrinsic element of natural revelation. Indeed, just as God has revealed Himself in nature so that man is without excuse for denying His existence (Romans 1:18-25), so God has not left Himself without witness in the human conscience that He is there, He is righteous, and He has given man a fundamental sense of right and wrong.
Natural Law is the Law Written to the Heart
On the Law of God, Chapter 19.1 of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith states:
God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it. (Genesis 1:27; Ecclesiastes 7:29; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:10, 12)
Further, 19.2 ties in this law written on the heart with what is commonly called the “moral law”, or the Ten Commandments:
The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall, and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables, the four first containing our duty towards God, and the other six, our duty to man. (Romans 2:14, 15; Deuteronomy 10:4)
In his Modern Exposition of the 1689 LBCF, Dr. Sam Waldron notes regarding Romans 2:12-15:
Though [the Gentiles] have not received it as a written revelation, they none the less are confronted with [the law]. It speaks of the means of their confrontation with the law of God. The Gentiles are to (or for) themselves the law. It is theirs ‘by nature’ (v. 14), ‘written in their hearts’ (v. 15). John Murray remarks, ‘The law of God confronts them and registers itself in their consciousness by reason of what they natively and constitutionally are.’ The implication of this is obvious. If raw pagans are in possession of the law of God, it can only be because that law was written in the heart of Adam at creation and has not been effaced even by the Fall. It also speaks of the identity of that law with which they are confronted. It is evident from verse 12 that it must be the law of God of which Paul is speaking…
…The phrase ‘the law’ in Romans 2 clearly designates the law of God delivered to Israel on Mount Sinai, specifically the Ten Commandments (vv. 13, 17-29)…Thus, by asserting that Gentiles are in possession of the law, Paul teaches that a substantial identity exists between the Ten Commandments and the law of God written by creation in the heart of Adam and all his descendants. (236)
Let’s now take time to read Romans 2:12-16, with a little help by substituting “Ten Commandments”, which are the heart of the Mosaic law, for “the law”:
For all [Gentiles] who have sinned without the [Ten Commandments] will also perish without the [Ten Commandments], and all [Jews] who have sinned under the [Ten Commandments] will be judged by the [Ten Commandments]. For it is not the hearers of the [Ten Commandments] who are righteous before God, but the doers of the [Ten Commandments] who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the [Ten Commandments], by nature do what the [Ten Commandments] requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the [Ten Commandments]. They show that the work of the [Ten Commandments] is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
It is clear from this text that Gentiles do not have the Mosaic law, specifically the Ten Commandments, which were written on tablets of stone, but rather they have the work of the law written to the human heart. Paul’s point here is multifold: 1) All men are judged according to the amount of truth they have been exposed to – for the Gentiles, they possess divine general revelation giving them intuitive knowledge of the existence of God and a fundamental understanding of right and wrong; for the Jews, they possess divine general revelation and special revelation through God’s prophets and thus in written text. 2) The law, including the Ten Commandments, was given to Israel through God’s covenant with Moses; the law, therefore, was not given to Gentiles who are “without law” (the Ten Commandments). 3) Yet, Gentiles “by nature” do what the law (Ten Commandments) requires because the work of the law (Ten Commandments) is written to their hearts. 4) Therefore, their conscience bears witness to this truth, and they will be judged and they will perish, not according to the just standard of the Ten Commandments, but according to the just standard written to their hearts. 5) Whether Jew or Gentile, all who seek to live by the law to be justified by the law will be condemned by the law.
At this point, it will be beneficial to bring Dr. Thomas Scheiner into the discussion as he ties in Romans 1:32 to intuitive recognition of right and wrong existing in the conscience of every man. In 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, Schreiner writes:
But why are Gentiles condemned for sin if they are ignorant of God’s law? Even though they did not have a written law from God communicating what was right or wrong, they were familiar with “God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die” (Rom. 1:32). God’s “decree” or “ordinance” (dikaiōma) that those who practice evil deserve eternal death is not hidden from them. They know intuitively, presumably because God planted such knowledge in their hearts, that those who practice evil deserve death” (77).
Helpfully adding to this discussion, Pastor Charles Leiter explains in his work, The Law of Christ:
Though they have never seen a Bible or heard of the Ten Commandments, Gentiles nevertheless have an innate knowledge of God and of right and wrong. When a poisonous snake attached itself to Paul’s hand on the island of Malta, the natives said, “Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” How did they know murder was wrong, and how did they know that “justice” required murder to be punished by the death of the offender? According to Paul, they knew this because of “the work of the Law written in their hearts…
…When Gentiles “do instinctively the things of the Law,” it is the essence of the law that is being manifested as “written on their hearts.” Men know by nature that they should not do things to their neighbors that they would not want done to themselves. They know, for example, that they should not deceive, steal from, and murder their neighbors – i.e., they know they should love them. This is why some form of the “Golden Rule” is found in all of the major world religions. In the same way, men know by nature that they should love and glorify God, and they know in their consciences that they have fallen far short of this obligation….
…Long before the Law of Moses was ever given, God held men accountable for sinning against the work of the Law written on their consciences… (131-132)
Whether one desires to call this law “natural law”, “divine ordinance”, or “moral law”, the truth behind the terminology is the same: there is a law of God that transcends the Mosaic law as it expressly represents the unchanging, eternal law of God characterizing the unchanging, holy nature of God. Yes, they are the moral norms crystallized in the Ten Commandments, but they existed before the Mosaic law, and they exist after the Mosaic law. This Law of God imposed upon nature is of divine origin and divine authority, and man is without excuse for suppressing its truth unto disobedience. Thus, the law of nature is no less an expression of the eternal law of God.
In what ways, then, do we see this fundamental truth applied in the historical narrative of Scripture?
Taking a Step Back
If we take a step back to look at the big picture of redemptive history, it is easier to remove ourselves and our contemporary context from Bible interpretation. For example, many American Christians, be they dominionists or just have some bad theology, will take a verse like 2 Chronicles 7:14 and apply it to the redemption of America. The verse reads:
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
The fact is, this verse has nothing to do with America or another other nation except for Israel. It was a conditional promise for Israel that if they humble themselves, and if they pray and seek the Lord’s face, and if they repent from their wicked ways, then God will hear them and forgive their national sins and heal their land. Similarly, Christian Reconstructionists believe that the church is somehow mandated to reform society by bringing it under Mosaic law. They believe the Mosaic law mandated to Israel must be the civil code mandated to all the nations. And, Christian Reconstructionists believe the way to reform society, or “redeem the culture”, is through the Great Commission, to include “discipling nations” to implement and obey Mosaic law.
But is that God’s purpose and mandate to the church – to disciple nations to govern according to Moses? Has He decreed Gentile nations to govern by the “Mosaic standard”? With a brief look at just two passages, the short answer is a resounding NO:
He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules. – Psalms 147:19-20
For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? – Deuteronomy 4:7-8
By considering how God treated and ruled over the pagan nations in ancient history, we can better understand how He treats and rules over the pagan nations today.
God Rules Over the Sons of Disobedience
God has always ruled over the sons of disobedience. These are those who are children of wrath by nature:
in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:2-3).
It was God who turned all people over to live “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind” (Romans 1:18-32).
It was God who set a single nation apart to be holy to Himself, and that nation was Israel (Exodus 19:5; Leviticus 20:26; Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2). Yet, even within Israel, only a remnant were true children of God according to the election of grace (Romans 11:5). The rest of mankind were sons of disobedience.
How then did God treat these sons of disobedience that formed the nations? Acts 14:16-17a has the answer:
In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness…
As God had not set but one nation apart to be holy to Himself, He allowed all other nations to go their own way. Century after century, even millennia after millennia before God’s covenant with Israel, God permitted the Gentile nations to do their own thing. On Acts 14:16-17, Dr. John MacArthur notes in his Bible commentary:
The path that they all have walked is described in Romans 1:18-32. God’s providence and His creative power testify to man’s reason of His existence (Rom. 1:18-20), as does man’s own conscience, which contains His moral law (Rom. 2:13-15).
That God allowed them to go their own way does not negate their accountability before a holy God. All of their sins of idolatry, child sacrifice, murder, homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality would come into account. But how can they be held accountable, and how would they even be called the sons of disobedience, if they were “without law” according to Romans 2:12? As we have already seen in this article, it is because God has not left Himself without witness and had written the work of His law to their hearts.
It was not God’s purpose for these pagan nations to rule according to Mosaic law (which didn’t even exist for over two millennia!). For instance, God allowed Sodom and Gomorrah, who were “without law”, to go their own way, and He destroyed them for it. The Lord raised up the nation of Egypt, which for a time, gave the Israelites refuge. But God allowed the Egyptian nation, who was “without law”, to go their own way. It is clear that God raised up Pharaoh, and allowed him to go his own way, that God would manifest His power and “show mercy on whom He shows mercy”:
For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Romans 9:17).
In Israel’s rebellion, God would raise up Assyria to bring judgment against Israel, yet after God was finished with Assyria, He would bring judgment upon Assyria. It was God who gave power to Assyria to rule over Israel, but He did it without giving them a divine constitution like the Mosaic law.
There are many examples in the Old Testament revealing how God uses the nations for His purposes. It is He who reigns and rules over the nations, for them to do as He pleases (Psalms 22:28, 47:7-8). All civil government is by divine appointment. God rules all nations by His providence and according to the law of nature, He has no redemptive purpose for the temporary governments that are passing away, and there is no nation that has ever existed that God has not raised up, whether to do good or to do evil.
Yes, God rules by providence. Nowhere does Scripture reveal that God rules over modern nations in a manner differently than ancient nations. The only difference between modern times and ancient times is that God has turned the Gospel loose upon all the nations. He has purchased with His own blood a people from every tribe, language, and nation (Revelation 5:9). So our mission as a church is not to “redeem the culture” or “reform society” or disciple the nations to be good Mosaic law-keepers. Our mandate is to preach the Gospel and make disciples, however this may or may not influence governments to justly rule their people.
John Gill offers the following from his commentary on Acts 14:16-18, which rightly sums up how God treats the nations, and our duty under the New Covenant to proclaim truth to them according to the apostles’ example:
For many hundred years past; even ever since God chose and separated the people of Israel from the rest of the nations, to be a peculiar people to himself:
from that time he suffered all nations to walk in their own ways; of ignorance, superstition, and idolatry; which they devised, and chose, and delighted in: not that he gave them any licence to walk in these ways, without being chargeable with sin, or with impunity; but he left them to themselves, to the dim light and law of nature, and gave them no written law, nor any external revelation of his mind and will; nor did he send any prophets or ministers of his unto them, to show them the evil of their ways, and turn them from them, and direct them to the true God, and the right way of worshipping him; but left them to take their own methods, and pursue the imagination of their own hearts: but the apostle suggests, that the case was now altered, and God had sent them and other ministers of his, among all nations of the world, to protest against their superstition and idolatry; and to reclaim them from their evil ways, and to direct them to the true and living God, and his worship, and to preach salvation by his Son Jesus Christ.
In a Ligonier article on natural law, Dr. R.C. Sproul writes:
Many espouse moral relativism today, but the existence of any law at all in society testifies that a supreme authority exists. Mankind creates law because we, in some sense, have it innately in our hearts. This is one point of today’s passage. In Romans 2:14, Paul is not telling us the Gentiles have the right to determine for themselves what is right and what is wrong. He is simply demonstrating how the ethical standards of the Gentiles reveal that we are all made in God’s image, and thus His moral principles are in the consciences of all people…This universal sense of right and wrong is the lex naturalis, or natural law. It has a long tradition in Western jurisprudence and is still reflected to an extent in our judicial system.
The law of nature is indeed the Law of God. In His creation order, God has written the work of His moral law, which He codified in the Ten Commandments, to the heart of every human. No man has excuse for disobeying God, for God has endowed man with a conscience that bears witness to right and wrong, and all men know that practicing evil deserves death. This divine “moral compass”, if you will, is what guides Gentile nations to rule justly; and, however they rule unjustly, God will hold them accountable.
To give you an idea of the direction we’re headed, here are some of the topics I plan to address in future articles:
- Natural law and civil government
- Christian submission vs anarchy
- Christian influence upon society and government
- Just war, self-defense, and pacifism
- Using the Law in evangelism
- The Law of Christ in the life of the Christian
Previous articles in this series:
The Law of God, Theonomy, and Pacifism (includes a growing list of resources related to this ongoing study)