Many Christians are of the opinion that God has written His laws on the hearts of every man so that they may know right from wrong. The classic proof text is from Romans where Paul is discussing the extent of the sin in the world. I am not convinced that this passage teaches such an expansive idea.
Earlier in Romans, Paul describes how everyone knows from the creation that there is a Creator, but they suppress that truth in unrighteousness—knowing that if there is a God, they are accountable to Him for their actions. God has made it plain to them that He is the Creator and that He is powerful (Romans 1:18–32). Everyone knows there is a God who created this world—they either acknowledge Him in some form or suppress that truth because of its effect on their life. There are no atheists!
But, does this mean that everyone knows right from wrong?In Romans 2:12–16, Paul speaks of Gentiles who do what is right by the law since they have the law written on their hearts. Many Christians understand this to be a statement that affirms that every individual has the law of God “written on their hearts” so that they know right from wrong. Knowing right from wrong, their conscience bears witness to that truth and either excuses them when they do right or makes them feel guilty when they do wrong. This idea is often classified among one of the “common graces” God gives to all mankind to restrain the evil on the earth. Others suggest that this is the active work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of every human. I want to challenge those notions with other passages of Scripture that seem to me to teach something different.
The Ten Commandments
When we speak of God’s law, we understand this broadly to mean the decrees that God has made which man is to follow. As the Creator, God has the right to set the rules for His creation and creatures to follow. Just as He has ordained the gravitational effects of the moon creating the tides, He has decreed that to murder or to lie is against His will. He has clearly condemned these actions and set out severe temporal punishments as well as eternal consequences for sin. God takes sin very seriously.
The law can be summarized in various ways as Scripture affirms. In Romans, Paul often uses the Ten Commandments as a summary of what the law requires of man. In one very clear passage, Paul informs his readers that he would not have known coveting was a sin against God unless someone had showed him so in God’s written law (Romans 7:7). Elsewhere Paul uses stealing, lying, adultery, and murder as summaries of what God commands of men (Romans 2:21–22, 13:9, and others).
Question: If every person has the law written on their hearts, then why didn’t Paul know that coveting was a sin? If it was a sin, surely his conscience would have accused him of this rebellion against God’s good provision, even to the Gentile. I have had the occasion to ask many people if they ever felt guilty about coveting before they had received God’s forgiveness through Christ. Not a single Christian has ever said yes and no unbelievers have ever said yes. In fact, the typical response is that it is good to covet because it makes you work harder to get the things you want.
I understand that this is an argument from anecdote, but it is still an interesting angle to pursue further. Why don’t you ask around and see if any young boys ever felt guilty (on their own, without any instruction) about spending an hour with a Lego catalog or any little girls with an American Girl catalog. Let me know if you find any.
Either covetousness is not in view in Romans 2:12–16 or the law isn’t really written on everyone’s heart.
The Greatest Commandments
Just as Jesus says in Mark 12:28–31, the Law and the Prophets, that is, all of the commands of God, can be summed up in two ideas—Love God with all your being, and love others as yourself. Paul also affirms this in Romans 13:9–10. The Apostle John uses this idea in several places, including 1 John 4:21 (see also Galatians 5:14; James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18; etc.). Jesus called everyone to believe in Himself as the Messiah who was sent by God. To reject that He is God is to fail to love God (John 6). Is the conscience of everyone who fails to worship Jesus causing torment in their very souls? If the law is written on their hearts, surely their conscience is condemning them for not kissing the Son and loving their neighbors as themselves.
A Heart of Flesh
As the Old Testament prophets look forward to the time of the Messiah, one of the important details God reveals is that there will be a New Covenant. The signs of this New Covenant are many, but one has to do with the heart. In Isaiah 36:22–29, we learn that God will one day place His Spirit in His children and give them a heart of flesh to replace their heart of stone. God will cause the people to walk in His statutes and they will obey. In Jeremiah 31:31–34, we see similar language regarding the New Covenant. The mark of this New Covenant includes putting the law in the minds and hearts of God’s people. They will have knowledge of God and their sins will be forgiven. I understand this passage to be referring to Christians who have received forgiveness through Christ (Hebrews 8:6–13). I trust that God has given me a new heart of flesh, that His Spirit is living in me and convicting me of sin, and that the law is written on my heart.
Written on Whose Heart?
If the sign of the New Covenant is that the law is written on their hearts and the Holy Spirit indwells them, how can we say that every person on the earth has the law written on their hearts or that the Spirit is actively working in their hearts? To say these things must also mean that their sins are forgiven and that they are the people of God, as the Jeremiah passage clearly teaches.
Why would God write His law on the hearts of every person and then make the law written on the heart a sign of the New Covenant? It would seem quite odd that God would use something He gives to everyone as a sign to His elect children. Jesus makes it clear that only those who trust in Him as Savior and are called by God will “be taught by God” (John 6:41–51; quoting Isaiah 54:13). If God is teaching everyone by placing His law in their hearts, then where is the distinction among people that Jesus seems to be making?
However, if these passages are all referring to those who are in Christ as partakers in the New Covenant, then there are no conflicts that I can see. They are forgiven of their sins, they have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, the law is written on their hearts, they are the elect children of God, and God teaches them through His Spirit.
Who Are these Gentiles?
I would suggest that the Gentiles Paul is referring to in Romans 2 are not random people around the globe, but the Gentiles who have come to faith in Christ. Having the Holy Spirit in them, their conscience is attuned to God’s law—the very law that is written on their hearts as a sign of the New Covenant that they have entered with God. Their sins are forgiven and God is growing them in holiness that they might be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
I do not believe that the law is written on the hearts of all men. I do believe that every person on this earth knows there is a God and that they are accountable to Him. One of the keys to evangelism is to help people understand the nature of their sin; using the law as a tutor and Christ as the standard of perfection. In light of their sin and a knowledge of the Savior, they can flee to the Cross for mercy and forgiveness. Without that knowledge being presented, how can they know they need a Savior.
This is not a topic I have just come to, but one I have been seriously thinking and praying about for years. I understand that many, if not most, commentators would disagree with me, but I want to make sure I am looking to Scripture for truth not the thoughts of other men, as godly and wise as they may be. I humbly welcome your critiques, but please bring your arguments from Scripture and not from feelings or what you heard someone say once in a sermon somewhere.