Berean Digest

Tavares D. Mathews

The Gentile and the Conscience (the Law of the Heart?)

Paul emphasizes in Romans 2 that the Jew is not in any position to “judge” the Gentiles. The Jew had a written law, but the Gentile had an oral law, yet they obeyed God. Some believe that the Gentiles were left to just stumble around in the dark with no type of standard to follow but their conscience. While it is certainly true that they did not have a written law, to contend that God just left them to be guided by their conscience or heart is asserting too much.

What is the conscience? The word conscience originates from the Latin words scire (“to know”) and con (“together”).

The conscience entreats us to do what we believe is right and retrains us from doing what we believe is wrong. The conscience is not to be equated with the voice of God or the law of God. It is a human faculty that judges our actions and thoughts by the light of the highest standard we perceive. When we violate our conscience, it condemns us, triggering feelings of shame, anguish, regret, consternation, anxiety, disgrace and even fear. When we follow our conscience, it commends us, bring joy, serenity, self-respect, well-being and gladness. 1

The conscience must be educated by the word of God. Our conscience is not our guide. The conscience is the part of man which when we are contemplating an action or have performed an action, our conscience acts negatively or positively according to the standard which we accept – whether right or wrong. cf. (Acts 23:1)

The Gentiles followed their conscience in light of the standard which they accepted. Even then, many had suppressed their conscience (seared with a hot iron) and were on the level of brute beast in their thinking (cf. Rom. 1; 1 Tim. 4:2).

The conscience could only accuse or excuse them according to the standard which they believed to be true. But how did God accom – plish this. If we are contending that they were not limited to just their conscience, how did God deal with the Gentile. Let us first observe the text from which the “law of the heart” doctrine is believed to be taught (Rom. 2:10–15).

God will give glory, honor and peace to all men whether Jew or Gentile – who does His will. God will judge all men according to the light which they were given. John wrote the dead “small and great” shall stand before God and each man will be judged “according to their works” (Rev. 20:12) whether it be good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10).

Romans 2:12   For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; “Without law” is referring to the Law of Moses. Paul indicated the law was “added” until Christ should come (Gal. 3:19). It was added to the law of Patriarchy in order to govern His people – Israel. The Gentile did not come under the law. They remained under the Patriarchal Law.

Romans 2:13   (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. The Jews were not going to be saved just because they had God’s written law, no they were commanded to keep His Law (cf. James 1:22, 23)

Romans 2:14   For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: The Gentiles did not have a written law, but they did have a standard. They did by nature the things contained in the law. Some contend that “by nature” means that they were born with some instinctive law within themselves. What does “by nature” mean? Thayer defines nature as: “a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature”. In other words, laws that commanded them not to steal, murder,etc. were passed down orally from generation to generation. (cf. Code of Hammurabi)

Romans 2:15   Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
See comments above.

The Case of Creation
While creation is enough to point us to God, it is not enough to tell about God and what he requires. But, because the Gentiles refuse to acknowledge God in creation – which would be the first step to obeying God – meaning, having no other God besides Him – they are without excuse (Rom. 1:20). But, this was not enough to tell them about God.

The Case of Melchizedek

It should be remembered that before God chose Abraham, all people were the same. He had made no distinction between people. There was no Jew or Gentile. Abraham was not the only righteous soul living. Melchizedek was a king and priest of God (Gen. 14:18-20). He had to have been the priest and king of a people who knew God.

The Case of Job

Job is another figure who is believed to have lived during the time of Abraham. He was a man whom God described by saying that “there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil” (Job 1:8). Even Job’s friends knew of God.

The Case of Jethro

Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses was a Midian priest and a worshipper of the one true God (Exodus 3:1; 4:18; 18:1-27).

The Case of Balaam

Whether Balaam was a prophet of God can be debated, but the fact remains that he had some knowledge of the one true God. (Num. 22)

The Case of God’s People in Foreign Lands

God spoke to men in direct ways during this time period. Abimelech king of Gerar received a word from God in a dream (Gen. 20:3). The Hebrew writer informs us that God “at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets” (1:1).Joseph in Egypt; Elijah to Syria; Naomi in Moab; Daniel in Babylon, Media, Persia; Esther in Persia; (see also Rahab’s confession in Joshua 2:10-11 and the wise men who came to see Jesus – how did they know about this?).

The Case of Prophets to Gentile Nations

Jonah prophesied to Nineveh; Obadiah to Edom; Nahum to Assyria; Zephaniah to Ethiopia. All of these lists could be multiplied, but because of space the above will suffice (cf. Luke 1:67-70; Luke 11:49-51; Acts 3:19-21).   

God did not leave the Gentiles without a standard. He used prophets, his people and other means to communicate to the Gentiles His will. Laws that taught them not to steal, murder, etc. were kept by habit (by nature) because it was passed down from generation to generation. Thus, their conscience was educated by a moral standard which was given by their Creator.

  1. See John MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience (Nashville: Thomas Nelson. 1994), 23.