Growing up watching Westerns on television brought with it the notion that there was a certain “honor among thieves.” In at least one episode every season the hero would have to infiltrate a town that had no sheriff and was run by the bad guys wearing black hats. Sure, there was the barroom brawl with chairs flying everywhere, but no outlaw would ever think of stealing from another one. And when the hero rode into town, they teamed together against him, rather than have one of their own brought to justice.
A certain amount of fair play is instilled in us when we are very young. We expect a certain kind of behavior, even when there is no written law to guide such behavior. How many times haven’t parents heard words similar to these come from the mouths of their children: “How would you like it if I did that to you?”; “That’s my seat, I called it first”; “Give me some of your orange; I gave you some of mine”; and of course they are all finished with the words, “That’s not fair!”
Through general revelation, be it by nature or instinct, already from childhood, we know certain things are required of us, even though we may have no specific knowledge of the law. Paul writes that the things required by the law—not the law itself—have been written on the hearts of the Gentiles. There is very little difference between having the law of God written on our hearts and having a sense of morality written on our hearts. The two overlap one another on several points.
Even the most wicked of dictators who send out their armies to pillage villages have a code of ethics within their own household. They would be horrified at the suggestion that a loyal servant be put to death for no reason, because “that’s just wrong.” Our own culture has decided that it is perfectly legitimate to kill a baby in the womb, but will prosecute a doctor who smothers a baby a few seconds after birth.
Some may point to the most hardened of criminals and claim that they have no conscience or sense of morality. I would contend that the first time a person commits a heinous, sin his conscience does cry out against it, but that cry is ignored. Over time, as the individual suppresses his conscience it becomes weaker and may even disappear, to the point where the individual can no longer distinguish right from wrong.
We don’t have to look at hardened criminals to know this is true. We need but look at ourselves. In how many different ways haven’t we suppressed our consciences (and God’s law) in an effort to justify worldliness, our lack of awe toward God and worship, and a host of other sins. Review the Sermon on the Mount and the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the Ten Commandments and see if they do not prick your conscience. Even as confessing Christians we commit heinous sins against God, yet we see ourselves as decent, moral, and upright individuals.
That is precisely the point that Paul is trying to make. With or without the law, we stand accused before God because we have suppressed that which God has made clear through general revelation (Romans 1:19). The Gentiles would be found guilty before God, not because they had the written law, but because they have enough of the law in their consciences to convict them.
If general revelation is enough to leave us without excuse, how much more so those who have received a special revelation from God? Those who had received the law and boasted in their relationship with God would be judged by that very law in which they boasted. It would not be enough to have only heard the law; it would be a matter of having done the law. After all, the law was given that man should obey it.
The Jews believed they had every advantage given to them. In their spiritual arrogance, they claimed the following special privileges given to them by God:
1. They were Jews. This name, short for “Judah,” means “Jehovah be praised” and was a constant reminder that they were the race chosen by God to bring praise to Him.
2. They had the law. The great Jehovah had chosen them to be recipients of the law. This, they thought, gave them special standing before God. For many, keeping the law did not mean obeying it as much as it did holding it in their possession.
3. They knew God’s will. As the recipients of the Torah and prophetic writings, they were able to discern God’s plan for the ages. And of course, that plan included the idea that, in time, the Jews would rise to world power with one like King David sitting on the throne in Jerusalem.
4. They were enlightened. As God’s favorite, they were able to make superior moral judgments. All the other nations were outside of their privileged circle and ignorant, foolish, or infants. They had the advantage over the Gentiles in knowing what was right and what was wrong.
5. They were to teach the nations. God had given them the duty to be a light in the darkness and tell the world about Him. In that way, God would bless those who blessed them and curse those who cursed them.
If these were not enough, the Jews had one final argument that set them apart from the heathen Gentiles and placed them in favor with God. They were circumcised. The rabbis taught that no circumcised person would ever be sent to hell. This outward mark of God’s covenant assured them that the promise of salvation was guaranteed to them. They were convinced that as children of Abraham, and as participants in the sacraments and rituals performed by God-appointed priests, they were safe within their “Jewishness.” There was no salvation apart from them.
Paul, however, writes that nothing could be further from the truth. Although circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant relationship with Israel, it was a symbol of faith. Abraham, for example, was justified before he was circumcised. For circumcision (or any other rite) to secure salvation, one would need to obey perfectly the entire law.
Paul then points out that the conduct of the Jews is not in line with their knowledge of God’s law or with their teaching of that law to others. He appeals to their consciences. This is the same approach that Jesus often took when He would expose the hatred, covetousness, hypocrisy, and irreverence that filled the children of Abraham. The behavior of the Jews was such that even the Gentiles spoke evil of them. The Jews, no more than the Gentiles, could claim exemption from God’s judgment on the basis of heritage or personal holiness.
Ever since Romans 1:18, Paul has been bringing two groups of people before God’s judgment. The verdicts on both the Gentile and the Jew come with frightful certainty. As for the Gentile who is without the law: guilty. As for the Jews who have the law: guilty.
All too often Christians find themselves with the same mindset as the Jews. After all, we can claim special privileges given to us:
1. We are Christians. We have been anointed to be prophets, priests, and kings for the kingdom of God. We wear that label with honor and, all too often, with pride, seeking to bring glory to ourselves rather than God.
2. We have the Word of God. Unlike in the persecuted church where Bibles are scarce, in North America we are blessed to have multiple volumes of God’s Word in our churches and homes. In too many homes, however, they are neglected and unread. The family altar and devotions at mealtime are becoming a thing of the past.
3. We know God’s will. Scripture clearly teaches it. We pride ourselves in knowing it. After all, we go to a church that still reads the Ten Commandments every week. And yet, we fail to love God with heart, mind, and soul; we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves.
4. We are enlightened. We bravely fight against abortion and other evils by giving generously at dinners and other fund raisers. We visit the Creation Museum and shake our heads at those who believe in an old earth. While we are eager to defend the truth, we seldom talk to people about our faith in Jesus Christ and the need to trust in Him for salvation.
5. We are to teach the nations. Jesus demanded that His followers “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We establish wonderful Christian schools and invite non-Reformed parents to send their children. Then, in order to attract more students, we take the word “Reformed” out of the school’s charter.
If all else fails, we have been baptized and are in the covenant. Like the Jews with circumcision, many Christians think their baptism is a golden ticket to heaven. Some of the most difficult visits made by elders are to wayward members who assume their salvation because their membership resides in some long-forgotten church. Just as the law had to be kept perfectly by those who were circumcised to obtain salvation, so also with baptism. Just as the Jews could not rely on their circumcision to save them, Christians can not rely on their baptism.
We shake our heads at the obscenities of the world and think ourselves better than the unbeliever—and all too often, better than those who attend other churches. While we as Christians abhor and condemn the excesses of worldly people, Paul points out that we are guilty of the same evils. Who of us would dare say that he has not sinned against the law of God? Paul seeks to remove the kind of morals and self-righteousness that seeks to rely on good works for salvation. This is what the apostle wants to drive home in order to alert us to another righteousness—a righteousness from God that is not of the law but of faith.
We can only be reconciled to God through the atoning sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. He was both circumcised and baptized, thereby placing Himself voluntarily under the law, obligating Himself to keep it perfectly. Through His perfect obedience, He fulfills righteousness for us. Having received a true righteousness outside of ourselves, we may no longer boast in ourselves but in Him who has saved us by clothing us in His righteousness.
Rev. Wybren H. Oord is the co-pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and the editor of The Outlook.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Give examples of people having a “law unto themselves.”
2. Why will those who sin apart from the law perish?
3. Is it possible to lose moral discernment? What is the meaning of 1 Timothy 4:2–3?
4. What advantages did the Jews have over the Gentiles?
5. How did those advantages help or hinder the Jews?
6. How did the Jews view themselves? the law? their relationship with God?
7. Why will those who are under the law (Jews and religious people) perish?
8. Can anyone claim to have lived a righteous life before God?
9. How can a Christian be guilty of bringing dishonor on the Name of God?