Ellet J. Waggoner
The Signs of the Times : February 18, 1886
While we have been making the claim and proving it, that the law of God covers every possible act or thought, and that no responsible being is outside of its jurisdiction, some one has been looking for the verse which says that the Gentiles do not have the law, but are a law unto themselves. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to consider that text. An answer to it will also involve the consideration of the question why the Ten Commandments, since they have such universal jurisdiction, were spoken from Mount Sinai only to the Jews. Let us now read the passage above referred to.
“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; (for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 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; which show 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.)” Romans 2:12-15
A brief examination of Paul’s argument in this chapter will be necessary in order to get a proper understanding of this text. It will be noticed that the 13th, 14th, and 15th verses are parenthetical, and are therefore secondary to the main argument. Therefore in stating the argument, we shall omit those three verses. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul has shown the terribly immoral condition of the heathen world; and in the second chapter he proceeds to show that whoever condemns the heathen condemns himself; for all are guilty. God, he says, “will render to every man according to his deeds.” To those who patiently persevere in well doing, he will render eternal life; but to those who are contentious, and do not obey the truth (see Psalm 119:142), he will render indignation and wrath. And these rewards of good or ill will be rendered to every man, whether he be Jew or Gentile. “For there is no respect of persons with God. 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; in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.”
In the first two chapters of Romans, the apostle brings out the fact which is plainly stated in the third, that “both Jews and Gentiles” are “under sin,” and that “there is none righteous, no, not one.” In the passage under consideration, he states that, as a consequence, all who do not repent shall suffer “the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds.” This will be done without regard to nationality; “for there is no respect of persons with God;” that is, it is not a man’s birth, but his character, that gives him favor with God. It is the doers of the law whom he justifies, whether they be Jews or Gentiles, and not those who, as did many of the Jews, hear the law, but do not obey. All who sin, whether with the law or without it, shall perish.
In the 12th and 14th verses, we have the two classes brought to view—those who have the law, and those who have it not. There is no question but that the Jews had the law; they rested in it (Romans 2:17), and by breaking it dishonored God. Verses 23, 24. And the 14th verse tells us plainly that those not having the law are the Gentiles. Before considering their case, we must not fail to note the fact that both the Jews who had the law, and the Gentiles who had it not, had sinned. They were alike guilty before God. Romans 3:9, 10. Now “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), and “where no law is, there is no transgression.” Romans 4:15. Therefore it is beyond controversy that both classes here mentioned had transgressed law, and more than that, had been conscious of the fact; for “sin is not imputed when there is no law.” So it is certain that the Gentiles had transgressed the law; yet the text says they had not the law, and that they “sinned without law.” How shall we explain this seeming contradiction? Let us see. Read again verses 14, 15: —
“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; which show 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.”
When God made man in his own image, he made him upright. Ecclesiastes 7:29. Not alone in his physical form, but also in his moral nature, he was in the image of God. While Adam continued in this upright, sinless condition, the law of God was in his heart. We know this from Psalm 40:8, where David, speaking for the Messiah, says, “I delight to do thy will, O my God; yea, thy law is within my heart.” The existence of the law of God in the heart is manifested by the willingness to obey that law; and he who, as was the case with Christ, has the law perfectly formed within his heart, will render perfect obedience to the law. This was the case with our first parents in the Garden of Eden.
But man fell from his high estate; he sinned against God, and thus marred the perfect copy of the law, which had existed in his heart. The tendency of sin is to multiply itself; like the tares sown among the good grain, it will grow without any attention. So the first sin prepared the way for many more, till at last nearly all the world became wholly given up to sin. In Hebrews 3:13, the apostle says that men become “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin;” that is, the more men sin, the less heinous does sin appear to them, until at last evil appears to be only good, and good evil, and they sin without the slightest compunction of conscience. This principle is something with which everybody is familiar. Now this progressive love of sin, and the indifference to it, is nothing else than the obliterating of the copy of the law, which exists in a more or less perfect state in every heart. This work is not done instantaneously; it takes time for men to so completely obliterate the law from their hearts that they will feel no restraint. But when it is entirely gone, then man is in the condition in which he was just prior to the flood, when “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. So long, however, as any portion remains in the heart, the Spirit is enabled to strive with man, and, by means of that law, to convict of sin; and this whether the individual knows anything of the written revelation or not.
Now the Gentiles did not have the law written on stone and in books, as did the Jews; they only had that portion which still remained un-obliterated from their hearts. Of course the Jews, having much more light than the Gentiles had, were far more responsible. The former would necessarily be judged by the fullness of the law; for they could not plead ignorance of any portion of it. If they sinned, justice required that the condemnation of the law should be visited upon them in full measure. But the Gentiles could be judged only by the light that they had. Since they did not have the written revelation, it could not be brought up against them. They knew the difference between right and wrong; and by this they are judged. Had they lived fully up to the light, which they had, by nature, they would have been counted as doers of the law; but since they did not, since their own conscience condemned them, they must suffer the consequences. The Jews, having the written law, are judged by the law; and the Gentiles, not having the written law, perish without being brought into Judgment by it.
Perhaps this can be made plainer by illustration. The Jews had every one of the Ten Commandments in such shape that they could constantly be reminded of them, and know the extent of their claims. Now when they come into Judgment, it is no more than justice that the whole law should be held up before them, that the enormity of their guilt may be manifest. But here is a poor, ignorant barbarian, who, we will suppose, knew by the light of nature, only two precepts of the law, -that it is wrong to kill and to commit adultery. His knowledge of the sinfulness of those acts is shown by his trying to conceal the fact when he has done one or the other of them. His own conscience accuses him. Now it is not necessary, in order to convict him of sin that the whole Ten Commandments be held up beside the record of his life. In the Judgment let the two precepts with which he was familiar be recalled to his mind. By these alone he stands condemned as a sinner; and since “the wages of sin is death,” he justly perishes, without ever having seen the written law. Thus we see that all men, whatever their condition, are amenable to, and are to be judged by, the law of God. When Paul says that the Gentiles have not the law, he means that they had not the written revelation, but not that they did not have some knowledge of right and wrong, as defined by the moral law.