Solid Food

The Gentiles and the Law of the Conscience
(Romans 2:12-16)

Donnie V. Rader

Romans 2:12-16 says:

Romans 1 had established that the Gentiles are in sin and need salvation. The point of chapter two is to show that the Jews likewise are in sin and need salvation just like the Gentiles. The point of the above verses (vv. 12-16) is an amplification of the point in v. 11 (God is no respecter of persons). So, his point is that God will condemn those who sin whether they be Jew or Gentile. Those who sin without the law (Gentiles), God will condemn. Those who sin in the law (Jews), God will condemn.

This text is used by some of our brethren to teach that the Gentiles and all aliens today are not under the law of Christ (and thus not under his teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage), but under some kind of inherent law in the heart.

The Idea Of A Universal Moral Law

1. Why some brethren must have a universal moral law (or law in the heart). If all men (including alien sinners) are under the law of Christ, then all men (including aliens) are under Christ's law on marriage, divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9). That would mean that those who violate that law (by putting their mate away and marrying another) are living in adultery. However, in order to teach that a man can keep his second or third wife when he becomes a Christian, one must teach that the alien is not under the law of Christ. If he is not under the law of Christ, how did he become a sinner? Remember, sin is a transgression of law (1 John 3:4). If there is no law, there is no transgression (Rom 4:15). That's where the idea of some other law comes in.

In the early 1950's E. C. Fuqua was teaching in his paper, The Vindicator, that the alien is not under Christ's law on marriage. In answer to the question of what law the alien violates to become a sinner, he said he was only under civil law.

Later James D. Bales wrote Not Under Bondage in which he took the position that the alien is not under Christ's law on marriage. He differed from Fuqua saying that the alien is under a inherent law in the heart. He wrote an entire book on this concept: The Law In The Heart (1981).

Brother Homer Hailey wrote his book The Divorced And Remarried Who Would Come To God in 1991. His position is basically the same as Bales. What Bales calls a "law in the heart", Hailey calls a "universal moral law."

2. These brethren think that Romans 2 teaches some kind of inborn, innate moral law that all men are under until they become Christians. James Bales wrote in the introduction to Not Under Bondage:

Two years later Bales published his promised book, The Law In The Heart. He bases his concept on our text (Rom. 2:12-16). In the introduction of that book he speaks of a "moral law written into the nature of man" and cites Rom. 2 as the passage that so teaches (p. 13).

Brother Hailey does not specifically address Rom. 2:14-15 in his book, but he does discuss Roman 1-3 and the law(s) by which the Jew and Gentiles will judged. Speaking of the Gentiles of Romans 1 he said,

As he deals with Romans 2 (p. 29) and what law the Gentiles are under, he repeatedly mentions a "universal moral law". Later in the book he connects his concepts on a universal moral law to his position on divorce and remarriage.

Jerry Bassett argues the same concept in Rethinking Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage. He puts the world under some "law in the heart" that he sees in Rom. 2 rather than the law ofChrist.

Speaking of the "law written in their hearts (Rom.2:12-15)" Bassett says,

What Is This "Universal Moral Law" Or "Law In The Heart"?

This innate law placed in the heart that our brethren speak of is presented as a vague concept. Since they are so sure there is such a law, they should be able to tell us more about it.

A few questions are in order.

  1. Where can I read this law?
  2. How can I know what is in it? Does it include instructions about worship? Does it include requirements to obey civil law? Does it prohibit lust? Does it forbid polygamy? How can we know it does not include some law that teaches the same as Christ's law on MDR (Matt. 19:9)?
  3. Does this law differ from other laws? If so, how? Does it differ at all from the law the patriarchs were under? Is it any different from the law of Moses? Does it differ with the law of Christ?
  4. Were the Jews under it too or were they only under the law of Moses?
  5. How did the Gentiles know this law? If it was not revealed, how could they know what it said (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9-13)?

What Is Rom. 2:12-16 Saying?

1. It was the work of the law and not the law itself that was written in the heart. There is nothing in Rom. 2 about a law being written in the heart of man. The text does not say anything about God placing a law in the heart. Rather, v. 15 says , "who show the work of the law written in their hearts..." (emphasis mine DVR).

2. The law referred to was the law of Moses. This is not some mysterious moral code that is inborn. The law Paul speaks of is the law that the Jews had, but the Gentiles did not. That was the law given at Sinai. Verse 12 refers to the Gentiles as those "without law". All agree they were not without any law. So, what law were they without? The same law the Jews had (v. 12). Follow the references to the law in the context (vv. 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 26, 27).

3. When did Rom. 2:14-15 apply? To what period does it refer? It describes the time when the law of Moses was in effect. If the text is talking of the Jews (who were "in the law") before the law ended and the NT began, then it must be describing the Gentiles before the law ended and the NT began. However, if it is referring to the Gentiles after the NT is in force, then it is describing the Jews as being "in the law" after the NT is in force.

4. How do the Gentiles do the works of the law by nature? Those who have misapplied the passage take it to mean the law in innate or inherent. However, nature can mean something that is learned and becomes a matter of practice (sometimes called our second nature). The word for nature is phusis. Thayer says the word can mean "a mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature" (p. 660). It is the same word found in Eph. 2:3 ("were by nature children of wrath").

There is nothing in Rom. 2 to demand that there is an inherent moral law. Actually, the thing that is by nature is their doing the things in the law. Thus, if the word nature suggest something inherent, it is suggesting inherent morality and obedience. If Rom. 2 is suggesting inherent morality because "nature" is used, then Eph. 2 is suggesting inherent evil because "nature" is used.

How then, was the work of the law written in their heart? Consider a parallel. Jeremiah said that the new covenant would be written in the hearts of man (Jer. 31:33). How did God do that? By men being taught and learning the new covenant. Likewise the Gentiles had learned the principles found in the law of Moses and adopted them for themselves thus having the works of the law written in their hearts. Their long habit of practice of those principles is how they did the things in the law by nature.

5. Rom. 2:12-16 is not describing all Gentiles. The arguments made about a universal moral law from Rom. 2 gives the idea that Paul is describing all the Gentile world. Some of the Gentiles didn't even retain God in their knowledge (Rom. 1:28). However, some of the Gentiles adopted the principles found in the law given to the Jews (Rom. 2:12-16). This text is only speaking of those that did by nature (their learned practice) the things in the law.

What Law Were The Gentiles Under?

1. The point of Rom. 2:12-16 is not that the Gentiles were without any law. If so, there would be no sin (Rom. 4:15). Again, the context is showing that they were without the law of Moses.

2. God had law for the Gentiles. In describing the dispensations, we sometimes give the impression that the patriarchal period ended at Sinai when the Law of Moses began. Since the law given by Moses was for the Jews, what about the Gentiles? As God had dealt with man before the law of Moses, he continued to deal with the Gentile world. The focal point of the OT is the story of the nation through whom the seed would come. The camera of the OT focuses on the Jews and the law given to them. However, God was still dealing all the while with the Gentile world.

There were prophets and priests among the Gentiles. Melchizedek was a priest and king (Gen. 14:18, 19). Abimelech respected the sanctity of marriage (Gen. 20:3-8). Jethro was a priest of Midian and offered sacrifice to God (Exo. 18:1-27). Balaam was a prophet of Midian (Num. 22-24). Jonah was a prophet to Ninevah and led Gentiles to repentance (Jonah 3:1-10). Amos spoke against the Gentiles (Amos 1-2).

The Gentiles had the opportunity to learn what God expected of them by (1) prophets and priests God sent among them and (2) by observing the Jews and the law God gave to them.

All Are Under The Law Of Christ

1. Jesus has universal authority. He has power over all flesh (John 17:2). He has all authority (Matt. 28:18). He will judge the world (Acts 17:30-31).

2. The gospel (the law of Christ) is for all. Jesus commanded that his law be preached to every creature (Matt. 28; Mark 16).

3. Since all men are under the law of Christ, all men are bound by his law on marriage, divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9). His law on marriage is part of the gospel that is for all. Furthermore, Jesus applied his law to "whosoever" (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18).

e-mail this author at

Return to Watchman Front Page

return to March index