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Unwritten Law

Or, God’s Witness in Every Conscience
Romans 2:12-16
November 21, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins


C. S. Lewis referred to it as the Tao in The Abolition of Man. Augustine and Aquinas called it “natural law,” and it ought to be seen as a complement to the presuppositional apologetic as taught by men such as Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen. You don’t need to read any of those men, you can read these five verses to the Romans. Whatever label we give it, or how many more pages can be written about it, the point is this: God’s moral law for all men is inside every man. No Bible is required to know what’s right or to judge men for not doing what’s right.

Paul has really been sticking his authorial finger into the sores of unrighteousness for a while. The opening of Romans started on such a positive, even buoyant, tone exalting the power of God to salvation for Jews first and also Gentiles who believe the gospel. In the gospel God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith (Romans 1:16-17). Then Paul turned onto Judgment Juncture, Condemnation Corner, Wrath Road.

It’s more of a superhighway of sin, lots of lanes and packed with traffic. The apostle starts putting up huge billboards by the side of the road pointing out where men are and where they’re headed. Blinking lights: “Bridge Out Ahead”

Men know that God is and that God doesn’t approve of their lusts. In what can only be appreciated as ironic, God lets them have so much of their “freedom” from Him that they’re enslaved by it. Yet even then there is some individual and cultural sense of right and wrong, and this continues to reinforce that men will have to give an answer for that.

In the previous paragraph (2:5-11) Paul showed that everyone will be judged by his works, endurance of work of good as well as obedience to unrighteousness, no matter one’s religious background, Jew or Greek, for God shows no partiality.

This paragraph (Romans 2:12-16) drills down further and reveals that every man has a built-in, factory model moral GPS system that keeps repeating to him every time he misses a turn, which is a lot of the time. How often do we hear a man try to excuse himself by saying he had “no idea,” so he shouldn’t be held accountable? But everyone has listened to the little voice coming from his internal dashboard, at least enough to prove his final culpability.

God Is Impartial (verses 12-14)

Verses 12-14 extend the explanation for why God’s judgment is just, in three steps.

Why can we trust that God is impartial? How do we know that His judgment is giving every man a fair shake?

1. Because everyone is judged according to what they know is right, not according to what they don’t know.

In particular, all men are judged accurately and fairly regardless of their access to God’s Word.

No one in Paul’s audience had a New Testament. It is very unlikely that anyone in Rome had his own copy of part of the Old Testament, let alone a complete copy. Most of the Roman population wouldn’t have been curious about Moses, even if they had wanted to download the Torah app onto their tablet just to check it out.

The Jews—and there were some in Rome—were a people specially gifted with what we call special revelation. All had general, creational revelation (as described in Romans 1:19-20, similarly in Psalm 19:1-6), but to Israel God gave prophets and parchments, and two stone tablets (Psalm 19:7-9).

He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and rules to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his rules.
Praise the LORD!
(Psalm 147:19–20)

Israel had a covenant with the LORD, Yahweh, and His law provided the instructions for the covenant. Paul doesn’t refer to the Mosaic Law by name, or even to its summary in the Ten Commandments. “Law” can refer to a number of things, but in verse 12 it distinguishes between the Haves and the HaveNots.

For those sinning without law will perish also without law, and those sinning in law will be judged by law.

Law is found nine times in these verses, with no definite article modifying law in verses 12-13. The end of the matter is death for evil-doers (Romans 1:32); that’s the law. To perish is eternal destruction, to receive God’s wrath and fury (2:8). It is the end for those who sin regardless of having their own copy of the code.

2. Besides, everyone is judged by what they do, right or not, not by identification with a law (system).

Having, hearing (or reading), even teaching, God’s Word has never made a man in good standing with God. It is always OBEDIENCE.

It’s an important point for us as well. The Lord told Joshua to meditate on the law of the Lord so that he might “be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8). This is the point James makes (James 1:22-25). Hearing and having are not enough.

For the hearers of law are not righteous before God but the doers of law will be justified.

Hearers and doers are rare Greek nouns, and righteous and justified (or “declared to be righteous”) are regular cognates, especially in this letter to the Romans. A righteous standing before God is key, and it must be given, and it’s not given to possessors but rather to practicers of law.

Jews weren’t right by virtue of having God’s Book, neither, for that matter, are we who have good quiet times and yearly reading checkboxes but are full of the works of the flesh. Disciples of Christ are taught to obey all that He’s commanded (Matthew 28:20), because judgment has always been about what we do.

3. And, even the nations do (some) right, the kind of right found in the law, by nature.

This is a critically important perspective that the pagans themselves won’t own up to.

For the nations, the ones not having law, are a law to themselves, when they are doing—by nature—the (requirements) of the law, (even though they are) ones not having law.

Let’s start with the repeated part. The group we’re focused on are “the ones not having law.” They are the without-law-ones in verse 12; the ἔθνη, the Gentiles (ESV), the “nations” (YLT), the non-Jews (compare to verse 17). The phrases are separated in verse 14, but the exact words are there twice: “the not having the law ones.” These men didn’t get any of their ideas from a copy of God’s written law.

Yet sometimes, and we don’t know how often or consistently let alone completely, they do (things) of the law. It could happen whenever. Again, they aren’t doing “the law”; they don’t have it. But those who do have it can see this other group and say, “Hey, that looks like this.”

How is this possible? There’s a one word answer in verse 14, then a two word answer we can add on. The word that’s in verse 14 is nature (φύσει), or by birth, by natural endowment (BAGD). It is stock equipment, like grain in wood. It’s not an acquired habit or a social construct, it is the way God made it to be. “Nature” was assumed in Romans 1:26-27 regarding male and female, the given order. We live in a moral cosmos, an ordered universe. The “deep magic,” so to speak, is moral.

Believers know this is possible only by God’s common grace. Any good they do (and evil they are restrained from doing), and any good that comes from doing good, is not deserved. It is God’s gift for their blessing, at least on the temporal level.

Of course men don’t do the requirements perfectly because their nature is fallen. Of course men don’t do it perfectly because their flesh lusts for self-defined pleasures, including the pleasure of self-definition. Plus, sin lies. So men lie about what they know and where they got their ideas about what is right. But, still, they almost can’t help themselves sometimes honoring their mother and father and not murdering every neighbor. That shows (see verse 15) some God-given moral nature. Ever not stealing some smaller kids’ stuff is inconsistent with evolution; secular humanism is not a riches of kindness.

Whenever they do something right, even just one out of a thousand times, they are a law to themselves. Maybe we could say practice is nine-tenths of the law. This doesn’t mean that everyone has his own standard; it’s not the law of subjectivism and/or relativism. This means that an objective standard has been acknowledged by them, without Scripture, even if they hate it.

Case in Point (verses 15-16)

Paul explains more about the without law ones.

Those show the work of the law to be written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness, and thoughts—conflicting with one another—accusing or excusing on the day when God will judge the secrets of men according to my gospel through Jesus Christ.

There are at least four things we see in this case.

First, moral law is in effect today and will be on that day.

They are currently showing the work of the law, that was the point in verse 14. Sometimes they do what the law requires, they put it together without reading the instruction manual. It’s also not going to be a different standard later, as if from a second set of books.

Second, moral law is internal and external.

Again, they show the work, but it comes because it is written on their hearts.

Specifically it is not the law that is written on their hearts, but the work of the law, meaning the expectation even without the explicit words.

There is not usually a consistency between the heart and the hands, but there is enough to corroborate the judgment.

Third, Moral law is shared with humans from God.

They have thoughts that accuse or excuse, that increase their guilty feelings or their confidence, and all of this is happening on board, so to speak. Their recognition software isn’t dependent on a data processing center in the cloud.

The work of the law is written…by whom? Their consciences (which are given by whom) are witnesses…for whom? Obviously, it’s the Creator. So God writes, the conscience is God’s own witness in every soul, and He Himself will be the judge on the final day.

Fourth, Moral law is imperfect among men but omnisciently applied by God.

Their thoughts conflict with one another. This is part of the cognitive dissonance. They know, they can’t help but know, sometimes they do things that are consistent with what they know, sometimes it’s just a twisted echo of what they know. But whatever they know, they are also committed to ignoring God, and may even be at some stage given over by God to irrational thinking (Romans 1:28). A “debased mind” is a debating mind.

The conflicting, imperfect application is the part that proves their guilt. God not only assumes that unbelieving men can do some good, the sort we see in His law, it is the presence of any good that proves the bad.

God’s application of the standard is omniscient, even judging the secrets of men. God sees past the internal conflicts and external cover-ups. Man proclaims that he is on the right side of history when he knows in his heart he’s not.

Judgment is according to gospel, as in, the gospel is good news of substitutionary judgment on Jesus, but there must be judgment (Romans 3:25-26). Also, Paul calls it my gospel; don’t be too over-spiritual about first-person pronouns. Judgment is through Jesus Christ.

[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)


Can the conscience steer a man wrong? Of course (Acts 24:16; Titus 1:15). Can the conscience be oversensitive? Yes (1 Corinthians 8:7). Can the conscience be too insensitive? Definitely (1 Timothy 4:2).

But the fact that every man does not drive the car of his life off the moral cliff every time he makes a turn is God’s evidence of moral law. God gets the credit for that, not man. Any good a man does, and any good a man gets from doing that good, is further evidence against that man for not honoring God and giving Him thanks.

We are at the head of a week of cultural inconsistency. We can even be thankful for the inconsistency of unbelievers talking about thanksgiving, because we know that God’s riches of kindness are meant to lead them to repentance.


There is no law telling you how to do Thanksgiving. There is a law, written in the Word and written on your heart, that you must be thankful. This means that there is great flexibility in the menu, the decorations, the seating arrangements, and so forth, but there is absolute necessity that in all those things you are filled with the Spirit.


And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:18–21, ESV)