Essay 129 (7-1-06) by Leroy Garrett


Long years ago in an Ethics class at Texas Woman’s University we were discussing What makes wrong wrong? I asked one of the girls to name something she considered wrong. "Stealing," she replied. "Why is stealing wrong?" I asked. She responded with some assurance, "It is one of the Ten Commandments, Thou shalt not steal.”

"Suppose it was not one of the Ten Commandments, would you then feel free to steal?" I asked. She thought for a moment, and finally said, "No, I still would not steal." I then concluded, "Then can we say that stealing is not wrong because the Bible condemns it, but that the Bible condemns it because it is wrong?" I added, "To put it another way, stealing was already wrong even before the Ten Commandments were given." She and the others in the class hadn’t thought of it that way before, but they conceded that that might be right.

It was my way of introducing what philosophers and theologians have long called Natural Law or Moral Law. Paul the apostle refers to it as "the law written in their hearts" (Romans 2:15), which we will discuss later. In fact, five of the Ten Commandments - five through nine (honor parents, then injunctions against murder, adultery, stealing, lying) - are recognized as moral imperatives by all religions and in all cultures. They may disagree on the extent of application, such as the injunction against adultery. Some insist that a man have but one wife, while others allow four or more; but they agree that a man cannot have any woman he wants! They may differ as to whom one should be unselfish, only his family or tribe, or to everyone. But they agree that selfishness is wrong.

So, as I was pointing out to the girls, all statutory law, including the Ten Commandments, are written laws of what had long been planted in the conscience of man. When the finger of God inscribed on tables of stone

injunctions against abuse of parents, murder, adultery, stealing, and lying, it wrote what had already been written in the heart and mind of man at his creation.

Is it not true of all legislation? When laws are made is not the criterion what may be called "a moral sense of what is right." And when a bad law is repealed -- such as the Supreme Court overturning the Dred Scott decision ? is it not dictated by "the light of understanding of right and wrong" that God has given to us all, and certainly to judges? All constitutional law, including our own U.S. Constitution, must constantly face the scrutiny of "moral reason" or Natural Law.

C. S. Lewis illustrated the place of Natural Law by asking his readers if they could imagine a nation where a soldier is admired for running from battle, or a person feels proud about double-crossing those who had befriended him. Lewis said one would be as likely to find a society where two plus two equals five. He was saying what the ancient Greeks and Romans said in naming four virtues as basic to man’s moral consciousness (courage, loyalty, honesty, generosity) the "classical virtues." That every culture recognizes these indicate their common source, moral reason, a gift of God.

A British philosopher, David Ross, went at this in still another way, naming what he called prima facie duties, that is, moral duties that are self-evident and in no need of proof. Here are some that he named:

The duty of beneficence - the duty to do good as one has opportunity.

The duty of non-maleficence - the duty to do no harm.

The duty of gratitude - the duty to reciprocate the good that others have done us, such as our parents.

The duty of reparation - the duty to make right the wrong one has done, to the extent possible.

The duty to improve oneself - a moral responsibility that never ends, to improve oneself in every way possible.

Ross insisted that these are morally self-evident, and in every culture. One might reject them, but he can’t deny them. If one denies them - such as insisting that it is right to harm others if it helps oneself - we can only say his moral compass is off balance or that his conscience is warped.

This was Ross’s way of describing Natural Law or Moral Law. These moral duties are engraved in our hearts and minds. We may find Scriptures for all of them, but we don’t need to read them in any written code, for we already know them. They are written in the book of human nature, which God has also authored. That they eventually find expression in written codes may confirm them, but it does not create them.

This brings us to what Paul makes of this in Romans. His thesis is that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." He names two classes - the Jews who have "sinned in the law" - referring to the law of Moses - and the Gentiles who have "sinned without law" - meaning any written law (Romans 2:12). Because of this the whole human race is under condemnation. The only answer is the grace of God. But to whom might this grace be bestowed?

In the same chapter the apostle says that God "will render to each one according to his deeds." God will inflict wrath and indignation on those who do evil, but he will give eternal life to those who do good. Romans 2:10 is especially informing: "glory, honor, and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."

It is clear that the Jews "do good" by obeying their written law, but how do the Greeks or Gentiles (pagans) "do good" since they have no such law? Paul tells us in 2:14: "When Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves."

How does one "by nature" do the things that are in a written law? The apostle answers that in 2:15 - it is "the law written in their hearts, their conscience." He goes on to say that Jews and Gentiles alike will give an account "in that day when God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ" for the way each responds to law. The Jews will be judged by a law inscribed in Scripture, the Gentiles by a law inscribed in the heart.

The apostle makes it clear that while some Gentiles will be "accused" by the law within their hearts, others will be "excused." He is not saying that either Jews or Gentiles can be saved by law. It is only by grace through faith. But that grace is bestowed when one "by faith" obeys ? or has a heart to obey -- the law God has given, whether in Scripture or in the heart.

The heart of the human predicament is not that we do not have clearly defined moral imperatives. The problem is that we can’t and don’t keep them. The law in fact condemns us, for it exposes our sins. The ancient adage that made its way into the Bible ? "All Cretans are liars" - could well have said "All men are liars." Deception - in one form or another - is in us all, along with pride, sensuality, and self-centeredness.

It is in this context that the apostle references "the riches of God’s goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering" that is intended to bring sinful man to repentance (Romans 2:4). And this is why "the grace of God has appeared that brings salvation to all men (Titus 2:11). The apostle insists that "As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). It is the greatest news ever proclaimed! - all humanity is lost in Adam (because of our sins), but all humanity is saved in Christ (because he died for our sins). Isn’t the second "all" as inclusive as the first? The apostle John puts it this way: "Christ himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not of ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:2).

Extravagant grace! God’s mercy in Christ is so abundant that he has reconciled all humanity to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). We may conclude therefore that everyone is saved - except those that Paul refers to in Romans 2:4 as those who "despise the riches of God’s goodness," and in Romans 2:8 as "those who are self-seeking, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness."

This would include the Gentiles "who sin without the law, as well as Jews who "sin in the law," and do not repent. We can’t make the call as to how many or what percentage will be finally lost or saved. In reading the early chapters of Romans one might conclude that the vast majority will be lost! But in reading Revelation there are clearly countless multitudes that will be saved!

But even in Romans 2 the apostle clearly has hope even for pagans who "through their own innate sense behave as the Law requires." - as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it. We know of some of these - the Ethiopian eunuch, Cornelius, Naaman, Rahab. Cornelius, in particular, was called "a righteous man" while a pagan. That is why he accepted further light - the gospel itself - when it was presented to him.

While all such pagans - along with the saints of the Old Testament - were saved subjectively (personally) in their own time, no one was objectively (in reality) saved until Christ died on the Cross. This can only mean that many - possibly even most - of those saved by Christ will have never believed in him personally. But they believed in "the goodness and forbearance of God." This is justification by faith. No one is ever saved except by faith - either through the law inscribed in Scripture or through the law inscribed in the heart and mind.

This is why we can’t say that one must have a personal faith in Christ to be saved. Yes, of course, whoever is saved is saved because of what Christ did, but this can’t and doesn’t require personal faith. We can believe that prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah are in heaven, along with pagans like Rahab and Naaman, though they never believed in Christ. But still Christ is their Savior!

We don’t know how many Rahabs and Corneliuses there may be out there. According to Paul there are as many who "seek for honor, glory, and immortality," and who faithfully respond to such light (truth) as they have, in whatever form it comes to them. Some of them will never have heard about Christ, but he is nonetheless their Savior.

This is why we are to take the gospel to them, that they may enjoy the blessings of being in Christ through faith and obedience. Those like Cornelius and the Ethiopian eunuch, who have obeyed such light as they have, will accept further light. As for those who have thus far rejected whatever light they have - possibly the vast majority - we take the gospel to them that they might repent of their sins, be baptized into Christ, and at last be saved. The lost are those who persistently reject such truth as they have to the very end, refusing to repent.

As I have said in these essays before, God in his mercy rejects only those who reject him.

Leroy Garrett