“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” (Romans 2:14-15; English Standard Version)
One of the issues that plagues our culture (and by “culture” I am referring to Western Civilization, particularly in North America) is that of moral relativism
. Moral relativism is the belief that one’s morals—one’s standards of right and wrong—are relative. That what you believe to be morally right may not be what I believe to be morally right, and in our post-modern age of political correctness and tolerance, I have no right to impose my moral standards on you. Objectivity, as it relates to morality, is tossed out the window. Is it any wonder that we are a culture in decline? Standards of decency have been violated and what was once thought vulgar and obscene is now seen as normal and natural.
Is moral relativity true? Do standards of decency and right and wrong vary and differ between cultures and people groups? If they do, then how can we enforce our laws? How can we punish anyone for doing “wrong” when the definition of “wrong” is a moving target? In fact, that’s the dilemma we face in our culture today. If our government passes a law that some find objectionable, it is now OK to flout that law and encourage others to do so. Take, for example, the recent flap over immigration rights. Recently we had protests across the nation against the government’s right to enforce immigration laws. Many of the people at these protests were illegal immigrants (people who entered this country by illegal means)—the rest were people who think it’s OK to break the law in this regard.
Let’s go back to the question posed earlier: “Is moral relativity true?” It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bible has an answer to this question (the Bible has an answer to every question of significance regarding human life), so what does God’s word have to say on this subject? In the book of Romans, we have probably the most systematic treatise on Christian theology in the Bible. In chapter 1, we have the Biblical diagnosis of mankind’s most serious problem: Sin. Mankind is hopelessly sinful, and as such we reject God’s truth (truth that is obvious to everyone) and replace it with man-made lies. Doing so frees us from the responsibility of having to follow God’s will and we sink into a cesspool of moral depravity and debauchery.
In Romans 2:1-11, we learn that even though there are those who don’t sink to the depths of sin mentioned in Romans 1:18-32, doesn’t mean they will escape God’s judgment. The reason being that when we judge the sin of others, we pass judgment on ourselves because we’re guilty of doing the same things (Romans 2:1). One may say, “Wait a minute. I don’t engage in sexual immorality like the people mentioned in Romans 1:18-32.” Maybe not outwardly, but what about your thought life? What about in those secret moments when no one is looking?
This brings up an interesting point. Everyone at some point in their life has passed judgment on the actions of others. If you’re a parent, how do you train your children? By what basis do you discipline them for their behavior? If cultural norms of right and wrong are relative, then what one teaches their children is no more right than if they taught them the exact opposite. You see, moral relativism doesn’t work in the real world—it’s only some liberal, ivory-tower fantasy that excuses what God calls sin. No sane parent teaches their children that it’s OK to steal, or to lie, or to harm another, or to disrespect people in authority. Why? Because these things are wrong! No extant culture on this planet teaches their children these things.
This begs the further question: “Why are these things (and others) universally wrong?” That brings us to the passage before us. In Romans 2:12-16, the apostle Paul engages in a discussion about God’s judgment and the law. He starts off by telling us that God will judge those under the law, by the law (this would refer to the Jews who were given God’s law), and those not under the law, without the law (this would refer to Gentiles—non-Jews). Now if God is not going to judge Gentiles on the basis of the law, by what basis will God judge them? Paul tells us by the law “written on their hearts” (v. 15).
This is what many theologians refer to as conscience
. This is a word that has fallen into disrepute over the years through the attacks of moral relativism, but the Bible tells us that everyone has a conscience. The conscience is basically an internal warning system. It warns us anytime we’re about to violate something we believe to be wrong. As such, the conscience is only as good as the moral code that informs it. The conscience is God-given; it is “hard-wired” into every human soul. The reason why some things (e.g., murder, theft, deception, etc.) are considered universally wrong is because we have a God-given conscience that has these things hard-wired into it. That is why Paul in v. 14 says, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.” The only way people who don’t have God’s law still do what God’s law says is if they have that law “written on their hearts.”Bottom Line:
The Bible goes on to say that we can ignore our conscience to the point where it is seared—i.e., where it no longer functions as designed (1 Timothy 4:2). That comes by following moral relativism and continually doing what our conscience tells us is wrong to the point where the conscience no longer reacts as it once did. God gave us conscience as a witness to his existence. There can be no “right and wrong” if there is no standard by which to make moral judgments; and God is that standard. There can be no law without a lawgiver, and God is the cosmic judge and lawgiver. Even though we may not be exposed to God’s written law (i.e., the Bible), we have no excuse because God has written his law on our hearts.