Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017
WSC 40 of 107
“(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. 14 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: 15 Which shew 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)”
WSC 40. What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?
A. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.1
1Rom 2:14–15; 10:5
Come with me into the lecture hall of a conservative Presbyterian Bible School in Singapore towards the end of the twentieth century.
The class is studying Exodus 20. The lecturer, a confident and forceful minister, points out that God is audibly declaring His moral law. “This is the first time in history that the moral law is revealed,” he exclaims. Then, to ensure the class grasps what he is saying, he adds, “Before this, there was no moral law!”
The class of young ministerial students reacts with confusion and consternation. The lecturer, anticipating objections, immediately refers the class to Roman 5:13, “For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.…”
One of the students, a brash young man, immediately puts up his hand, and without waiting to be called, objects, “But sir, how can that be? Paul says in Romans 2:15 that the work of the law is written in the heart of man.”
The lecturer retorts: “Who says Paul is referring to the moral law? Whatever law Paul is referring to, it is not the moral law because it is clear that the moral law was only given at Mount Sinai to the Jews.”
The young man, taken aback by the response, offers meekly: “But our confession and catechisms teach us that it is the moral law that is written in the heart of man.”
Who is right? Was the young man mistaken about the confession and catechisms? Or are they wrong when compared to the scripture?
Well, I believe the lecturer is correct that the Ten Commandments summarise the moral law, and we will look at that in our next study. But for now, the Lord helping us, we must prove that “The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.” This is the answer to question 40 of our Shorter Catechism:
“WSC 40: What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience? Answer: The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.”
Our text will be what was raised to the lecturer, Romans 2:13-15.
Now, you will notice that our text is in a parenthesis. This means that Paul is seeking to explain or clarify something. What is it? The theme of Romans is justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Paul had begun the letter by showing that all men, whether Jews or Gentiles, are guilty before God. But the question that naturally arises as he develops his thesis is: How could God judge anyone to be guilty? What is God’s standard for judging? Well, the answer must be the law since sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 5:3).
But if sin is lawlessness, and the Gentiles do not have the law, then how can the Gentiles be condemned for their sin? Would not God be unfair to condemn the Gentiles for lawlessness when they do not have the law?
The apostle Paul anticipates and answers this question in verse 12:
“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” (Rom 2:12).
That is to say, God is perfectly fair. The Jews and Christians who know the written law will be judged as those who know the written law. Gentiles who do not know the written law will be judged as those who do not know the written law. God is perfectly fair!
But still, how can the Gentiles be judged at all when they do not have the law?
This is what the apostle Paul seeks to address in the words found in the parenthesis in verses 13-15.
We can draw three points from what Paul is saying: First, God requires obedience to the law. Secondly, obedience requires knowledge of the law, which the Gentiles have. Thirdly, this law is the moral law.
1. God Requires Obedience to the Law
“For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (v. 13).
To be just is to be not guilty. To be justified is to be judged as not guilty and, therefore, not condemned. Who are those who will not be condemned? Not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the law, says Paul.
Paul is anticipating the question: How can the Gentiles be judged when they do not have the law? This is his first answer. What is he saying? He is saying: “God is not so much concerned with whether we have heard the law, but whether we obey the law!”
The Jews may have heard the law, but it will do them no good if they do not obey it. In fact, the law will condemn them, and in the end, they will be worse off than the Gentiles who have never heard the law. This is why it is of utmost importance for those who know the law to keep it.
Thus, James warns us:
“22 Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (Jas 1:22)
Those who know the law, but refuse to obey the law will be judged more severely than the Gentiles who know not the law. God is perfectly fair.
The Jews and those who have heard the law will not be justified for merely hearing the law. If they are to be justified by law-keeping, they will be justified only if they do the law perfectly.
Conversely, the Gentiles and those who have never heard the law will not be penalised for not having heard the law.
They will only be penalised if they do not follow the law. God, after all, requires not merely the hearing of the law, but obedience to the law.
This has been so since the creation of man when God entered into a covenant of life to reward man with life upon perfect obedience to God’s law.
But how can the Gentile obey God’s law if they know not the law?
This leads us to our second point.
2. Obedience Requires Knowledge of the Law, Which the Gentiles Have
This is what Paul says:
“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: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts” (v. 14-15a)
The argument is straightforward. The Gentiles do not have the written law. They are not taught the law. But they do the things contained in the law! What are the things contained in the law?
Think of the Ten Commandments. Obviously, the Gentiles do not do all the things contained in the Ten Commandments. But do they not abide by some of them?
- The law says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Do not most untaught Gentiles also understand that they must be loyal to the god they worship?
- The law says, “Honour thy father and thy mother!” Do not the Gentiles know that they must honour and obey their parents?
- The law says, “Thou shalt not kill!” Do not the Gentiles know that murder is a terrible crime? Do they not take life for life?
- The law says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery!” Do not the Gentiles observe marriages and observe it as a fact that adultery is a sin?
- The law says, “Thou shalt not steal!” Do not the Gentiles know that stealing is wrong? Do they not punish thieves?
- The law says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness!” Do not the Gentiles know that it is wrong to tell lies? Whether they often tell lies or not is not the question. The question is: Do they not know it is wrong to tell lies? Is there not a natural restraint?
The Gentiles, then, are a law unto themselves. That is to say, they have, in their own nature, a rule of duty. They know what is right and have a sense of obligation.
And this knowledge is consistent with the written law of God, which Jews and Christians have! What does this prove?
Does it not prove that the Gentiles have the works or requirements of the law written in their hearts? The work of the law is essentially the requirements of the law. The Lord Jesus says in John 6:29, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” The “work of God” refers to the duty required of God.
Thus, Paul is saying that the Gentiles have the duties required by the law of God written in their hearts! “These, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work [or requirements] of the law written in their hearts.”
This is an essential doctrine. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah speak of Christians as having the law of God written in the heart (Isa 51:7; Jer 31:33). But that is in a different sense. They are speaking about regeneration. They are speaking of how the law of God is in the heart of believers, in that they not only have a fresh knowledge of the law but also a new desire and ability to keep it.
Paul, on the other hand, is referring to something else. He is speaking about the moral constitution of man by nature. The work of the law of God is written in the heart of all men. Paul is speaking in the context of Gentiles. But what he says must be true of all men, for he speaks about those who have not heard the law.
The work of the law of God is written in the heart of all men as part of their nature. This is so because they are created in the image of God. As we saw in a much earlier message, man is created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. The Fall may have severely marred the original knowledge of man so that none truly understand and know the truth. But an imprint of this works of the law remains sufficiently clear enough to guide even the Gentiles who have not heard the law.
Animals do not have the law of God written in their hearts. They are not made in the image of God. Animals do not worship. Animals do not know they have to honour their parents. They do not know it is wrong to murder. There is no such thing as murder in the animal kingdom. They do not know what is adultery. They do not know it is wrong to steal. Animals do not have any sense of right or wrong. They live by instinct. They do not have a moral nature.
Man does. Man has a soul. He has a moral nature. He has the works of the law written in his heart.
For this reason, there is no such thing as an innocent pagan. For this reason, God can rightly judge the Gentiles for sin, although they do not have the written law like the Jews. God will judge Jews and Christians based on what we have heard and read. But he will judge the Gentiles based on the work of the law written in their hearts.
No one can claim he does not know what God requires. God has written the work of His law in all our hearts.
But what is this law?
3. This Law Is the Moral Law
God’s Word contains many kinds of laws. You will see at least three classes if you read the Old Testament.
There are ceremonial laws pertaining to the Tabernacle and the sacrificial systems. These all point to Christ in shadows and types. These have been fulfilled in Christ.
Then, there are civil or judicial laws. These are laws on the governance of Israel as a nation. These laws should serve as a pattern for modern civil laws. But they no longer directly apply to us because the apostle Paul instructs us to submit to every civil authority appointed over us.
Then, there is what is known as the moral law. As its name suggests, moral law refers to laws that pertain to the morality or the rightness or wrongness of behaviour and attitudes in all circumstances. The laws that forbid murder, adultery and theft are unquestionably moral. It is always wrong for everyone, in every place and age, to commit murder, adultery and theft because God’s law says it is wrong.
So, we have three main classes of laws: ceremonial, civil and moral. Which one is the law that was first revealed to man for the rule of his obedience? Which one was written in the heart of man?
It is not difficult to see that Paul must have in mind the moral law! The moral law alone is universal and perpetual. The ceremonial law came into force only after Mount Sinai and was abrogated with the coming of Christ. Gentiles are not required to keep them. The civil law came into existence only when Israel became a nation and ceased to be directly applicable with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, if not before with the Grecian conquest or the Roman conquest.
Moreover, we must not miss what Paul says concerning the function of the law in the heart in the second part of verse 15:
“…their conscience also bearing witness [i.e. bearing witness to the fact that the work of the Law is written in their hearts…], and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.”
The conscience is a faculty of our soul. Every man has a conscience. Whether we are Jews or Gentiles, Christian or non-Christian, Greek or Barbarian, Western or Asian, we have a conscience. It is what makes us human.
We are all familiar with our conscience. It is the inner voice that tells us whether what we did or what we are going to do, or not do, is right or wrong. It is like a referee in the soul. When it sees that you have done something wrong or are about to do something wrong, he blows the whistle or raises the red card. If it sees that you have done right, he waves you on and says, “You’re OK!”
We may say that the conscience knows essentially only two words: “right” or “wrong.” With this limited vocabulary, it performs two basic tasks of accusing or excusing. “Their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another,” says Paul.
The conscience, in other words, is the resident guardian of morality in the heart of every man. It is what makes man different from animals.
But how does the conscience know what is right or wrong? You see, the conscience does not know anything. It is like an apple sorting machine. It sorts according to how you program it. If you program it to keep red and crispy apples, and discard everything else, it will give you red and crispy apples in the keep-basket, and cast green or soggy apples into the discard bin. If, on the other hand, you are looking for green and crispy apples rather than red and crispy apples, then you may program it accordingly, and only green crispy apples will appear in the keep basket. Everything else will go into the discard bin.
Can you see how it works? For the conscience to work, we must insert some rules.
This is why a Muslim Jihadist has a different morality from a conservative Christian. Both have a conscience, but one will kill and rape in the name of his god, whereas the other would not. Why? Because they are taught differently. It is not that they have a different conscience; it is that they have a different set of rules in their heart.
Now, Paul is saying that there is a basic, universal rule set that is inherent in every human being. Unless this rule set is replaced by something else through indoctrination, it will guide the conscience to make man moral. This is why when we look at ISIS and Hamas, and what atrocities they have committed, we say that they are worse than animals. They have had their basic rule set that makes them human replaced by something else.
From another perspective, what Paul is saying is that we can observe that man is generally and basically a moral creature. Why? Well, Paul is suggesting that it is because a law has been revealed to man, and the work of the law is written in the heart. Now, since this law is the rule set that makes man moral, we call it the moral law.
“WSC 40. What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience? A. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience, was the moral law.”
This is a simple proposition. But it has a lot of implications. We will see more implications when we learn that the moral law is summarised in the Ten Commandments.
But for now, we must understand that because this law has been given, all men are liable to be judged, and all men are guilty before God. Adam and Eve had the moral law revealed to them. They were required to keep the whole moral law and not just the positive commandment, not to eat the forbidden fruit. When they ate the forbidden fruit, they broke the first rule of the moral law, which is that they must love the Lord their God with their whole heart.
Their sin brought guilt to all mankind. Every man, woman and child in the world is guilty before God because Adam’s guilt is imputed to them.
And not only so, but God has so appointed that the work of the moral law should still remain in the heart of every person born into this world. And Paul tells us that God will judge everyone fairly according to how they have kept or failed to keep the law.
The Word of God tells us that all men will fail the test. There is none righteous, no not one. There is only one who passed the test, even Christ Jesus our Lord.
Oh, may we be shut up to him? Let us remember: (1) God will judge us; (2) we all fall short of his glory; and (3) we have no excuse for failing because the work of the law is written in our hearts.
It is confirmed, then, that we have no hope in ourselves. Our hope is only in Christ. All who are covered by the righteousness of Christ will be accepted of God.
This is what makes Christianity different from all other religions in the world. All the religions in the world are legalistic. They are about how much they do and how religious they are. This is true of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, etc.
God’s word tells us that whatever ism you have, you will fail even to keep the basic rule set, which is the moral law, and no amount of doing will undo your failure, for all your righteousnesses is as filthy rags in the sight of God.
Unless you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you are doomed. All who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and rely upon Him for salvation are covered by His righteousness and accepted of God. Come, therefore, repent of your sin and your self-righteousness. Come cast yourself at the foot of the cross; rest in Him and humbly receive of Christ life everlasting and free.
But let us remember, beloved brethren and children, that that does not mean we are no longer obligated to keep the law of God.
Today, there is a popular evangelical movement known as the New Calvinists or the Gospel Coalition. It started around 2007 and comprises big names like Don Carson, Tim Keller, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Joshua Harris, etc.
There is much we can learn from these men. In particular, we can benefit from their strident message against legalism. So, we must be reluctant to warn against them. But if you have followed the movement, you may have noticed their antinomian tendencies. They are right to emphasise justification, but they are wrong to minimise the law of God. It appears that sometimes while seeking to teach the graciousness of grace, they cast out obedience and the fear of the Lord together with legalism. The baby is thrown out with the bathwater.
John Calvin teaches us that there are three uses of the moral law. The first is theological, in which the law serves as a portrait for us to see the righteousness and holiness of God. The second is civil or pedagogical, in which the law serves as a leash to keep the unregenerate in check and shut them up to Christ. When we speak of being unable to keep God’s law sufficiently and, therefore, being shut up to Christ, we are talking about the civil or pedagogical use of the law. But then there is the third use, the moral use in which the law may be likened to a lamp unto our feet.
God does require obedience to His law and not merely a hearing of His law, as we saw. Let us remind ourselves that Christ came to redeem us not only from the curse of the law, but also from the bondage of lawlessness. In other words, if you are justified, you must first be regenerated so that you may have faith. And if you are regenerated and the Spirit is indwelling you, then you will want to keep the law of God out of love for God. “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” says the Lord Jesus (Jn 14:15). The love of God is to keep His commandment, and His commands are not grievous, says John (1 Jn 5:3).
Therefore, brethren and children, do not think that you are a faithful Christian simply because you prayed to receive Christ or because you can recite your catechism. Whether you are a faithful Christian or not does not depend on how much you know. It is indicated instead on whether you are obedient to the truth.
We did not say it depends on whether you are obedient to the truth. No, no, it does not depend on you. It depends on Christ and His Spirit. Christianity is not about dos and don’ts. It is about joy and love in the Holy Ghost. It is not about getting depressed because we are not good enough. It is about returning to Christ, finding strength in Him and resting in Him. But the happy Christian is an obedient Christian who walks in freedom because Christ has freed him from the bondage of sin. Therefore, beloved brethren and children, if you believe and love the Lord Jesus Christ, seek His strength to keep His commandments. You can’t do it in your own strength. Seek His grace and help.
But what if you are in the bondage of sin? You may be young or old. If you do not have a conscious relationship with Christ or have no regard for holiness and obedience, you are still in the bondage of sin.
If you are still in the bondage of sin, you must realise that you are inexcusable. God has not only revealed Himself clearly to you in nature, He has also written the work of His law in your heart. The fact that you are a moral and religious person testifies to that fact. It testifies that God exists and that you have a soul.
If you were a mere animal, as some people would have you believe, you would never think of religion. Have you ever seen the monkeys in the zoo setting up altars for worship? You know deep in your heart that God exists. And you know deep in your heart that He must be worshipped in His own way. You know this because God has written the work of His law in your heart.
And not only so, but He has given you a conscience, and your conscience tells you, does it not, that you are wrong to refuse Christ or to refuse to believe His word? If you listen to your conscience carefully, you will know it is wrong to disbelieve God and disobey Christ! Your conscience will tell you that your only hope of being right with God and with yourself is to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ!
Your conscience is set in your soul to give you a foretaste of the judgment to come. Whenever you do something wrong or refuse to do something right, your conscience pricks you. Magnify that pin-prick into a stab with a broad sword, and you will appreciate a little more the pain in your soul that will come on the day of judgment.
Oh, do not wait for that day. Flee to Christ today while there is time. That day will be too late. Oh, why will you refuse to listen to your conscience and die? There is hope in Christ. All who go to Him sincerely will enjoy a life of freedom and joy that will last unto eternity. Listen, therefore, to your conscience. It is heavy and burdensome because you have been walking in sin. Listen, the Lord Jesus says:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Mt 11:28-30). Amen.