The other day, I was having a conversation with a friend about the merits of Kindle, an electronic unit from Amazon.com on which you can purchase, download, and read books. "I don't know if I could ever read a whole book on a computer screen," I told my friend. "It doesn't look like a computer screen, though," my friend informed me. "It's designed to be easy on the eyes." "I still don't know," I responded skeptically. "Well," my friend finally said, "I think it's pretty cool. Although I don't do a whole lot of reading."
As much as it frustrates me, because I love to read, I, like my friend, don't read as regularly as I'd like to. Commitments, appointments, and the affairs of daily life cut, sometimes deeply, into my reading time. That is why today's text from Romans 2 is of special interest to me:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (verses 14-15)
Paul here speaks to those who have not had a chance to catch up on their reading. In the first century, it was the Jewish people who were the keepers of the written law of God. And they were fervently devoted to reading it, parsing it, and memorizing it. Indeed, an ancient rabbi would have the entire Old Testament memorized. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were not familiar with the Word of God. For they lived in a pagan context in which there were no readily available Bibles. Thus, any Gentile convert to a nascent first century Christianity had some reading to catch up on - the whole of God's written revelation!
Paul, however, in these verses, says that even those who do not read Scripture have some knowledge of what it says: "Even though they do not have the law... the requirements of the law are written on their hearts." In theological parlance, we call this "natural law." That is, even someone who has never read the Bible still has a basic "moral compass," as it were, because God has etched his laws into each and every human heart. That is why, for instance, societies, whether Christian or not, consider murder to be wicked. It is part of God's natural law. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo states it thusly:
The world is in harmony with the law, and the law with the world, and the man who observes the law is constituted thereby a loyal citizen of the world, regulating his doings by the purpose and will of nature. (On the Creation, 3)
In other words, Philo maintains that there is an unwritten inexorable order to this world, by which people are encouraged to live and by which we judge. And that unwritten inexorable standard is natural law. C.S. Lewis states similarly:
Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say... [For in quarrels, a man is often] appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which expects the other man to know about... It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of law or rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed... Now this law or rule about right in wrong [is] called the law of nature. (C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity, 3-4)
Standards that are not written, but simply known, agreed upon, and assumed. These are the standards of natural law.
Evil, therefore, has no excuse. One cannot say, "I didn't know it wasn't okay not to murder." Or, likewise, "I didn't know I had to tell the truth." Yes, you did know. Even if you're not much of a reader. Thus, we all stand convicted by the law of God. For what we do not know from the pages of Scripture we know from the guilt which riddles our hearts.
It is for this reason that Paul writes the book of Romans. For Paul knows that Jews and Gentiles alike stand condemned under God's written and natural law. But Paul wants to free them from this condemnation and bring them into salvation in Jesus Christ. As Paul later writes, "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law [whether written or unwritten] of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2).
This, then, is why we should read: for although we can know God's law apart from reading the Scriptures, we cannot know Jesus apart from reading the Scriptures. Without the Scriptural gospel, we stand condemned. What's written on our hearts can lead us only to despair and not hope, only to guilt and not joy, only to slavery and not freedom. So perhaps it's time for us all to do a little more reading of and a little bit more listening to the gospel. For it is in the gospel that we find hope and healing from Jesus. And that's something I love to read all about. I hope you do too.