THE WORK OF THE LAW
T. PIERCE BROWN
In Romans 2:12-15, we find a reference to ethnic groups (ethna) which did not have the law, yet did by nature the things contained in the law and were thus a law unto themselves. Then in vs. 15 Paul says, “Which show 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.”
Most commentaries and translations that I have checked seem to think “the work of the law” is to be understood as “the works that the law requires.” The NIV translates it as “the requirements of the law.” It seems evident that they are wrong, for if they automatically or inherently knew what God required, they would be under law in the same way the Jews were.
The expression “the work of the law” is from the Greek, “to ergon tou nomou.” If you were asked, “What is the work of John the Baptizer?” would you think that meant “The work John requires” or “The work that John does?” It should be evident that it is what John does. So, in this case, Paul is talking about a thing the law does is written on the heart.
There are many reasons I am sure that “the work of the law” does not mean “the requirements of the law,” but the most significant reason is because that expression simply mean “the law.” If “the requirement of the law” were written on the heart of the Gentile, he would have the law written on his heart, and would be under the law just as much as the Jew. Paul specifically denies this. It does not require a particularly astute person to realize that the Gentiles did not know the requirements of the law, either because they had them in a book or on their hearts.
Since the language specifically says “the work of the law” let us inquire what is the work or function of the law. “The work of the law” is not a work the law requires of us, but a work that the law does for us. What are some things the Law of Moses did for the Jew? First, it was a tutor to lead the Jews to Christ. Did that purpose inhere in what was written on the Gentile heart? If so, I am at a loss to see how, nor have I ever heard of a person who did. Second, the law gave knowledge of specific things that were sins. Paul would not have known that it was a sin to covet if the law had not revealed it to him (Romans 7:7). Could that have been the thing that was written on the heart of a Gentile? I see no evidence in or out of the Bible that Gentiles were aware that it was a sin to covet. There must be some other work of the law that Paul had in mind. Is there some other thing the law did for the Jew that could be written on the heart of a Gentile? Yes, the law emphasized that man is justified in doing right and man stands condemned if he does wrong. Note that the thing that is written on his heart is not the law, which tells WHAT is right or wrong, but “the work of the law,” or an effect of the law which causes a man to want to be justified and not condemned. There is no man, no matter how wicked, that does not seek to be justified in what he does. It is written on the heart of every man. If you had asked Hitler why he murdered the Jews or Sadam Hussein why he invadedKuwait, they would have sought to justify themselves because there was written on their hearts the realization that men should do right and not do wrong.
This “work of the law” is neither the law itself, “the requirements of the law” (which amounts to the same thing), nor the conscience. God also gives every man a conscience, but the law does not produce it. But there is a thing produced by the Law of Moses that was written on the heart of the Gentiles who did not have the Law of Moses. That was the sense of “oughtness” which every man has. Even an atheist admits that men ought not to do many things. Without an admission of the reality of God, no one can sensibly explain why everyone in the world has a sense of “should” or “should not.” But the fact that they cannot explain it does not mean that it is not written on their hearts, for God wrote it there. Note carefully that the specific things a person should or should not do must be prescribed by law. THAT is not written on the heart of man. No Gentile could tell whether he should offer a bull or goat on an altar. However, he has written on his heart the sense of moral responsibility. This is the work of the law, whether we speak of the Law of Moses or any of God’s other laws. When God speaks, man has a sense of moral responsibility. That is not the only work of the law, but it is the work of the law to impress upon man a sense of moral responsibility. Without a specific law, such as the Law of Moses, God wrote that sense of moral responsibility on the heart of every man. That fact is too universally recognized to permit serious debate.
Notice how the last part of Romans2:15bears out this conclusion. Since the work of the law is written in their hearts–that is, since they have a sense of moral responsibility and know that the things that are right are praiseworthy and things that are wrong merit condemnation– their conscience bears witness and accuses or defends them. Every person in the world believes certain things to be right. He believes other things to be wrong. When he does that which he thinks to be right, he shows “the work of the law” written in his heart and his conscience bears witness to it, upholding or defending him. When he does that which he thinks to be wrong, he shows “the work of the law” written in his heart, and his conscience bears witness to it, accusing him or condemning him. The conscience cannot be trained to do anything different from that. It only has those two functions, and all the knowledge one may get will not change those functions. Paul had as good a conscience before he learned God’s will as he did afterwards. Teaching did not affect the nature or function of his conscience. It only changed the things he considered right or wrong.
So, neither the law nor the “requirements of the law” were written in the heart of the Gentile, but “the work of the law” was. That is, they had a God-given ability to have a sense of moral responsibility. This caused them to “do by nature” (v. 14) many of the things contained in the law. It does not say, imply or suggest that the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature ALL the things contained in the law. We know that they did not. However, we know that people from any ethnic group we have observed have a sense of moral responsibility that causes them to obey many of the principles contained in the law.
Those who have that sense of “oughtness” and obey it are a law unto themselves. When they fail to do that which they understand they ought to do, they stand condemned, even by their own conscience. This should not lead one to conclude that when anyone does what he thinks he ought to do, he is justified from his sins. We could prove that is not so in many ways. That a person may sin without the Law of Moses is clearly evident, for Paul says, “Those who sin without law shall perish without law” (Romans2:12). For a person to do what he thinks is right in 100 cases cannot possibly pay for his guilt in doing what he thinks is wrong in another case. A man is always justified when he does what is right, but that does not mean “justified from his sins” or forgiven for having done wrong things. We err greatly when we think “justified” always means “just as if I had never sinned” or is forgiven. God is said to be justified under some circumstances (Luke7:29), but by no stretch of imagination can it be assumed that it refers to his being forgiven of sins. However, that would take another article to deal with that subject. The point of this one is that the “the work of the law” cannot mean, “the things required by the law” but refers to something that the law does for the Gentile in his heart that the Law of Moses did for the Jew. The only thing that fits the picture as I view it is the sense of moral responsibility all men have.