Convicted by Conscience
I wrote the other day that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Let us enumerate what this means in no specific order: 1) Human beings have a rational nature; 2) a moral nature; 3) freedom of will; 4) a capacity for deep interpersonal relationships; 5) self-awareness; and, 6) dominion over creation. Each of these separates us from the animals, or “brutes,” as the old theologians used to say. I focus on #2, that we are each created with a moral nature. This speaks to the human conscience. Every human being is aware of right and wrong; we may disagree on what right and wrong is, but you will rarely if ever meet up with another person who believes that right and wrong do not exist. I know this because if you slap a person across the face, he is going to be angry and probably retaliate. Why is this? Because he knows that he has been violated, that he has been the victim of an injustice, that something “unfair” just happened to him; and no one had to teach him this. Everyone believes in right and wrong regardless of foolish quibbles to the contrary based on some senseless philosophical theory that all is relative.
So we turn to our passage. Apart from God’s grace, everyone perishes, be he under the written law (the Jew) or without it (the Gentile). Why is this? Because everyone is born bearing God’s image—that is, with a moral nature and conscience. This is why even pagans can and will do what is right without ever knowing a written code, as Paul describes. But this does not save them, for even their conscience proves its own sinful brokenness by being conflicted in that of which it approves or disapproves. Let no one tell you that this passage teaches that those who never knew the law can be saved by following their conscience; Paul is merely showing that all people act out of a moral nature with which they are created, and occasionally even do the right thing. But the point is that just as the law condemns the Jew because he has failed to live up to it, so the moral nature or conscience condemns the Gentile because he too has failed to live up to it.
The next several verses show the hypocrisy of the Jews who thought they were better simply because they possessed God’s law. But the law is to be obeyed, not possessed. And then comes that horribly convicting verse: “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” I fear that too many times in history, and even in our own day, that this judgment could be justly rendered against the Church of Jesus Christ. May we live such lives that God will be honored by our actions.