From a jail in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King Jr. discussed civil disobedience, noting that "there are two kinds of laws: just and unjust" and that there is a "natural law" to which we are subject. He was right: We shouldn't say we know right and wrong only because "the Bible says so." Romans 2:15 states that God's moral law has been written on the hearts of all human beings. This innate or intuitive awareness is beautifully illustrated in C. S. Lewis's "Abolition of Man." There he lists various universally recognized moral laws and virtues -- impartial justice, truthfulness, kindness, mercy, marital fidelity, respect for human life. They have been regarded as true for all from ancient Babylon and Greece to Native America, from Jews and Christians to Hindus and Confucians. Yet while humans are capable of recognizing basic moral principles, they may suppress their conscience, harden their hearts and become morally dull.
Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of certain "laws." He said there is an eternal law, which God alone knows and by which God created and governs the universe. Because God created us in His image (as moral, reasoning beings), we are capable of recognizing a self-evident natural law, the reflection of God's eternal law in the created order. This law is known by all human beings whether or not they are aware of God's special revelation through Israel and Jesus Christ, as inscripted in the Bible. God has placed within us a disposition to have moral knowledge. Unless we suppress our conscience, we naturally know basic moral truths.
The absolute justice of God and His unswerving commitment to righteousness are more than abstract qualities. They have concrete manifestations in the way He deals with people and in the manner He dispenses judgment. This is particularly true in His handling of the Jewish people. That they were specially privileged and specifically called to play a major role in the divine plan cannot be denied. But it would be an insult to the divine integrity to suggest that the privileged position of the Jew meant he could expect special exemption from the consequences of his sin. Paul's oft-used expression, "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" shows that there is a clear difference in God's eyes between Jew and Greek -- that the Jew has a position of primacy -- but this position of primacy also includes a primacy of judgment. The Jew who believes, with some justification, that he comes first in God's thinking must remember that the first place means first in judgment too. If he wants to believe he is first he must believe he is first in everything! Paul clearly stated this when he said, "tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek" (v. 9).
If there is no partiality toward the Jew because of his privileged position, it is equally true there is no partiality to the Gentile for his lack of privilege. The Jew who has the law and sins against it is responsible for his sin; the Gentile who does not have the law but sins anyway is equally responsible for his sin. This is eminently fair. The unfairness would be if Jews were treated as if they didn't have the law or if Gentiles were treated as if they did. The judgment of God is based on the light that people have received and their reaction to it and is never based on the light they have not received.
In the same way that some people who have privilege abuse it, there are always those who, lacking privilege, rise above it. Paul speaks of the Gentiles who were never given the privilege of having the law of God, yet who had such sensitivity to what they knew of God that their consciences were keen and alert and in touch with reality.
The important thing for everyone to understand, Jew or Gentile, is that the judgment of God has no place for favoritism or exceptions but is based strictly on the response of the individual to the knowledge of truth that has been made available. That obviously means that the more privilege a person has, the more responsibility he holds.
Paul here was pointing out that the Jews, recipients of the revealed Law, were not the only ones with moral standards! The Gentiles too had a moral nature, and a conscience that identified moral issues and led them to set up standards of right and wrong by which to judge themselves and each other. "By nature" they do what the concept of Law requires: they weigh, measure and evaluate human behavior by moral criteria. They realize that moral failure calls for judgment, and they try to excuse and defend their failures. When God's Judgment Day comes, both Jew and Gentile will be shown to have fallen short of whatever standards each approves!
This is helpful for those who are honestly concerned about God's "unfairness" in failing to reveal His standards to everyone. God will not judge pagans by Scripture's standards of right and wrong. He will judge all of humanity by their own standards.
But it makes no difference. For all fall short. The failure of individuals and of societies to live up to standards they themselves establish is additional evidence that humanity are both lost and dead. There is no help for us in ourselves. This means the Bible-toting preacher and the prostitue on the street are both lost and dead and sin equally. As I reflect on our nation's independence and the words of Thomas Jefferson that "all humanity is created equally" in light of Romans chapter 2 means to me that we are born and shaped in sin equally. As an ELCA pastor, I affirm that the natural law of God is not corrupted. The law that the English crown gave to the colonists of unfair taxes were unjust by the human misuse of it, giving it a corrupting effect. Since sinful humanity which is all of us seeks its own advantage in everything, each zealous attempt to fulfill the law is perverted into using the law as an accomplice to gain independence from God, precisely the opposite of what the law demands!
As we grapple on the various parameters of the natural law that framed Paul's argument let all of us be mindful before we judge others, that all will be judged not just by Thomas Jefferson and the rebellious colonists but by God's law and our corruptible nature of sin.
Follow Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pastorbilljr