Monday, November 16, 2009

The Works of the Law Written in Man's Heart (23)

Dear forum members,

Our discussion was centered in the claim that God’s general revelation, that is, His revelation in creation, is common grace. Romans 1:18 ff. is quoted as proof of that assertion, and I was examining that passage. That passage makes it clear that the heathen who have never heard the gospel are nevertheless the objects of God’s wrath because they refuse to obey God and serve Him. They know through the creation that God is God alone and that He must be worshipped and served, but they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The passage does not teach a general revelation that is evidence of God’s common grace, but rather it speaks of God’s wrath revealed from heaven. The purpose of God’s making Himself known in the creation is “that they may be without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

The suppression of the knowledge of God of which all men are guilty is the refusal on the part of the wicked even to allow the knowledge of God and their calling to worship Him to enter their consciousness. Their hatred of God is so intense that they refuse even to think about Him. Or, if they think about Him, they do so in terms of their idols: Allah, Buddha, or other imaginary gods.

The way the wicked suppress the consciousness of God’s demands on them is to make idols and worship them: “Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened, Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Rom. 1:21-23). We ought to notice how the verse emphasizes that the wicked did possess the knowledge of God. It states emphatically that they knew God, and knowing God, they changed the glory of God into a beast or bird or snake. To change something, one must know what he is changing.

So the idolatry of the heathen was not born out of ignorance of God; nor was it an expression of their longing to know God but ignorance as to how to worship Him (as many maintain, and as I was taught in grade school); it was a deliberate, conscious and willful alteration of Him whom they knew to be God alone, into a corruption of Him in an idol. In order to suppress something that one refuses to think about, wicked man finds this most easily done by altering the thing hated and feared. If a man refuses to worship God whom he knows through creation, the best way to avoid doing this is to create a god of his own imagination and convince himself that his idol is the true God. If a man has committed fornication and his conscience drives him to distraction and he wants to drive the fact that he sinned from his consciousness, the best way to do it is to justify it by persuading himself that fornication is not sin, but a normal part of one’s lifestyle. He knows fornication is wrong, but refuses to admit it and turn from it. So he justifies it by appealing to the misery of being married to a cold and unsatisfactory wife, by claiming the right of happiness (“A man has the right to happiness, does he not?”), and by convincing himself that in his case, the thing he did was the wise and best thing to do . . . .

The same is true of modern man who considers it silly to bow before an image, as do the Hindus and Buddhists. Today’s Western man is too sophisticated for that sort of thing. But in his hatred of God the Creator of all and the One alone to be worshipped, man suppresses the truth of God by various heresies such as the godless theory of evolution. For God is substituted natural selection, alteration of the species through random genetic mutation and the survival of the fittest. And ultimately, man’s idol is science itself, which, so men claim, is the only road to truth. Man today has other idols that he makes his own and that he serves: money, pleasure, possessions, large homes, expensive cars, huge yachts, fame and honor, drink and drugs. Even modern idols are concentrated efforts on the part of sinful man to escape his calling to serve and worship God and live in obedience to Him. Nor have I mentioned the false doctrines that abound by which God’s glory is changed into an image concocted by sinful man: a god helpless to save, but worshipped by Arminians; a god who makes wealthy and delivers from the afflictions of this present time – if only one wants him; a god who changes his mind and can only react to what man does. Modern man’s idols are abundant.

The dreadful part of this is that man’s suppression of the truth is accomplished by committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty. Man argues that the truth, seared upon his consciousness by all the creation (and by Scripture in our modern “Christian” civilization) is, after all, not the truth at all. But to escape this truth and to suppress it, man changes the truth into a lie (evolutionism instead of creation; sexual immorality in the place of sexual purity, divorce and remarriage in the place of life-long marriage, pleasure in the place of self-denial, riches in the place of giving to the poor, heresy in the place of the truth) and convinces himself that the lie is truth and the truth is a lie. Suppressing the truth is dangerous business. Yet we all do it. We sin and when confronted by it, and knowing full well that what we have done is sin, we nevertheless, justify ourselves and attempt to prove to ourselves and others that what we have done is perfectly permissible.

The sad part of it is that we can be persuaded, and, if we persist in our intellectual dishonesty, we finally will succeed in persuading ourselves that we are right, that what God demands is wrong, that the truth is a lie, that the lie is truth, that our conduct is for one reason or another perfectly correct – at least in our case, and that what God says is a mistake. When we have succeeded in persuading ourselves of the fact that it is all right to change the glory of the incorruptible God into our own image of corruption and immorality, we are what Scripture calls “hardened” – as the heart of Pharaoh was hardened. Our consciences are seared with a hot iron (I Tim. 4:2). For such a one there is no repentance and confession of sin. Why should one confess as sin something of which he is persuaded that it is true and right? But for such a one there is no salvation. Suppression is a terrible danger and a dreaded sin packed with the threats of God’s wrath in this life and in eternity.

This matter of suppression is so great a sin that Paul mentions once again the evil of it: “Who change the truth into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than (‘rather than’ is correct, HH), the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen” (1:25).

The only way to escape the spiritual bankruptcy of self-justification and hardening is through confession of sin – to God and one another. That is why Scripture extols repeatedly the blessedness of the one broken in spirit and contrite in heart. Confession of sin is a gift of grace.

Thus, this manifestation of God in creation, given to all men, is “That they are without excuse” (1:20). They are never, into all eternity, able to plead ignorance. They knew! God showed it to them.

* * * *

Having said all this, the apostle also explains how the wrath of God is revealed to these sinners. It is revealed in a most terrible way. “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves” (vs. 24). And again, “For this cause (the idolatry of the wicked) God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature; And likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (vss. 26, 27).

And then, once again the emphasis that such idolatry is conscious and deliberate: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient” (vs. 28). In other words, God punishes sin with sin – more sin, greater sin, more horrible sin, the sin of homosexuality. That is the revelation of the wrath of God.

This is so-called “general revelation”. This is the common grace of general revelation. We do well to see that common grace is also an idol and that to believe in a god who loves all men and tries to save them is a changing of the glory of God into an image of man’s own devising. It is dangerous to suppress the truth. It is salvation to get down on our knees before a sovereign God who does all His good pleasure, and worship Him in awe and humility. It is salvation to live in obedience to God’s will and when we sin, not to justify ourselves, but to confess our sins and seek forgiveness in the cross. There, in the cross, is hope for us poor sinners.

* * * *
The apostle says much the same thing in chapter 2:14, 15, He is explaining why the Gentiles, unsaved as they are, nevertheless do things in conformity with the external demands of the law. This was especially true in the Roman Empire, famous for its advances in jurisprudence. The wicked, even those who have not the gospel, keep these outward demands of the law because they really know the law. “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: 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.”

Not all unsaved people commit fornication, steal from their neighbor, murder those whom they hate, seek divorce when they weary of their spouses. There can be found among unsaved people an external conformity to the law. These are the heathen who have no Bibles and have never heard of the law of the ten commandments. The gospel is foreign to them. Especially in Paul’s day, this ignorance of the gospel was true of most of the people within and beyond the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. And the law, given from the fire of Sinai, was unknown to them. How is it to be explained that they do by nature the things contained in the law?

Again, many explain this knowledge of the law and conformity to its external demands as being evidence of God’s common grace. But there is no mention of this in the text and we ought not to introduce that which God does not introduce.

The same reason for this phenomenon of an external conformity to God’s law is given here as in Romans 1:19, 20. The wicked know the law of God even though they never heard of the ten commandments. The wicked have the works of the law written on their hearts. They do not, the apostle points out, have the law written in their hearts; this is salvation. But they do know what the law teaches and demands, namely that they must serve God. They not only know that they must serve God, but they know how to serve Him, that is, by keeping His commandments. They do not have the law as given from Sinai, but they do know what the law of God requires. God has seen to it that through creation itself every man, woman and child knows the difference between right and wrong. And all men know what is right and what is wrong in their relationships to their fellow men. This knowledge of the law is also made known through the creation, for it is imbedded in the creation as a creation ordinance.

That the works of the law are written on the hearts of all men is explained further by the fact that the text clearly states that men’s consciences testify of the rightness and wrongness of a deed. Every man has a conscience. It is the subjective testimony in the consciousness of man of God’s judgment upon every thought, word and deed he does. But that word of God in the conscience men suppress. That God is displeased with their sin and pleased with obedience is a truth they suppress. Yet they conform their lives outwardly to the demands of the law. This fact is proof that they know God’s law and understand well what God requires.

But that they conform their lives in some measure to the outward demands of the law is also understandable. It does not take regeneration or grace, though it be common, to see that defiance of even the outward demands of the law leads to chaos. Thus they heed the voice of their conscience in an outward obedience, which is only evidence of man’s desire to seek his own good. But if he could sin and get away with it, he will do it. Abortion is a case in point. The threat of pregnancy following fornication is a deterrent to sexual immorality; but given abortion and the removal of the deterrent, soon total moral chaos results. But these wicked who know the law and conform outwardly to its demands do not and will not love the Lord their God with all their hearts and minds and souls and strength. Apart from such love for God and the neighbor, there is no true keeping of the law at all.

This knowledge of this is not common grace; this knowledge is given so that men may be without excuse when God judges all men (2:16). The creation itself teaches that God is God alone and that because He is God, the Creator, He must be worshipped and served. That they know what is right and what is wrong is evident from and proved by their lives in which they maintain some outward conformity to the law. It is not grace that enables them to live lives in conformity with the law of God externally, but simply that even wicked man can see the social benefit of keeping the law outwardly. Society and life in society would be impossible if people stole and murdered without any restraint. It does not take regeneration or grace to see that laws defining what is right and what is wrong are necessary and that society is better preserved when law enforcement agencies are given the authority to punish violators of the law.

Dr. A. Kuyper and his followers claim this outward conformity to the law is common grace. But such is not the case. We will have to investigate this matter further as well as other matters, but for the present, I am content to demonstrate how Scripture speaks indeed of a general knowledge that all men have of God and of morality; that this knowledge is not common grace, for its sole purpose is to leave men without excuse; and that only by faith in Christ is there salvation.

With warm regards,

Prof Hanko

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