Regenerated or “Natural” Nature?

In an earlier post I argued that it was possible that some Gentiles fulfilled the requirements of the law of God simply by their good nature. Traditional Christian theology discounts such possibility. Let me add a few more thoughts on the subject – verifying the context and the usage of terms will shed more lights on the meaning of the passage.

Rom. 2:14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them…

I stated that this was not about Gentiles in the church, but about Gentiles in general. Let me say that it is possible to interpret it the traditional way and see believing Gentiles in the passage. However, there are some issues with it, and if one chooses to interpret it that way s/he has some pretty big problems with the context and the usage of terms.

We need to read Ch. 1 before we read the above passage. The context is not the church, but the depravation of humankind. Paul is dealing with the general condition of the world, and the picture he paints is pretty bleak. Those in Ch. 1 are “without excuse” (1:20).

Now he turns to the religious Jews who had the law, and therefore, the light from God, yet, they did not obey it.

Rom. 2:1 Therefore you have no excuse

You see, they are also without excuse, for God only justifies the doers of the law, not the hearers. He concludes, that

Rom. 2:9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. 12 All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

In 2:9 the contrast is made between sinful Jews and Gentiles in general. So God is only interested in deeds, not in head knowledge. The deeds will be judged, theology or the possession of the law counts not. You see, we don’t find the church in 2:10 either. This is not the way Paul would refer to believing Jews and Gentiles. Now let us read further:

Rom. 2:14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them…

The law of Moses was given only to the children of Israel, they were the recepients of the promises God made to the fathers. Gentiles never had the law, it never applied to them. They only had the laws of Noah that they lost, and therefore, they lived in darkness.

So how could they do what the law required? Who are these Gentiles? We have a number of options here. They are either those in the church, or proselites to Judaism, or righteous Gentiles who did not belong to either.

Those Gentiles who converted to the Jesus movement were not required to take on the observence of the (Mosaic) law. (Actually, I am aware that a case may be made that they were required full Torah observance once they received proper training, I have seen quite good arguments, but I did not find it all that convincing. Afterall you need to do your own homework and make up your own mind on the issue.) This is why Paul is against circumcising Gentiles. They were only taught the Noahide laws and those laws from Lev. 17-19 that were required for Jews and Gentiles to peacefully coexist. These Gentiles kept these laws because of the Spirit that regenerated their inner being. They did not do them “by nature”, but by the Spirit.

The term “by nature” is not a term Paul uses to refer to regenerated nature. He uses the term by the Spirit for that. If he refers to believing Gentiles, then why does he single them out only, why not refer to believers in general, both Jewish and Gentile? Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t see a single clear – I mean CLEAR – reference to the church in the whole chapter. Paul is dealing with the religious Jew here, and what can be more hurtful to them than contrasting their failure with the obedience of the Gentiles they despised?

Keep in mind that Gentiles in foreign lands were often attracted to Jewish synagogues and learned the law of Moses.

Acts 15:21 For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.

These Gentiles learned the law, yet, they did not have the law. At least until they were converted to the Jewish religion. At conversion they were circumcised and from then on they were required full Torah observance. Before conversion they could observe the law even though they were not obliged to do it. So one possible explanation is the proselites.

On the other hand the expression that the requirements of the law was written on their hearts may be a reference to the Spirit, and thus to the new covenant, for the very essence of the new covenant is God putting his law into the heart of his people, however, having the law of God in the heart is not confined to the new covenant alone, we see it in the old also. We may very well conclude that having the law of God in the heart is what righteousness is. It means one does the law by nature, not by compulsion. He does it because he is just, not because he wants to become just by them. And the only way one can put the law of God into his heart is by faith(fully) learning it, meditating on it day and night.

Let me draw you the covenant tree, so that you can see why it was possible for Gentiles to be righteous outside of the Jewish religion:

Covenant Tree

┬áNow under a particular covenant one is righteous as long as s/he lives up to the righteous standard of the covenant. Covenants may be “upgraded”, but not downgraded. It means one can only go down the tree, not up, for every new covenant is an extension of the old. If you understand the nature of covenants you have no difficulty accepting that certain Gentiles were righteous even outside the Jewish religion. We even see a prophet of God
(Baalam) who becomes corrupted. Or what about Melchizedek? How was he the priest of the Most High? Well there is no difficulty here, the above model explains it well.

We may also add that in a wider sense the law refers to the commands of God. Therefore, the law was given in the Garden of Eden, then extended to Noah, then to the Israelites, etc.

Therefore, Gentiles were under the laws on Noah, but because they lost it, they lived in spiritual darkness, not knowing right from wrong. So how could they have the requirements of the law written in their hearts? Notice that Paul doesn’t say it is the law, but that what the law requires is written in their hearts.

Is there a difference between the law and the requirements of the law being in the heart? Perhaps there is. I would say having the law in the heart means being conscious of the commandments, while having the requirements (or deeds) of the law in the heart means you love God and your fellow being not because of you are aware of the commandments to do so, but because it is your nature, you just do it because you can’t help it. These fulfill the law being unaware that they do it, being approved or disapproved only by their conscience and not by the written commandment. It appears, it is conscience that plays a big part in these Gentiles living righteously. They don’t know the law because they don’t have the law. Their only guidance is their pure conscience, and I
suppose God also works through that.

Finally, let us verify how the Greek term translated “by nature” is used in the NT.

Gal. 2:15 We ourselves, who are Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners

Gal. 4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods

Eph. 2:3 Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

There is one more quote from James that refers to taming animals being easier than taming the tongue, the English translation doesn’t reflect the usage of the term.

As it can be seen the term “by nature” never refers to the Spirit. It always refers to something that is naturally in that condition, it never refers to what is supernaturally regenerated. The term used for that is “Spirit”.

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  1. […] In the earlier post I argued that people need training in righteousness. What was said here doesn’t contradict it. There are people who are naturally good. All others need training. We may elaborate more on this in another post […]

    Gentiles Doing the Deeds of the Law - what does Paul mean? » ZWorld - The World to Come

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