Law…Written on Their Hearts (Ridderbos)

Paul: An Outline of His Theology Ridderbos, Herman N. cover image

Herman Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology is one of those essential resources for help understanding the letters of the Apostle Paul. It was originally published in Kampen in 1967. The English translation was published by Eerdmans in 1975. This book is quite lengthy and it’s pretty detailed and in-depth. In Paul, Ridderbos explained and summarized Paul’s teaching in an orderly way: Sin, the Righteousness of God, Reconciliation, New Life, New Obedience, the Church, the Sacraments, and the Future (eschatology). This morning I was re-reading a section where Ridderbos was summarizing Paul’s teaching about sin and the law of God as Paul talks about these topics in Romans 1:18-2:16. This quote is a bit longer than usual, but it’s worth reading through. I’ve edited it slightly to make it easier to read:

…The knowledge of the law [of God] is not confined to Israel. Very closely bound up with the view of man as creature of God is the fact that to the Gentiles as well all knowledge of the law cannot be denied (Rom. 2:14ff). Although they do not have the law as expressed in the form in which it was given to Israel, they do ‘by nature’ that which is required by the law.

This ‘natural’ knowledge of the law has often been related to certain ideas from the Stoic ethic, according to which there is in every man a natural moral law which corresponds to the rational, cosmic structure of law. It can justly be pointed out, however, that for Paul ‘nature’ was not, as for the Stoics, the real and highest norm, which then made itself felt in the law as its subjective reflection, but that for him ‘by nature’ has an entirely different background. He thereby speaks very definitely of the law and by that [he] means qualitatively the same law as that which had been given to the Jews. To be sure, the Gentiles do not have this law itself, but when in the course of time they nevertheless do what the law demands, they show that the ‘work’ required by the law has been written in their hearts; indeed, they are, by so doing, a law to themselves, namely that one specific law (Rom. 2:14, 15). These last words do not thus denote human arbitrariness or that man is his own law, but rather the superior power of the will of God, from the knowledge of which man cannot entirely fall away. Even in the absence of the written law, he must inevitably set before himself the will of God himself expressed in it.

For this reason the passive voice of the words ‘the work of the law written in their hearts’ is also to be understood as: written by God. For not only is the writing of the law in general the work of God (Ex. 24:12, et. al.), and not only in particular is the writing of it in the hearts of men to be attributed to no other (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 3:2, 3), but it is true above all that the law of which Paul speaks in this whole context is the law of God. God declares himself thus to man, even though one does not belong to the people of the law and the law is not known to him in that concrete sense. The incidental works of the law of the Gentiles prove this, despite all their ungodliness. How Paul intends this must surely be understood in the light of Romans 1:19ff., 32, as fruit of continuing revelation.

God continues to reveal himself as God even to man who is apostate and ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel.’ ‘Being without God in the world’ (Eph. 2:12) is therefore not to be understood apart from the connection with Romans 1:19. And it is this revelation of God through which the sense of responsibility in man cannot be lacking (Rom. 1:20), even though he suppresses it. It also maintains in him, in spite of himself, the awareness of what death and life mean for him (Rom. 1:32), awareness therefore also of true manhood. This is not detached from his awareness of God, however, but springs precisely from it. The consciousness of manhood is implied in the consciousness of God and his law. Man is man in the relationship in which God has placed him to himself and to his law.

Herman Ridderbos, Paul, p. 106-7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015