Knowledge of the truth is more than knowledge of facts, for the simple reason that facts do not exist in isolation. Each event and object is connected, either directly or distantly, with all other events and objects. The proper connecting of these facts—including the proper weighing or valuation of each—is necessary for a knowledge of truth. More than that, facts must be understood in their relationship to persons, and especially to the one Person whose mind exhaustively comprehends all facts and perceives them in their proper relations.
We never know brute facts. We know only those facts that our minds have already construed or interpreted, having assigned them a place in the universe as we imagine it to be. What we imagine the universe to be is not simply an intellectual or cognitive matter. It is freighted with moral implications. Nowhere is this moral implicatedness seen more readily than in the first half of Romans 2.
As Paul opens the chapter, he is attempting to solve a problem that has been left over from the argument of Romans 1. In that chapter, he argued that all humans are accountable for the knowledge of God that is obvious to them in the created order, namely, knowledge of His eternal power and divine nature. Rather than embracing this knowledge of God, however, humanity universally exchanges it for something else. People invent idols, and under the rubric of their idols they attempt to reconstruct the facts in ways that point away from God. Paul offers two observations about this reconstructive activity. First, it represents an attempt to hold down or suppress the truth. When they invent false systems of explanation, people are not merely making innocent mistakes. They are morally culpable for the truth that they are concealing. Second, this human abandonment of God is the source of all of the practical manifestations of depravity that degrade humanity. Paul lists the attitudes and behaviors to which God has given over humanity. The picture is not pretty.
The problem that Paul has to solve, however, is posed by the fact that not all humans plunge into the deepest manifestations of depravity. On the contrary, people are still capable of apparent virtue and altruism (as might be expected of those made in God’s image, however badly damaged). How can Paul account for these flashes of virtue, and, more importantly, how do they affect his overall assessment that humanity has utterly rejected God and suppressed the truth?
Paul opens Romans 2 by noting the inconsistency of human morality. On the one hand, the moralist condemns certain behaviors. On the other hand, he is powerless to prevent himself from indulging in the same behaviors (1). At some level, every human is aware that God’s judgment falls upon those who practice evil (2). By passing judgment upon those who behave unjustly, moralists leave themselves without escape from God’s judgment when they themselves practice injustice (3). Granted, condemnation has not fallen upon them yet, but that is only because they are being given time to repent (4). By hardening their hearts, however, these moralists are actually storing up greater condemnation, which will certainly fall on the day of God’s righteous judgment (5).
What does Paul mean when he says that moral people practice the very things that they condemn? Not necessarily that they commit precisely the same acts, but rather that they excuse some version of the same kind of sin that they condemn. Probably Paul’s thought here corresponds with Jesus’ fuller interpretation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. A woman may never actually kill her neighbor, but by spreading slanders she assassinates a character—and in God’s eyes, it is the same kind of thing. A man may never seduce his secretary, but his fantasy world is X-rated—and in God’s eyes, it is the same kind of thing. Someone else may avoid obvious perjury by telling a story that is strictly factual, but because the facts are given a different interpretation (a “spin”) the narrative becomes a lie.
God deals with all such infractions according to strict justice, judging each individual according to that person’s works (6). Those who merit life will receive it (7). This is not a promise of salvation by works, but rather a statement that persons who live a thoroughly just life do not need to be saved. A just God could not possibly condemn them. On the other hand, those who obey unrighteousness and do evil will receive wrath and fury (8-9). A just God could not possibly excuse them. No one will occupy a privileged position when God judges according to strict justice (9-11).
Because He is just, God will judge according to the standard that each person has received. Those who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law, but those who have sinned without the law will die (i.e. they will still be judged) without the law (12). Consequently, receiving the law actually increases the judgment to which the sinner is subjected (13).
What comes next is a particularly problematic passage. Paul states that certain Gentiles do by nature what the law requires, even though they have not received the law (14). Consequently, even though they do not have the law, they are a law unto themselves, showing that the work of the law is written on their hearts and witnessed in their consciences (14-16).
Who are these Gentiles, and how do they have access to the law? Interpretations of this passage abound, but two are especially significant. The first is that these are Gentiles who have believed the gospel, and that the Holy Spirit has written the law on their hearts in fulfillment or analogy of the new covenant promises. The second is that these are unsaved but moral Gentiles whose natural morality is evidence of the fact that, at some level, they cannot escape the knowledge of God. Given the flow of Paul’s argument—i.e., that even moral people are condemned by their own morality—the second interpretation seems significantly more likely.
If that is so, then Paul is teaching that humans, even though totally depraved, have a knowledge of right and wrong hardwired into them. They cannot live up to their knowledge of what is right, and they surely try to suppress some aspects of it, but they cannot escape it. Their consciences still accuse and excuse. Even though the conscience will certainly be skewed as a result of their depravity, it cannot be silenced.
In Romans 1, Paul argues that the knowledge of God is constantly pressing in upon people. They can maintain their ignorance only by a constant effort to prop up their idols. Now, in Romans 2, Paul suggests that the knowledge of God is wired into the very soul of the unbeliever. In order to maintain their rebellion, unbelievers must constantly deny something that is essential to their own humanity.
This is not to say that unsaved people are constantly, knowingly, and deliberately stopping their ears and shutting their eyes. They have invented idols that, to them, seem plausible. Nevertheless, the idols cannot answer to either the external pressure of natural revelation or the internal pressure of the conscience. Idols can never stand up under the weight of the human soul. Every idol will fail—indeed, every idol is already and constantly failing.
The universe cannot be rightly construed through the gridwork of idolatry. Only by knowing the true and living God can we know reality as it really exists. God is not far from us: He has already disclosed Himself through the created order and He has further disclosed Himself through the human conscience. At some level, all of us already know His voice. We have already encountered Him. When we abandon our rebellion and trust Him, our true knowledge of reality begins to take shape.
G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.