How could the Gentiles be guilty of sin when they did not have the Law?


I was trying to figure out the comparison (or contrast) between Romans 2:12-16 and Romans 7:7-11

"For 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. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the works of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day, when according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:12-16).

"What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me" (Romans 7:7-11).

My questions are: The Gentiles did not have the Law of Moses; but, although they didn't, they instinctively did some of the things that the Law required. The first passage says that the Gentiles "by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law". However, my contemplation is that what they knew instinctively was Not sufficient as a standard to be judged by because then that would seem that good and bad were dependent on their standard/available knowledge of good and evil which would make morality non-absolute. Since the Gentiles (and people in general) cannot know all that is good and evil, there has to be a standard (which God doesn't provide in the Bible) otherwise judgment on them would seem unfair.

So I reason within myself and think, since the Gentiles did not have a written down Law, then this explains what was said in Acts 17:29-31 "Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." Therefore, the Gentiles received mercy because all they had to go on, in regards to morality, was what they did good and bad instinctively. Is this reasonable?

I also contemplate that a Law (not the Law of Moses) always existed even before Moses because sin still existed. I John 3:4 (sin is lawlessness) and reading the story of Cain and Abel, God tells Cain "sin is crouching at the door but you must master over it." So what does Paul mean in Romans 5:13? Is He saying that sin is not penalized when Law doesn't exist? (Which doesn't make sense considering the Flood story). Or, is he trying to show that Law has always existed? And how is it possible for sin to have existed before the law?

Romans 7:7 Paul said "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet unless the law said 'You shall not covet.'" My question to this is, the Gentiles didn't have the Law but they instinctively did some things of the Law, So why does Paul say that the Law (of Moses) defined sin when the Gentiles without the law of Moses committed sins? (I Might be answering my own question in this question but I can't see it).


I read through this twice, but I'm not certain I understand your question accurately.

Romans as a whole is about God's justice in forgiving mankind of sin. Romans 1:18ff establishes that Gentiles had left God to follow what was logically unreasonable. Romans 2 deals with the Jews' false idea of being superior to the Gentiles. Paul charges that they are no different from the Gentiles. The Jews thought the law gave them superiority over the Gentiles, assuming that Gentiles could not do right without the law. Paul's point in Romans 2:12-16 is that it isn't the possession of law that makes a person righteous but the following of the law. The Gentiles were in sin because they did not follow God's laws. God could justly hold them accountable because they were able to do right even though it wasn't written out for them.

Let me give an example. People understand that taking something that belongs to another person is wrong. It doesn't take a written law to understand this. Thus, when a person steals, moves property boundaries, use false weights, commits adultery, etc. God can hold them accountable because instinctively they knew that stealing was wrong. Since not every Gentile steals because they know it is wrong, it proves that they are able to do right.

Having a written law was not as great of an advantage as the Jews imagined it to be. Nor were they superior because they were guilty of the same types of crimes as the Gentiles.  Romans 3 tells the Jews they had the advantage over the Gentiles because they had the law written out for them. Their inability to keep the law proves that God was right. The law itself states that everyone (Jew and Gentile) are sinful. Thus, it was necessary for God to take steps to rescue mankind from their disobedience. God could do this justly (without arbitrariness or bias) by making it based on faith.

In Romans 5:12-14, Paul proves that law always existed. It didn't suddenly show up when Moses gave the Law to the Israelites.  The axiom is that sin is not charged when a person did not know the law. The penalty for sin is death. Everyone dies, even people who lived before Moses. It wasn't because they were guilty of Adam's sin. Therefore, there must have been laws prior to Moses. For example, the wiping out of the world by the Flood because the entire world was in sin is evidence that they had law and were knowledgeable of it. And, yes, Cain could be held guilty of murder because he knew that killing another human was wrong. It didn't take the written Law of Moses to tell men that fact.

Romans 7 deals with why the Law of Moses could not continue. It had a problem: it made people aware of sin, even sins they would not normally commit, but offered no permanent solution to sin. Temptation increases with awareness causing a conflict between what a person wants to do and what he ends up doing. The Gentiles didn't have this increased problem of temptation, but that lesser burden didn't prevent them from sinning.

Paul's statements in Acts 17 to the Gentiles basically say that there will be a Judgment Day and that the Gentiles will be facing that Judgment. God had not come as He could have to punish the world for their sins, but the Gentiles could not assume that God will never come. The times when God tolerated the sins of the Gentiles would end. He commands the Gentiles to change. Paul said something similar earlier to another group of Gentiles: "Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:15-17). Stumbling around with only a vague notion of what is right and wrong is no longer enough.


What I was trying to get at essentially is the concept of human nature. You cleared up the misunderstanding I had by explaining the different chapters. I guess what I was trying to figure out is in regards to the Gentiles as an example, do people at some point in their lives generate the ability to naturally distinguish right and wrong without being taught (by law, for example)?

I was having a conversation with someone and she stated that in different cultures they have different beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. In class, we talked about cultural relativism. An example was an Egyptian culture in which when the husband died, they placed the husband's possessions inside the coffin including killing the wife, and to the Egyptians, this was seen as normal. Someone else in a different culture can say that's wrong but for the Egyptians, that's not seen as a bad thing, so how can everyone be judged by one standard if they all don't possess it? And if they have no excuse, then can you further explain this to me?


What you ran into is the idea of moral relativism, where morality supposedly changes based on circumstances, such as situations or cultures.

I would argue that the example of the Egyptians is one of a culture granting an exception to what they know is moral. For example, ancient Egyptian kings killed retainers to serve them in the afterlife, but this practice only occurred briefly in Egypt's history. "It appears that Ancient Egyptians did sacrifice their servants to take them into the Afterlife but only in the very early portions of their vast history. This was not a regular practice as some would have the general public believe" [Did the Ancient Egyptians Practice Human Sacrifice?]. I also found that "The union of man and woman often transcended death. Couples were frequently buried in the same or in adjacent tombs, and depicted together..." [Ancient Egypt: Man and Woman]. In other words, just because a husband and wife are found buried together, it does not mean the wife was killed to be with her husband. Therefore, all we can conclude is that some kings of ancient Egypt for a short period of time had people killed in the mistaken belief that they would join him in the afterlife. The very fact that it was not commonly practiced and that it stopped is a good indication that they found something wrong with it.

For more on this topic, see: Depending on the Situation.

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