By Robert F. Turner
God created man in his own image: capable of choice, with a moral (ethical) capacity. He was given a “sense of ought”: the recognition of ethical right and wrong according to some standard. This was necessary so that response to God’s standard could make man compatible with his Maker: good by choice “from the heart,” rather than a robot, subject only to animal instinct.
This “sense of ought” is the conscience, and it results in what is sometimes called “moral law.” One’s moral capacity should not be confused with Christ’s “love God . . . love neighbor” (Matt. 22:37-40): the foundation and summation of all stipulated laws. Moral capacity (some call it “law”) is universal in that all accountable beings are affected by it; but it is not a specific code of conduct, exclusively related to any particular period of history. In childhood its standard is received from parents and early associations, then honed and developed by each one’s experience. As one has access to the revealed will of God and respects the same, conscience is adjusted accordingly (1 Cor. 8:7-12).
In the absence of specific revelation, conscience respecting things of God is directed by that which is apparent in the world about us. Paul tells us man may “know” the 4geternal power” and “deity” of God by that which is revealed in the created universe. This knowledge imposes two obligations: to “glorify” (look up to, be humbled in his presence), and to be “thankful” (to recognize our dependence on him). No man, in any period of history, is exempt from these obligations.
When men of old failed to respond to these obligations: “did not like to retain God in their knowledge,” the conscience was seared. “God gave them up” to all sorts of sin (Rom. 1:19f). It is not revealed specifically what God would do for those who responded positively to primitive knowledge, but the history of God’s dealing with man suggests that doors to further information would be opened. Examples: Noah, Abraham. There were “prophets” of God in early days.
We do know that God deemed man sufficiently equipped to be morally responsible; and the access all men have to moral principles (good conscience) is enough that condemnation of their sin is just. That is the message of Romans 1-2. In addition to rudimental “mores” of men (Hammurabi code, Egyptian Book of the Dead) it is also clear that God gave some men specific and positive precepts – build an ark, sacrifice upon an altar, etc. Eventually, in the gradual unveiling of God’s will for man, a special nation was formed (Israel) through which “God with us” would come, and give the complete and final revelation. In this process, God “suffered,” and “overlooked” conduct that would later be condemned (Acts 14:16; 17:30; Rom. 2:4; 9:22), and his toleration must not be construed as approval of such conduct today (Matt. 19:8-9).
It is not wrong to designate dispensations (Patriarchy, Judaism, Christianity), but the laws or stipulated will of God (expressions of his nature) in any “dispensation” can not save man from sin (Gal. 3:21). They are “weak through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), i.e., none keeps law perfectly. They only serve to show the direction God would have man go – the character God would have him build. Later instructions differ from the earlier ones according to God’s progressive revelation of himself, “precept upon precept, line upon line,” until all was complete. Since “all sin” (Rom. 3:23), they serve to identify sin (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:7,13) and bring man to God for mercy (Gal. 3:24).
Jesus Christ (God with us) was and is the final revelation of God to man (Heb. 1:1-2). His word will judge us in the last day (Jn. 12:48). Just as all men have always been subject to all they could know of God’s will – and the truly submissive man gladly seeks and accepts all he can know of God’s will – all men are now subject to the will of God expressed in Jesus Christ. The conscience of a true Christian is “set” or adjusted by knowledge of that will – he has God’s final law written in his heart (Heb. 8:10; 2 Cor. 3:3).
Our previous ignorance, or reliance upon statements from the twilight or moonlight ages of revelation, cannot change the responsibilities imposed upon us by knowledge of the perfected will of God. When we become judges of the law rather than doers (Jas. 4:11-12), we forfeit the salvation of mercy and forgiveness provided in Jesus Christ.
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 9, p. 261
May 7, 1992