Universal, God-Given Conscience


In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul indicated that all can rightfully be held accountable to God because all have transgressed the law . . . knowingly.

Of course, the ancient Jewish listener would have had to agree, because they knew the law, as handed down in the writings of Moses, and all the words of the prophets, the wisdom literature, and the historical accounts of their people would have backed that up. They the foundation of their faith in Abraham who had answered God’s call, and in the Exodus. They had the promises, the inheritance, the temple and its practices, they had God Himself, Who had chosen them to be His people. Paul’s declaration would have not only sounded absolutely right, but also very familiar.

But what of those who did not have the benefit of that special relationship, and those spiritual advantages?

Could they be held accountable in the same way? 

Absolutely, was Paul’s reply.


When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 

They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness;

and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them.

Romans 2:14-15 (NRSV)

I remember, years and years ago, being in a discussion about this phenomenon of a universal conscience that transgressed cultures, eras, people groups, and societies. “No way,” I remember some saying, the anthropologists among us, “Human beings are born neutral, and they learn to believe whatever their culture teaches them.”

We all accepted that, at the time, from the prevailing scientific point of view. Only the Christians seemed obdurately in defense of an innate conscience. No amount of scientific research, “What about psychopathology, and sociopathology!” or discussions of brain architecture, “The infant brain is born a clean slate!” or observation of current Stone Age tribes, “Look at how different moralities and ethics are, from culture to culture!” or really anything at all seemed to move the Christian stance one inch from its center.

Some things we take on faith. The Bible says we all are to be held accountable, we all know right from wrong, and God is a just God.” I remember hearing those words, a young believer myself at the time, and struggling to accept them. How could we defend something that sounded so uneducated, so close-minded, so heartless and obtuse? What did the ancients know of neurobiology and sociology?

And then, last night, forty years later, I was listening to a TED talk, and became electrified when I heard described five basic, foundational innate conditions all humans are born with, a sort of programming grid upon which morality is written:

  • Fairness/Reciprocity
  • Protection from Harm/Care
  • Authority/Respect
  • InGroup Loyalty
  • Purity/Sanctity

Listen for yourself and see what you think:

The moral roots of liberals and conservatives
Jonathan Haidt | 3.7M views

[Image Courtesy PxHere]

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