The Light of Nature and the Responsibility of Man
In the fall of Adam (Gen 3), the actual knowledge of God was darkened to such a degree that the light of nature now serves to make man fully responsible before the judgment of God (Rom 14:10; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:11). Typically, in the biblical imagery of light and darkness, we think of light as a beneficial element. For fallen humanity, however, the residual light of nature (what we know about God after the fall) serves to prosecute people before the bar of God (Rom 3:19–20).
As can be expected, false teachers rejoice in the light of nature, and what can be known of God through His creation. The light of nature is often directed to support the false doctrine of common grace.
Common grace is the idea that God is gracious and blesses those living under His condemnation and wrath. They even go so far as to say that God loves everyone without exception, including those vessels He has made for destruction (Rom 9:22). How can divine, universal love and grace fail to bring salvation (Jn 3:16; Eph 2:8–9)? How can grace bestowed by God, ultimately lead to eternal destruction of its recipients? May it never be! Just because a false teacher mislabels something “grace” does not mean it is grace.
There is no such thing as grace leading to grace that saves. Grace is what God does in relationship to His people. His providential care of all His creation is merely the incidental background story to the story of Jesus Christ saving His people from their sins (Mt 1:21; Titus 3:5). Grace is revealed by the foil of judgment and wrath (Rom 3:23–25).
The light of nature has nothing to do with grace. Instead, it ensures man remains a rational, moral, responsible creature in the world. Void of this light, fallen humanity would not and could not be accountable for dishonoring God in a myriad of ways. According to Romans 1, God has made His existence evident to all people, so that all are without excuse (Rom 1:19–20). Simply put, human responsibility for sins and their consequences fall to man alone.
Man is totally depraved (Gen 6:5; Is 64:6; Jer 17:9; Jn 3:19; Rom 1:18–32; 3:10–12, 23; 5:12; 8:7; Eph 2:1–3, 12), but this does not negate his full responsibility for his disposition before his divine judge. Total depravity includes man’s unwillingness and inability to reform himself to be right with God. The light of nature includes man’s inherent understanding of good and evil in his conscience. In other words, man knows what is right, good, and just. He does evil, however, because of his sin nature, the devil’s temptations, his sin-approving fan base, and the dark world of sin.
The knowledge of good and evil, in the light of nature, is no favor from God. It has no power for moral or ethical compliance to the righteousness of God, as revealed in conscience and the Law of God given to Moses (Ex 20; Dt 5). Paul wrote that the Gentiles had an internal conscience, and the Jews had the written Law on stone tablets. Both knew what was right, but both did wrong, and both were guilty before God (Rom 2:14–15).
When men live according to conscience and Law, their motive is to avoid punishment. This is external obedience, reflective of a well-manicured lawn, where hell lives inside the house. Jesus called the Pharisees, “white-washed tombs (Mt 23:27).” Religion is a show, sporting the light of nature and man’s feeble efforts at good works (Is 64:6), to attain righteousness before God (Rom 4:13; 9:31; 10:3; Gal 2:21), who is not impressed (Gen 6:5).
The knowledge of God, in mere natural light, even serves to corrupt men who have it and use it in some manner (Rom 2:20). Taking the good light from God, these turn light into darkness, and woe to him whose inner light is darkness (Mt 6:23). This knowledge is no virtue because there is zero grace in it. Without the grace of God, no one is saved by human “free will” or “good works,” which includes simple decision making in relationship to Jesus Christ.
Apart from Christ, man has vanity (Jn 15:5). There is no good in him, and there are no good works accomplished by him. Man knows God (Rom 1:19), and he knows he should glorify God and give thanks to Him (Rom 1:21). Man is fully responsible for suppressing the truth about God and about himself (Rom 1:18–19). The light of nature helps condemn men to eternal punishment in fiery hell (Jude 1:7).
Christian, here is your impetus to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 1:23; 2:2, 7; Eph 6:19), the special revelation and special knowledge of God (mystery revealed) that holds the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). People may appear virtuous, disciplined, and live as good citizens in the world. They do so with the residual, responsible light of general revelation in God’s creation. They need more light, more truth, and the one way of salvation (Jn 14:6; Eph 2:8–9), even if these only serve to harden their hearts and increase their responsibility. Still, it will be to the saving of some, according to the promise of God (Jn 6:64; Acts 17:34; 28:24).
God is Light (1 Jn 1:5) and Jesus Christ is the light of the world (Jn 8:12), whose Spirit has shone truth in our hearts (2 Cor 4:6). May we be conduits of this grace received from God, and may we appear as lights in the world (Phil 2:15) that others may see and believe the Gospel of grace, by His grace, alone, and for His glory, alone.
Spokane Valley, Washington
January 15, 2022