They Are a Law Unto Themselves

David Johnson, Queensland Regional Meeting

“He is a law unto himself” is a well-known description of a person who behaves independently, ignoring the normal rules in a society, and sometimes even the legal laws. It is a complete reversal of the Biblical text quoted. This modern use points to people who imagine they are the ones who know best, that their own agendas are justified.

The original meaning was non-Jews (Gentiles) who instinctively or thoughtfully followed ways of behaving which are contained in the Laws of the Torah were righteous, even though these Gentiles had never been taught the Law. Here is the biblical text as expressed in The Inclusive Bible (TIB) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV):

All who sin independently of the Law will also perish independently of the Law; and all who sin under the Law will be judged by the Law. It is not those who hear the Law who are just before God, but those who keep the Law who will be justified. For instance, when Gentiles [non-Jews] do naturally the things required by the Law, they are a law unto themselves, even though they don’t have the Law. They demonstrate the demands of the Law are written on their hearts – they have a witness – their own conscience. (Rom. 2:12-15 TIB)

All who have sinned without [ i.e. outside] 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. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness. (Rom. 2:12-15 RSV)

The biblical comment by St Paul is poignant in that he, as Saul earlier in his life, had applied the law of the Torah so strictly and harshly that he was a leading persecutor of the early Christians, known then as the People of the Way, hunting them down from house to house and dragging them off to prison (Acts 22:3-5, 26:4-11; Gal. 1: 11-24). He was the person at whose feet those who stoned to death the first Christian martyr Stephen, laid their clothes as a sign he was witnessing and approving their behaviour (Acts 7:54- 8:1).

Yet now as a Christian evangelist, Paul is teaching that the Christians who follow the divine Light of Christ in the conscience, in obedience to God, are following God’s will perfectly. This Light leads to reconciliation with God, to personal freedom from sin, that is salvation, in a way which could never be achieved by the animal sacrifices demanded in the Hebrew scriptures. The law of the Torah was insufficient (Heb. 10: 1-18).

The real law is inward, written on the tablets of our hearts (Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:8-12), and there we experience the judging of our deepest thoughts and attitudes (Heb. 4:12-13). The ancient Hebrews knew this experience, as recorded in their Scriptures:

And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father, and serve him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought (1 Chron. 28:9 RSV).

The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts (Prov. 20:27 RSV)

Every way of man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart (Prov. 21: 2 RSV)

I hold fast my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days (Job 27:6 RSV).

The underlying supreme instruction in the Torah – to love God above all else – was in Paul’s experience (Phil. 3:4-9), and in the experience of the first Christians, fulfilled and replaced by the requirement to follow God’s light in their consciences, as expressed in the extracts selected below:

    •  Christ will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and manifest the intentions of hearts (1 Cor. 4:5 TIB)
    • For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience that we have behaved in the world, and still more toward you, with holiness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God. (2 Cor. 1:12 RSV)
    • For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. ( 10:1-2 KJV)
    • Pray for us, for we are confident that we have a clear conscience, wishing to act rightly in every respect. ( 13:18)
    • This charge I commit to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophetic utterances which pointed to you, that inspired by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith. (1 Tim. 1:18-19 RSV)
    • In your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence;and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. (1 Peter 3:15-16 RSV)
    • Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God (1 John 3:21 RSV)

This is the fundamental principle of Quaker spirituality, as preached by the first- and second- generation Quakers in the mid-1600s. These first Friends found the Light to be an infallible guide. Their experience was that following this Light not only reconciled individual souls to God, but also brought people together with a profound sense of unity, being members one of another in the body of Christ.

To that in your conscience I appeal, which Christ hath enlightened you withal, which calls you to repentance, which shews you your evil deeds, which will be your teacher, owning and loving it; and your condemnation, hating it. Now you have time prize it; this is the day of your visitation. (George Fox, ca. 1651)[1]

On her return in the evening, Margaret Fell met him who “opened a book that we had never read in, nor indeed had never heard that it was our duty to read in it (to wit) the Light of Christ in our consciences, our minds never being turned towards it before.” (Margaret Fell, 1652)[2]

But an Eternal Witness we have in all your Consciences, which by the Word of Power is awakened in you, by which we are known, by which we are owned, by which we are witnessed and received into your Hearts, wherein our Unity stands with you who are faithful unto it, by which we are remembered unto you though far Absent in Body. (James Parnell, 1655?)[3]

So in all things mind that of God in you, the Light which shews sin in the Conscience, and reproves the evil-doer in all his ways, that in the Light you may receive the wisdom that is pure, and in that wisdom to order all things you have in charge, to the glory and praise of Almighty God. (William Smith, 1668)[4]

This does not mean that all Christians or Quakers are more perfect, because Christians do not necessarily follow the Light in their conscience anymore consistently and faithfully than did the ancient Hebrews and Jews follow the supreme law of the Torah, the great commandment laid down by Moses (Deut. 6:5), emphasised by Samuel ( 1 Sam. 15:22) and confirmed by Jesus (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:27) – love God with all your heart and mind and soul.

Paul is saying that those who follow this inward law, whether Jews or Gentiles or Christians, are on the Way to salvation, and are brought into unity (Gal 3:28; Col. 3:12-14). The historical enmity is broken.

Historical persecution of Jews is just as evil as persecution of any other peoples, even the ancient Hebrews of the tribes of Canaan, even the persecution of First Peoples by European colonisers. The early colonisers were outside the divine law, following laws of their own making which suited their own profiteering. These invaders did not obey the inward Law of Christ, did not affirm natural justice, did not listen to and follow the laws of the land into which they came. They followed the common usage of being a law unto themselves, putting their own greed and ambitions in front of the inward law of Christ. To be truly a law unto yourself is to follow God’s law within yourself, not to do what suits you.




[1] George Fox, ca 1651. A doctrinal paper To All That Would Know The Way To The Kingdom: Works, Volume 4, p.31.

[2] Isobel Ross, Margaret Fell Mother of Quakerism, Second Edition. York, England: William Sessions Book Trust, 1984, p..10-11. The quote is from a letter in the Spence Manuscripts Volume III, now in the Library of the Society of Friends, London.

[3] James Parnell, ?1655. An Epistle To Friends In A collection of the several writings given forth from the Spirit of the Lord through that meek, patient, and suffering servant of God, James Parnel, who, though a young man, bore a faithful testimony for God and dyed a prisoner under the hands of a persecuting generation in Colchester Castle in the year 1656, published 1675, p. 454.

[4] William Smith, 1668. Universal love In which a visitation floweth through the creation, that all people may be informed into the truth, and in their several places come to walk in the truth, and live in the truth, to be a good favour unto God, and honour God. The Second Edition. See page 21.

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