They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts (Romans 2:15 NIV).
To be human is to be immersed in life (in existence, in the reality around us). There is no God’s eye view from which we can stand and with pure objectivity observe reality.
To be sure, we have gained much by our attempts to stand back and analyze reality. We’ve been doing this in various ways since the beginning of human existence. With the scientific revolution there came tremendous gains from our ability to analyze the natural world but with it also a false sense of our ability to be objective and an exaggeration of the role of detachment in knowing.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in reason. However, knowing involves more than our cognitive faculty. There is what the ancients called the heart, a faculty often ignored by moderns.
What is “heart”? For the biblical writers heart refers to the whole person immersed in reality. It refers to the whole self, intellect, emotions and will. Significantly, it’s with the heart we know religious truth, for religious truth has to do with ultimate reality, reality in its totality.
We see this in the text from Romans quoted above. Paul says that humans know the requirements of the law, meaning they have a sense of how they ought to be. The place of this knowing he calls the heart. In another place he’ll say humans are immersed in God (“in him we live and move and have our being”, Acts 17:28). God is that which structures existence. He is the source of unity and order. He is the source of law, the laws of nature and the laws of right moral conduct.
One of the better commentaries on this passage comes from John Calvin:
they prove that there is imprinted on their hearts a discrimination and judgment by which they distinguish between what is just and unjust, between what is honest and dishonest. He means not that it was so engraven on their will, that they sought and diligently pursued it, but that they were so mastered by the power of truth, that they could not disapprove of it. For why did they institute religious rites, except that they were convinced that God ought to be worshipped? Why were they ashamed of adultery and theft, except that they deemed them evils?
Religion, Calvin says, is a matter of the heart. Religions arise from our knowing in our being that there is a God and there is a way we ought to be. We are inescapably related to God and the order that flows from him, and deep down, we all know it. The religious outlook says there is a divine reality that structures our existence and we recognize our accountability to that reality. We know it in our hearts.
Christ appears as the one who embodies the order of being. He is the law of our being incarnated. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and we know it. The message Christians give to the world is surrender to the truth! The standard has appeared (Acts 17:31) and we know it. It cuts us to the heart (Acts 2:37). Acknowledge what you know to be true!
Jesus says, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NIV). This hearing and listening happens with the heart (the soil of the parable of the sower). The gift that comes with the law embodied in Christ is the good news of the divine reality being for us, and our believing in Christ as the one who brings good news is from our heart (Romans 10:10), but that’s for another post.