This portion of Romans is not easy to understand. Paul uses somewhat archaic language to describe why even the non-Jewish world, who lived without the written Law, was guilty before God. This is what he means when he opens this section with the statement, “all who have sinned without the law” are guilty before God. He is addressing the guilt of the Gentile world that were without the law in terms of having it in written form. How then can they be guilty if they did not have the law in written form?
The answer is, that though they did not have it in its written form, they give evidence that the law was written into their consciences. This is what the apostle means when he says that Gentiles, “who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires” (2:14). Though not being instructed in the law as the Jews were to whom God gave the law in written form, Gentiles are still judged by the law in that they reveal by their lifestyle that they are keenly aware of its precepts.
An example of this can be seen in personal experience. Even though some were not raised in homes where the law of God was taught, the first time they stole, or committed adultery, or even murdered, they testify of feeling pangs of guilt. They instinctively knew that what they had done was wrong. Some have suggested that this is merely a result of social conditioning, but Paul counters that thought by the teaching the law is written deep into the heart of every man and woman. This means they instinctively know what is right and wrong, even if they have not been made aware of it in written form.
This is vital to know when it comes to evangelism, since more and more people in our culture today are secularized and therefore strangers to the truth of Christianity. It encourages us to realize that, even though they do not have the truth in written form, they still know it in their hearts. Ray Comfort has built an entire ministry on this concept by asking people if they think they are good. When people answer affirmatively (which most do), he then proceeds to ask them if they have ever stolen, or lied, or taken the name of the Lord in vain, etc. Most people are honest enough to admit that they have done these things. Comfort then says that they are not good and therefore under the judgment of God.
This passage helps us in our sharing of the Gospel. It reiterates that human beings are fallen and therefore guilty, even if they have never been acquainted with the law of God in written form. Conscience becomes an ally in our helping people to know why they need a Savior. Remember, it is necessary that a person be first persuaded of the bad news (that they are sinners and therefore under the wrath of God) before they can understand the good news (that God sent One to die for us and therefore consume the wrath of God).