In these blog posts, I will interact quite a bit with natural law, not because I believe natural law theory as such holds the answers to what ails our nation (Christ alone is our last, best, and only hope), nor because I expect natural law arguments to be particularly persuasive (they have not been in our current cultural context), but because American jurisprudence from the beginning was rooted in a heavily Christianized philosophy of natural law.[1] For much of our history, natural law served as a healthy complement to Scripture and the gospel. Ultimately, I believe we should use biblical rhetoric and reasoning in making our case against Obergefell, but understanding how the natural law tradition can mesh with and supplement the more Biblicist project is also helpful. Scripture is on our side in this battle, but nature is too. With John Frame (Apologetics to the Glory of God, p. 22ff), I believe we ought to use every fact at our disposal to make our case.


But before I begin, I need to clear away some misconceptions. As I will be interacting with natural law theory, and natural law has been the source of all kinds of mischief in the history of the church, it is important for us to be clear exactly what natural law in this discussion means. Some versions of natural law – such as secular or Deist or Grotian versions – must be rejected out of hand by the faithful Christian.[2] Natural law concerns what we can’t not know – though it also true that what we can’t not know can be suppressed in unrighteousness. We can’t not know certain truths because we are made in God’s image and because we are surrounded by God’s self-revelation. At the same time, we can suppress natural revelation because we are sinners who are quite skilled at the art of self-deception.


“Nature” in Scripture is used in at least four distinct ways:[3]

  • To describe the basic properties of something that makes it what it is, whether God (2 Pet. 1:4), man,[4] or beast (James 3:7; cf. “kinds” in Genesis 1)
  • To describe God’s creational design (Romans 1:18ff and 1 Cor. 11:2-16, where “nature” has normative, ethical force)[5]
  • To describe what creation has become, twisted and warped by human sin (1 Cor. 2:1-14, where “natural man” is fallen man)[6]
  • To describe someone’s identity by birth, ethnicity, and culture (Rom. 2:1-28 and Gal. 2:15, where “nature” is used to describe one’s relationship to the covenant God made with the nation of Israel, e.g., people are “by nature” Jews and therefore possessors of Torah, or they are not)[7]

We could identify these four uses as “essential nature,” “creational nature,” “fallen nature,” and “covenantal nature.”[8] The second use is our main interest here because Paul appeals to “nature” in a creational sense in Romans 1 to condemn the very evil in question (same-sex sexual practice, known as the infamous “crime against nature”).


It’s worth unpacking how that ethical appeal to nature works in Romans 1. In short, Paul’s argument in Romans 1 seems to include these salient features: God has revealed himself in the things he has made and continues to uphold; natural revelation is not merely in static “things” God has made, but also in dynamic “deeds” God performs. Thus, natural revelation is both creational and historical, embedded in what God has made as well as in providence, as he upholds, sustains, and rules his world. Nature is not autonomous but is always graced by God; thus nature is the arena within which the personal presence of the true God is continually manifested as he powerfully, graciously, and wisely rules and maintains his handiwork. Further, this natural revelation is inescapable, but also suppressible; man is always in contact with his Creator, even if he ignores and rejects his Creator in unbelief. This revelation has a moral component, and because God’s truth is self-evident and cannot be eradicated, men are culpable when they do not respond to this revelation by thanking and glorifying God. This revelation in and through nature was never intended to operate on its own; even in a pre-fall world, God provided a word of special revelation (Gen. 2) as the lens through which man was to look at the world around him. Of course in a post-fall world, natural (= fallen) man always misinterprets nature (= creation), at least in an ultimate sense, unless the Spirit of God works through the Word to open his eyes to the truth. It seems that, for Paul, appeals to nature are especially appropriate when dealing with issues of gender and sexuality (as we see in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 11). For Paul, nature, as God’s creational design, is normative for sexual ethics and gender roles. To depart from this design is to invite confusion about the way God made the world, including the categories he created (e.g., men and women) and the way those categories fit together (cf. Lev. 18:23, which uses the language of “confusion” to describe to bestiality, but would apply just as much to other forms of sexual perversion). We were made to live in accord with nature (= creational design) but because our nature is now fallen, we do not naturally live in accord with nature but do what is contrary to nature until and unless God restores our nature in Christ and by the Holy Spirit.[9]


Hence, when Paul calls homosexual practice “unnatural” in Romans 1, he means it is unlawful; it is contrary to God’s design for humanity, and thus an act of willful rebellion. We do not object to homosexuality because we find it distasteful or disgusting; we object to it because it is contrary God’s revealed will for all peoples in all times in and places. Homosexuality is anti-nature which means it is anti-human and anti-Christian. Homosexuality is a misuse of the body and of one’s sexual partner. Because sodomy[10] is contrary to nature it not only brings God’s wrath but actually serves as a sign that God’s wrath is already being poured out. Only those who have been completely blinded to the way God made and ordered his world could engage in or approve of homosexual actions (Rom. 1:18-32). We know a culture is being given over to its sin in judgment when homosexuality becomes widely practiced and accepted. Social approval of homosexuality is a sign that God is judicially blinding and hardening a people. Homosexuality is a sign that God’s truth is being suppressed in unrighteousness. Homosexuality is a sign of God’s wrath being revealed from heaven.[11]


[1] I should say from the outset that “natural law” is not my preferred terminology because “natural law” has meant very different things to different people. Some versions of natural law are highly problematic, if not heretical. By “natural law” I certainly do not mean an ethical system that is theologically neutral, or that is equally known by all regardless of one’s faith, or a system of ethics that does not depend on the existence of God for its validity. I think we should actually speak of natural revelation and creational design rather than natural law. But since natural revelation includes an ethical dimension (Rom. 1:18ff), it is understandable why natural law terminology would arise. The creation/created order presses ethical claims on man just as much as it presses theological claims on man. This is because the created world reveals not an unknown god (deity in general) but the God who is also revealed in the Scriptures. Here are some questions for Christians who deny natural law in every sense of the term: If there is nothing that could be called “natural law,” what is the unbeliever suppressing according to Romans 1:18ff? Does the homosexual or murderer know (at some deep level) what he is doing is wrong? Sure, in many cases, such persons are suppressing special revelation they’ve been exposed to – and certainly in some sense all men have exposure to special revelation, at least though cultural memory (tracing back to Noah) if nothing else. But that is not actually Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18ff; in this text, Paul speaks of men “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness,” and that truth is explicitly said to be what is known about God “in the things that have been made.” The fact that Paul uses language that echoes prophetic critiques of Israel does not prove he is addressing Israelites, to whom were entrusted the oracles of God. Paul is a prophet himself; why shouldn’t we expect him to use language that comes out of the biblical tradition at all times, even when addressing Gentiles? To insist that Romans 1:18ff is primarily about Israel (as some are wont to do) seems to be an example of inter-textual overreach.

It is also vital to note that God never intended for nature, natural revelation, or natural law to exist on its own, in some kind of theological vacuum. Nature, properly understood, is not independent or autonomous. It is designed by God, graced by God, and sustained by God, ever and always. Further, there is no such thing as pure nature, or pure natural revelation. God gave man a word of special revelation from the outset (Gen. 2:16ff). That word of special revelation was always already there, serving as the lens through which man was to look at the natural world around him (to use Calvin’s metaphor). When the human race started over with Noah, once again, in principle, the whole human race was given a word of special revelation to serve as the spectacles through which the world was to be viewed. Some descendants of Noah suppressed this revealed truth more than others; some were given further special revelation (the Shemites) to supplement the Noahic revelation.

My point, which will be developed in the first part of this paper, is that natural revelation was never designed to function on its own, any more than special revelation was designed to function on its own. While natural and special forms of revelation can be distinguished, they are inseparable. Christians should seek to hold them together. I would argue that for much of American history, this is what Christians did (whether or not they had the proper theoretical view of how natural revelation works – indeed, in many cases, moral truths that seemed obvious and “natural” to earlier generations of Americans were probably so due to the influence of the Bible as much as natural revelation!). Of course, this does not deny the fact that American Christians also had some huge blind spots, with the greatest of these being racism, which is clearly contrary to Scripture and nature. Racism contradicts both the law and the gospel; it is unnatural and anti-Christian. I could add that it is, in principle, anti-American since our nation was premised on the imago Dei (cf. the crucial words of the Declaration of Independence, “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”).

[2] The status of Thomistic and Roman Catholic versions of natural law is debatable. I will not go into those issues here. I do think Thomas is wrongly understood by those who suggest he viewed natural law as strictly theologically neutral. In fact, in the Roman Catholic tradition, the magisterium is claimed as the final arbiter of the interpretation of natural law, which is hardly a theologically neutral position.

[3] A helpful discussion of “nature” in the NT is found in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, volume 2, p. 656-662. This article takes up the meaning of physis and the related adjective physikos.

[4] Granted, there is no biblical text that uses the phrase “human nature.” But since Scripture does speak of the “divine nature,” and ascribes various “natures” to different kinds of animals, it is hard to imagine the biblical writers would object to the language of “human nature.” The early church certainly believed this, which is why they developed Christology (and anthropology) the way that they did. Consider the incarnational theology of the early church. The early church confessed that the eternal divine Son assumed to himself a human nature, and thus became the God-man, two natures without confusion, change, separation, or division, in one theanthropic person. This is called the hypostatic union; each nature maintains its properties in the unity of the one person. The Formula of Chalcedon defines human nature as “consisting of a reasonable soul and body;” in other words, it is the sum total of those features and characteristics that make a human human.

[5] Some have suggested that “nature” means custom or tradition in passages like Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 11. But there is no reason why God would pour out wrath on people for violating Greco-Roman customs (Rom. 1:18ff). Those cultural customs were not sacred and certainly never had the force of divine law (and besides that, it highly debatable whether or not homosexuality, pedophilia, etc. were really contrary to Greco-Roman customs anyway). Likewise, it is hard to see how violating localized cultural customs about male/female relations would be offensive to the angels (1 Cor. 11:10-14); the fact that an appeal to nature (1 Cor. 11:14) is situated within a text that also appeals to the creation account (1 Cor. 11:8-9) suggests that Paul is using “nature” as a shorthand way of pointing to God’s creational design. Creation established a natural order which men and women should honor; this order is embedded in the way God made the world and designed men and women to relate to one another. For more on the difficult passage of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, see my sermon and notes.

[6] In other words, post-fall nature must be distinguished from pre-fall nature. The events that transpire in Genesis 3 deform the nature of man and the world in a fundamental way. Man is now totally depraved, as we Calvinists like to put it, meaning not that he is as evil as he could be, but that every aspect of his being is warped and marred by sin so that he is Spiritually dead and unable to do anything to please God. God’s creation is still good in itself, but is now twisted in that creational goods can be used in evil ways. Creation will no longer fulfill the original purpose for which God made it. When sin enters the world, nature is corrupted and subjected to the curse of death. Salvation, then, may be understood as God’s work of reclaiming and restoring (and perfecting and glorifying) his now fallen world. Think of the fall as a train going off its track and wrecking. Redemption is God’s commitment to fix the wreckage and put the train back on track so it can reach the destination he planned for it from the beginning. In this sense, we can rightly speak of “grace restoring nature.”

Because nature is now fallen, arguments in favor of homosexuality that claim “I was born this way” or “I cannot help desiring what I desire” are actually not valid. The fact is, all of us have sinful impulses, including fallen sexual desires, that we cannot act on without destroying ourselves and others. Since nature is ravaged by sin, the fact that some would struggle with same sex attraction is not a surprise. But simply having a desire does not legitimate the object of desire. In virtually every other area of life outside of sexuality, we seem to know this (e.g., if I covet your car, we all know it is still wrong for me to steal it), but sexual desires seem to get a free pass these days. No sexual desire is to be scrutizined or resisted. This is utter folly.

[7] One of the reasons I do not like “natural law” language is I think it confuses the exegesis of Romans 2:1-14, especially verses 14-15. N. T. Wright provides the proper exegesis of this text. Paul is not talking about Gentiles who fulfill a natural law, known apart from Scripture or tradition; rather, the Gentiles in view are God-fearers/believers who do not possess the law (the Torah) by nature, that is, by birth/ethnicity/culture, but fulfill the true intention of the law by faith (cf. Rom. 8:1-4). “Nature” in Romans 2 cannot trace back to creation because it is part of the Jew/Gentile distinction, which came in later. Of course, from Genesis 12 until 70 A.D., the Jew/Gentile divide was one the basic features God built into his world.

[8] There is possibly a fifth use of the term “nature” in Romans 11  (perhaps we should call it “cultivated nature”?), where Paul uses the metaphor of the olive tree to describe the people of God. Paul says the Jews are “natural” branches who are in danger of being pruned, while the Gentiles are “wild” branches who are being grafted in by faith, “contrary to nature.” The use of nature here is closely related to the use of “nature” in Romans 2, but the context is not culture, but rather horticulture. If grafting wild branches into a tree is “unnatural” but lawful, how does that bear on Paul’s use of “unnatural” in Romans 1? The short answer is that we must distinguish ways in which we disfigure nature from ways in which we cultivate nature. One deforms nature, the other transforms nature. To know the difference, we must look at how particular practices relate to creational norms and the cultural mandate (and certainly Scripture helps us in this task). We can go to the ant to learn a work ethic, but we cannot go to the penguin (or the dog, etc.) to get our sex ethic; learning from nature is never that simple. Likewise, some ways of using and manipulating nature are lawful and some are not. For example: Homosexual practice and transgender operations disfigure and insult nature; they are a misuse of our sexual powers and parts, and an abuse of technology. Wearing clothes, brushing one’s teeth, trimming one’s nails, training a dog, turning a tree into a table, developing a hybrid azalea, pulling weeds out of a garden, fertilizing crops, etc., are all examples of actions that are certainly “contrary” to nature in a certain sense. But in a deeper, more profound sense, they are examples of exactly what man is supposed to do with nature. They are good uses of technology. Nature was made to tended and cultivated. Man was created to be nature’s caretaker, to transform nature into culture, to turn the Garden of Eden into the New Jerusalem. Man in his sin often abuses nature, whether though wrecking the environment with pollutants, or damaging his body through sinful sex practices. But the cultural mandate gives man permission and motivation to glorify the world, to make it better, to bring it to maturity. The cultural mandate is the basis of science and technology, art and architecture, etc., all of which transform the creation.

There is also a possible sixth use of the term “nature” in 1 Cor. 15:44, 46, where the “natural body” is the original, pre-eschatological human body, which will give way eschatologically in the resurrection to the “Spiritual body” (that is, a body perfected and fully animated by the Holy Spirit). In 1 Corinthians 15, the term “nature” describes man in his unfallen but pre-eschatological state. The “natural” state in this sense is man as originally created, but still immature. This first phase of human existence will give way to an even better state when man is raised from the dead, never to die again. In this context, the natural/Spiritual distinction is not merely physical or metaphysical, as such, but eschatological.

[9] Of course, this suggests that in salvation, “grace redeems nature.” God restores (and eschatologically perfects) human nature in Christ. Scripture describes salvation in terms of being renewed in God’s image, being made a new creation, etc. This newness is deeply and fundamentally relational; it has to do with our movement from the family of Adam (with Satan as our father) to the family of Christ (with God as our Father). Relationships determine identity; human nature is inherently relational because we are made in the image of a relational, Trinitarian God. But we need to be careful how we understand this. In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate in certain Reformed circles over whether or not regeneration, or the new birth, should be understood as a change of nature or a relational change (or perhaps some combination of both, using a relational ontology). Because I am using the language of “nature” in this essay, it is inevitable that my thoughts here will get dragged into that wider debate. Doug Wilson has argued that regeneration is a change of nature; in other words, God’s effectual call brings about a metaphysical or ontological change in us. James Jordan has argued that humans do not have a fixed nature, but are instead constituted by their relationships (most essentially their relationship to God, upon whom they are absolutely dependent), and so “regeneration” is not a change of nature (a “transubstantiated heart”) but a change in Spiritual orientation and direction.

A footnote is certainly not the place to try to settle a complicated theological issue that deserves a paper, if not a book, of its own, but I should briefly suggest the best way to move the discussion forward, as I see it. As is often the case in such matters, I think there has been a lot of talking past one another and a lot of terminological confusion. I think what Wilson means when he affirms regeneration as a change of “nature” is not the same thing Jordan means by “nature” when he denies it and focuses on relationships rather than substance; in other words, there is quite a bit of equivocation going on in these debates. Jordan needs to reckon with the fact that “nature” is biblical language, but Wilson needs to carefully spell out how he is using the term since it is susceptible to a wide range of meanings and it is not at all clear that he is using the term biblically. It is highly questionable whether or not the change that takes place when someone becomes a Christian can best be described as a change of nature; in other words, one can affirm there is such a category as nature, but deny that regeneration is best defined as a change in nature. After all, both the non-Christian and the Christian are human and therefore share a common human nature, even though that nature has been reoriented in conversion and so now the Christian relates to both God and Satan differently. I would argue (closer to Jordan than to Wilson, but perhaps not identical to either one) that regeneration does not cause a change of nature, but is a restoration and perfection of the same nature a person has had all along.

But “nature” is not the only difficult term to pin down in this discussion. The term “regeneration” does not exactly have a fixed meaning in the history of Reformed theology, and so discussions of what regeneration entails can also become tricky business. The only two places "regeneration" shows up in Scripture are Titus 3:5, where it is sacramental, and Matthew 19:28, where it is cosmic. A large part of this discussion is about how to best recover biblical language and categories for pastoral purposes. One way to cut through the mess is to point out the fundamental agreement between Wilson and Jordan. Both sides are fully Calvinistic and predestinarian; thus, both sides confess that faith is a Spirit-wrought gift and that salvation is ultimately a monergistic work of God (because all our efforts are undergirded by God, who works all our works in us). This does not mean the whole discussion resolves into mere semantics, but it does help pinpoint the precise areas of disagreement. I actually do not think the sides are as far apart as public rhetoric would suggest. For example, Jordan affirms that those who apostatize and those who persevere have a qualitatively different kind of relationship with God; indeed, he asserts that each of us has a personally unique relationship to God. And Wilson has agreed that if a "regenerate" person in his sense of the term (a person with an ontologically changed heart) were to have the Holy Spirit taken away from him (however counterfactual Wilson believes that to possibility to be), he would not persevere. So even for Wilson perseverance is ultimately guaranteed by the ongoing work of the Spirit, not a past ontological change, which was Jordan's main point all along. We persevere not because we had an internal and irrevocable “heart change” in the past, but because the Spirit continues his work of renovation in us and preserves us in the new creation.

[10] “Sodomy” is a politically incorrect term to use for homosexual practice. It is considered degrading and mean-spirited. But I think we should use it because it is clearly a term with biblical roots. (Perhaps we should stop using the term “gay” since it is a perfectly good word homosexuals co-opted for their own purposes.) Some have objected to the use of “sodomy” because they do not think the city of Sodom was actually judged for its homosexuality. Rather, the argument runs, Sodom was judged for failing to show hospitality (cf. Ezekiel 16:47ff). The problem with that line of reasoning, of course, is that it assumes Sodom could only be guilty of one particular sin. In reality, Sodom’s embrace of homosexuality and rejection of hospitality are linked. Hospitality is literally “love of strangers.” Usually this means receiving guests from a different culture. But it could certainly be stretched to include the opposite sex. There is nothing stranger to a man than a woman – and vice versa. Refusal to love strangers and refusal to embrace the challenge of the “strangeness” of the opposite sex in marriage are actually linked. So Sodom was guilty of “sodomy” in both senses.

[11] I should add that while Romans 1 suggests that homosexual practice is one of the worst of sins (representing a culture that is “burning out” in judgment), this does not necessarily mean that individuals who practice homosexuality are the worst of all sinners. Indeed, many practicing homosexuals are otherwise nice, kind, hospitable, respectable people. We have to distinguish what the approval of homosexual sin says about a culture from what it says about the individual.

It is certainly true that some sins are greater than others (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 83). But we must also add that all sins deserve God’s wrath and curse (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 84). In a “comparative sin” paradigm, I do think we can say that homosexual sin is greater than other sexual sins because it is comes at the end of a progression further and further away from God and into idolatry according to Romans 1:18ff. But this should in no way be used to minimize the seriousness of other forms of sexual sin with a person of the opposite sex. Paul singles out those kinds of sins as being uniquely damaging as well in 1 Corinthians 6.