Ever wonder why people act the way they act? Do you ever wonder why you have such a hard time figuring people out? The human mind and conscience are profoundly complex. The Scripture reflects this truth in many ways such as Proverbs 20:5:
“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” (Prov. 20:5)
There are many ways in which this reality is worked out. Specifically, for the non-Christian, the heart has not been renewed by grace to love God and follow after him in faith. But in God’s merciful providence there are many other things that influence the non-Christian in a way that prevents them from behaving as badly as their nature would otherwise incline them to act.
Herman Bavinck, in his study of the natural depravity of fallen human nature includes this quote about the society of the world:
“Thousands of people who before our eyes are peacefully commingling in public must be viewed as just so many tigers and wolves whose mouth has been secured by a strong muzzle.” p. 124.
By saying this, he is simply observing that things like peer pressure, societal expectations, family upbringing, etc. sometimes have a profound impact on influencing someones beliefs or behavior. But, while these things can and do influence how we act, none of these influences can change a heart. None of these influences can re-create a person’s nature. So the unregenerate person goes on living in a way that shows, not their inherent goodness, but the fact that in God’s providence their nature is restrained by invisible moral “muzzles.”
Like a spiritual surgeon, Herman Bavinck goes on to make this interesting comment on the various things that influence the human conscience:
“Even the composition of the human conscience is one-fifth fear of other humans, one-fifth superstition, one-fifth prejudice, one-fifth vanity, and one-fifth custom.” p. 124.
Ultimately, we must recognize that many non-Christians do many wonderful things, even by biblical standards. More than one non-Christian, for instance, has thrown himself on a grenade to save the life of their comrade at arms. Well, Jesus said that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
But ultimately, there is a principle that the New Testament teaches is the means by which we come to fulfill the law of God and possess the righteousness of God. It is not the principle of works. It is the principle of faith.
“For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:14b)
Any act that is not done in faith for the glory of God is sin. This is why the problem for non-Christians is not simply that they have lots of sins. Their problem is that they have never done anything but sin! The non-Christian has never acted in faith out of a desire to see God’s glory manifested. This is why Augustine said even the virtues of the heathen are “splendid vices.”
A practical consequence of this for Christians is that our conscience must, therefore, be informed by faith. And in order to live by faith, our heart and conscience must be regularly renewed by the Word of God, which is the rule of faith. We must use the Bible to teach our conscience. A renewed heart will then be able to live by faith.
A Christian can thank God for the benefit that all of the above influences have in helping him or her to restrain their own sinful tendencies. Yet apart from faith, moral restraint will never be elevated to genuine righteousness.