“Written on Their Hearts”

I recently posted the following question on a Bible discussion forum:

How did these people know God’s decree?

Romans 1:32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

And is that decree written anywhere?

Many of the answers I got were drawn from a passage in the following chapter:

Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

In subsequent conversation, I learned that many of the conversants think that this “writing on their hearts” is one of the outcomes of the Genesis 3 story of “The Fall”.  That is, that since Adam and Eve were rebuked by God and thrown out of the Garden of Eden, they had a new awareness of right and wrong—one having been put there by God, and one that would then be transmitted (somehow) to all humans who would ever come after them.  When I pointed out that this is quite a major doctrine to have zero support in the scriptures, I got no answer—other than that it is obvious and makes lots of sense.

But one’s belief in a matter is not good evidence that the matter is true—no matter how much one believes it or how sensible it seems to them.  So I have set out to explore the scriptures to see just what options might exist in interpreting this passage.  I’ll begin with the “written on their hearts” part, in order to see whether this language gives us any more information about what Paul might have had in mind.

“Written on their hearts”

I began by searching the following in the ESV:  [writ heart].  This search returned 16 results, some of them clearly not about this idea of writing things on the heart.  Nine of the passages returned seem to fit the pattern being searched for.  The first of them is this one:

Proverbs 3

1 My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but let your heart keep my commandments,
for length of days and years of life
    and peace they will add to you.

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
    bind them around your neck;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success
    in the sight of God and man.

Immediately, I see that the “writing” that was to be done here was something that the human was to proactively do for him- or herself, and not something that was done by God.  It was not passed on through the DNA, nor built into the human spirit, but willfully adopted by the human and self-trained into his habitual mental routine.
The second return in my search produced another passage from Proverbs, this one quite similar in nature to the first:
Proverbs 7
1 My son, keep my words
    and treasure up my commandments with you;
keep my commandments and live;
    keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
Solomon had twice instructed his son to write upon his own heart the good things of God.  The third passage returned by my search, however, seems to tell of a different case—one in which Judah had not trained itself to be righteous in God’s eyes, but to sin.  Note the “tablet of their heart” language:
Jeremiah 17:1 “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars,
In this case, the subject matter of the writing on the heart was not God’s righteousness, but the sin of Judah.  And who had done that writing–or engraving in this case?  Had they not done it themselves?  Indeed, if not them, then who had done it?  God?  If God had done it, and then rebuked them for it, this would be cruel and unjust of God, would it not?
In contrast to this, Jeremiah records the following several chapters later, regarding what things would be like under the New Covenant:
Jeremiah 31:33
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

Since this is expressly about the New Covenant, I’ll come back to this passage farther below, when it is discussed in Hebrews.

The fifth return in this search is the passage in question:

Romans 2:15
They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
Again, the question here is this:  who did that writing?  Was it God, as my fellow conversants believe?  Or was it the people themselves?  I submit it was the latter, but we’ll get to that after we finish the returns.  Here’s the six of nine:
2 Corinthians 3:2
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our [a] hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
This one’s a little different, and requires some careful examination.  First of all, I should note that the ESV has a footnote after “our”, stating that some manuscripts have “yours” instead.  This makes a big difference, and in my opinion, is much more sensible, since Paul says to the Corinthians “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation”, and goes on to say “…you are a letter”.  Regardless, in this case, we see for the first time a case in which the writing on the hearts was done by someone other than the heart owner, for it was said that they were a “letter from Christ”.  (Yes, I know that the Jeremiah 31 writing was to be done by God, but it was there being foretold, and was not related as having already happened.  So it’s in that sense that I call this 2 Corinthians the first historical account of someone else doing the writing.)
One might be tempted to seize upon this passage, claiming, “Aha!  I told you that Christ does the writing on the heart!” —as if that would prove the idea that such writing had been done for all as of Genesis 3 or the Law of Moses. But we should not fail to notice that this epistle from Paul was written under the New Covenant, about which it was prophesied that God would indeed write on the believer’s hearts.  See the next two passages in the search returns–these two in Hebrews, and both quoting from Jeremiah:

Hebrews 8

For he finds fault with them when he says:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
    on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
    and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.”

Let us note right away that regarding the Old Covenant, God said, “…they did not continue in my Covenant”.  And what was going to be different under the New Covenant?  Well, it appears that this time, where most of the Jews had not written God’s law on their own hearts as instructed, God himself would write it on the hearts of those under the New Covenant.  Why he would do so is a fascinating discussion that I will leave for some other time.

And now, before I go further with the discussion, let’s look at the last return in my Bible search, this one also from Hebrews and quoting from Jeremiah 31:
Hebrews 10:16
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,”
In this case, we don’t have the phrase “write them on their hearts”, but “write them on their minds“.  We do have, however, “put my laws on their hearts”, and it looks like a case of Hebrew parallelism to me, whereby the notion, “put my laws on their hearts,”  is strengthened by a statement of similar or same meaning, “write them on their minds.”  And just so you know, I also did a search for:  [writ mind], and found only this passage, else I would have added more passages to this list.


What do we have here, then?  We have a few Old Testament passages about people writing things on their own hearts—whether good or bad things.  And we have in the Old Testament a prophecy about how under the New Covenant, God himself would write things on people’s hearts.  Then we have three New Testament passages that talk about God-written or Jesus-written things on people’s hearts, and one that talks about Gentiles who were not under the Law of Moses having things about that Law written on their hearts.
Now, going back to the beginning of this post, where I asked the question about how the “righteous decree” of God was known to these people, some of my fellow conversants had said that it was written on their hearts as per Romans 2:15.  And when I asked how this writing was done, they had opined that it happened in “The Fall” of Genesis 3, wherein God permanently built his righteous decrees into all humans, who would be born with an awareness of it—or, perhaps, in the Law of Moses.  But of the four Old Testament passages that mention writing on the heart (or mind), in only one case was that writing to be done by God, and that was explicitly said to be under the New Covenant, and not under the Old.  This would tend to rule out “The Fall”, then, for if it had already been written on every human’s heart, what would be the need for God to do it again under the New Covenant?
I submit, then, that until the New Covenant, any writing that got done on people’s hearts was done by the people themselves.  And that brings us back again to our key passage:
Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them
I think that these people—because of what kind of people they were—had written God’s law onto their own hearts, where most around them did not.  But this view creates some sticking points with the traditional view under which nobody in the world could possibly have known or desired anything good until it was granted to them to do so by the Holy Spirit.  (This is a Calvinist/Lutheran view, and I won’t bother to refute it here, as I have done so elsewhere.)
Under the Old Covenant, if one was a Jew, one was under the Covenant, unless he shunned it and walked away.  But it was up to him to write God’s righteous principles upon his own heart.  Some of them did, and most of them did not.  In their popular view, one was a Jew merely for having been born a Jew (and circumcised, if male).  So he was part of the community, whether he wrote God’s principles on his own heart or not.  But we must not forget that again and again, God shunned them and scolded them for not keeping his Covenant.
Later, however, in this very same chapter, Paul would make it very clear that being a Jew only outwardly did not qualify one as a Jew:
Romans 2:28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
This action done in their hearts, we are told, was done “by the Spirit”.  But even so, the New Testament is not without directives for them to train their own hearts and minds.  Consider these few excerpts:
1 Timothy 4:7b  …train yourself for godliness
Hebrews 5:14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Colossians 3:2
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
Romans 12:Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
They had the choice whether to “be transformed” or not—whether to train themselves or not—whether to “set their minds” appropriate;y or not.  While they certainly had the help of the Spirit, they were also called upon to be the managers of their own minds and hearts, and to keep from going the way of the world in this respect.
I think they are wrong, then, those who think that this writing on the heart was done by God for all as of Genesis 3—or even those who think it refers to the Law of Moses, for we have seen that being under the Law of Moses was no guarantee that one would have in mind the things of God.  If it were, how is it that in Jeremiah 17:1, it was sin that was written on Judah’s heart?

Under the New Covenant, God had put his Spirit in them, but still, it fell to them to keep in step with the Spirit:
Galatians 5:25
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
So here’s a question:  Could a Gentile not having been a Jew, and not having heard the gospel of Jesus preached, still have managed his own mind and heart so as to honor the righteous teachings of God?  I say “Yes!”  They could have done it either knowing about God’s precepts or not.  They could have chosen to honor honesty, for example, simply on the observation that dishonesty hurts people.  And so, they could have “written” the principle of honesty on their own hearts; it didn’t have to be done for them.  Rather, they had to be the sort of person to want such a thing—even if many others around them were of another sort.
But the question I posted is about how they would have known about “God’s righteous decree” in the first place.  And I think that I have demonstrated that those who say it came in Genesis 3 or with the Law of Moses, and was thus “written on their hearts” by someone other than themselves, is wrong.  Else, why would God have had any need to write it on their hearts yet again under the New Covenant?
As to “God’s righteous decree….”, however, I think it’s very likely that such things were widely published throughout the world prior to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  There were so very many angels—both holy and unholy—and based on my reading, I find it very likely that in earlier times, they were regularly about the business of making proclamations to humankind.
To get a better grasp on this topic, the reader should understand that we’re just scratching the surface here.  I would suggest also searching on [put heart], [set heart], and [bind heart] to uncover a fuller data set regarding the human heart and what all God has said about it over time.  Not every verse returned in these searches will be relevant, but some will be quite eye-opening.  I also urge the student to notice the (surprising-to-some) similarity between how the Old Testament and new Testament people were told to manage their hearts.  This will surely be an eye-opener for some who have a adopted a different view of things.

A Note of Interest

Before I end this post, I must note how intriguing it is to me that some would opine that God had put his own righteous precepts in human hearts from Genesis 3 forward.  I say this because so very many Christians believe (wrongly, in my opinion), that God also cursed humanity in Genesis 3 by seeing to it that the sin of Adam and Eve was also put into human hearts.  Now, I don’t believe that’s what happened, but a lot of people do.  How strange, then, to have the idea that people would have had God’s precepts written on their hearts and the sin of Adam and Eve!  Nowhere in the Bible are we expressly told that either of these things happened, mind you.  And I don’t know whether those who promote the former also promote the latter or not.  That there are two such different hypotheses on the table–and neither of them expressly stated in scripture—is simply a fascinating situation.
I am frequently criticized for drawing conclusions that are not directly stated in scripture, and in this case, I note how very popular is just such a conclusion (that God wrote his “righteous decree” onto every human’s heart since Adam and Eve).  I will be sure to point this out the next time I am challenged, for it would be an unfair challenge if the challenger himself does not refuse all conclusions that are not explicitly stated in the texts.  And yes, that’s a whole “nother” topic, too!