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An Innate Sense of "Oughtness": The Beauty of Natural Law and its Implications for Society Today

Anyone who has experienced the pain that accompanies theft, gossip, racism, adultery, or murder has experienced the acute sense of "oughtness" for the way in which life was meant to be—and not be—lived. Where does that sense of “oughtness” come? Natural Law Theory proposes that a universal moral order exists that can be deduced from reason and intuition (natural) that can govern behavior and purpose (law). In this essay, I will first explain Natural Law Theory’s (1) biblical-theological foundations, (2) its value, and (3) its applicability to society today.

Biblical-Theological Justification

There are three principles that can be derived from Scripture for Natural Law Theory.

Universally understood. First, special revelation is unnecessary to arrive at the constructs of natural law.[1] For instance, people intuitively know and conform to the first principle of practical reason: “Good is to be pursued and evil is to be avoided.”[2] This principle provides a barometer for humanity to measure “good” and “evil.” Thus, natural law is and has been accessible to every person of the human race across the ages. In this sense, one can understand how God has “put eternity into man’s heart.” Yet man by his unrighteousness—his “ungodliness”—suppresses “the truth” for a lie (Gen 3:1; Eccl 3:11; Rom 1:18-25; ESV).[3] When people do good apart from the special revelation of God, they bear witness to the natural law of the universe, showing “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 (Rom 2:14-15; ESV).[4] In doing good, they bear witness to God’s good design, perhaps even unknowingly. Immorality occurs when people suppress the God-given intuition and reasoning capacities of their conscience and take that which was created “very good” to use it for its unintended purpose (Rom 1:25). God created a world that was “very good.” Evil, immorality, and sin are not the direct result of God’s good design but a distortion—by people who have suppressed the truth—of that good design.

Rooted in God. Second, natural law is rooted in and thus testifies to the eternal law of God. In Genesis 1:26-28, God creates humanity in His own image. Thus, the natural law by which humanity is able to deduce what is good from that which is evil emanates from the eternal law of God.[5] “Oughtness” is derived from the image and likeness of God imprinted onto humanity. C. S. Lewis summarizes this sentiment, stating, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world … earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”[6] People know that death, mourning, crying, and pain are not the way that life “ought” to be (Rev 21:4). This understanding points humanity to what Lewis refers to as “the real thing.”

Fulfilled in Christ. Third, because natural law is intuitive to humanity and because that which is ultimately good is rooted in the eternal law of God, the God-Man Jesus is the highest revelation of natural law. As the One who perfectly kept the natural law, He fulfilled the natural law as the second Adam where the first had failed. Thus, He is the example of the good life for which humanity was designed. There is no greater “good.” Jesus images forth the ultimate good to which the natural law points.


The value of Natural Law Theory is immense. Three of these values will be spelled out in broad strokes.

Objective. First, Natural Law Theory maintains that morality is ultimately objective. It removes the subjectivity of conventions, consensus, or majority opinion because “it is there whether we want it there or not.”[7] The sentiment of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice speaks to the objective qualities of the natural law.[8] Natural law provides “a remedy against the great evils of, on the one side anarchy (lawlessness), and on the other side tyranny.”[9] The first value of natural law is that it provides humanity with a morality that is objective.

Resonates. The second value of natural law is that it resonates with all of humanity. Jesus’s golden rule, “do to others as you would have them do unto you,” reflects the simplicity and applicability of this first principle of natural law on its smallest scale (Matt 7:12). It is a small step to understand how the happiness, health, and harmony for the individual relates to the happiness, health, and harmony of others. In the words of Andrew Walker, “This matters because we are trying to understand those principles of right action that our nature is made for.”[10] Natural law is of great value for its ability to resonate with all people who live within the same moral ecosystem.

Flourishing. The third value of Natural Law Theory is how it promotes human flourishing. One’s eyes are opened when they believe that there is an objective purpose for which creation is heading. Jesus states, “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (Matt 6:22). The reference to the eye in the singular form is a reference to an eye of integrity—a single-eyed, wholehearted devotion to one purpose. To this end, Paul prays that the Lord would “open their [unbelievers] eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Similarly, the Psalmist writes, “There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” (Ps 4:6). Flourishing accompanies the one who follows the “path of wisdom in the way that God has made the world.”[11]

Societal Application

The applicability of Natural Law Theory is immense. Three areas will be discussed.

Order, purpose, and intelligibility. First, natural law illuminates the order, purpose, and intelligibility that is reflected in God’s “very good” design. This is significantly relevant to sexuality and gender. Jesus and Paul affirm the creational law of Genesis 1 and 2 (Matt 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-8; 1 Cor 6:18; 11:4-16). In the words of an unknown author, “If you can convince society that a man is a woman, what can’t you convince society to believe?”[12] Statistical data gives evidence that higher levels of human flourishing result from living in accord with the natural grain of the universe rather than against it. For instance, Mark Regnerus discovered that children of gay parents are nearly four times more likely to receive public assistance, two times less likely to have a full-time job, three and a half times more likely to be unemployed, over three times more likely to have had an affair while married, twelve times more likely to have been sexually abused by a parent or adult, and nearly four times more likely to have been raped than the children raised in heterosexual, intact, biological families.[13] Historical data also validates the good design of natural law. In his work Sex and Culture, Oxford anthropologist J. D. Unwin studies eighty-six human civilizations and concludes “that a society’s destiny is tied inseparably to the limits it imposes on sexual expression. The highest levels of social development are reached only by cultures that practice what Unwin called “absolute monogamy,” in which marriage is limited to one man and one woman, sex outside marriage is not tolerated, and divorce is prohibited.”[14] Statistical and historical data validate God’s “very good” design. The perversion of God’s good design results in devastating consequences on both the individual and societal levels.

Evangelistic and apologetic. Second, natural law offers profound evangelistic and apologetic opportunities. For example, natural law provides a sound response to the objection to the existence of God because of the “problem of evil.” Natural law helps to unveil the reality that evil is so recognizable because it is set in contrast to the immense goodness of the natural law of creation. While acts of atrocity abound, natural law subdues immorality, sin, and evil as a means of God’s common grace to all. He allows the sun and the rain to fall on both the good and the bad (Matt 5:45). Examples of God’s goodness in nature abound (breath, beauty, purpose, order, sleep, experiences, music, etc.). Humanity’s sense of “oughtness” for what is true and good and beautiful is universal. It also points to the design of a Designer. Restoration to one’s Designer and His good design brings flourishing. In this regard, Timothy Paul Jones contends, “Because that which is moral will bring us the most happiness, following the designer’s order leads to the greatest fulfillment in life.”[15] The opposite is also true. Rejecting the Designer and perverting His good design stifles the flourishing life that humanity was meant for.

Liberation. Finally, understanding natural law can liberate people from the distortion caused by sin. The good news that the natural law points to is freedom from the tyranny of self. In his work Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund writes, “Beneath our smiles at the grocery store and cheerful greetings to the mailman we were quietly enthroning self and eviscerating our souls of the beauty and dignity and worship for which they were made.”[16] Humans are designed to live for something greater than themselves. The natural law points humanity to this sense of purpose—“dignity and worship”—for which they were made. This purpose is liberating. The Psalmist writes, “I will walk at liberty for I seek thy precepts” (Ps 119:45). Living according to the natural precepts of the Designer liberates people from their bondage to self and the degenerating effects of sin.


God is not far from any one of us (Rom 10:8). Those who reject God have no excuse because “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Rom 1:19-10). What is “plain to them” is the natural law of the universe. Natural law provides a sense of “oughtness” to life that is universal in scope. While simple in concept, the implications of this law are vast. Natural law offers profound opportunities to expose the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil that have suppressed the truth and offer Jesus’s promise of abundant life (John 10:10). The most loving thing that Christians can do is to walk in humility and meekness and point those who are living a life less than the fullness God intended to the restoration accomplished and offered at the cross. "Our willingness to embrace the realities of our neighbor’s difficulty is what empowers our witness and makes our testimony of Christ effective and hearable."[16] Natural law points us to an abundant life of “dignity and worship.”[17] Followers of Christ can point unbelievers to that which is ultimately “good … the light of your face upon us, O Lord!” (Ps 4:6).


[1]David Haines and Andrew Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2017), 5. [2]Andrew Walker, “Survey of Christian Ethics” (Lectures, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, January 2022). [3] All Bible references are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. [4] All Bible references are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. [5]Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologiae,” Summa Theologiae by St. Thomas Aquinas, accessed January 14, 2022, [6]Clive Staples Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 120–21. [7]Walker, “Christian Ethics: Lecture.” [8] While this phrase was popularized by Dr. Martin Luther King, this notion should be credited to Theodore Parker and his sermon “Of Justice and the Conscience.” [9]John Finnis, “Natural Law Theories,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Summer 2020 (Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2020), [10]Walker, “Christian Ethics: Lecture.” [11]Walker, “Christian Ethics: Lecture.” [12]Walker, “Christian Ethics: Lecture.” [13]Mark Regnerus, “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships?,” Social Science Research, Findings from the New Family Structures Study, 41, no. 4 (July 2012): 752. [14]“‘Gay Marriage’ and Distant Consequences: Homosexuality, Sexual Immorality and the Downfall of American Civilization » Americans for Truth,” accessed January 15, 2022, [15]Timothy Paul Jones, “Apologetics” (Lecture, Christian Apologetics, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Spring 2021). [16]Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 176.

[16]Christopher W. Brooks, Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel Is Good News for the City (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2014), 34. [17]Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 176.


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