Fundamental to biblical ethics is the truth that there remains knowledge of God’s character and demands within even the darkest of hearts. Non-believers may try to deny it, but God’s “eternal power and divine nature” have been perceived since the dawn of creation (Rom. 1:18–20). Everyone apart from Christ twists this knowledge to fashion idols (vv. 21–32), but the sense of a universal right and wrong cannot be erased from our consciences. That is why all peoples write laws to thwart actions against the common good. That is also why even the most wicked people sometimes conform outwardly to “the work of the law [that] is written on their hearts” (2:14–15). The law of God is reflected to some degree in every culture, and while some standards differ from nation to nation, all peoples have crimes that even the lowest of the low find abhorrent.
This principle is behind Paul’s final words to those families who count helpless widows among their number and yet refuse to come to their rescue. The willingness to support must extend to even one’s larger clan, but especially and first of all to the immediate members of a person’s home. Paul has in mind here three generations — grandparents, parents, and children. If someone is able to help any of these individuals related to him by blood and yet refuses, he is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8). Even the reprobate have enough evidence from creation to tell them that they are obligated to care for those who have cared for them. It takes no special revelation to convince us that it is our duty to feed our mothers and grandmothers if we are able and if they cannot provide for themselves. Christians must be at least as “moral” as the pagans around them, otherwise they have clearly not escaped paganism. John Calvin writes, “If, by the mere guidance of nature, infidels are so prone to love their own, what must we think of those who are not moved by any such feeling?”
Moreover, capable believers who will not help out needy relatives have “denied the faith” (v. 8). Our Lord and Savior became incarnate to save us, His brothers, from eternal death (Heb. 2:10–18). How can we possibly belong to Him if we do not try to meet the physical needs of our parents and siblings?