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From God and Politics: Four Views on Reformation of Government, Edited by Gary Scott Smith. Foreword by John H. White. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1989, 21-53.

I interrupted the flow of the main text by inserting the text of the footnotes immediately after the superscripted numbers referring to them. I believe the content of the notes warranted that interruption.

Anthony Flood

September 29, 2011

 

The Theonomic Position

Gregory Bahnsen

 

Any conception of the role of civil government that claims to be distinctively Christian must be explicitly justified by the teaching of God’s revealed Word.1

1  God’s word is, of course, found not only in special revelation (Ps. 19:7-14), but also in natural revelation (vv. 1-6). And to whatever degree unbelievers do civic good, and whenever there has been anything like a reasonably just government in non-Christian lands, it is to be credited to common grace and natural revelation. Scripture is nonetheless our final authority. In a fallen world where natural revelation is suppressed in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18, 21), special revelation is needed to check, confirm, and correct whatever is claimed for the content of natural revelation. Moreover, there are no moral norms given in natural revelation that are missing from special revelation (2 Tim. 3:16-17); indeed, the content and benefit of special revelation exceeds that of natural revelation (cf. Rom. 3:1-2).

Anything else reflects what the unbelieving world in rebellion against God may imagine on its own.  If we are to be Christ’s disciples, even in the political realm, it is prerequisite that we abide in His liberating Word (John 8:31).  In every walk of life a criterion of our love for Christ or lack thereof is whether we keep the Lord’s words (John 14:23-24) rather than founding our beliefs upon the ruinous sands of other opinions (Matt. 7:24-27). And as those especially in the Reformed heritage confess, to the extent that our view of civil government (or any matter) does adhere faithfully to Scripture, that view stands above any and all challenges that stem from human wisdom and tradition (Rom. 3:4; 9:20; Col. 2:8).

 

A Brief Synopsis

Christians who advocate what ‘has come to be called the “theonomic” (or “reconstructionist”) viewpoint2

2 From the theonomist’s standpoint there really is no need for a new or distinctive label, since the position is deemed essentially that of Calvin (cf. his sermons on Deuteronomy), the Reformed Confessions (e.g., the Westminster Confession, chaps. 19, 20, 23, and the Larger Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments), and the New England Puritans (cf. The Journal of Christian Reconstruction 5, 2 (Winter 1978-79). Even as hostile an opponent as Meredith Kline concedes that the theonomic view was that of the Westminster Confession of Faith (see his review-article in the Westminster Theological Journal 41, 1 [Fall 1978]: 173-74).

reject the social forces of secularism, which too often shape our culture’s conception of a good society. The Christian’s political standards and agenda are not set by unregenerate pundits who wish to quarantine religious values (and thus the influence of Jesus Christ, speaking in the Scripture) from the decision-making process of public policy. Theonomists equally repudiate the sacred-secular dichotomy of life, which is the effect of certain extrascriptural, systematic conceptions of biblical authority that have recently infected the Reformed community3

3 Two pertinent illustrations are found in (1) the Dooyeweerdian scheme of dichotomizing reality into modal spheres having their own peculiar laws and (2) Meredith Kline’s idea of dichotomizing the canonical authority of various elements of Scripture, both between and within the two testaments. In the former case, explicit biblical texts pertaining to civil government may not provide a Christian view of the state, for Scripture is said to apply directly only to the modal sphere of “faith” (cf. Bob Goudzwaard, A Christian Political Option [Toronto: Wedge, 1972], p. 27). In the latter case, the moral authority of certain elements of Scripture is arbitrarily dismissed on the basis of separating (without conceptual cogency or exegetical justification) faith-norms from life-norms, individual-norms from communal-norms, and “common-grace” principles from “eschatological-intrusion” principles—implying that the most explicit biblical directions about political ethics may not be utilized today (The Structure of Biblical Authority [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972]).

—conceptions implying that present-day moral standards for our political order are not to be taken from what the written Word of God directly and relevantly says about society and civil government. This theologically unwarranted and socially dangerous stance curtails the scope of the Bible’s truth and authority (Ps. 119:160; Isa. 40:8; 45:19; John 17:17; Deut. 4:2; Matt. 5:18-19).

We beseech men not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing and reconciling work of Jesus Christ so as to prove the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God in their lives (2 Cor. 5:20-21; Rom. 12:1-2). We call on them to be delivered out of darkness into the kingdom of God’s Son, who was raised from the dead in order to have pre-eminence in all things (Col. 1:13-18). We must “cast down reasonings and every high thing which is exalted against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) in whom “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are deposited” (Col. 2:3).4

4 Scripture quotations in this chapter are from the American Standard Version, 1901, or from the author’s own translation. Italics indicate emphasis added.

Thus, believers are exhorted to be holy in all manner of living (1 Peter 1:15), and to do whatever they do for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). To do so will require adherence to the written Word of God, since our faith does not stand in the wisdom of men but rather in the work and teaching of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:5, 13; cf. 1 Thess. 2:13; Num. 15:39; Jer. 23:16). That teaching, infallibly recorded in “every scripture” of the Old and New Testaments, is able to equip us for “every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)—even in public, community life.

For these reasons, theonomists are committed to the transformation (or reconstruction) of every area of life, including the institutions and affairs of the socio-political realm, according to the holy principles of God’s revealed Word (thus theonomy). It is toward this end that the human community must strive if it is to enjoy true justice and peace.

Because space will not allow a full elaboration, with extensive qualifications and applications, of the theonomic position in this essay,5

5 A fuller discussion of the fundamental perspective can be found in my two books: Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 2d ed. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984) and By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985). These texts present the underlying theonomic orientation to ethics, in distinction from other theonomic publications (e.g., by R. J. Rushdoony, Gary North, James Jordan) which attempt to interpret and apply the details of God’s commandments—a necessary task, but one that also leaves much room for controversy and disagreement; at a number of places I myself cannot agree with the exegesis or reasoning attempted in them.

it may prove helpful to begin with a systematic overview and basic summary of the theonomic conception of the role of civil government in terms of Christ’s rule as King and of His inscripturated laws.

1.    The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are, in part and in whole, a verbal revelation from God through the words of men, being infallibly true regarding all that they teach on any subject.

2.    Since the Fall, it has always been unlawful to use the law of God in hopes of establishing one’s own personal merit and justification, in contrast or complement to salvation by way of promise and faith; commitment to obedience is but the lifestyle of faith, a token of gratitude for God’s redeeming grace.

3.    The Word of the Lord is the sole, supreme, and unchallengeable standard for the actions and attitudes of all men in all areas of life; this Word naturally includes God’s moral directives (law).

4.    Our obligation to keep the law of God cannot be judged by any extra-scriptural standard, such as whether its specific requirements (when properly interpreted) are congenial to past traditions or modern feelings and practices.

5.    We should presume that Old Testament standing laws6

6 “Standing law” is used here for policy directives applicable over time to classes of individuals (e.g., do not kill; children, obey your parents; merchants, have equal measures; magistrates, execute rapists), in contrast to particular directions for an individual (e.g., the order for Samuel to anoint David at a particular time and place) or positive commands for distinct incidents (e.g., God’s order for Israel to exterminate certain Canaanite tribes at a certain point in history).

continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.7

7 By contrast, it is characteristic of dispensational theology to hold that Old Covenant commandments should be a priori deemed as abrogated—unless repeated in the New Testament (e.g., Charles Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” Bibliotheca Sacra 124 [1967]: 239-42).

6.    In regard to the Old Testament law, the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory, power, and finality (thus reinforcing former duties). The New Covenant also supersedes the Old Covenant shadows, thereby changing the application of sacrificial, purity, and “separation” principles, redefining the people of God, and altering the significance of the promised land.

7.    God’s revealed standing laws are a reflection of His immutable moral character and, as such, are absolute in the sense of being non-arbitrary, objective, universal, and established in advance of particular circumstances (thus applicable to general types of moral situations).

8.    Christian involvement in politics calls for recognition of God’s transcendent, absolute, revealed law as a standard by which to judge all social codes.

9.    Civil magistrates in all ages and places are obligated to conduct their offices as ministers of God, avenging divine wrath against criminals and giving an account on the Final Day of their service before the King of kings, their Creator and judge.

10.   The general continuity that we presume with respect to the moral standards of the Old Testament applies just as legitimately to matters of socio-political ethics as it does to personal, family, or ecclesiastical ethics.

11.   The civil precepts of the Old Testament (standing “judicial” laws) are a model of perfect social justice for all cultures, even in the punishment of criminals. Outside of those areas where God’s law prescribes their intervention and application of penal redress, civil rulers are not authorized to legislate or use coercion (e.g., the economic marketplace).

12.  The morally proper way for Christians to correct social evils that are not under the lawful jurisdiction of the state is by means of voluntary and charitable enterprises or the censures of the home, church, and marketplace—even as the appropriate method for changing the political order of civil law is not violent revolution, but dependence upon regeneration, re-education, and gradual legal reform.

I shall take the remainder of this essay to develop certain relevant themes within the above framework.

 

Christ Presently, Supremely Our King

The apostle John opens the Book of Revelation by introducing the resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ, not only as the head of the church with whom He is sovereignly present (Rev. 1:12-20), but also as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). One is reminded of the closing of Matthew’s Gospel, where, again, not only does Christ promise to be with the church until the end of the age, but also claims for Himself “all authority . . . on earth” (Matt. 28:18-20). These are bold claims. They forcefully counteract the popular tendency to restrict the exalted reign of our Lord to some transcendent spiritual domain or to the confines of the institutional church. Christ is entitled to, and settles for, nothing less than immanent authority over all things, including the political potentates of this earth, “for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings” (Rev. 17:14).

The above claims are not only bold; they are also somewhat bewildering. At the very time that Christ claimed all authority upon earth, He simultaneously indicated that the nations still needed to be made His disciples. At the very time when John wrote of Christ as the ruler of earthly kings, he was about to launch into a lengthy portrayal of the brutal hostility of those political leaders in his own day to the Savior and His people. How can this paradox be resolved? Is Christ actually the King over present earthly rulers, or do they reign in unbelief and defiance of Him? That both things are true can be readily understood in terms of (1) the broader teaching of Scripture about God’s kingdom and (2) the specific teaching of Psalm 2.

1. To avoid befuddling ourselves over the biblical teaching regarding God’s “kingdom,” we need to recognize three conceptual distinctions regarding it (which many writers today fail to do). First, Scripture leads us to differentiate the providential kingdom of God (His sovereign dominion over every historical event, whether good or evil—as in Dan. 4:17) from the messianic kingdom of God (the divine rule that secures redemption and breaks the power of evil—as in Dan. 7:13-14). Then, second, the Bible distinguishes three historical phases of the messianic kingdom: the past phase of its Old Testament anticipation and foreshadowing (cf. Matt. 21:43), the present phase of its establishment at Christ’s first coming (e.g., Matt. 12:28), and the future phase of its consummation at Christ’s second advent (e.g., Matt. 7:21-23). Finally, as closely allied as the church with God’s kingdom (holding the keys of entrance to its blessing, Mat 16:18-19), the presently established messianic kingdom of God is still not biblically equated with the church (as is linguistically evident from Acts 28:23); the scope of the present messianic kingdom, unlike that of the church, is the entire world, inclusive of the doers of iniquity (Mat 13:38, 41).

But how can this last point be the case? How can unbelievers who reject the Savior and live wickedly on the earth nevertheless be under the dominion of the Messiah? We can relieve the perplexity of that question by remembering a few relevant points. There is a difference between an objective state of affairs and the subjective recognition of it (e.g., between having tuberculosis and admitting it to yourself). Moreover, there is a difference between reigning by right and reigning in actual fact, as evident in any nation at a time of revolution against constituted authority. Accordingly, unbelievers often resist subjectively acknowledging the reign of Jesus Christ over them, but objectively and by right that rule nevertheless belongs to Him—having been appointed to Him by the Father (Luke 22:29; 1 Cor. 15:27-28) and testified to by His resurrection and ascension (Matt. 28:7, 18; Rom. 1:4; Phil. 2:9-11; Acts 17:30-3 Heb. 1:3, 8-9; 2:7-9). Furthermore, like the gospel, which is a savor unto both life and death (2 Cor. 2:14-16), the reign of the Messiah present breaks the power of sin and rebellion in two different ways: one in redemptive blessing (John 3:3, 5; Col. 1:13; Rom. 14:17), but the other judgmental curse—experienced both now (Mark 9:1, cf. 13:1-30; Rev. 18; 19:15-16; Acts 12:21-23; Ps. 72:4, 12-14) and later in its full fury (Mat 13:41-42, 49-59; 25:31-34, 41, 46; 2 Thess. 1:4-9). So, then, unbelievers who repudiate the Messiah’s dominion are nevertheless under His reign in the form of wrath and curse.

Finally, we should not forget the growth-dimension of the present, unconsummated messianic kingdom. It will gradually become quite large and transform all things (Matt. 13:31-33). That is, the objective reign the Messiah by right, involving judgment upon rebels, will more and more become a recognized reign in actual fact, which spreads redemptive blessing. Though in this age the wheat will always live in the presence of tares (Matt. 13:36-43),8

8 The pluralist attempt to find biblical support, however meager, for its unique political tenets looks desperate when it reaches for the parable of the wheat and tares. Surveying the text of this eschatological lesson turns up not the slightest intimation that it pertains to the nature or function of civil government. Nor does it bear upon such issues by logical implication. The type of punishment dealt with in the parable is not temporal at all, but rather the judgment of eternal damnation (the tares are “gathered up” in “bundles to burn,” Matt. 13:30). Moreover, the temporal judgments of the civil magistrate have nothing to do with discerning the hearts of men so as to divide the unregenerate (“the sons of the Evil One,” v. 38) from the regenerate (“the sons of the kingdom”), but rather with punishing lawbreakers while protecting law-keepers (regardless of the wheat/tare distinction). In restraining premature separation of wheat and tares, Jesus was not condemning the moral judgments and divine vengeance expressed through the civil magistrate at all (or else Paul really is to be pitted against Him: cf. Rom. 12:19; 13:4). Surely even pluralists would not protect any and all criminal behavior (e.g., molesting children in professed subservience to “the Evil One”) for the sake of “safeguarding the freedom of religion for all citizens”! Accordingly, it is ridiculous for them to suggest that they alone conform to the teaching of this parable, while those who advocate civil enforcement of God’s law regarding crime somehow do not.

it will become increasingly evident that this world is Christ’s wheat field (kingdom), not a tare field. Christ is presently reigning, and He must continue to do so until every enemy has been subdued under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25; Heb. 10:12-13), progressively spoiling Satan’s house and rescuing the nations from deception (Matt. 12:29; cf. Rev. 20:1-3). In the power of the gospel and the Holy Spirit, “the gates of hell will not prevail” against the onward march of the church of Christ (Matt. 16:18). Many sinners will be saved (Rom. 11:12-15, 25-26), will be nurtured in the commandments of Jesus (Matt. 28:20), and will give Christ pre-eminence in all things (Col. 1:13-20)—including the things pertaining to this present world (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8).9

9 The much-abused statement of Jesus in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of [ek: out from] this world,” is a statement about the source—not the nature—of His reign, as the epexegetical ending of the verse makes obvious: “my kingdom is not from here [enteuthen].” The teaching is not that Christ’s kingdom is wholly otherworldly, but rather that it originates with God Himself (not any power or authority found in creation).

The nations will be discipled and will obey the Lord’s Word (Matt. 28:18-20). The kingdom of Christ will come to dominate the kingdoms of this world (Rev. 11:15). And as God’s kingdom comes, His will shall be more and more done on earth (Matt. 6:10), both ecclesiastically (Mal. 1:11) and politically (Ps. 72). “The government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called . . . Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even forever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this” (Isa. 9:6-7). The knowledge of the Lord is destined to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9). Concomitantly, the people of God will with Christ exercise the authority of persuasion and of right—rather than military might—over the nations (Eph. 2:5-6; Rev. 2:26-27; 3:21; 5:10; 20:4-6; Luke 22:29-30).

These convictions about the kingdom of Christ will help us understand how it can be that, though many kings of this earth rebel again the Savior, He is nevertheless their higher authority and ruler (as Rev. 1:5 and Matt. 28:18 teach). Christ is indeed the “King of kings” in a sen; that is both ethical (all rulers ought to obey Him and stand under judgment, historical and eternal, for refusing to do so; e.g., 2 Thess. 2:) and eschatological (throughout history that reign which has been proclaimed in principle will see in practice more and more kings submit to it; e.g., Rev. 21:24).10

10 My own eschatological view of Christ’s kingdom (notably its growth-dimension) is historic postmillennial. Premillennial and amillennial brothers in the faith will rather apply many of the victorious elements of the kingdom mentioned in my discussion to a time after Christ returns. This is not the place to debate such questions. It is crucial to note, though, that one’s eschatological (especially millennial) interpretation of the kingdom has no logical bearing upon the ethical aspect of the present, unconsummated kingdom. We should agree that men, including their political leaders, ought to submit obediently to the will of Jesus Christ, regardless of our differing views about whether (or when) many will do so or not. There are premillennialists and amillennialists who are just as theonomic as some postmilennialists; likewise, there are postmillennialists who are not theonomic.

2. These general truths about Christ’s kingdom receive specific expression in the majestic words of the Second Psalm. David opens with scene showing the tumultuous nations united in their agitation again God (v. 1; cf. Ps. 74:22-23). This is identified specifically as political, opposition to Jehovah, stemming from “the kings of the earth . . . and the rulers” (v. 2). They in particular set themselves contrary to the Most High, devising evil schemes against Him—specifically “against His Anointed One,” His Christ (cf. the conceiving of a wicked plot against the everlasting King in Ps. 21:11). Loving to exercise authority over others (Matt. 20:25), the rulers of this world are hostile to any claim this God has chosen One to exercise authority over them. This antipathy, characteristic of all unbelieving kings, was dearly and definitively expressed during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and the founding of His church, as Luke records in Acts 4:23-31. The rebellion against God’s Christ of which David spoke in Psalm 2 is applied to (1) the crucifixion of the Savior (vv. 27-28) and (2) the persecution of those who proclaim His sovereignty (vv. 29-30). The civil judges who condemned Christ to die were united with the covenant people of God who in apostasy called for the crucifixion of God’s Son, saying, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Likewise, when the church of Christ preached that He is Savior and Lord, the response of the world was (and continues to be) that this is “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another King, namely Jesus” (Acts 17:7).

That against which the rulers of this world rebel is the claim that Christ, God’s Anointed, is the supreme King to whom all earthly magistrates must obediently submit. David indicated this in Psalm 2:3, saying that the specific political counsel taken against Jehovah and His Christ had as its purpose to “break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us.” Unbelieving rulers despise being ruled by a higher, divine authority; they want to rule according to their own dictates and desires. They wish to be a rule-unto-themselves, autonomous. They choose to “burst the bonds” with God, thus disregarding and transgressing the law of God (cf. Jer. 5:5). God’s response to this political impudence is described by David as laughing derision (Ps. 2:4; cf. 37:13; 59:8) and wrathful displeasure (2:5). The Creator laughs at those rulers who vainly attempt to assert their independence of Christ and His rule, and He places them under His dreadful curse. There is no escaping the objective fact that, by divine right, Jesus Christ is God’s established King (2:6), figuratively described as enthroned upon Jehovah’s holy hill (the temple) in the “city of the great King” (cf. Ps. 48:1-2). God has “anointed [Him] with the oil of gladness above all his fellows” and placed Him upon an everlasting throne, the scepter of whose kingdom is “a scepter of equity” (Ps. 45:6-7)—a clear reference to Christ’s ascension (Heb. 1:8-9; esp. v. 3). Likewise, the divine affirmation “Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee” (Ps. 2:7) —a truth made manifest at Christ’s baptism, transfiguration, and resurrection (Mark 1:11; Luke 9:35; Acts 13:30-33)—reaches its culmination at Christ’s ascension (Heb. 1:5; 5:5-6).

So, then, the Second Psalm portrays God honoring His Son, the Christ, by enthroning Him as supreme King (which took place especially at the ascension), despite the autonomous rebellion against Him by the kings and rulers of the earth. The divine response to this political opposition is to assert the eschatological (Ps. 2:8-9) and ethical (w. 10-12) character of Christ’s reign, the two aspects of His kingdom we have seen above.

Eschatologically, Jehovah promises His anointed King that the nations unto the uttermost part of the earth will become His ultimate inheritance and possession. Jesus Christ—as exalted King—will have victory over the nations of this world, both by way of a crushing historical judgment against disobedience (v. 9) and by way of giving blessed refuge to the humble (v. 12). Elsewhere in the Psalms David spoke of Jehovah sitting the Lord at His right hand until all His enemies are subdued (110:1), again in the twofold fashion of turning “all the ends of the earth” to Himself in repentance (v. 3; cf. Pss. 22:27; 65:2; 67:7) or “striking through kings in the day of His wrath” (vv. 5-7).

Ethically speaking, the Second Psalm portrays God responding to political opposition against Christ by calling upon “the kings . . . [and] judges of the earth” to become wise and instructed (v. 10). It is utter moral foolishness to disobey the King whom Jehovah has enthroned. It is noteworthy that this verse is addressed, not simply to the magistrates of theocratic Israel, but to all of the kings and judges “of the earth,” even (especially) to those who dare to exercise civil rule in defiance of Jesus Christ. We cannot escape the clear biblical truth that each and every earthly ruler stands under the divinely established moral obligation to “serve Jehovah with fear . . . [and] kiss the Son” (w. 11-12). Serving the Lord with fear unquestionably means obeying His commandments (cf. Josh. 22:5; Ps. 119:124-26; Deut. 10:12-13). Doing homage to “the Son”11

11 The traditional interpretation of the Hebrew is defended in standard commentaries by Hengstenberg, Delitzsch, and Leupold; Kidner prefers to read it “do homage purely (sincerely)”—which will, in light of w. 6-9, imply submitting to the Son anyway.

in the form of a kiss was an ancient ritual by which the authority of a leader was acknowledged (e.g., 1 Sam. 10:1).

We cannot help but see, then, how far the infallible moral instruction of this psalm is removed from the pluralist political theories of our day. By contending that civil policy should not be based upon or favor any one distinctive religion or philosophy of life (but rather balance the alleged rights of all conflicting viewpoints), pluralism ultimately takes its political stand with secularism in refusing to “kiss the Son” and “serve Jehovah with fear.” The pluralist approach transgresses the first commandment by countenancing and deferring to different ultimate authorities (gods) in the area of public policy. Instead of exclusively submitting to Jehovah’s law with fear and openly following God’s enthroned Son, the pluralist attempts the impossible task of honoring more than one master in civil legislation (Matt. 6:24)—a kind of “political polytheism.” The Bible warns us how our ascended and supreme King, Jesus Christ, will react to political refusal to do homage to Him and obey His law: He will become “angry [with a wrath readily kindled] and you will perish in the way” (Ps. 2:12). The only safe and obedient political option for the kings of the earth is to “take refuge in Him.” Our princes should no more take refuge in themselves, instead of Jehovah, than we should (Pss. 118:9; 146:3).

 

The Validity and Application of God’s Moral Law

If, as we have seen, it is the moral obligation of all present-day civil magistrates to obey the will of Jehovah and serve His Son, they need to know the standard by which their duty before God is determined. Where do civil magistrates find the political dictates of God? Surely not in varying subjective opinions, personal urges, the human wisdom of some elite group, the majority vote, or even a natural revelation that is suppressed and distorted in unrighteousness. It stands to reason that God’s objective and unchanging standards for civil government will necessarily be found in the infallible, inscripturated Word of God, where and when it speaks to the subject of political ethics. And only someone ignorant of the literary content of the Scriptures could fail to recognize that the Bible says a great deal about the subject of public policy—much of it very direct and detailed (which is precisely its offense to many people today), especially as we see in the law of Moses.

But is it theologically legitimate to make contemporary use of this biblical material on civil law? On the one hand, to deny that these revealed dictates (or at least those in the Old Testament) are unchanging moral absolutes is implicitly to endorse the position of cultural relativism in ethics (“They were morally valid for that time and place, but invalid for other people and other times”); this is diametrically contrary to the testimony of Scripture (Mal. 3:6; Pss. 89:34; 111:7; 119:160; Eccles. 12:13; Rom. 2:11). On the other hand, to affirm that the principles for civil government found in the Bible (even the Old Testament) are binding in our day and age might suggest to some people that no differences between Old and New Covenants, or between an ancient agrarian society and the modern computer age, have been recognized. After all, in the Old Testament we read instructions for holy war, for kosher diet, for temple and priesthood, for cities of refuge at particular places in Palestine, for goring oxen and burning grain fields. Obviously, there are some kinds of discontinuity between these provisions and our own day. However, the evangelical literature on this subject often teems with hasty generalizations, exegetically unwarranted premises, and fallacious conclusions.

Some of these discontinuities are redemptive-historical in character (pertaining to the coming of the New Covenant and the finished work of Christ), while others are cultural in character (pertaining to simple changes of time, place, or lifestyle). The latter are unrelated to the former. There are cultural differences, not only between our society and the Old Testament, but also between modern America and the New Testament (e.g., its mention of whited sepulchres, social kisses, and meats offered to idols). Indeed, there are cultural differences even within the Old Testament (e.g., life in the wilderness, in the land, in captivity) and within the New Testament (e.g., Jewish culture, Gentile culture) themselves. Such cultural differences pose important hermeneutical questions—sometimes very vexing ones, since the “culture gap” between biblical times and our own is so wide.12

12 Is that gap as wide as the Grand Canyon or merely a crack in the sidewalk? (Rodney Clapp suggests that these are the alternatives in “Democracy as Heresy,” Christianity Today, February 20, 1987, 22.) It would be terribly misleading to answer either way. First, the “gap” obviously varies from precept to precept in the Bible; some are more distant to our lifestyle than others. The question calls for dangerous oversimplification. Second, the metaphors suggested are obviously extreme; between those extremes there surely exist other (more reasonable) answers pointing to mediating degrees of difference. Finally, one would be seriously misled to think that this question of culture gap is any more uncomfortable for (or critical of) theonomists than it is for any other school of thought committed to using the ancient literature of the Bible (whether Old or New Testament) in modern society. The alternative—which any believer should find repugnant—is simply to dismiss the Bible as anachronistic.

However, these differences are not especially relevant to the question of ethical validity.

It is one thing to realize that we must translate biblical commands about a lost ox (Exod. 23:4) or withholding pay from someone who mows the fields (James 5:4) into terms relevant to our present culture (e.g., about misplaced credit cards or remuneration of factory workers). It is quite another thing altogether to say that such commands carry no ethical authority today! God obviously communicated to His people in terms of their own day and cultural setting, but what He said to them He fully expects us to obey in our own cultural setting, lest the complete authority of His Word be shortchanged in our lives. Moreover, it should be obvious that in teaching us our moral duties, God as a masterful teacher often instructs us, not only in general precepts (e.g., “Do not kill,” Exod. 20:13; “Love one another,” 1 John 3:11), but also in terms of specific illustrations (e.g., rooftop railings, Deut. 22:8; sharing worldly goods with a needy brother, 1 John 3:17)—expecting us to learn the broader, underlying principle from them. Again, those biblical illustrations are taken from the culture of that day. After the New Testament story of the good Samaritan, Jesus said, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). It does not take a lot of hermeneutical common sense to know that our concrete duty is not thereby to go travel the literal Jericho road (rather than an American interstate highway) on a literal donkey (rather than in a Ford) with literal denarii in our pockets (rather than dollars), pouring wine and oil (rather than modern antiseptic salves) on the wounds of those who have been mugged. Indeed, one can be a modern “good Samaritan” in a circumstance that has nothing to do with travel and muggers whatsoever. Unfortunately, though, this same hermeneutical common sense is sometimes not applied to the cultural illustrations communicated in Old Testament moral instruction.13

13 Just here Christopher J. H. Wright has misconceived and thus badly misrepresented the “theonomic” approach as calling for a “literal imitation of Israel” which simply lifts its ancient laws and transplants them into the vastly changed modern world (“The Use of the Bible in Social Ethics: Paradigms, Types and Eschatology,” Transformation 1, 1 [January-March 1984]: 17).

For instance, the requirement of a rooftop railing (Deut. 22:8), relevant to entertaining on flat roofs in Palestine, teaches the underlying principle of safety precautions (e.g., fences around modern backyard swimming pools), not the obligation of placing a literal battlement upon today’s sloped roofs.

There are, then, cultural discontinuities between biblical moral instruction and our modern society. This fact does not imply that the ethical teaching of Scripture is invalidated for us; it simply calls for hermeneutical sensitivity. In asking whether it is theologically legitimate to make contemporary use of biblical (especially Old Testament) precepts pertaining to civil law, then, our concern is more properly with redemptive historical discontinuities, notably between Old and New Covenants. Clearly, the Scriptures teach us that a new day arrived with the establishment of Christ’s kingdom, the New Covenant (Luke 22:20; Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13; 10:14-18), and the age of the Spirit (Acts 2:16-36; Luke 3:16-17)—a day anticipated by all the Old Covenant Scriptures (Luke 24:26-27; Acts 3:24; 1 Pet. 1:10-11). What differences with the Old Covenant era have been introduced? Only the King, the Lord of the covenant, who speaks by means of the Holy Spirit is in a position to answer that question with authority. Thus, we look, not to sinful speculation or cultural tradition, but to the inspired Word of Christ to guide our thoughts regarding it. There we are taught that the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in (1) power, (2) glory, (3) finality, and (4) realization. Such discontinuities must not be overlooked, and yet, in the nature of the case, they presuppose an underlying unity in God’s covenantal dealings. The historical changes in outward administration and circumstance grow out of a common and unchanging divine intention.

The Old Covenant law as written on external tablets of stone accused man of sin, but could not grant the internal ability to comply with those demands. By contrast, the New Covenant written by the Holy Spirit on the internal tables of the human heart communicates life and righteousness, giving the power to obey God’s commandments (Jer. 31:33; Ezek. 11:19-20; Cor. 3:3, 6-9; Rom. 7:12-16; 8:4; Heb. 10:14-18; 13:20-21). Although the Old Covenant had its glory, the sin-laden Jews requested Moses to veil his face when revealing its stipulations, for it was fundamentally a ministration of condemnation. But the New Covenant redemptively brings life and confidence before God (2 Cor. 3:7-4:6; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15-16; 6:18-20; 7:19; 9:8; 10: 19-20), thus exceeding in unfading glory (2 Cor. 3:9, 18; 4:4-6; Heb. 3:3). Moreover, unlike God’s Word to Old Covenant believers, special revelation will not be augmented further for New Covenant Christians; it has reached its finalized form until the return of Christ. This New Testament Word brings greater moral clarity (removing Pharisaical distortions of the law [Matt. 5:21-48; 23:3-28] and unmistakably demonstrating the meaning of love [John 13:34-35; 15:12-13]) and greater personal responsibility for obedience (Luke 12:48; Heb. 2:1-4; 12:25).

Finally, the New Covenant surpasses the Old in realization. To understand this, we must take account of the fact that the laws of the Old Covenant served two different purposes. Some laws defined the righteousness of God to be emulated by men (thus being moral in function), while other laws defined the way of salvation for the unrighteous (thus being redemptive in function).  To illustrate, the law forbidding us to steal shows what righteousness demands, whereas the law stipulating animal sacrifice shows what must be done by a thief to gain redemption. This distinction between justice-defining and redemption-expounding laws was proverbially expressed by the Jews: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to Jehovah than sacrifice” (Prov. 21:3) It was also evident in the prophetic declaration from God, “I desire goodness, and not sacrifice: and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings” (Hos. 6:6; cf. Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Accordingly, the New Testament teaches that there are some portions of the Old Testament law that were “shadows” of the coming Messiah and His redemptive work (Heb. 9:9; 10:1; Col 2:17). They were deemed weak and beggarly rudiments that served as a tutor unto Christ and taught justification by faith (Gal. 3:23-4:10). Paul called them “the law of commandments contained in ordinances” which imposed a separation of the Jews from the Gentile world (Eph. 2:14-15).

These descriptions do not accurately apply to moral laws of the Old Testament, which for instance, forbid adultery or oppressing the poor. Such laws do not foreshadow the redemptive work of Christ, show us justification by faith, or symbolically set apart the Jews from the Gentiles. Laws pertaining to the priesthood, temple, sacrificial system, and the like do accomplish those ends, however, and are to be considered “put out of gear” by the coming of that reality they foreshadowed. This is the logic pursued by the author of Hebrews, especially in chapters 7 through 10. For instance, the coming of Christ has brought a change of law regarding the priesthood (Heb. 7:12), and the administrative order of the Old Covenant is vanishing away (8:13). By realizing the salvation foreshadowed in the Old Covenant, the New Covenant supersedes the details of the Old Covenant redemptive dispensation. We no longer come to God through animal sacrifices, but now through the shed blood of the Savior—in both cases, type and reality, acknowledging that “apart from the shedding of blood there is no remission” from the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:22).

In connection with the superseding of the Old Covenant shadows, the redemption secured by the New Covenant also redefines the people of God. The kingdom that was once focused on the nation of Israel has been taken away from the Jews (Matt. 8:11-12; 21:41-43; 23:37-38) and given to an international body, the church of Jesus Christ. New Testament theology describes the church as the “restoration of Israel” (Acts 15:15-20), “the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2:12), the “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7, 29), and “the Israel of God” (6:16). What God was doing with the nation of Israel was but a type looking ahead to the international church of Christ. The details of the old order have passed away, giving place to the true kingdom of God established by the Messiah, in which both Jew and Gentile have become “fellow-citizens” on an equal footing (Eph. 2:11-20; 3:3-6). It is important for biblical interpretation to bear this in mind, because certain stipulations of the Old Covenant were enacted for the purpose of distinguishing Israel as the people of God from the pagan Gentile world. Such stipulations were not essentially moral in function (forbidding what was intrinsically contrary to the righteousness of God), but rather symbolic. This accounts for the fact that they allowed Gentiles to do the very thing that was forbidden to the Jews (e.g., Deut. 14:21).

Accordingly, given the redefinition of the people of God in the New Covenant, certain aspects of the Old Covenant order have been altered. (1) The New Covenant does not require political loyalty to Israel (Phil. 3:20) or defending God’s kingdom by the sword (John 18:36; 2 Cor. 10:4). (2) The land of Canaan foreshadowed the kingdom of God (Heb. 11:8-10; Eph. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:4), which is fulfilled in Christ (Gal. 3:16; cf. Gen. 13:15), thus rendering inapplicable Old Covenant provisions tied to the land (such as family divisions, location of cities of refuge, the levirate).14

14 Ronald J. Sider is thus mistaken in imagining that the validity of the Old Testament law would entail the necessity of a Jubilee restoration of land to original owners today; he forgets the special place and treatment given to the Palestinian Promised Land and the (objective) New Testament rationale for alteration regarding it (“Christian Love and Public Policy: A Response to Herbert Titus,” Transformation 2, 3 [July-September 1985]: 13). He also, without exegetical justification, treats the sabbatical and Jubilee provisions as though they were a matter for civil coercion, in addition to being enforced by direct imposition of supernatural judgment (p. 14).

(3) The laws that symbolically taught Israel to be separate from the Gentile world, such as the dietary provisions (Lev. 20:22-26), need no longer be observed in their pedagogical form (Acts 10, esp. v. 15; Mark 7:19; Rom. 14:17), even though the Christian does honor their symbolized principle of separation from ungodliness (2 Cor. 6:14-18; Jude 23).

Therefore, the redemptive dispensation and form of the kingdom in the Old Covenant has dramatically changed in the New. The New Covenant surpasses the Old in power, glory, finality, and realization. In short, the New Covenant is a “better covenant enacted upon better promises” (Heb. 8:6). Even those aspects of the Old Covenant law which typified the kingdom of God and the way of redemption (e.g., priesthood, sacrifice, temple, Promised Land, symbols of separation and purity) were speaking to the promises of God, preparing for and foreshadowing the salvation and kingdom to be brought by the Messiah. Thus the discontinuities between Old and New Covenants that we have been discussing actually point to a more elementary, underlying continuity between them. At bottom, the two covenants are one, although they differed in administrative outworking according to their respective places in the history of redemption. All the distinctively Jewish covenants of the Old Testament are “the [plural] covenants of the [singular] promise” (Eph. 2:12). However many were the Old Covenant promises of God, they are all affirmed and confirmed in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Thus it was preposterous, Paul said, to set the Mosaic covenant of law against the Abrahamic covenant of promise (Gal. 3:15-22). So then, we find in the Scripture a substantial covenantal continuity of promise underlying the important administrative or formal discontinuities between Old Covenant anticipation (shadows, prophecies) and New Covenant realization (fulfillment).

Regarding the promises pertaining to redemption, then, we may rightly speak of the “better promises” of the New Covenant. They differed from the Old Covenant provision by being the fulfillment of that to which it looked ahead, giving both covenants the same intention and objective. The differing covenantal administrations of God’s promise are due precisely to the historical character of His redemptive plan. However, regarding God’s law, one nowhere reads in Scripture that God’s moral stipulations share the same historical variation or anything like it. The Bible never speaks of the New Covenant instituting “better commandments” than those of the Old Covenant. Far from it. Instead, Paul declared that “the [Old Testament] law is holy, and the commandment is holy, and righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). He took the validity of the law’s moral demands as a theological truth that should be obvious and presupposed by all, stating without equivocation, “We know that the law is good” (1 Tim. 1:8). That should be axiomatic for Christian ethics, according to the apostle.

Contrary to those today who are prone to criticize the Old Testament moral precepts, there must be no question whatsoever about the moral propriety and validity of what they revealed. It should be our starting point—the standard by which we judge all other opinions—that the law’s moral provisions are correct. “I esteem all Thy precepts concerning all things to be right” (Ps. 119:128). Accordingly, James reminds us that we have no prerogative to become “judges of the law,” but are rather called to be doers of the law (4:11). And when Paul posed the hypothetical question of whether the law is sin, his immediate outburst was “May it never be!” (Rom. 7:7). God’s holy and good law is never wrong in what it demands. It is “perfect” (Deut. 32:4; Ps. 19:7; James 1:25), just like the Lawgiver Himself (Matt. 5:48). It is a transcript of His moral character.

Thus, the suggestion that theonomists concentrate on “abstract personal laws instead of on knowing the Lawgiver” is not only a cheap shot, it also rests upon a devastating theological error. God’s law is not abstract (if it were, fewer people would be offended by it); neither is it impersonal. It so perfectly reflects God’s own holiness (Rom. 7:12; 1 Pet. 1:14-16) that the apostle John categorically dismissed anyone as a liar who claimed to “know God” and yet did not keep His commandments (1 John 2:3-4). God’s law is a very personal matter—so much so that Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15, cf. vv. 21, 23; 15:10, 14). It is characteristic of the true believer to have the law written upon his heart and delight inwardly in it (Jer. 31:33; Rom. 7:22; Ps. 1:1-2) just because he so intimately loves God, his Redeemer.

Paul teaches elsewhere that all men—even pagans who do not love God and do not have the advantage of the written oracles of God (cf. Rom. 3:1-2)—nevertheless know the just requirements of God’s law. They know what God, the Creator, requires of them. They know it from the created order (1:18-21) and from inward conscience, the “work of the law” being written upon their hearts (2:14-15). Paul characterizes them as “knowing the ordinance of God” (1:32) and, thus, being “without excuse” for refusing to live in a God-glorifying fashion (1:20-23). This discussion indicates that the stipulations of God’s moral law—whether known through Mosaic (written) ordinances or by general (unwritten) revelation—carry a universal and “natural” obligation, appropriate to the Creator-creature relation apart from any question of redemption. Their validity is not by any means restricted to the Jews in a particular time-period. What the law speaks, it speaks “in order that all the world may be brought under the judgment of God” (3:19). God is no respecter of persons here. “All have sinned” (3:23), which means they have violated that common standard of moral integrity for all men, the law of God (3:20). A good student of the Old Testament would have known as much. The moral laws of God were never restricted in their validity to the Jewish nation. At the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, when Moses exhorted the Israelites to observe God’s commandments, he clearly taught that the laws divinely revealed to Israel were meant by the Lawgiver as a model to be emulated by all the surrounding Gentile nations:

Behold I have taught you statutes and ordinances even as Jehovah my God commanded me, that you should do so in the midst of the land whither ye go in to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that shall hear all these statutes and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. . . . What great nation is there that hath statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:5-8).

All “the peoples,” not just the Israelites, should follow the manifestly righteous requirements of God’s law. In this respect, the justice of God’s law made Israel to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 51:4). Unlike many modern Christian writers on ethics, God did not have a double standard of morality—one for Israel and one for the Gentiles (cf. Lev. 24:22). Accordingly, God made it clear that the reason why the Palestinian tribes were ejected from the land was precisely that they had violated the provisions of His holy law (Lev. 18:24-27). This fact presupposes that the Gentiles were antecedently obligated to obey those provisions. Accordingly, the psalmist condemned “all the wicked of the earth” for departing from God’s statutes (119:118-119). Accordingly, me Book of Proverbs, intended as international wisdom literature, directs all nations to obey the laws of God: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (14:34). Accordingly, the Old Testament prophets repeatedly excoriated the Gentile nations for their transgressions against God’s law (e.g., Amos, Habakkuk, Jonah at Nineveh). Accordingly, Isaiah looked forward to the day when the Gentile nations would stream into Zion, precisely that God’s law would go forth from Jerusalem unto all the world (2:2-3).

Two premises about the law of God are thus abundantly clear if we are faithful to the infallible testimony of Scripture: (1) The law of God is good in what it demands, being what is natural to the Creator-creature relation. And (2) the demands of God’s law are universal in their character and application, not confined in validity to Old Testament Israel. Consequently, it would be extremely unreasonable to expect that the coming of the Messiah and the institution of the New Covenant would alter the moral demands of God as revealed in His law. Why, we must ask, would God feel the need to change His perfect, holy requirements for our conduct and attitudes? Christ came, rather, to atone for our transgressions against those moral requirements (Rom. 4:25; 5:8-9; 8:1-3). And the New Covenant was established precisely to confirm our redeemed hearts in obedience to God’s law (Rom. 8:4-10; 2 Cor. 3:6-11). Should we sin because we are under the grace of God? Paul declared, “May it never be!” Being made free from sin we must rather now become the “servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:15-18). The grace of God has appeared and Jesus Christ has given Himself to “redeem us from all lawlessness and purify unto Himself a people . . . zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14; Eph. 2:8-10).

While the New Testament condemns any legalistic (Judaizing) use of God’s law to establish one’s personal justification or sanctification before God, and while the New Testament rejoices in the fact that the work of Christ has surpassed the legal foreshadows and rituals of the Old Covenant, we never find the New Testament rejecting or criticizing the moral demands of the Old Testament law. They are at every point upheld and commended.15

15 The antitheses of Matt. 5:21-48 are not an unfair ex post facto condemnation of the Pharisees by a higher standard than that which they already knew. They prove to be a series of contrasts between Jesus’ interpretation of the law’s full demand and the restrictive, external, distorted interpretations of the law by the Jewish elders (cf. 5:20; 7:28-29; e.g., 5:43, which does not even appear in the Old Testament).

Thus Paul firmly taught that “every scripture” (of the inspired Old Testament) was “profitable for instruction in righteousness” that we might be equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). James is equally clear that if someone is guilty of breaking even one commandment of the law, he has broken them all (2:10)—indicating our obligation to every one of them. Jesus rebuked Satan (and many modern ethicists) by declaring that man should live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). This is the uniform New Testament perspective and presumption regarding the laws of the Old Testament. His Word teaches, however, that we should countenance such change in particular cases only when God Himself teaches such. We are not arbitrarily to assume that His commandments have been repealed, but only where, when, and how He says so.

The decisive word on this point is that of our Lord Himself as found in Matthew 5:17-19. Since the moral demands of God’s law continue to be deemed good and holy and right in the New Testament, and since those demands were from the beginning obligatory upon Jews and Gentiles alike, it would be senseless to think that Christ came in order to cancel mankind’s responsibility to keep them. It is theologically incredible that the mission of Christ was to make it morally acceptable now for men to blaspheme, murder, rape, steal, gossip, or envy! Christ did not come to change our evaluation of God’s laws from that of holy to unholy, obligatory to optional, or perfect to flawed. Listen to His own testimony:

Do not begin to think that I came to abrogate the Law or the Prophets; I came not to abrogate but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, until all things have happened, not one jot or tittle shall by any means pass away from the law. Therefore, whoever shall break one of these least commandments and teach men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-19).

Several points about the interpretation of this passage should be rather clear. (1) Christ twice denied that His advent had the purpose of abrogating the Old Testament commandments. (2) Until the expiration of the physical universe, not even a letter or stroke of the law will pass away. And (3) therefore God’s disapprobation rests upon anyone who teaches that even the least of the Old Testament laws may be broken.16

16 Attempts are sometimes made to evade the thrust of this text by editing out its reference to the moral demands of the Old Testament—contrary to what is obvious from its context (5:16, 20, 21-48; 6:1, 10, 33; 7:12, 20-21, 26) and semantics (“the law” in v. 18, “commandment” in v. 19). Other attempts are made to extract an abrogating of the law’s moral demands from the word “fulfill” (v. 17) or the phrase “until all things have happened” (v. 18). This, however, renders the verses self-contradictory in what they assert.

In all of its minute detail (every jot and tittle) the law of God, down to its least significant provision, should be reckoned to have an abiding validity—until and unless the Lawgiver reveals otherwise.

Of course, nothing that has been said above means that the work of Christian ethics is a pat and easy job. Even though the details of God’s law are available to use as moral absolutes, they still need to be properly interpreted and applied to the modern world. It should constantly be borne in mind that no school of thought, least of all the theonomist outlook, has all the answers. Nobody should get the impression that clear, simple, or uncontestable “solutions” to the moral problems of our day can just be lifted from the fact of Scripture’s laws. A tremendous amount of homework remains to be done, whether in textual exegesis, cultural analysis, or moral reasoning—with plenty of room for error and correction. None of it is plain and simple. It must not be carried on thoughtlessly or without sanctified mental effort. Moreover, in all of it we need each other’s best efforts and charitable corrections. Only after our ethical senses have been corporately exercised to discern good and evil by the constant study and use of God’s law—only after we have gained considerably more experience in the word of righteousness (Heb. 5:13-14)—will we achieve greater clarity, confidence, and a common mind in applying God’s law to the ethical difficulties that beset modern men. Nevertheless, even with the mistakes that we may make in using God’s law today, I prefer it as the basis for ethics to the sinful and foolish speculations of men.17

17 It can hardly be well-reasoned criticism of theonomic ethics that some “potentially dangerous ideas” could arise from following the holy laws of God in Scripture. We live in a fallen world where adherents of any and every political philosophy (including attempted biblical ones) will err in carrying out their ideals. That being the case, it only makes sense to err on the side of the angels, starting with the best (indeed, infallible) ideals available to men. Just imagine what “potentially [nay, actually] dangerous ideas” have stemmed from not following God’s law, but rather the human speculations found in Rousseau, Marx, Buckley, Galbraith, and many others!

It would be absurd for a man to resign himself to poison just because medical doctors occasionally make mistakes with prescription drugs.

 

The Distinction between Social and Political Ethics

The preceding discussion has brought us to two conclusions thus far: (1) the presently established messianic kingdom of God requires all civil magistrates to acknowledge the supremacy of Jesus Christ and perform their public tasks in obedience to His will; and (2) even though the promises and changed administrative form of the New Covenant surpass the Old Covenant, the moral law of God found in the Old Covenant (when properly interpreted in light of its cultural setting) is axiomatically good and universal in character. That law was completely upheld by Christ in its moral validity even in its least command, except where and when God revealed otherwise. These two biblical premises lead us to the conclusion that all civil magistrates today are under moral obligation to be guided and regulated by the law of God (throughout the Bible) where and when it speaks to political matters. To be properly understood, this conclusion calls for drawing a distinction between social ethics (in general) and political ethics (in particular). The failure to observe such a distinction is perhaps the most damaging oversight in contemporary evangelical thinking about the ethics of life-in-community.

It is crucial to distinguish social from political ethics so that we may mark off, within the context of public moral duties and responsibilities, a delimited realm where the state has authority to enforce civil sanctions against misbehavior. Not all sins against the law of God are properly to be treated as crimes, and therefore we must (in an objective fashion) circumscribe the authority of the state to inflict punishment upon its citizens. This viewpoint stands diametrically opposed to the axiom of Lenin that “we have no more private law, for with us all has become public law.” Were the sphere of sin (even public or interpersonal sin) to be equated with the sphere of the state’s legal prerogative to impose punitive sanctions, the state would be placed in the position of God Himself. But the state does not have the right to scrutinize and judge every social misdeed. Nor does it have the responsibility to produce every social virtue. The state is neither competent nor empowered to judge the private lusts of an individual’s heart or even his selfish use of money in light of a neighbor’s need.

The special characteristic that marks off the state from other institutions within society is its moral authority (not simply raw power) to inflict public penalties for disobeying civil statutes. It is an institution distinguished by coercive authority. Paul accordingly symbolized the distinctive function of the state as that of “bearing the sword” as a “terror” and “avenger of wrath” to evildoers (Rom. 13:4), a prerogative denied to both the family (Deut. 21:18-21) and the church (2 Cor. 10:3-4). Because the state possesses this awesome prerogative to use compulsion in enforcing its dictates (whether by threat of death, monetary fine, or imprisonment), the state must be carefully and ethically limited in its proper jurisdiction. If the state lacks moral warrant for imposing a civil penalty upon someone for violating a public statute, its punitive action reduces to the situation where the will of the stronger overwhelms the desires of the weaker. “Without justice, what are states but great bands of robbers?” asked Augustine. Unless the state has a moral warrant for its use of force in particular cases, the state’s use of capital punishment is indistinguishable from murder; imprisonment would be no different from kidnapping, extracting a monetary fine the same as theft. Therefore, lest our states become “lawless” and “beasts” (2 Thess. 2:3; Rev. 13:16-17), there must be objective limits to legal coercion—a law above the civil law to which appeal can be made against injustice and oppression. This objective criterion is the revealed law of God as it prescribes civil penalties for misdeeds. God’s law enables us to distinguish consistently and on principle sin from crime, personal morality from civil legality, social from political ethics, where the state may properly legislate from where it must not interfere.18

18 David Basinger faults this criterion (rather superficially) on the ground that sincere Christians disagree in interpreting the Bible as to what are punishable crimes (“Voting One’s Christian Conscience,” Christian Scholar’s Review 15, 2 [1986]: 143-44). But given that reasoning, the Bible should equally be precluded from being the basis of our theological distinctions, matters of doctrinal truth, or church polity—again, because sincere believers have unresolved disagreements there. Moreover, even Basinger’s own suggestion of a political standard (viz., those values which all men, believers and unbelievers, propound in common) would fall under his own censure; it is surely not a “common value” among men that political power should be restrained by values that are agreed upon by everyone! Besides, the only truly “common” values (if any) that are explicitly endorsed by absolutely all men are unhelpful verbal abstractions (e.g., “fair play,” “justice”), which lack particular applications (the very thing over which men notoriously and sharply disagree). Ronald Sider suggests that the principle to be used for distinguishing between social sins to be dealt with solely by the church and crimes to be punished as well by the state is the libertarian ideal: “persons should be free to harm themselves and consenting associates . . . as long as they do not harm others or infringe on their rights” (“An Evangelical Vision for Public Policy,” Transformation 2, 3 [July-September 1985]: 6). Such a principle is not only ambiguous, arbitrary, and inconsistently applied (see Greg Bahnsen, Homosexuality: A Biblical View [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978], chap. 6), it is simply not biblically derived. This is a fatal defect for a Christian. Not surprisingly, it leads Sider to a complete reversal of the explicit teaching of God’s law: applying to the state what is appropriate only to the church (penal redress of racial discrimination in a matter of private property), and restricting to the church what God’s law actually requires of the state (redress of adultery and homosexuality)!

Evangelical ethicists of both politically conservative and politically liberal varieties have transgressed the principle offered above. Those with conservative leanings have tended to promote ethically commendable goals (sobriety regarding alcoholic beverages, restriction of smoking tobacco, intervention to curtail the geopolitical spread of communism) by less than ethical means, calling upon the state to exercise its power of compulsion where no biblical warrant for it can be cogently adduced. Likewise, those with liberal political leanings have tended to promote ethically commendable goals (racial integration, food or medical care for the poor, public education) by less than ethical means, calling upon the state to exercise its power of compulsion where no biblical warrant for it can be cogently adduced. No matter how ethically good these various projects may be, attempting to get the civil authorities to enforce them without warrant from God’s Word is to capitulate to the unprincipled position of Thrasymachus, who taught that what counts as “justice” is simply whatever happens to be in the interest of the stronger faction in society. Ironically, when the strong arm of the state is courted in the name of “public justice,” as defined by some evangelical’s personal opinion (whether conservative or liberal), it is usually at the cost of depriving others of their justice—their genuine rights (e.g., to choose for what causes to contribute their lives or earnings), as revealed by the just judge of all the earth (cf. Gen. 18:25; Deut. 2:4).

The state that overextends its authority to promote or enforce whatever aims it wishes, however otherwise commendable (e.g., sexual harmony between husbands and wives, prudent financial savings plans, regular brushing of one’s teeth), is a state that has abused its power. That power has, after all, been delegated to it from God (Rom. 13:1; John 19:11), and God clearly, explicitly forbids kings to swerve to the right or to the left from the well-defined path of His law (Deut. 17:18-20). Indeed, the memorable words of our Lord in Matthew 22:21 inescapably teach that there must be a defining limit upon “the things which belong to Caesar.” When Caesar demands of his subjects more than what is his—more than what is “due” to him (Rom. 13:7)—Caesar’s government inevitably acts as a “throne of wickedness . . . which frames mischief by a law” (Ps. 94:20).

So, then, the state’s “sword” which should not be used “in vain” (Rom. 13:4; cf. “vain thing” in Ps. 1:1), is not under the capricious or autonomous direction of the civil magistrate. He will eventually give an account of his judicial actions to the “King of kings” (1 Tim. 6:15), the “ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). The fact that the civil magistrate makes something a law does not confer the sanction of God upon it. When the civil magistrate (God’s “minister”) exceeds the limits of delegated power by enforcing laws not authorized by God, he comes under God’s wrath and curse: “Woe to those who enact evil statutes” (Isa. 10:1). The proper domain and divine calling of the state is that of civil justice, protecting its citizens against violence (whether in the form of foreign aggression, criminal assault, or economic fraud). In order that men may live together in tranquility and peace (1 Tim. 2:2), the state has been empowered with “the sword” for the specific purpose (note the telic construction and divine commission in 1 Pet. 2:14) of “avenging wrath” against those who do evil (Rom. 13:4). “For this cause,” God says, taxes may be legitimately collected (v. 6). Beyond this the magistrate may not go. He is to establish the land by justice which is steadfastly followed in the courts (Prov. 29:4; Amos 5:15). God’s Word does not, however, authorize the civil ruler to be an agent of charitable benevolence, financial welfare, education, and mercy.19

19 Specifically at this point we must make principled objection to the civil proposals and oppressive, preferential methods of helping the poor (illegally intruding into matters of private property and the free market) advocated by Ronald Sider in Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977), notably chap. 9, “Structural Change.” His expressed aim of relieving poverty can hardly be faulted, but his suggested means of achieving that aim—enlisting the coercive lordship of the civil state (e.g., foreign aid, guaranteed income, governmentally set prices, international taxation, tariffs [for some, not all!], land redistribution, population control)—must be rejected for its lawlessness. He asserts, “Yahweh wills institutionalized structures (rather than mere charity) which systematically and regularly reduce the gap between the rich and the poor” (p. 209, note the telling expression “mere charity”). The only morally approved “institutionalized structure” given by God to accomplish such an end, however, is the free market—the very institution over which Sider’s proposals ride roughshod. His methods amount to legalized theft by the state.

The biblical way to deal with the physical needs of the poor in society is by means of voluntary personal charity (love willingly extended from the heart, 1 Cor. 13:3), obedience to relevant laws of God (e.g., about lending, gleaning), and the corporate church’s tithe-supported diaconal ministry (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Rom. 15:25-27). It is not a biblical approach to use state compulsion through taxes or economic barriers that men are forced to honor upon threat of civil punishment. There is certainly a difference between the social demands of benevolence and the political demands of justice; the former calls for one to act according to grace, the latter to perform an enforceable obligation. No one may justifiably claim gracious treatment as a “right” (which conceptually entails a corresponding duty of someone else). Much less may the state, like a middleman broker of power, enforce a claim to gracious treatment on the behalf of others (welfare recipients). As Carl F. H. Henry recently stated the matter: “The business of government is to provide justice, not charity redefined as wealth redistribution by taxation” (“The Gospel for the Rest of Our Century,” Christianity Today Institute [January 17, 1986]: 25). God does indeed expect kings to “deliver the poor and needy” (Ps. 72:2-4, 12-14), but this means, according to this text itself, that they are to “break their oppressors” by securing fairness in the courts and protecting them from “fraud and violence” (Lev. 19:15; Exod. 23:3, 6; Ps. 82:1-4; cf. Prov. 22:22-23; 29:14). It suggests nothing of state-enforced welfare programs or state interference in the free market.

Nor does it grant the state the prerogative of promoting or enforcing the gospel, much less to be a “policeman of the world.” States that assume such functions take on a messianic complex, attempting to save men or the world in ways God never intended for them. The state’s way of dealing with social evils is limited to those marked out by God’s revealed law.

 

The Role of Civil Government Is to Enforce God’s Criminal Law

When our Christian reflections upon political theory are guided by all of Scripture and only Scripture, we are led finally to the conclusion that, in submission to the presently established messianic kingdom, all political leaders are ethically obligated to enforce those civil provisions in the moral law of God—and only those provisions—where He has delegated coercive power of enforcement to rulers. In short, it is the civil magistrate’s proper function and duty to obey the Scripture’s dictates regarding crime and its punishment. The law of God is not a “textbook” of statecraft, as though all the statutes any culture would ever need (e.g., traffic laws), and precisely in the wording a complex technological society might require to address, (e.g., computerized theft, copyright infringement), could be read verbatim right out of Deuteronomy and into every country’s civil code. As noted previously, much homework remains to be done in interpreting and applying God’s laws to our modern world. However, what modern legislators, magistrates, and judges should be concerned to apply and enforce in the state are the precepts of God’s law.

Although this idea has long been a virtual staple of the Reformed social outlook, many respond to it today with intellectual shock and adamant personal rejection. A common reason for this is that people adhere to a particular interpretation of church-state separation that actually parallels the sacred-secular distinction we previously found biblically unacceptable. There are writers who will concede that God’s law is valid in personal, ecclesiastical, or social ethics, but then they utterly deny its continuing validity in political ethics. Such a distinction hardly arises from the literature and teaching of the Bible, much less the ancient and medieval worlds. It is much more in tune with the mentality of modern Enlightenment-sponsored rationalism, which quarantines politics, along with other material concerns such as history and natural science, from religious revelation.

That mentality has been especially fostered by one misguided American conception of the “separation of church and state.” We must realize that such a slogan is not biblical in wording and is conceptually ambiguous.20

20 Cf. Greg Bahnsen, “Separation of Church and State,” taped lecture no. 346 from Covenant Tape Ministry, P.O. Box 7134, Reno, NV 89510), for an analysis of the different issues commonly grouped together under the rubric of “separation of church and state.” This collection of multiple senses under one expression is easily conducive to logical equivocation.

It should not be taught that the institutional separation of the state from the church (something both crucial and biblical) has any logical bearing upon the transcendent moral authority of Jesus Christ over each and every sphere of life (whatever their institutional forms). The doctrine of church-state separation does not entail the separation of the state from ethics, and it is precisely to such ethical concerns that the law of God speaks. Ironically, as things turn out, it is precisely those who do not acknowledge the law of God as their political norm who readily disregard and overturn the proper separation of church and state. They do so by taking ethical norms that are exegetically addressed to and intended appropriately for the church (a redemptive institution characterized by mercy and persuasion) and applying them instead to the state (a natural institution characterized by justice and coercion). Thus the moral obligations addressed to the church in particular (e.g., to care for the poor and practice racial nondiscrimination) are transferred to and laid upon the civil state in general.21

21 One example is Richard J. Mouw, Politics and the Biblical Drama (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), chap. 4, where God’s will for the church is explicitly used as a model for civil political theory. This results in Mouw criticizing civil legislation, for instance, against sexual promiscuity (which legislation God prescribes) and commending redistributive economic legislation (which God’s law prohibits)!

The relevant moral question is whether or not the infallible Word of God countenances an exception from God’s law for modern civil magistrates. Such an alleged exemption must be read into the text of Scripture rather than taken from it. It thus reveals not the mind of God but the extraneous presuppositional baggage of the interpreter. The premise that today’s political leaders are exempt from obligation to the relevant dictates of God’s revealed law falsely assumes that the political validity of God’s law applied solely and uniquely to Israel as a nation. Of course, there were many unique aspects of Israel’s national experience; important discontinuities existed between Israel and the pagan nations. Only Israel as a nation stood as such in an elect, redemptive, and covenantal relation with God; only Israel was a type of the coming kingdom of God, having its kingly line specially chosen and revealed, being led by God in holy war, and so on. But the relevant question before us is whether Israel’s standards of political ethics were also unique. Did they embody a culturally relative kind of justice, valid for only this ethnic group? Happily, not all Christians take that view for granted,22

22 “Though we cannot address secular society in the terms God addressed Israel, nor presuppose [that God has] a covenant relationship [with any modern nation], it is nevertheless valid to argue that what God required of Israel as a fully human society, is consistent with what he requires of all men. It is therefore possible to use Israel as a paradigm for social [and] ethical objectives in our own society” (Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Use of the Bible in Social Ethics III: The Ethical Relevance of Israel as a Society,” Transformation 1, 4 [October-December 1984]: 19).

but all too many thoughtlessly do.

The error of that assumption is evident, first, from what the Bible teaches about the civil magistrates in the Gentile nations surrounding Israel. If they were expected to uphold and enforce the civil provisions of God’s law, the natural inference would be that magistrates outside of Old Testament Israel in the modern world (being in a parallel situation) are likewise charged with obedience to the same provisions. From our previous discussion of Psalm 2, it has already been made clear that Gentile and pagan magistrates were seen as morally obligated to submit to the rule of God, even though they were, in the nature of the case, operating outside of Old Testament Israel. Similarly, referring to the kings outside of Israel, David declared in the longest psalm extolling the law of God (Ps. 119) that he “would speak of [God’s] testimonies before kings and not be put to shame” (v. 46). This statement clearly assumes the validity of that law for such nontheocratic kings. We know from David’s last words that, based on divine revelation, he was convinced that “he who rules among men must be righteous, ruling in the fear of God” (2 Sam. 23:3, where the categorical thrust of the words “among men” is especially to be noted).

The wisdom literature of the Old Testament, intended for practical guidance on an international scale, reinforced this perspective of David: “It is an abomination for kings to commit wickedness, for a throne is established on righteousness” (Prov. 16:12)—just as the throne in Israel was to be established on righteousness (Ps. 72:1-2) because righteousness is the foundation of God’s throne (Ps. 97:2). Thus all rulers were seen as belonging to God (Ps. 47:9): “God is the King of all the earth . . . . God reigns over the nations; God sits upon His holy throne” (vv. 7-8). Indeed, in “all the nations” God Himself stands in the assembly of the “gods” (judges, rulers) and “judges among diem” (Ps. 82:1, 6-8). They are expected to “do justice” for those who are afflicted and needy (vv. 3-4). There is no hint here that “justice” means welfare payments and redistribution of wealth; it rather means refusing to show judicial partiality to the wicked and, thereby, “delivering [the needy] out of the hand of the wicked” (vv. 2, 4). This is accomplished by the “gods” handing down judgments based upon the law of “God,” the Most High and final judge of all mankind.

In that light, the personified Wisdom of God declared: “By me kings reign and princes decree justice; by me rulers govern, and nobles, all the judges of the earth” (Prov. 8:15-16). Therefore, God’s Word teaches that every political ruler of the earth is subordinate to the moral authority of God and the holiness of His throne. Rulers have been established to deal with the “transgressions of a land” (Prov. 28:2) and are morally required in their sphere of authority to condemn the wicked (Prov. 17:15). As Paul later taught in Romans 13:3, all rulers (Jewish and Gentile alike) are to be a “terror to the workers of iniquity” (cf. Prov. 21:15). For this they must rule according to the just dictates of God’s law. Any ruler who departs from this standard and treats the wicked as righteous will be abhorred by “nations” (Prov. 24:22), not simply by Israel.

The law revealed by Moses to Israel was intended to be a model for surrounding cultures. As we saw earlier, Moses declared in Deuteronomy 4:5-8 that “all this law which I set before you this day” (v. 8)—not simply the personal, familial, redemptive, or ecclesiastical aspects of it—was meant to be imitated by the Gentiles. Accordingly, the Old Testament prophets applied the very same standards of political ethics to pagan nations (Hab. 2:12) as they did to Israel (Mic. 3:10), and their prophetic condemnations for disobedience to God were applied to pagan cultures as a whole, including the sins of Gentile kings and princes (e.g., Isa. 14:4-20; 19:1,13-14, 22; 30:33). By contrast, Ezra the scribe praised God for inspiring the pagan emperor to establish magistrates beyond Israel who would punish criminals according to the law of God (Ezra 7:25-26).

In light of this cantata of evidence, it is futile to think that Gentile rulers in the Old Testament were exempt from the politically relevant stipulations of the law of God. And if they were not so exempt, what biblical rationale might be advanced for exempting rulers today who operate outside of the theocratic land of Old Testament Israel? The only conceivable one is the argument that the New Testament introduces a completely new regime of deontological ethics from that of the Old Testament, a hypothesis that has already been refuted exegetically and theologically above. The fact is that the New Testament itself, as much as the Old, teaches that civil magistrates (even those outside of the Jewish nation) are morally bound to obey the political requirements of God’s law. We can see this in that the most evil political ruler imaginable, “the beast” of Revelation 13, is negatively described as substituting his own law for that of the law of God, figuratively written upon the forehead and hand (vv. 16-17 in contrast to Deut. 6:8). Those who oppose this wicked ruler are, by contradistinction, twice described as believers who “keep the commandments of God” (12:17; 14:12). Paul condemns this wicked ruler precisely as “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3), indicating his guilt for repudiating the law of God in his rule.

The way Paul looked upon the civil magistrate, even the emperor in Rome, was that he should behave as “a minister of God” (Rom. 13:4) who “avenges wrath against evildoers.” In this passage the “vengeance” is dearly intended to be God’s (cf. 12:19; 1 Pet. 2:14), and accordingly “evil” is defined by the law of God (cf. 13:8-10). Unless civil rulers serve God by enforcing His just laws against criminal behavior, they will indeed “bear the sword in vain” (v. 4). This political use of God’s law to punish and restrain crime is precisely the illustration Paul employs for a “lawful use of the law” in 1 Timothy 1:8-10. It cannot, therefore, be deemed out of place in New Testament ethics. Since the civil magistrate has been commissioned to bear a sword for the punishment of evildoers according to the avenging wrath of God, the magistrate will need the law of God to inform him as to how and where God’s wrath is to be worked out in the state. A magistrate who renounces the penal directives of that law therefore forsakes his commission to be “the minister of God.” He retains the form of the civil office without its substance and thereby deifies his own political wisdom or desires.

There are those who, as a starting point in their political theorizing, recoil from the very idea that the penal sanctions of God should be enforced by modern magistrates. For example, Ronald Sider, without presenting any argument or evidence, treats this assumption as a benchmark for testing and rejecting the theonomic view23

23 “Christian Love and Public Policy,” p, 13.

—as though it were somehow a priori obvious that the civil penalties prescribed by the law are morally horrid. Such an approach implicitly ridicules the political wisdom of God Himself. That attitude is sometimes fueled without warrant by our own misinterpretation of what God’s civil law actually does and does not require. (For example, Sider indulges in the common error of thinking that the Old Testament prescribed civil punishment for failing to worship God—which would imply positive “enforcement of religious belief” today). But there is no warrant for this preconceived negativity toward God’s law beyond cultural tradition or personal disdain; for that reason it comes under Christ’s censure in Matthew 5:19. Moreover, there is no better political standard to offer than God’s law. Without it we are left with either unredressed criminal anarchy or arbitrary and manipulative penalties determined by sinful overlords.

The attitude we are considering stands squarely against that of the apostle Paul, who insisted, “If I am an evildoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11). In fact, Christ Himself excoriated those who laid aside the penal provisions of the law in order to honor their own human traditions (Matt. 15:3-5). The Bible stands squarely against the personally chosen starting point of those who recoil from the law’s penal sanctions. It insists “we know that the law is good” (1 Tim. 1:8-10). According to its infallible teaching, it is necessary to execute civil penalties against criminal behavior (1 Pet. 2:14; Prov. 20:2, 8), and to do so without exception or mercy (Deut. 19:13, 21; 25:12). Moreover, it is prerequisite that those civil penalties be exactly equitable, requiring neither more nor less than civil justice dictates (cf. “according to his fault” in Deut. 25:2, “worthy of death” in Deut. 21:22, and “eye for eye,” etc. in Exod. 21:23-25). On this issue the teaching of Hebrews 2:2 is especially pertinent. There we find explicit New Testament endorsement of the abiding (“steadfast”) justice of the penal sanctions prescribed in the law of Moses. According to God’s unerring evaluation, “every transgression and offense received a just recompence of reward” in the law delivered from Sinai. Therefore, to repudiate those sanctions is to be impaled upon the horns of a painful ethical dilemma: either one gives up all civil sanctions against crime, or one settles for civil sanctions that are not just. Both options are clearly unbiblical and will produce abusive political effects in practice.

We are driven to conclude that there is no biblical justification for teaching that, as a category, the “political” provisions of God’s Old Testament law have been abrogated. All the relevant biblical evidence, whether about Old Testament Gentile rulers, New Testament magistrates, or necessary and equitable penal sanctions, moves in entirely the opposite direction. God is never pictured as having a double standard of political ethics, as though it were any less necessary to punish rapists, kidnappers, and murderers with a “just recompence of reward” (cf. Heb. 2:2) in Old Testament Israel than across the geopolitical line into Gentile territory or across the time line into the New Testament era. The justice of God’s law, even as it touches political matters like crime and punishment, is not culturally relative. It is not surprising that our most pressing criminal problems today (e.g., disdain for the integrity of life, for proper sexual relations, and for property; criminal incorrigibility) are precisely those matters which are addressed with firmness and clarity in God’s law. Its divine direction has been set aside, however, in favor of the “enlightened” speculation and self-destructive fashion of this world instead.

Biblical Christians are not “legal positivists” who deny any conceptual connection between civil law and morality. We realize that all civil law arises from and gives expression to a particular moral point of view (or more widely, a world-and-life view). The question is not, therefore, whether the state should enforce some definable and coherent conception of ethics, but rather which ethical system it should enforce. It is impossible for the state to avoid constraining the behavior of its subjects according to statutes that reflect some moral philosophy. We have argued above that for the Christian this moral philosophy is taken from the infallible Word of God in the Scripture of the Old and New Testaments. It must not be based upon the autonomous philosophical speculation or the social traditions of men, which are alike afflicted by man’s fallen condition and can, therefore, offer no reliable ethical guidance.

 

The Need for Reform

The fact remains, however, that within society there are plenty of unbelieving people who would readily challenge the veracity and authority of God’s Word. The Christian lives in a world that is in rebellion against Jehovah and His Christ—a world where non-Christians often outnumber or carry more influence than believers within a particular society. A plurality of perspectives compete with each other for a following. If the law of God is the moral ideal to be followed politically, and if the practice of one’s political order is contrary to it, what measures are believers to take in hope of correcting the situation? This question, as every other ethical question, must be addressed by the law of God itself. That moral code not only sets forth standards to be followed by those in political power, it lays down principles of conduct to be followed by those who wish to bring about a more just political order.

Accordingly, let me end this essay by observing that a commitment to the law of God does not encourage, but rather forbids, the use of violence today (2 Cor. 10:4; Matt. 26:52) and the use of revolution (Rom. 13:1-2; Titus 3:1) to institute closer conformity to the will of God. Simply put, the law of God is not to be imposed by force upon an unwilling society. Of course, there will always be individuals upon whom the laws of society need to be imposed (whether these are precisely the laws of God or not). That is, there will always be a criminal element who will not regulate their actions by the restraints of civil law. Imposing society’s civil (not ecclesiastical or personal) standards upon these individuals through application or threat of penal sanction is both right and inevitable (Rom. 13:3; Prov. 20:8, 26). The kind of imposition of which we disapprove, however, is the use of coercion or violence to compel a corporate society to submit to the dictates of God’s law. That very law directs God’s people to rely upon and utilize, instead, the means of regeneration, re-education, and gradual legal reform to bring about a reformation of their outward political order. Christian political concern will advance very little indeed if it ignores the fundamental spiritual need of men to have their hearts changed from above.

Hence we would make evangelism, prayer, and education critical planks in the Christian’s strategy for eventual political change. At the same time as we are offering Christian nurture and re-education to converts (regarding socio-political morality, among other spiritual lessons), we must likewise engage in intellectual persuasion and apologetical appeals to the unconverted, aiming to change and correct their value system and to promote the advantages of the Christian view on political issues. Beyond this, Christians should use the lawful means available in any particular society to work toward reconstruction of the legal, judicial, and political framework of that society. Christian legislators, judges, magistrates, and aides ought to labor for progressive amendment of the statutes and legal proceedings of the state, bringing them more and more into harmony with the principles of God’s law for political authorities. Complementary and necessary to such reform is every believer’s moral obligation to make use of his political voice and vote to support those candidates and measures which best conform to the rule of God’s law. In all of this, it should be manifest that peaceful means24

24 This restriction to peaceful means of (positive) political transformation or reform does not, as such, address the issue of (negative) self-defense against the illegal assaults of state officials (say, in a Christian school) or against a murderous political regime that is beyond judicial correction (say, in Hitler’s Germany or Idi Amin’s Uganda).

of political change are to be utilized by those committed to the law of God and its modern application—not anything like “holy war,” revolutionary violence, or “the abolition of democracy.”25

25  The last phrase is misleadingly applied to theonomists by Rodney Clapp in “Democracy as Heresy,” p. 17. Surely Clapp is aware that the word democracy is susceptible to an incredibly wide range of definitions and connotations (e.g., from an institution of direct rule by every citizen without mediating representatives to a governmental procedure where representatives are voted in and out of office by the people, to the simple concepts of majority vote or social equality, etc.). The definitions of democracy are so varied that J. L. Austin once dismissed the word as “notoriously useless.” While there are some senses of democracy that theonomists (and all Christians, even Clapp) would want to shun, we are certainly not opposed to democratic procedures as commonly understood.

 

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