Friday, April 1, 2011

Understanding the Westminster Confession of Faith, Section 19.4, on the Judicial Law and General Equity: Part 4

"That part of the judicial law which
was typical of Christ's government
has ceased, but that part which is of
common and general equity remains
still in force. It is a common maxim:
those judgments which are common
and natural are moral and perpetual."
Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of
Christian Freedom
(Edinburgh: The
Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 56.
By Vindiciae Legis

[Editor’s note: this series is highly recommended. It rigorously addresses the historical context of WCF 19.4, clearing up the confusion that has for so long plagued many in understanding its theonomic implications. In addition, the quotes from the Westminster divines about law categories are very instructive.]  

Second Category Laws are Covered by WCF 19.5

The question then arises: are the second category laws dealt with in the WCF, and, if so, where, and how? Before answering this we remind ourselves that these laws were seen as part of the moral law, or appendices to the moral law. Thomas Edwards, for example, cites Matt. 5:17 as tying the judicial law to the moral: 
“he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it; which words are comprehensive of the Judiciall Law… (the Judicial being indeed an Appendix and a more particular explication of that part of the Morall Law concerning matters of Justice and judgement)…”[1] 
Assembly member Samuel Bolton tells us that the laws of common equity are moral and perpetual: 
“That part of the judicial law which was typical of Christ’s government has ceased, but that part which is of common and general equity remains still in force. It is a common maxim: those judgments which are common and natural are moral and perpetual.”[2] 
Once we understand how tightly the divines connected the second category laws to the moral law the answer to the above question becomes obvious: second category laws are quite naturally and automatically covered by WCF 19.5: 
“The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof;[3] and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God, the Creator, who gave it.[4] Neither doth Christ, in the Gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.”[5] 
The reader will notice that there is absolutely no indication that the requirements of the moral law are in any way relaxed, either temporally or eternally. There is no suggestion of abrogation, as in the case of ceremonial laws, or expiry, as in the case of “sundry judicial laws” particular to Israel. The moral law still binds all as it always did and “Christ in the Gospel” strengthens its binding obligation, rather than dissolves it.[6]

Neither does WCF 19.5 nor any other part of the Westminster Standards contain the slightest hint that the judicial appendices, or sanctions, have been stripped away from the moral law, or that, since the fall of Jerusalem, the civil magistrate has been relieved of his duties to enforce them.[7] Such a thought would have been repugnant to the Westminster divines.[8] Using the imagery we quoted from Ames: “the bounds and wall which defended the house” are still “reckon’d as one with the house.”

This is further confirmed by the fact that, as we have seen, the judicial appendices, i.e. second category laws, were viewed as moral and perpetual. We repeat two of our earlier quotations, which make this abundantly clear: 
According to Cheynell, “All divine lawes which concern the punishment of Morall transgressions, are of perpetuall obligation and therefore still remaine in force according to their substance and generall equity…”[9] 
Cawdrey and Palmer agree: “Every Law of God though but Positive, which is Substantially-profitable for all men in all Ages to be obliged unto is Moral, that is, Universal and Perpetual, unless a clear and certain repeal of it can be showed in Scripture.”[10] 
Similarly, Rutherford argues: 
“That which is perpetually morall, and one act of Justice at all times and places, must oblige us Christians, and the Christian Magistrate, as well as the Jewish Rulers…”[11] 
Remember, “perpetual” means that the divines saw these laws “according to their substance and generall equity” as always binding and never subject to change, repeal, abrogation or expiration! Civil magistrates were not to deviate from these laws. The only permissible changes were strictly salva substantia.[12]

There is great blessing in the precepts and judicial sanctions of God’s moral law. As Thomas Manton so delightfully expresses it: 
“In the precept there is the rule of man’s duty, in the sanction the rule of God’s judgment or judiciary proceedings with him. And wherever this law is set up, there God is said to ‘judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth,’ Ps. lxvii. 4; that is, to set up holy and righteous decrees, fitted for the benefit of mankind.”[13] 
Laws without such sanctions would either be toothless, or arbitrary and left to the caprice of the civil magistrate. When God’s sanctions are ignored, nations are unfortunately, at the very best, left to the vagaries of “mans reason” which in the words of Thomas Cartwright, “is even in this behalffe, shrewdly wounded.”[14]


To conclude, we have seen that WCF 19.4 in all its clauses deals exclusively with the first category of judicial laws, laws which are particular to Israel. However, as indicated in the last clause of WCF 19.4, many or possibly all of these laws have underlying general or common equity which is of universal and perpetual obligation.

Second category judicial laws, laws of common equity, were regarded by the Westminster divines as universal, perpetual and belonging to the moral law. As such they were automatically included with the treatment of the moral law in WCF 19.5. It is absurd to think that the divines would have placed laws they deemed perpetual amongst the expired laws of WCF 19.4.

Opponents of Theonomy pretend they are merely rejecting the judicial law. The reality is far worse than that. What they are rejecting, in whole or in part, is the moral law itself. There is a word for those who reject the binding nature of the moral law. They are by definition, antinomians.

(posts in this series: part 1part 2part 3, part 4)
read entire series on PDF    

     [1] Edwards, 55, 56.
     [2] Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust,
2001), 56.
     [3] Rom. 13:8,9; Eph. 6:2; 1 John 2:3,4,7,8.
     [4] James 2:10,11.
     [5] Matt. 5:17,18,19; James 2:8; Rom. 3:31.
     [6] For Rutherford the only relaxation in Biblical law is the abrogation of ceremonial laws: “More severity, and a stricter tutory to be over the Church in non-age, and under Pedagogie, we grant, Gal. 4. 1, 2, 3. But that is in regard of Ceremoniall hedges, laws, and dayes, but it is to begge the question, to say that morall transgressions are destructive, if not more, to Christian societies now as then, such as blasphemy, idolatry, heresie, that were punished with the sword then, must now be more loosed from all bodily punishment in any kind, than murther, sorcery, adultery, perjury. For the comparison of a milder Government under Jesus, than under Moses, cannot stand in fencing some moral transgressions utterly from the sword, and in leaving others lesse weighty, under as bloody punishments as ever they were.” (Rutherford, Free Disputation, 189.)
     [7] Scripture proofs used throughout the Westminster Standards regarding the law and the civil magistrate offer strong confirmation of this. An excellent short article dealing mainly with the Larger Catechism proof texts is posted at
     [8] Consider this extract from Jus Divinum:

     “We have sufficient intimation of the magistrate’s punitive power in cases against the second table, as the stubborn and rebellious, incorrigible son that was a glutton and a drunkard, sinning against the fifth commandment, was to be stoned to death, Deut. xxi. 18, 19, 20, 21. The murderer sinning against the sixth commandment was to be punished with death. Gen. ix. 6. Numb. xxxv. 30, 31, 32, 33, 34. Deut x. 11, 12, 13. The unclean person sinning against the seventh commandment, was to be punished with death. Lev. xx. 11, 12, 14, 17, 19, to 25. and before that see Gen. xxxviii. 24. Yea, Job who is thought to live before Moses, and before this law was made, intimates that adultery is an heinous crime, yea, it is an iniquity to be punished by the judges. Job xxxi. 9, 11. The thief, sinning against the eighth commandment, was to be punished by restitution, Exod. xxii. i,—15, &c. The false witness, sinning against the ninth commandment, was to be dealt withal as he would have had his brother dealt with, by the law of retaliation, Deut. xix 16. to the end of the chapter, &c. 

     Yea, the magistrate’s punitive power is extended all to offences against the first table; whether these offences be against the first commandment, by false prophets teaching lies, errors, and heresies in the name of the Lord, endeavouring to seduce people from the true God—If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams——That prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall he put to death, because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God which brought you out of the land of Egypt, &c., Deut, xiii, 1, to 6. From which place Calvin notably asserts the punitive power of magistrates against false prophets and impostors that would draw God's people to a defection from the true God, shewing that this power also belongs to the Christian magistrate in like cases now under the gospel. 

     Yea in case of such seducement from God, though by nearest allies, severe punishment was to be inflicted upon the seducer, Deut. xiii. 6, to 12. see also ver. 12. to the end of the chapter, how a city is to be punished in the like case. And Mr. Burroughs, in his Irenicum shews that this place of Deut. xiii 6, &c. belongs even to us under the gospel… 

     Or whether these offences be against the second commandment, the magistrate’s punitive power reaches them Deut xvii. 1, to 8. Lev. xvii. 2, to 8. 2 Chron. xvi. 13, 16… Or whether the offences be against the third commandment… 

     Besides all this light of nature, and evidence of the Old Testament, for the ruler’s political punitive power for offences against God, there are divers places in the New Testament shewing that a civil punitive power rests still in the civil Magistrate: Witness those general expressions in those texts, Rom. xiii. 3, 4. Rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. If thou dost that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil

     Now (as Mr. Burroughs notes) seeing the Scripture speaks thus generally, except the nature of the thing require, why should we distinguish where the Scripture doth not? so that these expressions may be extended to those sorts of evil doing against the first as well as against the second table…” 

     The Divine Right of Church Government (Paisley: Printed by Neilson and Weir, 1799), 65-67. This edition of Jus Divinum appears to be based on the 1654 edition as used by Hall (op. cit.) in his compilation of the 1646 and 1654 editions. Note: The Hall edition is out of print. Readers are encouraged to download the Neilson and Weir edition from
     [9] Cheynell, 473.
     [10] Coldwell, 29.
     [11] Rutherford, Free Disputation, 311.
     [12] i.e. with the substance intact.
     [13] Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, D.D., 22 vols. (London: James Nisbet, 1870-1875), 20:217.
     [14] Cartwright, Second Replie, 97.

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