Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Biblical Defense of Theonomy: Part 1

by Steve C. Halbrook

(posts in this series: part 1part 2, part 3)

(This series is based on Appendix A of God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws)

The sovereign rule of King Jesus extends throughout all of heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18b).  He is “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15b; cf. Eph. 1:20-22), and so all earthly rulers are to submit to His rule (Rom. 13:1-4; cf. First Commandment, Ex. 20:3).  Psalm 2:10-12 gives a stern warning:  Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”  Herod refused to do this, and God struck him down (Ac. 12:22, 23).

Submitting to God’s rule entails obedience to God’s law—otherwise, the idea of submission would be a mere abstraction.  King Jesus says, Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6:46).  Notice that the aforementioned Psalm commands rulers to “Serve the LORD,” and one does not serve without obedience.  Thus, “Kingship and law are inseparable.  A king rules by his law.  Law is the expression of the will of the king.”[1]  And so rulers demonstrate they serve God by obedience to God’s law, which entails enforcing God’s civil law. 

So from here it is settled that rulers must enforce God’s law.  However, many hold to a revealed law/natural law dichotomy, which says that some (Jews) are accountable to one civil law, while others (Gentiles) are accountable to another.  For the former, it’s special revelation (the Bible’s civil code); for the latter, it’s natural law. 

However, not only is natural law by itself insufficient for civil government, but Christ fulfilled the law, not laws, i.e., one law each for Jews and Gentiles (see Matt. 5:17.).  He fulfilled every iota, every dot (v. 18, cf. v. 19)—and He did so to save His elect, which includes Jews and Gentiles alike (Rom. 4:1-12).  Since every iota and dot includes the Bible’s civil code,[2] and since Christ fulfilled every iota and dot for certain Gentiles, then Gentiles are required to obey the Bible’s civil code (cf. Rom. 1:32; 2:15).

As such, God does not have different standards of civil justice for different nations.  Israel had “the same rule for the sojourner and for the native” (Lev. 24:22b; cf. vv. 16-23).  “In Israel, the sojourner or stranger was the Gentile who lived in the midst of God’s people.”[3]  Some Gentile strangers joined the covenant community, while others didn’t (Ex. 12:48; Ezek. 44:9).  But whatever the case, in Israel the same civil law applied—whether it was to God’s covenant people the Israelites, Gentiles whom joined the covenant community, or Gentiles outside the covenant community.[4]

Nations require God’s special revelation to avoid casting off restraint (Prov. 29:18), and God demands nations to be exalted by righteousness (Prov. 14:34a).  God’s moral laws given to Israel, including its moral civil laws (the only civil code based on special revelation ever) provides the standard for both obligations, being the divinely revealed standard of righteousness for the nations.  Deuteronomy 4:5-8 teaches that Israel’s moral laws were a model for other nations to follow:

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

Indeed, as Daniel F.N. Ritchie observes, Paul described “the Jews as instructors of the foolish (Rom. 2:20),” and “the reason why he said this was because they were entrusted with the law that was also meant to be a guide for the Gentiles as to righteous conduct (Rom. 3:1-2, 31).”[5]  Moreover, as Isaiah 24:5 reads, “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Is. 24:5).  On this E. J. Young observes:

Just as Palestine itself, the Holy Land, had become profane through the sin of its inhabitants (Num. 35:33; Deut. 21:19 [should say Deut. 21:1-9]; Jer. 3:9; and Ps. 106:38), so also the entire earth became profane when the ordinances given to it were violated. … Transgression is against the law of God, and this is expressed by the terms law, statute, everlasting covenant. The laws which God has revealed to His people bind all mankind; and hence, the work of the Law of God written on the human heart, for example, may be described under such terms.[6]

Perhaps David had in mind to proclaim even Israel’s civil law when he wrote, I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame,” (Ps. 119:46).  The non-Israelite pagan king Nebuchadnezzar, after being humiliated by God, decreed blasphemy to be a capital offense (Dan. 3:29)—a sanction harmonious with the law of Moses (albeit with a different execution method, and with the added penalty of destroying the offender’s house). 

And had the Canaanites kept the statutes and rules of the Israelites (which included civil laws), then they would not have been vomited out of the land (Lev. 18:24-30, 20:22-23).  God commanded the Israelites to “not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you …” (Lev. 20:23)—which caused God to detest the Canaanites—but to instead keep God’s statutes and rules (Lev. 20:22).  Within this context, specific civil laws are mentioned as examples of laws the Israelites were to keep.  Listed is the requirement for the man who lies sexually with a slave woman assigned to another man to make compensation (Lev. 19:20, 21), and the requirement of the state to execute those guilty of child sacrifice (Lev. 20:2); cursing one’s father or mother (v. 9); adultery (v. 10); incest (vv. 11, 12, 14); sodomy (v. 13); bestiality (vv. 15, 16); and sorcery (v. 27). 

The O.T. civil code remains the specially revealed standard of righteousness for the nations:  in Matthew 5:17-20, Christ upholds the entirety of the law, which remains in effect “until heaven and earth pass away.” He also warns “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same,”[7] and says of the scribes and Pharisees—those who had an extremely low view of God’s law—For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

Only God has the right to add or take away from His commands, not man; hence, Christ’s warning against “whoever [referring to man] relaxes”; man is not authorized to make void a single jot or tittle of the law.  Unless there are Scriptures abrogating the O.T. civil code, we must assume that it remains in effect. As Deuteronomy 4:2a teaches, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it” (emphasis mine) (cf. Deut. 12:32). 

We by no means argue every single detail of the O.T. civil code applies today.  For instance, because the sacrificial system with its priests is abolished, perhaps the capital sanction against a priest’s daughter for prostituting herself (Lev. 21:9) is abolished (unless the underlying moral principle applies to daughters of church leaders in general, in which case the law may apply today to daughters of church elders).[8]  We simply argue that, in light of such passages as Matt. 5:17-20 and Deut. 4:2 (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16, 17), every civil law that cannot be shown to be abolished must be assumed to be in effect today, and cannot be nullified by man.  As George Gillespie notes: “Though we have clear and full scriptures in the New Testament for abolishing the ceremonial law, yet we no where read in all the New Testament of the abolishing of the judicial law, so far as it did concern the punishing of sins against the moral law …”[9]

We see an example of Jesus indicting the scribes and Pharisees for nullifying God’s command to honor father and mother, as well as the command “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die” (Matt. 15:1-9).  (Notice that this command entails a civil penal sanction.)  Jesus elsewhere indicts the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23).  Since justice is a weightier matter, the O.T. civil code is a weightier matter, since this code is just.  Hebrews 2:2 reads:  For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution …”

When the tax collector Zacchaeus repented of his sins, he acknowledged the requirement of restitution according to the O.T. civil code.  He told Jesus, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8b; cf. Ex. 22:1).  Jesus didn’t reply by telling Zacchias, “Don’t worry about restitution, since the O.T. civil laws are done away with.” Rather, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9b-10). 

Also in His earthly ministry, Christ said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4b).  Here Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, one of the very books of the Bible that details the O.T. civil code.  In using the generic word “man”—which includes Jew and Gentile alike— the truth that man shall live by every word of God applies to all mankind (past, present, and future).  Hence, all civil governments are bound by the Bible’s civil laws, since these laws are part of every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 

The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to pray that God’s will (i.e., His law) be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10b).  Earth encompasses all civil governments.  This affirms the requirement of civil governments to uphold biblical law as it does in Deuteronomy 4:5-8, where the law given to the Israelites was a model for other nations to follow—i.e., the law was a light to the nations. 

Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer is from the Sermon on the Mount, the same sermon where Christ’s disciples are commanded to be a “light of the world” (Matt. 5:14b) by doing “good works” (5:16b), defined as obedience to God’s law (including its civil laws) (5:17-20), which is required “until heaven and earth pass away”—that is, until God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”  And we can expect God’s will to be done on earth, for Isaiah 51:4 reads: “Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples.”  Indeed, Christ will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Is. 42:4b; cf. Is. 9:6-7).

And then there is the Great Commission, given by Christ prior to His ascension:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

As we pointed out earlier, the fact that Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth means that His sovereignty extends to every area of creation—civil government included.  This fact alone logically implies rulers must obey God’s civil laws. 

Not only this, but Christ commands all nations to observe all that Christ has commanded the apostles.  These commands are not only those that Christ gave on His earthly ministry.  Being a person of the Trinity, Christ is God, and therefore the laws God gave to Moses—including its civil code—are also Christ’s commands (as well as God the Father’s and God the Spirit’s).  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8); He did not change His moral standards during His earthly ministry.  Quite the opposite: during His earthly ministry, Christ upheld the moral standards—including the moral civil standards—that were given to Moses (Matt. 5:17-20; 15:1-9). 

     [1] John Weaver, The Sovereignty of God and Civil Government (Linden, IN: Linden Baptist Church, n.d.), 81.
     [2] George Gillespie discusses the theologian Piscator’s view on how Christ fulfilled the judicial law:
“(2.) Christ’s words (Matt. 5:17), Think not that I am come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill, are comprehensive of the judicial law, it being a part of the law of Moses. Now he could not fulfill the judicial law, except either by his practice, or by teaching others still to observe it; not by his own practice, for he would not condemn the adulteress (Jn. 8:11), nor divide the inheritance (Luke 12:13-14). Therefore it must be by his doctrine for our observing it.”  George Gillespie, Wholesome Severity Reconciled With Christian Liberty (Naphtali Press, 1997).  Retrieved November 13, 2009, from http://www.naphtali.com/articles/george-gillespie/wholesome-severity/
     [3] Joseph A. Pipa, The Lord’s Day (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1997), 51.
     [4] Some argue that the O.T. civil laws were given just to the Jews because God covenanted with them specifically.  But as we have pointed out, in Israel the non-covenanted stranger was held to the same civil law as the covenanted Israelite.  Moreover, the laws given to Israel were the model for other nations to follow (Deut. 4:5-8). Thus it doesn’t logically follow that a unique covenant with a group necessarily translates totally into a unique law-code with that group of people (whether or not there are in fact certain unique laws within that covenant). The laws under the Mosaic covenant no more necessarily applied only to Israel anymore than the Epistles written to those under the New Covenant necessarily apply only to the N.T. Church.  We certainly cannot hold that because the Ten Commandments were given to Israel, the Ten Commandments applied only to Israel.  And the moral O.T. civil laws are the application of the Ten Commandments to the state.
     [5] Daniel F. N. Ritchie, A Conquered Kingdom: Biblical Civil Government (Saintfield, Northern Ireland: Reformed Worldview Books, 2008), 254.
     [6] Young, The Book of Isaiah, 2:156-58.  Cited by Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” in Five Views On Law And Gospel, ed. Wayne G. Strickland (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 111.
     [7] Some argue that the O.T. civil laws were culturally unique to Israel.  According to their logic, the O.T. civil laws are not obligatory, and so a nation’s justice system should conform to the culture.  It is true the law addressed certain obviously unique situations to certain cultures (rooftop railings, goring ox, etc.).  However, the addressing of obviously unique cultural conditions by certain laws does not grant one license to dismiss the underlying moral principle behind those laws, nor does it grant one license to arbitrarily dismiss those laws that obviously do not address unique cultural conditions, such as the capital sanctions for violating portions of the Ten Commandments.  (Since the Ten Commandments apply to all men at all times, why would punishments for violating these commandments be culturally unique?)  This would have the effect of dismissing Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20.
      Moreover, if a nation’s justice system should conform to culture, then a pro-statist culture would justify the state having totalitarian powers, and a brutal culture would justify the state engaging in torture and genocide.  Conforming justice to culture amounts to moral relativism.  But Christ is not to conform to culture, but culture to Christ.  As such, His law is not to conform to culture, but culture to His law. 
     Similar to the cultural argument against the O.T. civil laws is the argument that nations are free to uphold these laws, but they are also free to reject them as well.  In short, God’s law is optional.  This argument has the same problems as the cultural objection, and also misses the fact that law (particularly God’s) by its very nature is not optional, but obligatory. 
     [8] In light of the abrogation of the sacrificial system, how can Matt. 5:17-20 uphold the entirety of the law until heaven and earth pass away?  See Appendix B. 
     [9] Gillespie, Wholesome Severity Reconciled With Christian Liberty.

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