Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Biblical Defense of Theonomy: Part 2

by Steve C. Halbrook

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

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

The Apostle Paul upheld aspects of the O.T. civil code in Ac. 23, when, after being struck by orders of the high priest, he says, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (v. 3b).  Paul is angered because the high priest’s violation of the O.T. civil code; in this case, the judicial case law against punishing someone before he is found guilty (Deut. 25:1, 2; Jn. 7:51). 

And, upon realizing that it was a high priest whom he called God’s judgment upon, Paul repents, due to the validity of Exodus 22:28, an O.T. case law that relates to the O.T. civil code:  And Paul said, ‘I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people”’” (Ac. 23:5).   

And then in Acts 25, Paul, while on trial, recognizes the O.T. civil code’s capital sanctions in particular.  Paul states, For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (v. 11a, KJV) (emphases mine).  The term “worthy of death” is also used in Deuteronomy 21:22 in regards to any capital sanction authorized by God (see KJV).  Moreover, the offenses Paul refers to as being worthy of death are offenses against the Jews, for in verse 10 Paul says during his trial, “To the Jews I have done no wrong …”  Thus, Paul affirms the O.T. civil code’s abiding validity, since the law of the Jews was the O.T. civil code, and Paul acknowledges that violating it is worthy of death, not unworthy of death, which would be the case if these sanctions no longer apply.[1]

If in the New Covenant era the O.T. civil code has been annulled, this would have been the perfect opportunity for the outspoken Apostle to denounce its capital sanctions as being murderous, and hence unlawful (just as John the Baptist denounced Herod’s immorality in Mark 6:18 as being unlawful).  Indeed, “Had Paul deemed capital punishment evil, he would not have urged its consideration.”[2] We must also note that the word “any” (in “any thing worthy of death”) implies a plurality of capital sanctions, not just one.  This refutes the view that says in the New Covenant era, only one capital sanction (for murder) is sanctioned.

Romans 1:28-32, speaking of the Gentiles who reject God, also uses the phrase “worthy of death”:

 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

On this text Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., writes:

the Greek word dikaioma, which Paul employs in the phrase “although they know the ordinance of God,” is properly translated: “regulation, requirement, commandment, statute.”  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament calls such a rendering “the most common” sense of the word in the New Testament, as do Arndt-Gingrich, Abbott-Smith, and Thayer.  It is the very word mentioned by Paul just a few verses later as a stipulation from God’s Law: “Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements (dikaioma) of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?” (Rom. 2:26). It occurs again in Romans 8:4: “... that the righteous requirement (dikaioma) of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). In fact, it is frequently used of the specific requirements of God’s Law (Luke 1:6; Heb. 9:1; extra-biblical: Barnabas 4:11; 1 Clement 2:8; 35:7).

Thus, TDNT observes that in Romans 1:32, “the reference is to the knowledge of God’s statutes or ordinances which obtains among men.” [3]

Some argue that “worthy of death” in Romans  refers not to a capital sanction, but eternal condemnation, since the O.T. civil code doesn’t punish some of the sins mentioned, such as envy, insolence, unlovingness, and boastfulness.  However, Gentry argues that “‘such things’ in the statement ‘those who practice such things are worthy of death’” should not be viewed individualistically, but distributively. 

Paul’s main focus here is on idolatry. It is because of idolatry that God reprobates these men (Rom. 1:23-24; also note the specific reference to idolatry in the discussion of God’s Law in 2:17-23). Also, it is common in Scripture to associate wide-ranging immorality as a concomitant of idolatrous worship (cf. Lev. 18; Deut. 12:29-13:18; 18:9-14; Rom. 1:20ff).

Surely the idea impressed upon the readers is not that some idolaters are merely “whisperers” (Rom. 1:29). These sins are found clumped in idolatrous communities. And as a complex of moral behavior involving specific capital crimes (e.g., homosexual conduct, murder, etc.), these multiple sins/crimes merit capital sanctions. These people are “filled [Gk. perfect passive participle] with all unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:29) and are justly subject to capital sanctions, as they “know” (Rom. 1:32; cf. 2:14-16).[4]

Romans 12:19 and 13:1-10 includes statements we would expect if the O.T. civil laws are required today.  First, personal vengeance is prohibited: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves …” (Rom. 12:19a).  (Compare with Ex. 23:4, 5; Lev. 19:17-18).  Second, vengeance belongs to God:  “leave it [vengeance] to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19b).  (Compare with Deut. 1:17; 2 Chron. 19:6). 

Third, civil rulers answer to God: “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1b; cf. 13:2, 4, 6).  (Compare with 1 Sam. 12:14).  Fourth, civil rulers are granted the sword to kill the wicked:  “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4b).  (Compare with the O.T. capital sanctions.)  That rulers do not bear the sword in vain demonstrates the state’s authority to kill.[5] 

Fifth, multiple capital sanctions are authorized.  Many hold that nations are only bound to the Noahic covenant, with its single death penalty for murder (Gen. 9:6), and so Romans 13 does not authorize additional capital sanctions of the law of Moses.  However, if this is the case, why doesn’t Rom. 13 specify that rulers wield the executing authority of the sword for murders?  Instead, rulers are granted authority to kill evildoers in general; the ruler is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (v. 4b).  Indeed, the text mentions a plurality of evil works subject to the terror of the sword of the state:  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil” (v. 3a) (KJV).  So there are several evil works subject to capital punishment.  (Compare with the plurality of O.T. capital sanctions). 

Sixth, the sword of civil rulers deters the wicked from committing evil: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Rom. 13:3a; cf. Rom. 13:4).  (Compare with Deut. 13:11; 19:20; 21:21).  Seventh, the purpose of taxes are to maintain justice:  “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (Rom. 13:5, 6).  (Compare with the O.T. civil code, which too is focused on justice instead of such things as socialism [cf. Heb. 2:2], which implies the main purpose of taxes in the O.T. was for justice as well.) 

Eighth, God’s law defines what constitutes punishable behavior (i.e., bad conduct): “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad” (Rom. 13:3a; cf. 13:4; also consider 13:8-10).  (Compare with the O.T. civil code, which distinguishes which sins constitute crimes).[6] 

The only possible standard for measuring good and bad conduct in the civil realm is God’s law, since God’s law, by the very nature of the case, informs us of what is good and what is evil. 

Ninth, rulers are required to rule by biblical law.  This is seen in light of Romans 13:7, 8, which discusses what people owe one another, and Romans 13:8-10, which upholds God’s law.  Greg L. Bahnsen writes,

In Romans 13:7 “that which is due” has the same root as “to owe” in verse 8. Verse 7 says to render to each his due, and verse 8 says nothing is due to anyone except love—that is, the fulfilling of God’s law (v. 10). The conclusion should be that what is due to the state is obedience to God’s law, and if this is what is its due, then the law of God is the area of the state’s assigned function. What Caesar must render unto God as the things which are God’s includes his obedience to, and enforcement of, God’s law within the nation.[7]

Thus, civil rulers are indirectly obligated to enforce God’s civil law because citizens owe the state obedience to God’s law, which includes the civil aspects of God’s law.  Not only this, but since the command “Owe no one anything, except to love each other” applies to all men, it also applies directly to civil rulers, who love by enforcing biblical civil law. 

Indeed, “the fulfilling of the law” (v. 10) is equated with the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 9)—a command which, along with the great commandment, Christ said “all the Law and the Prophets” depend on (Matt. 22:37-40).  Moreover, “the fulfilling of the law” (v. 10) is what Christ upholds in Matthew 5:17, a law which remains in force “until heaven and earth pass away” (Matt. 5:18b).  Here again, the Law and the Prophets are in view (Matt. 5:17).  The important point here is that the Law and the Prophets are still binding in the New Covenant era, and since the Law and the Prophets includes the O.T. civil code, the O.T. civil code remains binding in the New Covenant era as well. 

Tenth, the state’s authority is limited.  (Compare with the O.T. civil code, which only permits the state to punish certain sins.) 

The idea of rendering unto the state the things which are its due (e.g., honor and tribute) in Romans 13:7 has as its background the statement of Jesus to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). This definitely implies a restriction of state authority within certain prescribed limits. Thus the state has a specifically assigned task.[8]

Some final words on Romans 13:  The text teaches that the civil magistrate is not granted autonomy as an avenger for his own wrath, but as a servant for God to execute God’s wrath (v. 4).  Judgment—wrath—belongs to God.  Man is forbidden to execute his own wrath (Deut. 1:17; 2 Chron. 19:6; cf. Prov. 29:26).  Right before Romans 13, we are told Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). 

The O.T. civil law’s penal sanctions detail which sins the magistrate is to inflict God’s wrath upon, as well as how, and to what degree, God’s wrath should be inflicted upon those sins.  Only by consulting God can a ruler know that his punishments are just:  I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength.  By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly” (Prov. 8:14-16). 

When we reject the applicability of the O.T. civil laws, rulers are left without an objective basis for knowing whether their punishments reflect God’s wrath or man’s.  Man’s punishments can be extremely disproportionate; for example, petty thieves might have their hands dismembered, while murderers might get three-year prison sentences.

     [1] For a more thorough explanation of Acts 25’s relation to the O.T. civil code, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Civil Sanctions in the New Testament,” in Theonomy: An Informed Response, ed. Gary North (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), 157-160.
     [2] Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Random Thoughts on Capital Punishment (, 2008). Retrieved March 24, 2010, from
     [3] Gentry, “Civil Sanctions in the New Testament,” 154, 155.  Citation from Gottlob Schrenk, “dikaioma,” in G. Kittel, The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:221.
     [4] Gentry, “Civil Sanctions in the New Testament,” 156, 157.
     [5] Some deny that the term “sword” here symbolizes the authority to take life.  However, swords are not intended for backrubs, but for cutting heads off with.  And Bahnsen writes, “The civil leader ‘does not bear the sword in vain’; this reference cannot possibly be restricted to lesser forms of punishment but expressly authorizes the most extreme penalty: death. The ‘sword’ properly symbolizes the death penalty (cf. for what the ‘sword’ represents: Matt. 26:52; Acts 12:2; Heb. 11:37; Rev. 13:10; Ulpian, Digest 1.18.6; Tacitus, Hist. 3.68; Dio Cassius 42.27).” Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002), 428.
     [6] However, if we reject the applicability of the O.T. civil laws today, we are left wondering just what sins constitute bad conduct in the civil realm.  As such any interpretation of Romans 13 that rejects the abiding validity of the O.T. civil code would allow for rulers to either arbitrarily pick and choose which sins to punish with the sword, or to strive to punish all sins with the sword.
     [7] Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 366, 367.
     [8] Ibid., 366. We address Matthew 22:21 in Appendix B.  

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