By This Standard Weighed in the Balances and Found Wanting

by the Rev. Peter J. Wallace

Greg Bahnsen's By This Standard (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985) sets forth perhaps the clearest argument for theonomy. While this brief review does not claim to be an exhaustive answer, it at least sets forth some directions for Reformed ethics that attempts to maintain the historic Reformed position in between the Scylla of theonomy and the Charybdis of antinomianism.

I. Bahnsen's Basic Premise

Bahnsen states that "our attitude must be that all Old Testament laws are presently our obligation unless further revelation from the Lawgiver shows that some change has been made." (3) While Bahnsen attempts to qualify this statement to avoid such difficulties as levirate marriage and monarchy, this statement assumes something that Scripture does not: namely, that the Old Testament law was intended for all nations. Two passages form the foundation for Bahnsen's view, Deuteronomy 4 and Matthew 5.

A. Deuteronomy 4: Covenant, Law and Land

Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which 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 ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day? (Deut. 4:4-8)

Bahnsen is correct in suggesting that the nations should be envious of Israel's law, but this passage will not bear the weight of saying that the nations are able to emulate Israel's law. The law itself presents the law of Moses as something unique to the chosen people. The righteousness of the statutes is not the thing that makes Israel great. It is the nearness of God that makes Israel great-and only through His nearness does righteousness come to Israel. Therefore the nations are called to convert to Israel-not imitate Israel. Because only through conversion can they obtain the nearness of God. The whole law is given at Sinai as a part of the covenant of Yahweh with Israel and cannot be transferred to any unholy nation. 

Neither does Deuteronomy 4:5-8 accomplish this, because in his citation of this passage (237). Bahnsen conveniently ignores v.7:

4:7 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?

Bahnsen never discusses this. No other nation can claim to have Yahweh as their covenant God. The Law of God contains as constituent elements the promises of Land and Seed, and the blessings and cursings for obedience and rebellion. The idea that a portion of this law can simply be torn out of its divinely ordained context and made the pattern for all nations is ludicrous. 

But if Deuteronomy 4 does not establish the statutes and ordinances of Moses as the pattern for all nations, what does it do? I would suggest that rather than see Deuteronomy 4 as a call to imitation, we should see Deuteronomy 4 as a call to participation. The law is not to encourage emulation by the nations, but rather conversion to Israel. Since no other nation has a God that is so near, and since no other nation has statutes and ordinances so righteous, the nations must repent of following other gods and other laws and come and join Israel. Here we see that the true interpretation of Deuteronomy 4 for today must be found in Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ is the place where true righteousness is found. Only in the Church can someone say that we have a God who is near to us. No nation can claim such standing before God. 

Bahnsen also cites Isaiah 2:2-3 which says that all nations will flow into Zion and that the law will direct all nations (238). But Bahnsen misses the conversionist theme once again. Isaiah is not suggesting that each separate nation will establish Mosaic-style laws. Isaiah portrays the latter days as the days in which the temple of God will reign supreme over all nations and God himself will rule over all people. The nations will be converted to the rule of God himself in the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. This was anticipated by Leviticus 24:22 which insisted that there be one standard for the Israelite and the stranger. This did not suggest (as Bahnsen thinks) that the nations were supposed to adopt Israel's law. Rather it called the nations to convert and join Israel (which was the whole point of Israel's blessing in Abraham and their establishment as a kingdom of priests-Exodus 19:6). Nowhere in Scripture is any other nation commanded to institute the standing law of Israel-and nowhere in Scripture is any nation condemned for failing to do so. 

Bahnsen claims that Ezra 7:25-27 praises King Artaxerxes for "enforcing the sanctions of God's law," but a careful examination of the text shows that Artaxerxes stated "Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment" (Ezra 7:26). But can Bahnsen think that Artaxerxes' proclamation is a good thing? Confiscation of property, banishment, and imprisonment cannot be found as punishments in the law of Moses, and the decree also requires obedience to the law of Artaxerxes-which probably did not measure up to God's standard. But Bahnsen is correct in asserting that Ezra (and the Holy Spirit) considers this a good thing and worthy of praise. 

The implication is that no modern nation can properly establish the statutes of Moses. Only the Church can do this. Nations that desire to establish righteousness must learn from this law, but this law has fulfilled its purpose in Christ. It now provides training in righteousness for the people of God. Plainly it has much to teach our legislators and judges, but it is not a pattern for them. Rather it provides principles of justice and equity which must guide all those who wish to live for the glory of God.

The relationship between the law and Christian ethics is analogous to the relationship between circumcision and Christian baptism. The underlying principles do not change (what the Confession calls "equity"), but the outward administration may change radically. 

Bahnsen also claims that the OT never distinguishes between universal moral principles binding on all nations, and localized statutes intended only for Israel. In making this claim he ignores a massive amount of OT material. 

Deuteronomy 4 itself goes on to state explicitly that this covenant is designed for their habitation in the Promised Land:

And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. And the LORD commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, that you might do them in the land which you are going over to possess. (Deut. 4:13-14)

The statutes and ordinances of Israel were designed for their life in the Promised Land. They were designed for that nation which Yahweh himself chose to rule over as God and King. Bahnsen claims that localized imperatives (such as the holy war commandments), cultural and administrative details (such as agrarian images, the form of civil government, or the method of tax collection), typological foreshadowing of Christ (such as sacrifices) and special Jewish kingdom privileges (such as family plots and levirate marriage) are not binding, but that the "standing law" of Israel is (5-6). But any attempt to separate the "standing law" from other elements is foreign to the law itself. It is not at all clear that the statute regarding kings in Deuteronomy 17 is an "administrative detail." And if levirate marriage (Dt 25) is a special kingdom privilege in order to maintain the family name, then the prohibition of moving a landmark (Dt 19:14) is equally such. Indeed, one could go verse by verse through the whole of the law showing that nearly every statute was designed with the special kingdom privilege of Israel in view, and that therefore (by Bahnsen's own argument) there is nothing left that is binding. [This, of course, was the argument of the Westminster Divines when they stated that the Old Testament judicial law had "expired together with the state of that people." CF 19.4]

Another example of the distinction between the universal moral law and the particular law of Israel is found in Amos 1-2. Here the prophet he chastises Israel and Judah for specific violations of God's law, but condemns the nations for their "war crimes"-mostly, but not exclusively, against God's people.

1:13 Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of the Ammonites, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have ripped up women with child in Gilead, that they might enlarge their border. 1:14 So I will kindle a fire in the wall of Rabbah, and it shall devour her strongholds, with shouting in the day of battle, with a tempest in the day of the whirlwind; 1:15 and their king shall go into exile, he and his princes together," says the LORD. 2:1 Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because he burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom. 2:2 So I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ker'ioth, and Moab shall die amid uproar, amid shouting and the sound of the trumpet; 2:3 I will cut off the ruler from its midst, and will slay all its princes with him," says the LORD. 2:4 Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the LORD, and have not kept his statutes, but their lies have led them astray, after which their fathers walked. 2:5 So I will send a fire upon Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem." 2:6 Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes -- 2:7 they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned;

Whereas Israel and Judah are condemned for violating the law of God, the nations receive no such rebuke. They are condemned because they have violated God's moral law written on their hearts-and especially because they have mistreated God's covenant people.

Indeed, the very passage to which Bahnsen appeals to demonstrate the NT's adoption of the universal applicability of the standing law (Romans 1) is followed by a clear statement of the fact that the Gentiles have the law written on their hearts (Rom. 2:15), which supports the classic Reformed notion of a universal moral law distinct from the written code given to Israel. Paul does not state that the written code given to Moses is the "model for all nations," as Bahnsen would like him to do. 

Bahnsen properly states that God has one moral standard for all nations. The judgments given against Sodom, Ninevah, and the nations in Amos clearly demonstrate this. But it simply does not follow that civil magistrates must therefore enact and enforce the standing law of Israel. 

Given that Bahnsen has ignored the biblical concept of a universal moral law written on the hearts of all men, he must conclude that if one rejects the specific statutes of Israel, then the alternatives are nothing or tyranny (275). But if God has indeed written his law on the hearts of all men, then we may expect to see fragments of that law in all human law codes. Bahnsen claims that the NT endorses the use of the penal sanctions of the OT, but never cites a passage (281). Certainly the NT quotes them approvingly, but only when discussing how the churchshould behave (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:13). 

B. Matthew 5:17-19: Bahnsen Proves Too Much

Bahnsen exegetes Matthew 5:17-19 to say that the whole law is binding, but then imports a caveat: "until the NT teaches us otherwise" (305-307). But if his exegesis of Matthew 5 is correct, then it is impossible for the NT to remove one single jot or tittle of the law because Jesus says 

5:19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Bahnsen wants to say that Jesus really came to abrogate the ceremonial part of the law, but to uphold the moral/civil part of the law. But if Jesus means that every jot and tittle of the law is re-established and reinforced by his ministry, then he cannot mean that some of the law will be done away with through his ministry. If Bahnsen's exegesis of Matthew 5 is correct, then either 1) the ceremonial laws cannot have been abrogated, or 2) the apostles rejected the teaching of Jesus. 

I think that Bahnsen's exegesis is correct but that his caveat is mistaken. Matthew 5:17-19 does indeed establish the continuing validity of the whole of the Law and the Prophets. In the sense that Jesus intends, the whole law remains binding-including the ceremonies. Jesus has come to fulfill the law, and as such he will fulfill the whole law-including the ceremonies. Indeed, in this sense the ceremonies are still binding. We still need a temple with a bloody sacrifice to remove sin. We still need a pure and holy High Priest to intercede for us. But we have this in Jesus Christ. Therefore Jesus does not abrogate the ceremonial laws, he fulfills them.

This is how we ought to think of the whole law. Jesus does not abrogate the "standing law" of Israel (to use Bahnsen's term), he fulfills it. The theocratic kingdom established in the OT was intended as a type of Christ's kingdom-which has now been established and exists in semi-eschatological form in the Church today. Therefore the principles of justice found in the OT kingdom are the principles of justice which must guide the Church. The Law and the Prophets, therefore, function as a sort of canon law for the Church. As we will see, this is how Jesus and the apostles use the Scriptures.

Bahnsen fears that "if the passing away of the national covenant means the invalidation of those moral standards revealed within it, then we would lose even the ten commandments!" (325). Again, in one sense, he is correct. The Ten Commandments do have a special place in the national covenant with Israel. They function as the center of the Mosaic covenant in its distinctive character. The prologue, after all, states: "I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex. 20:2), thereby creating the foundation for the covenant. And in their status as the center of a national covenant with Israel, the Ten Commandments are not binding upon the Church. We are not to view ourselves merely as those who have been brought out of Egypt, we are to see our foundation as that greater deliverance from sin and death accomplished by Jesus Christ. Therefore the Ten Commandments do not function in the Christian life the same as they did in Moses' day. 

To reinforce this point, there are at least two places where we cannot follow the letter of the Ten Commandments:

1) The fourth commandment requires us to rest on the seventh day. We are not bound to the seventh-day Sabbath, as Paul says in Colossians 2:16, but we rest and worship on the first day of the week. Therefore we cannot read the fourth commandment in a strictly literal fashion. Rather, according to Paul, the sabbath commandment was a shadow pointing to Christ.

2) The sixth commandment offers the promise of living "long in the land the LORD your God is giving you" (Ex. 20:12). Paul understands this promise to have a different fulfillment in the NT than in the OT. No longer is the promise to be understood in terms of living long in the land of Canaan, but in Christ it is to be understood as enjoying "long life on the earth" (Eph. 6:3). 

Therefore we see that even the Ten Commandments have an altered function in the New Covenant. The coming of Christ has changed the principle of interpretation. Now that the glory of the Lord has dwelt bodily in Jesus Christ, the typological kingdom must give way to the eschatological kingdom. The typological son of God (Israel) must be seen in the light of the eschatological Son of God (Jesus). Or to put it another way, in Jesus Christ, Israel has entered his inheritance (Galatians 3-4), or, to use a theme from Hebrews, man has entered God's rest (Heb 3-4).

II. The Apostolic View of the Mosaic Civil/Standing Law

The second flaw in Bahnsen's thesis is found when he states: "The New Testament does not teach any radical change in God's law regarding the standards of socio-political morality. God's law as it touches upon the duty of civil magistrates has not been altered in any systematic or fundamental way in the NT." Therefore the civil magistrate must "obey and enforce the relevant laws of the OT, including the penal sanctions specified by the just Judge of all the earth. As with the rest of God's law, we must presume continuity of binding authority regarding the socio-political commandments revealed as standing law in the OT."--3-4

This position cannot be found anywhere in the NT. Bahnsen tries to use Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 to buttress his position, but cannot find a single instance of a NT usage of OT law in a socio-political fashion. If Bahnsen truly wishes to follow the lead of the New Testament, then he should examine the New Testament usage of the Old Testament civil law-particularly those passages Bahnsen would consider "standing law." If the apostolic exegesis of these laws follows the socio-political model that Bahnsen holds, then his case would be established, but since they do not, his argument lacks a foundation. His argument is based entirely upon inferences built upon silence. Since he has no instance of apostolic exegesis of standing law that supports his case, he must assume from their more general statements about the goodness of the law that they believed that the socio-political use of the law remained unchanged. 

Contrary to Bahnsen's claim (315), the theonomic argument regarding the perpetual socio-political use of the law is quite unlike those for the Trinity and infant baptism which depend upon inferences from plain statements by Christ and his apostles. The doctrine of the Trinity is an inference from the plain statements that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. The doctrine of infant baptism is an inference from the plain statement of Peter that the promise of repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit is for you and your children, together with the apostolic teaching regarding various Old Testament baptisms (the Flood-1 Peter 3, the Red Sea-1 Cor 10, and the priestly washings-Heb 10), circumcision, and the household. Rather the argument is more like those for paedocommunion and exclusive psalmody, which depend upon inferences from NT silence for their plausibility. Christ and his apostles say nothing whatsoever about who in particular may come to the Lord's Table or what in particular should be sung in worship. There are no plain statements from which to start. But theonomy's case is made even more difficult by the fact that there are plain statements in the NT that tell us how to think about the standing law of the OT, and they do not support theonomy. 

A brief survey of standing laws that are cited in the New Testament provides an interesting study in apostolic hermeneutics. Bahnsen provides a number of examples, which we will follow for the sake of dealing fairly with his argument (though the last two are not dealt with in this book). 

New Testament passage Old Testament Law

Jesus responds to the tempter by reminding him of how Israel tempted God, and how God provided the specific statute warning against tempting Him. But now, Jesus is the true Israel in the wilderness. He is the one who will succeed where Israel failed. He is the fulfillment of Israel, the true Son of God

Jesus repudiates the traditions of the elders in favor of the law of God, citing the 5thcommandment and the statute requiring the death penalty for the one who curses father or mother, before proceeding to call down the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13 upon them for their hypocrisy. In the very next pericope Jesus proclaims the great faith of the Gentile woman (15:21-28), showing the contrast between the unbelieving Jews and the faithful Gentile. In this context, it is not at all clear that Jesus is upholding the abiding validity of Ex. 21:17 for all nations. What is clear is that Israel-the son of God who was to be a kingdom of priests-has miserably failed and has in effect cursed God their Father as well as their own fathers and mothers. They deserve death.
  In all three NT passages the law of Deuteronomy is upheld in ecclesiastical contexts. A broader context is not denied, but the focus of the NT understanding of this legal proceeding is the church and her courts.
  Jesus suggests that the Mosaic divorce law was more lenient than God's moral law. Divorce was not a part of the creation order (obviously, since divorce is always a result of sin). Jesus does not return to the creation standard, but does seem to tighten the fairly loose Mosaic standard. The disciples react, exclaiming that if this is "the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (v10), to which Jesus replies that in the kingdom of heaven this may be true at times. Here we see the transformation of the eunuch from outcast to servant of God (confirmed in 1 Cor. 7). 
  Here Jesus' statement "do not defraud" is mixed in with a citation of several of the ten commandments, indicating that the moral laws of the OT do indeed have an abiding validity. Jesus is expanding the 8th commandment in a similar way to Moses (although it is not a direct quote).
  Homosexuality is condemned as worthy of death, but so are backbiting, envy, strife, evil-mindedness, deceit, covetousness and boasting. It is not at all plain that Paul is thinking of the case laws of the OT, because he is describing people who may or may not have ever encountered the written law. Rather, Paul goes further than the Mosaic judicial law and declares that ALL sin is worthy of death (a point he will hammer home in 6:23). This is revealed to the consciences of all men (2:14-15). Paul's point here is not that the civil penalties of the Mosaic law should be enforced, but rather is to show that all men are without excuse because they know God's judgment that all sin deserves death.
  Paul states that Christians are not to seek vengeance, building upon the civil statute warning Israel against seeking vengeance, but are to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44). 

The statute law is applied to the church and the church courts. Indeed, Paul warns against taking a fellow-believer to the civil courts (6:1-11), since believers will judge angels. 

Here the civil statute regarding the provision for the priests is applied to the provision for ministers. Once again the law is reinterpreted in the context of the church. The socio-political use is nowhere in view. After all, the tithe for the Levite and for the poor (Dt. 14:29) was a civil tax levied every third year. (Bahnsen grants that the method of tax collection may vary-although he does not demonstrate where the New Testament provides for the change of this law).
  The unequal yoking of ox and ass is applied to the relationship between believers and unbelievers, once again reinterpreting the law to give it an ecclesiastical context. Verse 16 goes on to say that the church is the temple of the living God, citing Exodus 29:45 and Leviticus 26:12 (where God promises to dwell in the midst of Israel in the tabernacle), thereby identifying the church as the new Israel in which the law finds its true fulfillment.
  James cites violations of the economic law (withholding wages) and calls upon the victims to "establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (v8). James does not suggest that the solution is to be found in the establishment of a socio-political order based upon the Mosaic law, but sees the solution in the coming of the Lord. God will certainly judge according the principles of his law, but in the final day of wrath God will not judge according to the penal code of Moses!
  Paul quotes the OT civil death penalty (putting away the evil person) as referring to NT excommunication. This does not suggest that Paul rejected the civil death penalty. Rather, it shows that Paul's attitude toward the OT civil law was thoroughly ecclesiastical. His statements about the civil application of the death penalty in Romans 13 is vague precisely because he did not see the socio-political use of the law in the same way that Bahnsen does. The details of the OT law speak to the church-not the state, which must follow the general equity of the (expired) civil law of Israel. 
  Paul takes the law allowing oxen to feed while treading grain and applies it to paying ministers; taking a civil law from the OT and showing its moral principle in the Church. 

Hence we see an overwhelming preponderance of evidence suggesting that Jesus and the apostles viewed the standing laws of Israel as having their primary focus upon the NT church. Since the church is indeed the true Israel, this should not surprise us. No nation can claim the same relationship with God that Deuteronomy 4 declared of Israel-but the church has an even closer relationship. As we have seen, Bahnsen tries to dismiss this view, warning that nothing will remain of God's law (325), but it at least has the positive warrant of the Word of God, and does not merely argue from silence. And, as we will see, it does not result in antinomianism.

III. Ceremonial and Moral Law: A Biblical Distinction?

Bahnsen's whole argument hinges upon his particular division of the law into two categories: moral and ceremonial. He cites such passages as Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" to show that Scripture does in fact distinguish between moral and ceremonial imperatives; and relies heavily upon Paul's statement "the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14, 17), which he takes to consist of the ceremonial law only (316). The context will not bear this weight. In Ephesians, Paul is speaking to the Gentiles, calling them to:

2:12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. 2:14 For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, 2:15 by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances [or better, "consisting in ordinances"], that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 2:16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

Paul's language here refers to the entire separation between Jew and Gentile-indeed recalling the language of Deuteronomy 4 which had pronounced the alienation between Israel and the nations. The words for commandments and ordinances ( twn e)ntolwn e)n do/gmasin) do not suggest the limited scope that Bahnsen wishes to keep. "Commandments" when used in the plural ordinarily refers to "the totality of legal ordinances" (BAG) and is the term used in Matthew 5:19 to refer to the whole law. It is rarely, if ever, used in the LXX for ceremonial laws, but is the ordinary term for "commandment," which generally either refers to the Ten Commandments or to various judicial/civil/moral commands. "Ordinances" (used both in Eph. 2:15 and Col. 2:14) refers generally to statutes. This word is rarely used in the LXX or NT and in virtually every case refers to the king's decrees (and except for these two passages it always refers to a pagan king's decrees). If ceremonies were Paul's sole focus, he did not choose his words very well. In both of these passages Paul appears to be considering the law as a total system that divided Jews from Gentiles because it was intended for the minority of the people of God (cf. Galatians 3-4). 

Bahnsen says the "ceremonial" laws are restorative and redemptive, and that therefore the punitive statutes cannot be considered ceremonial (234). But Paul did not speak in this manner when he said that Christ became a curse for us. Indeed, Paul takes two punitive statutes from Deuteronomy and argues that they point forward to Christ and how the blessings of Abraham will come to the Gentiles. As he says in Galatians 3:

3:10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them." 3:11 Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for "He who through faith is righteous shall live"; 3:12 but the law does not rest on faith, for "He who does them shall live by them." 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" -- 3:14 that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Hence, these two punitive statutes are actually restorative! Like the various cleanliness laws that lead to the restoration of the leper or the menstruating woman, these curses were intended to lead to the restoration of Israel in its evangelical calling to bring the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles. 

Paul uses these two passages in Galatians 3 to demonstrate that Jesus Christ has taken the curse of the law upon himself. How does this work? A priest takes the sins of the people upon himself (see Exodus 28:30) and bears their guilt. Israel had been called as a holy nation and kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6). They were to bear the sin of the nations, but obviously failed. Through their failure they called down the curse of God upon themselves, thereby condemning the Gentiles as well because of their failed priesthood. Only if the true Israel redeemed Israel from the curse of the law, which he did by hanging upon a tree (Galatians 3:13), could the blessing of Abraham come upon the Gentiles. 

Therefore the curse of the law (Dt. 27:26) and the curse of the hanged man (Dt. 21:23) must be seen in light of their larger contexts which have to do with the uniqueness of Israel and the special character of the Promised Land. 

21:18 "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, 21:19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 21:20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' 21:21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. 21:22 "And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 21:23 his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.

Here the implication is that the man would be stoned and then hung upon a tree as a warning to all others. But the law concerning the burial of the accursed man is required the same day, otherwise the land will be defiled. The entire sequence of punishment and burial is bound up with the holiness of the community in the Promised Land (requiring both the death and the burial of the man). This holiness was to be preserved so that the nations would look at Israel and see how marvelous it was to have God so near, and be converted. Therefore this standing law of Israel is part and parcel of what Bahnsen considers the ceremonial law which preserves the purity and holiness of the covenant people.

But Deuteronomy 27 pulls the whole law together and does precisely the same thing. At the covenant renewal at Gerizim and Ebal, the curse is declared:

27:14 And the Levites shall declare to all the men of Israel with a loud voice: 27:15 "Cursed be the man who makes a graven or molten image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.' And all the people shall answer and say, Amen.' 27:16 "Cursed be he who dishonors his father or his mother.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:17 "Cursed be he who removes his neighbor's landmark.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:18 "Cursed be he who misleads a blind man on the road.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:19 "Cursed be he who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:20 "Cursed be he who lies with his father's wife, because he has uncovered her who is his father's.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:21 "Cursed be he who lies with any kind of beast.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:22 "Cursed be he who lies with his sister, whether the daughter of his father or the daughter of his mother.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:23 "Cursed be he who lies with his mother-in-law.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:24 "Cursed be he who slays his neighbor in secret.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:25 "Cursed be he who takes a bribe to slay an innocent person.' And all the people shall say, Amen.' 27:26 "Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.' And all the people shall say, Amen.'

This curse of the law is expounded in Deuteronomy 28 where rebellion against God's law receives "all these curses" (and then lists them from verses 16-68). It is this curse which Paul identifies as the curse of the law in Galatians 3. Therefore the whole law (as summed up in this curse) bears a redemptive function and was given as a means to establish the holiness of the redemptive community (which Bahnsen grants is a function of the ceremonial law). Hence Bahnsen's own argument should result in the expiration of the standing law of Israel, since it was designed for a restorative and redemptive purpose. The whole law of Moses must be seen in the light of Deuteronomy 27-30, which functions as its summary and statement of purpose. It is impossible to isolate a code of moral or civil precepts that function independently of the ceremonial and redemptive purpose of the Mosaic covenant. The equity of the law (the basic principles of justice) remain, but the standing laws are NOT a model for nations today. 

The example above of the disobedient son being stoned to death provides an excellent case study. We may take from it the principle that rebellion against lawful authority is to be punished, and (since the NT consistently applies judicial laws to the church) parents may appeal to the elders for assistance with disobedient children. Further, this indicates that children of the covenant are indeed subject to the discipline of the church and may be excommunicated for their sins. 

IV. Galatians 3-4: The Christian Approach to the Law

We have earlier established the fact that Paul is considering the whole of the law in Galatians 3. He uses the statute law regarding the curse of hanging on a tree (Dt. 21:23) to demonstrate that Jesus has become a curse for us, and cites Dt. 27:26 to show that anyone who is under the law, but fails to keep the whole law is under a curse. The whole point of Paul's argument here is to establish the means by which Christ may redeem Israel from the curse of the law, thereby bringing the promise of Abraham to the Gentiles (Galatians 3:10-14). By citing the standing laws of Israel as establishing the curse of the law and how it is removed, Paul makes it clear that he is not simply thinking of the ceremonial law. He is discussing the whole law.

Paul then goes on in verse 15-18 to establish the doctrine that the inheritance of the land was established by promise and was not dependent upon the law. More precisely, Paul insists that the promise was given to Abraham and his Seed, singular, meaning Christ. Israel, therefore, must be seen as a type of Christ. The law was given 430 years later, and even though the curse of the law included the provision that Israel was to be driven from the land through disobedience, Paul rightly insists that this does not change the promise. 

"What purpose then does the law serve?" (v19). This question logically follows. If the law does not establish the means by which the inheritance is obtained, why was it given? Paul replies that "the law was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made" (v19). Or as he says in verse 23, "But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, confined for the faith which would afterward be revealed." The law, therefore, served as the paidogogos which kept the child, Israel, in bondage until faith came. It was the servant of the promise, maintaining discipline in the household of God until the son reached maturity. Now that faith has come, the sons of God have reached maturity. Now both Jew and Gentile are sons of God in Christ Jesus. "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ...And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (v26, 28). 

Paul then explains the picture upon which this whole doctrine rests: "Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (4:1-5)

The law held Israel under its authority as the steward of the sons of God. Israel, God's firstborn son (Ex. 4:22) had been proclaimed a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6), but so long as Israel remained in his minority, this was no different from slavery. Israel was the heir of all things, but could not enter that inheritance until the time appointed by God (as Paul says in Romans 4:11, the promise to Abraham was that he would be heir of the whole world). Only when Israel came to maturity, as he did in Jesus Christ, could he enter into his inheritance. And now that Israel has entered its inheritance as sons of God, the Gentiles are also included because the blessing of Abraham has come to them as well (Gal. 3:14, 28). 

Therefore the Christian attitude toward the law must be fundamentally different from the Mosaic attitude. In the OT, the believer lived under the law. In Christ, we do not live under the law. We are no longer children living under the stewards and paedogogues of our heavenly Father. We have matured in Christ and now have entered our inheritance that the law protected for us. Now we are not debtors to the law. We are not obligated to it. We are debtors to Christ, and therefore are called to "fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). 

How does the law of Christ differ from the law of Moses? Here we must once again recall the numerous ways in which Jesus and his apostles applied the law of Moses through their own ministries. They view the Law and the Prophets as entirely valid and instructive for the believer, but do not view it as binding in every detail. The law of Christ does not dismiss the law of Moses, but neither does it submit slavishly to the law of Moses. Christ and his apostles use wisdom and discretion when utilizing Moses. They do not act as children who must obey the servants placed over them by their Father; rather, they act as mature sons who operate by their Father's instructions. Do you see the difference? Paul plainly states that the law of Moses was given to rule the period of Israel's minority. It was binding upon that era, and that era only. In Christ, the sons of God have entered their inheritance eschatologically. The law is therefore no longer binding in its totality. It cannot be ignored. No wise son will ignore the rules laid down by his parents. Its principles are still the principles that guide our activity, but we no longer live by that standard. As Samuel Rutherford put it:

But surely Erastus errs, who will have all such to be killed by the magistrate under the New Testament, because they were killed in the Old. Then are we to stone the men that gather sticks on the Lord's day; the child that is stubborn to his parents, the virgins, daughters of ministers that commit fornication are to be put to death. Why, but then the whole judicial law of God shall oblige us Christians as Carlstadt and others teach? I humbly conceive that the putting of some to death in the Old Testament, as it was a punishment to them, so was it a mysterious teaching of us, how God hated such and such sins, and mysteries of that kind are gone with other shadows. "But we read not" (says Erastus) "where Christ has changed those laws in the New Testament." It is true, Christ has not said in particular, I abolish the debarring of the leper seven days, and he that is thus and thus unclean shall be separated till the evening; nor has he said particularly of every ordinance and judicial law, it is abolished. But we conceive, the whole bulk of the judicial law, as judicial, and as it concerned the republic of the Jews only, is abolished, though the moral equity of all those are not abolished; also some punishments were merely symbolical to teach the detestation of such a vice, as the boring with an awl the ear of him that loved his master, and desired to serve him, and the making him his perpetual servant. I should think the punishing with death the man that gathered sticks on the Sabbath was such; and in all these the punishing of a sin against the moral law by the magistrate, is moral and perpetual; but the punishing of every sin against the moral law, tali modo, so and so, with death, with spitting on the face: I much doubt if these punishments in particular, and in their positive determination to the people of the Jews, be moral and perpetual. As he that would marry a captive woman of another religion, is to cause her first pare her nails, and wash herself, and give her a month or less time to lament the death of her parents, which was a judicial, not a ceremonial law; that this should be perpetual, because Christ in particular has not abolished it, to me seems most unjust; for as Paul says, "He that is circumcised becomes debtor to the whole law," surely to all the ceremonies of Moses' law; so I argue, a pari, from the like, he that will keep one judicial law, because judicial and given by Moses, becomes debtor to keep the whole judicial law, under pain of God's eternal wrath." [Divine Right of Church Government Vindicated (London: 1646), p. 493-494]

Rutherford understood that Paul's discussion of the law in Galatians 3-4 is much broader than circumcision alone. The law was given for a purpose, and now that this purpose has been fulfilled it no longer binds. The whole of Israel's judicial law has expired together with the state of that people, and is no longer binding on any other nation, except insofar as the general equity thereof shall require. 

Conclusion: What Do We Do with the Law?

Bahnsen seems to believe that if you do not follow the standing law of Israel, then you are not following the law of God. The most glaring weakness to this argument is Bahnsen's complete dismissal of any possibility that the law of God could be written upon the heart of man. No doubt Bahnsen would reply that God's immutable standards of justice are such that the law written on the heart must comply entirely with the law written in Scripture. This argument appears to be entirely sound until one realizes that God himself has in fact changed his written law. At one time God commanded polygamy (through levirate marriage). In Christ he has forbidden it. At one time God forbade the permanent alienation of property. Today it is permitted. At one time God commanded circumcision as an everlasting covenant. In Christ he has declared it spiritually meaningless. If God's standards are unchanging, then why has he frequently changed his standards? 

The solution is found in Galatians 3-4. The law was given to the son of God in his childhood. It was not intended to rule over him in his manhood. It had a limited purpose which has been accomplished. Naturally, since it was given by God it contains the principles of justice and equity that ought to inform the children of God in our majority. The wise son learns the lessons his father taught him in his youth and emulates him even after he has entered his inheritance. But the law was not intended as the model for all times and places. Rather it was designed as to teach and discipline Israel, the son of God, until the fullness of time. This is why Jesus says that the law is not abrogated, but fulfilled. He is the Son of God who brings fulfillment to every jot and tittle of the law.

The result is that we cannot slavishly imitate the OT civil law. I use the word "slavish" deliberately. We are not slaves, but sons. We must use the law like Jesus and the apostles did, wisely applying the whole of the law and the prophets to the church, and, where appropriate, to the state as well. But the confessional model of equity works much more effectively than Bahnsen's model of theonomy (see my essay, "What Is Equity"). As sons of God we must learn the principles of justice and equity found in the law and apply them with wisdom and discernment. We must use the discretion of mature sons in this task (not the slavish obedience of a child), carefully considering how Christ's unchanging principles of justice should be applied in each situation. Only in this way will we truly live by God's standard.

copyright, 2001