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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.