Chapter 7: The Righteousness of God

Kenneth L Gentry

Narrated By: Aidan McGuire
Book: He Shall Have Dominion
Topics: ,


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Chapter Text

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden underfoot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5:13-14)

In the familiar words of our Lord cited above, we learn that Christianity is to act as “salt” and “light” in the world. Covenantal obligations involve both the individual and the community, as I noted in the last chapter. Consequently, the Christian faith ought to have a distinctive, redemption-based, covenantally framed, revelation-controlled system of ethics for both personal and social morality. Because we are commanded to be perfect and holy on the basis of the divine Exemplar (Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:15), our personal walk and our social theory must reflect the very righteousness of God. But because of dependence on the fallen mind and heart (Eph. 4:17ff; Rom. 1:18ff), a nonbiblical ethic cannot be expected to produce either a righteous personal ethic or righteous social theory. Christianity alone can do this.

Unfortunately, the Christian ethic of our era is confused and disoriented. For instance, a prominent liberal denominational leader has commented: “Biblical ethics and Christian ethics for the church today are not the same thing.” Consequently, his church committee was proposing “new moral standards for sexual behavior” for his denomination.[1] There also are evangelicals who reveal confusion about ethics when they suggest that the Christian “is not under the law as a rule of life,” but under “wisdom.” They state that “law can govern any area of life, such as civil, family, personal, and religious institutions. On the other hand, wisdom is advice with no legal penalties.”[2] This leads to an ambiguous and optional ethic: “This is not to say that you cannot obey the laws given to Moses, but you are not obligated to them in order to be faithful to God.”[3]

This problem in Christian ethics is due to a variety of factors. One factor, which is perhaps a summation of these, is rooted in the whole idea of the biblical worldview and its implications for the Christian approach to culture. Broadly speaking, there have been three approaches to culture in Christian history. These approaches may be identified as the Identificationist Model, the Separationist Model, and the Transformationist Model.[4]

Three Models for the Christian Worldview

The Identificationist Model essentially represents the position of the left wing of Christianity. It sees the Church’s role as flowing alongside of and sanctifying the evolutionary changes in culture, and adapting to them. It is wholly this-world in orientation. It adopts the contemporary worldview. Consequently, an unchanging ethic based on Scripture is deemed anathema. The ethic of the Old Testament and the ethic of the New Testament are seen to be but stages in evolving culture, phases in the religious self-awareness of man. Liberation theology and main line denominations are contemporary representatives of this view. This approach is sometimes called situation ethics.

The Separationist Model is representative of the right wing of Christianity. It sees the Church’s calling as keeping itself wholly separated from contemporary culture. The focus of this view is on heavenly citizenship, seeing the Church as but a pilgrim community passing through this world to a greater world above. It is essentially retreatist, recognizing the power of sin at work in the world and seeking to avoid staining itself with such tendencies. It concentrates on what it calls a New Testament ethic. Fundamentalism is a notable contemporary representative of this view.

When contrasted to the two views above, the Transformationist Model may be seen to be represented in the truly centrist wing of historic, orthodox Christianity. It sees the Church’s calling as that of leading human culture to the unfolding of God’s creation according to the directives of the Word of God. Such is done with a view to the ethical and spiritual transformation of every area of life. The Transformationist Model sees the significance of this world in light of the world above and seeks to promote God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. It promotes godly culture in the stead of an ungodly culture. It concentrates on a whole Bible ethic, including God’s Law, as opposed to a truncated, separationist, “New Testament only” ethic. Confessional Presbyterianism has been representative of this view. Machen was typical (note 4, above).

Realizing these varying approaches, let us turn to a biblico-theological consideration of the question of the continuing validity of the Law of God in the New Covenant era. Has God changed His covenantal demands in the New Covenant era so as to abolish the Law as the normative standard of Christian ethics? Approaching the question of ethical righteousness from a covenantal perspective, we can discern a transformationist ethic know as Theonomic Ethics.[5] Such an ethic works hand-

in-glove with a Bible-based postmillennial eschatology.

The Ultimate Source of Ethics

As I emphasized in the last chapter, the Lord God is a covenant God, and the covenant idea necessarily involves social structure. The Law-word of God, therefore, mandates what a moral person and a moral society should be like. Man has both a personal and a corporate responsibility before God, according to the covenantal structure of God’s Law-word. This ultimately is traceable to the very being of God, for He is a tri-unity (hence the Trinity). As the One-in-Three, God is equally interested in individuals (the many: diversity) and in social life (the one: unity).[6]

Our primary concern in this chapter is to concentrate on the matter of formal obligation in ethics: to consider the normative perspective of ethics in our inquiry into the substance of godly morality. What is the ultimate source of moral authority? From whence may we derive a just and defensible moral authority which is at the same time relevant and practical? Is the Christian ethic (what ought to be) practical in light of the Christian eschatology (what will be)?

The Ultimate Standard of Righteousness

The Christian ethic is a theistic ethic that traces the ultimate source of ethical authority to the transcendent yet also immanent, self-contained ontological Trinity.[7] He alone supplies man with valid law. Consequently, only Christianity can provide universal statements of moral obligation, on the basis of the being of this God. This truth is fundamental to a transformationist ethic and a Reconstructionist postmillennial eschatology.

If there is any moral attribute of God that might be considered a controlling attribute, that attribute is holiness. Considering the extreme ends of the spectrum, God’s love and His wrath are both controlled by His holiness. Indeed, there are systematic theologians who deem holiness not to be a moral attribute at all, but rather the consummate perfection of all His moral attributes. The Scripture teaches that our God is a thrice-holy God (Isa. 6:3) who cannot look favorably upon iniquity (Hab. 1:13). Because God is such a holy God, ethics is of fundamentally importance for us as Christians. Not only is it the case that we ourselves must “prove what the will of the Lord is” (Rom. 12:2) in order to please Him, but also that we might be a testimony to the nations, a light for all the world (Matt. 5:14). Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 summarizes man’s ethical obligation well when it states: “The conclusion, when all is heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. Because God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” Furthermore, “the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it. For He has founded it” (Psa. 24:1, 2a). Consequently men owe it to God to seek His good pleasure. Next to justification by the grace of God, that which is most needful to man is sanctification by the Holy Spirit of God, “for without holiness, no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). And sanctification necessarily involves the question of ethics.

In addition, Reformed Christians are not interested in “ethics in general.” We believe in a supernatural God to Whom we must answer on Judgment Day. Autonomous, neutral ethics is a myth; it must be renounced, as we will see momentarily. But neither are we concerned ultimately with a merely theistic ethic. We believe in the one true God Who has created all things and has graciously revealed Himself in Scripture and in Christ. The God we believe in is the Triune God of Scripture. Theistic forms of non-Christian ethics are as useless and dangerous as atheistic ethics. Our ethical concern, therefore, is with Christian theistic ethics.

As Christians, we necessarily have a distinctive metaphysics. We understand all of reality on the basis of the Creator God of Scripture “Who works all things after the counsel of His own will” (Eph. 1:11). Given our distinctive metaphysics, it must follow that we also have a distinctive meta-ethics. Our ethic is rooted in our theology. It is impossible to have a “neutral” meta-ethic, contrary to what most secularists have claimed. Ethics is either autonomous (based on self-law) or theonomous (based on divine law). Meta-ethics deals with the principles or philosophy behind ethics. It gives the ultimate justifications for ethical theory. Van Til has stated that “the key motif in humanistic ethics is away from the True God.” As Van Til argues, all unbelieving systems posit false dichotomies: unsolvable contradictions.

The absolute, infinite, eternal God of Scripture has a character of infinite moral goodness, perfection, and purity. Summarily stated, God is infinitely holy,[8] good,[9] and righteous.[10] He is such in and of Himself. His own intrinsic being is the standard of “holiness,” “goodness,” and “righteousness.” If He were not the standard, there would be a principle independent of and more ultimate than God; God would cease to be God. Thus, God sovereignly determines right and wrong from within His own moral being. Good is good because God says so autonomously.


The Proximate Standard of Righteousness

A fundamental theological assertion of orthodoxy is this: the unity of God. Consequently, there is no reason flowing from this unified God that either compels us or predisposes us to expect that His one creation has two plans operative in its historical progress. We should reject all ethical systems that propose two systems of law or two decrees of God. I have in mind here the dualistic theory of a universally logical natural law for non-Christians (Gentiles) and Bible-revealed law for Christians.

Man’s sanctification (moral restoration) is definitive, progressive, and final. One God, one covenant law: through time and across borders. The successive covenants of Scripture really record for us a gradual historical unfolding of one overarching covenant, rather than the successive, compartmental establishing of distinctively different capsule covenants. This is clearly expected in the initial covenant directive of God for history that flows out of the Genesis 3:15 curse, which mentions only one basic struggle between two seeds, the Satanic and the Messianic.

This also is clearly asserted in Paul’s argument in Ephesians, chapter 2. In this passage, Paul speaks not of the establishing of a new and distinct community separate from Israel, but of God’s annexing of additional people – the Gentiles – into His one people. He speaks in verse 12 of “the covenants of the promise” (Greek), which defined His singular purpose. In verses 14-16, he speaks of the removal of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, so that the Gentiles might be included in God’s one redemptive purpose. In verses 19-22, he speaks of the merging o f these two peoples into one, indivisible temple.

Thus, the very unity of God’s covenantal dealings with man flows out of the unitary being of God, as well as the explicitly revealed plan of God. These truths should predispose us to assume continuity, as opposed to discontinuity, in the ethical dictates of God.

It may be summarily stated that God’s Law is binding (in that we are obliged to obey it for our sanctification), relevant (in that all our Lord does is governed by all-wisdom and all-knowledge, thus making His Word practical for all times and applicable for all situations), when properly interpreted (taking into account the full significance, purpose, and situation of the original intent of the various laws individually considered) and properly applied (the unfolding of redemptive history must be taken into account and the New Testament precepts and principles must be given their full significance). Thus, the details of the Law are essential to law-keeping (they form an essential part of the Law, as parts to the whole), and are meant to be equitably observed by man on the personal, social, and civil levels of human existence. In short: “One covenant, one law!”

The focal standard of Christian theistic ethics, then, is the Law of God. God’s Law is the transcript of His holiness, as is evident from its own nature:

(1) The Law represents the presence of God. God’s Law is the revelational expression of His holy character and the moral representation of His presence to man. The summary statement of His Law, the Ten Commandments, was written by the very finger of God, as no other portion of Scripture was.[11] Consequently, bearing His own divine imprint, it necessarily shares His moral perfections. This truth is underscored by the fact that the Ark of the Covenant, which was housed in the Holy of Holies in the center of Israel, contained within it the summary of the Law of God, the Ten Commandments written on stone.[12] At the most holy place of Israel, where the Shekinah glory of God was resident, God’s Law was housed as an expression of God’s holy presence among and will for His people.

(2) The Law reflects the character of God. The Law which He has given to His people is a transcript of His holy character, possessing the very moral attributes of God Himself. God is good,[13] holy,[14] perfect,[15] righteous,[16] just,[17] and
spiritual[18] Likewise, His Law is good,[19] holy,[20] perfect,[21] righteous,[22] just,[23] and spiritual.[24]


(3) The Law expresses the legal relation between God and His people. The Law of God is described in Scripture as the Book of
the Covenant (Heb. 9:19). Because of this, the Law of God lies at the heart of the New Covenant, which has been in effect since the crucifixion of Christ.[25] “I will put my law[26]in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts (Jer. 31:33). The biblical ethic, therefore, is constituted as a covenantal theonomy. The normative center of Christian ethics and morality can be nothing less than the whole law of God as revealed in Scripture, including the Mosaic Law. In short: “One covenant, one law!”

The Continuing Validity of God’s Law

It is important to recognize that the Law continues as the moral standard of righteousness into the New Testament and throughout the New Covenant era. In broad evangelicalism today, as in the past, there is a tendency to reduce or deny the role of the Mosaic law in discussions of social righteousness. In fact, there is widespread antipathy to the Mosaic law. Yet a strong and compelling case may be made for the use of the Mosaic law today.

In Matthew 5:13-16, Christ calls His Church to exercise cultural significance.[27] He sovereignly declares that His followers are to be “the salt of the earth.” Salt is both a preservative and a flavor-enhancer. The imagery here is of the Church’s calling to preserve the good of human culture and to enhance life. We are not called to be wholly separate from the world in the sense of avoiding involvement in it. Rather, we are to be a vital and distinctive aspect of it, just as salt is distinctively present in the flavoring of food. Indeed, He says that if we do not do so we are “good for nothing” (v. 13). In short, Christ has denied the moral legitimacy of the Separationist Model.

In verses 14-16, we are called to be “the light of the world.” Light, the first aspect of the original Creation, is a positive and penetrating energy that dispels darkness and brings things into clear focus. The Christian light exhibits the glory of God (v. 16). Light is essential for life itself and for direction. Paul reflects this idea in Ephesians, chapters 4-5. In Ephesians 5:11, he calls us to “expose the works of darkness.”

But these are general exhortations to holy living before God and to the glory of God. The pair of specific normative questions remain: (1) How may we properly be the salt of the earth? (2) How may we properly be the light of the world? Jesus gave answers. Immediately following upon these general directives, the Lord provides the specifics needed, when He directly affirms the Law’s validity in Matthew 5:17-19.

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, ill heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

In the context of this statement, Jesus is speaking of ethical conduct and urging righteousness in order to glorify God (cf. Matt. 5:16, 21ff). In this regard, He specifically says He has not come to “destroy” the “law or the prophets.” The word “destroy” (kataluo, v. 17) means to “do away with, abolish, annul, make invalid.”[28] Instead, He has come to do the very opposite, for He employs the strong adversative “but” (alta, v. 17) to set up a contrast. He has not come to destroy but “to fulfill” (v.

17). Jesus here contrasts “fulfill” with “destroy.”

“Fulfill” cannot in this context mean “to live out” or “complete” the Law, so as to do away with it, for it is contrasted with “destroy.” It provides strong contrast, as in Matthew 10:34, which exactly parallels the Matthew 5:17 structure. There Jesus says, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Just as sending a sword is the opposite of sending peace, so fulfilling is the opposite of “not abolishing!’

The fulfillment in view here, then, must mean either one of two things: (1) It may mean Christ came to “confirm” or “establish” the Law.[29] If this is the meaning (and it certainly fits the context), it parallels Romans 3:31: “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). And surely Christ would not be contradicted by Paul. Or: (2) it may mean “fill up to full measure.”[30] This would indicate restoring it to its true meaning, in opposition to Pharisaic distortions (Matt. 5:20[31]). Both of these interpretations are compatible, as well as contextually justifiable.

“For” (gar, v. 18) introduces an explanation of verse 17. Christ here emphatically declares the continuing validity of the Law, for it will last until “heaven and earth pass away” (v. 18). This indicates a comparison of the stability of the Law to that of the world (cf. Eccl. 1:4).

His reference to the “jot” and “tittle” (v. 18) is important. This statement emphatically declares that the smallest aspects of the Law will not be annulled. “Till all be fulfilled” (v. 18) parallels “heaven and earth pass away” and may literally be translated: “Until all things be accomplished.” His prohibition against any tampering with the “least commandment” (v. 19) repeats the emphasis of the small aspects of the Law in order to show its binding significance.

Following this strong statement of the Law’s validity, Christ rebuts scribal distortions of the Law: their adherence to oral tradition (Matt. 5:21ff). He is not criticizing adherence to the Law. Note: (1) The contrast drawn in Matthew 5:21-47 is between that which is “said of old” or “said by the ancients” (ekousate hoti errethe tois archaiois) and that which Christ says (ego de lego). The contrast is not between what “is written” (gegraptai, which is the normal manner of speaking of God’s Word[32]) and what Christ says. The contrast is between Christ’s words and rabbinic tradition (cf. Matt. 15:1-8). (2) He had just made a strong statement as to the Law’s continuing validity. Exegetical consistency requires that Matthew 5:21ff not be viewed as undermining His teaching on the permanence of the Law of God.

Christ emphatically taught the Law’s continuing relevance. Even the little tithes are important (Matt. 23:23). The Law is the Golden Rule of service to God and man (Matt. 7:12; 22:36-40). He even upheld the Law’s civil function (Matt. 15:3-6).

The New Testament Confirmation of the Law

The broader New Testament confirmation of the Law may be illustrated from a number of angles.

The New Testament expressly confirms the Law. Christ based His teaching on the Law.[33] Even the details of the Mosaic case laws are cited by the Apostles as binding directives.[34] Paul, the Apostle of Faith, declares that faith confirms the Law (Rom. 3:31). He even speaks of the perfection of the Law for the New Testament people (Rom. 7:12, 14).

Christian conduct is based on Law obedience. Law obedience defines the Golden Rule of social conduct (Matt. 7:12) and characterizes the conduct of love.[35] Keeping God’s commandments is deemed important to holy living,[36] in that it promotes spirituality,[37] and evidences holiness, justice, and goodness.[38]

Gospel preaching depends on the relevance of the Law. The Law of God has a multiple usefulness for the Christian today. It defines sin[39] and then convicts men of sin,[40] condemns transgression[41] drives men to Christ,[42] restrains evil,[43] guides sanctification,[44] and serves as the standard for Judgment Day.[45] Consequently, he who is not subject to the Law of God in the New Covenant era is at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7).

The Universality of the Law of God

A frequently heard objection to God’s Bible-revealed Law today is that the Law was expressly designed and intended for use only in Old Covenant Israel. Its relevance therefore was only for the special redemptive nation in pre-Christian times, and for no other. This view is inherently dispensational, even when argued by Reformed theologians.

Dispensationalists argue: “The stipulations of Sinai were not for the nations in general but to a people under grace…. Since the nations around Israel were not called to adopt the Mosaic Covenant, it seems evident that the pagan nations would not be judged by the law of Moses.”[46] Even some reformed theologians suggest that: “Israel as a nation was chosen by God ‘out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession’ (Dt 7:6). No other nation of the ancient or modern world is like Israel in its place in redemptive history…. Before applying a case law from the Old Testament today, therefore, we must consider not only cultural adaptations but also discontinuities that result because of the difference in redemptive status between Israel and any modern society.”[47]

The dispensationalist objection (above) confuses moral commandments and covenantal form. Theonomists have always insisted that the moral commands are distinguishable from the covenantal system in which they are found. For example, in both the New Testament and the Old Testament, we are commanded to love father and mother (d. Deut. 5:16 and Eph. 6:2). This does not mean that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are the same! The Old Covenant form, which included the sacrificial system and such-like, which was established only with Israel, encoded numerous divinely ordained moral requirements, which are the perpetually obligatory commandments of God. Moral requirements must be distinguished from the historical and redemptive trappings in which they are found. Moral commandments (justice-defining) are distinguishable from distinctive ceremonial laws (redemption-expounding).[48]

It should be noted that a prima facie reason may be urged to insist upon a continuity between God’s expectations for Israel’s rulers and for pagan rulers outside of Israel: (1) God created the whole world and has a right to its governance (Gen. 1; Psa. 24:1). Thus, Scripture represents Him as the King of all nations.[49] (2) He is one God, with but one holy will (Deut. 6:4ff; Isa. 46:10ff). (3) He is specifically said to be no respecter of persons in terms of His justice.[50] (4) The Scripture is silent on any other ethical standard being applied to the nations beyond Israel. But, as before, the matter is not one left solely to prima facie considerations.

God’s Law was, in fact, designed to be a model for the nations: “Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people: For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?”[51] The Law was a model for the nations beyond Israel (Deut. 4:5ff). It must be spoken before kings (Psa. 119:46; cf. 2:9ff). It is a “light” to the whole world (Isa. 51:4), despite the fact the entire earth has transgressed it (Isa. 24:5).[52] Were not the Canaanites judged for its breach (Lev. 18:24-27; Deut. 12:29-31[53])? By it are not all the wicked condemned (Psa. 119:118-119; Rom. 3:19)?


God is said to judge the world in righteousness, the fundamental ethical quality of God’s Law (Psa. 9:7-8; 98:9; Amos 1:3-2:3; etc.) Interestingly, the rulers of Babylon were condemned on the same basis as those of Israel by the prophets (e.g., cf. Hab. 2:12 with Mic. 3:10). This indicates a parity of standard employed in the judgment of both nations. As a matter of fact, God’s judgment upon the pagan nations of the Old Testament was rooted in the universality and equity of His Law. Often the prophetic condemnations were applied to whole pagan cultures due to their disobedience to God (Isa. 14:4-20; 19:1, 13, 14, 22; 30:33). Sodom was a city that was destroyed for its “unlawfulness” (2 Pet. 2:6-8). Thus, Sodom serves as a paradigm in Scripture for God’s just judgment upon unlawfulness (Deut. 19:23; Isa. 1:9-10; Jer. 23:14; Lam. 4:6; Ezek. 16:46-56; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9; Matt. 10:15; Jude 7; Rev. 11:8). Nineveh was threatened with God’s judgment for its wickedness in God’s sight (Jon. 3; Luke 11:30, 32). His righteous standards applied to it.

In their better moments – under the influence of God’s Spirit – pagan rulers acknowledged the just rule of God’s Law. Cyrus of Persia commanded all the nations to serve God (Dan. 6:25ff). Nebuchadnezzar told the nations that God rules over all and demands righteousness from kings (Dan. 4:1, 25ff). Artaxerxes commanded Ezra to appoint magistrates “beyond the River” which would enforce God’s Law (Ezra 7:25ff). Ezra then praised him for this (Ezra 7:27).

Most importantly, the moral justification for Israel’s expulsion of the Canaanites from the land rests upon the Canaanites’ breach of God’s Law (Lev. 18:24-27). In this passage, Israel is threatened with the same punishment as the Canaanites if they commit the lawless acts of the Canaanites. Again, we clearly see a parity of standard employed in the judgment of pagan nations, as in the judgment of Israel.[54] This comports well with the universal call to submission to God’s will in Psalm 2.

Thus, we have seen that the spiritual, temporal, and geographical separation of pagan states from Israel did not effect a separation of moral obligation. Because of this, the nations around Israel were often judged for breaching God’s moral standards, but never for breaching the Mosaic covenantal form.[55] The same truth may be seen earlier in Abraham’s day in the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 19:15 (2 Pet. 2:9).

Are the Ten Commandments obliged upon pagans, despite the Decalogue’s beginning with a distinct reference to Israel’s redemption from pagan bondage (Exo. 20:1-3; Deut. 5:6-7)? Dispensationalists answer: no. Are the Ten Commandments, then, expressly for the covenant community? They answer: yes.

People from all nations are under obligation to God’s Law today: Romans 1:32 (this speaks of the complex of sins preceding, not anyone particular sin); 2:12-15; 3:19; 12:19-13:10; 1 Timothy 1:8. This is expected in light of the coming of the Messiah (Isa. 2:3-4). God’s Law in our era is considered to be “just” (Rom. 7:12; Heb. 2:2) and “good” (Rom. 7:12; 1 Tim. 1:8).

The Civil Magistrate and God’s Law

Church and State were separate under the Mosaic Law. There was a distinction between the civil ruler, Moses, and the priestly head, Aaron; between the offices of priest and king (not with Melchizedek: unique); between the temple and palace: 1 Samuel 13:11; 2 Chronicles 19:5-11; 26:16-21. Yet the Law was the standard of civil justice. The same is true in the New Testament era, as an analysis of Romans 12 and 13 shows.

In Romans, Paul speaks to the problem of evil in society: “Repay no one evil [kakon] for evil [kakou]” (Rom. 12:17). He urges them: “Beloved, do not avenge [ekdikountes] yourselves, but rather give place to wrath [orge]” (Rom. 12:19a). Why? “For it is written, ‘Vengeance [ekdikesis] is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Thus, he urges the Christian not to take the law into his own hands: “Be not overcome of evil [kakon]” (Rom. 12:21). He then engages a discussion of the God-ordained role of the civil magistrate as God’s avenger.[56]

In Romans 13, the matter of the civil magistrate is approached prescriptively, rather than descriptively.[57] As such, he has been “ordained of God” (Rom. 13:2) so that “he does not bear the sword in vain. He is, in fact, God’s minister, an avenger [ekdikos] to execute wrath [orgen] on him who practices evil [kakon]” (Rom. 13:4). Clearly, then, the magistrate is to avenge the wrath of God against those who practice evil (Rom. 13:4, 6).

As he continues, Paul makes express reference to the Law of God, citing four of the Ten Commandments (Rom. 13:9a) and a summary case law from Leviticus 19:18 (Rom. 13:9b). Finally, he concludes the thought regarding personal vengeance, which he began in Romans 12:17-19: “Love does no harm [kakon, “evil”] to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10). This involves appropriate social conduct that is incumbent upon all men, especially Christians – conduct that avoids “carousing and drunkenness” and “sexual promiscuity and sensuality” (Rom. 13:13).

His reference to God’s Law[58] in this context is most important. Ultimately, God’s eternal vengeance is according to His holy Law (cf. Rom. 2:3,5-6, 12-15), which is encoded in the Mosaic Law. Proximately and mediatorially, however, God’s temporal “minister,” the civil magistrate, must mete out the “just reward” (Heb. 2:2; cf. Rom. 7:12; 1 Tim. 1:8) for those for whom the penalties of the Law were designed: evil-doers. Paul specifies this even more particularly elsewhere: “The Law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.”[59] And all of this was “according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust” (1 Tim. 1:9-11), not according to a passé example.

The theonomic position is that God’s Law is the standard for justice in all areas of life, including criminal penology (if supported by careful exegesis of the text of each penal sanction). This can be legitimately deduced from the Romans 12-13 passage. In fact, a self-conscious refusal to comment on this passage is a common failure on the part of those who criticize theonomy’s view of civil government. They refuse to discuss the civil magistrate as a minister of God (Rom. 13:4). They need to.


Given the fact that God is Creator and man His creature, the very fact that God has uttered the Law makes man obligated to it. God’s Law is ethically self-attesting and cannot be questioned, appealed, ignored, or replaced. The sanctity of the Law is underscored by the covenantal warning (sanctions) attached to the Law prohibiting its alteration by addition or subtraction (Deut. 4:2; 12:32). It is the covenantal Word of God, not of man; it must be kept inviolable.

In short, the Christian is obligated on the basis of the fact of God and His covenant to keep the whole law of God because it is a pattern for both personal sanctification and social righteousness. The call to follow the biblical pattern of ethics must be to follow it in its all of its far-reaching details. Obedience must not be arbitrarily cut short by personal desire, preconceptions, or complacency, or by ecclesiastical, traditional, cultural situation, or emotional appeal. There is one covenant and one law.

God loves us in a specific and extensive fashion; He is concerned for the details of our lives (Matt. 10:24-33). He expects us to respond with an all-encompassing devotion to Him by loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:33). We believe in the ubiquity of ethics: every word or deed is a moral action, whether we eat or drink or whatever we do (1 Cor. 10:31). This is because these are done in God’s world either for or against Him.[60] All words and deeds are subject to

judgment (Matt. 12:36; 2 Cor. 5:10).

Consequently, God did not deliver to us some broad, general, vague moral principles. Rather, He revealed to us in His Law very extensive, specific, and all-encompassing commands. The Law is explicit in regard to moral directives and correctives. Man is given concrete standards possessing ultimate authority over man’s ethical guidance in personal and social ethics. Non-Christian ethics has long since divided between facts and values. But such cannot be the case in Christian ethics. The Creator God of all facts is also the Righteous God of all values. There is no divorce between metaphysics and ethics in Christianity.

It is the well-known Law of God that the prophets saw as established in the future Messianic Kingdom (a consequence of the work of Christ and the spread of the gospel). In Isaiah 2:2-4, we read of the glory of the Messianic future:

Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; he will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

In Jeremiah 31:33-34, we discover the spiritual application of that righteous Law to the very heart of man, as a vital aspect of the saving work of God:

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days,” says the LORD, “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

The postmillennial kingdom in history grows on the basis of the God-blessed – positive sanctions – proclamation of the gospel of God’s saving grace. God’s Word does not return to Him culturally void. As God’s kingdom expands in history, it produces an explicitly Christian and biblical culture – Christendom – by means of the comprehensive application of biblical law. In this sense, the kingdom of God is a true civilization, one which rivals all other civilizations in history. It is a kingdom that has three aspects: heavenly, spiritual, and institutional.

The defenders of the various humanist kingdoms deny both the heavenly and the supernaturally spiritual aspects of civilization, while pietism denies the institutional aspect (outside of family and church). As Rushdoony has said, humanism denies God but affirms history, while pietism affirms God but denies history. Theonomy affirms both God and history. It is in this sense a creationist worldview. It proclaims Calvin’s view of history: the Creator God of the Bible decrees all that comes to pass in history. The connection between God and history is judicial: God’s law-based, sanctions-governed covenant. This covenantal view of history can be summarized as follows:

The absolutely sovereign Creator God governs every historical fact in terms of His authoritative revealed Word in history, the Bible, which declares His comprehensive, specially revealed law, with its judicially mandatory sanctions (both positive and negative), in order to implement progressively His universal kingdom (civilization) in history: Christendom.

It is difficult to say which group hates this covenantal view of New Testament history most of all: humanists, dispensationalists, or the disciples of Meredith G. Kline.)[61]

[1] John Carey, Chairman, Special Committee on Human Sexuality, Presbyterian Church USA Quoted by Randy Frame in “Sexuality Report Draws Fire: Presbyterian Church (USA),” Christianity Today 35:5 (April, 29,1991) 37.

[2] H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988), pp. 184, 186.

[3] Ibid., p. 86.

[4] After I had completed this chapter, I came across J. Gresham Machen’s article, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913) 1-15; reprinted in What Is Christianity? He also identified these three views: subordination to the prevailing anti-supernatural culture, destruction of culture, and consecration of culture.

[5] For fuller information, see: Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985). See also: R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: Craig, 1973) and Law and Society (Vallecito, CA: Ross House, 1982). See also: Gentry, God’s Law in the Modern World (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, forthcoming).

[6] R. J. Rushdoony, The One and the Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, [1971] 1978).

[7] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (n.p.: den Dulk Foundation, 1974). R. J. Rushdoony, By What Standard? (Tyler, TX: Thobum Press, [1959] 1983). Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (2nd ed.; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1984), Part III.

[8] 1 Sam. 2:2; Isa. 57:15; Psa. 99:9; John 17:11; Rev. 15:4.

[9] Psa. 145:9-16; Matt. 5:45; Mark 10:18.

[10] Ezra 9:15; Psa. 145:17; Jer. 12:1.

[11] Exo. 31:18; 32:16; Deut. 4:13; 9:10; 10:4.

[12] Deut. 10:5; 31:25ff.

[13] Psa. 143:10; Mark. 10:18.

[14] Isa. 6:3; Rom. 7:12; Rev. 15:4.

[15] 2 Sam. 22:31; Psa. 18:30; Matt. 5:48.

[16] Deut. 32:4; Ezra 9:15; Psa. 116:5.

[17] Deut. 32:4; Psa. 25:8,10; Isa. 45:21.

[18] John 4:24; Jer. 31:3.

[19] Deut. 12:28; Psa. 119:68; Rom. 7:12, 16.

[20] Num. 15:40; Rom. 7:12.

[21] Psa. 19:7; Jms. 1:25 (cf. 2:8-12).

[22] Deut. 4:8; Psa. 19:7; Rom. 2:26; 8:4.

[23] Prov. 28:4, 5; Zech. 7:9-12; Rom. 7:12.

[24] Rom. 7:14; I John 3:24; Rom. 8:4.

[25] Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:7ff; Heb. 8:6ff.

[26] The Law of Moses is identified time and time again as the Law of Jehovah:

e.g., Deut. 30:10; Josh. 24:26; 2 Kgs. 10:31; 17:13; 21:8; I Chr. 22:12; 2 Chr. 6:16; 31:21; Ezra 7:6, 12, 14, 21; Neh. 8:8, 18; 9:3; 10:28, 29; Psa. 78:1; 81:4; 89:30; 119:34, 77,92,97, 109, 174; Isa. 1:10; Jer. 6:19; 9:13; 16:11; 26:4; 31:33; 44:10; 22:26; Dan. 6:5; Hos. 4:6; 8:1.

[27] For a detailed exposition of the passage, see: Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, ch. 2, and Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), Appendix A: “The Exegesis of Matthew 5.”

[28] W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 415.

[29] Dalman gives the meaning “confirm,” according to Arndt and Gingrich, Lexicon, p. 677.

[30] Under the “fulfill” nuances in the pleroo entry, Arndt and Gingrich note of Matthew 5:17: “[D]epending on how one prefers to interpret the context, pleroo is understood here either as fulfill = do, carry out, or as bring to full expression = show it forth in its true mng., or as fill up = complete.” Arndt and Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon, p. 677.

[31] Cf. Matt. 15:3-9; 23:23.

[32] Matt. 2:5; 4:4, 6, 7, 10; 11:10; 21:13; 26:24, 31.

[33] Matt. 7:12; 12:5; 19:4; Luke 10:26; 16:17; John 8:17.

[34] 1 Tim. 5:17 (Deut. 25:4), 2 Cor. 6:14 (Deut. 22:10), Rom. 10:6-8 (Deut. 30:11-13), Acts 23:1-5 (Exo. 22:28; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 25:2); 1 Cor. 14:34.

[35] Matt. 22:36-40; Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14; Jms. 2:8.

[36] 1 Cor. 7:19; 1 John 2:3,4; 5:3.

[37] Rom. 7:12, 16; 8:3-4.

[38] Rom. 2:13; 1 Tim. 1:8-10; Heb. 2:2; 1 Tim. 1:8-10; Reb. 8:10.

[39] 1 John 3:4; Rom. 5:13; 7:7. Cf. Matt. 7:23; Titus 2:14; Rom. 3:20 (“iniquity” is literally “lawlessness”).

[40] Matt. 19:16-24; John 7:19; Acts 7:53; Rom. 7:7, 9-11; Jms. 2:9; 1 John 3:4.

[41] Deut. 11:26,28; Rom. 4:15; 7:10; Gal. 3:10; Jms. 2:10.

[42] Rom. 7:10; Gal. 3:24.

[43] Psa. 119:11; 1 Tim. 1:8-10.

[44] Lev. 20:8; Psa. 119:105; Prov. 6:23; Rom. 8:4; 1 Cor. 6:21.

[45] Matt. 7:23; 13:41; Rom. 2:12-15; Jms. 2:10-12. For the Final Judgment, see: Chapter 13 below.

[46] House and Ice, Dominion Theology, pp. 128, 129.

[47] Tremper Longman III, “God’s Law and Mosaic Punishments Today,” Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), pp. 47, 48.

[48] Hos. 6:6; 1 Sam. 15:22; Psa. 51:14-17; Prov. 21:3; Isa. 1:10-17. See: Bahnsen, in Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., House Divided: The Break-up of Dispensational Theology (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), ch. 3. See also: F. F. Bruce, Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), pp. 28ff.

[49] Psa. 47:2, 7ff; 22:28; 83:18; 99:2; 113:4; Mal. 1:14.

[50] Psa. 119:118; Rom. 2:11,12. See also: 2 Chr. 19:7; Job 34:19; 37:24; Eph. 6:9; 1 Pet. 1:17.

[51] Deut. 4:6-7. See also: 1 Kgs. 10:1,8-9; Isa. 24:5; 51:4; Psa. 2:9ff; 47:1-2; 97:1-2; Psa. 94:10-12; 119:46,118-119; Prov. 16:12; Eccl. 12:13.

[52] E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 2:156-157.

[53] P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 219-220.

[54] See also: Deut. 7:5-6, 16,25; 8:11-20; 9:4-5; 12:1-4, 29ff.

[55] They were judged for such things as slave trade, loan abuse, witchcraft, and other non-ritual sins. Lev. 18:24-27; Deut. 7:5-6,16,25; 12:1-4; 19:29-32; Amos 1:6 (Exo. 21:16; Deut. 24:7); Nah. 3:4 (Exo. 22:18; Lev. 19:21); Hab. 2:6 (Exo. 22:25-27; Deut. 24:6, 10-13); Hab. 2:12 (cf. Mic. 3:10).

[56] The very contextual flow (Rom. 12:17ff leads directly to Rom. 13:1ff) is validated by lexical similarity between the two chapters.

[57] Gentry, “Civil Sanctions in the New Testament,” Theonomy: An Informed Response, Gary North, ed. (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), ch. 6.

[58] Earlier he deemed this Law “established” (Rom. 3:31) and called it “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12).

[59] A case may be made for Paul’s generally following the order of the Ten Commandments. H. D. M. Spence, “I and II Timothy,” Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Charles John Ellicott, ed., 8 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, rep. n.d.), 7:180. At the very least, it may be said that “the apostle now gives a summary of the law of the Ten Commandments.” William Hendriksen, I and II Timothy and Titus: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957), p. 67.

[60] Matt. 12:30; Luke 9:50; 11:23.

[61] Gentry, “Whose Victory in History?” Theonomy: An Informed Response, ch. 8.