Chapter 3: Ethics

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

C. Third Point of Covenantalism

(Deuteronomy 5-26)

One of the classic contrasts of history took place at the giving of the Ten Commandments. Moses had gone up Mt. Sinai to receive the most succinct statement of God’s ethical system ever codified: the Ten Words (Deut. 4:13).

Down below, at the foot of the mountain, the people waited for Moses to return. The Bible does not tell us how long Moses was on the mountain. The text only says that he “delayed” (Ex. 32:1). It did not take long, however, for trouble to begin to brew.

The people were anxious. Their commitment to a Biblical world was shaky. How ironic! The only world they had known was the “Gulag” of an Egyptian concentration camp. Their grandparents had handed down stories of the “way it used to be,” but they had never seen the better side of Egyptian life. Still, it was all they had known, and Egypt continued to represent “home.”

What did they miss? What was the first thing they asked for from Aaron, the man “tending the store” while Moses was gone? Strange as it may sound, they wanted an idol, a god they could see. They wanted a god they could manipulate through a golden mediator. Somehow they persuaded Aaron to join them. It was dreadful. A man of God, a leader, the High Priest, who had seen God defeat the mightiest nation in the world, without a single arrow fired, was cajoled to forsake everything he had known to be true about Biblical religion. The ordained mediator of God’s hierarchical system built a dead, blind, metallic mediator for the people.

While Moses lay prostrate before his Creator, and as God etched eternal law into stone, Aaron and the people below built and worshipped a golden calf.

What is the contrast of this eventful day in history? It is the conflict between ethical and magical religions. Biblical religion is based on faithfulness to the Word of God (ethics). Pagan religion is always some form of manipulation through one means or another. The details are spelled out in the largest section of Deuteronomy (Deut. 5-26).

Ethics: The Cause/Effect Principle

The third section of every suzerain treaty consisted of special terms, or laws.[1] The treaty was ethical at its core. The suzerain and vassal(s) related to one another according to the stipulations laid out. If the vassal were to be consecrated to the suzerain, he had to comply with them.

In the ethics section of the Biblical covenant (Deut. 5-26), we find an expansion of the Ten Commandments (stipulations). The central idea: God establishes an ethical relationship between cause and effect. Since God and man do not have unity of being, God dictates the terms (commandments) under which man can have a relationship with Him. These terms are the standard of the covenant. Man is called to be faithful to God by submitting to them. If he submits (covenant-keeping), he is blessed. If he does not (covenant-breaking), he is cursed. (The specific results of blessing and cursing appear in point four of covenantalism, called sanctions). He is either a covenant-keeper or covenant-breaker. So, there is an ethical as opposed to a metaphysical relationship to God, and this relationship culminates in certain predictable effects. And, I might add, these effects are not just personal; they are cultural.

Everything in the universe is tied to man’s covenant-keeping or covenant-breaking. This basic concept of ethics is presented in Deuteronomy 5-26. Moses summarizes the Ten Commandments saying, “You shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, that it may be well with you” (Deut. 5:33). At another place, a passage from which the title of this book was taken, he says, “Keep the words of this covenant to do them that you may prosper in all that you do” (Deut. 29:9).

The ethical cause/effect principle is a command/fulfillment pattern. The books of Joshua and Judges are examples. The Book of Joshua follows the Book of Deuteronomy. It demonstrates that obedience (fulfillment) to the commandment results in blessing. How? Simple: Joshua obeyed Moses’ commands, and the promise was fulfilled. He received the land. Even in the particulars we see the same pattern, like wheels within wheels. In the first chapter, God tells Joshua to enter the land and take it (Josh. 1:1-9). Then Joshua tells the officers of Israel precisely what God told him (Josh. 1:10-18). Finally, the people do what God has told Joshua. God commands, Joshua obeys, and Israel receives what was promised. There is a cause/effect relationship between faithfulness to the commandment and the fulfillment of blessing.

The Book of Judges illustrates the other side of the ethical cause/effect principle: unfaithfulness resulting in death. The last verse of the book, “They did what was right in their own eyes,” sums it up (Judg. 21:25). During the period after Joshua’s great conquests, the people reverted to unfaithfulness. Judge after judge was raised up. Over and over again the people turned away from Moses’ commandments. They learned the hard way that the ethical cause/ effect relationship cannot be avoided. Break the commandments, and the curse of death will be fulfilled.

The ethics principle of the covenant is just this simple. All through the Bible, the command/fulfillment pattern repeats itself. Why? Man must relate to God by covenant. He either keeps or breaks the covenant; he is either faithful or unfaithful. Everything comes about according to this basic ethical cause/effect relationship.

Furthermore, the stipulations section of Deuteronomy specifies that only a certain kind of person can fulfill the commandments of God, a true son of the covenant. The ethics segment instructs the fathers to be true sons of God themselves by teaching their own sons the commandments (Deut. 6:1-26). The fathers imaged God by training their sons to image them. And when the sons followed their fathers in obedience to God, the second generation also imaged its Heavenly Father. In other words, a faithful son manifests his sonship by being a true image-bearer of his True Father, God (Gen. 5:1ff.) The faithful son in Genesis was to have demonstrated his sonship by carrying out three offices: prophet, priest, and king. So the motif of faithful sonship appears among the stipulations of Deuteronomy in the fulfillment of the same three offices. The kings apply God’s law to the land (Deut. 16 & 17). The priests guard the sanctuary and law of God (Deut. 18:1-8). The prophets deliver messages from God’s heavenly council (Deut. 18:9-22). Hence, the theme that only the true son can keep the commandments of God consistently surfaces in the ethics part of the covenant, and it comes to its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the ultimate Son of the covenant.

Three Aspects of Biblical Ethics

When I speak of an ethical cause/effect relationship, am I just talking about an external obedience to the Ten Commandments? No. Following God’s commandments involves proper motivations, standards, and situational applications.[2] To reduce Biblical ethics to anyone of these elements distorts a covenantal understanding of man’s relationship to God. One of the great doctrinal statements of the Church says, “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart of faith; nor are done in the right manner, according to the Lord; nor to the right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful and cannot please God.”[3] The statement refers to three parts of ethical compliance to God’s commandments. The unregenerate man’s attempts to please God are unacceptable precisely because they fail to have all three. The truly faithful (ethical) man has them all.

  1. Motivation

First, the third section of Deuteronomy (5-26) indicates that God expects His commandments to be done from the proper motivation, from the heart. Moses says, ”And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart” (Deut. 6:5-6). Notice in Moses’ comments that he makes the direct connection between heart and commandments. External compliance was not satisfactory. As Paul says, “Whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). So someone like the Pharisees could keep the external commandments but be totally in sin. The Law was never intended to be kept without faith. Anyone who reads the Old Testament and thinks, “This was a system of works,” has seriously misunderstood the Law itself. Works were to flow out of faith, not only in the Old Testament, but in the New as well.

Because there is generally so much confusion about the relationship between faith and works, however, a further word needs to be said about “works,” or the fulfillment of righteousness.

First, the basis (ground) of the fulfillment of righteousness is sacrifice. Central to the third section of Deuteronomy is a discussion of the sacrificial system in Israel (Deut. 12:1-32), implying that the fulfillment of righteousness begins in God’s sanctuary of sacrifice. The only thing that can offset man’s sin is a blood atonement. In the Old Testament the sacrifice is temporary, and Christ becomes the permanent blood sacrifice in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:25-28). So, fulfillment of righteousness is never intended to be to the exclusion of the finished work of Christ.

Two, the instrument of the fulfillment of righteousness is a faith that works. Faith is holistic. The Bible distinguishes between works that are outside of faith and works that are part of faith. Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10). See the distinction in Paul between “bad” works – works prior to faith – and “good” works – faith and its works? It is faith and its works that lay hold of Christ. Faith is more than just mental assent. It involves the total man. For this very reason, James says, “Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

Therefore, the fulfillment of righteousness requires sacrifice and faithfulness. Moses did not teach “salvation by works.” The Biblically consistent man would never have considered this possibility. Habakkuk 2:4 says, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” Works of faith should never be separated from true faith. For without true faith, there can not be true works of righteousness. Indeed, faith without works is nothing less than works salvation.

  1. Standard

Second, the ethics section of the covenant teaches that faith is not a standardless faith. Good motivations are not enough. After all, Moses says the commandments are to be on the heart (Deut. 6:5-6). Faith has a standard of righteousness so that the Church knows how faith is supposed to act. Objectively speaking, the Ten Commandments are a summary of God’s ethical standard. Deuteronomy 5-26 follows the outline of the commandments, only in greater detail.

  1. Overview of the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:1-33)
  2. The Ten Words

1st Word (6:1-11:32): Not to forget transcendent God

2nd Word (12:1-13:18): Hierarchy of the Sanctuary

3rd Word (14:1-29): Consecration of God’s Presence

4th Word (15:1-16:17): Sabbath rest

5th Word (16:18-18:22): Fathers of covenant community

6th Word (19:1-22:12): Laws of killing God’s transcendent image bearer

7th Word (22:13-23:14): Laws of submission

8th Word (23:15-24:22): Laws against various forms of manipulation

9th Word (25:1-19): Justice

10th Word (26:1-19): Firstfruits

As one reads through the list of the Ten Commandments, expounded in detail, perhaps he notices that they follow the five points of covenantalism, repeating them twice (5 and 5). I will go into this structure at length in a later chapter where the Ten Commandments are used as support of the five-fold covenantal concept. But even with this short summary of the third section of the covenant, the objective character of God’s ethics stands out. He has categorized His requirements.

Have they changed? Although aspects of the commandments themselves have been altered, the ten summary categories have not. Listen to what Jesus says when He was asked about the “greatest commandment.”

He said to them, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).

Do these words sound familiar? They should. They are direct quotations from Deuteronomy, particularly the section to which we just referred above (6:5). When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments, He quoted the Law. Thus, God’s standard of righteousness does not change.

His standard, for that matter, reflects His character. If His character does not change, neither can He. Several years ago, I remember that I took the New Testament and started to list all of the commands. To my surprise, they could all be grouped in the categories of the Ten Commandments. All of them were there. So, God’s standard is the same because He is the same.

The difference between the Old and New Covenant is how they are fulfilled. It is the special way in which the commandments are kept in the New Covenant that accounts for change. The Old Covenant man was expected to fulfill the standard of righteousness by faith. But he was never able to. He lacked complete atonement for his sin. He was required to look forward in history in faith to a covenantal representative’s act of atonement (Isa. 53). In the New Covenant, Christ became the fulfillment of righteousness. He perfectly obeyed; He perfectly fulfilled the Law; He incarnated the Law of God in His person, meaning the fulfillment of the righteousness of Deuteronomy 5-26 ultimately came through Him. The ethics categories do not change. They pull through Christ. There is still an ethical cause/effect relationship. The standard is kept in Christ, and anyone who trusts in Him will therefore keep His standard. John says, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (I John 2:4).

We have therefore seen that the ethical cause/effect principle has motivations and an objective standard. There is one final aspect.

  1. Situational Application

Having the right motivation and standard is not enough. These should be properly applied in different situations. Very simply, people with good motivations can misapply God’s law. How so? During World War II, there were Christians who believed that a person should never “lie.” One day, the Germans came to their house and asked if they were hiding out any Jews. The Christians thought, “I cannot tell a lie. The Bible says lying is wrong. We must tell the Germans that we are hiding out Jews in our basement.” So the Christians told the Germans. The Nazis went into the house, captured the Jews, marched them out front, and killed everyone of them in the presence of their betrayers.

These Christians had good motivations. They wanted to help the Jews. They wanted to please God. They had double-good motivations! What went wrong? They misapplied the law.
Ironically, the Bible has a similar situation. When the Jews prepared to attack Jericho, spies were sent in ahead (Josh. 2:1). A prostitute named Rahab hid them out. When the soldiers of Jericho asked if she had seen any of the Jewish spies, she lied to them (Josh. 2:6). Moreover, James calls attention to the lie, stating it was an act of justification. He says, “And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25). Commentators have gone out of their way to twist the plain sense of these Scriptures. Only a few in recent years have allowed the Bible to speak for itself.[4] Rahab was justified for lying to the enemy! How? The answer concerns the Biblical concept of truth. Truth does not simply mean faithfulness to the “facts.” This is the Greek view. Biblical truth is faithfulness to the covenant, meaning faithfulness to God and His people.[5]

More to the point, certain situations affect the application of the Law of God. In Joshua, the nation was at war. There was a place to lie to the enemy and not violate the truth. During WWII, there was a similar situation, a situation that affected the use of the Bible. The Bible did not change, only the situation. Is this the same as “situational ethics”? No. Situational ethics says that the situation totally determines truth, so truth changes from situation to situation. Biblical ethics says the truth always remains the same: the Word of God. Only the application of the truth changes.

The situational side of Biblical ethics is important. As we saw above, it can mean a matter of life or death. It is not enough to have the right motives and just keep the commandments. They have to be kept in the right way.

Thus, the ethical cause/effect principle is not some mechanical obedience to the Bible. Biblical ethics consists of faithfulness in varying circumstances from a heart of faith. Given this understanding, the man of God should see the cause/effect relationship between faithfulness and what happens.

Dominion: The Proper Effect

Dominion over the enemies of God is explicitly stated as the proper effect of obedience in the ethics section of Deuteronomy. It is placed here because God wants His people to associate faithfulness and conquest. This reality of victory is expressed in the form of a fulfilled promise given to Shem, the son of Noah (Deut. 7:1-26). What was it? Noah promised his covenant-keeping son, Shem, that “Canaan would be his servant” (Gen. 9:26). Moses then tells Israel how the promise will come to pass.

When the LORD your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, …the Canaanites…. Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments; but repays those who hate Him to their faces, to destroy them; He will not delay with him who hates Him, He will repay him to his face. Therefore, you shall keep the commandment and the statutes and the judgments which I am commanding you today, to do them. Then it shall come about, because you listen to these judgments and keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep with you His covenant and His lovingkindness which He swore to your forefathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you…. And the LORD will remove from you all sickness; and He will not put on you any of the harmful diseases of Egypt which you have known, but He will lay them on all who hate you. And you shall consume all the peoples whom the LORD your God will deliver to you (Deut. 7:1-16).

The formula for victory is simple: keep the covenant and dominion will be the proper effect. The key to success is not a secret in the Bible. It is revealed, and it is illustrated time and again.

There is no greater example of the fulfillment of what Moses said than in the battle of Jericho. Instead of instructing Israel to fight with weapons, God commanded them to march around the city, symbolically circumcising it (Josh. 6), since circumcision is the initial application of the covenant (Gen. 17). God commanded them to begin with Jericho in the same way they had been commanded to begin with their personal lives. And through this ritual of faithfulness at Jericho, God surrounded the city as He had surrounded the lives of the Israelites. He then provided a living example of what happens when the enemies are encircled by God through the faithfulness of His people. On the seventh day, the day of judgment in the Bible, God caused the walls to fall down. Israel kept God’s Word, and God kept His Word to Israel by defeating their enemies.

At a time when the Church has a horrible self-image, because it has wrongly been told that it will have to be raptured out of its own unavoidable defeat, the lesson of Jericho needs to be taught. Jesus is as emphatically clear as Moses and Joshua that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). The enemies will be defeated, and the Church will have dominion and blessing, if it will keep God’s covenant!

Job: A Fly in the Ointment?

There is one apparent exception, one that caused the Puritans a great deal of consternation: the life of Job. I have spent considerable space developing the relationship between how man responds to God and what happens in life: the ethical cause/effect principle. Does this concept break down in the story of Job? No.

Job’s life only breaks down cause and effect in that from all outward appearances he is temporarily stripped of all blessing. He lost his children, possessions, health, and friends. His friends, moreover, continue throughout the main body of the book to use the cause/effect principle to persuade Job that he is guilty. Yet, Job does not yield. He argues that he is justified before God. In many ways, the entire book is an exposition of the great doctrine of justification. Finally, he is exonerated by God. In the end, Job does receive the blessing of the covenant. Not in another life but in this life.[6]

So, there are times when it seems like there is no connection between ethics and effects. Indeed, there are moments in history where it appears that the wicked are “blessed,” and the righteous are “cursed.” Why? Sometimes, the people of God as a covenantal whole are being disciplined. In His discipline, God restricts and even takes away blessing from individuals. This in itself confirms the ethical cause/ effect principle. At other times, God’s people – martyrs and others who have to undergo unusual suffering – receive delayed portions of the blessing. Their blessing comes in the form of internal and even greater amounts of blessing when they reach heaven. Finally, God sometimes tests His people to see if they will live by faith (James 1:1-2). The test is the apparent reversal of the cause/effect principle to strengthen the righteous’ faith. Job is the classic example. In the short term, he was “cursed” for being righteous. In the long term, he was blessed doubly, receiving multiples of his original blessings (Job 42:10-17). Job is not a “fly in the ointment.” His life reinforces the ethics principle of the covenant.

The very center of the covenant is ethics. Man is called upon to view the world through the eye of faith. He is to believe that everything going on around him is tied to the covenant. If he does not understand life’s events in these terms, he will resort to other cause/effect explanations.

False Cause/Effect Explanations

Fallen man does not want to live according to faithfulness. He does not even want to admit that his unfaithfulness to God is related to anything that happens in his life, culture, government, marriage, and especially not his life in the hereafter. He wants to achieve and live according to other false cause/effect notions. There are three: mechanical, manipulative, and magical. They are similar in that they are all sinful and false explanations of cause and effect in the universe. Yet, each reflects a different variation of fallen logic.

  1. Mechanical Cause/Effect

First, the mechanical explanation of cause/effect. As the term implies, some “impersonal” force brings about cause and effect, like “natural law.” Once man begins to view natural laws as impersonal autonomous acts, however, they become a replacement for the real law that governs the universe, Biblical law. The world is then understood in terms of a mechanical cause/effect relationship, and additionally, a view having serious social and political ramifications. We return to the time of the Enlightenment, a time when natural law supposedly reigned supreme, to see an example of a mechanical explanation of cause and effect in the universe.

Louis Bredvold observes in The Brave New World of the Enlightenment an important nuance of natural law that was lost during the Enlightenment.[7] He argues that prior to this time (second half of the Middle Ages), natural law was broken into two categories: ethics and physical phenomena. There were laws for humans and laws for things. The Enlightenment threw out this distinction, and made the law for things the basis of ethics. In the words of Descartes, “All philosophy is like a tree, of which Metaphysics is the root, Physics the trunk, and all other sciences the branches that grow out of this trunk, which are reduced to three principal, namely, Medicine, Mechanics, and Ethics.”[8]

Mathematics became the basis of life. A “universal science” became the foundation out of which everything sprang. It is not that men such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Liebnitz did not talk about ethics. As a matter of fact, they wrote important treatises on the subject. The innovation, however, concerned the basis for ethics. The seventeenth-century social philosopher Thomas Hobbes, for example, discovered Euclid’s Geometry at the mid-point of his life. He was not a mathematician, but when he read Euclid, he was impressed. “Here was the first and only book he had ever found in which every proposition was incontrovertible. Why were there no other books like it? And why not write a philosophy of man and society, that troublesome subject of controversy in all past ages, in a similar style of step by step demonstration? This project Hobbes decided to make his own.”[9] He produced a mathematical explanation of the universe. In the Epistle Dedicatory to De Cive he writes,

Truly the Geometricians have very admirably performed their part.
If the moral philosophers had as happily discharged their duty, I know not what could have been added by human industry to the completion of that happiness, which is consistent with human life. For were the nature of quantity in geometrical figures, the strength of avarice and ambition, which is sustained by the erroneous opinions of the vulgar, as touching the nature of right and wrong, would presently faint and languish; and mankind should enjoy such an immortal peach that [unless it were for habitation, on supposition that the earth should grow too narrow for her inhabitants] there would hardly be left any pretence for war.[10]

This statement is revealing. Hobbes moves from a mechanical view of cause and effect to utopianism, summarizing the effects of the Enlightenment on the twentieth century. The mechanical view of cause and effect led to a collectivist concept of government, as do all utopian theories. One commentator on Bredvold makes this very point:

As heirs of the Enlightenment, many social theorists in the West are unaware of how deeply they share with Communism a faith in materialism and the methods of physical science as applied to man. Many in the West hold a Rousseauist belief in the natural goodness of man, combined with the materialist principle of the omnipotence of environment [mechanical cause/effect]. These principles are fundamental…. To the extent that the philosophy of the Enlightenment has permeated Western Thought, our statesmen are disqualified or at a disadvantage in waging an ideological war with Marxian tyranny on moral grounds. The West cannot endure half positivist and half Christian.[11]

So, we begin with a mechanical explanation of cause and effect, and end in collectivism. The Biblical covenant stands in stark contrast. God is personal. He created the world. He also created mathematics. A formula may explain what happens in a physical sense, but not why. The water cycle can be studied, for example, but this does not explain why famines occur. God sends famines as a curse. Everything that happens is the result of covenant-keeping or covenant-breaking. Life is not mechanical.

  1. Manipulative Cause/Effect

I call this false explanation of cause and effect “manipulative” because force is often viewed as the basis of life. Brute power creates cause and effect. The manipulation can be in the form of personal theft or injury to another, or it can come in the shape of national theft or murder. The conflict is always the same: right vs. might. Theories of power believe that might creates cause and effect. When they are implemented, as Shakespeare said through Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida,

Then right and wrong
Should lose their names, and so should justice too,
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, a universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce a universal prey,
And last eat up itself.

Interestingly, Shakespeare observed that “right and wrong” disappear when “power” rules. Man is not ruled by an ethical standard; instead, he is left to the whims of a power-State.

The struggle of “right vs. might” is one of the basic movements of the Bible. Fallen man tends to replace the covenant with force. But we can rest assured that “right” prevails – that there is always an ethical cause/effect relationship – because the Bible also tells the story of the re-establishment of rule by covenant. The plan of redemption, therefore, constantly clashes with the power-State. Finally, redemption wins out!

Consider Cain. He was driven to the east of Eden. The Biblical text calls attention to the kind of society he established. The descendant of Cain says, “I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; if Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23-24). The sons of Cain were destroyed, however, by the Flood. Seth’s sons prevailed through Noah’s family (Gen. 6:1-8:22).

Consider Pharaoh. The conflict between Moses and Pharaoh was one of “right vs. might.” Pharaoh had built a civilization based on manipulation. He was the most powerful manipulator in the world. He met his match in Moses. The account of the conflict emphasizes that Moses defeated Pharaoh with God’s ethical means: the “rod” (Exod. 14:15-20), the law, and Passover (Exod. 12:1-51). God so devastated Pharaoh, as a matter of fact, that Pharaoh asked Israel to leave.

Consider Daniel. The story of Daniel tells how the power-States of the world culminate in one final defeat by the kingdom of God. Taken into exile, Daniel and his people overcome the greatest leader in the world by revelation, the Word of God. It comes to Nebuchadnezzar in the form of a dream (Dan. 2:1-3). The dream terrorizes the king of Babylon. He sees a huge man being toppled by a stone.[12] Daniel is the only one able to interpret. The giant man represents four great empires: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome (Dan. 2:36-45). A true empire in the Bible is one that dominates the whole world. These ancient idolatrous empires represented humanity’s attempt to rule the world by power. The final kingdom of stone, a common metaphor for the Lord’s kingdom (Matt. 16:18), crushes the Roman Empire. Thus, the last true empire was the Roman Empire. There have been other “great” kingdoms, but none have been “world” empires in the true, Biblical sense.

Consider Christ. The movement of history reaches the apex of conflict at the cross. The power-State nations of the world crucify their Savior. Their weapon of destruction (the cross), however, becomes that which brings them to ruin. Power States were brought under the covenant. Since the death of Christ, the same conflict has been waged. The early Church found its message hostile to Caesar worship. The modern Church has been bitterly opposed by the “isms” of Communism and Fascism.

Always the manipulative approach to cause and effect proves out what C. S. Lewis said.

There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car. [13]

How the dictators of history illustrate Lewis’s words. Every time they rule by force, they end up trapped by their own power. Their constituencies wait to use the same power to conquer them. The Biblical story of redemption also illustrates. Man’s attempts to manipulate resulted in the death of Christ. Man was conquered by his display of power. The Apostle Peter argued at Pentecost that Jesus’ Death and Resurrection established Christ as Lord, the true power (Acts 2:22-36). Right prevailed over might.

  1. Magical Cause/Effect
  2. M. Butler begins her book Ritual Magic (1949) with this observation: “The fundamental aim of all magic is to impose the human will on nature, on man or on the supernatural world in order to master them.” Once again, the issue is cause and effect. Magic is also power-oriented, like the manipulative approach to cause/effect. Instead of appealing to God, it seeks the demonic to manipulate God and His world. All power religions have one basic weakness. Gary North builds on Lewis’s observation mentioned earlier and says,

The problem with power is always the same: the user is simultaneously subjected to it. The man who wields the scientific power of the modern world must have a theory of the transmission of power. If causes have effects, then by becoming an intermediary cause a man must admit that his decisions are also effects of prior causes. If he denies that he is necessarily determined, then he must also deny his own power to determine certain effects. Similarly, if a magician uses the power of an ally or demon to produce certain effects, he inevitably places himself under the power of the ally. At the very least, he is subjected to a rigorous series of rituals that must be used when calling forth occult power. To command power – any power – is to acknowledge the sovereignty of the source of that power, whether God, demons, natural law, random variation, or whatever. Men will serve that which they believe to be sovereign.[14]

The quest for power enslaves. Power religion turns on the user. The New Testament tells the story of Jewish exorcists who tried to use Jesus’ name to manipulate demons (Acts 19:8-20). They had seen the power of Jesus’ name. To them, it was the perfect formula. They called on the demons. The demons responded to the exorcists, “We know Jesus and Paul but who are you?” With that, the evil spirits viciously attacked the men. To these exorcists, power was in an equation, in this case the name of Jesus. They discovered that Jesus cannot be maneuvered by any formula. The exorcist’s use of a formula also explains why science so easily slips into magic. Both tend to reduce life to an equation. Atheistic science seeks to manipulate the universe through an equation, and magic uses an incantational formula.

Ethics, not elitist formulas, is the key to Biblical religion. David says, “Thou dost not delight in sacrifice … with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken heart” (Ps. 51:16). Then David continues on the ethical note, “By Thy favor do good to Zion, Build the walls of Jerusalem, then Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices… in whole burnt offering” (Ps. 51:18-19). Biblical religion has “ritual,” or perhaps a better word would be “routine.”[15] But the ritual of the Bible follows the covenant. David calls for covenantal faithfulness to make the routines of offering sacrifices legitimate. Without faithfulness, the sacrifices were useless.

Mediation By Magic

The problem of mediation is basic to the question of cause and effect. Man cannot escape his position as God’s subordinate over the world. Man calls on God’s power to assist him in his dominion tasks. The question is: How does he call on God? The Biblical answer is that man calls on God as the covenant God who enforces the terms of His covenant in history. But the magician, like the humanist, cannot admit this. That places too much emphasis on the terms of the covenant: ethics. So he seeks other ways of calling on God.

The heart of the humanist Renaissance was magic. It was a self-conscious attempt to revive pagan humanism, including classical magic. The fundamental assumption of magic is the chain of being idea: “As above, so below.” God and the heavens are essentially like man and his environment. So there must be a search for the appropriate means of intermediating between heaven and earth. This is the magician’s quest. Frances Yates describes this rival worldview:

For the All was One, united by an infinitely complex system of relationships. The magician was the one who knew how to enter into the system, and use it, by knowing the links of the chains of influences descending vertically from above, and establishing for himself a chain of ascending links by correct use of the occult sympathies in terrestrial things, of celestial images, of invocations and names, and the like.[16]

As above, so below. Manipulate the creation, and the forces of the heavens can be mastered, directed toward the magician’s goals. Here is the vision of man as God, the one who directs the forces of nature and the supernatural as a craftsman.

In Biblical religion, what is above (God) is fundamentally different from that which is below (the creation). Man’s position as intermediary is God-given. Man must exercise dominion as God’s covenantal agent, not as an autonomous master of the cosmos. The link between heaven and earth is therefore covenantal. It is governed by the terms of the covenant. For man to get his way, he must choose God’s way for him. Keeping the law of God is not a way to manipulate (MAN-ipulate) God; it is man’s way of conforming himself ethically to God. The Biblical character who failed to understand this was Simon the magician, who sought to buy the power of God from Simon Peter. Peter consigned him to hell. He called on him to repent (Acts 8:14-24).

Magical, mechanical, and manipulative explanations are all false. They define life’s problems as metaphysical, not covenantal. According to them, man lacks something in his being; maybe he is racially inferior; maybe he lacks the right spell; maybe he is not saying the spell the right way; maybe he does not know enough. In every case, the problem is a flaw in his being and not his ethics. The third section of the covenant, however, calls for submission to God in terms of His stipulations.


Law is at the heart of God’s covenant, building on the principles of transcendence and hierarchy. The temptation of the people of God is to resort to magic. As it was in the days when Moses received the law, so it is in our day. The conflict is still between ethics and magic.

In this chapter, I have sought to accomplish one main thing: to establish the ethical connection between cause and effect. First, I presented the principle. It can also be called command/fulfillment. Covenant-keeping results in blessing. Covenant-breaking ends in cursing. The principle of the third section of Deuteronomy is just this simple.

Second, we considered that faithfulness is not mere external conformity to the Ten Commandments. Although the ethics segment expounds them, they are to be kept from the proper motives and applied properly from situation to situation. This kind of ethical faithfulness acquires dominion and influence.

The Book of Job was raised as a possible exception to this principle. We found that Job is an example of how God tests His people with temporary “cursing.” The purpose is to strengthen their faith. Actually, the testing results in greater blessing.

Third, there are false explanations of cause and effect. The mechanical explanation tries to reduce the universe to natural laws and formulae. The manipulative approach explains cause and effect according to brute force. The magical theory combines the first two, using a formula to manipulate nature. All three are wrong and misleading.

This completes the third step in the covenantal process. In the next chapter, the fourth principle is considered. It has to do with how the covenant was entered through the reception of sanctions. We will examine such issues as why the sanctions symbolize and seal judgment to a person. Is the covenant conditional or unconditional? Can a person lose his salvation?

[1] Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority, pp. 115ff. See also, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 205ff.

[2] Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith: Christian Theistic Evidences, Vol. III (Philadelphia: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1974). See also John Frame’s syllabus on “Ethics.” It can be purchased from Westminster Seminary, P.O. Box 27009, Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, PA 19118. In many ways, Frame has fleshed out Van Til. He is clearer and simpler to understand.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, XVI. 7. Emphasis added.

[4] R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1973), pp. 542-49. See also in the same volume, Gary North, “In Defense of Biblical Bribery,” pp. 838-39.

[5] B. Holwerda, Jozua en Richteren (Kampen, 1971), p. 13. Referred to in Don Sinnema, Reclaiming the Land (Toronto, Canada: Joy in Learning Curriculum Development and Training Centre, 1977), p. 19.

[6] Jesus confirms the promise of “this life” blessing when He says, “There is not one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, inherit eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30). In the New Covenant, everyone gets to be like Job!

[7] Louis I. Bredvold, The Brave New World of the Enlightenment (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), pp. 4-7.

[8] Rene Descartes, The Method, Meditations, and Selections from the Principles, tr. by John Veitch (6th ed.; 1879), p. 184.

[9] Bredvold, p. 31.

[10] Cited in Bredvold, p. 32.

[11] Peter Stanlis, “The Dark Ages of the Enlightenment,” University Bookman (Autumn 1962), p. 14. Brackets added.

[12] The story of David and Goliath presents the same image (I Sam. 17:1-58). David threw a stone and “struck” the giant. The same language is used (cf. Dan. 2:35 and I Sam. 17:50).

[13] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, [1947] 1965), p. 71.

[14] Gary North, Unholy Spirits (Ft. Worth, Texas: Dominion Press, 1986), p. 142.

[15] Ibid., p. 136. North discusses how Protestantism created a superior work ethic by emphasizing routine.

[16] Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (New York: Vintage, [1964] 1969), p. 45.