by | Sep 19, 2023

Theonomic Ethics

In a perfect world, we could launch straight into a discussion of theonomy from the ground up, confident that it will be evaluated fairly on the merits. Instead, we face a mountain of long-standing prejudices that have successfully recast the three terms “theonomy,” “God’s law,” and “Old Testament” as plagues upon God’s people, to be avoided at all cost lest we fall into various legalistic heresies or Judaizing aberrations that mar the gospel of Christ.

Labels are designed to provide shortcuts so that we don’t have to do our own thinking, letting us say “what more need have we of witnesses?” These labels, in particular, depict their objects in depersonalized language, achieving the same effect as depersonalizing a human opponent would have, and for the same purpose. Why bother digging deeper, especially if you’d risk being “put out of the synagogue” if you came to the “wrong” conclusion?

God said of Ephraim, “I have written to him the great things of My Law, but they were counted as a strange thing” (Hos. 8:12). So it is today with many: the Law of God is esteemed to be a strange thing. And we, like Ephraim, have no time for strange things, or God’s unaccountably positive opinion of those things. And this was true well before people started to pit the New Testament against the Old, innovating new rationales for their views, imagining that countless alleged slam dunks in favor of their position provide the perfect wall between themselves and those who see things differently.

For the fact remains that no one is off the hook to evaluate these important issues for themselves. Consider how Jesus Christ rebuked those who preferred to delegate the evaluation of His works to their leaders rather than using their own God-given discernment:

And He said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time? Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right? (Luke 12:54-57)

Note that Christ speaks to the people at large (“he said also to the people”) and calls them hypocrites for not judging Him themselves (rather than relying on their blind guides to advise them). Christ demands to know why they do not judge the situation for themselves (meaning they were leaving it to others to tell them what to think). He calls this out as hypocrisy: they think for themselves on other matters, but not on this pivotal one right in front of them. The implication is that God equipped us with adequate discernment, and that our failure to use it exhibits the kind of slothfulness that Hebrews 5:11-6:3 so roundly indicts. Hebrews 5:11 speaks of slothfulness in hearing, and Scripture treats slothfulness as a moral failure (“Thou wicked and slothful servant…”).[1]

The proper response is to personalize the things being maligned, to show them in a different light entirely. If it is true that the criterion “by their fruits you will know them” applies quite well to people, surely it would make just as much sense to apply that measurement to God’s law, to theonomy, to the Old Testament, to see how it measures up. We might discover that we’ve been throwing countless babies out with the bathwater we thought needed to be changed. And how would we know this, one way or the other? By taking a more personal, in-depth look at the fruit that God’s law delivers. Once we see that we’ve mischaracterized the object of our critiques, our eyes will be opened up to the harsh reality delivered by the various substitutes for God’s law.

In doing this, we will be conducting something of an intellectual exorcism (as one insightful scholar has called it). We might start to rethink all the attacks leveled against these three labels and take more seriously the substance that these labels, often issued as epithets, were hiding. We might start to marvel at the great things of His Law, and not fall into the indifferent attitude of Ephraim. We might start to see God’s Law, not as an enemy of Christian liberty inflicting undue bondage on men, but as a friend that sheds light in darkness, and that delivers us from tyranny, not into tyranny.

So let’s introduce God’s law in a different way, exhibiting the fruit of it so that it can stand judged by its own impact upon the world we live in.

When Has Poverty Ever Been Abolished in Human History?

This certainly is an interesting question. Most people would imagine that poverty has never been abolished in human history. Many might argue that John 12:7 teaches that poverty will never depart this world (though Christ actually directs His assertion to the disciples : they would still encounter the poor).[2] But Deut. 15:4 does speak of the eradication of poverty as a consequence of fulfilling the poor tithe laws in the preceding chapter: there shall be no poor among you.

This is a fairly remarkable claim, that poverty can be abolished in a nation when it obeys God’s laws regarding the poor. The fiscal part of these provisions amounted to 3.3% of the net increase, and also included provisions for gleaning, etc. America’s War on Poverty, launched by Lyndon B. Johnson, has spent between four to six times this much and has only worsened poverty in the nation. Rather than doing things God’s way, America did it man’s way instead, creating massive impersonal programs and supporting huge administrative overheads in the process.

Why should we have any interest in doing things God’s way? His law doesn’t even have a sanction[3] for disobeying it! President Johnson had no problem funding his solution since he could tax and inflate his way to his goals. One would think that funds you could secure by force would do a better job than this bizarre poverty ordinance embedded in the book of Deuteronomy!

But you would be quite mistaken. Israel was the only nation that ever went through a period of time when poverty was fully abolished: all peoples in Israel had been lifted out of poverty by God’s method. The proof of this is even more interesting, since we may not have known of it had Gentile representatives not attempted to confiscate the evidence of Israel’s achievement.

After the return from Babylon under Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel was determined to avoid the kind of conduct that got them expelled from the Promised Land in the first place. Idolatry was one of the main dangers targeted by Israel’s leaders, knowing an apostate nation would lose God’s blessing in short order. They were in earnest in applying God’s Law, and among the laws they observed with diligence were those related to the poor. Failure to keep these laws was tantamount to “grinding the faces of the poor” (Isa. 3:15) and so Israel kept the law. By the time the Maccabean era had rolled around, Israel had no more poor people in the nation.

How do we know this? Because if there were no poor people to give the tithe money to (and enjoy a feast with), the money could not stay with the persons paying it (according to the same principle laid out in Numbers 5:8). The funds went to the priests so it could be accumulated (stored) for the proverbial rainy day, arriving at the Temple, from where it could be directed should it be needed somewhere in Israel to raise up people out of poverty.

Nonetheless, the amount collected continued to accumulate in the Temple over time, until there were 200 talents of gold and 400 talents of silver[4] stored there: a provision for the poor that couldn’t be distributed to anyone because the promise of Deut. 15:4 had been fulfilled. Israel during this period was the only nation in the history of the world to abolish poverty.

This didn’t last, because Israel slowly returned to its old habits, and by the time Christ was walking the earth, He had encountered a widow who, by throwing two mites into the Temple treasury, had given all that she had. Poverty was indeed rampant again. And it is interesting that Christ in Mark 10 makes reference to the people’s failure to honor the poor tithe – which is an incident worth our trouble to unpack here.

The rich young man asks Christ, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ lists some of the commandments, but one of the ordinances He mentioned was NOT in the Ten Commandments. Our Lord put “do not defraud” in the list – and He did so with a specific purpose. The Greek term “aposteresis” is unique, and appears in the Greek translation of the Old Testament[5] where it refers to defrauding the poor (by not providing them what is due to them under God’s Law). The man claimed that “all of these I have kept from my youth,” but Christ disagrees with his claim of keeping “all.” Christ replies, “One thing is behindhand to thee.”[6] Not some new thing, but one of the commandments just listed by Christ, was profoundly deficient in the man. (One wonders if Christ was pitting not only one against all but also hystereo against apostereo – but His meaning stands regardless). As one exegete pointed out, the man’s desire “often manifests in withholding from others their dues.”[7] The young man, “having become sullen” as Meyer translates it,[8] is caught in the moral crosshairs. He can choose to do as Zacchaeus did, who proclaimed that he would restore fourfold to anyone that he had defrauded (and salvation came to his house as a result of his repentance on the matter). But a fourfold restitution for this man would entail selling everything he had to give it back to the poor. This, he would not do.

And so it is no surprise that two chapters later, in Mark 12:43ff, we see the poor widow who had only two mites left to give to God, while the man of Mark 10 walked away sullen. This is certainly consistent with the reason given in Deuteronomy 15 as to why the glorious condition predicted in verse 4 (no more poor among you) could disappear. When Jesus said that His disciples would always have the poor among them, He was quoting directly from Deut. 15:11 that “there shall always be poor people in the land” when those called upon to pay the poor tithe become “hardhearted and tightfisted” (Deut. 15:7).

Here we have one of the great achievements in world economic history: the rolling back of poverty in a nation. It wasn’t done by statist taxation. It was done by the people keeping God’s law. God’s law delivered a tremendous national blessing, and at very little cost. Moreover, the personal dimension of the poor tithe (it was not handled institutionally) greatly strengthened the sense of community in the nation. In contrast, today’s entitlement mentality tears communities apart.

Were a nation to observe God’s law regarding poverty again, the same results would accrue, and the same promise of Deut. 15:4 would again be realized. But because God’s law is esteemed a strange thing, we set it aside as economically naïve and crude. But our “improved, engineered” economics, which were supposed to deliver us from poverty, have worsened it. If we were strictly to go by the historic track record of these two systems when applied, there could be no hesitation in affirming that God’s way works and man’s way doesn’t. God’s law blesses while man’s law curses a people. But by the same token, when offered a chance to evaluate Christ on His impeccable track record, the people cried out, “Give us Barabbas!” Surely we should think twice about the choices before us, and the results they’ve delivered. Whose law delivers a people from poverty? Only God’s law ever has. When applied, it has born tremendous fruit in areas that humanism has never come close to replicating (at least, not without imposing genocide to cook the books).

Surely, we should think twice before denigrating God’s Law, or the Old Testament, or theonomy, for promoting the significance of the whole counsel of God. In setting it aside, we’re setting aside all those stricken with poverty as well, denying them the one known solution to gnawing hunger and deprivation.

Granted, the poor tithe doesn’t operate in a vacuum: it operates while other aspects of God’s Law liberate other areas of economics and culture from tyranny too, as a package deal. But the other parts of the package are, perhaps, even more extraordinary, which we will consider next.

Are You Paying 11,000 Times Too Much Tax?

Have you ever wondered what taxation under God’s Law would look like? I certainly have. The answer will probably come as a shock to you, but God’s provision for civil government is nearly 11,000 times smaller than what the combined federal and state budgets for the United States were when I first worked the numbers a decade ago.[9] The 2013 federal budget was $3.8 trillion, while the state budgets totaled $1.943 trillion. Combined budget to be paid by the US taxpayers back then (not counting municipalities yet) was $5.743 trillion. The number is much larger now, but let’s use the numbers from ten years ago and compare them to God’s civil tax.

God’s tax in Exodus 30 is a half shekel of silver per male citizen twenty years of age or older, which for the population of the US then amounted to $528 million dollars. This is all that is allocated to run civil government under God’s Law. This was 10,876 times smaller than our then-current taxation levels. Now it exceeds 11,000 times, of course, but at the time this equated to nearly $72,000 per year per worker more tax paid by American citizens under current law compared to under God’s Law.

Here is another fruit of God’s Law: that $72,000 would be returned to the families every year instead of extracted by humanistic civil government by taxation and the use of unjust weights and measures. It is hard to believe, but Americans would prefer not to abolish poverty, and to not have $72,000 each year left to their own discretion to use for their family. But it was equally hard to believe that the crowds would shout for Barabbas instead of for Jesus. Yet it happened then, and is still happening now.

True, many Christians think that civil government could legitimately take up to 10% of the people’s income, arguing from Samuel’s example of what tyrants will do to Israel. But that passage isn’t where civil taxation is authorized. It is only authorized in Exodus 30, its collection was restored by Nehemiah upon the peoples’ return from Babylon,[10] it was in place in Christ’s day when He and Peter paid the tax from the fish’s mouth, and Josephus reported that it remained as a continual annual collection for maintenance of Israel’s civil government. Some scholars have attempted to refute the idea that civil government under God’s Law was to be supported only by this tiny tax, but the rebuttals against them were remarkably solid.[11]

The term minarchism has been coined to denote a very small (minimal) government, but minarchists still teach a government much larger than what God’s Law allows (albeit smaller than its current size). One would need to coin another term to describe civil government when structured under God’s Law: nanarchism, with a nano-sized government. This makes more sense when we’re talking more than four orders of magnitude difference in the size of civil government.

Again, one must remember that God’s Law has a lot to say about associated matters, and offers equally powerful solutions to supposed problems that would arise when adopting God’s Law. As mentioned before, God’s Law is a unity (as James argued) and all its jots and tittles are important. You can’t take out one piece without harming the whole. God’s Law balances out all the distortions modern law has imposed, straightens out everything humanistic law has made crooked. We are so used to crooked, humanistic law, we balk when we hear each element of God’s Law and how it would change man’s relationship with his fellow man and with the creation. We need to be patient and wait for the other shoe to drop: there are answers to questions that arise when the government is shrunk by a factor of 11,000. We simply need to have ears to hear them, rather than shutting our ears.

Just to give one example before we move on showing what humanistic law has done, and how God’s Law undoes it: US Law created the concept of the limited liability corporation, where the people in charge are insulated from the consequences of irresponsible conduct. Because you get more of what you subsidize (namely, irresponsible conduct), US Law then puts more regulations in place to control the results of subsidizing irresponsibility. The government is, in effect, solving a problem that it created by simply adding even more government.

But under God’s Law, there can be no such thing as limited liability corporations. Men are always fully responsible for their conduct. Further, because they are responsible, they are held legally responsible for their actions to the limit of God’s Law (in respect to restitution, etc.). Irresponsible behavior is no longer protected, and over-regulation to compensate for limited liability constructs is no longer needed either. The point is that both elements are needed for God’s Law to bear the expected fruit. You cannot merely toss out regulations until you’ve reestablished full liability.

And this is the key to God’s Law: that all its elements work together. You cannot expect a fruitful interaction under God’s Law unless all the relevant parts of it, in their purity, are operative, and not mixed together with humanistic laws. In this way we will come to answer questions about education, national defense, roads and highways, and all the other objections often thrown at God’s Law out of ignorance of how it answers these supposed challenges. God’s Law provides better answers and greater liberty for the people – just so long as they learned to stop calling for Barabbas instead of Christ.

So at this point, we’ve considered two great things of God’s Law: that it truly eradicates poverty, and that it shrinks government down by a factor of 11,000. For every 11,000 people working in civil government today, there would only be one still working in that capacity under a biblical civil government. This certainly puts to rest the idea that theonomists are power hungry people who want to seize the reins of power in this country. It seems that if we should be suspicious of any Christians in particular, it would be those who want to enter government service and only shave a little off the top, so to speak. It would certainly seem that those would be the ones who prefer to keep this overfed, bloated monster government crushing freedom underfoot.

As we’ve seen above, it is the Christian interested in applying God’s Law who truly wants to abolish poverty and shrink government down to a tiny fraction of its current size. If the US federal and state governments were represented by a 185 pound man, under God’s Law he’d be shrunk down to the weight of a US quarter – a single 25-cent piece. The next time you hold a quarter in your hand, think about God’s Law and how it would impact the size of civil government. This is a truly remarkable fruit of God’s Law, making it impossible to subsidize or underwrite tyrannical government at any level. That God’s Law is seen as the enemy of liberty and freedom flies in the face of our experience with humanism’s massive government machinery. Perhaps the people warning us against considering God’s Law have ulterior motives. Perhaps they don’t want to see their power dissipated if they’re benefited by the status quo. Somebody has certainly gotten a bad rap in this situation, and it is time to dispel faulty notions about God’s Law, unless we’re content to pass on the status quo to our children, leaving $72,000 a year on the table while keeping the government’s expensive, ineffective Poverty-Industrial Complex in place unchallenged to wreak more damage upon the people.

A Friend of Liberty and Peace

Outside of God’s Law, human history attests to one consistent dynamic: a conflict of interests. And all of man’s politics, economics, and culture are directed in terms of that conflict. Only God’s Law delivers a harmony of interests, and such a harmony is unknown to the worlds of paganism and humanism. All the energy humans put into exploiting, or overcoming, the conflict of interests is pure waste. This wasted effort is avoided under God’s Law: men are no longer at each other’s throats, are no longer designing schemes to take advantage of others, and no longer writing burdensome regulations to deal with these embedded conflicts. The entire basis of Marxist economics is undone under God’s Law because conflict resolves into harmony when His commandments prevail.

We’ve chosen the economic aspects of God’s Law because they represent concrete, objective examples, clear enough that people can grasp their significance, their impact. We would see a very different economy under God’s Law – there’d be a mild deflation at all times as money gains value over time, rather than the inflation that marks modern economies which devalues their currencies as a matter of policy. America has toyed with the idea of plastic pennies, whereas under God’s law we’d see the advent of fractional pennies, and the return of gold and silver. Fractional reserve banking, a major engine of inflation, would revert to full reserve banking. Micah 6:8-16 informs us that these changes would deliver a nation from the risk of economic implosions emanating from the middle of the nation outward (Mic. 6:14) as a result of people having unjust weights and measures in their homes (verses 10 and 11). God’s Law provides the roadmap to economic security, for as things stand right now, our nation has consistently built on the sand and will pay the price for tolerating what God calls abominations in their wallets and bank accounts.[12]

It is interesting that God’s Law defines man’s “unit of work” to not be a week long, or two weeks long, or a month long, but only a single day in duration. One day is the unit of work, and the worker is to be paid at the end of the day for the work he had done that day. For the employer to keep the wages until the next morning is to defraud the worker (Lev. 19:13). Recall how Christ told the young ruler Thou shalt not defraud? The wages belong to the worker, not the employer, yet modern employers keep the wages in the bank and collect interest on them during the time God’s Law says the wages should already have been paid to the worker. God’s Law acknowledges that the wages are the worker’s property and not the employer’s property. Here again, God’s Law protects the worker against the employer, and calls out the system now in effect as a wholesale defrauding of the nation’s workers. It’s man’s law that works against the laborer, whereas it’s God’s Law that alone sets justice in the earth.

More examples can be multiplied across many aspects of reality to show that God’s Law delivers tremendous benefits to the people, while man’s law further enslaves people while growing the size of the coercive sector of government. Every law man puts into effect has worldly punishments attached: enforcement happens here, in this world. Much of God’s Law has no earthly enforcement mechanism: God elects to enforce many of His statutes Himself,[13] giving man no power to enforce them. God’s Law maximizes liberty and freedom, whereas man’s law continues to restrict liberty and freedom. The body of laws that make up God’s Law isn’t increasing in size: the content is eternally fixed. Man’s laws multiply so quickly that no one can keep track of all the regulations one might inadvertently be violating.

This is why the Psalmist says that he walks at liberty, for he seeks God’s precepts (Psalm 119:45). The Hebrew for “liberty” in that psalm is more literally “a wide space” – he walks in a wide space, not a straitened, cramped space, because God’s Law guides him. Not only so, but St. John declares that “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). We would add (to correct any misunderstanding) Paul’s point that “the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” – indicating that there was such a thing as an unlawful use of the law. Clearly, an unlawful use of the law would (among other things) fail to deliver the kind of liberty and peace that a lawful use of the law would provide. Further, Paul knew that the Law had been illegitimately weaponized, and erroneously distorted in the service of justification by works, even though “by works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

Because unlawful use of the Law persists, turning it into a burden in contradiction to St. John’s teaching that God’s commandments are not burdensome, it is necessary to distinguish use from abuse. The abuse of a thing doesn’t reflect on the thing abused, but on the abuser. Tragically, we live in an era where blame is reattributed to the Law itself, and not to those who inflicted violence upon its meaning. All have heard of the so-called “straw man” fallacy, and about “false flag operations,”[14] which have the effect (whether intentional or not) of directing critical fire upon false premises.

The kind of intellectual exorcism we talked about earlier would have two distinct tasks: to correct errors, but also to set forth a positive exposition to fill the resulting vacuum. Christ warned about the need to replace a false impression with a true one, noting that merely removing one demon is inadequate if it should return with seven more demons worse than itself (Luke 11:26). At the very least, men who reject God’s Law should do so fully knowing the truth of it, not when merely parroting prepackaged talking points that may not stand up to scrutiny (if scrutiny were to be allowed). Let us then briefly consider some scriptural testimony concerning God’s Law and take it into account when forming an opinion of its contents and meaning.

Further, setting aside God’s Law does indeed create a vacuum that church and state will rush in to fill with their own rules and ordinances.[15] The same result occurs if God’s Law is regarded as insufficient, meaning man must supplement it with his own statutes and precepts. The Scriptures themselves do not support such an approach toward God’s Law,[16] but men apparently know better than the God that Isaiah praises: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; He will save us” (Isa. 33:22).

The psalmist declares, “I have seen an end of all perfection: but Thy commandment is exceeding broad” (Psalm 119:96). This last clause informs us that God’s Law covers everything,[17] and that it possesses the perfection that is deficient and lacking in even the most perfect aspects of the created order. God’s Law, when used lawfully, provides the guidance we need, guidance we cannot get from the substitutes being offered from state capitals (and from far too many church pulpits).

The Psalm One Bait and Switch

Do we get an accurate picture of the first Psalm as taught from many pulpits today? There’s an easy way to tell, and it is worth it to verify the situation for oneself. We’re told in verse 2 that the blessed man’s “delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law doth he meditate day and night.” The psalm is quite clear as to what the source of blessing is. This is one of three psalms that extol God’s Law, the others being Psalm 19 and the largest psalm, Psalm 119. These three psalms are among the psalms that Paul instructed us to sing, and their contribution to our understanding are of inestimable value.

What we discover in far too many churches is that the word “law” in verse two is swapped out for a very different term, “word,” so that the pastor reads that the blessed man’s “delight is in the word of the Lord, and upon His word he meditates day and night.” And by “word” the pastor, for all intents and purposes, means God’s Word in the New Testament. So he advises his flock to flip forward to the New Testament to get the blessing promised in Psalm 1. But Psalm 1, as actually delivered by the Holy Spirit, should direct us to flip backward to the Law in the Old Testament to lay the groundwork for the blessing enjoyed by those who delight and meditate upon it.[18]

This is no trivial matter: theological plumbers have redone the pipes and directed the people in the wrong direction. If they know better than the Psalmist, they’d better provide a solid rationale for claiming the authority to alter Scripture. Is a pastor really doing his flock a favor by directing them away from God’s Law? Is this bait-and-switch justifiable? Perhaps we should be concerned for pastors who do this, considering what God says in Jeremiah 23:30 – “Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words every one from his neighbour.” To remove the word “law” and replace it with “word” is, in effect, to steal God’s words from the people who needed to hear them.

The fact that this switch is deliberate and not innocent is evidenced by the pastor’s next step. He doesn’t say “and upon His word he meditates day and night, so let’s turn to Exodus and do exactly that.” He means to replace “law” with “word” precisely because he intends to replace “Exodus” with “New Testament.” So the psalmist and the pastor would be going to opposite ends of the Bible to look for the blessing promised here. The psalmist seems to grasp the concept of “turn neither to the right hand, nor the left” better than the pastor does. Further, Psalm 1 is redefined as evidence in favor of the New Testament, as opposed to what its words actually declare it to be: positive evidence in favor of God’s Law and the blessings it brings. Modern teachers deprive the people of an important text and how it bears upon the issue of God’s Law: one less passage in support of God’s Law and its significance thanks to heavy-handed editing.

Is looking at Exodus really all that dangerous? It’s Exodus that shrinks civil government down by a factor of 11,000. It’s Deuteronomy that eradicates poverty in the land. It’s Leviticus that teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and for employers to not defraud laborers with a wage cycle God calls robbery. These things are dangerous to the status quo, of course, but that’s because the status quo is erected on unrighteous foundations (see Jer. 22:13). We have established our cities by iniquity, and the components of our own homes will testify against us: “For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it, ‘Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity’” (Hab. 2:11-12).

Christ asked if the fathers among us would give our children a stone when they ask for bread, or give them a serpent when they ask for a fish. By rejecting the blessings of God’s Law, we are transferring the heavy burdens of the current status quo (11,000 times greater tax burdens, perpetual poverty) onto the backs of our children and children’s children. We are passing on serpents and stones to the next generation to chew upon, all as a result of striking out any consideration of God’s Law. Our posterity will be consigned to a future marred by humanistic laws and policies because we in our wisdom have ruled out the alternative.

Perhaps the pastor is being proactive in wanting to avoid confusion between the law and the gospel. That is commendable, but not if the law has to be mischaracterized to do it. That doesn’t remove confusion, it creates more confusion about the law. Worse, far too many such pastors point to the scholars who have gone out of their way to carefully set law and gospel in their proper relation, asserting that those scholars have nonetheless confused the law and the gospel. This claim is shorthand for don’t trust those scholars: they can’t even keep the gospel straight. This is a fairly effective warning: it doesn’t have to be true to get results and steer people away from the allegedly “toxic” scholarship. Such innuendo can be directed against anyone who doesn’t toe the line with the pastor’s position, regardless how well-founded his target’s Biblical presentation might be. Dialogue is cut short.

So now we’re paying 11,000 times more taxes than God’s Law permits to a government, and we have rampant poverty in our midst, and we suffer countless societal woes addressed by God’s Law, yet the pastoral rejection of any positive consideration of His statutes will insure that this miserable status quo will persist. After all, the one thing strong enough to challenge the status quo is being sidelined. We should be praying that our pastors, our shepherds, will awaken to the whole counsel of God, which includes God’s Law. There’s a reason why Paul could say that he was guiltless of the blood of all men, for he didn’t fail to proclaim unto them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

The other issue arising out of neglect or disdain of God’s Law is that this approach doesn’t spread light, it increases the darkness. “To the law and the testimony: if they speak not according to these, it is because there is no light of dawn in them” (Isaiah 8:20). Isaiah uses strong words here. Those that don’t speak according to the law and the testimony cannot shed any light on anything: there is no sunlight rising in the cures they’re offering to their people. The morning cannot come when God’s Law is omitted, when His testimonies are left on the cutting room floor when the pastor develops his sermons.

On the other hand, maybe there is a reason why pastors may be resistant to God’s Law and teaching it to their flocks. God’s Law has specific things to say about how the tithe is to be divided (in Numbers 18 and Nehemiah 10) that some pastors might find concerning. Yet when it comes to the church’s tax exemption, it’s the Old Testament that comes to the rescue (the idea is based on Ezra 7:24). So some Old Testament ideas are welcomed because of the benefits they deliver, while others undergo a theological blackout of sorts.[19] This is why we’ve spent considerable time looking at the bad press that God’s Law continues to get, as if the challenges to it could never be adequately addressed.[20]

And talk about God’s Law intruding on national policy! Scripture is rife with examples of power politics (e.g., Joash wanting only to weaken Syria to maintain a buffer state between Israel and Assyria, which enraged Elisha no end in 2 Kings 13:14-19). The entire book of Lamentations was written as the result of Josiah dying in an illegal preemptive war while using forbidden means to wage it.[21] When a nation attempts to defend itself using means that violate God’s Law, He won’t say “well done, good and faithful servants,” He will say “Take away her battlements, for they are not the Lord’s” (Jer. 5:10).

Whether or not we’ve fully cleared the air is premature to determine at this point, but enough has been said to help guide us on the rest of our journey. We can now take cognizance of the passages in Scripture that promote God’s Law, consider some of the debates about those passages, and look at objections to the position we’re taking with an eye to resolving them in a charitable spirit. We trust that the reader who started out in a skeptical frame of mind might now at least be open to seeing if Christians under the New Covenant should make serious inquiry into the value and importance of God’s Law as setting forth a pattern of sanctification for those who are called by His Name. We begin by first considering what many consider to be the pivotal New Testament passage concerning the applicability of God’s Law for today.

Time to Clear the Air

Most of us have been exposed to various objections to the current application of God’s Law. These fall into several categories, and there is some crosstalk between the categories (an objection might embrace more than one category). In oversimplified terms, we could identify them as follows:

  1. God’s Law was for a different period of time.
  2. God’s Law was for a specific nation, not the world.
  3. We now live under the wrong covenant for God’s Law to apply.
  4. The New Testament has modified or repealed some, most, or all of God’s Law.
  5. Love is all that is called for according to Romans 13:8-10

On the face of it, there would be a lot here for an advocate of God’s Law to overcome. We won’t be providing a comprehensive answer to each category, but some important remarks are in order here. We will start with perhaps the most misunderstood one – that the New Testament modifies the Old Testament requirements.

While that doesn’t seem to be all that controversial a position, it is important that we dig deeper. When we do, we find out that it isn’t the New Testament that modifies the Old Testament, but rather the Old Testament itself that modifies the Old Testament. The only reason we’re unaware of this is because our knowledge of the Old Testament is inadequate. Like Ephraim’s view of the law, the Old Testament has become something of “a strange thing” to us, and we lead with our ignorance.

For example, Jeremiah 3:16 speaks of a time coming when the ark of the covenant would disappear and no longer even come to mind. The central point of Israeli worship becomes insignificant, and all the statutes relating to it no longer have a point of application. The Old Testament system was premised on the Levitical priesthood, but Isaiah 66:21 and Jeremiah 33:22 assert that God will transform Gentiles into Levites. What happened to blood descent? God had condemned Israel’s altar at Bethel (I Kings 13:2) but blesses an altar built by Egyptians on their border with Assyria in Isaiah 19:19.

The priesthood of Christ was set forth in Psalm 110:4, and it was to terminate blood sacrifice (Isaiah 66:3). Even Daniel was shocked to learn that the temple and its sacrifices would be terminated (Daniel 9:24-27), and Malachi reported that incense would be offered in every Gentile district (Malachi 1:11). Just as Israel’s mortal enemies Egypt and Assyria becomes God’s blessed peoples (Isaiah 19:18-25), we see Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Egypt being treated as citizens born in Zion (Psalm 87). Even eunuchs would be more honored in God’s house than His nominal sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:4).

In short, the Old Testament contains within itself any required limitations of its scope and reach. Much additional error could be avoided by simply understanding what is, and what is not, part of the Mosaic ordinances. For example, circumcision is not Mosaic, it is Abrahamic, and the only part of God’s Law that deals with it appears in the passive voice, talking about what to do if and when a child is circumcised. The Sabbath is a creation ordinance, and even the distinctions in the dietary law extend back to Genesis 7, well before Moses was born. While it is common to see all these things indiscriminately stuffed into a box marked “Mosaic Law” so that it can be taped closed and set aside, it is not that simple. We must bear honest witness to the things of God we are handling.

Then there’s the entire issue of how much of God’s Law was known and practiced before Moses led the people to Mount Sinai. For example, well before the people arrived at Mount Sinai, we read this in Exodus 16:28 – “And the Lord said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?” It’s not that Israel didn’t get the memo, and God isn’t pulling anyone’s leg here either. Also, it is certainly implied that Abraham walked according to God’s Law, for in Genesis 26:5 we read that “Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” This would be quite an anachronistic statement if the law wouldn’t be delivered to man for another four centuries or so. Yes, some scholars will try to evade the force of these statements, but the Berean will regard God’s words as important ones that we shouldn’t attempt to force fit to our expectations.

That the New Covenant is the wrong covenant under which God’s Law (supposedly tied exclusively to the Old Covenant) would operate is a difficult position to maintain. The New Covenant is distinctive in this, that God’s Law would be written on man’s heart and upon his mind (Jeremiah 31:33). This thought is repeated in Hebrews 8:10 and also Hebrews 10:16 – we have here a three-fold witness. The difference between Old and New is that instead of being written on tablets of stone, His Law is now written on minds and hearts (to “obtain spontaneous obedience,” as Warfield put it). This is not the same thing as “the work of the law” written on the heart that Paul refers to in Romans 2:15 (the work of the law corresponding to conscience). The content of the laws to be written would be the same as it had always been. Arbitrary assertions that “some other law” than what Jeremiah had known his entire life is intended here would require tearing the verses apart, inserting alien content, stitching them back together, and saying, “Look, I fixed it!” The disfigured results of such theological surgeries speak for themselves: we could do similar horrendous damage to the Atonement itself if such tactics were ever to be legitimized.

The popular misconception that God’s Law was only for Israel runs aground on multiple scriptures. The Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 42 specifies that He sets judgment “in the earth: and the isles shall wait for His law” (verse 4). In Isaiah 2, all nations flow into the mountain of the Lord’s house (verse 2) “for out of Zion shall go forth the law” (verse 3). As a result, “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (verse 4). Micah 4:2 says that “many nations shall come” to Zion to learn of His paths as the law goes forth out of Zion. The conversion of Egypt (Isaiah 19:18, 21) means that the Egyptians will “swear to the Lord of Hosts” … “yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it.” These are all categories of God’s Law. The conversion of the Philistines includes a fascinating detail, where God says “I will take away his blood out of his mouth, and his abominations from between his teeth: but he that remaineth, even he, shall be for our God, and he shall be as a governor in Judah, and Ekron as a Jebusite.”

Romans 13:8-10 is a peculiar text to raise as an objection to God’s Law, but it (and similar notions about “the law of Christ” replacing “the law of God,” etc.) have become virtual mantras despite propagating a serious misunderstanding. If these texts mean what the critics say, they are contradicting themselves in mid-verse. Verse 8 begins “Owe no man anything,” which is actually a more severe restriction on debt than God’s Law stipulates: we start out with a commandment in this verse. Accordingly, loving another (in the sense of an emotional orientation) cannot fulfill the law if a person is in debt, since Paul wouldn’t put forward contradictory statements in this carefully-worded epistle. In verse 10 we read that “love worketh no ill to his neighbour,” but that is the love defined in-context from the preceding verse, which quotes five commands and any other applicable ones as being summarized in Leviticus 19:18. It is this form of love, comprised by the keeping of the listed commandments and others, that will result in no ill being done to the neighbor. Our English versions would yield a better sense if it reversed the terms: the fulfilling of the law constitutes love for one’s neighbor. Emotional affection is no substitute for abstention from murder, adultery, theft, etc.

It is important to recognize that while Christ is the sole mediator between God and man, the mediator between man and man is God’s Law. His Law is to govern our relationship to others: we interact with them only in terms of God’s Law, which in turn increases peace between men. To interact directly with a man, without mediation of God’s Law, is to approach them unlawfully, in the raw, and given man’s sinful nature, the results are invariably harmful to one or both parties to unmediated relationships. Job was certainly aware of this fact, as his appeals to God rest on the fact that all his relationships to other humans were indeed mediated by God’s Law as their ground and condition. He could claim that everything he did was governed by God’s requirements.[22]

The final objection we’ll examine is that God’s Law was only in effect between the time of Moses and Christ’s crucifixion. (Depending on the theology of the critic, the endpoint can vary between Christ’s conception up to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, but in all events the Law was a dead letter before the end of the first century AD.)  Attempts to reestablish the law thereafter (e.g., King Alfred’s law code in ninth-century England) are considered terrible mistakes and dangerous impositions: what Christ has (supposedly) abolished, let no man put back in place.

Some points made above address this objection as well, at least in part. We should add a few more for further contemplation, starting with the Lord’s Prayer as found in the sixth chapter of Matthew. Familiarity with the passage has not helped our understanding of it: we need to look closer and understand what exactly we’re praying for in the tenth verse: “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”

What does it mean for God’s will to be done in heaven? We don’t have to guess: God revealed the answer in one of the psalms. We read in the Psalter, “Bless the Lord, ye His angels, that excel in strength, that do His commandments, hearkening unto the voice of His word” (Psalm 103:20). And there it is: the inhabitants in heaven do His commandments – the commandments that the psalmist was familiar with. And we are to pray that the same situation prevails upon the earth as prevails in heaven: that the inhabitants of the earth do His commandments and hearken unto the voice of His word.

Now, unless the Lord’s Prayer is not for us (and some schools of theology would teach that it is not for us, nor is the Sermon on the Mount, or even the entire gospel of Matthew), we need to reckon with how the Lord instructed us to pray, and what He instructed us to pray for. If we are to pray as He instructed, then God’s Law has a big part to play in our prayer life, comprising as it does the focus of the third petition of His model prayer for us.

It is commonly claimed that the Old Testament saints followed a works religion whereas New Testament saints follow a grace-based religion. This is incorrect, but it so convenient to appeal to this that the idea has become lodged in popular understandings of the Old Testament era. We tend to forget that God’s Law has provision for forgiveness – that the entire sacrificial system pointed forward to Christ’s atonement and prefigured it. Only the Pharisees failed to see how integral grace was to the faith of God’s people before Christ’s advent. And God’s Law is not antithetical to grace. In fact, the psalmist sees a harmony between them when he petitions God saying, “Grant me Thy law graciously” (Psalm 119:29). God giving us His guidance, a lamp unto our feet, is itself an act of grace. He doesn’t let us wander in the darkness, or by the light of our own willfulness.

Which is to say that God’s Law provides a pattern for sanctification,[23] a measure that discriminates between what is straight and what is crooked. And God is certainly in the business of making crooked things straight, and calling upon us to do the same.[24]

It is an error to assume that God no longer enforces the ordinances that He reserved to Himself the right to enforce. Israel learned this lesson the hard way when she was deported to Babylon for having violated the land sabbath ordinances for nearly a half a millennium (2 Chron. 36:21). God’s forbearance doesn’t mean the Law is no longer active: it means He’s giving us “space to repent” (Rev. 2:21) and if we don’t use it responsibly, but misread it, we will be the worse off for it.

This brings us to consideration of one of the main texts that have a bearing upon the current status of God’s Law in our era: Matthew 5:17-20. Much ink has been spilled over this passage, so we will take up this question in the next section. It is significant to the point we’ve just been considering (did God’s Law exceed its term limits in the first century or is it still operative).

A Brief Look at Matthew 5:17-20

Everybody has a theory about Matthew 5:17-20. Some hold that it doesn’t even apply to us at all, but to Israel in the future. Some hold that it speaks to us, but that it sets aside the Law of God as superseded in the New Testament era. Individual words are disputed, the relationship of the clauses are disputed, and the conclusion that verse 19 draws from the teaching of verses 17-18 is often out of sync with the position advanced by the critics. So here we have a lot of heat to get past – if possible.

We need to be on the lookout for tendentious expositions (expositions with an obvious ax to grind in advance of their analysis). This applies to the views of scholars on both sides of the divide. Much is made to rest upon this passage by friends and opponents of the present-day validity of God’s Law, for both sides believe they have found proof for their views in this passage. Sometimes a critic of God’s Law makes a strong point against an advocate for God’s Law, and that point has to be dealt with. I refer you to the link in this footnote[25] for a detailed discussion of such a situation, which will provide a backbone for this examination of the passage. Feel free to click on the link to get a fuller, better documented discussion of what is presented here (which is more a summary than a comprehensive walk-through).

A stronger rendering of Matthew 5:17’s first clause would be along the lines of “Do not even begin to think that I came to abolish the law or the prophets.” This reflects the “ingressive” force of the verb.[26] It would appear that the people were dangerously close to drawing that conclusion from Christ’s preceding words of this famous sermon. If He didn’t come to do this, what did He come to do?

“I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”

The English rendering of the last word, plerosai, is where the trouble starts. “Fulfill” is often applied to the last noun, “prophets,” as if Christ came to fulfill the prophecies about Israel’s Messiah. He supposedly “fulfilled” the Law by keeping it perfectly, thereby being the Lamb without blemish, “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” as the Baptist put it (John 1:29). If these views are correct, the law’s usefulness is on a short leash at this point, having only a few years left to run its course.

The viewpoint of Dr. Greg Bahnsen was that the correct meaning of plerosai can be inferred from the fact that the word “but” – alla in Greek – is the “strong adversative” in Greek, meaning the following word would be the antonym to “destroy,” having the direct opposite meaning. For Dr. Bahnsen, this meant that plerosai meant “ratify or confirm” the law and the prophets. If this is correct, it points in the direction of the continuance of the law.

However, as pointed out in the footnote above, there was a sticking point. Scholars could find examples where alla didn’t require the exact opposite word, an antonym. Further, the meaning for plerosai that Dr. Bahnsen arrived at appeared in a gloss (a side note) in a lexicon, rather than being listed among fully validated meanings of the term.

Does this mean the pro-Law position has run aground on an insuperable objection at the last word of Matthew 5:17? No, for as it turns out, scholarship has been focused on this passage for centuries, and there is actually a much stronger translation for plerosai that is so well-attested, it appears in interlinear Bibles. The main definition of plerosai is simply to fill. There can be no lexical objection to this translation, as it’s not based on an obscure gloss, it’s the primary definition. Nobody translates it this way because the dogmatic tag wags the grammatical dog. (There is a reason why it has been observed that the root word for translator is “traitor.”)

If that translation fill is indeed correct (and it has the advantage of needing no dubious gymnastics to apply it), we need to understand what it means. What has happened to God’s Law and how does Christ act with respect to it? What have the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, done with God’s Law? Christ makes clear that they have made it void: they have emptied it of meaning. And to understand God’s response to this, we need to look to passages such as Psalm 119:126, where we read “It is time for Thee to work, O Lord: for they have made void Thy law.” The Law cannot be left in such a state: void, empty, evacuated of meaning and application. It must be restored, its being made void must be reversed by filling it back up and undoing the emptiness. The Law can be voided by ignoring it but also by distorting it, by making it crooked. God’s commandments are straight, but are rendered void by being made crooked. This was the moral atmosphere in which Christ is operating.

As noted in the footnoted article above, the three verses 126, 127, and 128 of Psalm 119 form a unified set. Regrettably, the last verse of this set, 119:128, is badly mangled: many translators think a word is missing, because of the unusual literal rendering of the verse. Note that it begins with the term “Therefore,” and takes up the thought of the law rendered void in verse 126 that must be dealt with. Let’s put the two passages together, verse 126 with 128 (as 127 is connective and leading to the conclusion): “It is time for Thee, Lord, to work: for they have made void Thy law. Therefore all precepts of all I make straight; I hate every false way.”[27] Note the connection: the Lord is called upon to work to undo the voiding of His law (verse 126), and verse 128 acts as the divine response: all precepts of all I will make straight. The Messianic intimations in Psalm 119 are remarkable and not sufficiently studied, and here is an instance of just such an occurrence. Christ will make God’s precepts straight again … all of them being restored, leaving none in a void, empty state. He will fill them, in every sense of the term “to fill” as the divine response to the Law being made void.

It should be noted that an alternative to the view above was advanced by Warfield and is referenced in the article in the above footnote. There are more ways than one to understand the final words of Matthew 5:17 without running into the difficulties that Dr. Bahnsen’s exposition has encountered.

Matthew 5:18 also has suffered much at the hands of expositors. Let’s emphasize five words in it in bold type: the two occurrences of “until,” the two occurrences of “one,” and the word “all.”

“For verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass way, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law until all be accomplished.”

The last word, “accomplished,” is genetai, a very different word from plerosai, “fill,” in the preceding verse. Christ draws attention to His meaning by repeating the word “one” twice, which then sets up the meaning for the word “all” that follows: all refers to all the jots and tittles. We can render (with Warfield) the last clause as “until all [of them] be accomplished.” And this is referring specifically to the jots and tittles of the law: they will not pass way until all of them be accomplished. As Warfield notes, this amounts to a prediction that God’s Law will one day be fully kept in this world.[28]

Consequently, that means that this verse isn’t telling us so much about when the law will pass away, as when the heavens and earth shall pass away. They will pass away once all the jots and tittles of the laws have been kept, have been obeyed, and are no longer being broken and transgressed. As Warfield puts it, Christ came to get the law kept, and the Lord’s Prayer hammers home the same point: we are to pray for all the jots and tittles to be accomplished, meaning that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Verse 19 begins with the word “Therefore,” which signifies a causal relationship to verses 17 and 18. “Therefore whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

We must note, first, that at no point does this verse say that someone isn’t in the kingdom of heaven – but rather that their status in the kingdom of heaven evidences a self-inflicted demotion: they have diminished themselves by teaching that the commandments of God have been in some way loosened. The reference to the least commandment is of interest here too, so let’s examine it.

It was the view of the rabbis that the least commandment was to be found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7, which is a statute regarding what should be done if you were to encounter a nest of bird’s eggs on the ground. God’s Law protects the species by forbidding the taking of the mother bird: only the eggs could be taken. As things go, this looks to be a fairly trivial matter (though it is important to God). This, then, is the least commandment.

However, there is something rather surprising about this “least commandment.” If you read it, you will see that it ends with the same promise that the Fifth Commandment, concerning the honoring of father and mother, has. If you keep this least commandment, your days will be long in the land that the Lord has given you. This tremendous promise, attached to both the Fifth Commandment (the first command with a promise, as Paul notes in Ephesians 6:2) and the least commandment, illustrates the fundamental unity of God’s Law. This bears witness to the same concept that James puts forth concerning the unity of God’s Law (James 2:10).

Commentators are aware that Matthew 5:19 wouldn’t lay out these warnings unless the Law of God were operative, so the only way to evade God’s Law is to assert that the provisions of this warning expired twenty centuries ago, along with the Law that it referenced. Alternatively, this verse might suddenly become operative in an alleged future millennial reign of Christ from Jerusalem – and not merely operative, but compulsory.

It would be more natural to take the text as it stands written, understood in such a way that the verses comprising the passage harmonize with one another rather than conflict with one another, and move forward from there. However, opponents of the present day validity of God’s Law believe that if they can turn the flank of the pro-Law position by “correcting” the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, their goal will have been achieved. As much is at stake, much heat continues to be generated by this debate – and rather than iron sharpening ironing, we’ve seen altogether too much deplatforming, censoring, censuring, and blocking over these issues.

Theonomy and Theonomists

Theonomy as commonly used would refer to the position that the Law of God is, by and large, still valid and operative in this world, excepting for the sacrificial system which has been superseded as a result of Christ’s work (as attested in the Old Testament itself, and not merely in the New Testament epistles). The Puritans represented an incipient theonomic movement in many respects (though there were notable exceptions among them) and a renewed interest in these neglected portions of Scripture has arisen in the late twentieth century.

Theonomists don’t all agree with one another. And some of these intramural disagreements were not handled very well (which is something of an irony in and of itself), which indicates that there still is no substitute for Christian character. The diversity of view shouldn’t be considered an inherent flaw in the theonomic approach, because theonomists are playing catch-up. Just as the Law of God was once found by Hilkiah to pass on to King Josiah (2 Kings 22:8ff), we’re in a similar situation of grappling with God’s Law anew, and learning how to apply it equitably in modern society.

We must adopt the attitude of the psalmist who declared that God’s statutes are “more to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold” (Psalm 19:10). If we find ourselves preferring gold over God’s Law, we’ve taken a harmful detour in opposition to the psalmist. Psalm 119 expresses the same thought twice: “The law of Thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver” (verse 72) and “I love Thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold” (verse 127).  Just as James taught that we can pray for wisdom, so too can we pray for godly affections so that we prefer His commandments above gold and silver. In Psalm 119:66 we read in the King James Version, “Teach me good judgment and knowledge: for I have believed Thy commandments.” The Hebrew word translated “judgment” is taam, from the root word “to taste.” The actual sense is, “Teach me right affections” – meaning we can learn to like and appreciate the things upheld by God’s Word by asking Him to give us proper affections.

Theonomy is a minority position at this point in history, albeit growing. From the theonomic perspective, the modern power state functions as a false god and should be regarded as such, since it claims to occupy the apex of authority, having dethroned God to do so. The only thing stronger than a modern power state is God Himself. Christians governing their own lives according to the law of God are in a position to expand self-government, which in turn shrinks the power state. Progress is based on regeneration, not revolution: we are not to take unto ourselves weapons of the flesh, but the far mightier weapons of the Spirit. The impact of applying God’s Law in our own lives will be extensive: it is part of the leaven that leavens the whole lump.

How do we reverse the pervading ignorance of the Law and its blessings? We know that Israel versified the commandments and sang them, which helped the people remember them and do them. We learn that startling fact in Psalm 119:54b – “Thy statutes have been my songs in the days of my pilgrimage.” Today it’s an uphill battle to sing the Ten Commandments, which are but a summary of the entire law.[29] Why expend effort on such an enterprise if the Law has expired, as many teach today? Hebrews 2:2 doesn’t assert that the law (“the word spoken by angels”) was temporary, but rather that it “was stedfast.” The verse further explains that “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward.” Can we say this of humanistic law, that the recompense is always just? Humanistic law criminalizes much that God permits, and subsidizes what God forbids.

Theonomists with an eye to laying a foundation for future scholarship and biblical application have spent (and are spending) energy on working through the various challenges (old and new) directed toward the theonomic thesis. For example, some critics hold that the law has changed (citing Hebrews 7:12, which reads thusly in the King James Version: “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law”). Texts like this have been examined by Dr. Bahnsen, and we add but a few additional considerations. First, recall our point that the Old Testament modifies itself. Hebrews 7’s discussion of Melchisidek and Levi having paid tithes to him while in Abraham’s loins indicates that the Levitical priesthood was subordinated to Melchisidek’s (who had priority and whose office wasn’t disannulled by the Law, as Gal. 3:15ff argues). As mentioned earlier, Isaiah prophesied of Egyptians who “shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it” (Isa. 19:21), and this requires that the Levitical limitation be transcended. And yet, the Law is regarded as intact by Isaiah, who puts Israel behind Egypt and Assyria (Israel’s two mortal enemies) as radiating divine blessings (Isa. 19:24). Further, the word metathesis in Hebrews 7:12 is better rendered as “a translation” of the law concerning the priesthood, and in this sense is a translation back to the earlier priesthood that had all along maintained priority.[30]

Theonomists are mindful that “the isles wait for His Law,” and that every effort must be bent to teach the whole counsel of God to His people, so that they are fully equipped. There is no question that the word of God that “fully equipped” Timothy (in 2 Timothy 3:17 – “thoroughly furnished”) was the scriptures of the Old Testament, including the Law of God. The profitableness of the Old Testament “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (verse 16) is asserted as an uncontested fact. This takes nothing away from the glory of the gospel and the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). It indicates that God is concerned about all aspects of our lives.

Theonomists warn us that the fruit of humanistic law eventually tends to evil. We’re warned in Psalm 94:20 that the wicked “frame mischief using law.” The legal system is twisted to institutionalize (“frame”) mischief. The chief way this is done is by rejecting the primary requirement of God’s Law: that there be no respect of persons. Humanistic law always ends up with built-in “respect of persons,” which generates injustices that need to be corrected with more injustices later on. Only God’s Law stands solidly on the principle of “no respect of persons.” By abandoning God’s Law, we find no stable foundation for societal justice, for a system built on respect of persons will eventually collapse. We are doing our nation no favors by withholding God’s Law from consideration. Rather, we will accelerate its demise, because we will be looking the other way as our nation builds on sand instead of on rock.

Theonomy at its best teaches us how all the elements of God’s Word work together to maximize liberty and blessing in our nation. How God’s Law has been labeled a blueprint for tyranny is amazing, as it is the only blueprint to avoid tyranny and promote liberty. The critiques are, of course, based on labeling various historical developments as examples of theonomy in action, developments marked by obvious evidence that theonomy was not actually applied. These phony “cautionary tales” of misery and woe are falsely attributed to theonomy as their wellspring. Such attacks are the last refuge of those who commend man’s way over God’s way, and their willingness to misrepresent and misattribute indicates that the “truths” they’re sharing are weaponized fabrications.

A fair test of theonomy requires that all jots and tittles be operative, because God’s Law is a unity, a package deal (so to speak). It doesn’t deliver 50% blessings for obeying half of it. We learn this from passages like Malachi 2:9 – “Therefore have I made you contemptible and base before all people, according as ye have not kept my ways, but have been partial in the law.” As James 2:9 makes clear, respect of person makes one a transgressor. Because men are determined to operate in terms of respect of persons, they shut their ears to God’s Law lest they be convicted by it.

Theonomic ethics have been fully evaluated in three places in Scripture: Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119. Their combined testimony is uniformly positive. Critics of theonomy have to explain away the witness of all these scriptures. They often warn that theonomy is attractive because it presents simple solutions to complex problems (translation: they aren’t above psychoanalyzing anyone interested in being a Berean when it comes to the theonomy question). They will not allow that perhaps people are interested in investigating theonomy because it appears to do full justice to the scriptures of both Old and New Testaments, treating them together as the whole counsel of God. Perhaps God’s people have decided that Ephraim’s view (that the great things in God’s Law were a strange thing) isn’t set forth as an example to emulate today, but rather as evidence of Ephraim’s apostasy. And this awareness often triggers a course correction.

We’ll then appreciate that Paul has harsh words about the law in the context of justification (where it has no legitimate place) but positive words about the law in the context of sanctification. We’ll recognize that theonomy isn’t consistent with legalism or moralism, but is hostile to both positions. And those who, through study and careful consideration, begin to adopt theonomic ethics, will learn how God disperses His blessings to His people when they turn to Him as Lawgiver in the same spirit that they turn to Him as King, Judge, and Savior (Isaiah 33:22).



[2] See also Matthew 26:11

[3] More accurately, God reserved to Himself the delivering of consequences for transgression: there was no human agent of enforcement.

[4] 2 Maccabees 3:10ff.

[5] Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 24:14, and Malachi 3:5.

[6] Literal translation from Joseph Addison Alexander, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980 reprint of 1858 original), p. 280.

[7] M. B. Riddle’s editorial note in Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer’s Critical and Exegetical Hand-Book to the Gospels of Mark and Luke (Winona Lake, IN: 1979 reprint of 1884 American edition), p. 138.

[8] Ibid, p. 133.


[10] Nehemiah reduced it from half a shekel to a third of a shekel, either because the shekel had changed its value or due to economic hardship considerations. It was back to a half shekel by the time of Christ.



[13] It would be a mistake to think that God is a poor enforcer, but He certainly takes the long view. God’s land sabbath law required that the land be left fallow every seventh year (and two years in a row at the Jubilee) so that it can rest and recharge. Israel was notorious for violating this law, assuming God was winking at this transgression since He hadn’t lowered the boom. He forgave them seventy times seven years, but after 490 years of transgression, of denying the land its required Sabbath year rests, God acted. Israel’s deportation to Babylon was to give the land the seventy years of rest stolen from it. This deportation was “to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths: for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years” (2 Chron. 36:21). Men interpret God’s longsuffering, not as extending them time to repent, but as an opportunity to double down on their transgression. They thought God didn’t care, that this ordinance was no longer binding, and they were shocked to learn they were very wrong.


[15] We’ll consider later one of the implications of humans creating rules: that “the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9) make void the Law of God, displacing His commandments (Mark 7:7-13; cf. Psalm 119:126).

[16] Consider what the psalmist declares in Psalm 119:99 – “I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation.” We will also look closer at verse 96 up in the main body of our discussion as well.



[19] Ezekiel 34:10 teaches a “one strike and you’re out” policy for pastors who harm any member of their flock. This passage of Ezekiel is appealed to by Christ in John 10, but we hear little about God’s dim view of restoring pastors to office whenever modern churches attempt to evade this key scripture and sidestep God’s requirements. See and also


[21] We can add that the modern practice of indiscriminate bombing violates the ban on harming the enemy’s (or one’s own) fruit trees, and God’s law specifies minimum and maximum ages for soldiers, with war being limited to repelling military invasions of one’s homeland. God’s Law provides for infantry (adequate for defense) but not for cavalry (used for offense and thus forbidden to the nation to possess). The actual defender of the nation is God, as taught in Isaiah 4:5 and exposited so powerfully by Puritan John Owen. No defense is possible against God (as Ahab learned when the happenstance arrow entered his body through a chink in his armor), and no offense can succeed against Him when He protects a nation. Our problem is this: we throw out God’s Law, so the only thing we have left are the ineffective weapons of the flesh, and we will learn that our shields have countless holes in them.

[22] Job said, “I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?” (Job 31:1), illustrating his faithfulness in respect to God’s Law mediating all his relationships to others. His comment here anticipates what Christ taught in the Sermon on the Mount at Matthew 5:28. Job was ahead of the curve, leaning forward in the saddle, when it came to God’s Law.

[23] We assume that the reader would agree with Paul that “this is the will of God, even your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3) and that the issue revolves around the standard of sanctification rather than the fact of it. Those who deny the need for sanctification, the hard-core antinomians, have no need for a standard, having rejected the process itself and the need for growth in His people.



[26] Greg Bahnsen makes this observation in his magnum opus, Theonomy in Christian Ethics. I believe he is correct here, but I do not adopt his approach to the second clause, not his handling of verse 18, for reasons explained in the text, as I respectfully think a stronger case can be made than he had advanced back in the 1970s.

[27] Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.) 4:266. The literal rendering from Hebrew into English is by Rev. Archdeacon Aglen. The same basic translation is found in Eun Suk Cho’s translation of Psalm 119-120 from 2013. The structure of this verse is so unique that some have declared the text to be corrupt, rather than to let it speak as written. See Mitchell Dahood, Psalms III: 101-150 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970), p. 187, for evidence of this. Dahood says even Kirkpatrick regards the text as corrupt. Since the verse is arguably Messianic in import, such a premature verdict would be quite harmful.

[28] One fascinating possibility is raised by the “stone cut without hands” in Daniel 2:34-35, which is traditionally interpreted either to symbolize the Messiah Himself, or the Kingdom of God. One lone scholar (James Jordan) regards it as connoting the stone altar in the Tabernacle and later the Temple, since no man raised a tool upon that stone, but it is nowhere said to have been cut. There is, however, another stone referred to in scripture that was actually cut without human hands: the original tablets of God’s law. If that is the actual reference in Daniel (that the stone God had cut and written on symbolically strikes the statue, destroying it and then filling the earth), the presence of debris “like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors driven by the wind” (Dan. 2:35) correlates with Psalm 1’s “chaff which the wind driveth away” in contrast to those who meditate upon God’s Law (Psalm 1:4).

[29] Judy Rogers is one singer/songwriter who has recorded the Ten Commandments.

[30] One interlinear text uses “transference” as the literal meaning, implying a transfer back to the original priesthood of Melchisidek’s.

Theonomic Critics of Theonomy

Theonomic Critics of Theonomy

Setting the Stage Events over the past several years have conspired to expose that much of the “conservative” evangelical pastorate has been asleep at the switch when it comes to the intersection of faith and civil government. These can be touchy subjects, and Pastors...


Martin Selbrede
Martin is the senior researcher for The Chalcedon Foundation's ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.


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