A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 22)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. What are the political implications of God’s law?

a) God’s appointed rulers are not to be resisted.

God was recognised in the Old Testament as the One who ordained and removed rulers in Israel. There was no authority in Israelite society except by God, and those who ruled were ordained to such leadership by God. On the one hand the people selected and acknowledged their rulers (as in I Kings 12:20 or II Kings 9:13), and on the other hand there was a corresponding divine decree which sovereignly established the ruler (as in I Kings 11:31 or II Kings 9:1-2). God’s sovereign power of appointment is made clear in Hosea 13:11, “I have given you a king in My anger, and taken him away in My wrath.” In Old Testament Israel, the powers that be were ordained of God.

For that reason it was strictly forbidden that people resist the authority of their political leaders. Honour had to be given to whom it was due. So the law of God prohibited any reviling of the ruler (Ex.22:28), and Paul himself appealed to this standard in his own case (Acts 23:5).

b) Bearing religious titles, rulers were avengers of divine wrath.

Old Testament civil rulers were ordained, were not to be resisted, and bore religious titles as the representatives of God in society. Their main function was that of avenging God’s wrath against violators of his law for social justice.

Over and over again the Old Testament associated the sword of judgement with God, who brought historical punishment upon the rebellion of men. Even Israel was threatened with the judgement of the sword if she broke the law of the Lord (for example, Lev.26:25, 33, 36-37), a threat carried out in its climax when Jerusalem fell by the edge of the sword to the word of Christ (Luke 21:24). The sword of vengeance belongs to God.

And yet the sword is repeatedly associated with God’s will for civil rule as well. Human government is symbolised by the sword, whether it is wielded by Pharaoh (Ex.18:4) or by Saul (II Sam.1:22). The sword’s proper function is that of executing criminal violators of God’s law (for example, I Kings 51; 2:8; etc.)  Whenever the sword is used autonomously, whenever men use political power and punishment as a law unto themselves, it is used in a sinful manner (for example, I Sam.22:19). The wielding of the sword is accordingly vain if it is not used in conformity to God’s law. The magistrate in Israel had no right to slay men independent of God’s guidance and word…

Clearly, if the God of justice requires earthly rulers to govern with justice, then those rulers are obligated to observe the law of God in all their judgements. Even as God does not justify the wicked (Ex.23:7), they must not justify the wicked (Deut.25:1). They must judge as He judges.

c) Magistrates must deter evil by ruling according to God’s law.

In the Old Testament, those who showed themselves worthy were safe, but the wicked would die (for example, I Kings 1:52). So, “the wrath of the king is as messengers of death…” (Prov.16:14). The civil magistrate was accordingly called to be a terror to evildoers. But, then, if civil rulers in Israel were ordained by god as his deputies who were to be a terror to evildoers (but no threat to the righteous), is it not obvious that they had to rule according to God’s law?

If they had rested on their own wisdom and moral discernment, they would easily have judged with partiality, leniency and harshness rather than the purity of God’s justice. For even civil rulers among God’s chosen people were sinners who needed the guidance and correction of God’s revelation, especially in official decisions they made which affected the nation and its uprightness.

Thus, the Old Testament taught that justice is perverted whenever the law of God was slackened (Hab.1:4)…Over and over again, the rulers of Israel pleased the Lord by dedicating themselves to keep His commandments (for example, Josiah and Ezra’s reform). The reason why kings were to stay sober was just so they would not “forget the law and pervert judgement” (Prov.31:5). Daily they were to read God’s law (Deut.17:14-20), and morning by morning they were to punish the workers of iniquity (Ps.101:8) (p.225-231).

  1. Did God’s law only apply in Israel?

All people are under obligation to the standards of God’s law, in whatever form it has been received, written or not, and thus all have sinned and are in need of Christ’s redemption (Ro.3:23). God is no respecter of persons here. He has the same standard for all men whom He has created. And all men know those standards by virtue of their creation as God’s image, by virtue of living in God’s world, and by virtue of God’s clear work of general and special revelation.

Nevertheless, there are Christians who maintain that with respect to a special subclass of the laws revealed to the Jews in the Old Testament, those laws were meant for only Israel to keep. The laws were political in character. The kings and judges of Israel were bound to obey them, we are told, but not the rulers in other nations. All children, Jewish or Gentile, were under moral obligation to obey their parents, it is thought, but only Jewish rulers (not Gentile) were under moral obligation to punish crimes (for example, assaulting one’s parents violently) in the way specified by the Old Testament law. That is, according to this outlook, some laws from God were universal in obligation, and other laws were localised.

Is such a delineation of universal and localised laws made in the text of the inspired Old Testament? Well, no, it must be admitted. Is such a delineation of universal and localised laws made in Paul’s teaching about the general or universal revelation of God’s moral standards? In fact, the Roman epistle states quite clearly that those who commit abominable misdeeds such as homosexuality know from “the ordinances of God that those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Ro.1:31).

…Israel’s law was a model for all the nations round about. And it was such a model with respect to all the statutes delivered from God touching on political matters like crime and punishment… “There shall be one standard for the stranger as well as the native, for I the Lord am your God” (Lev.24:22). With respect to politics, as with all things, God did not have a double standard of morality. The justice of His law was to be established as a light to the Gentiles (Isa.51:4).

Indeed, the prophetic hope was that all nations would flow into Zion, saying “Come and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of Jehovah from Jerusalem” (Isa.2:2-3)…God’s law, Israel’s wisdom in the sight of others (cf. Deut.4:6, 8) was designed for the moral government of the world (p.235-238).