A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 23)

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

  1. What must rulers do, according to God’s law?

In the New Testament, Paul would teach that magistrates were to bring praise to the good and terror to evil men (Ro.13:3). The same perspective was advanced in the Old Testament Proverb: “The execution of justice is joy to the righteous, but is terror to the workers of iniquity” (Prov.21:15). But how can this truly be the case unless the magistrate, whether in Israel or not, judges and punishes according to the standards of God’s law?

When tyrants rule among men, even righteous citizens need to fear the judgements of the ruler, for he does not adhere to proper standards; likewise, with a magistrate that does not honour the law of God, a wicked citizen need not necessarily fear the ruler’s decisions. Gentile magistrate were thus required in the Old Testament to keep the law of God for political affairs.

God did not exempt nations around Israel from the claims of his righteousness, but rather held them accountable for moral degeneration. Proof of this statement is sufficiently found in the stories of Sodom (negatively) and Ninevah (positively). But the most dramatic proof that God’s law was valid outside of Israel is found in Lev.18:24-27. God there required His people to avoid the abominations against His law which were practiced by the Canaanites of the land, and He threatened to punish Israel in the same way as He would punish the Gentiles for these offences. Clearly God had one moral standard for all societies.

For that reason the indictment, “Woe to him that builds a town with blood and establishes a city by iniquity,” was voiced against Israel (Mic.3:10) as well as against the Babylonians (Hab.2:12). It is obvious from these observations that God expected Gentile magistrates and citizens to honour His standards of righteousness and justice just as much as He expected it of Israelite magistrates and citizens. As the Proverb taught, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (14:34).

…David himself declared that he would take God’s law for Israel and speak it before other kings (Ps.119:46). And he warned that the kings and judges of the earth who would not fear Jehovah and serve Him would perish in the way (Ps.2:10-12).

The Old Testament evidence is quite abundant then, that expectations for civil rulers outside of Israel were often the same as they were for rulers in Israel. They were appointed by God to avenge His wrath by enforcing the law of the Lord. The political aspects of God’s law, therefore, were certainly not intended for the exclusive use of the Jews in the “theocratic” situation. The political justice God required in Israel was required of all nations as well. It was not racially or geographically relative (p.242-44).

  1. Is the law of God still required today in all the nations?        

God has spoken to issues of social justice and public policy towards crime in His law. There is a divine point of view on politics, and it has been expressed in the law of the Old Testament. Two things are to be said about that law. First, it continues to be the general standard of ethical conduct today according to the Scripture… Second, Old Testament law did not have a moral validity restricted to the Jewish race; it is intended to be the standard of conduct outside the redeemed community as well as within it.

Consequently, if the Old Testament law of God expresses (among other things) God’s view of political morality, and if that law has universal and abiding validity, we should expect that the New Testament perspective on law and politics would likewise affirm the standard of God’s law for public policy. Differences in time and locality, differences in dispensation and race, differences in culture and redemptive status do not demand or imply differences in moral standards.

We would thus expect that the distinctive Christian approach to political ethics would be defined by the entire word of God, inclusive of the law of God revealed through Moses and expounded by the prophets in the Old Testament. When we turn to study the New Testament writings themselves on this question, this is precisely what we find to be the case. There is definite continuity between the political ethics of the New Testament and the political ethics of the Old Testament…

Rulers must honour good citizens and deter evil by punishing the criminal element in society, using the standard of God’s law as their guide (as to good and evil). This explains why Christians must nearly always be submissive to the civil ruler: that ruler is obligated in his public capacity to serve the Christian’s Lord, and thus loyalty to the Lord requires loyalty to the king.

However, when such service is repudiated by the king (or other ruling authority) and the law of the Lord is violently and persistently transgressed, so that good citizens are terrorised by the ruler and evil men are tolerated or exalted, the Christian must not comply with the tyrant’s policies but rather work for reform in the name of the Lord and divine standards of public justice.

The fact that God’s law is binding on present-day civil magistrates explains both why the Christian should shun rebellious attitudes toward rulers and why Christians may not cooperate with unjust regimes. Absolute submission under any and all circumstances, or absolute independence of the magistrate regarding each and every decision he makes, may be simple and easy positions to understand or follow, but the more complex attitude of general submission for the sake of the Lord but resistance when God’s law is outrageously violated, is more faithful to Scriptural teaching and truer to political realities. It is this balanced attitude which Paul presents in Romans 13…(p.246-251).

  1. What is the task of the magistrate?

Since all civil magistrates have no power unless it has been given to them from heaven above, as Christ declared, even while standing before Pilate (Jn.19:11), they are responsible to reverence and obey Almighty God…The proper aim of all ethical conduct is the glory of God, and civil magistrates, being ordained of God to rule, are not exempt from the moral obligation to rule for the glory of God. Those appointed by God will be answerable to God for the kind of rule they render in society.

This is nothing else but the doctrine of the Old Testament, whether we consider the rulers of Israel or the rulers of Gentile nations around Israel. Paul’s teaching is grounded in the Old Testament. Both the Old and New Testaments, then, begin their “philosophy of state” within the supremacy of God, to whom all rulers owe reverence and obedience (p.252-253).