Greg Bahnsen on the Civil Law

This begins a three-part intermediary study on the three sets of Biblical Law (Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial) and how they both relate to each other and how they are to be received in the New Covenant life.

From “The Westminster Assembly and the Equity of the Judicial Law”

By Dr. Greg Bahnsen

Civil Law

Quite clearly, the Puritan zeal for Reformed theology was not, given the turmoil of their day, inimical to socio-political concerns. God’s infallible word in Scripture, whose authority they confessed to be superior to all human opinion and traditions, was the moral standard for all conduct in every area of life. This included civil affairs. Given the degenerating condition of modern society, with a frightening escalation of criminal activity yet near-total failure of our present penal system, it is not unreasonable for those who love the Reformed faith and its full-orbed, Biblical worldview to ask what our Puritan forefathers confessed about God’s justice in the area of civil law. Could their voice from 350 years ago speak to us with greater Scriptural consistency and soundness than the confused opinions of our own weak and wayward generation?

What did the Westminster theologians say about those provisions in Scripture which address civil magistrates and the punishment of crime, particularly those civil norms found amid the “judicial laws” of Moses (e.g., Exodus 21-22)?

In chapter 19, section 4, the Confession teaches us: (1) God gave “sundry” judicial laws to Israel “as a body politick”; (2) these “expired” along with that state; (3) that which is now obligatory in those laws is what “the general equity thereof may require” — but (4) nothing further.

The popular attitude of our generation — both outside and inside the Christian church (which is a commentary in itself) — is that the civil laws of the Mosaic revelation are outlandish, out-dated, and surely not morally acceptable for modern states. Those who, like “theonomists,” do not repudiate the moral validity and use of the Mosaic judicial laws in contemporary political affairs have scorn heaped upon them as anachronistic fools or dangerous tyrants. Today even theologians who claim to be “Reformed” widely ridicule or emphatically reject the theonomic endorsement of the validity of Old Testament civil laws.

But we should honestly ask: who is closer to the Reformed theology of the Westminster Confession on this point today, theonomists or their detractors?

Even as hostile a critic as Meredith Kline had to concede that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms are theonomic in perspective (Westminster Theological Journal, v. 41, 1978, pp. 173-174). Taking a more detailed look at this question, Sinclair Ferguson later had to acknowledge that section 19.4 in the Confession is indeed consistent with the theonomic position, and that there is a “practical” coincidence between the views of the Westminster commissioners and the civil applications of the theonomic view today (Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, eds. Barker & Godfrey, Zondervan, 1990, pp. 329, 334, 347).

His only hope was to show that the Westminster Confession does not strictly require a theonomic interpretation (pp. 345, 346, 348-349). Yet even in contending for this diminished thesis, the precision of Ferguson’s article slips, as he overstates and thus misconstrues the theonomic view of “general equity” (pp. 331, 343, 347), and exegetically confuses the notion of an “equity” found in the law with the logically distinct and philosophically different notion of “the equity of the law” (pp. 330-331).


What is the Law?

In yesterday’s post we looked at the purpose of the Law in the context of the New Covenant. These “three uses” as is intimated in Calvin’s Institutes are Conviction of Sin, Restraining of Evil, and Teaching Good Works. But what is it that makes up this moral law? This law that God uses in His Scripture to perform these uses? Well nearly all of us can agree that the Ten Commandments perform this function quite well. But what are these Ten? And is the moral law just these Ten? Does the Ten Commandments work as a summary of the Law or as the whole Law?

More to come…

The Authority of God’s Law Today

Antinomianism – 1. lawlessness, 2. in theology, it is the idea that members of a particular religious group are under no obligation to obey the laws of ethics or morality as presented by religious authorities or by the religion’s holy book.

Josiah Reading the Newly Found Book of the Law

The manner in which the Old Testament speaks to New Testament ethics is a object of great dispute in the Reformed world. It would frankly be a waste of time for this post to honestly become involved in unpacking how the Law is handled in different contexts within Christendom. That is why I would like to focus on the charge, made by both some in the Reformed camp themselves and by those outside who condemn Justification by Faith Alone as being anathema to the vision of James, ergo “Faith Without Works is Dead”. Those who do make this charge within the Reformed world often are members of the heterodox New Perspectives and/or the Federal Vision theologies which make the charge that those of us who hold to the Biblical understanding of Justification allow for a faith that denies the necessary nature of our own works in justification. As opposed to the traditional and orthodox belief that Christ’s Active Obedience to the Law (both its positive and negative declarations) during his earthly life is/was imputed to us in order that we might be saved from God’s wrath. Jesus thereby fulfilled the Covenant of Works and received the covenant blessings that result from this Active Obedience. Through the Covenant of Grace we partake in this (both active and passive sense) Christ is our substitutional covenant head, we are subsumed under Christ’s reign as his sheep and are saved by His righteousness alone and his advocation for us at the throne of judgment.

But what does this all have to do with the authority of God’s Law today?

We as members of the “New” Covenant of Grace are now no longer held under condemnation by the Law but are free to follow its precepts. Simply put Paul in Romans 6 begins by saying, “May be continue in sin that Grace may abound? May it never be!” continuing his discussion in chapter 5 on the benefits of this union with Christ, in other words the results of our justification which closes with:

The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as (sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” — Romans 5:20-21

So what is the Law then? Paul in Romans 3:20b & 7:7 says:

…for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.”… “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “YOU SHALL NOT COVET.”

So the Law not only acts as a convicting agent but also as a moral guide for how the born Christian is to live under the New Covenant. The curse of the Law has been removed so we could now follow the Law as an act of obedience. However we must be clear to say it i not our obedience that saves but as Martin Luther is reported as remarking Good Works does not a righteous man make but a righteous man will not fail to do Good Works. Westminster Larger Catechism question # 24 defines sin as “…any want or conformity unto, transgression of any Law of God, given as a rule to the reasonable creature.” and Question # 91 defines the duty of man to the Law as “…obedience to the revealed will [of God].”

Now what is this “revealed will” to which if we transgress it is seen as a disobedient act towards the Holy person of God?

Well that will be the purpose of tomorrow’s post. See you then.