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Covenants and Law

Without law there is no covenant. The law sets forth the sovereign’s requirements for the recipients of His grace, so that, instead of being in opposition to grace, law is concomitant to grace. When the Lord in His grace made a covenant, He also gave His law.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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Chalcedon Report No. 170, October 1979

One of the central failures of the church in our age is its retreat from the historic Christian faith in and reliance on God’s law in favor of humanistic law. All forms of humanistic law, such as civil law and class (or Marxist) law, presuppose man’s autonomy from God. Autonomy means literally self-law, i.e., man as his own god, determining for himself what constitutes good and evil (Gen. 3:5), as against theonomy, God’s law. Humanistic law is leading to the suicide of civilization.

Basic to the church’s error is its failure to understand the relationship of law and grace, and behind that failure is its neglect of the doctrine of the covenant. Covenants are treaties, literally, and they are of two kinds. First, treaties can be made between equals, or between two powers of varying strength, who agree on a mutual faith and law. Every covenant requires a common faith and law, and hence Scripture forbids covenants or treaties with unbelieving nations and peoples, or a covenant of mar­riage with an unbeliever (Exod. 34:12–16). To make a covenant with an unbeliever is to concede the validity of his faith and law, and to practice polytheism, to say that religions are equally good.

Second, covenants or treaties can be acts of sovereign grace by a su­premely greater power to an insignificant one, and the covenant law is an act of grace from the sovereign to one whom he receives into fellowship by grace. The law then sets forth the life of grace. Such is God’s covenant with man. God the Lord, as the total and absolute Creator and Sovereign, needs no alliance or treaty with His creatures. Such a covenant is an act of pure sovereign grace on God’s part. Now, without law there is no covenant. The law sets forth the sovereign’s requirements for the recipients of His grace, so that, instead of being in opposition to grace, law is concomitant to grace. When the Lord in His grace made a covenant, He also gave His law.

All too many churchmen in the past century have seen it as virtue to reject God’s law in favor of man’s law. Even so important a man as Abra­ham Kuyper, while waging a major battle against the forces of revolution, undermined the permanence of his own work by undermining the his­toric Netherlands’ belief in Biblical law. He refused to ground civil gov­ernment in God’s revealed law. Instead, he held that civil government is an agent of “common grace” empowered with the coercion of the sword against lawbreakers. Thus, Kuyper sought the authority of the state in God’s law-word, but he then turned loose an authorized state to make law by the democratic process. The authority of God’s Word was thereby attached to the humanistic lawmaking of the modern state. Not surpris­ingly, covenantalism, with its law and grace, was soon in disarray and retreat, and the Netherlands became precisely the kind of revolutionary society Kuyper had opposed. The covenant was undermined by “com­mon grace.”

Throughout the Western world, in varying degrees and ways, the modern state was freed by churchmen and theologians from any ac­countability to God’s law while at the same time increasingly stronger doctrines of submission to civil authorities were preached. At the same time, higher criticism began to challenge the authority and infallibility of God’s enscriptured Word. Positivism in civil law began also to deny that any law exists beyond the law of the state, so that the “right” of the state became the final and only “right.”

In 1943, John H. Hallowell’s very telling work appeared, The De­cline of Liberalism as an Ideology, With Particular Reference to German Politico-Legal Thought. Liberalism had replaced God with the state as the source of law. Then, by affirming materialism, liberalism placed the world, man, and law beyond good and evil, and all ultimate and absolute values were rejected. Truth and value, then, became relative to man, and thus to collective man in the state. A form of this materialism is pragma­tism, which is basic to John Dewey’s world, to modern education every­where, and to politics. In Hallowell’s words, “Pragmatism, like material­ism, rejects absolute values, but it goes beyond materialism by saying that individuals are justified in acting as if certain things are true and good” (p. 89). Liberal or modern Phariseeism thus claims over all men a “right” which it denies in essence. The result was a “liberalism” which in practice became a despotism in Nazi Germany and is in the process of becoming the same thing throughout the world. National Socialist Germany was not an aberration: it was the advance guard of the Western liberal hu­manism. World War II was largely a family quarrel between competing versions of the humanist faith.

In all of this, the critical battle of the centuries, the church has in the main been studiously irrelevant. Instead of opposing autonomy with theonomy, it has hailed autonomy as the true light. (A telephone call yesterday from a very faithful adult teacher in a church reported a split and departure. A leader of the dissident group, attacking his teachings on election, declared, “You can take everything else away from my faith, but you can never take away my free will.” In other words, Christ is expend­able, but not my free will, my autonomy!)

Statist slavery thus advances in the name of man’s autonomy. It will not be reversed by humanism nor by pietism. Only by a return to cov­enantalism, to God’s covenant in Christ, and to the grace and law of covenantalism, will man be free. “If the Son [not ‘free’ will, nor the state] shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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