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Law as Reformation

Conservatives and churchmen who advocate “stiffer” applications of the prison system had better reassess their efforts. They are demanding a humanistic plan of salvation. Biblical law requires restitution, not imprisonment, and with habitual criminals, the death penalty; only such a system means that crime does not pay.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony
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Chalcedon Report No. 161, January 1979

Restitution is basic to Biblical law. For all offenses, man must make restitution to man. For offenses against God, only Jesus Christ can make restitution, and basic to the doctrine of the cross is the fact of restitution, the satisfaction of God’s justice. Thus, the principle of restitution goes hand in hand with justification by faith in Christ’s atoning work.

Humanism, however, has other doctrines of law, all of which stress man’s salvation by works of law. Whenever in the civil order men adopt a humanistic doctrine of law, they undermine Biblical theology because humanistic law requires another doctrine of salvation.

First among the humanistic doctrines of law is the doctrine of law as a means of reformation, i.e., the salvation of man by legal reformation. A leading figure in this faith was the Quaker, William Penn. Although it was about a century and a half before his ideas were adopted, it was Penn’s thinking which gave the rationale.

Penn, as a Quaker, believed that every man has within him an inner light, a spark of divinity, and, by heeding that inner light, a man can be saved. The solution therefore to all problems of crime is simple, from this perspective. Give the criminal an opportunity to develop his inner light and become a new man. This, of course, was not anything but heresy but, with the development of the Enlightenment, and then Romanticism, this doctrine caught on. As Roger Campbell, in Justice Through Restitution (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1977) points out, the Quakers became leaders in “prison reform.”

How was the criminal’s inner light to save him? The humanistic reformers, in England, Europe, and America, saw salvation in isolation from corrupting influences. Let the criminal be placed in a new kind of monastic cell in order to meditate on his sins and become a new man
through the inner light. As Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1977), has pointed out, prisons began to be built as a new kind of monastery for a new kind of monk.

Prisons, moreover, began to gain new names to fit their new functions. The term penitentiary recalls medieval penitential exercises. Reformatory spells out the humanistic doctrine of reform or salvation by law. Correctional facility is again a term which witnesses to the salvific purpose of the law as reformation, as does reform school.

Conservatives and churchmen who advocate “stiffer” applications of the prison system had better reassess their efforts. They are demanding a humanistic plan of salvation. Biblical law requires restitution, not imprisonment, and with habitual criminals, the death penalty; only such a system means that crime does not pay. The prison system does not solve the problem of crime, and prisons are not reformatories but schools for crime. Men come out worse than they went in.

Of course, the means of reformation by law have changed in recent years. A variety of more modern means of salvation have been proposed and tried. One is work therapy, prison shops, work farms, and the like. Another is psychological and psychiatric help, a very popular but highly ineffective practice. Still another is education, so that both in and out of prison, in dealing with all men, many humanists see the hope of the salvation of man and the reform of society in education. (It was for this reason that I titled my study of the philosophies of statist education, The Messianic Character of American Education.) All of these efforts have one thing in common, failure.

But the idea of law as a means of reformation has not been limited to the theory of penology: it has been applied to all of civil society. Statist legislation has today as basic to its motivation the faith that man and society can be saved by works of law. Every time a legislature, parliament, or congress meets, it works to save man by law. Moreover, now, as humanism is in its death throes all over the world, it works more furiously to legislate salvation and to stifle dissent.

What happens to churchmen who live at peace with a civil government whose life and purpose are governed by a humanistic plan of salvation by law rather than by Biblical law? First, it is clear that they have failed to understand Scripture or to apply it. They have not seen the ramifications of the atonement, nor that Scripture is a total word for all of life. They try to serve two masters, two plans of salvation (Matt. 6:24), with sorry results. How can men advocate one plan of salvation in the church and another through civil government without schizophrenia and moral paralysis?

Second, the church then recedes from most of the world, which is thus surrendered to another plan of salvation. It limits its concern to man’s soul and to heaven, and it surrenders God’s Word to the devil. Theology becomes irrelevant to life, and is no longer the queen of the sciences. The Bible becomes a devotional manual, not God’s command word for the whole of life and the world.

Clearly, for the church to live at peace with the doctrine of salvation by law in the state means to compromise justification by faith everywhere. Is it any wonder that the church has long been in retreat? This retreat cannot be reversed until the church stands clearly against all doctrines of salvation by works of law and declares that God’s Word is the sufficient word for man, in church and state. Only Biblical law is in harmony with the Biblical doctrine of salvation.

(In subsequent months, other humanistic doctrines of salvation by law will be discussed.)


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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