The Limitations of Law
Chalcedon Position Paper No. 3, May 1979
We fail to understand God’s law unless we realize how carefully it limits man. God’s law prevents man from placing too much trust in law, and from becoming a tyrant, by limiting man’s powers of enforcement.
An obvious limitation on the courts of law is the requirements of corroboration: one witness alone cannot convict (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). However, a more basic limitation is that many offenses, some very serious, have no penalties which any man or court can impose. For example, tithing is God’s tax; failure to pay the tithe is theft; it is robbing God (Mal. 3:7–12). God Himself imposes very severe penalties on this kind of theft, but He does not call for any man-imposed penalty. Another example: Deuteronomy 22:5 forbids transvestite dress, i.e., the wearing of clothing belonging to the opposite sex, and 1 Timothy 2:9 requires modest apparel of women, but no penalties for disobedience are cited.
God’s law covers every area of life: the family, the church, the state, our vocation, our relationships one to another, the use of the earth, sanitation, sexuality, warfare, boundaries, weights and measures, and all things else. The Lord makes very clear the curses and blessings He places on disobedience (Deut. 28; Lev. 26, etc.). His government is total: we can never, for a moment, step outside of God’s law and government. There is not a neutral corner or atom in all of creation. God is totally God, and His government and law are total, covering all things. At every point in our lives, we are face to face with the living God, in all things accountable to Him, and totally His creatures and servants.
Man, however, is not God, nor can he play god without being guilty of the great temptation of the evil one. Original sin is precisely this fact, the desire to be as God, to determine for ourselves what constitutes good and evil, and to rule all things totally. Among Nietzsche’s manuscripts, after his death, was found a slip of paper on which he had written these words: “Since the old God has been abolished, I am prepared to rule the world.” This is the meaning of humanism’s inescapable totalitarianism. Total government is a necessity, and everything in man requires it. If there is no God to provide it, then man must supply it. More accurately, when man rebels against God’s total sovereignty and government, he replaces it with his own claim to total sovereignty and government.
Thus, the present totalitarian claims and trends of virtually every civil government in the world are aspects of their humanism and their explicit or implicit denial of God. Humanism says of God, our law and government provide a better way than God’s, and ours is the way, the truth, and the life. In the United States, the efforts of federal and state governments to control churches and Christian schools are the logical results of their humanism. There must be sovereignty and law, and it must be man’s, not God’s, is their faith. Clearly, we are in the basic religious war, and there can be no compromise nor negotiation in this war. Humanism seeks to abolish the God of Scripture and rule the world.
Humanism thus will permit no independent realm to exist outside its government. Every area must be controlled and ruled by humanistic law and sovereign power. The result is a growing statist tyranny everywhere, and the death of freedom is in sight all over the world.
The record of the church, while not as deadly as that of the modern state, is also none too good. The church, too, has often played god on earth and sought to exercise total government in the name of God. Protestants and Catholics alike have been guilty of going beyond God’s law and usurping judgments which Biblical law reserves to God alone. Humanists are very prone to exaggerating the evils of the church’s record, and Protestants and Catholics too often dearly love to believe the worst and tell the worst about one another. Granted, that humanistic historians have not done justice to the history of the church, the errors there are still real.
The problem can be illustrated by the history of a large evangelical church of the 1930s. It sought to be strictly fundamental, a commendable goal, but, in the process, it usurped God’s prerogatives. For example, in terms of 1 Corinthians 11:1–15, it held that Scripture has a requirement that women’s hair be “long.” Well and good, but Scripture neither sets a length nor attaches penalties; it gives to no man, nor to the church, any such power. This church, however, decided to legislate against “bobbed hair,” and it specified a length in terms of inches; anything shorter meant an appearance before the church court. Next, they specified the length of skirts, and so on and on. The results were devastating.
First, the central emphasis in the life of this once strong church became externals, with everyone overly conscious of appearances. Women eyed one another to see who was flirting with the limits of the law, and everyone began to develop censoriousness. Second, the youth became rebellious. The gospel was now reduced to compliance with externals, and they readily rebelled as soon as they went off to college. It was very difficult to talk with any of the youth about matters of faith and doctrine. For them, the church and Christianity represented not faith and life in Christ but a multitude of petty rules and regulations. Third, the church began to associate the purity of its faith more and more with its observance of forms, and less and less with a solid knowledge of Biblical doctrine. Faith was giving way to form. Rules lead to more rules, and the yoke of Pharisaic laws came to be rivalled.
Much more could be added, but, suffice it to say that finally a rebellion set in, but a sorry one. The antithesis to pharisaic legalism and to playing God was seen as being more loving, and a neo-evangelical emphasis on love was the next stage in the slide of this church into modernism, and, finally, the social gospel, with the state now becoming the universal rule and lawmaker in their sorry “gospel.”
God’s law, by reserving, in one area after another, the right of enforcement to God alone, severely limits the power of all human forms of government. Neither church, nor state, nor any other human agency is empowered to play God. Moreover, we do not gain in holiness by becoming “stricter” than God: we gain only in presumptuous sin. God alone is God: He does not delegate His throne nor His sovereign lawmaking power to any human being or agency. To become “stricter” than God’s law, as one pastor boasted to me of being, is to imply a moral defect in God and is blasphemy.
God’s law thus allows man many areas of freedom to obey or disobey without man-imposed penalties. The result is a great freedom for man to sin or to obey than most man-made institutions believe is wise. Certainly, church and state have alike worked to limit the freedom God allows.
One critic of Biblical law has declared to me that any strict adherence in every realm to God’s order would be “disastrous,” first, because in a few areas God’s law is marked by an “undue severity,” as witness the death penalty for adultery. (The family being God’s basic institution, treason in the Bible is adultery; there is no treason with respect to the state.) Second, in most areas, Biblical law would produce “anarchy,” because no penalties can be enforced by man in any strict reading thereof.
From the standpoint of Scripture, God’s rule is not anarchy but justice and freedom. Redemption is not by rules and regulation; salvation is not by law. It is by God’s sovereign grace through Jesus Christ. The redeemed man lives a life of faith and obedience in the Spirit and in terms of the enscriptured Word. Our liberty in Christ is from the bondage or slavery of sin and the penalty of death, and it is a deliverance also from fallen man’s way of salvation, a total government by the words of law, man-made law.
If we take any law of God and alter it, or go beyond it, we too become humanistic. We “correct” God as gods over God, and we limit and finally destroy man’s freedom under God.
One of the more frequently repeated declarations of Scripture is, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19; see also Deut. 32:35, 41, 43; Ps. 94:1, etc.). Again, in Hebrews 10:30, we read, “Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.” In certain specified areas, and within carefully circumscribed limits, God gives to men and to courts of law the power to judge and convict. The word vengeance is in the Greek text ekdikesis, that which proceeds out of justice, dike being justice. God declares that He alone is the judge and lawmaker. No man can go beyond His law-word, for to do so is not that which proceeds out of justice but out of presumption and sin. Thus, when the Lord declares, “Vengeance (or, the enforcement of justice) is mine,” He bars man from playing God, from adding or subtracting from God’s law-word, or from attempting to rule over men in any way which exceeds God’s Word. Only as men stand in terms of this faith are they protected from being enslaved by, or enslaving, other men. The law-word of God is man’s only charter of liberty, and man’s defense against the tyrannies of state, church, and man. The redeemed of the Lord will stand in His Word as freemen.
Topics: Biblical Commentary, Biblical Law, Church, The, Culture , Government, Humanism, Justice, Philosophy, Socialism, Statism, Theology