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Theology, Law, and Liberty

What did America’s founders’ Christianity look like? What theology motivated them to risk all to build a “city on a hill”? Their writings reveal they avidly and systematically studied the Bible as a seamless document, saw God as deterministic in history and man’s only rightful Governor (Ps. 22:28), promoted Christian duty to resist tyranny, embraced an optimistic view of the future under Christ’s lordship, equally revered God’s law and God’s grace, regarded both physical and spiritual life as holy, and labored to apply God’s Old Testament laws in private and civic life (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede,
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Theology – America’s Foundational Issue

The source of law for a nation is the god of that nation. All law is enacted morality. Morality presupposes a religion as its foundation. Law rests on morality, and morality on religion. Weaken a nation’s religion and you weaken its morality by undermining the foundations of its law. The progressive collapse of law and order, and the breakdown of society, follows. Theology is therefore foundational to law, order, and liberty.

Theology of the founders

The historic vitality of the West has been in Biblical faith and law. What did America’s founders’ Christianity look like? What theology motivated them to risk all to build a “city on a hill”? Their writings reveal they avidly and systematically studied the Bible as a seamless document, saw God as deterministic in history and man’s only rightful Governor (Ps. 22:28), promoted Christian duty to resist tyranny, embraced an optimistic view of the future under Christ’s lordship, equally revered God’s law and God’s grace, regarded both physical and spiritual life as holy, and labored to apply God’s Old Testament laws in private and civic life (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

The Underpinnings of American Liberty

God’s law, human rights, and civil government

America’s founders understood that sovereignty belongs to God, not “nature” or a “natural law” that denies God as man’s sole lawmaker (Isa. 33:22). They knew God’s law is the precondition for human rights, tying them to responsibilities (1 Samuel 8 lists the rights lost when civil government grows beyond Biblical limits). They realized God’s law embraces all domains of government (personal, familial, ecclesiastical, scholastic, vocational, societal, etc.), the first and most basic being individual self-government (the alternative of which is statist slavery) and LAST being civil government.

God as rightful owner of everything

God is ultimate owner of everything, so His law upholds stewardship of property as the foundation of liberty and human rights. When Thomas Jefferson borrowed the phrase “life, liberty, and property” from John Locke, he changed property to the vague term pursuit of happiness, thus eroding true liberty’s foundation.

God’s law in Early America

Centuries before Lincoln borrowed the phrase for his Gettysburg Address, John Wyclif had said of his English Bible translation, “[T]he Bible is for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” New Haven Colony records show the law of God was made the law of the Colony: April 3, 1644: Itt was ordered thatt the judiciall lawes of God, as they were delivered by Moses ... Be a rule to all the courts in this jurisdiction in their proceeding against offenders. In Early America individuals were free to govern themselves under God’s law. Biblically grounded civil laws were written only to punish and restrain evil, provide justice for all, and protect life and property. It was understood that God enforces many of His laws Himself, and His law was regularly preached from the pulpit. The church taught the people that the power of the state, under God, has its origin in the people and that civil governments are bound by His law. The church led the way in rightful resistance against injustice and tyranny, and established our heritage of liberty under law—God’s law. Christian libertarianism spurred responsibility, productivity, and God’s blessing according to Deuteronomy 28.

Theology – America’s Downward Spiral

America fires the Lawmaker – the deceptiveness of idolatry

Since the late 1700s sovereignty and the source of law transferred from God to the people (the civil state), which amounts to civil idolatry. America is still religious, but the nation’s god is now essentially the state. In trading the liberty of God’s law for the enslavement of humanistic law in both church and state, we’ve seen the laws of men proliferate like a tyrannical cancer (because total control requires total law).

Humanism vs. Christianity

Today’s oppressive humanistic laws contrast sharply with the Biblically based laws that once undergirded liberty because man-made humanistic law aims to save man and remake society through civil government so that salvation becomes an act of state. Today our nation tries to save by acts of state and works of law instead of by Jesus Christ, and our salvation depends on passing the right set of laws. The Prohibition Era exposed the futility of using statist law to save man from himself. The founders understood that law and order restrain a man, but he can only be changed or saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ; they did not attempt to use state laws to save man, eliminate poverty, usher in a brave new world, etc.

Looking back to our heritage

History and experience prove that the only alternatives to God’s “perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25) are anarchy or human law, and that man’s will and the laws of men always lead to tyrannical governmental structures. Our forefathers found in the jots and tittles of God’s law a guaranteed way to end poverty2; wisdom that says justice demands restitution to the offender (not prison and fulfilling a “debt to society”); and warnings against fiat currency, long-term debt, fractional reserve banking, and international war that breaches the defender’s borders. Those jots and tittles reveal our current tax structure constitutes tyranny far worse than what our forefathers fled in England. Oppressive taxation is only one consequence of replacing God with the state. How did it happen that whereas our forefathers worked earnestly to apply God’s jots and tittles to every area of life, today we work to block or pass man-made humanistic state legislation?

Theology – Essential to Reestablish Liberty

Law and grace – the mix-up of the century

Our forefathers would cringe at the modern notion that the opposite of grace is law, an idea that splits God in two (a nice guy on the right side of the Bible and a mean guy on the left). This modern notion leads many to assume Old Testament believers were saved by keeping the law while New Testament saints are saved by faith (being “under grace” and not “under law”), and thus to neglect application of the Old Testament.

Correcting the record

Romans 4:3 tells us Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness; he was, as we are, graciously saved by faith. Genesis 3:15 is the first proclamation of God’s grace via the gospel. Saints from Adam and Eve on anticipated a deliverer to save them from their sin. They looked ahead in history to that gracious Redeemer. We look back.

The law and the Son – God’s timeless, unchanging plan

Christ’s atoning work was intended to elevate man from covenant-breaker to covenant-keeper. Through Christ man is restored to a position of law-keeping. God, in creating man, ordered him to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it (Gen. 1:28). Man, attempting to establish autonomous jurisdiction over the earth (Gen. 3:5), fell into sin and death. God reestablishes His Kingdom, calling Abraham, then Israel, and now us, to be His people, to subdue the earth, to exercise dominion under Him. The law given through Moses provides the basis of godly society, of man’s development under God. The prophets repeatedly recalled Israel to this purpose. The Ten Commandments were a covenant summary of God’s full legal code. Through grace in Jesus Christ, the redeemed are called to the original purpose of man to build His Kingdom on earth, to be covenant-keepers, and to fulfill “the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 8:4). Jesus is not Plan B after the law failed; He is the fulfillment of God’s only plan. The law remains central to God’s purpose for man and society.

Grace and law – no contradiction

Grace and law cannot be contrasted as opposites because they don’t contradict each other. Grace has to do with justification or salvation (becoming right with God). Law has to do with sanctification (how we live after we become known by God through Christ’s gracious work in the heart; it’s the process by which a Christian is transformed into the image of Christ). Grace is the opposite of works (as regards salvation), not law. Law is the opposite of lawlessness (as regards sanctification), not grace. Law and grace unite as David asks God, “[G]rant me thy law graciously” (Ps. 119:29). We are saved via God’s grace, not by our own works under God’s law. After we are saved, we are sanctified as we work out our salvation through our obedience to God’s law (1 John 5:2), which He writes on our hearts and minds (Heb. 8:10). Man’s salvation is and always has been by the grace of God in Jesus; man’s sanctification is and always has been by the law of God. A Christian’s righteousness is through Christ alone. We keep the law after becoming a Christian; we don’t keep it to become one.

Jesus – God’s key to understanding His Law

Jesus rejected the law as mediator between God and man and reestablished it as the way of holiness. Through Christ man is “dead to the law” as a legal sentence of death against him (Gal. 2:19; Rom. 7:4), now freed “from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). Man is now under “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ” (Rom. 8:2) and is alive to the law “[t]hat the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). In Romans 6:14b (“[F]or ye are not under the law, but under grace”), Paul was not referring to the law of Moses, which God gave us for our good always (Rom. 7:12), but a law-based system of justification: the King James places the word “the” in front of “law” to suggest otherwise, but “the” is absent in the Greek of Romans 6:14b. Christ takes away the eternal “curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13), the “handwriting of ordinances … against us” (Col. 2:14), in His own body that we might now “establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). The entire point of the New Covenant was for God to put His law in our inward parts and write it on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10).

God’s law – timeless source of liberty, justice, and blessing

Jesus made it clear through word and example that we are not to neglect God’s law. Had He broken the law even once, He would have been a blemished lamb unfit for sacrifice on our behalf. He presupposed his audience’s knowledge of it, since it was “nigh, even in your mouths” (Deut. 30:14). With the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3–9), Jesus upheld the law requiring faithful witnesses with clean hands (by applying “in any sin that he sinneth” from Deuteronomy 19:15a to the witness, not the suspect; see the parallel thought in Romans 2:21–23). Jesus told the rich young ruler, “You know the commandments” (Mark 10:19 NKJV). He told the people to observe all that the scribes taught out of the law (Matt. 23:2–3 – things spoken from Moses’ seat): “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31). In Matthew 5:19, Jesus warns: “Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments [the jots and tittles of Old Testament law in verse 18], and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” God’s law is central to Christian duty. Jesus repelled Satan with a hammer blow from Deuteronomy 8:3, “[B]y every word that proceedeth out of the
mouth of the LORD doth man live” (Matt. 4:4).

Lawlessness vs. righteousness – the Biblical definitions

Appealing to the Greek, some teach that sin is “missing the mark.” The Bible actually says sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). All lawlessness is a religious offense, a sin against God (Ps. 51:4). Likewise, righteousness is keeping God’s law: [F]or all thy commandments are righteousness (Ps. 119:172). Righteousness exalteth a nation (Prov. 14:34).

Legalism or Phariseeism?

Legalism is a belief that God’s law leads to justification (justification by works). Scripture makes clear “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Paul condemns both legalism (salvation by obeying God’s law) and Phariseeism (replacing God’s laws with man’s laws).

A sound theology is a terrible thing to waste

Today we live by some, not all, of God’s words (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4). The Biblical knowledge that characterized Americans 250 years ago is a distant dream, both in content of faith and doctrine, and in respect to how thorough and sound the scholarship is. Sound bites and shallow paperbacks supplanted the scriptural insights our forebears gained from enduring sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3). Early Americans saw a four-hour sermon as shallow; today’s sermons average twenty-one minutes. Modern Bible commentaries do not compare with Jean Daillé’s 698 pages of small print on Colossians (1672), or with John Owen’s 4,014 pages on Hebrews (1668–1683). Our ancestors embraced God’s law as delivered once for all (Mic. 6:8; Ps. 119:96; Jude 3) and believed “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3 NKJV). In contrast, today’s Christians are more informed by Fox News than by the Bible, and the full-orbed faith and uncompromising Biblical worldview that motivated our ancestors to build God’s Kingdom on His earth has been replaced with fragmented, emotional, self-centered, retreat-oriented thinking that indulges the humanist/socialist worldview. Deuteronomy 28 says cultural darkness is God’s judgment because His law is “slacked” (Hab. 1:4). Nations that break His law experience earthquakes, famines, wars, moral decay, etc.

God’s law – the only answer that will deliver us

We cannot fight something with nothing. History proves that an uncompromising Biblical worldview that delights in God’s law (Psalms 1 & 119) is a nation’s only effective weapon against the tyranny of man. Only God’s law can replace the state’s ever-proliferating man-made laws that restrict our freedom and diminish our wealth. Liberty and blessing will again flow in America when we realize that “the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8) and learn once again how to lawfully apply it. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31).

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Martin G. Selbrede
  • Martin G. Selbrede

Martin is the senior researcher for Chalcedon’s ongoing work of Christian scholarship, along with being the senior editor for Chalcedon’s publications, Arise & Build and The Chalcedon Report. He is considered a foremost expert in the thinking of R.J. Rushdoony. A sought-after speaker, Martin travels extensively and lectures on behalf of Christian Reconstruction and the Chalcedon Foundation. He is also an accomplished musician and composer.

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