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What “It Never Works!” Means for Our Understanding of God’s Law

​One of the glaringly obvious facts of history is that theonomy doesn’t work … if by “work” you mean, has never produced a full-orbed social law order that was, as they say these days, self-sustaining—one sufficiently stable that it lasted more than a generation or two.

  • Joseph Foreman,
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When something is a central idea to your world, it should work.

My oldest son Jeremy (a true son of his maternal grandfather) said some time back, “How is theonomy not utopian? Isn’t theonomy a whole-orbed way of life, a social order, something that will never work because though human beings are designed to work that way, our sin will always prevent it?  Isn’t that why you want to stone people? to force them into sanctified self-government so they can be free?  You want the law to do what the Holy Spirit cannot do, or will only do when Jesus comes, or in our next life. That is everything that is evil about utopianism which you taught me.”

Then in a Facebook argument where I was lurking, someone I never heard of said something to the effect of: “Theonomy didn’t work before the Reformation. It is impossibly utopian. I don’t mean to be harsh, but give it up.”

And John Andrew Reasnor responded, “That’s because it was before the Reformation.”

So, let’s take a minute (or ten) and see if John hasn’t uncovered something here.

Has Theonomy Ever Worked?

One of the glaringly obvious facts of history is that theonomy doesn’t work … if by “work” you mean, has never produced a full-orbed social law order that was, as they say these days, self-sustaining—one sufficiently stable that it lasted more than a generation or two. 

Why try to explain this away?  Syncretism is only half the story. Why not, as John suggested cryptically, see what the historical “failure” of theonomy tells us about God’s law and God’s plans?

It didn’t work before the Reformation? Well, it didn’t work in the Reformation either. John’s comments were meant to push us to see that theonomy is not a static world order we establish by passing a few laws. Rather, it involves the whole thrust of history. God’s law is taking us somewhere.

So, don’t stop at the Reformation. Go to Scripture. It didn’t work there either!

Theonomy “didn’t work” with Ezra or Nehemiah, or with David, or really for the Judges either. The social order based on God’s law-order that Ezra started “didn’t work” as far as Jesus was concerned. Our Lord was incredibly dissatisfied with the Pharisees and Scribes, Ezra’s heirs, who made their congregations twice as fit for hell as they were before. So they killed Him.

The Disciples & Co. for the next two thousand years couldn’t make theonomy work for them.  But wait: why should they make it work when we can’t even find where it works in Scripture?

Now, if it doesn’t work even in Scripture, then why can’t we just jettison God’s law as a formative foundation and structure of history and human existence? And many today reach precisely that conclusion, and as Paul would say, “their condemnation is just.” Aye, there’s the rub: Scripture itself never rejects God’s law but embraces it—jots, tittles, and all. What is God’s law such that we can affirm its “every jot and tittle” with Jesus, confirm it is “holy, just, and good” with Paul, but at the same time concede that it doesn’t even seem to work for Moses, or Jesus, or Paul?

God Subverts Our Carnal Expectations

Well, let’s see. The first theonomic attempt at Mosaic social order was a legal failure in respect to the law, but it was a failure that enabled fourteen centuries of Hebrew Prophets to give the world an exposition of theonomic law, justice, and ethics which, while it didn’t do Israel much good, has nonetheless been transforming the planet ever since. It is odd how social activists (like Sojourners) who hate God’s law still love God’s prophets’ exposition of it. Hmmm?

To get a drift of where this is going, notice that almost every agitator for any modern social cause, whether righteous or evil, quotes the prophets favorably. God is the God of social justice, and those struggling for such justice recognize that much, even when they reject the foundation of justice itself.  Now, that is a burning bush worth stepping aside to examine.  Which is what we will do, to see that the light that is shining from it is ultimately God’s own.

While Israel by no means transformed into a theonomic social order that pleased God, God’s law did transform Israel into a nation so distinctive in its day that even Rome gave them special privileges. Those temporal freedoms were the umbrella under which the first-generation church grew in relative protection. But Israel had greater impact than even that. Hebrew wanderers 1000–400 B.C. are recorded in the mythology of the founders of both Greece and Rome, profoundly influencing the normal earth-magic paganism of that era, enabling rational philosophies, religions, empires, government and law-orders to appear for the first time in pagan history. The rational gods replaced the irrational forces of nature those peoples used to worship, and the time was made full in preparation.

When Jesus fulfilled the time, He raised a whole dimension of God’s law to the first and greatest two commandments, opening a new window on God’s law and our relationship to God. You might say His ministry of grace was a tenth commandment ministry transforming the heart (something only the Holy Spirit can do).  In both the summary of the law and in the final word of the law we see God putting the law into the hands of the Holy Spirit to do what statutes and summaries, however wise, cannot do.  Statutes can define, they can influence, but they cannot execute on their own. They require someone in God’s image who is shaped by His Spirit.  While rationality is essential, and law is essential, neither are sufficient.  Only “my grace is sufficient for thee.”  This is the basis of the optimism in Scripture. We have not come as far as we can go. We have come thus far as the Lord has brought us. This is the theonomic vision inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The Law as Leaven Working in History

With the conversion of Rome, Justinian rewrote pagan law in light of what he learned from Moses and Christ. No, it was not a perfect job, but do you see where God is going?

The Christendom of the Medieval Period wasn’t sorted out well. God’s law, theonomy, was oddly applied hit and miss, piecemeal. As a result, it certainly didn’t “work.” But what it did do is make everyone in the West unthinkingly, intuitively Trinitarian Christian, infused with a profound sense of their need for God’s grace and law. From that platform the Reformation, a popular movement, sprang up with yet another effort to apply God’s law based on Reason, often mathematical reason.  In England they tried to apply it as God’s law in full-orbed personal and corporate relationship to God.  At the same time France and Germany secularized God’s law into merely rational principles pulled out of what they felt was the sticky goo of personal religion, worship, and dogmatics. But in the end it was theonomy that they were working with. And it didn’t work for England or Europe, ending instead in wars and rumors of war.

The British Empire spread abroad the novel idea that nations should judge themselves by an objective law, one that is true for everyone. That is a major tenet of theonomy, and suddenly, all around the globe, the Brits are schooling the world in it. If you examine British law you will find many fundamental tenets of theonomic liberty embedded in it (serving as a hidden backbone or autopilot). It is worth noting that British colonies have tended to do better than the other colonies after their independence from the crown for precisely this theonomic reason.

But in the end, theonomy didn’t work really well for the Brits. Those colonized said, “Wait, if there is one law, and it rules all mankind, then what are the British doing here as if they are better than us?” So the colonies kicked the Brits and the rest of Europe out.

God’s law has changed society over the millennia. Even now, the structure of government itself is transformed in America where a theonomic country emerged against all odds embodying an odd mix of secular and sacred. Yet its legal and political structure is both self-consciously theonomic and self-consciously secularized … Secularized what?  It’s God’s law that was secularized and “improved on.” See? It is theonomy that the secularists are working with.

The Bill of Rights and the limited government these rights demand are fundamentally Mosaic ideas. The first three commandments require that government must be structured so that it cannot deceive the governors into thinking they are God. Government for Moses is always a gift of God. It is not of ourselves, lest any men should boast as if they give and create rights. Rights and protection from both government and the evildoers alike are fundamental Mosaic ideas from God.  The structure of the Constitution is one way to create a first commandment-compliant political order.

Scaling the Psychological Wall

Today, we can see better where we have been and where we are going. Our mission is not to foist an authoritarian utopia on society, but to take the steps we need to take in our lives using our enhanced influence in this era to bring God’s plan a step closer to where He has been headed all along. Theonomy is not merely a network of laws and punishments, it is a way of transformed hearts and the structure of their association in life. Government structure can only apply as much of God’s law corporately as has been applied in our own sanctification. Sanctification is not merely personal morality, it is seeing all of creation as God’s and taking dominion.

Our brief synthesis of God’s law with certain secular “improvements” in the United States, like all the other such attempts throughout history, is falling apart. It’s that Holy Spirit thing. Theonomy will not work until people are transformed from the inside and are therefore capable of changing the very structure of government itself. Only the Holy Spirit will do this. No amount of reasonable thinking on the matter, no amount of law on God’s part and wishful application of it on our part, can change what only the Holy Spirit can do.

We are up against a terrible psychological wall. It is almost impossible to scale it. But try. You have seen how children growing up are at each point in their early years through about age twenty at the peak of a rapidly developing understanding of themselves and the world. It is almost impossible for them to understand that there is more to learn about every part of life—especially the important parts—because from their perspective they are at the pinnacle of human growth and development. Whatever level they have attained experientially enables them to look back and see how much wiser, smarter, and together they are than they were, especially compared to the younger kids.  Their whole world just feels like they have gone as far as they can go. 

Regrettably, that is where we are as a civilization and as Christians. What more is there to learn? How much further can our sanctification as individuals and as society go? This must be it, because I can’t imagine anything further. We have the early church, the medieval church, the modern church. Look at all we have done. And it’s falling apart. The only thing left is the last battle and the return of Jesus (if you are an average evangelical).  And if you are among the cognoscenti, the Reformed, the postmillennial, why nobody has said it better than us and the Puritans did! Here, let me write another book to prove it! Nobody can say it half as good as we can, which makes me feel sad for everybody else. Nobody will say it better because, baby, we’re the best. So don’t go talking about God having something more!

Two modern songs come to mind. One is from Oklahoma: “Everything’s up to date in Kansas City. It’s better than a magic lantern show. You can turn the radiator on whenever you want some heat. Every house is completely furnished, every house is all complete.  Oh everything’s up to date in Kansas City.”  The other is Carly Simon crooning, “Nobody does it better, makes me feel sad for the rest. Nobody does it half as good as you, baby, you’re the best!” 

But this glance at the failure of theonomy has shown us the exact opposite.  There are many things of old that they did say and did do better than us. And it was theonomy that clearly was applied to achieve that. But theonomy is not the magic stone that enabled them to put it all together, and it is not our philosopher’s stone either. And yet, our situation today is far ahead of theirs.  Stop and look at one small example.

Right now, whatever the errors in its formulation, and however many books we write about the Great 1776 heist in Philadelphia, and however much intellectuals pick and pull at the Constitution, no one offers a credible alternative. That is to say, an alternative constitution, government structure, church structure, which the average person can read, grasp and say, “Great idea, let’s put this blueprint into effect.”

With all its defects, our form of constitutional self-government has been for 200 years a utopian dream to Wycliffe. In 1384 John Wycliffe writes in the introduction to his first-ever Bible translation into English, “This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.” He envisioned people able to personally govern themselves sufficiently to make a free form of government work—a form that at the time he never specifically described.  But he knew that the civil/ecclesiastical order of the day would not work with a free people.

But wait. Had you been alive with him you would not have said, “I’m joining you! There must be something more. There must be greater freedom we can aspire to.” You would have said then what you say today when a theonomist says, “Current church structure and social political structure do not measure up to Scripture.”

Today, is your gut response to call him an anarchist? Then that’s what you would call Wycliffe. Had you been with him, you—the postmillennial—would remonstrate, “Look, 98 percent of Europe is serf! Life span forty years! Living with scarcely any social structure! Needing the firm hand of an autocratic government to control them for their own good! Illiterate, brutish, unrefined, insect-infested, disease-ridden! Filthy! These people govern themselves? You are a utopian anarchist … and an atheist too if you challenge the church.” 

Yes! If you echo such thinking today concerning the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, you would have joined the Pharisees in a like condemnation of Christ’s work when He walked the earth. “Thus, you testify against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets.”

The Long Arm of God

When you look at how God actually worked with people and governments you see that He did not lay down a theory of political science or even a rational elaboration of either His law or how best to structure society so as to enforce it.  I contend that through history you see God’s profound aversion to the nickel-in-slot rationalism we rational elitists so vigorously promote, even though His creation, and His law-word, are quite rational. God gives perhaps the most rational summary of law at a time rational law did not even exist—not at the end of a millennium of speculative attempts to understand human behavior, but at the beginning of it. Then He refuses a rationalistic development of this most rational revelation and offers brief concrete applications and reflections on it quite alien to modern rational law which moves from principle to statute to applied case law. (Such rationalism is a child of Moses however much pagans and secularists try to claim it as their own. The most they do is turn rational development into Rationalism, another false god of the mind.  This is also something the Reformed have done on more than one occasion, by the way.)

What God does is work with the patriarchal government of Seth through Abraham and family. His law influenced the tribal/clan warlord government of the judges. Theonomy worked with monarchical and aristocratic government from David until the nineteenth century. In all of these forms of government there are pictures of God’s relationship with us. There are positive things these governments expound about God. And there are good social results. But they were never sufficient in themselves. God’s law keeps pushing them further. And most people want to cling to what they have as if that is all there is. Wherever they were in the development of God’s plan for the ages, they could not help but believe that this—where we are today—is as much as the Holy Spirit can do speaking through the Word.

But notwithstanding our reluctance then or now, in time God’s law transformed autocratic government as the ideal earthly representative of God both in church structure and in state structure into representative constitutional government. Yes, yes, we read of its critics. But the fact is, we can read of its critics without fear of being hanged or burned. Yes, unfortunately constitutional government deified the people but even so, it was a huge structural theonomic shift to actually involve people according to Moses’ command, “Choose for yourselves wise men” (Deut. 1:13). Theonomy has restructured the whole world!

Follow me here: The idea that government should be limited to certain tasks and kept strictly out of others? The idea that the government is not the highest authority? The idea that your house and possessions should be safe from search and seizure? The idea that you have a part in selecting your rulers? The idea that judgment is the job of the people who make up the jury? The idea that you own your property, its damages, its debts, and its profits? The idea that men’s minds are not the property of the state? The idea that there is private property? Who you associate with is not the business of government enforcement? … I could go on.

That’s straight-up theonomy, baby, and you are right! It doesn’t work … for long! But it sure feels good during the brief periods when it is tried. And maybe, just maybe, though it doesn’t “work” right now, it is the result of God’s law working with us to create at every level a freedom undreamt of by those who came before.

Now here is the irony of it all.  The same people who read and write the books about how compromised and non-theonomic our government ideals today are, are the very people who, when told that “perhaps there is more, perhaps our church organization and state organization is not what God wanted,” these paragons of the Reformation will call you an anarchist, anti-church, and so forth. I would expect this from premillennial dispensationalists, as they have no hope. The Holy Spirit has finished His work of sanctification with them. There is nothing more for God to do than rapture them out of here around some sort of last battle, before, during, after, who knows, but this they do “know”: the Holy Spirit has done all He can do.

So if you are still reading, where am I going with this?

No, the historic application of God’s law by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of mankind will not create utopia. What it will create is people who structure freer and freer forms of government church and state which reflect the freedom our personal self-government is fit for. They will become more and more theonomic. It just takes longer than you thought it would because you can’t get over that psychological wall: surely this is where Jesus wants us to build the three booths, surely our transfiguration where we now stand is the best it can be. Surely anyone who challenges us on this lofty mountain height is an anarchist, anti-government, anti-church, and probably antinomian to boot. Surely this wine skin was good enough for Calvin!

Still God commands those who have reached the top and want to drink His wine, “This is my beloved son, hear him.” Still Jesus says to top-down church and state organizations, “It is not to be so among you.” Still the Holy Spirit will awaken our complacent confidence in 2000 years of authoritarian church and state government to what Jesus actually said, and how thoroughly we have ripped up His words to make them fit into our authoritarian—albeit constitutionally authoritarian—structures of church and state government.

The Next Step Is to Take the Next Step

What the Holy Spirit does is transform the people who apply God’s law to take another step. Truth be told, it’s often an ugly process requiring God’s judgments on even the good things we thought were “the best it could be.” But upon the foundation those earlier believers laid, theonomy transforms each subsequent era a bit more radically until you have a people capable of actually making a go of a constitutional republic for two hundred years now, and an entire planet that thinks even this syncretistic manifestation of theonomy is a pretty good idea. However, they are people who have not been transformed by the Holy Spirit and discipled by God’s law in their heart so they can’t do it and can only flee to those lands who can, in hope of embracing this transformation for themselves and their posterity.

This is tenth commandment territory. “Thou shalt not covet” is a heart issue, not an external action. For the other commandments to work it is the heart that must cease its idolatry and self-worship and/or its state worship. The heart must cease its futile labors and rest. The heart must learn to honor authority, to refrain from and abhor murder, lust, theft, and lies. We can through self-discipline control many of the ethical ravages of sin—but as Jesus said, even the pagans can do this much. 

What we can’t do is transform the heart. Transforming the heart is the utopian dream of modern, authoritarian, collectivist utopias birthed by Marx-Engels and executed by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.  Lacking the Holy Spirit, their goal is to transform the heart by brute force and education. The only real difference between them and the average modern theologian is that they think they can do more than we have accomplished today, and turn to physical force, whereas the average Christian thinks that the Holy Spirit has done all He can do so the Christian turns to holy though idle introspection. Christians are either checking out of the world (if they’re waiting to be bailed out by the rapture) or, if you are Reformed, are busy building monuments to those who have gone before us while despising those who bring good news of Scripture. How can Scripture say more? We have said it all!

But the heart is the territory of Holy Spirit transformation which Jesus opened the law up to. In fact, it was there all along, ever since Moses, curled up in the tenth commandment and in the two summaries: Love of God and neighbor.

No, theonomy didn’t work.  Theonomy is how God works with us ethically and judicially to structure our life and world. It is only the Holy Spirit who can work with God’s law upon converted hearts and minds. He brings them a step closer to objective maturity; a step closer to self-discipline and self-government; a step closer to even more freedom than former ages could experience.

It was an old trucker, Bill Evans, who pointed out to me that the relationship between corporate and personal sanctification is another one and many mystery.  It is, like so many things, a Trinitarian mystery.  But corporate sanctification is inextricably grounded in personal sanctification grounded in the “Spirit of love, power and self-government.” The structure of government, whether of church or state, is the direct reflection of the extent of personal self-control, or sanctification, found in the individual and the body politic. That personal sanctification is the extent of the freedom we can experience in our personal life and in the organizations we create to govern and extend life.

Raising the Foundations of Many Generations

As the body politic of self-governing people grows they become capable of higher and higher levels of self-government. The Biblical image for this is that they grow into the fullness of the maturity of Christ. When this happens, they start restricting the ways other governments force them into an authoritarian mold. For example, children need authoritarian parents. The purpose of authoritarian parents is to grow children up into free adults who do not need authoritarian parents. Real adults do not need the top-down state either. That civil organization or free state of self-governing people is the theonomic, Mosaic, Jesus-endorsed Holy Spirit-effected, Pauline ideal. All theonomic laws and punishments were designed for that political environment. Without acting as if we live in the benefits of that end times political environment, and with the insight of those who went before, we do the best we can in our various forms of syncretism while praying for the Holy Spirit to carry us to the next step of His work to transform and fill the earth.

This is no utopian dream.

The United States would have been considered a utopian dream by the serfs and peasants of 1384, precisely like the unimaginable dream of theonomy reflected in the opening comments. The idea that there is more freedom than a bureaucratic church or state can muster is condemned by everyone today, especially traditional postmillennial theonomists. But Wycliffe put in the preface of his Bible translation that his vision for translating Scripture was of a people discipled in their hearts by God’s Word so that a “government of the People, By the People and For the People” could be established. His utopian dream was partially realized by the Parliaments of Europe and later by the US of A and still (by comparison to the fourteenth century) it is realized by most of Europe—there are no more serfs: they have been transformed. It is idealized by much of the planet simply by looking where they all want to migrate to.

Perhaps theonomy’s greatest endorsement is the deadly enmity toward it exhibited by all collectivist and authoritarian governments: their secret police, their armies, and their theoreticians. They can see what we, its beneficiaries, have a hard time seeing: the theonomic social structures of freedom from God we utterly take for granted while we’re busy scoffing at the hijacking in Philadelphia.

But theonomy has only just begun to have its transformative impact.

We are only 4,500 years into the project.

We are getting there. We may not articulate well what it will be, but we do know that we will be like Him. And this is not where He intends to stop. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a hopelessly optimistic vision. Don’t make an idol out of where we are right now and scoff at the Wycliffes of today. You will find yourself despising the Holy Spirit.

  • Joseph Foreman

Joseph Foreman, born and raised in Korea in 1954 of missionary parents, married Anne Clowney of Philadelphia and has eight children and fifteen grandchildren. His teen years were spent in Montreat, North Carolina. He attended Gordon College, Gordon Conwell, and Westminster, and pastored a mission church after graduation (and ran a successful janitorial service). With Randall Terry he founded Operation Rescue and wrote the book Shattering the Darkness which laid out the Christian principles which redefined the attempt to end child killing in America through ministering Christ in the hour of their need to the children themselves threatened with murder who are the largest unreached people group in America. Joseph, who taught high school at Asheville Christian Academy and Old Testament at Montreat College, assists his wife in running her catering business and runs a coffee shop ministering to the extreme fringe of the liberal world who once fought Operation Rescue at the doors of the clinics.

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