About a year ago, I wrote an article called Theonomy No More. In it, I addressed certain points such as why a theocracy is an unbiblical (and horrible) idea, how it inconsistently applies the threefold division of Law, and how it minimizes the completed work of Christ. Since writing that article, I’ve received multiple comments (some good, some bad) and have observed what appears to be a rising tide of those promoting the position. As a brief follow-up, I want to focus on why theonomy is a doctrine of ignorance and error.
6Some people have strayed from these things and have turned aside to fruitless discussion, 7wanting to be teachers of the Law, even though they do not understand either what they are saying or the matters about which they make confident assertions.1 Timothy 1:6-7, NASB
When Paul was writing to Timothy, he instructed Timothy to teach sound doctrine and to be careful of those who had turned aside to teach things they knew nothing of. While it may sound harsh, I believe theonomists are committing a similar error. I want to be clear that I do not automatically count a theonomist as a false teacher or heretic. There are many who are dear brothers in our risen Lord. However, the underlying concept and method being employed does share a common vein. They continually make proclamations of Law while understanding nothing of it. In fact, while promoting error, they typically do not even do it with any form of consistency, which I will briefly highlight. While this won’t be an exhaustive refutation of theonomy, my hope is that it will be enough to cause the reader to question it.
Undoubtedly, anyone who has ever encountered a theonomist has likely heard the person employ Matthew 5:17 as the definitive prooftext.
17Do not presume that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. 18For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter shall pass from the Law, until all is accomplished!Matthew 5:17-18, NASB
I guess that settles it. If not even the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until heaven and earth pass away, the argument must certainly be over! After all, I’m still here typing this article instead of enjoying eternity with our Lord. Then again, maybe there might be more to the story.
by abolishing in His flesh the hostility, which is the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances,Ephesians 2:15a, NASB
In this, we are explicitly told Jesus abolished “the Law composed of commandments expressed in ordinances.” This is just another way of saying the Ceremonial Law has been abolished. The word used for “abolished” is καταργέω (G2673). It carries with it the idea of an external force putting a stop to something. For all my cessationist brethren out there, it’s the same word used in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, where Paul speaks of prophecy and knowledge being done away at the coming of the perfect. This poses quite the dilemma for the theonomist who desires to use Matthew 5:17 in an all-encompassing manner. Clearly, Christ has abrogated, at a minimum, a part of the Law. Therefore, the verse can’t possibly be saying no part of the entirety of the Law (Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial) will be abolished before heaven and earth pass away, as the Ceremonial Law was abrogated in His death, burial, and resurrection. It necessitates an “all or nothing” approach be deemed inadequate and incorrect.
With the Ceremonial Law being out of the picture, that leaves the Moral and Civil Law. While it could very well be that Christ was only referring to those two, with the Ceremonial Law being explicitly removed from the topic at hand, it does open the door to the possibility that another one may be on the chopping block as well. In fact, I will make the assertion that the Civil Law no longer applies either and that we are only bound to the Moral Law. While I believe the the “commandments expressed in ordinances” refers to both the Ceremonial and Civil Law, a case can still be made to one who disagrees.
One thing that must be kept in mind is that the Civil Law was only given to ethnic Israel. It was given for the purpose of preserving a people for the coming Messiah. Even before the Law was given to mankind, God’s Moral Law still existed and sin was still in the world (Romans 5:13). This is because it’s universal law that applies to all of humanity. Unlike the Moral Law, the Civil Law was only given to a specific people for a specific purpose. Not once do we see the early Church calling believers to uphold the Mosaic Civil Law. You can search until your eyes bleed but you won’t be able to find a single verse advocating for it. This is because they were not bound to it. Conversely, we do see Jesus making proclamation that the entirety of the Law rests on God’s Moral Law (Matthew 22:37-39).
At this point, we can see the Moral Law is the foundation of all binding law. We’ve also seen how the Ceremonial Law has been abolished. While there is no single verse that speaks to the abolition of the Civil Law, there is a clear example of who was and was not bound to it. Yet, we are all bound to the Moral Law. Of course, this isn’t to say the Civil Law doesn’t have any virtue to it. As I made clear in last year’s article, I’m not promoting antinomianism. Even the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith recognizes the Civil Law has a certain moral use to it through its general equity. But this does not mean believers are bound to observe it. This is because Christ fulfilled it in His active obedience. Believers are grafted into Him and His fulfilling of the Civil Law. There is only one aspect of the Law that we are now bound to: Moral Law.
Even among those who uphold this position, there tends to be uncertainty. Of course, we’re finite creatures living before an infinite God. Questions are certainly going to pop up. As stated, certain aspects of the Civil Law are helpful when held to the Moral Law. We are to strive for obedience in our duty to God (Commandments 1-4) and our duty to fellow man (Commandments 5-10). In our duty to man, we are not to murder, steal, covet, etc. These are all helpful and beneficial to society. But it does not mean we are to implement abolished Law in order to achieve it. While I may not agree with implementing the Civil Law, I also contend that applying morality to legislation is not synonymous with legislating morality. We can never make the unbeliever righteous by forcing him to obey the Civil Law. In fact, even if he were to follow it perfectly, he would still be unrighteous because it would not be with the motivation of obedience to God. In this case, even his perfectly kept legal standing would be as filthy menstrual rags (Isaiah 64:6). The only way to achieve righteousness is to be in Christ. Nobody in Christ should ever seek to bring back that which He has fulfilled. What we should be doing is seeking to demonstrate our love for Him by keeping His commandments (John 14:15).
We should strive to obey the Moral Law, not out of selfish ambition but out of a love for God. Because we love God and seek to obey His commandments, we apply the second table of the Law to legislation out of a desire to obey the first table, but the first table should not be legislated itself. While the Law does serve as a mirror, the first table should be proclaimed, not legislated. For instance, some may say we should outlaw working on the Sabbath in order to help prevent someone from reaping God’s wrath for practicing a Fourth Commandment violation (Exodus 20:8-10). But this would be no different from outlawing non-Christian places of worship in order to prevent a First Commandment violation (Exodus 20:3). It simply is not what we see prescribed in Scripture. To make an argument to the contrary is to make an argument from silence, while defending error born in ignorance of the Law and what it teaches.
~ Travis W. Rogers
What would be an application of applying the general equity of the OT “civil” law?
If someone steals, what would be the just civil penalty in the year 2021?
In the OT, the penalty for stealing was paying back a higher amount. I think that would serve as a great deterrent in our societal laws. In most cases, some form of restitution is already in effect. While we’re not bound to follow the exact prescribed punishment found in Scripture, there is a sense of general equity in the moral use.