Predictably, it has become now fashionable in certain quarters to repeat the “Judaizing” “legalism” charge against Theonomy, mainly through the use of mere contradiction or at best truncated quotations of us. While I write this with absolutely no expectation of stopping the mouths of the incorrigibly obstreperous, and this is old to many of our more seasoned followers, I also know there is a tremendous number of young people and other readers who will benefit from a simple review of what Theonomists actually say about salvation, works, and the law. I post this for them to have a beginning at discerning truth from falsehoods.
Is Theonomy a belief in works-salvation or in bringing us under the law? The argument is so laughably refutable by merely reading our key works that it is no wonder critics are so often accused of not reading them—even when they do. In my talk, “Still No Other Standard” at GGC last February, I addressed this point in the following way:
Rushdoony’s Institutes has been treated the same way [as Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics]. We’re always accused of being Judaizers, and legalists, and people who believe in mingling salvation by faith and works. . . . I did a little study. I did an electronic study of the book, of the Institutes. . . . I can’t remember the exact number; it was like 124 individual instances throughout the book where the word “regeneration” is used, or cognates of that word, variations of that word, or the word “convert.” And Rushdoony’s point is, constantly, none of this happens until conversion takes place. None of this happens until the Holy Spirit goes forth and regenerates men’s hearts. That’s what spurs it all. And he says this over, and over, and over, in several different contexts, several different ways, 124 times throughout the book—which, when you do the math, comes out to about once every six pages. Which means . . . on average, I should be able to pick up that book and read no more than six pages and find that concept in there. What does that tell you about our critics? They haven’t even read six pages, or if they have, they’ve ignored what he said—whether by accident or, God forbid, on purpose. And sure enough, just to test my thesis, I picked up the book and I started going from page one, and I think it was about page nine before I got to the first instance.
The simple truth is, you don’t have to read much to find out where we stand on orthodox, confessional soteriology. The sad truth is that you have to ignore a tremendous amount in order to accuse us of the opposite, and in order to maintain that accusation, you have to call us systematic liars.
Rushdoony was not alone in his view. It is basic to the theonomic position. In fact, in the Preface to the Second Edition of Theonomy in Christian Ethics, and in two other books, Bahnsen repeated, as one of his core theses of the Theonomic position, the following:
Since the Fall it has always been unlawful to use the law of God in hopes of establishing one’s own personal merit and justification, in contrast or complement to salvation by way of promise and faith; commitment to obedience is but the lifestyle of faith, a token of gratitude for God’s redeeming grace.
This view is shared by all Theonomists in the Rushdoony-North-Bahnsen tradition, as well as 99.9 percent of others who may use the label.
As evidence of this fact, here is a list of quotations taken from a range of Theonomic authors, each of which proves the point. Most of this material is from an article I wrote a couple years ago when Todd Friel joined Phil Johnson and others in a less-than brotherly bashing session against “Rushdoonyites” and “Dominionism,” labeling us “pharisaical moralists” and “without the gospel.” I have adapted the material and added to it for this more general post.
Dominion, the Gospel, and Regeneration
Let’s begin with R. J. Rushdoony himself. In his landmark magnum opus, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony wrote:
All law is religious in nature, and every non-Biblical law-order represents an anti-Christian religion. But the key to remedying the situation in not revolution, nor any kind of resistance that works to subvert law and order. The New Testament abounds in warnings against disobedience and in summons to peace. The key is regeneration, propagation of the gospel, and conversion of men and nations to God’s law-word. ((Institutes of Biblical Law, 113.))
A few pages later, Rushdoony goes on to preempt the very charge so frequently leveled. He teaches that “evil men cannot produce a good society. The key to social renewal is individual regeneration.”1
Another: “Clearly, there is no hope for man except in regeneration.”2
Again: “In terms of God’s law, true reform begins with regeneration. . . .”3
Rushdoony also held dominion and the reconstruction of society as a secondary priority to that of conversion:
The primary purpose of conversion is that man be reconciled to God; reconciliation with his fellow man and with himself is a secondary aspect of this fact, a necessary by-product but a by-product nonetheless.4
Here’s Rushdoony in another publication stating the same ideas:
This is the purpose of the law of God, restoration, and the means is faith, or regeneration by the sovereign grace of God.5
I suspect nearly any Rushdoony book (and there are over 60) would confirm these same sentiments. Just to test my suspicion, I grabbed a random and lesser-known work that happened to be next to my chair (yes I was writing this from my easy chair), his commentary on Genesis. Sure enough, here’s the confirmation on page 107:
The truth remains that . . . man is a sinner, and can never escape the fact except by regeneration and sanctification in Jesus Christ, a member of Him and His new humanity. . . .
Furthermore, in his commentary on Romans and Galatians, Rushdoony writes the following:
The sociology of justification by God’s sovereign grace will recognize fallen man’s depravity and the need for justification and regeneration in order to establish a good society. The law then provides the way of justice. . . .
You can really take your pick of scores of such quotations in this work alone, such as, “Before there can be works of law which benefit society there must be regenerate men in Christ.”
The law has no power to justify; it tells men what God requires of them. Man’s fall does not absolve man of the duty to serve and obey God with all his heart, mind, and being; that mandate remains, despite man’s impotence. Christ comes to remedy that incapacity. By His incarnation, He becomes one of us. He breaks the bonds of impotence, keeps God’s law perfectly, makes vicarious atonement for our sins, as our substitute, to satisfy the death penalty against us, and then regenerates us. We are made a new human race in Him and are now freed to serve God and to exercise dominion for Him.
No man can become a member of the new humanity except through Jesus Christ, His atonement, resurrection, and regenerating power. We have no status before God in terms of our race, status, sex, or works.
Regeneration is an inward act in our lives by the triune God: it manifests itself in works, i.e., regeneration evidences itself in sanctification, in our faithfulness to God’s every law-word. . . .
We could do this literally all day.
But what about other “dominionist” and “Rushdoonyite” authors? We have plenty more examples:
Dominionist and Rushdoonyite Gary North wrote of our views in 1987, in a popular book called Liberating Planet Earth:
We are talking about the transformation of this world. Only when the present world has been transformed by the gospel of salvation and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, as He works through God’s redeemed people, will the world at last be delivered completely from sin, at the final judgment (Revelation 20).6
(Note: you only have to read eight pages into this one to get the gospel point.)
Here the transformation happens not only “when” but “only when” the gospel is preached.
In preaching against humanism and communism, North contrasts “the preaching of the gospel of personal, individual salvation,” with “the imposition by force of an elitist, top down revolutionary cadre.” He obviously sides with the former.7 Indeed, North condemns the socialist message as “the gospel of ‘salvation through political plunder’”8
In another place, North affirms the centrality of the Gospel once again, this time quoting Rushdoony in Political Polytheism:
“The key to social regeneration is individual renewal,” wrote Rushdoony in 1973. But we must begin this process of reconstruction with confident faith in the gospel; we must be confident that God’s salvation is as comprehensive as sin is.9
North gets more explicit:
The long term goal of Christians in politics should be to gain exclusive control over the franchise. . . . The way to achieve this political goal is through successful mass evangelism followed by constitutional revision.10
I had to straighten out a raging liberal on this quotation some time ago. I still see people—not just liberals but conservative Christians—quoting this passage without adding that second sentence (context!) about requiring successful evangelism. Don’t tell me the problem is with clarity on our part.
One Reformed critic of theonomy and dominionism, William Edgar, represented our position correctly in First Things, in a memorial of Rushdoony after his death: “they tend to believe that God’s Kingdom will eventually be established on earth through the faithful preaching of the gospel and the faithful application of God’s law to society.”
Would that more people had such basic integrity.
How do dominionists say the kingdom of God shall gain dominion in all the earth? Dominionist David Chilton (deceased) in Paradise Restored, wrote: “The Garden of Eden, the Mountain of the Lord, will be restored in history, before the Second Coming, by the power of the Gospel; and the desert will rejoice, and blossom as the rose (Isa. 35:1).”11
How was that again? “By the power of the Gospel.”
Disagree with the eschatology, if you will (another discussion to be had), but don’t accuse the man of calling for political activism “without the gospel.” This is something of which everyone at the table should take note.
Chilton reiterates: “By means of the gospel, His people are extending His rule over the face of the earth, until all nations are discipled and Paradise comes to its most complete earthly fulfillment.”12
Chilton commented on Revelation 21:24–27:
This is written of a time when the nations still exist as nations; yet the nations are all converted, flowing into the City and bringing their treasures into it. As the light of the gospel shines through the Church to the world, the world is converted, the nations are discipled, and the wealth of the sinners becomes inherited by the just. This is a basic promise of Scripture from beginning to end. This is the pattern of history, the direction in which the world is moving. This is our future, the heritage of generations to come.13
Chilton was quite clear here about the gospel flowing through the church.
Interestingly, Chilton directly addressed the very criticism leveled here, only consider: this was published in 1985 (it is still available for free online). Chilton responded to the exact same criticism as it had come from Hal Lindsey, that “postmillennialists . . . believed that Christians would … [bring] about the Kingdom of God on earth through their own efforts.” Chilton said,
This is one of the most commonly heard objections to the Hope. The dominion outlook is equated with the liberal “Social Gospel” movement of the early 1900s. Such an identification is utterly absurd, devoid of any foundation whatsoever. The leaders of the Social Gospel movement were evolutionary humanists and socialists, and were openly hostile toward Biblical Christianity. It is true that they borrowed certain terms and concepts from Christianity, in order to pervert them for their own uses. Thus they talked about the “Kingdom of God,” but what they meant was far removed from the traditional Christian faith. Orthodox postmillennial teachers such as Benjamin Warfield and J. Gresham Machen vigorously opposed the Social Gospel. True postmillennialism has always been truly evangelical: It teaches that the Kingdom was established by Jesus Christ alone, and that the Kingdom is advanced through the spread of the gospel and the application of the Bible to every area of life.
There is another dimension to this issue, however. Since we believe that Christians will overcome all opposition and will bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, postmillennialists are accused of having faith in man. This is a radical distortion. The truth is that postmillennialists believe in God, who works in history through redeemed man. We believe that the omnipotent Lord of heaven and earth is indwelling His Church, and will not allow us to be defeated in the mission He gave us. St. Augustine prayed: “Give what You command, and command what You will.” That is our attitude as well. Because God works in history to bless the godly and curse the ungodly, history is on our side. In the battle between redeemed men and wicked men, we have faith in redeemed men. We believe that God’s people will overcome, in time and on earth, as well as in eternity. In Christ we are the heirs of all things.14
Chilton addressed this 30 years ago. The critics either don’t read this, or if they do, must maintain that we are lying when we say it.
Kenneth Gentry, Jr.
Ken Gentry, another postmillennialist and dominionist, writes in He Shall Have Dominion:
In response to the Pharisees, Christ specifically declared that the kingdom does not come visibly with temporal fanfare. “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). Obviously a spiritual conception of the kingdom is here demanded, in contradiction to an Armageddon-introduced, earthly, political kingdom.
This is why Christ went about preaching what is termed the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Mark 1:14-15). He proclaimed a redemptive, spiritual kingdom. Hence, being exalted to His throne leads to a spiritual effusion of grace, not the political establishment of an earthly government.15 .
On page 232 of the same work, Gentry writes,
The New Testament clearly expects an era of Christian dominion to occur prior to the Second Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ in power at the final judgment. This era of dominion will produce the worldwide transformation of society through the preaching of the gospel and individuals’ widespread positive response to the message of redemption – a continuity of dominion.
Note once more: “through the preaching of the gospel.”
Dominionist Ray Sutton, in That You May Prosper, explains a little of how this works: not through government or political activism, but through individual evangelism:
The spread of the Gospel is not a top-down operation. Salvation comes from above, in that it is applied through the work of the Holy Spirit. But normally, the spread of the Gospel should be from household to household, “leavening.” This is certainly what we see in the Book of Acts. The Gospel begins in the menial households of the Roman Empire, and it spreads to the greatest family, Caesar’s household, when Paul is taken captive and converts Caesar’s own bodyguards.16
Well, there you go. Here are plenty of quotations with references from the most popular and widespread works on dominionism and Rushdoonyism, and more, all of which directly mandate the preaching of the gospel before Reconstruction and as the only successful foundation of it. These references make this explicit, are stated in no uncertain words, and have been easily accessible for decades—some for over 40 years.
We have not even touched the writings of Gary DeMar, nor my own, nor have we examined the dozens of other writers in the movement or more loosely associated with it, now or at one time. We could find similar examples in all of these.
Our critics neglect all of these, or worse, ignore them, or, as has become fashionable, quote them only selectively in truncated or distorted bits. Again, either they don’t read, or they refuse to be corrected, or they lie, and in the end they must call us liars. Some people will remain incorrigible in their habits, for whatever reason, as indeed some have already for decades. But here, at least, is a beginning of the piles upon piles of evidence of what Theonomy really believes. Anyone who cares can tell the truth in contrast to the truncated versions attributed to us.
 Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 3rd Ed., xxvi.
- Institutes, 122.(↩)
- Rushdoony, Institutes, 449.(↩)
- Rushdoony, Institutes, 627.(↩)
- Institutes, 777.(↩)
- Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity, 340.(↩)
- Liberating Planet Earth, 8.(↩)
- Ibid., 71.(↩)
- Ibid., 154.(↩)
- Political Polytheism, 20.(↩)
- Political Polytheism, 87.(↩)
- Paradise Restored, 46.(↩)
- Ibid., 148.(↩)
- Ibid., 208.(↩)
- Ibid., 227–228.(↩)
- He Shall Have Dominion, p. 226(↩)
- That You May Prosper, 134.(↩)