Saved by grace, for good works
Theonomists all know and agree that no one can be saved by works, or by keeping God’s law. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It is a pure gift of God. It is not of man’s works lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8–9). To God alone shall be all the glory.
Nevertheless, too many people who quote Ephesians 2:8–9 fail to go on and quote verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Scripture teaches that we are not saved by works, but the same passage of Scripture teaches us that we are saved for good works. So there is no question that good works have a necessary role in the life of the believer. That role may not be as necessary for salvation, but it is still necessary as a result of salvation.
Uses of the law
Most Christians agree that God’s law reveals to us His standards for righteousness. Most would agree on certain uses of this law. First, we would agree that God’s righteous standards show us why we need Christ: we can never measure up to His perfect standard. In this aspect, His law convicts us as hopeless sinners, and we despair of any ability or merit on our own part to escape damnation. This use of the law should drive us to Christ alone seeking our salvation. Since the law teaches us our need for Christ and leads us to Him in this way, it is usually referred to as the “pedagogical” use of the law.
Most Christians also agree that the law provides a standard by which to restrain evil in society. Various agencies—including everything from personal relationships, advice of elders and parents, schools, businesses, social customs, and civil governments—should work together to curtail expressions of evil and promote goodness. We see this use of the law most readily in the role of the civil authorities revealed in Romans 13:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:3–4).
This is God’s minister and he must execute God’s wrath. This mandates God’s standard, then, as well. We call this use of the law the “political” or “civil” use, because its function is that of maintaining civility in society. Note a couple things in regard to the civil use of the law. First, this use pertains to external behavior only. It has no reference, generally, to justification by faith or our salvation. It is merely a standard of behavior for all people. As such, secondly, this use of the law applies to unbelievers as well as believers. All, regardless of faith or not, are expected to behave according to this standard, and civil authorities are ordained of God to enforce certain external standards on all people alike.
A third use of the law is accepted throughout the world of Reformed theology, including most confessional Baptists (but not among most Lutherans, among others). This use is called “normative” or “didactic” (meaning “instructive”) and refers to the use of the law as a pattern of good works for righteous behavior which the redeemed Christian should follow.
The teaching of Theonomy agrees with and promotes all three of the traditionally accepted uses of the law, though is most notable in regard to the civil use. Our view appears most distinctly in the beliefs that Scripture reveals standards by which the civil magistrate is bound to perform his task, that these standards are revealed primarily in Mosaic judicial law, and that they remain applicable for civil magistrates today.
Theonomists contend that this view should not be a point of controversy. After all, it is an argument based upon Scriptural standards, not man’s. It is just this type of standard upon which we all agree in regard to the other uses of the law. In regard to the law as a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ, we look to God’s revealed law, including Mosaic law. In regard to moral standards for Christian life and ethics, we look to God’s revealed law, including Mosaic law. But then, in regard to standards for civil and political ethics, most theologians depart from revealed standards and argue that human standards, or some other standards (“nature”), are adequate. But not only is this argument a departure from the pattern accepted in the other uses of the law, it is also itself not found in Scripture. It is utterly devoid of Scriptural root or directive.
New Testament mandate
What then does the Bible say about the civil use of the law? The easiest place to see the abiding validity of God’s Old Testament law in its civil and judicial standards is in 1 Timothy 1. Here Paul warns Timothy against false “teachers of the law” and instructs him in regard to the proper use of the law. Here is what he says,
As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:3–11).
Let’s break this down into its key points. First, Paul is promoting “the stewardship from God that is by faith.” The word for “stewardship” (v. 4) here is oikonomia, from which we get our words “economy” and “economics.” It literally translates as “law of the house.” It is a term of governance. I actually prefer the NASB here which translates the word as “administration.” This is a passage in which Paul is contrasting the frivolous, superstitious use of the law against that use of it which accords with the government of God which we are to obey “by faith.”
Second, Paul contrasts those who want to be “teachers of the law,” but do not understand what they are talking about, with the proper use of the law. He is not arguing against the teaching or use of the law in itself, but against those who want to do so in a way contrary to the law and the gospel. To this end, Paul affirms that the law is in fact “good,” but only “if one uses it lawfully.”
It may sound funny for someone to say that the right way to use the law is “lawfully.” And just to be sure, the Greek contains the exact same redundancy: nomos (law) must be used nomimos (lawfully). It sounds like a circular argument. But that is just Paul’s point: there is only one standard by which we can interpret God’s word, and that is God’s word. So, in order to understand God’s law, we need to read and understand God’s law—in this case, as opposed to “myths” and “genealogies,” but also as opposed to man’s laws, nature’s laws, or anyone else’s laws. There is no neutrality in this universe: we will conform either to God’s law or to someone else’s law. Only God is the ultimate authority. The Scriptures say that “when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13). The same is true with regard to His law: there is no other standard by which to appeal in order to understand and apply His law. Only His law is authoritative.
This means first that we should read the law for what it actually says. Many people condemn God’s law based on misunderstandings of it. This problem can often be remedied by merely reading what the law actually says. Some people fear it for irrational reasons. Some people dismiss it because they think the Old Testament was harsh and cruel while the New Testament is loving and forgiving. In fact, this view is not only incorrect according to Scripture, but was promoted by a heretic named Marcion who denied the authority of most of the Bible—including half of the New Testament!—because of this view of the Old Testament. It was condemned by the church as a heresy way back in the third century. Instead, those who would use the law lawfully as Paul instructs must read the law itself, read what it actually teaches, and read all of it in the context of all of Scripture together.
Third, Paul teaches here that the law applies not only as a guide for the life of believers, but as a rule outside the church. He says specifically that the law, in this sense, “is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane” (v. 9). This verse confirms the “civil” use of the law mentioned above—the use it has for restraining evil in society.
Here we must repeat that this use of the law is for the lawless, ungodly, and sinners—people outside the church. We must also remember that most Christians accept this use of the law—it is not a controversial distinctive of Theonomy. Many critics object to Theonomy in modern civil law by arguing something like, “You can’t impose biblical laws on an unbelieving people.” Yet this is not only exactly how Paul says the law applies in this verse, but for hundreds of years most Christians have not objected to this very use of the law! Yet when Theonomists say that the standards of that law are revealed in Scripture, some critics apparently forget that they themselves believe that God’s law in general applies outside the church in this way. Theonomists simply note that even the content of the law appears in this passage as well—the very next thing.
Fourth, therefore, Paul cites the civil and judicial sections of Mosaic Law here. We will discuss categories of biblical law in more detail later. For now, we simply note that Paul does not confine himself to the Ten Commandments, or the “love” commandments. He specifically cites from that portion of the law which is most often dismissed today: the judicial “case” laws that follow after the Ten Commandments, as well as points within Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
In addition to references to murder and lies which are obviously drawn directly from the Ten Commandments, Paul also specifically cites, among others, “those who strike their fathers and mothers,” “men who practice homosexuality,” “enslavers,” and “perjurers.” Striking parents appears in Exodus 21:15. Likewise, “enslavers” is a reference to the very next verse in Exodus which prohibits kidnapping and slave-trading. Both of these laws are considered to be part of the civil and judicial law of Israel. They are case examples of how the Ten Commandments apply in the realm of civil government. Paul is citing them here as the proper use of the law, including outside the church, in the New Testament.
Similarly, the reference to “men who practice homosexuality” comes from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. The latter of these two passages makes clear that this is also a civil law because it prescribed the death penalty—the role of the civil magistrate. In the same way, “perjury” is a reference to Deuteronomy 19:16–19. This law designates that false witness in a court case (“perjury”) is a serious crime and specifies the just punishment of it (whatever punishment would have fallen upon the accused is to be imposed upon the false witness).
So with just a little Bible study, we can see that Paul’s “lawful” use of the law includes content from that part of Mosaic Law which pertains to civil government. It is no wonder, then, that we see the author of Hebrews stating that Mosaic Law “proved to be reliable,” that by it “every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,” and that we should therefore “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we should drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1–2). It is only here that we see just punishments delivered by God Himself.
Fifth, Paul closes this brief discussion of the lawful use of the law by saying it is “in accordance with the gospel” (1 Tim. 1:11). Far too often, any mention of law in the Christian life at all, let alone specific reference to Old Testament judicial law, is dismissed quickly with sayings like “we’re not under law but grace,” or “that’s law not gospel.” Here it is unavoidably clear that Paul teaches that the proper use of the law is in accordance with the gospel, not separate from it or opposed to it.
We can see this same accord in Christ’s Great Commission to His disciples (Matthew 28:18–20). He not only commanded them to make disciples and baptize them, but also to teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). While the preaching of the gospel is the heart and soul of the Great Commission, the enduring teaching of God’s commandments and obedience to them is just as necessary and obligatory to it.
So, what does 1 Timothy 1:3–11 reveal to us? Paul teaches that we should avoid aberrant views of the law, and instead seek to obey the administration of God. This administration involves the lawful use of the law. This lawful use applies outside of the church, includes civil government, and follows the statutes for civil government revealed in Mosaic Law. Finally, this use of the law is in sweet accord with the gospel itself. This is the distinctive teaching of Theonomy in a nutshell. As you can see, it is simply straight, biblical teaching.
The New Testament teaching on God’s law, therefore, is that love is the highest of Christian virtues. It is the greatest of the commandments of the law itself. Love is the law upon which all other law depends. It is the summary of the law. Since it is a summary, then in order to understand the details and nuances of the law of love, we must look back to the nuances and applications of the detail of the law in the law itself. This law is at the heart of the New Covenant, the heart of Jesus’ teaching to His disciples, the heart of the disciples’ teaching in their epistles, and the heart of the Great Commission.
This perfect law applies not only in Christian life and Christian ethics, but outside the church as well. The lawful use of the law is not only to lead us to Christ for salvation and to direct the Christian in holiness and righteousness, but also to provide standards of justice in the civil realm, even among unbelievers.
With this basic background, we are now in a position to start talking about theological definitions.
Next section: A Simple Definition