Now that we have the beginnings of a vision of what a theonomic society would look like, we need to discuss how such a society will come to pass. This discussion is further necessary since the practical advent of theonomic society has often been mischaracterized through ignorance, careless assumption, and even malice.
This discussion will immediately invoke debates over eschatology. I will not go into those in detail in this book. There are many who may believe that something like my description in the last chapter will come to pass, but only after Christ returns. I do not believe this. I believe Christ is currently ruling both heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18) from His heavenly throne, presiding over the Great Commission, and will not return until all of His enemies, including death, are first destroyed (1 Cor. 15:25–26; Heb. 10:12–13). But even many of those who believe that the success of the vision will occur only after Christ returns still feel the burden for obeying Christ’s law here and now as much as possible. Even some premillennialists have contacted me saying they believe in fighting for the faith in every area of life now, and thus engaging in projects or activism to develop theonomic foundations for when Christ does return. This chapter will proceed upon the assumptions of my eschatology, but will also be helpful to those of all eschatological persuasions who nevertheless think we should work for social ethics which glorify God even in the meantime.
When we are discussing the vision of what society would look like, we are speaking of the nature of social order. When we switch to the topic of how such a social order will come to pass, we are discussing the nature of social change. What are the biblical elements of social change? While this question deserves a treatise of its own, I will discuss in summary the basic two elements that make up the New Testament program of social change: the Great Commission and the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit and the Great Commission
Godly social change in the New Testament comes from the advance of the Great Commission given by Christ, and this succeeds only according to the work of the Holy Spirit. Both are dependent upon each other, and both are necessary.
The Great Commission
The foundational impetus for Christian evangelism is the command of Christ given after His resurrection and prior to His ascension. We rightfully call this the “Great Commission.”
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20).
First, there is a lot we can learn from this passage, but the most relevant aspect for our purposes is the full nature and scope of the mandate. According to Christ, disciple-making involves more than just “soul winning.” It is about more than preaching about “getting saved.” We are to aim at more than that beginning part of Christ’s message that saves the soul. Rather, we are to train the nations to “observe”—that is, “obey”—all that Jesus has commanded us. This includes all of God’s word: not just the portion that speaks of the souls of men, but also the vast majority which teaches the law and its application for living, rearing families, self-improvement, doing business, running governments, etc.
For the abiding content of that law and its application, you can begin with the previous chapters of this book. But the relevant part here is the dire need to incorporate this content into our missionary activity. It is not anywhere near adequate, in light of Christ’s words here, to make a handful of converts without consequently teaching them the law, its social applications, and training preachers to address the whole of their society with that full message. To do so may prompt one with our contemporary mindset to boast that converting the soul is what matters most, and that devoting the entirety of one’s life even to save a single soul is “worth it.” But this is hardly faithful to Christ’s vision and commandment, in the view of which it seems quite timid, wasteful, and disobedient—much like the sad figure who buried his talent and was reprimanded by his Lord for doing so (Matt. 25:14–30). This is especially applicable when we collect millions of dollars to send out missionaries who live in disproportionately comfortable social conditions compared to the tribes they attempt to reach, and after a coupe decades claim only a handful of souls as converts. Instead, all of our missionary activity ought to address the full scope of Christ’s commandments, all of His law, and it should teach and train others to do so as well (Matt. 5:19).
Secondly, while this commission may often proceed by addressing individuals, its goal is to change entire nations. The text does not say “make disciples from among (or within, or out of) the nations.” The Greek literally translates as an imperative command to “disciple all the nations” themselves. The outlook of the Great Commission, therefore, is not individuals but corporate bodies, and all of them. Certainly, as we said, we must proceed toward this goal by saving individuals, but the end-goal is corporate, national, and universal. The greatness of the Great Commission does not lie in what it commands, but in what it promises. Christians should focus on the scope of what it promises, and engage in missions accordingly.
By the Holy Spirit
We must also emphasize that any degree of theonomic society will only come to pass to the degree that the Holy Spirit has worked among a significant portion of that people. This has multiple facets as well.
First, the dynamic power behind any Christian social change is the Holy Spirit, not man. When we speak of obedience to God’s laws in real time history, we are speaking of our sanctification. We are speaking of the degree to which our desires and actions accord with God’s standards, especially as compared with the former times of our ignorance or unbelief in which we not only did not obey God but did not care. The difference in attitude, will, and action is the Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches that “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Likewise, Paul teaches,
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one (1 Cor. 2:14–15).
Thus, Scripture teaches that the Spirit is the power behind our faith, confession, understanding, and acceptance of the things of God. But it goes beyond that.
We mentioned earlier that a key difference between the Old and New Covenants is that the New Covenant is a ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3). In it, God writes his law upon our hearts, not stone (Heb. 8:10). We are filled with His Spirit and empowered to mortify our flesh (Rom. 8:13), and to obey him. Thus our new patterns of behavior and thoughts are not said to be the fruit of our own power, but the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–25). Paul says that our change from our old sinful selves is due to the sanctification by the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:11; 2 Thess. 2:13). He says that the work of his own ministry was by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:16). Indeed, the full scope of Christ’s work is to bring the nations to obedience in word and deed through sanctification of the Spirit (Rom. 15:14–19). He specifies that walking by the Spirit means not only sanctification, but santification according to the righteousness of the law (Rom. 8:4). The law is thus our pattern of sanctification. Peter adds that God’s election of us is worked out “through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:2). Thus you see all aspects clearly: that sanctification is by the Spirit, that it leads to obedience, that this obedience is specifically according to the law, and that it is for the nations.
We must acknowledge, therefore, that it is the Holy Spirit that does the work, and we hold this idea as central to a theonomic society. This seems basic enough so as not to need emphasis. A variety of critics, however, (and some would-be proponents) of Theonomy perpetuate the idea that we want to first seize the seats of power and impose God’s laws upon everyone from the top down. Others repeat an old, slanderous, and well-refuted idea that we desire to “bring in the Kingdom of God by the works of man.” Adding theonomy to postmillennialism just makes that much more scary—even drawing comparisons to the Taliban! Of course, none of this is even remotely close to the truth, and those who perpetuate such myths about their Christian brothers quite simply ought to be ashamed of themselves for spreading lies.
In truth, as we have seen, Theonomy entails a drastic reduction in the size and scope of civil government. It seeks to remove great swaths of government power along with the cords of finance by which larger governments first buy the compliance of, then bind, lesser local governments and tyrannize the whole uniformly. Most importantly, however, Theonomists have always stressed that a biblical society can only come to pass in the wake of revival. In other words, it could only be a work of the Spirit, and anything that is not a work of the Spirit is not only pointless, it could be dangerous. Social change means social sanctification, and sanctification cannot come from the works of man. When man attempts to work apart from the Spirit, the results will never be praiseworthy and will not result in freedom.
Second, however, we must also acknowledge that when the Holy Spirit works, He works through people. This is not at all to take away with the other hand what we have already put down with the first. But the Holy Spirit works by inspiring, enlightening, and empowering people to good works. This means that the evidence of the work of the Spirit will manifest in the improved and obedient works of men.
Consider an analogy that will befit other views of the end times: the spread of the Gospel via the Great Commission. Let us assume the role of someone who believes the chief, yea! and only, purpose of the Commission is to preach salvation and save souls—we should not waste our time doing anything else. This person would scoff at the idea that a theonomic society could occur before the second coming of Christ. This person may repeat the caricature about us trying to bring in the Kingdom by our own works.
Such a person, however, does not see the inconsistency in their objection. Human involvement is not the same as human origin. Works that come through man are not the same as works can come from man. Such Christians themselves, after all, believe in human involvement in preaching the salvation of souls. They believe Christ and the Spirit are doing the work of the Gospel even though the actual presence, preaching, interaction, prayer, etc. are being done by men. Does this mean that even these pious savers of souls are guilty of spreading the Kingdom by the works of men? Of course not. But in order to be consistent with their own view, they must acknowledge that those who believe in more concrete manifestations of the Kingdom of God believe nothing different in regard to the source of the works than they themselves do about spreading the Gospel. It will necessarily involve the efforts of men, but that is a whole different thing than saying it comes from the works of men. No, Christian Reconstruction toward a theonomic society will come only by the work of the Holy Spirit; but it will cause, and thus involve, a wide variety of human works. These works will just happen to be Spirit-driven works, and He will deserve all the glory.
Third, for the change to be truly social, the Spirit’s influence must reach a significant portion of a people. Whether this is a majority or not is up for debate in any given system or society, I suppose, but we surely must expect a substantial amount of shared vision, shared goals, and shared values for there to be any meaningful social change. If outward changes are wrought by the influence of some charismatic leader at an opportunistic moment, it will probably not last. Social cohesion comes about by shared values. Without this, change will not have roots and will wither and die. We do not need charismatic personalities so much as we need a more widespread educational revival among Christians to effect faithfulness in service and action. The idea that we will just elect the right person to the Presidency and then impose a new system of government is not only naïve and ignorant, it has never been accurate in regard to Theonomy. Theonomic ethics calls for widespread self-government and decentralization. It is not only incompatible with dictators, but to embrace central planning or centralized government is to depart from Theonomy by definition.
We need not, however, think of our work as hopeless until such widespread revival comes to pass. It has usually been true in history that powerful social changes are spearheaded by only a small group of the hard core. While it would be a departure from biblical law to consider some top-down, centralized imposition of social change, it is nevertheless only through the courageous activism of small groups and even individuals that the message is brought to bear upon whole societies that need to hear it. It is only through such small but devout minorities that the first foundations of social change are laid.
Think of William Wilberforce. He worked almost single-handedly in Parliament, and with a very small group outside, to bring about the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. He labored fearlessly and tirelessly for over twenty years, starting as the voice of a tiny minority and subject to constant ridicule. He ended with a majority vote in Parliament. The advance of his cause and activism could be called nothing less than Theonomy in action, though he would never have heard the term and may have not accepted it in theory. But it was. There was no way it would have come about top-down. He could not have seized the reins of power if he had wanted to, and if he had, he would have been opposed widely, bringing about civil unrest if not revolution or civil war. But his minority status did not dissuade him from working for the cause—working for reform.
We should consider Wilberforce a prime example of how theonomic minorities ought to view their work today. We should engage in activism for reform because it is right, and because even up against such pervasive opposition we can begin to lay the foundations of necessary change, if not see it come to pass in our lifetimes. We should step up and become modern-day Wilberforces in regard to justice reform, prison reform, police reform, legal reform, monetary and banking reform, transformation of education, welfare, military, free markets and much more. Even if we think any broad revival is way off, we must still work for change in laying the foundations in order to be faithful to God’s calling. And the surprise may just be on us. Who knows what God intends to do through us as we preach and work His law in society.
Fourth, the goal of social change means real, concrete changes in societies and real concrete service and activism on the part of people. We must emphasize, therefore, that the Spirit working through people means the Spirit empowering and motivating people actually to works. As we have seen, those works will be according to the law (Rom. 8:4). Too often, even those who adhere to a biblical-law worldview do little but talk and write books. Such educational efforts are, of course, a part of how such a society will come to pass. We need awareness and instruction. We need information. But we also need action. When we speak of obedience, and obedience according to the law, we are necessarily talking about changes in behavior. Changes in behavior will mean changes in how we live, speak, work, spend money, associate with others, vote (or not vote), and much more. In terms of social change, it means changes in how the state (not to mention families, churches, corporations, institutions, etc.) behaves. Our activism ought to have very specific ideas of what these changes would entail, and then how to work for them in the meantime, if possible.
When we talk about the Spirit’s role in how a theonomic society will come to pass, therefore, we must consider all aspects. First, the theological source of change being the Holy Spirit. Second, the practical involvement of people. Third, the fact that we need a critical mass of converts, yet we work for certain changes in the meantime. Fourth, we have concrete goals toward which we work, and concrete methods of working. In all such work, we trust that God will bring His will to pass, and that what does come to pass will be only by His blessing.
Next section: How it will come to pass: Action plans
. See my Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51–20:26, Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision Press, 2011) for my contribution to the preterist and postmillennial arguments so far.