Don’t blame “the government.” Don’t blame Democrats or Republicans. Pogo said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We get the government we want. This is the reason Ted Kennedy was in office for more than 40 years. A majority of people in Massachusetts voted for him. He was the titan of big government, and people loved him for it, even though any other politician would have been run out of office after the Mary Jo Kopechne affair. Kennedy’s ability to bring home the bacon blurred their ability of see his legislative record through the Constitution. They were enamored with Camelot, a fictional story of what the Kennedy’s were not. It’s all about the pork. Actually, it’s about the stealing of pork and using elected government officials to do it for us. Stealing money from a neighbor in one state to fund the education of a child in another state will get you arrested. But if you elect enough congressmen to do it, you’re a “progressive.” Like children, we lack self-control. We want what’s not ours. If we are ever going to turn this nation around, we must understand the makeup of self-government.
Self-government is synonymous with self-control. A self-governed individual is someone who can regulate his attitudes and actions without the need for external coercion. Reuben, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, is described as a man who “boils over”: “Reuben, you are my first-born; my might and the beginning of my strength, preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power. Uncontrolled [lit., boiling over] as water, you shall not have preeminence, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it—he went up to my couch” (Gen. 49:4). Reuben was preeminent in nearly everything, but his lack of self-control took from him the status and privileges of the first-born (a double portion of his father’s inheritance). This single text shows us that there is a relationship between self-government and godly leadership. Those who cannot govern themselves cannot govern others (1 Tim. 3:1–8).
On the other hand, Joseph exhibited self-control (self-government) even under great temptation and the possibility of personal gain (Gen. 39:7–23; 49:23–24). He is then blessed beyond any of his brothers, by Pharaoh and Jacob alike. In Egypt he is made a ruler (41:38-49), and through his children, Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph receives a double portion of the Promised Land as if he were the firstborn.
A self-governed individual obeys the law of God from the heart, while someone who lacks self-control must be forced to obey. Those who are not self-governed need to be controlled by an external governor. This is why Scripture tells us “that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:9–10). For children, a spanking may be needed for rebellion against parents in family government (Prov. 13:24).
Of course, parents work for the day when their children will learn to govern their behavior without the need for external correction. A student who refuses to do his homework may be forced to stay after school until he completes it. A self-governed student does his homework, considering the consequences if he fails to do it, having learned that self-government brings the reward of freedom after school, the absence of anxiety, good grades, a good relationship with his parents and teachers, and the prospect of future employment.
An ungoverned citizen reverts to crime to satisfy his uncontrolled desires. He might steal, vandalize, murder, or rape. His failure to govern himself means that others must govern him, protecting the larger society from his destructiveness and rebellion.
Self-government is generated through the power of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26), therefore, ultimately we cannot talk about self-government without addressing the person and work of Jesus Christ. Men fail in self-government because they are in rebellion against God. The heart of rebellious sinners, dead in trespasses and sins, must be regenerated. Only the renewing work of the Holy Spirit can effect such a change. For the unbeliever, the law and the threat of punishment keep him in check (1 Tim. 1:9–10). Even for the Christian, because he is still a sinner, the law and the consequences that come with disobedience (punishment) keep him in check as well.
Any society that has a history of self-control among the citizenry has at its foundation a biblical moral order. Those nations that attempt to copy the fruit of a Christian society without copying the root (the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit) will eventually degenerate and collapse. Christian virtues will be counterfeited, and attempts will be made by the State (civil government at the national level), from a desire for a man-centered utopia, to force a man-centered “morality” in the name of “the people.” Such regimes more often than not end in bloodshed.
We should not expect any long-term change in society without a radical change in the belief patterns of the citizenry. This means that a revival and reformation must sweep across America with millions converted. From new hearts will flow a new, although not a perfect, society. Societal change without personal regeneration is a myth. If we are going to see society changed, then we must see individuals changed. Evangelism, therefore, cannot be divorced from our talk about “good government.” But these internally transformed individuals need a guidebook to know what needs to be changed and how to do it. The Bible is that guidebook:
Diffuse the knowledge of the Bible, and the hungry will be fed, and the naked clothed. Diffuse the knowledge of the Bible, and the stranger will be sheltered, the prisoner visited, and the sick ministered unto. Diffuse the knowledge of the Bible, and Temperance will rest upon a surer basis than any mere private pledge or public statute. Diffuse the knowledge of the Bible, and the peace of the world will be secured by more substantial safeguards than either the mutual fear, or the reciprocal interests, of princes or of people. Diffuse the knowledge of the Bible, and the day will be hastened, as it can be hastened in no other way, when every yoke shall be loosened, and every bond broken, and when there shall be no more leading into captivity.
Family, church, and civil governments reflect the self-government of the people, whether good or bad. At the civil level, a nation gets what it votes for. Civil government, no matter how righteously conceived, cannot make people better. Leadership, like water, rises to its own level, the righteousness or unrighteousness of the people. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, gave this advice to the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports” (September 17, 1796).
No governing document can create freedom, national stability, and security. The best political intentions are no match for the will of the people. Self-governed people who acknowledge the sovereignty of God determine a nation’s future. The choice of autonomous rights over God-prescribed responsibilities will mean the decay of a nation. John Adams wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” When self-government is abandoned for self-serving opportunism, we should expect a decline in the health of the nation.
 Robert Charles Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions 1835–1851 (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1852) 16.