THE “BONDAGE” OF THE CIVIL LAW?

PMW 2017-062 by Chris Hume (Reformed Hope)

[Gentry note: Postmillennialism is committed to a God-defined righteousness as characterizing the advance of God-established kingdom in a God-created world. Thus, we are interested in how God’s law impacts ethics. Chris provides us with a helpful article in this regard.]

A common view is that the civil law of Moses was a bondage to Old Testament saints. This understanding leads people to view passages which speak of freedom from the law as meaning that saints are now “free” from the “bondage” of the civil laws of the Old Testament. In my opinion, this view is erroneous. Whatever you may believe about the civil laws of the Old Testament, you cannot biblically defend the view that the civil laws were a burden. You may attempt to make arguments against applying the general equity of the civil laws to societies today, but you cannot cogently use any argument that implies said laws were a form of bondage to Old Testament saints. Please allow me to explain.

One of the arguments against applying the general equity of the civil law in the Bible is that Mosaic obligations, with their inherent “bondage,” have passed away in the New Covenant. Since Jesus came and clearly fulfilled and ended the ceremonial system, it is argued that he must have abrogated the application of the general equity of the Mosaic case laws as well.

Passages that are sometimes quoted in support of the view that the New Testament teaches the abrogation of the general equity of the civil laws in conjunction with them being a form of bondage include Romans 6:14 and 7:6.

“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)

“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)

However, a closer look at these passages (and the Bible as a whole) paint a different picture. Romans 6:14 speaks of the the glorious truth that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ leads to victory over sin in the believer’s life (Romans 6:5-6). In fact, in Romans 6:13 (the verse immediately preceding the verse in view) the Apostle Paul says that we are to present our members to God as “instruments for righteousness.” Righteousness cannot be defined apart from the law of God. This is why the writers of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith clearly communicated that one of the greatest blessings of the gospel is obedience to the law of God. Whatever they understood from the statement that we are “not under law but under grace,” they certainly did not understand it to mean that we are not to obey the law.

God's Law Made Easy NEW


God’s Law Made Easy (by Ken Gentry)

Summary for the case for the continuing relevance of God’s Law.

See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com


“[We believe] that the Moral Law of God [ten commandments] is the eternal and unchangeable rule of His moral government; that it is holy, just and good; that the inability which the Scriptures ascribe to fallen men to fulfill its precepts, arises entirely from their love of sin; to deliver them from which, and to restore them through a Mediator to unfeigned obedience to the holy law, is one great end of the gospel….” (New Hampshire Confession of Faith)

Now, one may say, “Yes, of course, we are not freed from keeping the moral law even though Romans 6:14 says we are ‘not under law.’” Well and good. But you cannot then use the same verse to say that we ought not to apply the general equity of the civil laws—after all, the civil laws are clearly applications of the moral law (laws concerning honoring parents, murder, theft, adultery, false witness, etc). In fact, in Romans 6, Paul clearly teaches that we must oppose lawlessness (v. 15 and v. 19), and rather seek to be obedient (v. 17), presumably to God’s law (after all, Paul elsewhere clearly upholds the law as good). Rather than teaching that Christians are no longer in “bondage” to the civil laws, Paul is teaching that Christians are not “under law” as a means of attaining righteousness or favor with God.

Furthermore, Christians are not enslaved to sin because Jesus paid the debt for sin on their behalf. The problem was never with the laws of God in the Old Testament, but rather with the hearts of man. We have been freed from the power of sin and given new hearts, and with those new hearts the ability to obey God’s laws (cf. Titus 2:11-12; Hebrews 8:8-13).

Romans 7:6 is used in a similar manner, suggesting that the coming of Christ has set the world free from the “bondage” of the civil laws of the Old Testament. However, in the book of Deuteronomy, God clearly says that when other nations see Israel’s laws, they will be amazed at the wisdom and justice of her laws.

“Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)

The other (pagan) nations could only say that Israel’s laws were “righteous” if they were reflections of God’s moral law which was written on their hearts. Remember, God’s moral law was (and is) written on the heart of every person in every pagan nation. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 explains it in this way: “God gave to Adam a law of universal obedience written in his heart…The same law that was first written in the heart of man continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness after the fall and was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai” (Chapter 19, portions of sections 1 and 2). Forget about the people of God for a moment: the civil laws of God were not even viewed as a form of bondage by pagan nations.


Covenantal Theonomy
(by Ken Gentry)
A defense of theonomic ethics against a leading Reformed critic. Engages many of the leading objections to theonomy.
See more study materials at: www.KennethGentry.com


Interestingly, the London Baptist Confession also has something to say about the “bondage” of the law. In Chapter 21 (Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience), the confession speaks of the liberty (i.e. freedom) that Christ has purchased for believers. Included in this liberty is the freedom from the “rigor and curse of the law.” However, this does not mean that believers are not required to obey God’s law. In fact, earlier in the confession it states that the law of God “binds” believers and requires obedience. Furthermore, it is made clear that “neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation” (Chapter 19, Section 5). Therefore, the freedom from the “rigor and curse of the law” is to be understood as freedom from having to justify oneself by obeying the law (cf. Galatians 3:10-14).

We are not justified by obeying God’s law, but we are still required to obey it. After listing numerous other aspects of the freedom believers have in Christ, the confession states that such freedoms were common to saints in the Old Testament, but that “under the New Testament the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish church was subjected” (Chapter 21, Section 1). Note well: the civil laws (or the “judicial law”) are strikingly absent from this discussion of what aspect of the law may be viewed as a “yoke” or bondage. (What is presented, however, is what is clearly taught in the New Testament: the ceremonial laws have been “abrogated and taken away.”) . . . .

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Chris Hume is a conservative and Reformed Christian, writer, and preacher who lives in Delaware. He runs the Reformed Hope blog which hosts many excellent articles from a Reformed and postmillennial perspective. I highly recommend his site.

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3 thoughts on “THE “BONDAGE” OF THE CIVIL LAW?

  1. David Hillary August 4, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    That’s a rather one-sided analysis of the civil law and misses its point and hardly stirs the soul. The civil law of Moses expired with the state of that people … supposedly. So, in 70 A.D. when that people and its state was totally destroyed, the civil law just … well … expired. It wasn’t fulfilled. It just gave up the ghost and died. There was no significance in its expiry. It was just a local and national matter of tidying up loose ends in the scheme of redemption, with Israel having been cast off as God’s chosen people at the cross (many would say).

    But it didn’t really die, it lives on in ‘the general equity’. Still the ministry of death is alive and well, the murderer (and the rapist according to your example) still are to suffer death at the hand of man, through the organised and centralised and coercive civil magistrate.

    So the civil law of Moses in particular expired, but the civil law of Moses in general remains.

    This is unsatisfactory on so many levels.

    Jesus taught that *all* of the law would be fulfilled, and that none of it would pass until it was all fulfilled. The notions and concepts you presented are that the law passed (or at least some of it passed) without being fulfilled.

    Let me suggest that there is a better way. I’ve been studying that and I have drafted a paper on the typological fulfillment of the civil law of Moses that I think provides a more satisfactory approach to the issues, you can see it here:
    https://www.academia.edu/34013537/Typological_Fulfilment_of_the_Civil_Law_of_Moses

    I hope it may be of interest or assistance to those who are serious about understanding the civil law of Moses and its fulfillment in Christ

  2. Kenneth Gentry August 4, 2017 at 4:54 pm

    David:
    I think you have misread the article. I will try to check out your article when I get a chance.

  3. David Hillary August 4, 2017 at 5:26 pm

    Dear Dr Gentry, thanks for your kind comment and I hope you find the article stimulating.

    You will find that it opens a topic and an approach that is really ‘missing in action’ — the typology of the civil law. I have tried to take this concept quite far and push it to see how far it can go.

    In doing so I seek to grapple with some very wide political and legal issues as well as the eschatological framework to make sense of the issues. I see this as providing a wider framework for contrasting I guess the ‘Reformed’ tradition with the political and legal tradition of the earliest Christian writers of a more pacifist and anarchist bent. I hope it boils down to a full preterist response to Christian reconstruction of the civil law of Moses.

    Again, I hope it is helpful and interesting, and you may well be right I have misread the article.

    Please accept my apology if I have distorted or extended the article beyond what the author intended … sometimes I find it helpful to push positions and arguments, both my own and others to see how and where they might break, which is about as dangerous as it is interesting and helpful 🙂

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