The Law of God and Public Policy (1): Begin Here
“Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to themin the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” Deuteronomy 4.5, 6
A Law for a new world
Peruse the civil codes of the American colonies and you will discover a curious phenomenon. Frequently, colonial legislators drafted their civil codes by looking to the Old Testament Law of God. Whereas English common law was unwritten, in the American colonies, there not being as ready a supply of judges and barristers as in England, it became necessary to reduce law to codes anyone could read, understand, and follow. It is not hard, for example, to discern the Biblical basis for the following colonial statutes:
Pennsylvania, April 25, 1662: That all marriages, not forbidden by the law of God...shall be encouraged.
That all treasurers, judges, masters of the rolls, sheriffs, justices of the peace...whatsoever relating to courts or trials of causes...shall be such as possess faith in Jesus Christ and that are not convicted of ill fame...
Virginia, 1631/32: Whereas… all swearing, cursing, and profaning God’s holy name is forbidden by the Word of God, be it enacted by the Majesty’s Lieutenant Governor, Council and Burgesses of this present General Assembly and the authority thereof it is hereby enacted that no person or persons whatsoever shall from henceforth, swear, curse, or profane God’s holy name.
And forasmuch as nothing is more acceptable to God than the true and sincere service and worship of Him according to His holy will, and that the holy keeping of the Lord’s day is a principal part of the true service of God...be it enacted...that there shall be no meetings, assemblies, or concourse of people out of their parishes on the Lord’s day, and that no person or persons whatsoever shall travel upon the said day, and that no other thing or matter whatsoever be one on that day which tends to the profanation of the same, but that the same be kept holy in all respects...
These examples are typical of many others. Up and down the eastern seaboard, in the civil codes of every colony, the Law of God is a source and even sometimes the substance—copied verbatim—describing how colonies were to be governed. We may balk at such blatant attempts to enforce morality, but what they show us is that colonial lawmakers, desiring to make this new world a good world, looked to the Law of God to define civil order and help ensure the safety and wellbeing of all citizens.
Since that Law served to lay the foundation of this great Republic, why should we now regard it as no longer to be relied upon or even referred to in matters of public policy?
A Law for all time
If our forebears and founders believed that benefit could be gained from a proper understanding and use of Biblical law, should we not also expect to find such benefit for ourselves and our posterity?
The Law of God expresses the character of God and outlines His holy and righteous and good purposes for humankind (Rom 3.31; 7.12). As we see in our text, on the eve of Israel’s conquest of the promised land, God was already pointing to the day when the nations would admire His people because of the wisdom and understanding Israel would evidence in her obedience to the Law of God. The prophets Isaiah and Micah foresaw a day when the Law of God would be spread about among the nations, and those nations would eagerly stream up to the mountain of the Lord’s house to learn what they could about this wise and understanding way of life (Is. 2.1-3; Mic. 4.1-5).
Since God’s Law is good and He has instituted governments for good (Rom. 7.12; 13.1-4), it follows that the Law of God should be a useful resource for people to enjoy lives of safety and goodness. The Christian should expect that, as people enjoy the goodness marked out by the Law of God, they might be induced by the wisdom and understanding they see in that Law to “stream up” to the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Mountain and Temple of salvation for all who seek Him (Jn. 2.18-21; 3.16).
A Law for all nations
One of the uses of the Law of God, explained by the prophets and apostles, is to inform the policies of public officials and the governments they represent (cf. Dan. 4.27; Matt. 14.1-4; Acts 23.1-3). Wisdom for governing is to be discovered in the Law of God, quite apart from any of its “religious” import. Obedience to God’s Law does not bring salvation; however, according to the Scriptures, following the Law of God lines up with the favor of God. Nations whose policies promote obedience to the Law of God can expect to realize more of His grace, whereas those that deny, neglect, or reject God and His Law are headed for disintegration.
The Law of God is thus a valuable resource for questions of ethics and public policy. But how shall the nations, how shall ournation, which is becoming increasingly indifferent and even hostile to matters of faith and religion, be able to know the favor of God which comes from obedience to His Law?
The calling of the followers of Christ is to embody and proclaim the Kingdom of God, by living holy lives and calling all people in every place to repent and believe the Gospel. We should aspire to realize as much of God’s Kingdom as we can, advancing in it day by day. Jesus clearly taught that Kingdom greatness depends on obedience to God’s Law (Matt. 5.17-19). While the Law of God can be difficult to understand, and while changing times and circumstances require great care in how the Law is interpreted and applied, still, the ageless wisdom of God is encoded there, wisdom that can be of help in promoting civic order and national wellbeing, even in a secular age such as ours.
The Law of God is a good Law for all. He has entrusted its use to His people, and He calls us to work out our salvation—not for it—by hearing, obeying, and teaching the Law of God.
1. How would you describe your attitude toward and use of the Law of God at this time?
2. Can you think of any ways the Law of God continues to provide safety and blessing for our society?
3. Do you think it’s possible that God’s holy and righteous and good Law could once again have great influence in our society? If so, how would that happen?
Next steps—Preparation: Spend an extended time praying through the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5.6-21). Pray slowly. Ask the Lord to suggest situations in our nation and in your community where we need this Law’s wisdom.
T. M. Moore
What is the place of the Law of God in the Christian’s life? Our book, The Ground for Christian Ethics, answers this question and shows us again why Jesus taught us that keeping the Law is an indispensable part of our calling God’s Kingdom. Order your free copy of The Ground for Christian Ethics by clicking here.
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Foundations of Colonial America, Vol. 2, Part 1 (New York: Chelsea House, 1983), p. 1146.
Foundations of Colonial America, pp. 2078, 2079.