Law and Religion – Reclaimed!
by Gerald R. Thompson
KNOWING GOD’S WILL
- Did God make man primarily for a religious purpose? The weight of religious writings, authorities and institutions throughout history would have us say “yes.” How wonderful, that the whole panoply of religion should choose to elevate itself above all else. However, for the reasons given below, I conclude that the answer must be “no.”
I. THE PURPOSE OF MAN
The Chief End of Man Is . . .
In the prior essay, having examined the nature of God and the theme of the Bible, it now falls upon us to inquire what the purpose of mankind may be.
One of the standard answers to this inquiry is provided by the shorter Westminster Catechism. There are other traditional Christian responses to this question springing from Lutheran, Catholic, and I’m sure some other perspectives, which I cannot now address. Anyone willing to provide some of these other Christian perspectives is invited to do so by email submission.
The shorter Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer given is, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” The question posed is the one I wish to address. The “chief end” of man refers to the main purpose for mankind’s existence. In other words, why did God put mankind on the earth?
The first part of the answer is to glorify God. The word glorify means to praise, worship, extol, and honor. This raises the question of whether an unbeliever can glorify God. I believe I am correct in stating that from the standpoint of Reformed theology (of which the Westminster Catechism is a key component), the answer is “no.” I do not know whether this holds true in all Christian traditions. But in Reformed theology, the concept of total depravity comes into play, to the effect that an unbeliever cannot please God, therefore an unbeliever cannot glorify God.
The second part of the answer is to enjoy God forever. Here the Christian response to the question of whether an unbeliever can enjoy God forever would universally be a resounding “no.” Only believers will spend eternity with God – unbelievers will spend eternity apart from God. In many Christian circles the concept of hell is identified with an eternal separation from God. So when it comes to enjoying God forever, according to Christian belief, only a Christian can do it.
The plain result of which is this: according to the shorter Westminster Catechism, the purpose of mankind is something that not all men can or will fulfill. Which is the same as saying that God’s purpose for putting mankind on the earth is something that applies to some people, but not others.
This conclusion is not mitigated by the fact that God desires for all men to come to know him, that is, to become believers. God may desire this, but he also knew from the foundation of the world that not all men would come to know him. And so the fact remains, that he put some men on the earth knowing that they would never glorify him or enjoy him forever.
At this point, theological discussions typically nosedive into mysticism, claiming that God has purposes we cannot understand, and he is sovereign after all, so although we cannot comprehend it, it all makes sense to God and this should satisfy us.
But, what sense does it make for us to make a statement that God’s ultimate purpose for mankind is thus and so, though it really doesn’t make sense, or cannot really be known, yet we believe it anyway? If that is the best we can do, better to leave it unsaid.
I frankly have several problems with the Westminster formulation. Is there anything about this life that would really lead us to believe that God made mankind for the purpose of enjoyment of anything? And if the focus of the enjoyment is deferred until the afterlife, then in what sense can it be said that the afterlife is a purpose for putting mankind on the earth?
But the biggest problem I have is this: What makes anyone think that the primary purpose for God putting mankind on the earth is a religious one?
Has no one ever read Eccl. 12:13? “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
I have a suggestion. Purpose is a function of duty. Those things God expects us to do, or requires us to do, are the things which give us purpose. We fulfill our purpose when we perform our duties as God has defined them.
Simply put, the purpose of mankind is to do the will of God. I challenge anyone to show from the Bible that this is not so.
However, we must recognize that the will of God is broader than religion. The will of God includes the dominion mandate of Gen. 1:28. The will of God includes the purposes for civil government. The will of God includes religious duties, but these are a minority part, not the whole of it.
Consequently, when thus understood, we can readily acknowledge that it is possible for an unbeliever to do the will of God. An unbeliever can take lawful dominion over the earth, enter into a valid marriage and have lawful children, and participate in civil society. These things will not save a person, but salvation isn’t the issue. God does not confine his will to religious matters – why should we confine our understanding of his purposes to religious matters?
Is not the will of God for mankind more than just religious observance, and broader than praise and worship? Is dominion really more fully understood by treating it as a form of worship? Must we really understand the nature of all human endeavors as a form of praise? How can something that only a believer can do be a purpose for all of mankind?
The failure to understand and recognize the difference between pleasing God and doing the will of God is one of the greatest errors of the historic church. Just because an unbeliever cannot please God in a redemptive sense, does not mean he is incapable of doing God’s will. This will not save him, but that is not the point. He is fulfilling his purpose – the purpose for which God made him and put him on this earth.
Salvation and fellowship are like the Sabbath. Mankind was not created for the Sabbath – the Sabbath rest was created for mankind as a gift. Similarly, mankind was not created for the purposes of salvation or fellowship – these are gifts, not purposes. Purpose in life is found elsewhere.
II. LAW AND GOD’S WILL
If the purpose of mankind is to do the will of God, then how are we to know the will of God?
God’s Law Is His Will
The principal means by which the will of God has been revealed to mankind is through the laws of nature and nature’s God. Lonang is the will of God.
God’s law is the principal means, and not the exclusive means, of revealing his will, for the reason that other means of revelation are used by God from time to time. For example, when God told Abram to leave the country of his fathers and to go to a place he would show him, this is to be understood as a command, rather than a law. No rule of conduct is to be inferred from this command which anyone else is obligated to follow.
Similarly, when people ask God for wisdom in dealing with particular situations, any guidance given is not to be understood as a general rule of conduct applicable to others.
But when we go looking for those revelations of God’s will which are applicable to all people, in all places, at all times, we find it exclusively in his divine laws. And since these laws, which are derived from an objective verbal revelation, are the measure by which all other purported commands of God (that is, claimed subjective revelations) are judged, they are the primary means by which all men know the will of God.
Thus, the primary purpose of the law of nature’s God is to reveal God’s will to all men. The second great purpose of God’s law is to distinguish right from wrong. There is no other standard for knowing God’s general will for all people. His law is the sum and substance of his general will. To talk about God’s general will apart from knowing his law is foolishness.
Law and Spirituality
Much of what passes for Christianity today is simply antinomian, that is, anti-law. Many terms commonly used to describe spiritual ideas have been stripped of their legal meanings, leaving us with hollow, empty concepts.
Take sin, for example. For the last 30 or 40 years, Christians have become accustomed to using fudge words for sin. People rarely even use the word sin anymore. Instead, we say “missing the mark.” Or we use nebulous concepts like “outside of God’s will,” or “apart from God’s plan.” When we get introspective, we say something violates our conscience. When talking about original sin, we say “born separated from God.”
All of which begs the question: what mark are we missing? Where do we find God’s plan and his will? What rules our conscience? And why are we born separated from God?
The plain truth is, sin is any violation of God’s law – nothing more, and nothing less. Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. [1 John 3:4.] How can anyone talk about sin without talking about God’s law? The concept of sin is meaningless apart from God’s law. Try asking 20 people what sin is, and see if anyone says, “a violation of God’s law.”
The problem, of course, is that popular ministries stopped talking about God’s law at least 50 years ago. God’s law is the unspoken taboo in Christian circles. God’s law is divisive, so don’t mention it. We are much more comfortable talking about broken relationships and stray paths. We like positive concepts like healing and reconciliation, but avoid identifying what the underlying problem is which necessitates healing and reconciliation.
That’s why, when a sermon is preached on Psalm 119 (the law Psalm), we are told things like, “the law of the Lord” refers to all of scripture. This is pure nonsense. Instead of cultivating a reverence for God’s law, we are told to revere the Bible, which in a perverse way has the opposite of its intended effect. How can one truly revere the Bible if one does not revere God’s law for what it is, namely, law?
It is why you can hear a hundred sermons on tithing without ever once hearing that the law of the tithe has been forever abolished (Heb. 7:12). It is why you can hear a dozen sermons on Romans 8:2, but never once hear anyone define what the law of sin and death is and express it as a legal rule. (What? No one can figure it out?)
It is why people like to talk about “ruling and reigning with Christ” (Rev. 20:4), but don’t have the foggiest idea that what is being talked about is a government job to enforce the law of a worldwide theocratic kingdom. Do you think that all believers will rule and reign as an automatic privilege? Or will God look for believers who know something about righteous law and government? At least God will be able to choose from among believers across the centuries, because there sure won’t be many believers from the last century who will qualify.
If you think about it, many other spiritual concepts have been similarly stripped of their legal significance. Take holiness, for example – what does it mean? To be blameless, or faultless. In other words, to be perfectly lawful, not in violation of any law. What is righteousness, except to be right (i.e., not wrong, or not in violation of law). How many more sermons on righteousness as “a reverence for the sanctity of worship” will it take for Christians to ask their pastor why he has such a contempt for the law of God?
One result of this antinomian tendency is a profound ignorance of all aspects of God’s law among the general population of churchgoers. Another result is the privatization of sin, to wit: “this is (or is not) a sin to me.” The idea of an objective legal order defining what is right and wrong is just plain missing in modern Christian culture. Instead, we get sermons on happiness (excuse me, I meant “joy”) and prosperity.
Do you wonder why so many denominations today are struggling with issues such as the ordination of homosexual ministers/pastors/priests and gay marriage? Wonder no longer. These denominations have long ago abandoned any allegiance to the laws of God. They don’t teach them in their seminaries, and they don’t preach them from their pulpits. They have rejected understanding God’s will in any legal sense, have stripped biblical concepts of their legal significance, and have privatized their concepts of right and wrong. How could they possibly expect to correctly perceive or resolve what is at root a legal issue?
You have heard that it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God. It should be no surprise, given the fact that much of the household of faith is characterized by lawlessness.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill [that is, to keep, or obey] them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” Matt. 5:17-18.
Since heaven and earth have not yet passed away, it is time for the people of God to get with the program.
Law and the Gospel
Certainly, the divine expectation is that the Church should be unblemished, that is, law abiding. Even the gospel itself, or redemptive theology, is governed by law.
The gospel and God’s promises depend on law to the extent that without law, the means utilized by the gospel to effectuate redemption could not exist.
The problem that the gospel is designed to solve is created by law. First, all descendants of Adam share in original sin, which is inherited. There would be no inheritance, were it not for the law of inheritance. (What? You thought original sin was in the DNA?) Second, the law of sin and death (whoever sins must die) operates to condemn every person ever born based on his own deeds.
The promises of God only have meaning because God cannot lie, cannot forget, and cannot change his word. Why? Because there is a law of promise which requires that a promise be kept, and a law of oaths that says God cannot swear by anything greater than himself, so his word is sure.
The new covenant in Christ is governed by the law of the nature of covenants (discussed elsewhere in these Commentaries), without which there could be no new covenant. The whole concept of propitiation and atonement is based on a change in legal relationship between God and man, based upon the payment of a penalty imposed by law to discharge a legal debt. What is forgiveness of sin, except a legal pardon?
The only reason the death of Christ can operate to pay for our sins is because he was blameless (a perfect law-keeper). And the only thing which keeps a believer in a state of forgiveness even after physical death is because God’s law continues even when we cease to exist, because God is law.
Consequently, it is not the gospel which gives substance to the law, but law which gives substance to the gospel.
The Birth of Christ
In this regard, it may be illustrative to examine what law was operating, and how, in the birth of Jesus, insofar as it affected his ability to perform the gospel mission. For that mission required him not only to perfectly keep the law during his lifetime, but also to avoid being tainted by original sin at his birth. That’s right, I here propose to examine the legal necessity for the virgin birth of Christ.
I start with two basic assumptions. First, that it was absolutely necessary that Christ be entirely free from sin (including original sin) as a means of performing the gospel mission. Second, that this requirement was actually met in fact.
It now remains to be discovered, by what means was this accomplished? The basic problem being this: if every descendant of Adam inherits original sin, wouldn’t Jesus necessarily have inherited it as well?
The answer being “no,” not if Jesus was born of a woman, but not of a man. Which is to say, not if Jesus had no earthly father, but only an earthly mother (a virgin birth). Which leads to the next logical question – why wouldn’t Jesus inherit original sin from Mary, his mother?
The answer lies in this distinction: the law of inheritance is not the same as the law of genetics. In genetics (that is, physically, per the DNA), every child takes equally from his mother and his father. Genetically, the contribution of the father and mother are each 50%.
But according to the law of inheritance (that is, legally, not biologically), every child takes only from the father and not from the mother. Legally (that is, under lonang), the contribution of the father is 100% and the contribution of the mother is 0%.
How do I know this? It is evident throughout the Bible. First, it is evident from the genealogies, in both testaments, which all run exclusively from father to son. Occasionally, a genealogy may mention a husband-wife pairing for identification purposes, but the ancestry of the wife is irrelevant to the genealogy. Only the father’s ancestry is important.
Which brings us to the genealogies of Christ, of which there are two. The first (in Matthew) is the genealogy of Joseph, the adoptive father, by which Jesus inherited the legal right to the throne of David and by which he is also considered a descendant of Abraham and Jacob. The second (in Luke) is the genealogy of Mary through her father and his male ancestors, which establishes no right of inheritance, but only Jesus’ humanity.
Second, it is evident from the laws of ancient Israel. Of particular note is the definition of the nation itself, which is the sons of Israel. Similarly, the twelve tribes and their clans and families were all defined by male lineage. To the same effect, the priests and Levites were defined exclusively by male lineage, furthermore, only males were eligible to serve in Levitical capacities.
The land laws and laws of inheritance as to temporal property followed this same pattern. Land could only descend to the sons, not the daughters. In the case where a family had only daughters and no sons, the daughters were required to marry men of the same tribe to ensure that when they had sons, the land would not pass to a member of a different (i.e., the husband’s) tribe. In other words, when a daughter married, her sons would inherit from their father, even though the family property came by way of the mother.
The laws of the kingship were to the same effect. Only male descendants of David were eligible to ascend to the throne. When Athaliah (a woman) attempted to assume the throne of Israel, she was regarded as a usurper, and executed. The fact that there were some female judges in pre-monarchial Israel is of no consequence, since the office of judge was not inherited.
Third, when the New Testament talks about the inheritance of the saints, it refers to both males and females as “sons” to indicate the right of inheritance. Sonship must be imputed to a woman so she can participate in the benefits of the gospel, because daughters do not inherit. If sons is rendered as children, it obliterates the law of inheritance. And you thought a gender neutral Bible was a good thing?
Consequently, it was absolutely necessary, as a matter of law, that Jesus be born of a virgin, because this was the only means by which he could both be human and not inherit original sin. In other words, strictly speaking, Jesus was not a descendant of Adam. This is why the Bible speaks of Jesus as the second Adam, because both had no human father and both came into existence without original sin.
I have a theory. I have not researched it and do not know it to be a fact, but I strongly suspect that the idea of the Immaculate Conception originated, essentially, from a failure to understand the law of the nature of inheritance.
The idea of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was herself born of a virgin. Why? To venerate Mary? Protestants may like to think so, but I theorize that perhaps the reason was more practical: church scholars wanted to firmly establish the sinless nature of Christ, believing that the sin nature (original sin) could be inherited from the mother as well as the father. In other words, it is possible that scholars treated inheritance like genetics – mistakenly believing the sin nature to come from both parents equally. So they came up with a method that (to their minds) solved the inheritance problem. Of course, it really only deferred the problem – if Jesus would inherit original sin from his mother, why wouldn’t Mary inherit original sin from her mother? But I digress. If anyone can shed light on this matter historically, please contact me.
III. A PURPOSE FILLED LIFE
Myth & Fable vs. Reality
In the last few years, conventional mythology (i.e., popular religious opinion) has held that God has five great purposes for human beings, namely, worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. It is further contended that if people fulfill these purposes, they will achieve a meaningful life and prepare themselves for the next life.
I have never heard anyone explain how these five purposes were selected, why these are the most important things to God, or how these purposes are different from any number of other purposes, such as dominion, family, justice, mercy, truth or virtue. They are simply asserted, often with accompanying proof texts, as being the really big purposes in life. Well, what of it?
A popular book on the subject suggests that the five purposes may be understood as worship (adoration of God), fellowship (Christian community), discipleship (spiritual maturity), ministry (Christian service), and evangelism (Christian witnessing). In other words, each of the five purposes is a religious purpose. What’s more, the author goes to some trouble to lay out each purpose as a form of glorifying God.
Since the five purposes are each aligned with the Westminster Catechism (the chief end of man is to glorify God), they each suffer from the same drawbacks. The five purposes are wholly inapplicable to non-Christians, and therefore do not explain why God made all men. The five purposes are exclusively religious, limiting God to a unidimensional overall purpose for mankind. All non-religious purposes, I suppose, count for nothing in the end. And, the five purposes are all directed towards the afterlife (according to the author), which does nothing to explain why God put mankind on this earth.
Second, the purposes selected by the author are severed from any context of authority, duty and covenant. Purpose comes from duty (or responsibility), responsibility comes from delegated authority, and delegated authority comes from the divine covenants between God and man and the law of nature.
I suggest that the great purposes of God for mankind are eight, not five:
- Individual self-government. The essential rights and duties of every individual are governed by covenant, specifically, the Adamic and Noahic covenants. The mission of the individual, or purpose for existence, is twofold: 1) to love God (in fulfillment of the duty to exercise moral responsibility); and 2) to love your neighbor as yourself (in fulfillment of the duty to exercise responsible dominion). See Mat. 22:37-39.
- Family government. The family institution is governed by covenant in two senses. First, the authority of the family institution is prescribed by the Adamic and Noahic covenants. Second, the marital relation is governed by the marriage covenant made between a husband and wife. The mission of the family, or purpose for existence, is twofold: 1) to be fruitful and multiply (to bear children); and 2) to subdue and rule over the earth (to exercise earthly dominion). See Gen. 1:28.
- Church government. The government referred to here is that of the universal Church, that is, all of the people who participate in the Church covenant, collectively. The mission of the Church, or purpose for existence, is twofold: 1) to evangelize (gain converts in every nation); and 2) to disciple (teach everything that Jesus commanded). See Mat. 28:18-20.
- Nations or civil government. The original grant of civil authority to all people was made by God in the Noahic covenant, when he first authorized people to execute murderers. In terms of actual civil polity, however, the governing instrument will be whatever form of civil covenant, or constitution, has been assented to by the people. The mission of civil government, or its purpose for existence, is two-fold: 1) to punish wrongdoers; and 2) to commend what is right (i.e., to secure rights). See 1 Pet. 2:13-14.
Consequently, I conclude that three of the five purposes described above are among the eight great purposes of God for mankind (worship, evangelism and discipleship). Two of the purposes are not among God’s great purposes for mankind (there is no duty of fellowship or ministry). And five of God’s great purposes were omitted (love your neighbor, exercise dominion, family & children, punish lawbreakers, and secure legal rights).
Third, the five purposes are considered to be the will of God, yet there is no recognition of the law of God as the principal expression of his will. Consequently, things which God’s law requires are ignored.
Among the purported five great purposes of God, we have no recognition of the expectations of God with respect to family, nations and civil government, or the individual (except for a duty of worship). God’s purpose for people to love their neighbor gets truncated to love other Christians and get connected to a local church – hardly a worthy replacement for God’s expectation of conduct in the world of neighborly encounters and transactions (yes, “love your neighbor” includes rules of commerce). Discipleship gets truncated to personal piety. Ministry is just an expansion on loving and serving others in the local church.
Finally, I would like to comment on how this conventional mythology has been used by organized religion. This pablum has been received exceptionally well by local churches, and with good reason: not only are the five purposes all religious in nature, but all of them lend themselves to existing church programs and fit in with a “Churchianity” perspective of life. In other words, the meaning of life is found in God, but lived out by people through the local church (under the auspices of the clergy), not in their individual, familial, or civil capacities.
It is no accident that the book was written by a church pastor to reinforce the existing church paradigm. This paradigm contends that everything God wants you to do can be done better through a local church than on your own. It is a philosophy based on the local church as the center of your life. It is a philosophy alien to the will of God, that is, his laws.
This paradigm is continually reinforced by local churches, especially as it relates to the purpose of worship. Come to church to worship, we are told. God inhabits our praise, we are told. Do not neglect corporate worship with other believers, we are told. On this score, I would like to make a few observations.
First, if you look at the eight great purposes of God, you will note that worship is not among the purposes of the Church. There is not one word about worship in the Great Commission. Worship, as it turns out, is within the jurisdiction of individual self-government (love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength).
Therefore, for the most part, worship is not something you do in a group. Worship is an individual responsibility, not a corporate one. Individuals may choose to worship together, but this is strictly voluntary. There is no biblical command to engage in corporate worship.
Second, worship, for the most part, is not something you do with your mouth. Worship is living every aspect of your life in conformity with God’s will, that is, in obedience to God’s laws. To obey God’s law is better than religious sacrifice. 1 Sam. 15:22. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable than sacrifice. Prov. 21:3. Worship is presenting your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (i.e., in accordance with his will). Rom 12:1. This is love for God: to obey his commands. 1 John 5:3.
So, if you really want to worship God, start obeying his laws. Don’t be fooled into thinking that when God says he wants your worship, he wants you to be a better churchgoer. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold. Ps. 19:9-10.
Third, by definition, the purposes of evangelism and discipleship apply only to those people who participate in the church covenant (that is, believers). But the purposes of loving God (including worship) and loving one’s neighbor apply to everyone under individual self-government. Which implies that any individual can do it. Don’t let your view of total depravity get in the way of seeing the truth for what it is.