The Great Commission and God’s Law:
Pt. 2 – God’s Law for All Nations
by Gerald R. Thompson*
WHAT SHOULD WE THEN TEACH?
A biblical understanding of God’s laws is not as impossible as some think it is. (I have had people tell me such knowledge was, at best, merely my opinion, or at worst, an evil pursuit). To be sure, the subject matter of the laws of God covers every area of life. Even to the extent that, if one wished, an entire professional law school curriculum could be built upon the laws of God, comparing them to the laws of men. The fact so few people have even dared to dream about the possibility of doing such a thing in the last 150 years shows how far the faithful have fallen in taking every though captive to the obedience of Christ.
But neither is a biblical view of law in general, or God’s laws specifically, something that you automatically have just because you are a Christian. Same thing for a biblical worldview of any subject. Merely crossing the threshold into the spiritual kingdom of Christ doesn’t vest anyone with more knowledge than they had before. Such knowledge has to be acquired by the constant renewal of the mind that only comes by study and hard work over a period of time.
But there is a fairly easy balance which can be achieved for the layman (i.e., the non-lawyer). That is, basic principles drawn from scripture, and from life, that show people in general what God’s expectations are with respect to our conduct. Expectations of behavior that may be described as rules, which God has laid down for everyone to see. And these rules apply to all people, in all places, and all times – that’s what makes them universal laws. If we fail to teach them, God will hold us accountable for that failure.
I break these universal laws into two main parts: 1) the laws of nature (creation laws); and 2) the laws of nature’s God (biblical laws). I will also talk separately about a particular part of the biblical laws – the Mosaic laws – just because people have so much trouble understanding them.
The Laws of Nature
I ask that you resist the urge to jump straight to the Ten Commandments at this point. Yes, they are acknowledged by all to be a part of the eternal moral law, or the law of nature. However, the Ten Commandments are not the place to start a discussion of the laws of nature because they neither originated in verbal form at the creation, nor are they the foundation of all laws in the Old Testament. In addition, there is actually nothing either Christian or Gentile about them – they are distinctly Jewish, being the core text of the civil constitution of the nation of ancient Israel. They just happen to reflect the laws of nature, as I will discuss later.
Since our focus here is on God’s universal laws, it would be good to avoid discussing laws of a peculiar national character until we have laid a foundation for understanding such things. Plus, the question of who can enforce the Ten Commandments (or any of God’s laws) must be dealt with first. Accordingly, I will pick up discussion of the Decalogue when we get to the Mosaic law below.
What is the proper starting point? A biblical view of creation itself. Namely, that creation was specially made by God ex nihilo (out of nothing), and the world is not the result of evolutionary (impersonal and random) forces. It’s pretty hard to take seriously the law of nature, if God didn’t actually create the world, or if humanity sprang up from the primordial ooze after God had done His part. Would to God that churches today taught a biblical view of creation!
Along with that, of course, is a biblical view of history and anthropology. By which I chiefly mean a literal Adam and Eve. Why are they important? Because the making of mankind in the image of God, mankind’s dominion over the earth, the fallen nature of mankind, and the eventual hope of mankind all rest on the fact that everyone alive today is a descendant (that is, an inheritor) of Adam. If Adam and Eve are not literal, then you may or not be personally made in God’s image, you may or may not have any earthly dominion, and you may or may not have a fallen nature, etc. All because you won’t know for certain whether such things are literal or merely allegorical or mythical.
If such things are only mythical, then the existence of truly universal laws is much harder to prove. Things which are mandatory (laws) are not based on faith, but on facts. If the facts are uncertain, it even opens up the possibility that some people will be made in God’s image, others not; some will be fallen, others not, etc. So the very concept of universal laws of (human) nature depend entirely on God’s special creation of the world and a literal Adam and Eve. Failure to teach these foundations can only result in a failure to teach the universal laws of God, as well.
The next logical step is to teach that such a thing as the law of nature exists. Strangely, there are some Christian traditions that deny the existence of a law of nature, or claim that it no longer applies to us. What foolishness! You want some good law of nature scriptures? Psalm 19. Rom. 1:18-32; 2:12-16. Lev. 18. 1 Cor. 11:14. But merely acknowledging the law of nature is not enough – we need to teach its specific content.
For example, that all people are created equal. This is not just an American principle of government. It flows from the very nature of humanity’s creation in Genesis 1-2, and is a universal law. The Genesis account of creation also reveals that of all of the creatures God ever made, people are the only ones to whom God expressly gave authority. Yes, that goes to the nature of God’s image in us. But did you know there is a whole set of God’s laws of authority? There is. I discuss this at length in my essay, God’s Laws of Authority. (See also, Legal Foundations: Framework of Law, chap. 6.)
The Sabbath principle is another law flowing directly from the creation account. (By definition, all laws of nature must be traceable back to creation, because that is when God’s will was impressed upon the natural world.) The Sabbath was not invented in the time of Moses. But in teaching the Sabbath principle, it is important to distinguish the penalties for violating the Sabbath which were peculiar to ancient Israel. The law of nature, as such, imposes no penalties – it simply establishes what is right and what is wrong.
I realize there’s a lot of theological baggage associated with the Sabbath. But that’s because people don’t treat it the way it should be – as a universal and eternal law which has never changed and never will change. Do what you want in interpreting the Sabbath consistent with that. But don’t deny that it is an eternal universal law. And don’t deny what Jesus expressly stated – He did not come to abolish (or change) the laws of God. (Mat. 5:17-19).
What else can I say? Plenty. There is the law of the nature of inheritance, which I discuss at length in Biblical Genealogies and the Law of Inheritance. There is the law of conscience, which I discuss at length in Self-Government, Conscience and True Liberty. There’s always the Big 3 major sins: idolatry, immorality, and violence. On immorality, see my essay on Sex, Crimes & Punishment, which is essentially an exposition of Lev. 18 as the enumeration of God’s laws of sexuality for all people, places and times. Or, one can always discuss the laws of family structure and authority, springing from Genesis 2. The apostle Paul, in 1 Cor. 11, expressly regards such laws as proceeding from nature, and not from cultural influences.
Before leaving the realm of the law of nature, I’d like to address the most ignored aspect of God’s laws in all of human history – the laws of jurisdiction. Start with the basic question: What things has God delegated to men to handle, and what things has He reserved for Himself? This will get into a discussion of jurisdiction over the heart and the mind, the law of love, freedom of thought and related matters, including the extent to which civil government ought to be involved (if at all) in educational and psychological matters. (Again, see Legal Foundations: Framework of Law, chap. 6.)
But the most important jurisdictional issue of all is this: In any given situation when addressing something that someone has done wrong, we must always ask two questions. First, what law has been violated that makes this something wrong? Second, what authority has God given me or us to do anything about it, and how did I/we get that authority? Nobody ever asks the second question – people just assume that because something wrong was done, anybody and everybody can jump in at will to address it. Bzzzzz! Wrong!
Use the example of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4 to show that just because Cain murdered Abel (i.e., he did wrong) does not mean that anyone had any authority (i.e., jurisdiction) to do anything about it. In fact, God didn’t give anyone that authority for another 1600 years or so (after Noah’s flood). Further, while Cain was still alive, if anyone had tried to exercise jurisdiction over Cain, that is, to punish him for killing Abel, God said “vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” (Gen. 4:15). In others words, it can be argued, who had jurisdiction was seven times more important a question to God than whether Cain was a murderer.
So the fact hardly anyone ever asks the jurisdictional question before acting is a big deal to God – and it should be to us, too. Why aren’t we teaching this principle to the nations? Why aren’t we teaching it in our churches? Why is it the people who claim to be the “people of the Book” know the least about what’s inside it? Don’t you dare ask for God’s mercy to cover a multitude of sins of omission. You now know the principle – go out and teach it! The Church will be held accountable.
And if, by any chance, you are saying to yourself, “I’ve never heard any of these laws taught in my church (or any church),” THAT’S THE PROBLEM.
The Laws of Nature’s God
The laws of nature, ostensibly, are those rules of conduct which we should be able to discern just by observing our world and human nature. Certainly, they will often be confirmed and repeated in scripture, but they would be just as true, universal and mandatory if scripture were silent about them. The laws of nature’s God, on the other hand, are those rules of conduct which we only know because they are contained in the scriptures. By definition, these divine laws do not trace back to creation, but arose at a later date.
Chief among these are the Four Great Commands, discussed earlier, and the four social relationships created by God: individuals, families, nations and the Church. Technically, yes, the Greatest Commandments to individuals (love God and love your neighbor) are part of the law of nature. But the teaching of these commands is usually best done as a group, in order to see how they do and do not interrelate to each other. And for the most part, they fall squarely into the divine law (or laws of nature’s God) category.
The second obvious starting point is to consider the divine covenants between God and men, i.e., Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and the new covenant in Christ (i.e., Church covenant). The tendency of many pastors and teachers will be to either: 1) tie all the divine covenants together with the thread of redemption; or 2) posture all of the divine covenants as the progressive unfolding of the Church covenant. I will not comment on the relative value of these perspectives, except to say if that is all you get out of the divine covenants, then you have altogether missed the point of teaching God’s laws.
Each of the O.T. divine covenants has as much or more to do with non-religious and non-redemptive commands as it does with spiritual matters. Of these, the first two are far and away the most important, because they are the most universal. That is, the Adamic covenant applies to all descendants of Adam, the first man. The Noahic covenant applies to all the descendants of Noah. If Adam and Eve were literal persons, and the great flood of Noah was also literal as described in Genesis, then every person alive today is a descendant of both Adam and Noah. Thus, these two divine covenants, though not part of the law of nature, are every bit as universal as nature today.
Take the Adamic covenant, which consists of the Dominion Mandate of Gen. 1:26-30. What does it consist of, really? Redemption? No, that doesn’t come in until Gen. 3, and is not part of the terms of the Adamic covenant, per se. What do the covenantal terms pertain to? Human sexuality and gender identity. The image of God in man. Marriage and family. Childbearing and all that goes with it: discipline, care, provision, authority, education, etc. If you want to talk about the right to life, abortion, or reproductive rights, where should you start? The Dominion Mandate.
But there’s also everything to do with subduing the earth and all it includes: private property, land development, cultivation, industry, labor and occupation, etc. Dominion over the entire animal kingdom and all it implies. You want to talk about the environment, the EPA, game and fishing laws, etc.? Start here. Even the food laws are important. Have you ever asked the question, what every plant yielding seed includes? You might be surprised. I suggest, many religious commentaries to the contrary notwithstanding, there is absolutely nothing religious about the Adamic covenant. But universal laws? There are plenty.
The Noahic covenant is similar (Gen. 8:20-9:17). Sure, I know the circumstances surrounding that covenant involved the physical salvation of Noah, his family, and all the land creatures. But what are the express terms of the covenant? No further curse of the ground, or killing of all flesh. The continuance of day and night, and the seasons, forever. Reiteration of the command to be fruitful and multiply (nothing had changed, just because God killed everyone else). Enmity between men and animals in a new way, and a command to eat meat. (Talk about the basis for a good discussion of the merit, or lack of merit, for vegetarianism and veganism.) Yes, the command to eat meat is a law.
Don’t forget capital punishment, not as a cultural or temporary rule, but as a universal law for all people always. Or the promise of the rainbow as a sign of the covenant (and not merely as a scientific phenomenon). Lots of good, non-redemptive, non-religious, stuff there.
Granted, the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants are applicable chiefly to the descendants of Abraham, and specifically, the nation of Israel. But that doesn’t mean they have nothing to teach Gentiles about God’s laws. The Abrahamic covenant is chiefly about three things: 1) that Abraham will have many descendants, including many nations and kings, but among them will be one special “great” nation (Israel); 2) that the chosen nation will inherit a specific parcel of land to be their possession forever; and 3) that all families of the earth will be blessed (primarily via Abraham’s spiritual descendants).
What does any of that tell us Gentiles, as a matter of law? Well, for one thing, it tells us who has the original and perpetual title deed to the land of Israel. Did you know God specifies the boundaries of the land of Israel five times in scripture, including by specific metes and bounds? (Num. 34:3-12). Might that give us a clue about how to handle some aspects of international relations in the Middle East?
The Davidic covenant relates to who can rightfully claim the throne of David as the ruler of Israel. Again, as to matters of foreign relations, that may help us Gentiles identify or distinguish who is the legitimate head of state, in some instances. (No, the Israeli prime minister is not a king, nor a claimant to the throne of David.)
As for what Gentiles can learn from the Mosaic covenant – a set of laws admittedly given solely to the nation of Israel – I will consider in the next section.
What else can I say about the laws of nature’s God, or the divine laws of scripture? Churches should be teaching their members about the Tower of Babel and the origin of nations. And that even though God created the nations, He did not create any civil government (even in ancient Israel). Instead, he always lets the people decide what form of civil government to have. The principle is, God makes nations, and men make governments. See my essay, The Right To Alter or Abolish the Government, for a detailed discussion of this principle, based largely on 1 Sam. 8.
And of course, the one thing churches absolutely never discuss about the laws of nature’s God, but should, is the principles of Church government. Yeah, those are divine laws, too. See my essay, Five Biblical Principles of Church Government. You’ll be surprised by what’s in there, too.
A Proper Regard for the Mosaic Law
Unfortunately, there is a long history of people mishandling the Mosaic law, and failing to properly understand what applicability it has, if any, for everyone. One common tendency is to regard the Mosaic law as completely dead, having nothing to teach of any value to people today.
The opposite tendency is to import too much of the Mosaic law as though it is directly applicable to everyone. Usually, this shows up in the importation of the tithe, along with other priestly elements, into the Church, where such things were never intended to apply. Less commonly, people have advocated for the use of Mosaic law as a basis for modern civil laws, often under the banner of Theonomy or Reconstructionism.
The solution is not to subdivide the Mosaic law into moral, judicial (or civil), and ceremonial parts. Frankly, the Mosaic laws are never laid out in that fashion, and the divisions are conceptual, not linguistic. The same verse (or any single law) may contain elements of all three divisions, and parsing out the differences is fairly complex. Nor is the solution to adopt some misguided rule of thumb, such as Repealed Unless Repeated, or Mandatory Unless Modified. Neither of those schemes is actually a legal rule – how can either be used to interpret actual laws?
I suggest there are three basic rules – legal rules – that should guide us in understanding the modern applicability of the Mosaic law.
First, the Mosaic law was only ever given to the nation of Israel as a matter of covenant. That covenant never did, and never will, apply to either Gentile nations or to the Church. Nevertheless, the Mosaic law does sometimes verbalize rules that are part of the law of nature. To the extent this occurs, the rules apply to all people everywhere because such rules are based in the law of nature, not because they are stated in the Mosaic covenant. Merely agreeing with the law of nature on some points does not make the entire covenant binding on anyone other than the Jews.
Second, to the extent a particular legal rule is traceable back to the creation account as described in Gen. 1-2, that is how we know it is a part of the law of nature applicable to all people, in all places, at all times.
Third, the law of nature, being a non-verbal expression of God’s will in the creation, by itself contains neither any specific punishments for violations, nor any express enforcement authority. Therefore, all punishments and enforcement mechanisms contained in the Mosaic law are by definition not part of the laws of nature.
The Ten Commandments
In this light, we can look at the Ten Commandments as an example of how to properly understand the Mosaic laws.
No other gods. This commandment is rooted in creation because there is only one Creator of the universe, hence, there is only one God. All gods other than the Creator are false. This being a religious law, like all other religious laws (blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, etc.), enforcement has not been given to any nation that is not a true theocracy. And ancient Israel is the only true theocracy in history. So the offense, while against nature, is moral only, and unenforceable by men.
Idols. God made people, and people make things. Here is the law of nature: nothing can be created which is either equal to or greater than its creator. Thus, men will never become gods, and all idols made by people are by definition false gods. Another religious offense which is moral only. But still an offense. Note: idols are always physical objects in scripture. Objects of desire are not physical objects. So money, fame, power, etc. may be false gods, but are not strictly speaking idols.
God’s name. The right of naming something belongs to its creator. Since God is uncreated, only He can name Himself. That means His name is holy and all people are to respect that name, to neither profane it nor utter it in vain. God has several names, some revealed to Israel, and some revealed to Gentiles (such as God Most High). All these are worthy of the same respect. The word God, however, at least in English, just means deity, and is not actually a revealed name of God.
Sabbath day. The law of the Sabbath is rooted in the creation of the world in six days, and God’s resting on the seventh day. Clearly, the Sabbath was not invented for the first time at Mt. Sinai. The punishment for violating the Sabbath in ancient Israel was severe (Ex. 31:14-15). The New Testament teaches that observing the Sabbath is a matter of individual liberty, not a matter for civil enforcement. However, this does not mean the Sabbath has changed days, because nature has not changed.
Honor parents. Contemporaneous with man’s creation, God commanded man to be fruitful and multiply. Parents have a natural right to command those children which they have procreated. To honor one’s parents is merely to honor the family order instituted by the Creator. The dishonoring of parents was punished harshly in ancient Israel (i.e., by death). Ex. 21:15, 17; Deut. 21:18-21. Those obviously do not apply to all nations. So the offense is against nature, but the remedy is left to God.
Murder. The law of murder must have pre-existed the Ten Commandments. Otherwise, Cain would not have been guilty of murdering Abel, and God would not have told Noah to execute future murderers. And according to Gen. 6:11-13, all manner of violence is also a violation of the laws of nature, not merely murder. Certainly, the capital punishments of the Mosaic law are not part of the law of nature. However, the institution of capital punishment in Gen. 9:6 is a universal law for all nations. Therefore, that is the rule as to punishment for acts of violence among Gentiles.
Adultery. God made man male and female, and also instituted the marriage relation at the time of creation. Thus, adultery must have been wrong from the very beginning, as part of the law of nature. But don’t stop there! All manner of offenses against marriage are likewise implicated as part of the laws of nature. Including, polygamy and polyandry (multiple wives and husbands), “open marriages,” unmarried cohabitation, divorce without proper cause, and the list goes on.
Stealing. The Dominion Mandate, issued contemporaneously with man’s creation, includes authority to subdue the earth. But God never intended this authority to be exercised communally – rather, He gives to men their own property. Stealing dishonors the dominion God has given to someone else. But again, don’t stop there. The historic common law recognized three other basic property offenses: waste, trespass and nuisance. Arguably they are forms of theft – look into it.
False witness. Accusations spoken falsely dishonors a fellow vice-regent of God, whom God has made equal. A false accusation is an attempt to exercise unwarranted dominion over a fellow human being. In the modern world, this is otherwise known as perjury. Perjury is a universal law for all nations.
Coveting. Coveting concerns a person’s heart attitude respecting property and possessions belonging to others. It is the antecedent of murder, adultery and stealing – improperly desiring (or despising) the life, spouse or property God has given to another. Note: there is no remedy, or punishment, for coveting. It is an offense of the heart, judgment of which God gave to no man, but reserves for Himself alone. Note 2: there is no good or positive form of coveting per the law of nature. To covet a person’s prayers is just nonsense.
Remember, the Ten Commandments are only illustrative of the eternal laws of nature reflected in the Mosaic law. They are not the end all and be all of the moral law. Lev. 18, for example, is a chapter detailing how various laws of immorality apply to the nations which are not Israel, and therefore must be based on the laws of nature.
I never said deciphering the Mosaic law was easy. I only say it is achievable, and it does take some skill and practice. But it will only be done if Christians get back in the habit of analyzing the scriptures, reading them carefully, and making and testing arguments for or against a principle.
LOOKING FOR LAW IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES
In the preceding pages I have tried to give you a fairly good handle on the commands of Jesus, or the laws of God, that are applicable to all people always. These are the laws that are reasonably within the scope of what Jesus intended His Church to teach in the Great Commission. However, Christians have a long history of looking for God’s laws in all the wrong places, some of which I will look at now.
Improper Importation of the Mosaic Law
There are those in the Christian community, primarily dispensationalists (not all, but some), who object to the Great Commission precisely because it does command us to teach God’s laws. And that’s what is wrong with it (in their opinion). But the root of their objection is the belief Jesus intended to refer not to God’s laws for all people, but only to the laws of the Jews.
According to this argument, the last three verses of Matthew hearken back to (and rely upon) the Mosaic law which Jesus operated under prior to His resurrection and the coming of grace. For that reason, the expression of the Great Commission in Matthew should be ignored in favor of a Pauline expression of the Great Commission (such as Eph. 2:8-9). Some commentators even argue the Great Commission in Matthew is actually limited by its terms to the persons present at the time and not specifically directed to future generations.
Let me respond to this last point first. Any statement beginning with all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, and ending with behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age, is not how anyone (much less God) would frame a temporary instruction to a handful of people. The whole verbal framing of the statement screams that it is something huge, for lots of people, forever.
Imagine Jesus saying something like, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go wash your hands before dinner.” All that would do is trivialize His authority. The plain fact is no one needs all authority in heaven and on earth to say something trivial or temporary. But if the intention was to give instructions to an indefinitely large group of people (most of whom are not yet born) for ages to come, then yes, you would need all authority. It’s not that hard to match the level of authority with the nature of the command. And Jesus claimed, in essence, an infinite authority. Thus, the command itself must be worthy of that authority.
Now back to the main point. Representative of the dispensational argument is the following:
As we have seen, Dr. Ironside declared that our commission is to be found in Matthew 28:18-20, but [other commentators] … realized immediately that this would bind believers hand and foot with the law of Moses, for our Lord distinctly commanded the apostles that in going to “all nations” they should “teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you,” and this would inescapably include obedience to the law of Moses for, not only was our Lord Himself under the law (Gal. 4:4), but He commanded His disciples to “observe and do” whatever the scribes and Pharisees directed them to do because these leaders in Israel occupied “Moses’ seat.” Pastor Cornelius R. Stam, Our Great
Commission, 10/3/2006, as published by the Berean Bible Society, www.bereanbiblesociety.org/.
Note what Pastor Stam is saying. First, he recognizes that the core of the Great Commission in Matthew is to teach God’s laws. Second, he equates God’s laws with the law of Moses given solely to the nation of Israel. Here is the essence of his mistake: there is more to God’s laws, and more to the Old Testament, than just the Mosaic law.
Did God know who the Mosaic laws did and did not apply to? Of course. Did Jesus know this, too? Of course, for He is God. OK then, as a starting matter, don’t assume Jesus is going to tell a primarily Gentile Church to teach laws Jesus knew darn well were given exclusively to ancient Israel. Give Him a little credit. If Jesus/God is telling us to teach His laws to the world, then by definition He is telling us to teach only those laws that apply to everyone.
God would never tell the Church to teach the nations about laws He never gave them for their governance. That would make God the author of confusion, which we know He is not. (1 Cor. 14:33).
Now it is also true Jesus was born under the Mosaic law (Gal. 4:4), He did not come to abolish the Mosaic law (Mat. 5:17-19), and He instructed the disciples to follow the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat. 23:2-3). He even, at one point, told the disciples to go nowhere near the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but to take the gospel solely to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Mat. 10:5-6). How are all of these to be reconciled with a Great Commission directed to all nations?
I start with the fact that the new program introduced by Christ, that is, the body of Christ also known as the Church, did not cancel, amend or abrogate the Mosaic law in whole or in part. The Church covenant and the Mosaic covenant operate alongside each other in parallel, as it were, neither one affecting the other. The disciples, and the apostle Paul, were both Jewish and members of the body of Christ at the same time. Merely because they believed in Christ did not somehow stop them from being Jewish. And just because Jesus was a new and better sacrifice, did not mean the Jews stopped sacrificing animals as they had been instructed by God.
I discuss this matter in very great detail in the essay, No Part of the Mosaic Covenant Has Ended. Here is the bottom line: as Jewish believers, the disciples were under both sets of laws – the Mosaic laws, and the new covenant in Christ – at the same time. Just like you, my friend, are under local laws, state laws and national laws, all at the same time. In this there is no inherent or necessary conflict. It is both/and, not either/or.
And if you look at the spread of the gospel in its historical unfolding, you will see the progressive working out of Jesus’ last words at His ascension. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8). And that’s exactly how the gospel was rolled out into the world. First, the disciples ministered only to fellow Jews. Gradually they made their way into Samaria, and when Paul came along years later, the gospel eventually spread to the Gentiles and around the globe.
Jesus knew this was the program. So when He gave the Great Commission, which was spoken very close in time to His ascension, He had to have the whole program in view, not just a part of it. Sure, the disciples would stay close to Jerusalem for most of their lives, but their converts could not all stay there. Sooner or later, those converts had to go everywhere. And the only commission that would suffice is one which gave them the authority to do that. So naturally, as the gospel spread to all nations, the laws of God for all nations would have to be spread as part of the package. And that’s exactly what it is – a package deal. A gospel, and laws, suitable for all nations.
Admonitions and Exhortations
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Tim. 2:15 (KJV).
Not everything God or Jesus has said is a commandment, or a law. Not everything the patriarchs, prophets and N.T. saints did are examples to us of rules and practices to follow. Not everything God laid out as a pattern for a particular group of people is a pattern for the rest of us. We need to observe the differences between orders, rules and admonitions, and recognize the role of liberty.
For example, when God told Abram to go from his father’s house to the land He would show him (Gen. 12:1), that was not a law, but an order. Similarly, when Jesus told the disciples to go to Jerusalem and prepare the Passover meal, that was an order. An order is a command to a particular person to do a particular task.
A law, on the other hand, is a rule of conduct that all men must abide by. Sometimes rules can be directed to the people of a particular nation (such as Israel), but of course in fulfilling the Great Commission we want to identify rules applicable to all nations.
Both orders and rules are distinguished from mere admonitions. An admonition is generally a word of caution or advice to avoid something, or an urging or reminder to perform a duty. See dictionary.com. Examples of biblical admonitions: pray without ceasing, do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together, put on the whole armor of God, etc. In other words, none of these examples is a rule of conduct, i.e., a law.
Mere admonitions, firstly, are unenforceable. No one can truly tell you how often to pray, no one else can actually know how often you pray, and no one can do anything about it if you aren’t praying enough. I would even go so far as to say that failing to pray without ceasing is not a sin. Just pray often and make it a regular part of your life, but don’t ever feel pressured because you aren’t meeting someone else’s standards for praying. This is not a matter in which one person can judge another. And God, for His part, is not your mother, saying, “You don’t talk to me enough.”
Ditto for church attendance and spiritual preparedness (such as, “Read your Bible”). That’s right – there are no actual rules for prayer, church attendance or Bible reading, or any of a host of other general behaviors. All of these are matters of Christian liberty, as the scripture says,
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. … But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (Jas. 1:22, 25).
When people make up rules for things that are actually a matter of individual choice and liberty, it is called legalism. And legalism is always a bad thing to be avoided.
Second, just because we’re dealing with God’s laws doesn’t mean that somehow His laws are intrinsically different from man-made laws. Laws are laws. And all laws originate the same way: they have to come from a legislature, or a lawgiver. Now we know that God is a lawgiver:
For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us. (Isa. 33:22).
But when God issues a law, He usually says something to indicate He is acting in a legislative (i.e., a rule-making) capacity. That is, He will announce the rule with a statement that, “this shall be a statute for you for all your generations,” or something equivalent. Or He will just outright call it a law. God doesn’t make laws without telling us that it is a law. He never leaves making a law to mere implication or inference. Sometimes laws need to be interpreted, but the fact of whether a divine law exists is not a matter of interpretation.
When is God speaking in a legislative capacity? Either when implementing a divine covenant, or when issuing a statute under or pursuant to that covenant. These instances are pretty easy to identify because there aren’t that many of them.
Just because the New Testament writers were acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does not mean anything, much less everything, they wrote was done legislatively. Inspiration and legislation are not the same thing. The apostles (including Paul) were never vested with legislative or lawmaking authority. The most they could ever do – any of them – was to report a command or rule previously handed down by the Lord, and then tell us that’s what it was.
Paul, in particular, was aware of this distinction. Just look at 1 Cor. 7:6, 25 and 2 Cor. 8:8. In each of these three instances, Paul says, “I say this not as a command.” Then compare with 1 Cor. 9:14; 14:37. In these two instances, he says, “this is a command from the Lord.” But in neither case is the command coming from Paul. Paul is not a lawgiver. His epistles are not laying down legal rules for us to follow.
Therefore, the admonitions and exhortations of the New Testament are not the commands of Jesus referred to in the Great Commission. I am not saying the admonitions and exhortations of scripture should not be taught as admonitions and exhortations – they most definitely should. But they should not be taught as rules or commands. And the actual laws of God (be fruitful and multiply, subdue the earth, eat meat, and execute murderers, etc.) should not be taught as mere suggestions or possible options. They should be taught as mandatory commands. Get it straight, people!
Regulative Principle of Worship
Before leaving the topic of Things in the Bible That Are Not Law, I’d like to briefly address the Regulative Principle of Worship. The Regulative Principle was a product of the Reformation, and one of its chief proponents was John Calvin – so this idea has been around for a while and is well known.
Essentially, the Regulative Principle holds that God requires His people to use only those elements of worship (especially corporate worship) that are “affirmatively found” in scripture, and anything not so found in scripture is prohibited. Affirmatively found elements of worship include both express commands of God and “approved examples” of people, that is, examples of worship in scripture that God accepted.
Now, I willingly concede that many modern churches have gone too far in pandering to a pure entertainment model of worship service, mainly to boost attendance (and church revenues). Yes, greed and lust for fame are alive and well in many churches today. But I attribute that to the fact such churches have little or nothing of any real scriptural value to offer people today. They certainly don’t know how or what to teach about God’s laws, and some of them have even lost sight of the gospel of Christ. But that has nothing to do with any so-called Regulative Principle.
There are four main problems with the Regulative Principle. First, the Old Testament commands of God relied upon to show us what God requires are almost universally drawn from instructions given to ancient Israel. By definition, those instructions are part of the ceremonial laws given exclusively to the Jews, which have zero application to the Church. And of course, the New Testament admonitions given to the early churches are, by definition, not laws (because the N.T. writers were not acting as legislators). So, in effect, there are no commands of God regulating worship of God’s people (the elect) in scripture applicable to the Church.
Second, actions of men do not make laws of God. I don’t care who the patriarch, prophet, saint or apostle was – no human being by their actions can create a command, rule or law of God. God’s laws don’t come from men. And the counter-argument – that it’s not the actions of people, but God’s approval that makes something a rule – is bogus. In accepting the worship of so-and-so in scripture, God is not acting legislatively. If God was actually making a rule of conduct, He would come out and say it was a law and not leave the matter to implication or interpretation.
Third, the form of worship is an area of Christian liberty. If people have liberty in choosing a form of church government (and they do), then they must also have liberty in choosing a form of corporate worship. How can you have one without the other? And liberty is valid, as long as it does not run afoul of an express prohibition. Jesus said He came to proclaim liberty (Lk. 4:18), not put us in a behavioral straight jacket. Thus, we have our own liberty to exercise as we see fit, and whether our actions are acceptable to God or not will have nothing to do with what someone else may or may not have done.
Fourth, the Regulative Principle inevitably tends to produce a ceremonial law for the Church, even while its proponents deny any intention of doing this. I find it very ironic that people who claim the ceremonial law of ancient Israel is obsoleted draw upon that very law in an attempt to extrapolate principles into the Church age. As I said, it is possible to extract principles of universal law from the experience of ancient Israel, but only to the extent you can trace those principles to the law of nature. But the proponents of the Regulative Principle never make this argument. Instead, they argue that worship elements prescribed for Israel apply to the Church simply because they were prescribed for Israel. And that’s as wrong-headed as you can get.