biblical justice

Legal Relativism: Hasty Conclusions drawn about God’s Justice

Today, I want to deal with the legal relativist. You know the Christian who says, “Well, that Law was valid back then in that time, in that place, but not so today.” I want to pick on the Paul Copan’s of the world, men and women who are extremely talented Christians that have a strong aversion to applying God’s Law today. I realize that’s not a popular position to take, because it offends my brothers and sisters in Christ. Can we stop wearing our emotions on our shoulder’s please? We need to develop a little backbone and be able to take some criticism. Or do we, as professing believers, fail to realize that judgment begins with the house of the Lord (cf. 1Pet 4.17)?

For example, Copan argues “…as we look at many of these Mosaic laws, we must appreciate them in their historical context, as God’s gracious, temporary provision.”1 Copan is making this statement in light of the penal sanctions expressed in the Old Testament (hereafter O.T.). Highlighting the death penalty for adultery, he appeals to 1Corinthians 5:1-5 where the man is caught having an affair with his step-mother. Copan thinks that the only role the Law of God is to play here is for excommunication from the church body, since that is what the apostle Paul says the Corinthians should do. I’m sorry to say this, but that’s just sloppy exegesis on his part. A shame really when you get right down to it, because in a lot of ways, Copan is a very bright individual.

“Where does he commit an error?” you ask. Great question, glad you asked it.

First off, let’s look at the sin the man is guilty of. It is true that he has committed adultery for he has slept with his father’s wife, but he’s also guilty of incest. Biblical law takes familial relationships very seriously, and when one is grafted into a family through adoption, etc., they are considered a genuine family member. The man has not only seen his father’s wife’s nakedness, but he has fornicated with one who is considered his mother.

  • “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness” (Lev 18.8).
  • “If a man lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Lev 20.11)
  • “A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness” (Deut 22.30).
  • “Cursed be anyone who lies with his father’s wife, because he has uncovered his father’s nakedness.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen'” (Deut 27.20).

Second, notice the penalty is a death sentence. That alone makes many Westerner’s pause, reconsider and pull back. Is there really any crime deserving of death? God says there is. You say there isn’t. Who’s right? Well, unless you think you are God, then the answer seems rather simple. But surely we live in an age of grace such extreme (harsh, awful?) penalties are no longer applicable.

Hmmm, really? Again, I guess it depends on who you think you are. And you do realize that if you truly think this way you are calling the God of the Bible “harsh” and “awful.” I understand why unbelievers do this, but why you?

The death penalty is just, but there are limitations on how it may be applied. Let’s deal with the justice of it first, and then we’ll return to the limitations.

Justice

Why would the death penalty be just? How can taking the life of another be right? Two quick answers will settle it.

1) The punishment fits the crime. How you treat others, the Lord through His civil servants (cf. Rom 13.1-7) will do to you.

  • “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him…You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the Lord your God” (Lev 24.19-20, 22).
  • “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut 19.21).

**Obviously, the concern is for the victim not the perpetrator.

2) The punishment causes other criminal activity to lessen; evil doers don’t want to be blatant with breaking the law if there is quick retribution brought against them.

  • “So you shall purge evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. (Deut 19.19b-20; cf. 13.11).

The alternative is seeing crime rising in society, because civil rulers fail to do what is right and just according to the Word of the Lord.

  • “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Eccl 8.11).

Do we not read of this in Israel’s history when they failed to abide by God’s judgments, seeking instead to do their own? Do we not see the fruit of this philosophy (cf. Eccl 8.11) in our own societies here in the West? We refuse to punish rapists, murders, child-molester’s, etc., speedily and with justice, preferring a man-made standard because the God of the Bible is too harsh, and so these individuals become more emboldened to continue running to harm their neighbors and shed blood. Justice would be better served if we did what was right in God’s eyes, and stopped pretending that we are the true kings.

Limitations

There is a notable distinction that God makes between certain sins. Some are criminal in nature and deserve a negative civil sanction, others do not. For example, the 10th commandment is against coveting (desiring/lusting after) what is your neighbor’s (fellow human being’s) property. This is a sin that needs to be repented of, but there are not civil sanctions against it. How in the world can a judge (civil authority) discern another man’s heart? They can’t (we can’t), and so that type of sin is judged by God alone (cf. Jer 17.9-10). However, this is not the case with adultery (which actually falls under the umbrella of sexual fornication). Adultery, incest, bestiality, homosexuality, etc. are sins that God provides civil sanctions against—i.e. they are crimes.

However, there is a caveat that needs to be mentioned. While certain crimes (sins that) deserve a civil penalty, there are limitations on how one may prosecute them. There has to be evidence. Specifically, there has to be two-to-three lines of evidence, and we are not talking about circumstantial here, but direct evidence.

  • “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deut 19.15; italics mine).
  • “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” (Deut 17.6; italics added).

You could not convict someone of a crime deserving death without first meeting these necessary limitations. The people in question were innocent until proven guilty. Does that sound familiar? It should.

Moreover, the one being charged with a crime was protected from perjurers. If an individual or group of individuals brought false charges against another, and they were found guilty of lying, then they were the ones punished with the penalty that they sought against the other (Deut 19.16-19a). I cannot help but think of the Cavanaugh case in recent months as I contemplate the aforementioned verses.

Dare we say that these laws are from days gone by and are no longer applicable? Have you not read Matt 18:16 or 1Tim 5:19 or even Heb 10:28? Perhaps, you should for it is clear that their validity still stand.

“Wait a minute, if this is true, what about 1Cor 5? It seems that Copan does have a valid argument, since Paul did not insist on the things that you are claiming!” you say. Thank you, I appreciate the attentive nature of your reading. Please allow me to respond with the final thing that Copan failed to recognize in his hasty conclusion.

Understanding the Three Spheres of Governance…

Who was Paul speaking to in 1Cor 5? To what sphere of government was he referring to, in order to make a judgment against the man sexually fornicating with his stepmother? That’s right! Paul was speaking to the church in Corinth. There are three spheres of governance that God has established. Each sphere has a specific area of authority to rule and exercise godly dominion. They are the family, the church, and the state.

While it may be properly said that the Church has the authority to offer biblical guidance (godly counsel) to the other two spheres of governance (family and state), the Church through its elders, deacons and congregants2
has no right to rule in them. The parents are over their children, and the father is the head of them all in submission to his head—God. The civil magistrates are over their citizens, and they—the magistrates—are to be under their head who is God.3

Why is that important? Because, it would have been unlawful (against God’s Law and therefore sinful) for Paul to have the man sentenced to death. It was (is) beyond the sphere of authority for the Church of God (of Jesus Christ) to sentence a man to death, as they are not civil authorities.

However, they did offer the man a sentence of death in the sense that he was cut-off from the fellowship, handed over to Satan, and treated as an unbeliever. If the man failed to repent of this sin and plead the mercy of Christ in confession to the body from which he was forced out of, then his physical reality of being cut-off would be fully realized in the life to come. Being eternally damned, cast into darkness—bound and chained—where weeping and gnashing teeth is the norm.

The reason we do not see the application of the full penalty of these laws in existence today is not because they are invalid, but because we are rebellious sinners and our governments reflect this disposition. This should be obvious to the Christian living here in the states where many of the just laws of the past, based upon the Law-Word of God, have been slowly overturned and done away with. Why has this happened? Because the Church who should be counseling the nation’s civil leaders at all levels of government have been cowed into a corner, or they have truncated the gospel to a get out of hell free card, rather than standing for what is right and true.

While, I am saddened by Copan and other Christians for their confusion regarding these truths, I am not surprised as they are a product of a watered-down gospel; the gospel of the kingdom (rule) of God in Christ the King. Living in the land of relativists, we should not be baffled that many Christians are legal relativists to.

_____________________

ENDNOTES:

1 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 65.

2 There is no true hierarchy in the congregation/assembly of Jesus Christ. He alone is the head of His church. Though there are notable rules of leadership, no one person elder or otherwise has explicit rule over the people of God. All members of the covenant community are on equal footing, although there is a slight difference in the roles each one plays, dependent upon the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10.42-44; ESV).

3 It should be noted in God’s economy that the citizens of the city would carry out the punishment determined by the elders at the gate.

“The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all of the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 17.6).

Why? More than likely so that those who brought charges against another image bearer would not take lightly giving false testimony since God would hold them accountable for murder if they did so. No doubt this was also a testimony of zeal for the Name of God whose name had been defiled by the act of the criminal (cf. Num 25.1-11); as well as, the righteous vindication of the victim who had suffered at the hand of the wicked person being condemned.

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