Saturday, August 18, 2007

Thinking Like a Christian, Week 7B: Law

This is a continuation of the entry from last week (7A). Most people probably have little idea just how enjoyable it is to teach a class like this, or how rewarding—spiritually and intellectually—it is to study material of this kind. A reminder: This series of lessons comes from David Noebel's excellent book Thinking Like a Christian.

What is the Basis for Law?

This lesson is intended to focus on the laws which man, through governments, makes.
"Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws." William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Law of England, late 1760's
Human laws should first be founded on the "law of nature," sometimes called "natural law." This term refers to law as revealed through general revelation. We have discussed before that man has a conscience within him, and therefore is given by God an inherent sense of right and wrong. He has a fundamental knowledge—even with his fallen human nature—that transcendent laws exist, and yet he still chooses to disobey...which also explains why God can hold all people accountable for their sinful actions.

Special revelation, the Bible, reveals the framework and details of God's law, along with many specific examples. Together with general revelation, God has provided man with enough information for man to implement a legal system which does not depend on sinful men's "wisdom." In fact, man can establish a relatively just system of laws IF he uses general and special revelation to do so.

How then should government "make" laws? A key point to remember is this: The purpose of earthly government is not so much to create laws (for God has done this) as it is to secure laws—applying God's laws to various general and specific situations, and to impartially enforce such laws as are written. Government should concern itself with encouraging people to obey God's will and laws, and with punishing lawbreakers; because wrongdoers should be punished, while those who abide by the laws should be protected. The main focus should be on a system of law that maintains order and liberty, by promoting justice as much as man can make it possible.

Furthermore, the Bible gives guidance as to how a government should operate. God's ideal legal system would be both orderly and equitable, with justice being meted out impartially (see Ex. 23:6-9; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:16-17, 19:15-21; Isa. 10:1-2). People would be held responsible for their actions, and the guilty would be punished. God's order would be restored where and when possible. Governments at all levels and in all countries today would do well to operate by these principles.

Courts have a role in government as well—but it is certainly not a legislative role! It is not the responsibility of courts to create laws, because they are institutions of justice, not legislative bodies. Our U.S. Constitution makes this clear. Courts must apply the laws, to see that justice is served. No one should be hastily condemned, and errors in the dispensing of justice must be minimized.

Deuteronomy 17:2-6 presents an excellent example of how a court should work, particularly in the judgment of capital cases. The crime must "be told thee" (a formal accusation), "and thou hast heard of it" (a legal trial). Then they are to "inquire diligently, and behold to be true" (satisfactory proof), "and the thing certain" (beyond a reasonable doubt). Notice that the American legal system, with all its flaws, still maintains these elements—and that is why I think it is still the most respected legal system in all the world.

Two other notes about courts: Even if courts err, all justice will eventually be served, either here on earth, or at the final judgment day. And when it comes to justice, restitution to the offended person is perfectly appropriate (see Ex. 22:1-15; Lev. 6:4-5, 24:18-22).

Now let us take a look at our own country. Please take a moment to read these two excerpts from the Declaration of Independence (these are portions of the second, and the last, paragraphs):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved;…. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Notice the facts about rights which this profoundly important document contains.
  • It is self-evident that the Creator (whom all the Founders would have acknowledged as the Jehovah of the Bible) gave men certain rights, which other men cannot take from them.
  • These rights include "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Note: A study of the Founders would easily demonstrate that by "Happiness" they did NOT mean the wanton pursuit of sinful pleasures or the selfish ability to do "whatever one wants."
  • Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights—this is the purpose of government!
  • Governments derive their "just powers" from the consent of the governed...which should make every American glad that we, unlike many peoples, have the ability to impact our government by the votes we cast.
  • The signers of the Declaration appealed "to the Supreme Judge [Jehovah, again] of the world for the rectitude of our intentions." Take a moment to look up rectitude in the dictionary if you are not familiar with its definition.
  • Their purposes were placed in "a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," another reference to God.
In summary, the Declaration of Independence, while declaring the colonies to no longer be subject to the British, looked to God as the Giver of rights and to government as the institution to secure those rights to the citizens, while making government the servant of the people. This should make you proud to be an American!!

Even Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence and among the least religious of the Founding Fathers, said in his Notes on the State of Virginia,
"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?"
The Preamble to the United States Constitution (1787), the document which established the very basis of our government says,
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Read that again if necessary; it outlines the general purposes of the document and of the government to be established—in essence, it lays out the "rights" which the government is going to secure for its people. True, subsequent amendments (beginning with the Bill of Rights) specified other rights which the government is obliged to protect. The point is this: The purpose of American government can be summed up as procuring and protecting the God-given rights of the citizens. Praise God for America!

One other question to address: Can Morality be legislated? The answer: YES, and, furthermore, it is. Things like theft, murder, abuse, perjury, etc. are immoral violations of God's law, clearly condemned in Scripture, and appropriately legislated as illegal. However, not all sins, can be (or should be, or need to be) legislated and punished according to specific laws. Herein lies the debates.

A goal should be to formulate "a legal system that legislates morality only to the extent that order is maintained and human rights are protected" (Thinking Like a Christian, p. 115). A government that attempted to legislate and punish all sins would be frightfully bloated in size. Also, Law, alone, cannot cause people to always act morally. This is one of the overarching lessons of the Old Testament. No man is capable of living a life that is completely lawful in God's sight (Luke 10:29, 18:18-21)—another of the great overarching lessons of the Bible.

All mankind will someday ultimately give account for following God's laws. On that thought, a final quote:

“Thus, a Christian system of law, while stabilizing society and promoting justice (by protecting the weak and innocent, and by punishing the guilty), also leads individuals to the knowledge that they are fallen creatures desperately in need of a Savior. Much as general revelation points to natural law, earthly legal systems help the nonbeliever recognize the corrupt nature of every person and seek the reasons behind this corruption and the remedy for it. God in His wisdom uses law not only to ensure justice, but also to demonstrate that, in our fallen state, it would be folly to demand our just deserts.”

David Noebel, Thinking Like a Christian, p. 116

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