Answering John Piper on the Civil Use of God’s Law

A recent article (Doesn’t the Bible Tell Christians to Put Homosexuals to Death?) by popular Baptist John Piper’s organization Desiring God gave me the impetus to attempt to address the numerous problems with how many Evangelicals understand the nature and character of God’s law and its relevance for Christians today.

This particular article addresses the subject of the death penalty for sodomites in Leviticus 20:13. As I expected, Piper addresses the question primarily by claiming,

“All the Old Testament finds its completion and fulfillment in Jesus (Matt 5:17) — and that is a basic truth that a person needs to understand. Everything in the Old Testament was pointing toward Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, dying and rising to save his people. And, therefore, in his person, in his ministry, the whole Old Testament reaches a climax and is dramatically altered.”

So, acknowledging what is obviously correct about what Piper says here, that Jesus fulfilled the promises of God to send a redeemer, the end of his statement, that the “whole Old Testament…is dramatically altered” is what I find troubling. Making sweeping statements like this when dealing with a question of the law of God has serious consequences in the minds of potentially millions of believers when you consider the reach and influence of Piper.

The immediate problem this presents is the assault on the immutability of God and the character of the moral law. It is granted that the ceremonial laws peculiar to the state of Israel have passed away. But what of the 10 Commandments? Are these Old Testament moral laws dramatically altered?

Not according to the Westminster Assembly who wrote the following in Chapter 19 (in the interest of space, the corresponding Scripture references to each part of the Westminster Standards cited in this article are not included here but are available at the pages hyperlinked):

WCF 19.II. This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty towards God, and the other six our duty to man.

This law, being a “perfect rule of righteousness” is therefore moral in character for ceremony cannot make one righteous.  That which is moral is good because it reflects the very character of God Himself. And like God, is unchanging in its nature.

WCF 19.III. Beside this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a Church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.

So, here we see there is indeed a ceremonial category of laws that are in fact different in character than the moral law and which are abrogated. But there are other categories of laws. What of those?

WCF 19.IV. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

Various judicial laws have expired with the State of Israel with no obligation on us today other than that required by their general equity.

But what is this “general equity”? The principle is well-demonstrated by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 9,

8 Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also?9 For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?10 Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.

The law as given was literally not to muzzle the animal who labors to process food so that it might have the hope of needed nourishment as it labors. But if we take the general equity of that law, we can apply its principles, as the apostle does, to see that we should pay the minister of the Gospel so that he can subsist on his labors which serve the cause of the Kingdom of God, for Paul says,

13 Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?14 Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.

So here we have a Mosaic law that would fall under those judicial codes of the State of Israel. However, there is a moral principle in that judicial code pointing to the moral responsibilities of the eighth commandment: do not steal.

The Westminster Larger Catechism States:

WLC Q141. What are the duties required in the eighth commandment?A. The duties required in the eighth commandment are, truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between man and man; rendering to every one his due; restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners thereof; giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others; moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections, concerning worldly goods; a provident care and study to get, keep, use, and dispose of those things which are necessary and convenient for the sustentation of our nature, and suitable to our condition; a lawful calling, and diligence in it; frugality; avoiding unnecessary law-suits, and suretyship, or other like engagements; and an endeavor, by all just and lawful means, to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and outward estate of others, as well as our own.

We see that in the prohibition on stealing, there are further moral duties required of us that include rendering what is due to others and doing what we ought to see to those things that are needed to sustain us – including the conducting of corporate worship in honoring the 4th commandment.

Therefore, a nuanced approach is required of us with respect to the law. As Paul exemplifies by his practical application, there are moral principles even to be found in the judicial code of the former State of Israel that are instructive for us and are in fact binding in their general equity on the believer today.

Reformed Scholastic Francis Turretin neatly summarizes the means by which we might use Biblical reasoning when determining the categories of the law:

For distinguishing those things which are of common [general equity] and particular right [particular to Israel], a threefold criterion can be employed.

(1) That what prevails not only among the Jews, but also among the Gentiles (following the light of right reason) is of common right. Thus the Greeks, Romans and others had their own laws in which are many things agreeing with the divine laws (which even a comparison of the Mosaic and Roman law alone, instituted by various persons, teaches)

(2) What is found to be conformed to the precepts of the decalogue and serves to explain and conform it. This is easily gathered, if either the object and the matter of the laws or the causes of sanctioning them are attended to.

(3) The things so repeated in the New Testament that their observance is commended to Christians.”

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, XI.xxvi.3

And we see a simpler statement of this truth in the Wesminster Confession along with a reminder that Christ and the truth of the Gospel strengthen our obligation to it, contrary to antinomian error:

WCF 19.V. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation.

I don’t think this truth could be any clearer. Yet, we don’t seem to hear any mention of it from Piper. The Westminster Confession continues:

WCF 19.VI. Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin; and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve, and what afflictions in this life they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof; although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works: so as a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law, and not under grace.

WCF 19.VII. Neither are the forementioned uses of the law contrary to the grace of the gospel, but do sweetly comply with it: the Spirit of Christ subduing and enabling the will of man to do that freely and cheerfully which the will of God, revealed in the law, requireth to be done.

Therefore, although we are not under the law as a means of justification or condemnation (Rom 7:4), we are directed and bound by it in our behavior as obedience to God is what we are saved to in response to the undeserved grace given, not licentiousness and lawlessness! We are indwelled by the Holy Spirit which enables us to do that which God’s will as revealed in His law requires. Naturally, we know that we will not keep the law perfectly in this age, but the clarity of Scriptural teaching on this is a great encouragement: God gives us his Spirit to help us in our task of growing in Christ-like obedience.

Piper also references Hebrews 8:13 and calls the old covenant obsolete, adding,

“The whole Old Testament sacrificial system is over. It doesn’t apply anymore.”

I find it rather odd that Piper chooses to reference the sacrificial system in reference to a question about the moral law. In doing so, he is tying the ceremonial element of the law to the moral law and its penal code together as if they are one and the same.

Piper continues,

“So all of those specifics are how the old covenant was becoming obsolete. And dramatic changes came about and hundreds of commands in the Old Testament don’t apply to Christians anymore, because this new phase of redemptive history has come.”

The devil is in the details. Which commands don’t apply to Christians anymore? All of them? How does a Christian know? Is it arbitrary? I was just asked if I eat bacon by a professing believer because I believe God’s moral law and the general equity of the judicial law still apply to include the death penalty for capital offenses. Is that category distinction really so unclear for those who have God’s Word in their home? Thankfully, we have already demonstrated previously that these categories are objectively knowable and it is indeed our responsibility to discern them properly.

In further developing our understanding of those law categories, it is helpful to consider the words of Puritan James Durham:

“Distinguish betwixt the Moral, and Ceremonial, and Judicial Law; the first concerns manners, and the right ordering of a Godly Conversation; and because these things are of perpetual equity and rectitude, the obligation of this Law as to that is perpetual; and therefore in the exponding of it, these two terms, Moral, and of Perpetual Authority, are all one, and to be taken so. 2. The Judical Law is for regulating outward Society, & for Government, and doth generally (excepting what was peculiar to the people of Israel) agree with the Moral Law; this as given to them is not perpetual, their policy being at an end. 3. The Ceremonial Law is in Ceremonies, Types, and Shadows, pointing at a Saviour to come; this is also abrogate, the substance being come; but there is this difference, that the Judicial Law is but Mortua, dead; and may, where’t is thought fit, with the fore-going caution, be used under the New Testament; but the Ceremonial Law is Mortifera, deadly, and cannot without falling from grace, (Gal. 5. 2, 4) be revived.”

James Durham, “The Law Unsealed: Or, A Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments”, pp. 6-7

Durham clarifies the distinction between between the Judicial law and its purpose and the fact that other than that in the Judicial law that was peculiar to Israel is in fact moral in its nature and like all of the moral law is of perpetual authority. Therefore, that which is given in the Mosaic Judicial law that is moral in nature is perpetually binding, such as we saw with Paul’s use of the judicial law to prove the moral responsibility of compensating our teaching elders or pastors.

But what of the penology or penal sanctions of God’s law in the Mosaic judicial code?

Thomas Edwards takes up the subject in his A Treatise Against Tolerance stating,

“Thirdly, these Laws may be looked upon as containing doctrine from God of punishment, i.e. that those who seduce, blaspheme God, etc. be restrained, yea and by death in several cases, or else as in their latter according to the great rigor and severity expressed in them…Now though to the degrees and measures of punishment, the severity and utmost rigor the Magistrate is not now tied, yet to the thing in cases of Idolatry, seduction, false prophesying, speaking lies in the name of the Lord he is bound, and in some cases of gross and high Idolatry and Blasphemy committed presumptuously, to inflict capital punishment.”

Importantly, Edwards connects the moral judicial case laws to the Decalogue.

“Seeing the judicial [laws] prescribe the equity of judgments which is a part of the Decalogue we must be bound to that as we are to the rest of the Decalogue, viz. so far as they contain a general equity though we are not tied to the formes of the Mosaic polity; Now Christ saith, Matth.5. 17. he came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it; which words are comprehensive of the Judicial Law as for the substance a part of the Moral Law, (the Judicial being indeed an Appendix and a more particular explication of that part of the Moral Law concerning matters of Justice and judgement) and therefore must be understood by Christ to be established.”

So, because the moral judicial case laws prescribe the just judgments of God on violations of the ten commandments, we see that Christ upholds it in Matthew 5:17.

But Edwards is far from alone in his assessment of the importance of the penology of the moral Judicial code of the Mosaic law. Theodore Beza, the great Bible translator of Geneva wrote:

“Although we are not bound to the formulae of the Mosaic polity, yet when those judicial laws prescribe equity in judgments, which is part of the Decalogue, we – inasmuch as we are not bound to them to the extent that Moses prescribed them to one people – are yet bound to observe them to the extent that they embrace a general equity, which must prevail everywhere. For the ordinances are apparent for this reason, not because they have been ordained by Moses upon one people of the Israelites, but because they have been ordained by nature upon the entire nation of men.

De Haereticis A Magistratu Puniendis Libellus, 1554, pg 222.

And this Reformed understanding of the binding nature of the moral judicial law codes’ penology is not limited to the sixteenth or even seventeenth century. This is found also in American Presbyterian James R. Wilson (1780-1853) who wrote:

Everyone knows that the Old Testament abounds with such penalties. Such are all the laws respecting theft, damage, gross idolatry, blasphemy, the desecration of the Sabbath, rape, incest, adultery, assaults and batteries, manslaughters, and murders. That these penalties remain under the New Testament in full force is evident; for they were neither ceremonial nor judicial; they were no better adapted to Israel than to other nations; they do not expire by their own limitation; the crimes against which they were enacted are as aggravated now and as mischievous to society as of old, and men are now as prone to commit them as they were in Judea.

Political Danger: Essays on the Mediatorial Kingship of Christ Over Nations and their Political Institutions 1809-1838, pgs. 422-23.

For more on the moral judicial law code penalties, please see Brian Schwertley’s “God’s Law for Modern ManChapter 6. In it, Schwertley states:

“[God] has made it very clear that Israel’s justice system (including the penalties) was to be the model for all nations. Why? Because nothing devised by sinful man (i.e., as a complete body of law) is as righteous and just as what God has revealed in His word: “this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’… And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day” (Deut. 4:6, 8).

Piper continues,

“A third pointer to this dramatic alteration between the Old and New Testament is that the Christian life is put on a completely new footing from the law. Romans 7:6, “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

As stated before, we do indeed serve in the way of the Spirit which is empowered obedience to the law and our death to the law is to any thought we may have its ability to justify us, not that we are free to ignore that which is moral and therefore perpetual.

“Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). And so the church doesn’t function any longer like Israel did as a national or political governmental agency and, therefore, does not coerce its beliefs with the sword.”

The world system is the one which is lawless (Romans 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:14, and Hebrews 1:9) in opposition to righteousness. So, if we are to be of Christ’s Kingdom, we would seek Spirit-enabled righteous living in grateful response to grace, but not as a means of our justification as previously (and emphatically) stated.

“For example, in Mark 7:19 Jesus declared all foods clean. So the entire dietary law system of the Old Testament is wiped away, because we don’t need to distinguish ourselves from all the nations of the world.”

Right. However, Jesus certainly did not declare the moral law and the moral part of the judicial law code to be “wiped away,” an important distinction that Piper leaves out in a discussion of the application of the moral part of the judicial law code.

“Now, finally, directly to the point about homosexuals being executed in the Old Testament is that the New Testament, when it is presented with an executable offense, dealt with it differently. It goes like this: “It is actually reported that there is a sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among the pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1). When Paul dealt with that — which was in the Old Testament an offense so egregious it would have been dealt with by stoning, killing, execution — Paul did not, of course, prescribe stoning or execution. He prescribed church discipline. And that is a clear example of how dramatic the changes have become.”

And now we come to the part where understanding the history of the Reformation is of vital importance. During the Reformation, a number of nations created a powerful combination of nationally established Reformed Churches and publicly covenanted between the people of the nations (or in some cases city-states) and the church and their magistrates. If that sounds a little bit like the old covenant state of Israel, it should.

Jer. 50:5 “Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual Covenant that shall not be forgotten.”

Prov. 25:5 “Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness.”

2 Chron. 15:15 “And all Judah rejoiced at the oath; for they had sworn with all their heart.”

Gal. 3:15 “Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed by an oath, no man disannulleth or addeth thereto.”

In a covenanted society, it is the responsibility of both the Church and State to recognize the kingship of Jesus Christ over both institutions. Therefore, it also falls to the magistrate to enforce the law of God as His instrument.

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Romans 13:4

In a society that has covenanted with God, citizenship and church membership are co-terminal. This does not mean that the State has authority over the church or vice versa. The two have authority in their proper domains.

It is granted that the State has the authority to execute people for capital offenses in God’s law provided that the appropriate number of witnesses give testimony. Even our non-covenanted society with its godless Constitution, which wickedly claims its power is derived from “the people” and not Jesus (Matt 28:18), applies this as a natural law consequence. But when we add the presence of a people covenanted with God to promote the true Reformed faith with a unified (established) national church, there can be synergy between the purposes of both Church and State in seeing the will of God carried out. The Church has the power to exercise Church Discipline and the State is given the power of the sword.

It is difficult for a citizen of the United States in the 21st Century to envision a scenario in which this would make sense and be proper but that is because our own current “justice system” is so far from God’s own standard of justice and moral good that we cannot fathom what that would be like.

For the sake of example, suppose a covenanted nation with an established confessionally Reformed Church exists. In this country, an adult citizen (member of the church) has same sex attraction issues and has succumbed to his sinful desires in the past. He slips again and another church member witnesses it. He goes to his brother and begs him to seek help and repent. The afflicted sinner, convicted by the Holy Spirit and with a proper fear of God’s righteous law, approaches his pastor and seeks help. With the help of the means of grace, he grows in personal holiness and becomes a godly celibate, never to act out on his sinful desires again.

Now, for a second example, take a situation exactly like the first one, but this time, instead of the man being regenerate and benefiting from the means of grace, his conscience is hardened. As an unrepentant sodomite, he seeks out more encounters to feed his carnal lust. He now entices and grooms a 17-year old high school senior over a period of months and after the student turns 18, he lures him into a room in the local high school and proceeds to sodomize his now-willing partner. A teacher and the principal of the high school hear unusual sounds coming from the classroom and as it is after normal school hours, they open the door to determine what is happening. Seeing the shameful scene, they report it to the appropriate authorities who bring charges against both men. Both the teacher and the school principal are members in good standing of their parish church and provide sworn testimony of what they witnessed. Both men have been raised in the established church and have heard solid, confessionally reformed preaching their entire lives. They know that the penalty for their crime is death. The older man has even been given the opportunity to seek help. Is there any doubt of his guilt? In the United States today, there was no crime other than perhaps trespassing and public indecency committed. But will Church Discipline actually deter future actions on the part of this older man? It is unlikely and since God gave his perfect law with its just and moral punishments for this exact same sin in His Holy Word, we need not quibble over the man’s fate. multiple witnesses, under fear of capital punishment themselves if they were to perjure themselves in a capital case, need no reminder of the importance of their truthfulness.

Leviticus

I am deeply indebted to the previous work of my brother in Christ, Paul Barth whose article, “The Judicial Law: General vs. Particular Equity“ was instrumental in the making of this response.

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6 thoughts on “Answering John Piper on the Civil Use of God’s Law

  1. so why were david and bathsheba not put to death when they committed adultery (and david for the murder of uriah), since israel was a covenanted state during that time? why did the prophet nathan not pronounced the death sentence on both of them? of course you can cite that the LORD had put away david’s sins (2 Sam 15:13), but would that not mean that the laws pertaining to murder and adultery were suspended/supplanted by the will of the Lawgiver in those particular instances?

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  2. Good question, Melvin. The answer is that 1) David was the immediately anointed king of Jehovah (via Samuel) and God could have “taken him out” any time he so desired, and 2) Implicitly, it appears that Samuel — who was still alive AND the RECOGNIZED PROPHET (Aved YHWH/Servant of the Lord) — allowed this sentence to “pass-by” until the crucifixion of Christ! God did exact other penalties, like the death of the infant son of David and Bathsheba! While Samuel interfered at other times, such as to take the throne from Saul and give it to David, his quietness at this point speaks volumes. Admittedly, this is an argument from silence, but given the other circumstances mentioned, I don’t think it’s specious. And I am not the first to make it!

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  3. It is obvious from the above review of the popular John Piper, that Adenyemi is superior (in his argumentation) to Piper, and that the latter would do well to consider Adenyemi’s scriptural logic. Another great article, Semi! I’m impressed with your wide-ranging use of the Puritan sources. This is far superior to the ethical reasoning I typically see! The Rev. Dr. R. E. Knodel, Jr.

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