On Social Justice (3): Justice for the Poor & Needy

(Note: This post has been slightly revised from it’s original version to remove comments about the 6th commandment establishing a “regulative principle of violence” as I do not believe that is sufficiently nuanced. For more on this, please see my A Note on Reformed Libertarianism.)


In Part 2 we defined justice as giving someone what they are due. We distinguished between God-man justice and man-man justice. We argued that man-man (intra-human) justice is not simply loving each other as God commands. In this post we will look at what intra-human justice is, particularly for the poor & needy.

The 6th commandment limits our use of force. Calvin explains “The sum of this Commandment is, that we should not unjustly do violence to any one… [U]nder the word kill [murder] is included by synecdoche all violence, smiting, and aggression.” Scripture clarifies that self-defense (Ex 22:2) as well as as retribution according to lex talionis (Gen 9:6; Lev 24:17-21; Ex 21:22-25; Deut 19:18-21; Num 35:9-34) are not violations of the 6th commandment.

The 8th commandment establishes the concept of private property. In his Themelios essay, Wayne Grudem notes “[T]he command, ‘You shall not steal,’ assumes private ownership of property.” In contrast, he quotes Marx. “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Mankind is given dominion over the earth and is told to subdue it. Insofar as the earth belongs to the Lord (Ps. 24:1), this dominion is relative, not absolute. We are made stewards of creation. What distinguishes one man’s stewardship from another’s is their work of subduing the earth. Men may then voluntarily trade their stewardship between each other as they see fit. The 8th commandment forbids anyone from taking someone else’s stewardship (property) without their consent.

When theft (8th commandment) is combined with violence (6th commandment), the crime of robbery has been committed.


God has instructed us how to deal with violations of the 6th and 8th commandments. Genesis 9:6 clarifies that retributive justice demands vengeance upon the wrongdoer for crimes between men. If someone is murdered, the murderer is to be put to death. The wrongdoer is “due” the wrong that he did. Lev 24:17-20 elaborates on Gen 9:6 “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.” This is an application on the intra-human level of the same standard of justice that applies between God and men (Obad. 15; Jer. 50:29; Hab. 2:8; Joel 3:4, 7; Rom 1:32; Rev 18:6-7). (The Mosaic Covenant also cursed men with death for violations of God’s law beyond murder. These were instances of God-man justice in the typological holy land of Canaan per Leviticus 18:5.)

Likewise, if someone steals property they must restore the property but justice demands that they are also due what they have done. So they must additionally give the same amount they stole to the victim (Ex. 22:4). Vern Poythress explains “The repayment of the first ox is simple restoration, while the repayment of the second ox is punishment for the criminal intent.” (While I do not agree with every point, Poythress’ book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses is essential reading for anyone interested in biblical justice.) He notes a very important consequence of this understanding of intra-human justice: “[W]e can conclude that the authority of human beings covers only those cases in which human beings are injured. Only then is some human being fit to exact the penalty, namely the injured human being.”

Due Process

God has left men with some liberty to determine the best way to administer justice, but the above principle (proportionally rendering what is due) must be followed in every instance. Furthermore, judgment must be impartial (Deut 1:16-17) and honest (Lev. 19:35-36). Sadly, in this fallen world that is often not the case. Some physically strong men resort to outright thuggery by holding people at gunpoint and taking their wallet. They live their life in the shadows as outlaws. But powerful men living life in the limelight often engage in judicial thuggery by relying on their power in the courts to rob and oppress others (essentially by bribing the judges). Franz Oppenheimer referred to this as “the political means” of prosperity.

In defending his innocence, Job cries “[I]f I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint.” (Job 31:21-22). Micah denounces “the political means” of fraudulently obtaining land.

Woe to those who devise iniquity,
And work out evil on their beds!
At morning light they practice it,
Because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and take them by violence,
Also houses, and seize them.
So they oppress a man and his house,
A man and his inheritance. (2:1-2)

Isaiah cries against wickedness in Jerusalem.

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (1:23; cf Luke 18:1-5).

The Unjust Judge and the Importunate Widow published 1864 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Gilbert Dalziel 1924 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/A00795

Commenting on Prov. 22:22, Gill explains “[W]hen he comes into a court of judicature, which was usually held in the gates of a city, 4:1; and applies for redress of any grievance, do not crush him in the gate, or oppress him in judgment; nor wrest his cause, and do him wrong; but let him have justice done him, though poor.”

Jeremiah chastises the rulers in Jerusalem: “[T]hey have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.” (5:28). Isaiah prophesies of a coming king: “but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” (11:4).

The issue here is impartiality before the law. The rights of the poor are constantly violated because wicked judges take bribes that the poor cannot afford.

Employers oppress and exploit day laborers by not paying them what was previously agreed upon for their work. Kevin DeYoung explains

Oppression occurred when day laborers were hired to work in the fields for the day, and at the end of the day the landowner stiffed them of their wages. This was a serious offense to your neighbor and before God, not least of all because the day’s payment was often literally you daily bread. People depended on this payment to survive.

It was all to[o] easy to cheat workers out of their wages. You could say you didn’t have anything to give. Or you could argue that the work done was shabbily. Or you could simply refuse to pay today, or ever. If the matter was simply one man’s word against another’s, there was little a worker could do to get justice, especially on that day when what the worker needed was to eat, not a legal process.

Amos warns of the coming judgment upon Israel for their wickedness. “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted.” (2:6). They are willing to give up the rights of the poor for a bribe of silver or even just a pair of sandals.

You who turn justice to wormwood,
And lay righteousness to rest in the earth!…
For I know your manifold transgressions
And your mighty sins:
Afflicting the just and taking bribes;
Diverting the poor from justice at the gate. (5:7, 12)

Amos instructs them to “Hate evil, love good; Establish justice in the gate [the courtroom].” (5:15). Jeremiah likewise declares

Thus says the Lord: “Execute judgment and righteousness, and deliver the plundered out of the hand of the oppressor. Do no wrong and do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. (22:3)

See also Ps. 72:1-4; 82:3; 140:12; Prov. 22:22; Job 29:7-17. Commenting on Ps. 72:4, Calvin said

God is indeed no respecter of persons; but it is not without cause that God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence. Let laws and the administration of justice be taken away, and the consequence will be, that the more powerful a man is, he will be the more able to oppress his poor brethren.

Note that David called himself poor and needy because of the false accusations brought against him by people trying to kill him (Ps. 109:22, 31). E. Calvin Beisner notes that “the many Hebrew words translated ‘poor’ in these contexts often emphasize not material destitution but vulnerability to oppression.” The Bible often mentions the poor particularly as being in need of justice not because their relative lack of wealth is itself an injustice but because they are more often recipients of injustice. The poor are not victims of injustice by virtue of being poor, but in being poor they are more often passed over in societies which fail to employ justice without partiality.

In his Christian Worldview series, R.C. Sproul says

[O]ften the way in which this message [in Amos 5] is described is as a call to social justice… I can’t think of too many concepts that are more misleading in our contemporary culture than this idea of social justice. Social justice in the prophets, social justice in Israel had to do with the rule of law and of righteousness in the culture. It had nothing to do with socialism and since Marx’s understanding of law there’s been a tremendous influence in our culture today that equates social justice with social equality or economic equality – the idea being that you don’t have social justice unless everybody in the society has equal possessions and equal finances and so on. An equal distribution of wealth is considered in socialistic countries as the supreme manifestation of social justice and the complaint is if there are inequalities in a culture where there can be a division between the wealthy and the poor that that would necessarily reveal a structure of social injustice that needs to be rectified. Now again that’s the common way in which you’ll read the concept in the newspaper and in the media today. That’s not the classic understanding of social justice because classically both philosophers and theologians distinguished between equality and equity. Equity meant that everybody received what was their due not that everybody received things in terms of material possessions equally… Everybody was to be treated equally under the law so that the poor man should not have the law tilted against him or the rich man having the law tilted for him so social injustice takes place in the first instance when the rule of the land is not just because it shows favoritism to people not on the basis of righteousness but on the basis of political power.

Keller acknowledges “The word mishpat in its various forms occurs more than two hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Its most basic meaning is to treat people equitably.” (1). Note that, Biblically speaking, equity does not simply mean that once an issue reaches the courtroom, the verdict must be rendered impartially. Equity means equal standing under the law and – very importantly – “the law” here does not just mean “the law of the land.” “The law” means “You shall not murder” and “You shall not steal.” No one, no matter how powerful, may murder or steal – even if they manage to pass a law that says they can. Laws themselves can be unjust violations of negative rights (Is. 10:1). Sometimes a powerful individual can keep their crimes out of the courtroom through suppression of the matter. Other times individuals can keep their crimes out of the courtroom by passing laws that legalize their violation of the 6th and 8th commandments (i.e. the legal protection of man-stealing in the slave trade or the Monsanto Protection Act), preventing them from ever having to face a trial in the first place.

Equity is no minor matter. Neither is it just an ancient problem. America has massive equity problems. The entire economy is corrupted by very powerful people using the state to commit acts of injustice. It’s a “pay to play racket” where corporate interests not only understand they have to bribe to survive, but they lie awake at night plotting how to create new regulations to crush competition, how to use eminent domain to steal from the poor, how to use the military might of the American Empire for their own profit, and a long, long list of corporate thuggery. We have no doubt some of these powerful individuals have despised other ethnicities and that a history of abuse of legal authority has had long lasting implications. But we also have no doubt many of these individuals are themselves ethnic minorities who wield their power to crush others. Holding the state and its “private” extensions accountable for violating the negative rights of others, especially the poor under the boot of the American Empire, is a matter of justice. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with others willing to denounce this sin as injustice.

We will not, however, be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who believe justice entails not only the protection of life and property, but also the provision of daily bread, housing, education, a living wage, equal starting points in life, and more.

Negative Rights

All of this leads to the understanding of our rights as “negative.” Beisner notes “Properly understood, rights are not guarantees that something will be provided for us but guarantees that what is ours will not be unjustly taken from us. That is, properly speaking, rights are not positive but negative.”

We have a right to not have things taken away from us: our life and our property. If we are left alone then our rights have not been violated. If someone commits violence against us or steals our property, our rights have been violated.

Compare this “negative” formulation to the “positive” one used by proponents of social justice

Positive Rights

In a post at TGC, Jonathan Leeman calls Sproul’s understanding of Scripture “autistic.”

Some contemporary political ideologies claim justice requires an equality of fair process, so that the same rules apply to everyone. Others say it requires an equality of outcome or at least opportunity, such that no one’s too poor and no one’s too rich. What does the Bible say?

Certainly Scripture calls for fair processes (Exod. 23:2, 6; Deut. 16:19–20). But justice in Scripture isn’t only concerned with fair process. According to passages like Psalm 140, it’s concerned with “the cause” of the weak and disadvantaged (Ps. 140:12; cf. Deut. 24:17–18; Pss. 10:18; 82:3; Isa. 1:17, 23; 10:1–2; Jer. 5:28; 22:13–16). Psalm 72’s perfect king, for instance, possesses this concern:

May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice! (v. 2)

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor! (v. 4)

For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. (vv. 12–14)…

The problem with affirming justice merely as fair process is that it views people as isolated units. It depends on a shallow and almost autistic anthropology that’s low on empathy and fails to conceive of humans as relational beings with structurally-formed identities.

By “the cause [misphat],” Leeman means eliminating life disparities between the poor and the rest of society: giving them their daily bread, providing them with a better education, etc. These are known as “positive rights” because if someone leaves you alone they have violated your rights. If you do not have food or shelter and an individual who does have food and shelter does not step in to provide for you, they have violated your rights. In this particular article he specifically has in mind equal starting points in life. There is much wisdom in Leeman’s careful essay, but on this specific point regarding the nature of justice, we believe he errs. If he had left the issue as a matter of love and mercy towards the poor and needy, we would find little to disagree with and a great deal to affirm. As Beisner notes “My right to life means I have a right not to be murdered or assaulted, but it doesn’t mean I have a right to have someone else ensure that all the conditions of my survival are met.”

Note the texts Leeman appeals to are the same ones we discussed above. The difference is he assumes “the cause” (“the rights”) of the poor refers to everything they may want or need in life that those better off than them have. But there is no reason to understand these texts as anything other than insuring that the poor get their day in court and the matter is judged impartially (see Luke 18:3). Leeman largely tracks with Keller on this point and also appeals to Michael Walzer’s “Spheres of Justice.”

In Generous Justice, Keller seeks to defend the concept of positive rights (our term, not his) first of all by appeal to God’s command to care for the poor. However, as we saw in the previous post, the fact that God commands us to love our neighbor does not entail that every act of love towards our neighbor is a matter of justice. Oftentimes it is a matter of mercy (as Jesus says the Good Samaritan’s actions were), which R.C. Sproul explains is a matter of “non-justice.” Again, as we discussed in the previous post, God causes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the unjust (those who do not deserve God’s rain or sun) as a matter of grace. As we imitate God, we are to graciously give to others who do not earn our gift, especially to those who need it.

Keller appeals to several Mosaic laws to argue that the poor have a right to the property of others.

But mishpat means more than just the punishment of wrongdoing. It also means to give people their rights. Deuteronomy 18 directs that the priests of the tabernacle should be supported by a certain percentage of the people’s income. This support is described as “the priests’ mishpat,” which means their due or their right. So we read, “Defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). Mishpat, then, is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. (1)

Deuteronomy 18 gives two reasons why these provisions are due to the Levites. First, because they did not receive any portion of the promised land that was divided between the other tribes (from which they derived their livelihood). Their legal inheritance was not the land, rather, their legal inheritance was to receive their livelihood from the other tribes for their work as priests. That was entirely unique to Israel’s special relationship to the holy land. Note well this second point: They were being paid for their labor. God said it was due to them because God commanded that they must do this work on behalf of the people. As Jesus said, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (Luke 10:7). So it was the priests’ right – what they were due.

Is there any basis to then interpret Proverbs 31:9 as teaching that the poor have a right to the property of others simply because they are poor? No, not at all. Proverbs 31:9 simply refers to the administration of justice to the poor and needy for violations of their negative right to life and property, as we saw above. Keller simply builds upon this foundational misinterpretation throughout the rest of his book.

Keller argues

[I]f you look at every place the word is used in the Old Testament, several classes of persons continually come up. Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor—those who have been called “the quartet of the vulnerable.”… Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. (1-2)

That’s not what the texts say. They say that neglect of fair trial for the poor and needy is a violation of justice. They do not say that failure to provide them with others’ property in order to make their prosperity equal to others is a violation of justice.

Keller appeals to the numerous laws in Deuteronomy 15 to argue the poor and needy had a right to their brothers’ property. Verses 7-11 command that if an Israelite falls in to poverty then his fellow Israelite should lend him what he needs to get out of poverty. Note that this was a loan (8-9). It was not like payment to the Levites. The poor man did not have a legal right, a legal claim to his brothers’ property. Yes, he could cry out to God for his brothers’ disobedience to God if he refused to loan the money (9), but he cannot take him to court. The loan also had to be paid back (until the year of release).

Every 7 years was a year of release wherein Israelites were commanded not to exact a debt from their brother. They were allowed to continue extracting it from any foreigners they had loaned to. Furthermore, they were commanded not to charge interest on loans made to poor Israelites (Ex. 22:25). Likewise, if a fellow Hebrew became their slave, they were to release them after 6 years. These were not matters of justice for the poor of the world, they were commands from a gracious God that had redeemed a people from slavery and established a unique covenant arrangement with them, calling them to imitate his character and care for one another as a family. Keller admits

It is true that the social legislation of the Old Testament is largely about caring for the needy inside the believing [or rather just “covenant”] community. Also most examples of generosity in the New Testament are of care for the poor within the church, such as the support for widows (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Even Jesus’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats uses the test of caring for those whom Jesus calls “the least of these my brothers,” probably referring to poor believers. (57-58)

Surveying the texts he calls upon, we see that Keller’s opinion that mishpat means the poor have a right to the property of others, because they are poor, is not derived from Scripture. He strings various texts together to try to weave a quilt of social justice at the cost of properly understanding each passage. He has imported an unbiblical understanding of “justice” into the text. As we have seen in the last 2 posts, Keller is quite open about the fact that he first held to a Neo-Marxist understanding of justice and only later found the same “justice” in Scripture. We believe his prior sympathies have led him to misread Scripture.


The 6th and 8th commandments govern our use of force and our treatment of others’ property. We have a right to the value that accrues from our work in subduing the earth. However, the fall has cursed all of creation (Gen. 3:17-19). There is no guarantee that our sweat will be productive. If we fall into poverty, we do not therefore have the right to the property of others. We must cast ourselves upon the love and mercy of God and the love and mercy of others. If, however, in that vulnerable state someone commits violence against us, defrauds us of our wages, steals our property, or in other creative ways oppresses us by violating our negative rights, we have a just complaint before the judges and the judges have an obligation to hear our case (our cause) and administer justice according to lex talionis. That is justice for the poor and needy and it is needed today just as much as it was in the days of apostate Judah – and at every point in history since the fall.

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A Note on Reformed Libertarianism

I had hoped to develop this further but I simply have not had time. But I do want to say something.

Libertarianism is the legal theory (with political ramifications) that the initiation of aggression (or the threat to initiate aggression) against the property of another human being, is a crime. This is commonly known as the “Non-Aggression Principle.” Notably, this applies to all men, including the government. Thus no government may initiate aggression against a citizen. The logical result of this is that taxation is theft and a monopolization of the enforcement of justice (i.e. “the state”) is immoral. Instead, a moral governing order consists of multiple, competing private justice enforcement companies who insure private individuals. (For more on this, please read Stephen Kinsella’s What Libertarianism Is.) For the libertarian, that which is illegal is determined by private property ownership and therefore not all things that may be categorized as immoral, unethical, or sinful are necessarily criminal.

I was exposed somewhat to libertarianism by my high school economics teacher. I learned more about it in college. I also learned reformed theology in college. I spent time trying to develop a biblical political philosophy but found myself reaching dead-ends. I focused instead on developing my overall theology, and covenant theology in particular, setting aside political philosophy. I considered myself a libertarian and owned Mises’ Human Action and Rothboard’s Man, Economy, and State. But I never got around to reading through them.

A few years later, C.Jay Engel stumbled upon my blog and reached out, seeing that we were of very like mind on many things. He invited me to blog at his site ReformedLibertarian.com. Around the same time I had other friends ask me to respond to a new, growing group of Facebook Theonomists. So I once again ventured into the realm of biblical political philosophy (but this time with a more robust biblical & covenant theology). The study was fruitful (at least to me) and I focused on exegetical and historical theology. My libertarianism was under-developed and I leaned heavily on C.Jay for working out the specifics and the applications (I managed to read a couple chapters from Rothbard’s Anatomy of the State but I never got around to reading any Hoppe).

The primary, underlying question for me has always been the justification of the use of violence. Put another way: the just origin of civil government. The more I studied the issue, the more convinced I became of libertarianism because all of the other justifications failed, in my opinion. Obviously might does not make right, so conquest is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Neither can rulers claim special, divine anointing from God, so divine right is not a just ground for the origin of civil government. Some early reformed, such as Calvin, argued that the just origin of civil government/rulers is simply God’s providence. But this is a confusion of God’s two wills and merely side-steps the question.

After Calvin, most reformed argued that the only possible just origin of civil government is the consent of the governed. They argued that the office of ruler is established by God and given a monopoly on violence. The people cannot exercise that use of force so they must choose someone to do so. The problem with this view is that Gen 9:6 grants all image bearers the authority (and duty) to wield the sword in the administration of justice. Thus in the nation of Israel we see that the next of kin has the authority and duty to avenge the death of a relative (a practice found throughout tribal societies ancient and modern).

Furthermore, the “social contract” variation on the consent theory would require ongoing consent of every individual in order to remain valid (a point made by Kuyper, and Filmer before him), not to mention the fact that a majority cannot exercise authority over a non-consenting minority just because they are the majority.

And thus by processes of elimination I came to find the Non-Aggression Principle (libertarianism) to be biblical. Civil government does not possess any divine authority above and beyond divine authority given to all image bearers. Thus any claim by a ruler to have special authority over individuals must be fraudulent. Therefore “the state” (a monopoly on violence in any given region) is fraudulent. Furthermore it must therefore be immoral for any individual or institution to use force for anything other than self-defense and retributive justice according to lex talionis.

However, there remained an undeveloped aspect in my mind. I did not believe the concept of a king or prince was inherently unjust and immoral. I did not believe there was anything unjust about Abraham amassing a great deal of wealth and servants. Someone could likewise become wealthy enough to own extensive property and have people living under his authority without injustice. Such a king could place any number of requirements upon those living on his land. It’s private property after all.

Now what happens when that king/prince/landowner dies? Does all his property simply revert back to being unowned property that can be claimed by anyone? No. His property is passed on to someone of his choosing. This is often his son, but it could be anyone. If the king had an agreement/contract with his tenants, then his son would have to honor that contract. Thus various rules governing living in a particular land could be passed down through generations without losing their legal force (and without violating the 6th or 8th commandments).

In like manner, any group of landowners could come together to pool their resources for self-defense and also establish some common rules for living in any of their lands (this coming together would have to be 100% consensual – not simply a majority). This too could retain its legal force after any or all of these original owners died or even sold their land. This is more or less what a Homeowner’s Association or CC&R is. When I purchased land to build a home, it came attached with certain conditions put in place by the original owner of the land. If I violate those conditions, I am legally liable to the other homeowners under the same CC&R for violating that agreement.

Thus it begins to appear that there is a just, biblical basis for a civil government monopoly to exist and to enforce laws beyond the Non-Aggression Principle. Taxation could be one such law. This is a conclusion that C.Jay arrived at, leading him to question whether he could rightly be called a libertarian any longer. He has written about it here, here, and here.

Of course, this is all theoretical and abstract. It does not itself tell us anything about any particular, existing civil government. Any particular government could have a just basis for their authority, but they might just as well have no legitimate basis. The history of the world does not present us with a nice, tidy chain of custody (Sir Robert Filmer, who wrote against Rutherford in defense of royal absolutism, argued that 17th century kings had absolute property rights to their land that originally derived from Noah dividing the world between his sons). Rather, history is full of war, conquest, murder, and theft of people and property (i.e. lots of broken, disregarded, and illegally imposed CC&Rs). So assessing whether any particular government’s authority is de jure or merely de facto requires a great deal of wisdom (which is why, in my opinion, our command to be subject to rulers is not contingent upon their claim to authority being just).

There remain many further avenues for me to explore. Is a property owner’s authority absolute (as James Ussher argued a king’s was)? Can they prohibit an image bearer from exercising retributive justice on their property? If so, would they simply be banished, or can they justly be killed for violating the king’s law? The latter would be contingent upon a tenant making a self-maledictory oath, promising to obey the law of the land upon pain of death. Would such an oath be binding upon his children? Would they have opportunity to depart from the land if they don’t agree? What if there is nowhere else to go on earth? Are they bound by their father’s oath? Are there any restrictions on what a property owner may justly require or impose upon such tenants as an agreed condition for living in his land? Can natural law (the moral law written on the heart of all men) restrict property rights in the sense that it limits said conditions? Or would it only affect the landowner’s standing before God, but not men? In the event of conquest, is it possible to re-establish just property rights? What do we do if a chain of custody for any given land (along with any attached conditions or covenant/constitution) cannot be determined?

So much more noodling remains, but I wanted to share where I am at because I don’t anticipate having very much time to develop these thoughts further, and these thoughts do affect how we view current events around us. I don’t think there is much from my writings at ReformedLibertarian.com that I would drastically change or disagree with (for example, I still disagree with 2LBCF 24.1). As I migrate them over to this blog, I’ll note at the beginning of any post if I have changed any part of it.

Tabletalk’s Retroactive New Covenant

H/T @flyoverliberta1

The June issue of Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk magazine features a daily study through Hebrews, starting with ch. 8 on June 1. I don’t know who wrote the study, but they make some very good points, quoting Owen several times.

June 2 – The Necessity of Christ’s Heavenly Priesthood

8:4 is saying that because Christ is a member of the superior priesthood, His work cannot be done on earth. To engage in priestly ministry on earth is the province of the inferior Levitical priesthood, which is exercised according to the Mosaic law, the law that cannot perfect anyone.

June 3 – Better Promises for a Better Covenant

John Owen says these better promises are the new covenant promises of Jeremiah 31:33–34 that God will write His law on the hearts of His people and remember their sin no more, that is, finally and fully forgive them. These promises were not fulfilled by the old covenant mediated by Moses. After all, the repeated sacrifices of the Mosaic law mean that the old covenant could not provide full and final forgiveness. They, and the old covenant of which they were a part, could only remind people of sin, not remove it (Heb. 10:1–18). Furthermore, the law demonstrates that the old covenant cannot be the means by which God writes His commandments on the hearts of His people. Deuteronomy 31:14–29 foresees that Israel as a nation would be so corrupt as to break the old covenant. The people would need a new heart, a heart that would come only after the nation of Israel broke the old covenant and suffered the curse of exile (30:1–10).

Nevertheless, the reality of the new covenant promises belonged to the old covenant saints. After all, David, an old covenant believer, enjoyed the complete and final forgiveness of sins in his justification (Rom. 4:5–8). No one is saved except through Christ and His new covenant, which is the ultimate expression of the one covenant of grace between God and His people (John 14:6). The old covenant saints belonged also to the one covenant of grace, though they lived prior to the inauguration of the new covenant. They, no less than us, were redeemed by Jesus alone, though their understanding of this was less full than is ours as new covenant believers.

June 4 – The Promised New Covenant

The new covenant is necessary, Hebrews 8:8 tells us, because God found fault with the people. Our Creator never intended the old covenant to bring the blessings we have under the new covenant, though the old covenant saints possessed the benefits of the new covenant, albeit to a lesser degree than we do…

In and through the new covenant, we get what the subcovenants of the covenant of grace hoped for. The new covenant, Hebrews 8:10 reveals, is the means by which God’s promise to be God to Abraham is accomplished (see Gen. 17:7). 

While disagreeing with the author’s interpretation of Gen 17:7 (see here), he correctly notes that Abraham was saved by the new covenant. Abraham, and all other Old Testament saints, received the promises/blessings of the new covenant in advance of its formal establishment.

Further Reading

Brief Comments/Clarifications on the T4G Covenant Theology Panel

Yesterday, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, and Al Mohler discussed Covenant Theology as part of a T4G conference panel. The panel was meant as a starting point for viewers to dip their toes into the deep waters of covenant theology. I was very glad to see the topic brought up. I just have a couple of brief comments.

Was 1689 Federalism represented?

Al Mohler helpfully noted “The very first Baptists were explicitly committed to a covenant theology—so much so, that they used the word repeatedly in the most important Baptist confession.” Dever and Mohler rightly commended both the Covenant of Redemption and the Adamic Covenant of Works, as affirmed by those baptists – as well as the recognition that salvation during the Old Testament was the same as salvation during the New Testament. However, was the particular view of covenant theology held by the majority of those men represented in the panel discussion? Here are some distinctives of that view:

  • The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace
  • The Old Covenant was a typological covenant of works for temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan (note: it was not The Covenant of Works)
  • Israel according to the flesh (Abraham’s carnal offspring, the nation) was a type of Israel according to the Spirit (Abraham’s spiritual offspring, the church)

I don’t think this view was represented (if it was, I missed it).

“Everlasting Covenant” in Gen 17 = CoR?

Dever said that we need

to have a sufficient recognition of discontinuities and yet of this underlying continuity such that God could speak to to Abraham in Genesis 17 of an everlasting covenant… this the pre-temporal inter-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption and it’s what God is clearly talking about to Abraham in Genesis 17.

I would love to hear Dever elaborate more on this point. I will simply note that 1689 Federalism does not understand the “everlasting covenant” of Genesis 17 to refer to the Covenant of Redemption or the Covenant of Grace. It refers to the Covenant of Circumcision, made with Abraham and his offspring according to the flesh that they would multiply and inherit the land of Canaan and that the Messiah would be born from them. “Everlasting” must be understood in context. For example, the Levitcal priesthood is described as everlasting (Ex 29:28) as well as “annulled” (Heb 7:12, 18), and “obsolete” (Heb 8:13).

For more on how 1689 Federalism understands Genesis 17:7, see the these selections from various representatives of the view.

Was the Mosaic Covenant part of the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works?

Dever asked “Was the Mosaic covenant a part of the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works?” I don’t know what Dever’s own opinion is, but this binary way of thinking about the biblical covenants is representative of Westminster’s view (every covenant must be one or the other), but it was rejected by the particular baptists who insisted that there are more than two covenants in the Bible. The Mosaic Covenant was neither the Covenant of Works or the Covenant of Grace. It was distinct from both and must be understood on its own terms as a unique typological covenant. On this point they were standing in the stream of the reformed “subservient covenant” view of men like James Cameron, Samuel Bolton, and John Owen. The baptists carried this same logic over to the Abrahamic Covenant as well, noting that it was neither the Covenant of Works nor the Covenant of Grace.

Israel and the Church

On the question of how covenant relates to church, Duncan offered 3 primary views:

  • Classic Dispensationalism: the Church is not in the OT; the church in no way supplants or replaces Israel; two parallel purposes of God
  • Classic Baptist Covenant Theology: (Spurgeon) church is in the OT as a part of one body, one people that God has been bringing into being since Gen 3:15. But Spurgeon would say the nature of the people of God in the New Covenant is different than the form that it existed in from the time of Abraham
  • Classic Presbyterianism: church in the OT and NT; promise to believers and their children continues today

What Duncan describes as the “Classic Baptist” view is actually more like the modern view developed in the 20th century by baptists who were heavily influenced by John Murray. The Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace and it included his children, but the administration of the Covenant Grace changes under the New Covenant so-as to no longer include children.

The older view (known as “1689 Federalism” for convenience) did a better job of articulating that although believers in the Old Testament were united to Christ and thus part of the body of Christ, the nation of Israel (Abraham’s carnal offspring) was not itself the church in the Old Testament. It was a distinct entity and it was, in fact, a type of the church. Thus 1689 Federalism agrees with Classic Presbyterianism over against Dispensationalism that there is only one eternal people and purpose of God, not two parallel eternal peoples. However, it agrees with Dispensationalism that the nation of Israel was not the church.


I’m very thankful for these men and for their gracious, edifying conversation with one another on this complex topic. I encourage those who were intrigued by the panel to study 1689 Federalism. I believe it substantially moves the conversation forward beyond merely arguing over “more continuity” or “more discontinuity.” What these men recognized was “new” about the New Covenant was that it saved! No other covenant saved men. The better promise of the New Covenant was the law written on the heart (regeneration) and the forgiveness of sins (justification). Abraham was not saved by the Abrahamic Covenant. He was saved by the New Covenant.

If you would like to learn more, please see the videos, lectures, and recommended reading list at http://www.1689federalism.com You can also find numerous posts, organized by topic, on my Welcome page.

*Note: the label “1689 Federalism” is not intended to mean that it is the only view permitted by the 2nd London Baptist Confession. The confession was written broadly enough to embrace a multitude of views. However, 1689 Federalism was the actual covenant theology held to the majority of baptists of that day and it helps explain the changes that they did make to the confession on this point.

A. W. Pink the “Rationalist”

[This post originally appeared at Scripturalism.com]

The following quote from A.W. Pink is representative of Christianity down through the ages. Sadly, many today (even reformed) reject this view as “rationalism.”

The exposition made of any verse in Holy Writ must be in entire agreement with the Analogy of Faith, or that system of truth which God has made known unto His people. That, of course, calls for a comprehensive knowledge of the contents of the Bible—sure proof that no novice qualified to preach to or attempt to teach others. Such comprehensive knowledge can be obtained only by a systematic and constant reading of the Word itself—and only then is any man fitted to weigh the writings of others! Since all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, there are no contradictions therein; thus it obviously follows that any explanation given of a passage which clashes with the plain teaching of other verses is manifestly erroneous. In order for any interpretation to be valid, it must be in perfect keeping with the scheme of Divine Truth. One part of the Truth is mutually related to and dependent upon others, and therefore there is full accord between them. As Bengel said of the books of Scripture, “They indicate together one beautiful, harmonious and gloriously connected system of Truth.”

Interpretation of the Scriptures (HT: Reformedontheweb)

The same belief is found in Owen as well:

We have seen that there are some difficult passages in the Bible, occurring frequently but irregularly throughout the Scriptures, and so there are some apparent contradictions scattered therein which are to be diligently searched into and reconciled—something which can only be achieved by legitimate interpretation.

(Biblical Theology, p. 814).

Commenting on this, Jeffrey T. Riddle notes:

Indeed, the path of pre-critical interpreters was to seek rationally satisfying harmonization in the face of “apparent contradictions.”  For Owen solutions can only come through diligent and faithful interpretation.

This is the approach of the ARBCA Theological Committee paper on Divine Impassibility:

1. We affirm the unity and analogy of Scripture, which states that unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages are to be interpreted with clear and unambiguous passages that touch upon the same teaching or event (2LCF 1.9). We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to other passages of Scripture.

2. We affirm the unity of Scripture and the analogy of faith, which states, “the true and full sense of any Scripture” (2LCF 1.9) must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the system of doctrine “necessarily contained” (2LCF 1.6) in the whole of Scripture. We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to systematic theological considerations and that which is necessarily contained in the whole of Scripture.

Compare with Robert Reymond’s section on “Paradox as a Hermeneutical Category”

Let no one conclude from this rejection of paradox (as Marston has defined it) as a legitimate hermeneutical category that I am urging a Cartesian rationalism that presupposes the autonomy of human reason and freedom from divine revelation, a rationalism which asserts that it must begin with itself in the build-up of knowledge. But make no mistake: I am calling for a Christian rationalism that forthrightly affirms that the divine revelation which it gladly owns and makes the bedrock of all its intellectual efforts is internally self-consistent, that is, noncontradictory. Christians believe that their God is rational, that is, that he is logical. This means that he thinks and speaks in a way that indicates that the laws of logic—the law of identity (A is A), the law of noncontradiction (A is not non-A), and the law of excluded middle (A is either A or non-A)—are laws of thought original with and intrinsic to himself. This means that his knowledge is self-consistent. And because he is a God of truth he will not, indeed, he cannot lie (see Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Accordingly, just because God is rational, self-consistent, and always and necessarily truthful, we should assume that his inscripturated propositional revelation to us—the Holy Scripture—is of necessity also rational, self-consistent, and true. That this view of Holy Scripture is a common Christian conviction is borne out, I would suggest, in the consentient willingness by Christians everywhere to affirm that there are no contradictions in Scripture. The church worldwide has properly seen that the rational character of the one living and true God would of necessity have to be reflected in any propositional self-revelation which he determined to give to human beings, and accordingly has confessed the entire truthfulness (inerrancy) and noncontradictory character of the Word of God. Not to set the goal of quarrying from Scripture a harmonious theology devoid of paradoxes is to sound the death knell not only to systematic theology but also to all theology that would commend itself to men as the truth of the one living and rational God.

Reymond, Robert L. (1998-08-09). A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition – Revised and Updated (Kindle Locations 2338-2353). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Finally, consider John Piper:

But as a matter of fact the only time Paul ever tells people to keep their mouth shut is when they are boasting. If our hearts and our minds pant like a hart after the water-brook of God’s deep mind, it may not be pride, it may be worship. There is not one sentence that I know of in the New Testament which tells us the limits of what we can know of God and his ways… one can only pity the poor souls who, for fear of finding out too much, never approach the sacred mountains but stand off and chirp ironically about how one should preserve and appreciate mystery.

A Response to J.I. Packer on the So-Called Antinomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility

Does Christ Speak Authoritatively Through Preaching?

[This post originally appeared at Scripturalism.com]

Perhaps you have heard a reformed pastor claim that when he stands behind the pulpit and preaches, you must listen because Christ is speaking through him. I have. I find it a bit of an odd claim because they imply there is something unique about their office and their function within the corporate gathering that grants them this authority. For example, in a brief article discussing the difference between preaching and teaching, Barry York says

Speaking for Christ versus speaking of him. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of preaching is that the minister is speaking on behalf of the Lord. Paul makes that clear when he says this of preaching:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)

James Boice has pointed out that the word “of” in the statement “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” is not there in the original. Rather, it should read “And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” As men are sent out to preach, Christ through his Spirit is speaking through them. As Paul said elsewhere, “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13). Teaching can tell wonderful things about Christ, and every Sunday school class should do so. Yet only duly ordained ministers in preaching can make the authoritative claim that they represent the Lord.

This certainly does not follow from either Romans 10 or 1 Thes. 2. There is nothing about the office of elder that grants them an exclusive claim to be speaking for Christ.

And yet, it is true that Christ speaks authoritatively through preaching. Benjamin Keach said

That which by a just a necessary consequence is deduced from Scripture, is as much the mind of Christ, as what is contained in the express words of Scripture.

The Rector Rectified, 33

Note Owen on Hebrews 1:5.

That it is lawful to draw consequences from Scripture assertions; and such consequences, rightly deduced, are infallibly true and “de fide.” Thus from the name given unto Christ, the apostle deduceth by just consequence his exaltation and pre-eminence above angels. Nothing will rightly follow from truth but what is so also, and that of the same nature with the truth from whence it is derived. So that whatever by just consequence is drawn from the Word of God, is itself also the Word of God, and truth infallible. And to deprive the church of this liberty in the interpretation of the Word, is to deprive it of the chiefest benefit intended by it. This is that on which the whole ordinance of preaching is founded; which makes that which is derived out of the Word to have the power, authority, and efficacy of the Word accompanying it. Thus, though it be the proper work and effect of the Word of God to quicken, regenerate, sanctify and purify the elect, — and the Word primarily and directly is only that which is written in the Scriptures, — yet we find all these effects produced in and by the preaching of the Word, when perhaps not one sentence of the Scripture is verbatim repeated. And the reason hereof is, because whatsoever is directly deduced and delivered according to the mind and appointment of God from the Word is the Word of God, and hath the power, authority, and efficacy of the Word accompanying it.

It is not the office that determines the authority of preaching, but whether or not the preacher makes correct deductions from Scripture. And this same authority is true anytime anyone makes a statement that is correctly deduced from Scripture, whether they are ordained or not, whether it is in the corporate gathering or not. Thus, contrary to York, teaching can speak for Christ just as much as preaching can. Note Augustine “Yes it is I who admonish, I who order, I who command, it is the bishop who teaches. But it is Christ who commands through me.” “The preacher explains the text; if he says what is true, it is Christ speaking.”

The New Covenant of Grace was a Present Reality for OT Saints

R. Scott Clark recently wrote another post trying to explain where reformed paedobaptist covenant theology differs from 1689 Federalism. I’m glad that it offers an opportunity to continue discussing the topic. Regretfully, however, Dr. Clark continues to misunderstand our position. He misunderstands what we mean when we say that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace. He mistakenly thinks we mean that the Covenant of Grace was not a present reality for OT saints.

Clark claims that 1689 Federalism believes “God the Son is not actually present” in the salvation of saints prior to His incarnation. He says that we deny the Covenant of Grace “was actually present” prior to His incarnation. He says “in the PB view, the covenant of grace is entirely future,” which is in contrast to the reformed view that “It was not merely a future (New Covenant) reality but it was a present reality.” Clark says “The Son did not take up his place de novo at the top of the mountain in the new covenant. He has always been the Mediator,” implying that we deny that Christ was Mediator to the elect prior to his incarnation. He claims that our position is that New Covenant grace was not actually conveyed to the elect prior to Christ’s incarnation. He says “The Old Testament saints were not merely anticipating Christ. They were members of Christ through faith,” implying that we deny this. He says we deny that “Old Testament saints were united to Christ by the Spirit.” In his conclusion, Clark says “When the Particular Baptists speak of the benefit of Christ being communicated, it seems as if they mean that a future reality was revealed to the Old Testament saints, which they anticipated but which was not actually present for them.”

All of that is incorrect. Clark has misunderstood our position.

We affirm that that the benefits of Christ were a present reality for OT saints, which they received through a present union with Christ, which is the Covenant of Grace (a present reality for OT saints, not something entirely future) making them present members of Christ.

Our disagreement with Clark is not whether the Covenant of Grace was present and active during the Old Testament period. Our disagreement with Clark is the way in which the Covenant of Grace was present and active during the Old Testament period.

Why are we being misunderstood? I suspect in part because he has misunderstood what we mean by “retroactive.” But more fundamentally, I suspect it is because of an unstated premise that Clark holds.

  • P1 If the Covenant of Grace was present during the Old Testament period, then the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.
  • P2 The Covenant of Grace was present during the Old Testament period.
  • C Therefore the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.

Because we deny the conclusion, Clark thinks we deny P2. That is not the case. We deny P1. P1 is the point of disagreement and where we should focus our discussion, not P2.

When we say “The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace” Clark hears “The Covenant of Grace was not present during the Old Testament.” But that is not what we said. When we say “The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace,” we also say “The New Covenant was present during the Old Testament.”

There are various other points that Clark makes in his post that might be points of disagreement and are worth discussing. But we cannot have that discussion until this fundamental misunderstanding is resolved. When we say that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace, we do not deny that New Covenant grace was a present reality for OT saints. You might think that is totally crazy. Nevertheless, it is what we believe.


Since Clark quoted Coxe to make his case, here are some quotes from Coxe affirming what I just said.

There is no explicit mention of a covenant of grace before
Abraham’s time and yet the thing is certain and clearly revealed in
Scripture, namely, that all who were saved before his time were
interested in such a covenant and saved only by its grace. (48)

[A]ll the blessings of this covenant redound on believers by means of their union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the Head and Root of the new covenant, and the Fountain from which all its blessings are derived to us. Since these blessings were entirely purchased by him, so are they entirely applied to all that are in him and to none other… [N]one are at any time justified before God except those whom Christ has loved and washed from their sins in his own blood (Revelation 1:5). None are washed by him but those that are in him as the second Adam. It is by union to him as the root of the new covenant that the free gift comes on them to the justification of life (Rom 5:14ff). And none can have union to him but by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of God applies the blood of Christ for the remission of sins he does it also for the purging of the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. As certainly as any derive a new covenant right from Christ for pardon, they also receive a vital influence from him for the renovation of their natures and conforming their souls to his own image. (81-82)

The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself. (75)

During the time of the law… [t]he children of God after the Spirit (though as underage children they were subject to the pedagogy of the law, yet) as to their spiritual and eternal state, walked before God and found acceptance with him on terms of the covenant of grace… this spiritual relationship to God [was] according to the terms of the new covenant which the truly godly then had[.] (133)

Note also 2LBCF 7.3 “it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality…” Among its references on this particular statement are Hebrews 11:6, 13 “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him… by faith Noah… by faith Abraham… All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Rom 4:1, 2, &cWhat then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'” and John 8:56 “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Thus when we identify the Covenant of Grace with the New Covenant alone, we do not exclude those who lived before the establishment of the New Covenant – notably Abraham – from “the grace of this covenant.” Nor do we believe that they waited to receive this grace until the death of Christ. In sum, this New Covenant of Grace was extant and effectual under the Old Testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof.

See also the FAQ page at 1689Federalism.com: Did the Covenant of Grace Exist During the Old Testament? as well as Samuel Renihan’s two replies to Clark Typology and Communication in 2LCF 8.6 and Typology: Signs and the Things Signified.

Does Romans 13 Require Us to Obey "Shelter-in-Place" Laws?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States central government issues guidelines for states to follow in an effort to avoid a surge in demand on healthcare in the country that would outstrip supply. Various states have taken those guidelines and turned them into strict laws that require everyone to “shelter-in-place” – that is, no one may leave their home (except to obtain food and other essentials – but not including work to pay for that food).

Responses to these laws have varied, with many questioning both their prudence and their constitutional authority. This post is not intended to comment upon either of those questions. It may or may not be prudent. Various states may or may not have authority according to their state constitutions to do so. And those constitutions themselves may or may not be legitimate sources of authority. I am not addressing any of that here.

I wish to address one specific response: Christians must comply with these new laws because Romans 13:1-7 says that we must obey whatever our rulers say. Many claim it would be sinful to leave your house for any “non-essential” reason. I believe this interpretation of the text is incorrect.

A common interpretation of the text is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law requires us to sin because civil government is placed by God and receives its authority from him.

Another common interpretation of the text (held by the majority of reformed theologians) is that Romans 13 commands us to obey every single law in every jurisdiction unless that law exceeds the contractual agreement (constitution) established between the ruler and the people.

I believe both of these interpretations are incorrect. The first conflates God’s two distinct wills (decretive and preceptive). The second misunderstands Romans 13 as a reference to God’s preceptive will.

Which Will?

An essential component of properly interpreting Romans 13 is determining which will of God is referred to. There is God’s sovereign, decretive will: providence. All things in history happen according to God’s will. God’s second “will” is his preceptive will: His commands to men. Note that these are two distinct things that cannot logically be conflated.

God’s Preceptive Will

Which will does Paul have in mind when he says “established” (NIV), “instituted” (ESV), “ordained” (KJV), “appointed” (YLT)? If he is referring to God’s preceptive will, then the meaning is that God has commanded the establishment of the institution of civil government. He is not referring to any specific ruler, but merely to the institution. This necessarily entails that civil government, like any authority (such as husband or elder), has a specific, limited scope to its authority and need only be obeyed within the confines of that scope. If a ruler steps beyond those limits, they no longer possess authority and may be disobeyed and removed. This also necessarily entails that the ruler must possess legitimate authority. It cannot be usurped power. It cannot be the power of a conquering king. Since all men are equally created in the image of God, no man by birth possesses kingly authority over another. Thus this authority may only be established through the consent of the people (as argued by Beza, Rutherford, and the majority of the reformed tradition). If these people withdraw their consent because of the ruler’s violation of the terms of agreement (i.e. he becomes a terror to good works, not evil), then they are at liberty to replace him. This interpretation drove the 16th century Scottish revolution, the 17th century English revolution, and the 18th century American revolution (which was known in England as “The Presbyterian Revolt”). The logic here is airtight.

But this specifically does not fit the context of Romans 13 wherein Paul was warning Christians not to join with the Jewish zealots who sought to overthrow Rome’s unjust (conquering) occupation of Jerusalem through tax revolt. If Paul was referring to God’s establishment of an institution, then Rome had clearly stepped beyond the limit of that authority by their occupation of Jerusalem and thus they were owed no subjection. Yet Paul commands subjection.

God’s Decretive Will

If, however, Paul has in mind God’s decretive will, then the meaning is that God has providentially ordained and appointed specific men to have power (not authority) over other men. This, not the other interpretation, fits the Old Covenant background of Nebuchadnezzar that Paul clearly had in mind. God did not grant Nebuchadnezzar authority over Jerusalem. He granted him power over Jerusalem. How do we know this? Because God specifically says that Nebuchadnezzar would be punished for his unjust invasion and enslavement of Jerusalem – the very thing he gave him power to do.

Israel’s history was a history of rebelling against and overthrowing foreign occupation by the power and blessing of God. Subjection to all higher powers is not a creation ordinance. But in this instance, because Nebuchadnezzar was a curse against Judah for their violation of Mosaic law, God commanded the Jews not to rebel but to submit to his yoke instead – not because Nebuchadnezzar possessed legitimate authority, but because God had providentially ordained that he have power to destroy Jerusalem and take a remnant who submitted to him captive, so that God could later restore them from exile.

This is parallel to Paul’s instruction in Romans 13. While we wait for the return of our king, Christians are to be subject to (not rebel – note that the Greek word is not “obey”) the mighty men (the “state”), because God has a purpose and is providentially ordering these things for our good. We are not to avenge ourselves against the state (as Gen 9:6 gives image bearers authority to do; Rom 12:19) but we are instead to follow the example of Christ and turn the other cheek, suffering injustice until he returns. I believe this is the most logically coherent interpretation of the text and does the best justice to the immediate and intra-canonical context.

A Conflation of God’s Two Wills

It is important to note that the vast majority of interpreters conflate these two distinct interpretations. The Scottish Presbyterians were consistent enough to recognize it must be one or the other. Most today, like Kuyper (following Calvin), argue that the passage refers both to God’s establishment of an institution AND to his ordination of specific persons to that institution. That’s not a logical possibility but most people are completely unaware that they slip between these two concepts when interpreting the passage. Pointing out this inconsistency goes a long ways towards its proper interpretation.


In an unpublished master’s thesis, Dr. Samuel Waldron notes

The word Paul uses (the Greek verb, hupotasso) is precisely the one we would expect if Paul is intent on inculcating the opposite of revolution and rebellion. Subordination (the translation I favor for bringing out the meaning of the verb, hupotasso) is the virtue which has for its contrasting vice, rebellion… Ordinarily, of course, subordination includes obedience. These two things, however, cannot be simply equated… Is the conscientious disobedience mandated by the Scriptures an exception to the requirement of subordination found in Rom. 13:1? To put the question more clearly, Is such conscientious disobedience insubordination, rebellion, or incipient revolution? The answer clearly must be negative! Conscientious disobedience to certain of the demands of ordained human authorities [powers] is clearly consistent with the strictest subordination to their general authority [power]. Lenski sees the matter very clearly when he asserts, “Refusal to obey was not in any way standing against the arrangement of God and the governmental authority [power] this high court possessed.”

“Political Revolution in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Biblical Critique” unpublished


During these difficult times we must ask God for great wisdom. We must weigh the various risks and concerns and make prudent decisions. We must love our neighbors. But we should not fear that disobedience to the edicts of our governments on issues related to the pandemic is necessarily sinful. We must disobey if the government commands us to sin, but we may also disobey in other situations without incurring sin.

(If anyone is curious, I think this doctor’s recommendations for a communal response to the pandemic are wise; see last slide at 1:06:30)

For a more detailed examination, see the following posts:

Is John MacArthur Right About Revolution?

John MacArthur appeared last Sunday on Ben Shapiro’s The Daily Wire. I greatly appreciated MacArthur’s focus on the gospel in the interview – specifically his willingness to personally direct it to Shapiro and call him to repentance. That is very rare in situations like this. It far outweighs any other nit-picking I may have.

Towards the beginning of the interview, MacArthur said

I’m to be a citizen who submits to the powers that be I am NOT to be a revolutionary. We don’t start riots that’s not a Christian thing to do. We don’t even start revolutions, and you could argue about the American Revolution whether that was actually legitimately a Christian act or not. We don’t start revolutions. We submit to the powers that be and we work to change the culture from the inside one soul at a time.

Shapiro later asked him to elaborate.

Shapiro: Early on you mentioned that you weren’t sure that the American Revolution is in consonance with biblical values. I was wonder if you could expound on that a little bit. I think it’s an interesting idea.

MacArthur:  Well the scripture says submit to the powers that be, that they are ordained of God. That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a god-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior, just as parents have that role, the conscience has that role we’ve talked about. So when I, when I talk about the government I’m not saying that the government is a divine authority or that the rulers are divine authorities but what I am saying is that they represent a god-given constraint to human behavior and that’s why they have to be upheld and not broken down. So Christians don’t attack the government. We don’t protest. We don’t riot. We don’t start shooting people who are in the government even if the government is King George from England and we don’t like him and even if we’re upset with taxation. We don’t start riots and we don’t start revolutions.

We live quiet according to the New Testament peaceable lives we pray for those that are over us we pray for rulers we pray for all those who are in authority and we pray that they might come to know God through the savior of the Lord Jesus Christ. So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them and that is how a Christian a real biblical Christian would look at the at the American Revolution. I mean, I hate to say that because that’s not a popular idea, but it is nonetheless what the scripture says Christians are to do. Submit, pray, pray for the salvation of your leaders, live a quiet and peaceable life and let the the character of your life the godliness the virtue of your life affect that society one soul at a time.

Shapiro: So what does that mean for individual rights? Because obviously the American Revolution is based on the idea that we are individuals with certain rights that are inherent in us. I think that has history going all the way back to Genesis talking about us being made in God’s image with certain creative faculties and that comes along with the ability to think for ourselves the ability to worship God, the ability to build these families. The founding ideology is based around the idea that if the government itself was a threat to your fundamental rights including as a religious person then the government had lost its legitimacy. Is there a point in in your philosophy in theology where the government loses its legitimacy? It’s the Soviet Union, they’re cracking down on churches. It’s Nazi Germany, right? Is that, is there a point where a revolution would be justifiable or necessary?

MacArthur: Not, not in a biblical sense, no. I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power. I don’t, I don’t see any justification for that. That is not what Christians do. We would rather suffer.

Personally, I have wrestled with MacArthur’s view for more than 10 years. My desire to take every thought captive to Christ makes me affirm MacArthur’s anti-revolution position, in light of Romans 13. But my logical, systematic bent (which is just another step in taking every thought captive to Christ) leads me to reject MacArthur’s position because it is self-contradictory. It took me a long time to push through the fog of this dissonance, but I think I have made progress and have more clarity now.

Person or Office?

How is MacArthur contradicting himself? By conflating the two wills of God – that is, conflating the person and the office. First he argues that the powers that are ordained of God does not mean particular rulers, but rather the general concept – the institution (preceptive will/command). “That does not mean that every ruler represents God, clearly that is not the case, but that governmental authority is a God-given institution to repress evil and to reward good behavior.” But then he argues that we must therefore never remove any particular ruler by force (because that particular ruler is ordained by God – decretive will/providence). “So we pray regularly for our rulers we do not overthrow them…I don’t think there’s ever a time when you would be justified in starting to kill the people that are in power.”

Which is it? Logically the verse must refer to one or the other. Is the institution ordained by God’s command or is the specific person ordained by God’s providence? Irenaues argued it was the person providentially ordained by God. Chrysostom argued it was the office preceptively ordained by God, not any particular ruler. In his commentary on Romans, John Murray puts it this way

The propositions that the authorities are of God and ordained of God are not to be understood as referring merely to God’s decretive will. The terms could be used to express God’s decretive ordination but this is not their precise import here. The context shows that the ordination of which the apostle now speaks is that of institution which is obliged to perform the appointed functions. The civil magistrate is not the only means decreed in God’s providence for the punishment of evildoers but God’s instituted, authorized, and prescribed instrument for the maintenance of order and the punishing of criminals who violate that order. When the civil magistrate through his agents executes just judgment upon crime, he is executing not simply God’s decretive will bu he is also fulfilling God’s preceptive will, and it would be sinful for him to refrain from so doing.

For these reasons subjection is required and resistance is a violation of God’s law and meets with judgment. (NICNT, p. 148)

Removing Persons

If the power that God has ordained is simply the institution – that is, the idea that society must have a means of constraining human behavior by punishing evil – then our submission is specifically due to that function: punishing evil. If a particular person with power is himself evil and is actually punishing good, then that has not been ordained by God and we need not submit to it, but may resist (Shapiro notes this). Thus Samuel Rutherford said “It is evident from Rom. xiii. that all subjection and obedience to higher powers commanded there, is subjection to the power and office of the magistrate in abstracto, or, which is all one, to the person using the power lawfully, and that no subjection is due by that text, or any word of God, to the abused and tyrannical power of the king.” This is the understanding behind the WCF and it led directly to the American Revolution, which was known in England as the Presbyterian Rebellion.

The logic is impeccable. If God has ordained/commanded that society must punish evil and reward the good, then society must replace a tyrant. Note that the American Revolution was not the rejection of society’s duty to punish evil and reward the good. Rather, it was simply a change in how that was to be done: through a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy. That’s not contrary to the divine institution of government unless you want to argue that God only ordained a specific type of government (monarchy, oligarchy, republic, democracy, etc). The American Revolution was not an overthrow of the institution of government. It was the overthrow of specific persons and their unjust laws (which were not ordained by God).

Ordaining Persons

While the logic is sound, the problem is this view makes no sense of Romans 13 in its original context. The Christians Paul was writing to were concerned with the injustice of Rome and were enticed by Jewish revolutionaries. Paul tells them to be subject to the powers that be. Note that Paul did not simply tell them to obey the rulers. He told them to be subject to them. The specific issue is not disobedience to laws, but rebellion against persons (see Waldron’s notes here). The ordination that Paul refers to in Romans 13 is the providential empowering of particular mighty men to rule over others, as Irenaeus observed. Nebuchadnezzar was the obvious background to Paul’s comments and Nebuchadnezzar was not ordained to an office. He was empowered to crush opposition – to rule. God has providentially ordained that non-theocratic rulers will have power over Christians until our King Jesus returns. Until then, we are to follow his example by patiently suffering injustice.


In conclusion, MacArthur is correct that Christians must not rebel. However, he is wrong as to why Christians are not to rebel. It is not because Romans 13 has ordained an institution that never loses its legitimacy. It is because God has commanded us to suffer patiently under the heavy hand of wicked men whom He has providentially empowered, while we wait for the return of our king (thus making us pilgrims).

Responding to injustice (tyranny) with force (rebelling) is just. In this sense, the American Revolution was just. They had a natural right to resist injustice. However, Romans 13, like Matt 5:39, commands Christians to suffer injustice by turning the other cheek and not taking up arms against “the powers that be.” Did Christ have every right to resist his unjust execution? Yes. Did he resist? No. We are to follow his example, which reaches beyond mere matters of justice.

The dissonance in MacArthur’s conflation of person and office in Romans 13 is very common. It leads to a great deal of confusion. I would encourage everyone to carefully consider and distinguish between person and office with regards to “the powers that be.”

For more detailed reading, see: