“God has promoted kings, that they may promote justice. As they have a sword in their hand, to signify their power; so they have a scepter, an emblem of justice.” (Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, p. 123)
Last installment summarized the reformed, confessional stances on obedience to the civil magistrate. And I want to focus in, by way of conclusion, on a concept that all the confessions had, although they describe it in various ways.
The Heidelberg Catechism calls Christian to honor the “good instruction” of the magistrate. The Second Helvetic confession demands obedience to “just and fair commands”. The Westminster Larger Catechism says the magistrate sins when it uses its authority in an “unlawful” and “unjust” way. The point of all of them is that there are limits to the authority of the magistrate. Therefore, it is not necessary to obey the magistrate when he strays outside of his lane.
This statement is not controversial when it comes to others in authority. If I seek, because I am a father to my children, think I can command all children it should come as no surprise that those outside my family will not listen to me in the same way. If an elder from a Presbyterian Church in America congregation asserts himself at an Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s meeting, he will be ruled out of order. If the president of the United States issues orders for the Prime Minister of England, he will be ignored. And so it is for citizens. When a government takes authority that does not belong to it, Christians are right to ignore it. The civil magistrate is not god and does not have limitless powers.
There have been some examples of a public reprimand for government officials taking more authority than they have. President Biden’s administration ordered that all businesses with more than 100 employees require COVID vaccination or regular testing. The Supreme Court ruled that “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly.” In other words, the government took for itself power that had not been delegated to them. It is neither a “good instruction,” “just and fair” command, or lawful. A company would have been wrong to submit to such an order from the civil magistrate. Herein is the summary of this series.
The Christian is not called to a blind submission to all decrees from the civil magistrate. There are obvious exceptions. When the government commands a sin, the Christian is not to obey. But in the same way, the Christian is not required to yield obedience to unlawful commands. That is not an endorsement of violence and uprisings. It is simply saying that in the face of rapidly expanding unlawful powers being seized by the government, the Christian may quietly refuse an unlawful command and must be willing to suffer the consequences if they do.
“A power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power, and is no more from God, but from sinful nature, and the old serpent.”
Samuel Rutherford, A Christian Manifesto
Last installment looked at the limits of different authorities, all of which God has instituted to serve Him in the world He created. Before moving on to the confessional statements about authority, specifically laid out in the fifth commandment, I want to revisit these three limitations by way of quick review, and add two additional thoughts.
In the limitations drawn out so far, this series outlined three specific ways the government’s authority is naturally limited. The civil government is limited first by its national borders. That seems fairly obvious. Second, they may not treat their citizens as their own property. Tyranny is men with a derived authority, acting as if they hold that authority as their possession. Tyranny itself is usually rejected, but the response is where the waters get muddy. More on that later. Third, governments must themselves be subject to the laws of their own nation.
In this article I want to add two more limits to lawful authority, specifically as it applies to the civil government. The fourth limit is that government is to act honestly with its citizens. It may not prosecute based on bearing false witness, neither may they use false pretenses to justify powers they would not usually hold. The state must prosecute and legislate honestly. Just to address the elephant in the room here, the next paragraph is not going to be that COVID is a hoax. But I am willing to say that a 2-year state of emergency based on an illness with a less than 1% mortality rate is not honest. These claims no longer serve as a justification for sweeping powers that certain governments want to appropriate for themselves: powers that control private business, medical rights, and even ecclesiastical matters. And when an authority uses dishonesty to expand its powers, they are working outside of the limits of the authority which has been entrusted to them.
The fifth limit is that government may not assume authority entrusted to others. That means the civil magistrate has no authority over the business of the church or family. Applying that principle in church and/or family is often easier and clearer. For example, the church is only free to proclaim what God’s word has plainly said, or what can be derived from it by good and necessary consequence. It may not enter into formal discipline for matters of conscience, but only clear, unrepentant violations of God’s commandments. When the church does either of these things it exceeds the limits of the authority entrusted to it. In the same way, fathers may not administer the sacraments to their families in their homes or excommunicate their children from the church. Ironically, within the Christian community when church and father exceeds the limits of their authority, there is a large outcry in the church. Justifiably so. Why not when the same thing is done by the civil magistrate?
Some may object to this and point to cases where the civil magistrate has rightly addressed fraud in the church or abuse in the home. But to think carefully through those examples, it is plain that when a church commits fraud, it is operating unlawfully in its ecclesiastical authority. Or when a husband abuses his wife or children, he is acting unlawfully, which moves beyond the boundaries of his authority as God has given it. Returning to the realm of the civil magistrate, that means the government is in no way to interfere with anything that rightly falls under the authority of the church and/or family. That means no control over any part of religious worship as was recently seen in COVID measures in several states in our Union, most notable California. That means no right to mandatory government education as is the case in several European nations. That means a respect for bodily autonomy. The authority of the civil magistrate has limits, and these should be respected.
By way of summary, let me just enumerate the five limits described above. The government is limited in its use of power in the following ways:
The authority of any civil magistrate does not extend beyond its national borders. That would be a violation of the 8th commandment;
Tyranny is not within the proper purview of government authority. Its citizens are not its property. To treat them as such would be a violation of the 1st and 8th commandments;
Government must themselves operate under the rules and laws of their nation. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment;
Falsehood and propaganda cannot be used as a means to justify authority that would otherwise be unlawful. That would be a violation of the 9th commandment;
The magistrate may not encroach on authority given by God to another institution. That would be a violation of the 5th commandment.
The main point is that, as a servant of God appointed for the good of its citizens (Rom. 13:4), the Moral Law of God, summarized in the Ten Commandments also applies to the government. Its authority is exercised within the limits prescribed by God and the good laws of the commonwealth it governs.
Everything up to this point is to establish that the civil magistrate may overstep its rightful bounds. When other authorities like church and family do so, there is a reasonable expectation of response. And that should not be different in the case of the government either. The question that is so challenging is, what is that response? How does a Christian respond in a Christlike manner when the civil magistrate exceeds the limits of its powers. These questions will be addressed in our next installment.
“My travail is that both princes and subjects obey God. Think not, Madam, that wrong is done you, when you are willed to be subject to God.”
There is much to consider when it comes to the power and authority of the government. Especially in western nations, there is consternation among Christians over recent mandates and requirements coming from the civil magistrate. As a result, there has been disagreement in churches and denominations about the extent of authority the magistrate may exercise. And then there is John Knox. Last article he is quoted as advocating for disobedience, even violent opposition to a civil magistrate who exceeds his bounds. In the quote above Knox is speaking to his queen, Mary, Queen of Scots. This time he asserts the limits of her power: she also is to be subject to God. Before there is too much excitement (either positive or negative) about these quotes, there are a series of questions that have to be answered. Before the Christian can affirm or deny Knox’s claims, there must be a clear and biblical understanding of the role and function of government. These questions and their answers make up the substance of this series of articles. The first question to be considered is, “What is the source of the civil government’s power?”
Chapter 23 of the Westminster Confession ofFaith deals with government and is entitled “Of the Civil Magistrate”. The biblical texts regarding the establishment of the governing authorities cited in this confession are 1 Peter 2:13-14 and Romans 13:1-4. Reserving consideration only for the latter, in the opening verse of Romans 13 Christians are told “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Christians must allow the significance of those words to sink in. The Bible teaches here that good and bad princes are placed in their positions by God. There is no authority except from God, and those in authority are placed there by Him. Humanly speaking, rulers may assume power in a variety of ways. Monarchies and emperors do so by birth, nations may conquer through war, deceitful men may claim power through intrigue and betrayal, and in democracies governments are chosen through the voting process. But behind all those secondary human causes sits God’s singular and divine providence. God decrees, and then carries it out by governing all His creatures and all their actions (see Westminster Shorter Catechism #11).
God’s will is done in the world, also in times when evil seems to have the upper hand. That was the case in Joseph’s life and he recognized it as such. In Gen 50:20 he tells his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” In that moment, Joseph recognizes that things appear differently to man than God. Man only has part of the picture and it can seem like evil will prevail. But God, seeing the entirety of His plan, accomplishes his will through secondary causes. When it comes to the governance of the societies of this world, He uses the civil magistrate. God may work through godly princes, but his plan is also accomplished when the wicked rule. Job understood that all things come from God’s hand: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Cf. Job 2:10). When Satan entered Judas Iscariot’s heart and convinced him to betray Christ, that evil plan resulted in the final victory over sin and death. Those moments are not accidents which God did not foresee. So God gives authority to all rulers, whether they are good or evil. Recognizing that truth will eliminate the vast majority of calls for civil disobedience.
However, when the Bible says all governing authorities are instituted and appointed by God (Rom. 13:1-2), it is not saying that all authorities behave in a godly manner. It is simply recognizing government receives its status through God’s providence. Their position is God-ordained, regardless of the personal approval of its citizens when it comes to their political decisions or personality when lawfully made. To say all authority is instituted by God is not saying anything about the right direction or proper boundaries to the government’s power. What is the civil magistrate to do? For what purpose to it wield its authority? That is a question for the next article.
 John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 279.
“If their princes exceed their bounds, Madam, no doubt they may be resisted, even by power. For there is neither greater honour, nor greater obedience, to be given to kings or princes, than God hath commanded to be given unto father and mother.” (1)
The words above were spoken by John Knox as recorded in his History of the Reformation in Scotland. They are an excerpt of a conversation he had with Mary, Queen of Scots. She had asked him to meet with her to discuss his role in the unrest that was sweeping across the land. In response to her accusation that Knox had incited her subject against her, the reformer gives the response quoted above. No doubt, few men had, have, or will have the courage and boldness of John Knox. He was a unique man, set apart by God for a unique time in the history of Scotland and His church. But the question today is not whether anyone is like John Knox, but rather if there is anything to be learned from his answer to queen Mary. In other words, should Christians be more like John Knox?
The words above are of great relevance for today, because the civil magistrate is exercising authority in ways not seen in recent memory in what is called The West. Much of recent mandates and regulations exceed the experience of most Americans. The vast majority of the demands of the government have to do with COVID. Because of the intensity of these government interventions, there is an on-going discussion about whether the government is to be obeyed when it comes to its different mandates. However, this series of articles is not addressing Americans as Americans. It is not addressing any other political entity either. Instead, it is addressing Christians who happen to live in this nation. Can the Christian say “Amen!” to what our brother Knox said to Queen Mary back in 1561?
Certainly, from the Bible there are different instances when Christians disobey their political rulers. Peter and John do so in Acts 4:19-20 where, in response to the command to stop preaching and teaching, Peter says, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” The debate among Christians is usually not over whether the government can ever be disobeyed. It is more likely to be about what may trigger civil disobedience by Christians.
Some of these questions are extremely complicated. However, in order to be positioned to give a reasonable response, the Christian must be familiar with the Bible’s treatment on the subject of government, or what will be referred to as the Civil Magistrate. Summaries of biblical doctrine can be of great help to today’s church, and for that reason this series will consult with the Westminster Confession of Faith and other confessional statements from the Protestant Reformation. In so doing, this series will address the following questions:
What is the source of the civil magistrate?
What is the power of the civil magistrate?
Are there any limitations to this power?
How does the Christian citizen respond?
God willing, these will be released over the next couple of weeks. The theology of the Christian on government will inform how he responds to its authority. So let us lay a strong foundation and live for the glory of God.
(1) John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 278.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2, ESV)
There are few theological conversations that give me more heartburn than those in which the word “legalism” is tossed around with great liberality. Within the context of a discussion on obedience to God’s law, an objector may claim legalism on the part of the one asserting the need for obedience. It is certainly possible that the person calling for obedience is engaged in legalism, but it is not necessarily so. I’m convinced a right understanding of the meaning of this word will keep me from reaching for my bottle of chewy Tums.
Assuming that in the scenario describe above, the word “legalism” is being used to describe meticulous obedience to God’s law, it is important to begin by saying that meticulous obedience is not legalism. Meticulous obedience can be legalism, but it can also be a glorious expression of love to God for the work of Christ on behalf of the sinner. Jesus himself calls for meticulous obedience to the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)
Even the least of the commandments should not be relaxed, according the Jesus. That principle is seen in action in many places in the Bible. For example, Adam plunges the whole human race into sin and misery by something as simple as eating a piece of fruit. In Num. 15:32-36, a man is stoned to death for the harmless act of collecting sticks on the Sabbath. Why? Because taking these actions was in direct opposition to the explicit commandment and instruction from God. So a narrow assessment of the duties of a law is not sufficient to indicate legalism. Laws and commandments are by definition narrow, also the ones given by the Lord. So what is legalism?
Using the word “legalism” is valid in one of two scenarios. First, it is when something, anything is added to the doctrine of justification by faith. That was the sin of the Galatian Judaizers. Their claim was that you were saved by faith in Jesus plus observance of the ceremonial laws. Derek Thomas has referred to this addition as the “damnable plus.” This distortion of the gospel adds a human element to the innocence of the Christian. Law keeping plays a contributing role in salvation. But as it says in Gal. 3:11 (above), man is not justified in such a way. Christ’s perfect obedience to all of God’s commandments and His righteousness only, are credited to the believer through faith. Anyone who changes that gospel is a legalist and, according to Paul, should be accursed (Gal. 1:8,9).
Second, it is to assert that an application of God’s word that you find particularly helpful is binding on everyone else. In a sense you are elevating your preference to the same status as God’s Law and in so doing practice idolatry. The bedtime for young Gleason children is 7 p.m., rain or shine, and therefore all others must do the same. Or, perhaps a more contemporary example would be around mask wearing. I think wearing masks is a good idea, so therefore everyone must wear a mask. Or I think mask wearing is a bad idea, therefore no one should wear them. Anyone who differs from me in practice is either sinning (worst case) or lacks the wisdom that I have (still not good). That also is the work of the legalist.
To recognize the right use of the word “legalism” helps give the Christian balance in his use of the word. Law keeping, even detailed law keeping, is not an indication of legalism. As Paul says, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom. 2:13). Or James says, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The point is not that law keeping makes you righteous. Rather, when you have been made righteous through Christ, you will desire and be careful to keep His commandments. When charges of legalism are flippantly used to silence calls for obedience, God’s authority is denied and the Christian’s expression of love to his Savior is silenced. If a Christian finds keeping God’s specific commandments a burden, then something has gone wrong. In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” That is not legalism. Legalism is rule keeping with the hope of earning salvation. It is to load a burden on a brother that God never set on him. But if God has given a commandment, it is incumbent on the Christian to obey it totally, carefully, and perfectly. That is not a burden to the redeemed Christian. In fact it is his delight.
Throughout the COVID crisis, the church has faced pressures from without and within. From without there has been an unfair restriction placed on the church. As has been seen in Nevada, casinos and the gambling industry have been granted greater leniency than churches, and the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Nevada’s law with a 5-4 decision. And that is just one example. Others, such as liquor stores, home improvement stores, and grocery stores, continue servicing their clientele, having been deemed necessities, while the church has been denied that status. The church has largely acquiesced to the executive orders of the civil magistrate based on the Biblical injunction to honor the civil magistrate and to extend love to our fellow man by protecting them from COVID. And yet, is the prevailing wisdom truly the best way to honor God and love our neighbor?
Especially at the beginning of the COVID scare back in March and April, many churches were willing to temporarily suspend in-person worship, opting for live-streamed services instead. The nation, and the world really, wrestled to understand what COVID was. Over time, as information has been gathered, and the “curve” seemed to flatten, doors were cautiously re-opened. Some members still have stayed away from in-person worship. But is it really wise and God-honoring to neglect gathering together to worship of the Lord?
The foundation of my concern rests on the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Here God claims the preeminent place in the hearts of His people. That unique place is reinforced in the summaries of the 10 commandments given in the gospels: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Currently the church has focused on the commandments that help it love its neighbor, at the expense of the commandments that direct it to love God.
The church is failing to examine the Scriptures to see if the church is ever described as forfeiting gathering there. Perhaps there are examples in Scripture where the church ceased meeting to avoid a particular danger. COVID is not the only danger in the world. Surely there must be some instance where the New Testament church closed its doors. An examination of Acts shows this did not happen even when the church was under a danger far graver than COVID-19.
Perhaps the most pressing danger facing the apostolic church at its formation was persecution. The church was small, and people were being killed for their profession of faith in Christ. And yet Scripture testifies that persecution did not have the intended effect of suppressing the worship of God’s people.
In John 20:19, even though the disciples were afraid of the Jews, they were still gathering.
In Acts 4:31, after Peter and John were released from being arrested for preaching the gospel, they “went to their friends.” (v. 23), who were all “gathered together.”
In Acts 8:4, after the disciples are scattered because of the death of Stephen and subsequent persecution, they continue to preach the word of God wherever they go. There is an identifiable group that forms in Samaria, to which the apostles send Peter and John (Act 8:15).
In Acts 12:12, Peter’s arrest and subsequent unjust imprisonment prompts the church to “gather together” to pray for him.
In other words, even the danger of persecution does not cause the early church to forfeit meeting together. That is because the worship of God is paramount. It should supersede all other earthly activity, because it is the one activity that anticipates heaven. When a church, or members of a church, do not meet together to avoid COVID, a statement is made. Implicitly or explicitly the church, or a part of it, is saying that it is more important to avoid contracting COVID than it is to worship the Lord. And yet in Hebrews 10:24-25, it is the gathering of the saints that is seen as essential to the sanctification of the believer, and not to be neglected: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
I will say it as strongly as this. When the church forsakes worship for a disease like COVID, it is showing love for self, not for God. It is recreating God in its own image, preferring the temporary physical health that isolating may provide, to the praise of the God who made and redeemed His people. This is not saying anything about modified worship, worship out of doors, the use of masks in worship. I have opinions about all those things, but they are not the focus of what is being said here. The point today is that Christians are not loving God by staying away from church because He commands the assembly of His people, and to show love for God is to walk according to His commandments (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3, 2 John 6). God must be loved more that anything in this life. But there is a second principle that flows from this central point.
One of the reasons given for suspending in-person worship is that the church must love its neighbor. However, right now the world is constantly coming face-to-face with death, the very reminder of the coming judgment. They are constantly being told that their death is just around the corner and it is terrifying the world. And yet when the church ceases to meet, these hopeless and lost souls have only the equivalent of a TV show to sustain and comfort them. No doubt they may hear truth, but they will not experience it in the context that God designed: a living, communing body of believers. It is neither loving, nor caring to close the doors of the very place where hope in times of panic can be found, where fellowship can be experience, and where the splendor of heaven is anticipated each Lord’s Day.
My dear friends, the church must consider carefully what it does today. Its actions are making a statement. The next generation of the church is watching the decisions of today. And they are seeing a church that prefers temporary, physical health over the worship of the Lord. And they are learning. The church is folding on an issue that does not pose a significant risk. And if it folds today, what will it do when a real crisis comes along.
In my county, there are 202,403 people. In this county, there has definitely been an increase of reported cases in recent weeks. As of today (August 3, 2020), the total number of people infected with COVID as reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health is 3,719, of which 1,485 (40%) were diagnosed in the last 2 weeks. And yet the number of deaths remains relatively low at 83. The church has to consider the math. A Richmond County resident has a 1.84% chance of contracting COVID. That means 98 out of 100 people will never get this disease. Even more staggering, only 4 out of 10,000 will die of this disease. That means a Richmond County resident has a 99.96% chance of living through COVID. That is not to minimize the tragedy of death, but rather to show just how low the risk is. The risk of dying from COVID is lower that many elective surgeries!
The church of Christ has been purchased for worship. It has been set apart to worship the Lord. And it is never free to cease to be what it was created by God to be: the body of Christ established on earth to sanctify the saints and call sinners to repentance. To change or deny that work is to have other gods before the Lord.
One of the great weaknesses I observe in today’s North American church is the failure to recognize the authority of Scripture. Certainly, branches of all stripes within the Christ’s church acknowledge the importance of the Bible. However, on more than one occasion as of late I have observed churches, pastors, and individual members shape the Bible to their own convictions rather than have their convictions shaped by the word of God.
The European protestant reformation of the 16thcentury re-established the principle of Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone as our guide and authority. Man’s opinion, whether he is pope or not, should never be placed on par with the Bible. However, there is a quiet pragmatism creeping into North American churches which measures the rightness of an action by man’s assessment of whether or not it works. Actions are justified or condemned based on the perceived benefit they accomplish. These benefits can be made to sound very spiritual, but in the end they are subjective, dependent on the approval or disapproval of man. Herein is the problem.
The Christian individual is not the gauge of whether an action should or should not be done. Instead, the approval of any human action comes from the Lord. God, who knows all things, describes for his people how they should live. The traditional reformed theology about discerning what should be done, or not done is summarized as follows:
The descriptions of right behavior are given in the Moral Law, summarized in the 10 Commandments. Doing what the law forbids, and not doing what the law commands are both considered sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as: “any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” (WSC #14). Therefore, no matter what man’s assessment of any given situation might be, if the proposed action at any point causes you to do what the law forbids (transgression), or not do what the law commands (want, or lack of conformity), that action should not be done. One quick example:
A man attends his local team’s National Football League game on Sunday. As he sits in the stands, he takes advantage of the concessions. He goes to the game with the intention of having gospel conversations with the people in attendance. He justifies his choice because he was able to have a meaningful conversation about the Lord with several people.
Although the action may sound noble, using the authority of God’s word the football fan cannot justify his being at the game because he is sinning against the 4thcommandment. This commandment forbids all work on the Lord’s Day, unless it is of necessity, mercy, or piety. That is not to say God cannot use his sin. His motives could even be appreciated and his evangelistic zeal admired. However, the final answer must be that because his attendance is against God’s law and therefore this choice should have been ruled out. To answer otherwise would be to introduce a pragmatic element that would give man the opportunity to justify any action.
There are countless other ways in which the positive elements of the fan’s plan could have been achieved without sin against God’s law. For example, the man could have stood outside the stadium and preached the gospel, handed out tracts, or tried to engage in gospel conversations there. In this way, the man would not break God’s commandments. The right choice is always to remain within the boundaries of God’s word. When the Christian obeys God’s commandments he demonstrates love for God (John 14:15). But when the Christian disobeys God’s commandments in order to achieve a goal of his own choosing, no matter how noble he might make it sound, he has chosen to love himself rather than his Savior.
The Bible teaches that there are degrees of sin and punishment. However, your average Christian tends to think, “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.” This is a common misconception about the nature of sin and judgment. If we examine God’s Word, however, we will gain a better understanding of our sin, God’s righteousness, and Christ’s love.
In the Old Testament, God’s Law makes it clear that some sins are more heinous than other offenses. For example, if a person sins knowingly against God, it is more offensive to God than if it was done unintentionally. The Law says, “You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:29-30). We should take note that if a person sins with a high hand, he has committed a greater offense, and he will receive greater punishment. This is because sinning with a high hand is more displeasing to the Lord because of the deliberate nature of the offense.
In the New Testament, Jesus explains that greater degrees of sin will be met with greater degrees of punishment. The Lord says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (Matthew 11:21-22). Although Jesus had given them greater reason to repent by performing many miracles, they had not repented; therefore, their rebellion was greater because it was in the face of greater light. The same is true for the city of Capernaum: “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24). The phrases “more bearable” and “more tolerable” in connection with the final judgment reveal degrees of punishment. In God’s courtroom, the punishment will fit the crime.
In addition, Jesus teaches how God holds us accountable for what we know. If we sin against knowledge, then we will receive greater condemnation. “And the servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47-48).
None of this should be taken to mean that some sins are not serious. Every sin is a personal offense against a holy God. Every sin breaks God’s law (1 John 3:4) and invites God’s wrath (Romans 2:5). Even a single sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:2)! “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). But if all sin is serious and there are degrees of sin and punishment, how do we strike the balance?
The Larger Catechism helps us to understand. How we need to be well-catechized in these days of theological confusion! On the one hand, the Catechism reads: “Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ” (Q. 152). On the other hand, the Catechism teaches us: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (Q. 150). So the Catechism reminds us that all sin deserves God’s judgment, but some sins are more evil in God’s sight than others. This is a much more balanced statement than the common platitude: “All sins are equal in the eyes of God.”
So why does it matter that we affirm degrees of sin and punishment? One reason is that it promotes the righteousness of God. Righteousness calls for the punishment to fit the crime. God will punish the wicked in proportion to their crime. Hell will not be a cosmic overreaction. Although all the wicked will end up in an eternal hell, Scripture indicates that it will be more severe for those who committed greater offenses against God. All those who suffer in hell will receive their justly deserved punishment. If we placed a sign over heaven, it would read, “Grace Unknown,” but if we made one for hell, it would read, “Wrath Deserved.”
This teaching also enhances our pursuit of personal holiness. There is a temptation to excuse some of our more serious sins because we know we have many sins in our lives. Foolishly, we might think, “What difference does one more sin make when I have so many?” After all, we all sin in word, thought, and deed on a daily basis (James 3:2, Larger Catechism 149)! But we must remember that our sins against knowledge are more heinous than our other unintentional sins. We dare not excuse greater offenses because we are always falling short in lesser areas! “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17). Let us declare war on all our sins! Great or small, we are called to put all our sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5)!
Understanding the degrees of sin and punishment should turn our eyes to the greatness of our Savior’s love. When Jesus died on the cross, he died for all the sins of all his elect. Yes, he died for our unintentional sins, but he also bore God’s wrath for all the sins we committed with a high hand. What punishment he must have endured at our expense! We cannot even fathom the depths of his agony as he purchased us with the blood of the everlasting covenant! Although there are degrees of sin and punishment, there is no sin too great for God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, and the Spirit’s power. “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent” (Westminster Confession 15.4).
“The sins forbidden in the second commandment are…the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever;” (Westminster Larger Catechism, #109)
My experiences as an elder and pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America have shown a lack clarity and/or agreement on the application of the 2nd commandment as it pertains to representing the Son in pictures. There is a range of positions pastors and elders take in the PCA. At risk of over-simplifying the issue, let me try to summarize the positions, as I have seen them expressed.
One group affirms the plain confessional view as summarized above in WLC #109, which prohibits any representation of God. Another group would object to depicting him in corporate worship, but would allow pictures of him in children’s Bibles and Sunday School material. The last group would hold that images of Jesus are not problematic since it is not accompanied with worship. In this article, I want to give reasons why the first view is the strongest.
In Scripture, no description is given of Jesus. Therefore, no artist knows his hair or eye color, or anything else about his appearance. Any picture of him must be the product of the artist’s imagination. Yet the artist paints the picture for the purpose of making an impression on those who will see it. That picture will shape thoughts about God of anyone who sees it, and thereby influence his worship. By way of example, most representations of the Son will focus on his human nature. However, that is an incomplete depiction. In that sense, pictures of Jesus over-emphasize his humanity at the expense of his divinity. Therefore, the confession rightly urges Christians to rely only on God’s word to shape their understanding of Christ. Shorter Catechism #50 says, “The second commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word.” In doing so, it summarizes the teaching of God through the apostle Paul who said, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imaginations of man.” (Acts 17:29, ESV). Only God’s revelation is suitable to inform our impression of him.
In addition, pictures of Jesus affect our children. Showing our children a representation of Jesus will shape and mold their impression of him. Children’s Bibles and Sunday School materials often portray Jesus in cartoon form. The effect: Jesus’ majesty, glory, power, and splendor is removed in the child’s mind. Rather than helping them understand who Jesus is, these pictures form a cheaper, weaker impression of our Savior. Again, this impression will be carried along in worship, even only in their minds. They will worship an impression of Christ not given by God, but created by a cartoonist. Jesus can never be drawn so faithfully as it represents him as he truly is: fully God and fully man. No matter how gifted the artist, he will always fall short.
There is also a historical precedent within the church for us to respect when it comes to this issue. I understand church history is not on the same level as Scripture, but it is wise to consider the actions of the church in the past. In John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion he argues that images of Christ were not used in the church for the first five centuries (Book 1, Chapter 11.13). In addition, the Westminster Standards, Heidelberg Catechism, 2nd Helvetic Confession, and London Baptist Confession 1689, just to name a few, all forbid the representation of God in any form. The church in history has understood the 2nd commandment to forbid what we seem so eager to embrace. Today’s church would do well not to needlessly move a well-established fence.
Pastors, elders, Sunday School teachers, and parents, I make my appeal to you. It is not an appeal that questions your intentions, but is rather a call to re-consider. Do not introduce something that would harm your sheep and children in that way. Protect them from an inaccurate worship of God. Heed the words of John Calvin:
“And from the fearful infatuation under which the world has hitherto laboured, almost to the entire destruction of piety, we know too well from experience that the moment images appear in churches, idolatry has as it were raised its banner; because the folly of manhood cannot moderate itself, but forthwith falls away to superstitious worship.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 11.13)
We have enough trouble being faithful to God’s word without starting at the place where God has said, you shall not worship me in that way.
The contemporary use of the word “worship” often refers exclusively to the time of singing during the corporate gathering of the church. The emotions that the words and music provoke cause the person participating to feel like they have worshiped. However, the question is whether that is really worship as defined in Scripture. Worship is properly considered not primarily from man’s perspective but from God’s. Our opinions about what we have done are far less significant than God’s. The question for the validity of worship should be approached around whether God would recognize what we are doing as worship.
Worship, rather than a feeling we get through music, is a humble serving of God in all of life. In worship, a person defers to the Lord and ascribes glory to him. This deference is seen in Abraham going to Mt. Mariah with Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice at the Lord’s command. Worship is an external expression by the creature of the glory, majesty, and rightful dominion of the Creator. It is a joyful rehearsal of his covenant promise of redemption. It is a recognition of the insignificance of our desires and a training ground in which we are conformed by the Spirit to the image of Christ. And it is not only reserved for the hour of corporate worship at your church. Worship is for all of life: work, home and church.
So how is worship expressed at work? In Romans 12:1-2 the apostle Paul commands the brothers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice, which is their spiritual act of worship. This act of worship involves a lack of conformity to the world, and a transformation of the mind to know the will of God.
In its simplest paraphrase, Romans 12:1-2 commands the surrender of all we do to God by discerning and implementing his will through Spirit renewed minds. In other words, to worship at work is to live according to the first commandment. There are to be no other gods before the Lord in the Christian’s workplace. What the Christian does at work is what God, in his providence, called him to do. Behavior at work should be determined by the extent to which it honors God. According to God’s Moral Law, summarized in the 10 Commandments, workplace behavior should include:
Honoring authorities and treating subordinates with respect and fairness.
Refraining from sinful anger and hostility toward anyone at work.
Promoting proper propriety between those of the opposite sex.
Dealing with complete honesty with clients, employees, bosses, or suppliers.
Speaking the truth about our products, services and actions we have taken.
Being content with what God has provided and rejoice at the blessings given to others.
God says these things honor him. So if they are carried out in a spirit of love toward God and gratitude over the salvation he has purchased, then these will truly show the love of the Christ and be seen by God as a spiritual act of worship.