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The Brexit Lesson: Decentralization is Progress

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The howling disappointment from the transcontinental elites over the stunning victory for Brexit should come as no surprise. (Tony Blair’s is a prime example.) And David French is astute to point out that the patronizing “history is on our side” mockery that usually accompanies the political successes of the elite progressives seems to have hit a brick wall. What if, after all, history isn’t on the side of the elites? Actually, history doesn’t pick sides; people do. And a small majority of Britons chose against the elite progressives. History, apparently, isn’t cooperating.

 

The Meaning of Progress to Leftist Elites

 

However, I’d like to dig deeper on one point. Brexit didn’t only signal the end (for a while, at least) of the mantra of the inevitability of progress — as elites define progress, of course. In addition, Brexit actually exhibits progress. It turns on its head the great progressive presupposition of the last 100 years — that the measure of linear history is the measure of moral progress. To the elites, almost all of them Leftist, the progress of history marches from religious faith to human reason, from benightedness to enlightenment, from submission to authority to exercise of autonomy, from a free economy to a command economy, from the imago dei to “quality of life,” from family hierarchy to horizontal egalitarianism, and from local and territorial nations or states to global and transnational political bodies. The movement is not simply a historical fact, let it be noted. It is considered a moral postulate. When President Obama chimed, “They [the Republicans] want to take us back to the policies more suited to the 1950’s than the 21st century,” he was not merely offering a factual statement. He was handing down a moral verdict. It is one that all progressives would find noncontroversial and axiomatic. The longer we go, the better we get.

 

This is why Brexit stunned and angered them. It’s why they refuse to accept the verdict at the polls and are demanding a revote. You just aren’t allowed to contest history and get away with it.

 

But what if the progressives are wrong about what constitutes progress? What if what they think is progress is actually regress? That, in fact, is the truth of the matter.

 

The Progress and Regress of Progress

 

God created man and woman to steward the earth of his glory. They were to move outward and overspread the earth with their God-glorifying offspring. They sinned, but God didn’t rescind his cultural commission to them. One aspect of that sin was to retrench, to consolidate, to centralize in an attempt to overthrow God. Liberty to obey God’s mandate wasn’t paramount; centralized power to threaten his authority was.

 

This first great centralizing project was the Tower of Babel, which God unceremoniously demolished by confounding humanity’s languages, thus introducing a decentralizing tactic. But sinful man didn’t give up; he kept up centralizing. By their very nature, all of the ancient world empires centralized political power: Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Conversely, the Israelites (and other tribal groups) decentralized politics. Jehovah mandated twelve tribes, each of which selected representatives to make national decisions under the rule of the Torah. We might even say that Israel was a primitive constitutional republic. But it was increasingly an exception. And even the Jews, over God and his prophet Samuel’s protest, demanded a king like the surrounding nations. The lust for political centralization dies hard.

 

Christian Culture as Political Decentralization

 

Christianity emerged during the slow decline of the Roman Empire. Eventually the Western church came to be massive and international, while the states of Europe grew weak and divided. Christian culture developed in a time of political decentralization. This was no coincidence. England and her Magna Carta and checks and balances on the Crown laid the groundwork for modern decentralized republics. The Protestant Reformation, in combatting Rome, unintentionally unleashed the modern nation-states. But two 20th century world wars and the collapse of the Soviet Union have reintroduced political decentralization. The rise of the European Union was a step backward toward centralization, and Brexit reversed that retrogressive move. The great cultural blessings of the English-speaking world spring from a break with the old, tired, centralization of the past.

 

Why does biblical faith demand political decentralization? Because God is the earth’s authority, and all human authorities are tempted to usurp his. This doesn’t mean that God desires political anarchy. Family, church, and state are valid subordinate authorities. However, each is prone to idolatrize itself, and therefore, decentralized human authority, especially political authority since it owns a monopoly on coercion, protects God’s prerogative final authority. In short: decentralized political authority most honors God.

 

The Blessings of Decentralization

 

It was decentralization that granted the world the greatest political liberty. It has been most graphically exhibited in England and America and wherever their influence has gone. Bills of rights and working constitutions and an independent judiciary and free markets and local prerogatives are all the fruits of this decentralization, this Christian culture. While many non-Christians voted for Brexit, they were voting for the freedom of decentralization and against the tyranny of centralization that many of the older voters once knew and have always cherished as a residue of Christian culture. They may have been old-timers, but they wanted progress. If political liberty is progress, then centralization is the opposite of progress.

 

A Tale of Two Progresses

 

Brexit is progress. It’s a step forward. Better: it’s a step backward to when England was taking steps forward, before she capitulated to elites who wanted to step backward. If this progress isn’t limited to England, we can expect other EU nations to abandon the large, cumbersome, bureaucratic leaky Ship EU and return to political liberty. In the United States, we can expect a revival of states rights, a delicate balance of power between the states and the federal government reminiscent of the Founders’ political philosophy. It would be the progress on which the U.S. was founded 240 years ago.

 

If you believe that liberty is progress, as our Founders did, you’ll cheer Brexit. If you believe that central political control is progress, you’ll lament Brexit. The great political battle of our time is whether liberty or control will win out.

 

Which is to say, whether Christian culture or anti-Christian culture will win out.

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The Law Is God’s Blessing

GodsLaw

 

Introduction

 

If Christians are confused about the Gospel, they are flummoxed about the law. Many of them know a few biblical texts that have become dismissive catchphrases: “You’re not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). “We’re free from the law” (Rom. 8:2). “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). Armed with these and a few other texts, they see the law as at best obsolete and at worst, harmful. Jesus came to get rid of the law (Jn. 1:17), and that is that. The NT writers (they think) have given us some instructions for life, but it has nothing to do with the law.

 

This dismissal is woefully one-sided and in fact, flat-out wrong. This post won’t permit anything resembling a complete discussion of the Christian law,[1] but let me make a few points to exhibit in summary form simply the blessing of the law as the Bible depicts it.

 

Holy, Righteous, Good

 

First, the law is holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). How could it be anything else? The law is a reflection of God’s character. We read in Leviticus 20:7–8,

 

Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.

 

“Be ye holy, for I am holy.” We must be holy like God is, and to be holy is to obey God’s law, for God’s law exhibits his character. To know the law of God is to know the character of God, in other words, to know the law is to know God. Some Christians might chafe at this description. Isn’t the law opposed to the grace of God, for example? And don’t we need to know the grace of God in opposition to the law of God? We do not. If the law of God is a reflection of his character, the law reflects his grace. This is why in Exodus 19:4–5, before he gave Israel the Mosaic law, God points out how gracious he is to his people in giving that law. The law exhibits God’s grace.

 

Moreover, when Jesus died on the cross, God was fulfilling the terms of his law.[2] The cross demonstrates the love of God because it demonstrates the law of God (Gal. 4:4–6; Rom. 5:6–11). God loved us so much that he gave up his own Son to the law’s justice. Remember that the only law to which God’s grace is antithetical is a manufactured, homemade law apart from Jesus Christ. But that’s not the proper use of the law. If you want to know what God is like, read the law. If you know want to know what God is like, look to Jesus Christ (Jn. 14:9), whose life and death fulfilled the law (Gal. 4:4).

 

Life-Promising

 

Second, the law promises life (Rom. 7:10). This statement might perplex us, since Paul writes that the law doesn’t bestow life (Gal. 3:21). Only the Messiah can bestow life. However, the law does promise life to those that live within it (Dt. 30:1–16; cf. Rom. 10:5 –13), because if we live within it, we won’t rely on ourselves for salvation, but on Jesus Christ. This is another clue that many of Paul’s opponents weren’t following the OT law but a twisted, Christ-less, grace-less, faithless version of it. Not only will we know God if we live within the law. We’ll also be led into life. To live in this sphere of the law is to gain life. The law doesn’t bestow life, but the law points us to the One who does, Jesus Christ, and in him alone we should trust.

 

In addition, when we’re united to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit leads us to obedience that elicits God’s blessings. If we obey, God blesses us. If we disobey, God judges us (Gal. 6:7–8). If we completely and finally turn our backs on God, he expels us from his kingdom (2 Pet. 2:17–22). What are we to obey? We are to obey God’s law. This is why the law promises life. To live within the law is to live within absolute trust in Jesus Christ and in obedience to him.

 

Liberty-Fostering

 

Third, the law bestows liberty (Jas. 1:25, 2:12). This is counterintuitive to many Christians today. For them the law is heavy and burdensome. They might get this idea from Acts 15, which tells of the Jerusalem council, where Peter identified the law as a heavy yoke (v. 10). But it seems they might have missed v. 1. The great error being combated at the council is the teaching that one must keep the law as a way of salvation. Of course, this is precisely what the law was never intended to do. When the law is turned into a system of works-righteousness, it does indeed become a yoke and a burden. This is a pharisaic and Judaic perversion of the law.[3]

 

The yoke the Lord Jesus imposes is easy and his burden is light (Mt. 11:29–30). Why is this? Because God is our Creator, he knows precisely how we are to operate within his world. His law, his instruction, is suited to man as the earth-bound creature made in his image. We might say that the law is the instruction manual for humanity. And this isn’t limited to the Mosaic law, but includes God’s entire word, which instructs us (1 Tim. 3:16–17). It is in the sense that we could say that the entire Bible is law.[4] It’s God’s revelation for how we should believe and live. God knows how we should live much better than we do. That’s why he gave us his word, his law. To turn away from God’s law is to turn away from the only truth that will help us to live with great blessing and profit in God’s world. We live in a God-rigged universe. Far from being hard and onerous, God’s law shows us how to live within our environment with the greatest of light and blessings.

 

Fulfilled in Believers

 

Fourth, the law is fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:4). If we ask the question, Can anybody fulfill or obey the law, the answer is, No and Yes. No, everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), and if we break one commandment we have violated all (Jas. 2:20). However, believers, by the power of the Spirit, can fulfill the law as much as a redeemed sinner can. This is why 1 John tells us that everyone sins (1:8), but also that we must not live within the reign of sin (2:4–6), which is a violation of God’s law (3:410). In other words, to live by the Spirit’s power is to live in obedience to the law. In this sense, we can keep the law. No, not flawlessly, but nonetheless faithfully (see Gen. 26:5; 1 Kin. 11:24; Lk. 1:6; Jn. 15:10). In a post-Fall world, the issue is not whether a person can be flawlessly sinful. It’s whether a person can live a life dominated by righteousness. He certainly can — and must. “In the natural man sin is the essential element, but in the new man sin is an alien element.” [5] Therefore, the most faithful Christians are those who’ve most faithfully kept God’s law. The best Christians are the best law-keepers.

 

In Harmony with the Gospel

 

Finally, the law is not contrary to the Gospel promises (Gal. 3:21). Paul makes this point quite emphatically (see vv. 21–29), and if we understand it, we might never again have a problem reconciling the law and gospel, law and grace, law and promise.[6] The Mosaic law was given to Israel subsequent to the Abrahamic promises. The promises are promises of eternal life. The law was never given to impart eternal life. It has given, as we have seen, to lead us toward eternal life, that is, toward the Gospel promises (see v. 24).[7] The law is not against the promises, precisely because they serve different functions. The promises tell us what God has accomplished, is accomplishing, and will accomplish in Jesus Christ. The law tells us how we are to live in relation to Jesus Christ. We are not saved by keeping the law, and no one was ever saved by keeping the law in any era.[8] In addition, no one was ever led to please God without the law. Hebrews 11 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God (11:6), and then it moves on to tell us how that faith led the great OT saints to great exploits of obedience, in other words, law-keeping. To perceive the law as a means of salvation or justification is to pervert it. To see it as a means of pleasing God is to see it precisely as God intends.

 

How to explain the verses that speak disparagingly of the law is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that swiftly dispensing with God’s law is a contra-biblical move.


 

[1] For exegetical and theological evidence for the general viewpoint I espouse, without agreeing with their view of the law on certain points, see Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977, 1984); Karl Barth, “Gospel and Law,” Community, State and Church (Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1968), 71–100; Heinrich Bullinger, A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God, in Fountainhead of Federalism, Charles S. McCoy and Wayne Baker, eds. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 99–138; C. E. B. Cranfield, “St. Paul and the Law,” New Testament Issues, Richard Batey, ed. (New York and Evanston; Harper & Row, 1970), 148–172; Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 458–462; Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), ch. 4 and “Paul and ‘The Works of the Law,’” Westminster Theological Journal, 38 (1975-1976): 28; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “God’s Promise Plan and His Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 33:3 (September 1990): 289, and Recovering the Unity of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 160–162; Robert S. Rayburn, “The Old and New Covenants in the New Testament,” unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1978; Norman Shepherd, “Law and Gospel in Covenantal Perspective,” Reformation & Revival Journal, 14, 1: 73–88 (2005); and C. van der Waal, The Covenantal Gospel (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada: Inheritance Publications, 1990).
[2] Leon Morris, The Atonement (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 192–196.
[3] Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, 130.
[4] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2008), 176–178.
[5] Donald G. Bloesch, Theological Notebook (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 1:16.
[6] P. Andrew Sandlin, Wrongly Dividing the Word (Mount Hermon, California: Center for Cultural Leadership, 2010).
[7] Paul declares that the law no longer serves the function of a schoolmaster, since it has brought us to Jesus Christ. He doesn’t mean the moral law is unnecessary; he means that the law’s function as a schoolmaster is no longer necessary.
[8] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” in The Law, the Gospel and the Modern Christian, Wayne G. Strickland, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 190–192.
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