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The founders of the American Republic were the philosophical children of the Protestant movement which, by the late 1700’s, had matured sufficiently to settle upon some unique principles of freedom. Some of them were devout Christians, others were merely influenced by their views. Both Christians and others were allies in the search for true liberty.
One big question they faced was how to unify a nation without sacrificing individual freedom. There are two ways to unite a nation, the most common way being to unite them by force. The other way was to give them the freedom to think for themselves without fear of reprisal from one’s neighbors or from the government itself. They could be ruled either by fear or by love.
The problem lay not in those who were in agreement with the mandates of government but in those who disagreed. History was full of examples where governments ruled by fear to suppress dissent and bring virtual unity. This was usually supported by the religion of day, which also exercised spiritual authority by the principle of fear.
But nations also need the rule of law, which, by definition, requires the people to conform to certain moral principles. Without laws, people violate the rights of their neighbors, spurring them to band together for self-defense. These form local governments and establish laws in order to defend the people from those who would steal and kill.
The bigger the nation, the harder it is to maintain unity. The harder it is to maintain unity, the greater the pressure to unify them through fear. The difficult question is how to establish laws that bring liberty instead of bondage.
The Protestant reformers and thinkers pondered this and searched for the meaning and purpose of law. They concluded that laws establish rights, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., the right to work, or pursue a profession or calling). They concluded that all rights are “natural,” that is, given to nature by the Creator Himself. They concluded that governments are instituted and authorized by the Creator for the purpose of securing and defending those rights.
In other words, governments do not grant rights. God grants rights; governments can only grant privileges, at best, but they must do so without infringing upon the God-given rights of the people. This was unique and a departure from the practice of past governments, where kings believed that they had the right to rule as they pleased and that God would back them up. Their mantra was Rex Lex, “the king is law.” The Reformers, on the other hand, reversed this and said, Lex Rex, “the law is king.”
Essentially, this difference was reflected thousands of years ago in the governments of Babylon and Persia. Babylon was an absolute monarchy, and Nebuchadnezzar ruled by the principle of “the king is law.” Persia, on the other hand, was a constitutional monarchy, and Darius ruled by the principle of “the law is king.” This comes out clearly in Daniel 6, where the king, having signed a bill into law, was bound by that law that could not be changed or violated, not even by the king himself (Daniel 6:15).
The Reformers found many examples in Scripture where the prophets criticized the kings of Israel and Judah for their violation of God’s law. No one had the right to go against the laws of God, regardless of how rich and powerful he was. As the Creator, God had the right to rule the heavens and the earth. Governments were instituted to protect the rights of God and men.
Hence, any law that runs contrary to the law of God is null and void insofar as God is concerned. This is the fundamental principle built into the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution which was written under its authority. The uniqueness of this American “Experiment” was that it put government under God, making God the King and giving God’s law the right to determine the rights of men.
Laws determine and establish rights. Laws against theft, for instance, determine that men have the right to own their own labor and all that their labor produces. Hence, a thief is a sinner, a lawbreaker, for he has no right to steal from his neighbor. Likewise, governments do not have the right to tax men’s labor beyond the tithe that is established in Scripture.
Men also have the right to life. A murderer violates the law and is therefore a sinner (or criminal). The law against murder was meant to bring fear to the murderer but liberty to the general public. Governments are required to rule by fear those who might contemplate violating the rights of others, as defined by God’s law. But governments do not have the right to prosecute those who disagree with unjust laws of men.
When the notes in the Geneva Bible praised the midwives who refused to obey the decree of Pharaoh (Exodus 1:17), King James was enraged and called it “sedition.” God used his rage to produce the “Authorized Version,” that is, the King James Version of the Bible, thus spreading the word in a greater way than before. The only real difference was that the KJV did not contain the notes and explanations found in the Geneva Bible. Men had to figure out the meaning for themselves.
By the time America was founded, this Protestant principle was well grounded in the minds of the people. Hence, one of the popular mottos of the Revolution, popularized by Benjamin Franklin, was “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” This nearly became the motto on the Great Seal of the United States. Franklin proposed the Seal to picture Pharaoh’s army being destroyed in the Red Sea as Moses lifted up his rod.
The point is that the laws of men are inevitably imperfect, and some are downright oppressive to the righteous. Many righteous men have been imprisoned and even tortured on account of unjust laws—including church laws. Genuine liberty must be established on the laws of God, which in turn reflect the nature of God, His goodness, His glory, and His idea of rights. We do not have the right to sin against God or against our neighbors. We have the right to be protected by law.
There is no liberty in a lawless nation, nor even in the church. Unfortunately, nations and churches often set aside the law of God in favor of their own traditions—their own standards of right and wrong. When they give kings, popes, or people the right to veto God’s law, they establish sin, which leads to slavery and death. John says that “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4 KJV). Sin is anomia, “lawlessness.” When the church puts away the law, it replaces the law with their own laws, or traditions, because it is not possible for a society to function without laws of some kind.
At the same time, we must recognize that laws imposed from the outside (by governments) can only regulate behavior. Laws in themselves cannot make anyone actually righteous. The Old Covenant uses laws written on tablets of stone or on paper, which are then imposed upon the people from the outside. The New Covenant writes those laws on the heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, transforming our nature into the image of God.
The Old Covenant method does not work, because it is based on the will of the flesh and the will of man; only the New Covenant actually works, for it is based on the will of God (John 1:13). God vowed to save mankind, thus taking upon Himself the responsibility to fulfill His vow. For this reason, Jesus was sent to the earth, and the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost.
The Chinese Communist Party is a good example of how men try to bring unity through force and fear. They prosecute dissenters. They have no regard for the laws of God but give themselves the right to make their own laws and to grant privileges to whomever they will. The Party government is the only one granted rights, for it has rejected God and has replaced Him with their own theories of government.
True unity is found in a state of agreement, not mere obedience. Obedience implies that there may be disagreement, but that people defer to the will of government. Agreement is a heart matter, where there is no need for law enforcement, because it would be odd and unnatural to violate the law of God. Once the Holy Spirit has brought full agreement, there is no further need for external laws. No one will have to teach his neighbor about the laws of God, because all will know Him from the least to the greatest.
Until such unity is achieved in the earth, laws are necessary to restrain evil and to protect the rights of men from those who are not yet regenerated. Freedom is not found in the absence of law but in writing the law upon the heart.