The Nature and Role of Law – Part 4

The Nature and Role of Law – Part 4


Part 4

If you approach life philosophically, certainty is either in the subject or object. For example, I think you are wonderful; therefore you are wonderful. Or I think you are evil; therefore you are evil. If I am the object and you are the subject, you think I am evil, and therefore I am evil. So too, you think I am nice and therefore I am nice. This is the only way people can know. In this we see that certainty is subjective.

We seek to obtain objectivity by polling the opinions of others. For example, in a beauty contest, the winner is chosen by a panel of judges that determines that one girl is more beautiful than another is. In matters of morals, as noted in earlier issues of this series, right and wrong are determined by public opinion. Thirty years ago there was a consensus that homosexuality was evil. Today that consensus has disappeared as more and more people view it as acceptable behavior.

The United States accused Japan of war crimes during World War II. Japan accused the United States of a terrible crime in dropping the atomic bomb. Who decides whether one, neither, or both are wrong? How can one know? How can one be certain? In the final analysis, your answer is subjective.

One dictator believes that man has intrinsic worth. As a result he builds hospitals, libraries, and institutions of education. He dies and another dictator replaces him who believes that man has no intrinsic worth. He exploits the people through a life of self-aggrandizement, building monuments to his own greatness. If the people voted, they would say the first dictator is a better ruler than the second. But apart from the opinion of the majority, much like the panel of judges in the beauty contest, who determines which opinion is correct? Your answer will be subjective.

The Judeo-Christian religion is a religion of revelation; the sovereign creator of the universe speaks. To Him all must give an account. He declares that people are eternal and therefore have intrinsic worth. Certainty is no longer in the subject or object, but in the God who speaks and subjectivism is replaced by objective Truth. This is the premise of the whole of the Bible in general and the Law on Mount Sinai in particular.

Cultures influenced by Christianity are prone to see law as absolute, much like our nation at its founding. They are more disposed to be directed by law due to their belief that God gave moral absolutes regulating how people are to treat each other.

For this reason, the Judeo-Christian religion tends to foster moderate government, while pagan religions tend to foster despotic government. Christian cultures may, on occasion, produce leaders who exploit the populace. Men such as Hitler arrive on the scene now and then, but such men are an aberration, and when gone the country reverts to a more moderated government – as long as the culture remains Christian.

In Asia during the Second World War and the Vietnam War our enemy understood this difference. They ignored terrible atrocities they committed while calling attention to atrocities that we committed. They knew that the people of the US would never tolerate what their own people accepted, namely that people do not have intrinsic worth.

Pagan cultures may produce benign governments, but it is contrary to their world-view, for nothing in their religious system ascribes to man intrinsic value. Laos and China merely serve as examples. It is interesting to watch countries like India, Japan, and China, which in varying degrees have all embraced socialistic systems. Socialism and communism were both spawned out of a Judeo-Christian culture; it is not accidental that both Marx and Engels were Jews. Both men (as well as Hitler) sought to establish the millennium with man rather than God on the throne. Whether these pagan countries that have embraced socio-economic systems that are the product of either socialism or communism can maintain them over a protracted period of time, remains to be seen. Also, it is too early to prove what will happen in countries where democracy has taken root, but where there is no world-view that accepts the intrinsic worth of the individual.


Let’s now move to the second section in our study on law: Defining and ensuring justice is a principle purpose of law. This surfaces a problem, namely, the difference between morality and legality.

I remember watching a film, “Criminal Law,” in which a young attorney successfully defends a man convicted of murder. After winning the case, the attorney discovers that the man, in point of fact, is guilty. As the plot develops, the murderer begins to play with his attorney in ways we need not relate here. The young attorney goes for counsel to his law professor.

The professor responds by calling attention to the statue of justice standing outside the US Supreme Court. On a bright sunny day the statue casts a shadow across the steps of the building. The shadow is an image of the statue, but is not the statue. The statue represents justice and the shadow represents law. The objective of the shadow/law is to reflect the image of the statue/justice. Law seeks to reflect justice, but it can never do so perfectly; this is why the legislature sits in session.

God’s Law is the exception. It defines justice perfectly. God made the world and the rules by which the world must live. Justice, by definition, is what the creator declares to be just. The world does not live ignorant of the expectations of God. He has revealed Himself and spoken. Christianity is a religion of revelation with an absolute moral code.


Leviticus 16 records the most holy day in the Jewish year[6] – Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.[7] We don’t have space to exegete this passage; I recommend that you read it. Briefly, on this one day each year the High Priest, properly dressed and cleansed, entered the most holy place twice. First he entered with the blood of a bull, which he sprinkled on the Mercy Seat to cover his own sins. He then made an exit, and returned with the blood of a goat, which he sprinkled on the Mercy Seat to cover the sins of the people.

God gives His people a sobering picture of how He deals with sin: The Mercy Seat sits on top of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, among other things, contains the tablets of Law given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Over the tabernacle rests the Presence of God, a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Between the Law and the Presence of God rests the Mercy Seat, covered with blood to expiate the sins of the people.

Note what God says in the chapters following Leviticus 16:
Leviticus 20:10-16: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. 11 And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. 12 And if a man lie with his daughter in law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them. 13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. 14 And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you. 15 And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. 16 And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”

After reading this portion I asked myself, “What happened to the Day of Atonement?” God forgives the sinner, but the state cannot forgive lest injustice reign. God treats people differently from how He expects the state to treat them. Joshua 7 affords an illustration of how this was applied.

After the conquest of Jericho, Joshua sends his army against the insignificant city of Ai. The army of Ai thoroughly defeats Israel. Joshua discovers that Achan took of the spoils of Jericho, against the express command of God. “And Joshua said unto Achan, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the LORD God of Israel, and make confession unto him; and tell me now what thou hast done; hide it not from me.” [8] In other words, Joshua said to him, “Ask God to forgive you, for we will not.” With that the people stoned Achan along with his family.


In the NT God charges the individual with the responsibility to forgive. Christ feels so strongly about this He gives a parable about a man who was forgiven debt so great that he could never pay it. The master, who was also the lender, forgave the man the whole debt. Later, a man comes to the one forgiven asking that an insignificant sum be forgiven him. Unwilling to forgive, he had the man cast into debtor’s prison. The master, upon hearing of it, casts the unforgiving servant into prison until the whole of his huge debt is paid. Jesus closes the parable with these words: “So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”[9]

If God charges the individual with the responsibility to forgive, He charges the state with the task of ensuring justice. Paul clearly spells this out in his great epistle to the Romans:
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.”[10]

Words like “mercy,” “pity,” and “forgiveness” are used interchangeably in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18. Forgiveness is the setting aside of justice. Thus forgiveness and justice are mutually exclusive. Care must be taken in applying these two words in our interpersonal relationships.

For example, in raising our children, justice is never the goal; Christ paid the penalty for sin, satisfying God’s justice in the process. Discipline should never be judicial, but rather corrective. For this reason, if your spouse says to you as you begin to discipline your child, “Have mercy,” you know that someone is not thinking correctly. If correction rather than justice is the goal, then mercy is not an issue.

Our criminal system in the US affords another example. We cannot decide as a society if we wish to correct and thus rehabilitate criminals, or whether we seek justice in punishing them. Theoretically, we must punish criminals in order to maintain a just society. However, the US judicial system attempts to negotiate between mercy and justice exemplified by their titling institutions of justice as “penitentiaries,” and sometimes “institutions of correction.”

Biblically, the magistrate representing the State executes justice, penalizing the offender to ensure that citizens honor the law. The same magistrate, however, must forgive individuals that offend him in the normal intercourse of life.



[6] Cf. also Hebrew 9:1-5.
[7] Yom is Hebrew of “day;” Kippur for “covering.” The Day of Atonement is the Day of Covering.
[8] Joshua 7:19
[9] Matthew 18:21-35.
[10] Romans 13:1-5.