Is the Law of God Only Binding on People in the Covenant?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and we were talking about Christians in government. The question arose – is right for Christian Magistrates to govern unbelievers by the Law of God?

He asked, isn’t the Law of God only binding on people in the covenant? Is it legitimate to bind the non-covenant people to “covenantal laws”?

He asked me to prove from scripture that people outside of the covenant are bound by the same ethical standards of righteousness as people in the covenant.

So here it is, my evidence:

First of all in Romans 1 and 2 we see that all men, Jew and Gentile, are held to the same universal righteous standard – yet they both break this standard.

Here, both Jews and Gentiles break both tables of the law:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Here they break, the first and second commandments) Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against natureLikewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; (here they break the fifth through the tenth Commandments) who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.

Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. But we know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified; for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

We also see in 1 Timothy that God’s righteous standard is also for the unbeliever:

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

In light of this universal standard of God’s righteousness we go to the book of Jonah Chapter 3:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.

So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?

I ask the rhetorical questions, what right does this “gentile” King of Nineveh have to decree a fast and call the inhabitants of his kingdom to repent from their evil and violence to avert disaster by the “Hebrew” God?

What “standard of righteousness” is the “Hebrew” prophet holding these gentiles to?

Would you think it is right today for a “Christian Magistrate” to call the people of this Nation to repent of their sin against the “Christian” God?

In light of the King of Nineveh I ask why not?


We now turn to Daniel Chapter 4 where Daniel preaches to Nebuchadnezzar:

“And inasmuch as they gave the command to leave the stump and roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be assured to you, after you come to know that Heaven rules. Therefore, O king, let my advice be acceptable to you; break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.” Daniel 4: 26-27

(Again rhetorically) So the Babylonian King is called to be righteous?

By what standard?

And this righteousness is manifested in him being just to the poor? – That sounds like something a Hebrew prophet would call the Hebrews to and yet he’s calling the gentile King to it.

Nebuchadnezzar is obviously called to rule by God’s standard of justice and righteousness, not his own. This is why Daniel says if he does right (by God’s standard) there may be better days ahead for the King.


Sometimes, Magistrates are not only called to rule by God’s standard, they are called to protect and establish the righteous by decree:

Also I (King Darius) issue a decree that whoever alters this edict, let a timber be pulled from his house and erected, and let him be hanged on it; and let his house be made a refuse heap because of this. And may the God who causes His name to dwell there destroy any king or people who put their hand to alter it, or to destroy this house of God which is in Jerusalem. I Darius issue a decree; let it be done diligently. Ezra 6:11-12

Here we have King Darius who like King Cyrus before, issued a decree to protect and establish the people of God in his realm so they can build up the temple of God (which is now the Church, Christ’s body)

Going on to the next chapter in Ezra:

And I, even I, Artaxerxes the king, issue a decree to all the treasurers who are in the region beyond the River, that whatever Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Law of the God of heaven, may require of you, let it be done diligently, up to one hundred talents of silver, one hundred kors of wheat, one hundred baths of wine, one hundred baths of oil, and salt without prescribed limit. Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it diligently be done for the house of the God of heaven. For why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons? Ezra 7:21-23

Here we have a Magistrate who obviously fears God (this is pretty obvious from this text “for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons”) who calls for the rebuilding of God’s Temple in his realm.

If we put this in context today, I ask, Is it wrong for a Magistrate to use his kingdom’s resources to establish the people of God so they can build up the church? Is it wrong for a Christian Magistrate to write laws to establish the church today in light of these two texts?

Maybe Constantine wasn’t such a bad guy after all.


Let’s move on to an interesting text in Isaiah:

The earth mourns and fades away, The world languishes and fades away; The haughty people of the earth languish. The earth is also defiled under its inhabitants, Because they have transgressed the laws, Changed the ordinance, Broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore the curse has devoured the earth, And those who dwell in it are desolate. Therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, And few men are left. Isaiah 24:4-6

The “inhabitants of the earth” have

transgressed the laws

changed the ordinance

“broken the everlasting covenant“?

Again, God’s standards are universally applicable to all mankind, not just Israel or the Church (the new Israel).


In Psalm two the world’s Magistrates are warned:

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. “Let us break their chains,” they say, “and throw off their fetters.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” I will proclaim the decree of the LORD : He said to me, “You are my Son today I have become your Father.Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

First of all, the world’s Magistrates want to throw off the authority of God’s appointed “King of the world” and His rule.

Secondly, if these Magistrates refuse to obey this King and His rule (His law) this King will will smash them like a piece of china!

Thirdly, these magistrates are told to “serve the Lord” with fear and trembling!

I ask rhetorically, what standard are they trying to throw off?

By what standard are they to serve the Lord with fear and trembling?


By these passages, I believe the Scriptures teach that it is legitimate for Christian Magistrates to bind non-covenant people to God’s universal ethical standards of justice and righteousness which are found most fully manifested in God’s law-word.

Also, I believe the Scriptures teach that it is the ethical duty of Magistrates to establish the righteous and suppress the wicked.

God’s ethical standards are universally binding on all men especially men who have the responsibility to rule over other men.



13 Responses

  1. Larry,

    Would you allow for this to be a case where natural law comes in? Not in the secular or catholic since but in the since the reformers and the post-reformation reformed spoke, viz. that man is responsible to the law God gave them by dint of being a part of nature. Such that the 10 Commandments are a republication of this Law to Israel since as paragraph 1 of the WCF, Savoy Declaration, and 1689 LBC all are able to state:

    although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.

    So that yes man is bound to this and the magistrate will be culpable before God for deviations from this natural law, which is identical to the 10 Commandments. Moreover all flesh is still in a covenantal relationship with God, because man owes God his loyalty and fealty as his Creator, although as Calvin noted because of the Fall we do not know God as our Creator until we first know Him as Redeemer. So the Natural Law is inscribed on every human heart of stone as a testimony against us. When God regenerates a man and unites Him with the Second Adam, then God gives him a heart of flesh, to know the Law-Word, which had been there all along yet he had failed to conform to it because of his total depravity.

    If you check out the lecture on natural law over at the riddleblog from last Friday, you might find it interesting. The audio is pretty bad, but I thought the lecture was worth straining through.

  2. Dave,

    I agree with much of what you say but, I need a little clarity on 3 points:

    1) You say: “Would you allow for this to be a case where natural law comes in?”

    Of course, pagans have at times done some right because of the “natural law” that God has placed in every heart .

    But the issue is: “would you” allow the “Christian Magistrate” to act in “full accord with the scriptures” (theonomy) because he has the “better copy” of the Law per say? Many proponents of “natural law only” say no, Christian Magistrates are to be “neutral” or as some like Prof Clark say “only by the second table.”

    The point of my post is to point out that these two positions (non-theonomic and semi-theonomic) both conflict with the passages I quoted above.


    2) You say: “although as Calvin noted because of the Fall we do not know God as our Creator until we first know Him as Redeemer”

    “We do not know God as our Creator”? Calvin said that? (who wants to disagree with Calvin)

    As I quoted, Romans 1 says:

    “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are “clearly seen”, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are “without excuse”, because, although they “knew God,” they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, ”

    That just seems so contrary to this passage, please clarify…

    3) You say: “When God regenerates a man and unites Him with the Second Adam, then God gives him a heart of flesh, to know the Law-Word”

    To know the Law-Word?

    Again Romans 1:

    “who, “knowing the righteous judgment of God”, that those who “practice such things” are “deserving of death”, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.”

    So I would say conversion (regeneration) doesn’t give new knowledge but brings both clarity (which is obscured and often suppressed by sin) and a new desire for obedience (a heart of flesh).

    Would you agree with my clarification on this?


  3. Lar,

    Great post. I have been enjoying your site. Did you study under Bahnsen? Have you ever heard James Jordan’s critique of theonomy in the early 90’s? What do you think of it? Also, since the passing of Dr. Bahnsen, do you think theonomy has faded or lost its significance in the theological world?


  4. Matt,

    “Study under Bahnsen”

    Actually I have not per say studied “under anyone” I have read much in the area of theonomy mostly by Rushdoony and some by Bahnsen..

    As far as It goes with Jordan I am pretty familiar with him and what I would consider his very high church views.(which I disagree with) see my post:

    I am also familar with Jordan’s biblical maximalism which is sometime helpful and sometimes way out there. (BTW Bansen was critical of his maximal approach)

    As far as it goes with “Jordan’s critique of theonomy in the early 90’s” No, I am not familiar. – Does Word MP3 have those messages? I am interested.

    “do you think theonomy has faded”

    In seminaries maybe, however if you can tell anything by the loudness and regularity of its opponents (and there are still many loud opponents practically continuing their opposition to theonomy daily) You would figure it is alive and well and growing.

    That said, Bahnsen’s presuppositional apologetical approach is growing in my opinion. His presuppositional apologetical approach introduces folks to him, which often leads people to his theonomy.

    Also, it depends where you look – The Vision Forum homeschooling crowd (which is growing by leaps and bounds every day) is hugely influenced by Rushdoony. The Ministry of Gary DeMar’s American Vision has been growing as well by leaps and bounds. This theonomic ministry is introducing all sorts of laypeople to theonomy.

    So in the seminaries may be no – amongst informed laypeople – Yes!

    I believe Bahnsen’s and Rushdoony’s work will last in the long run, from the bottom up.


  5. Larry,

    1) I would have to admit that I have not thought as much on this as I should have and will have to give it some thought Though as your quote from Psalm 2 points out nations bring the wrath of God for not kissing the Son, which would indicate that to limit the magistrate to the second table as Clark did seems problematic.

    2) I misspoke on the Calvin quote. He was speaking of the experiential knowledge. For as you rightly quoted in Romans 1 it is this knowledge of God as their Creator that the reprobate suppress. So it is as we have been given the new heart that we are able to see again the Natural Law, as we grow in understanding of the Law-Word. For in it as the covenant document we see the manner whereby God would have us to conduct all of Life.

    3) As to the third, I would say that what was known was the NL, but in the process of preaching, which Paul points out as a necessary means unto salvation, we come to know the full revelation of the Scriptures. So I stand by this part of my writing that it is not the whole Law that was known to the reprobate via his federal relation to God as Creator, but only through the better federal union he has to his Redeemer, which gives the newly regenerate access to the Bible which is “the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience,” (1689 LBC Chpt. 1. Par. 1). Then I would bring in your two elements of clarity and desire. Even so on this point I think we are pretty close yet I would say that NL is identical to the 10 Commandments, but not comprehensive enough to include the whole of Scripture’s divine ordinances.


  6. Dave, I say amen to all three!

    On 3 you say :

    “not the whole Law that was known to the reprobate”


    “but not comprehensive enough”

    You are absolutely correct, I agree whole heartedly, which is all the more reason we need theonomy!

    What I should have said was “conversion gives a more comprehensive knowledge, clarity, and a new desire for obedience” (do you think that is a better way to say it?)

    The need for theonomy was point of my other post. NL is not sufficient enough not only for salvation as you point out (which wasn’t covered in that post), but as a “sufficient, certain, and infallible standard” of true justice, law, and ethics. See:

    You say:

    “which gives the newly regenerate access to the Bible which is “the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience,” (and I would add) and the only sufficient, certain, and infallible standard” by which justice, law, and ethics, can truly be measured.

    Would you agree?

  7. larry, has the lectures. At first I thought Jordan was very insightful. He does raise some good questions but I am not persuaded. He seems to have something against Bahnsen personally that has driven him away from theonomy.

    As far as his herminutics approach, I found this quote from Jordan at reformedcatholicism: “I have never called myself an “interpretive maximilist” and have never used the phrase, Bahnsen’s fantasies notwithstanding. I do not know what the phrase means.” He doesn’t seem to have a problem when David Chilton calls him that.

    I too am skeptical of the high liturgical worship advocated by Jordan and the federal vision. I am still looking into it though.


  8. Matt,

    I personally don’t have a problem with the way the federal vision folks (like Doug Wilson) interpret the covenant. I have found historical/eschatological distinction helpful (as opposed to the visible/invisible distinction).

    My concern has been the FV crowd’s move towards some kind of high church Lutheran, Episcopalian or Roman Catholicism. The way I see it, that is exactly what Jordan is and where he is leading these folks. He is a high church Episcopalian or Lutheran, pretending to be a Presbyterian. For them the worship service itself is some kind of mediator that dispenses the grace of God in this world, Their high view of the worship service (with the pastor officiating as a symbolical mediatorial Christ) in my opinion, shifts the focus away from Christ, to the church and her officers, (very similar to medieval Roman Catholicism) making the faith ecclesocentric as opposed to Christocentric.


  9. Larry,

    OK this is a little sideways of what you are addressing here, but I am curious what you would say of this quote from Witsius vis-a-vis the demands of the Covenant of Works:

    And first, we are very certain, that there are many things in this covenant of immutable and eternal truth, which we reckon up in this order: 1st. The precepts of the covenant, excepting that probatory one, oblige all, and every one to a perfect performance of duty, in what state soever they are. 2dly. Eternal life, promised by the covenant, can be obtained upon no other condition, than that of perfect, and in every respect complete obedience. 3dly. No act of disobedience escapes the vengeance of God, and death is always the punishment of sin. But these maxims do not exclude a surety, who may come under engagements in man’s stead, to undergo the penalty, and perform the condition. But we shall speak of this afterwards, and now proceed to what has been proposed.

    Witsius is not in this section speaking specifically of the magistrate, and how he would/should apply this standard. I think hearing your two cents on this would help me to get my head around the magistrate and to what extent he should apply the whole law. It would as it were help me to answer your most recent question to me above.


  10. Larry,
    I’m emailing the pdf of book one of Witsius to you in case you are interested. The quote is from the last chapter on the abrogation of the covenant of works.


  11. Dave,

    I think Calvin’s distinction of the “Three Uses Of The Law” is helpful:
    -the first use: usus paedagogicus (Moral)
    -the second use: usus politicus (Civil)
    -the third use: usus didacticus (Didactic)

    See the following links in order:

    I am dealing with the “Civil use of the Law” and Witsius seems to me to be dealing with the “Moral use of the Law” wouldn’t you say?


  12. […] Jesus Christ is “the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5) does He have different standards for different rulers? (believing rulers or unbelieving rulers) Does He give these rulers different standards (Natural […]

  13. […] The pagan nations were condemned for violating God’s law. The law of God is an expression of His character. The character of God is not limited by covenants; it is communicated through covenants. […]

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