The Myth of Legislative Morality
Greetings, I have decided to title this The Myth of Legislative Morality in honor of one of my favorite theologians and writers, Dr. Greg Boyd. To begin let’s define morality. I prefer these two definition of morality:
1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct: religious morality; Christian morality
Now, I am approaching this blog from the view point of definition number 2. Christian morality or also known as righteous or holiness. I am not talking about the standards of right and good conduct from a worldly standpoint.
So can we legislate righteousness and holiness? Let’s explore it a little.
All laws are based on some sort of code of ethics or on a higher transcendent Being. Here’s a great quote by writer Gary Burger to address this that I found in doing some research on legislating morality:
“We must then ask what system of ethics and morality is the best one to base our laws on. We have two broad choices. One is a system that says moral values are created by people in their own context of community, culture and time period. In other words, moral values are relative to the situation or group or time period. The other one is a system that says moral values come from one source that transcends all individuals, cultures, communities and time-periods. The major battle going on in our legal system today is over which of these two systems should be the basis of our laws. Therefore, we should be asking, which system is the right one to impose on people through laws?”
I think that when it boils down to it that we all agree that morality, whether it is a standard of right and wrong or the religious system, does indeed come from a transcendent being, which we know to be God. As CS Lewis says, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” Burger says of Lewis:
“He realized that there was not only a transcendent law to which every man appeals but also a transcendent Law-giver. This Law-giver had to be perfect in every way in order to know what perfect justice is. This Law-giver also had to be a living and intelligent personal being with perfect knowledge of all things. Why? No impersonal force could think up what perfect justice means.”
Burger goes on to clarify that when wronged even an atheist will appeal to moral absolutes. He says:
“It is telling when we observe people to see which system they really believe in regardless of what they say they believe in. What happens when the person who says he believes there are no moral absolutes is the victim of a crime? If they are consistent with their stated belief they would really have no right to complain. The judge should say, “The suspect believed he was doing the right thing in robbing you to support his drug habit, and you believe he was wrong to do it. To what standard of right and wrong outside of yourself are you appealing to when you say he is wrong and you are right?” Merely by stating he thinks the suspect is wrong he has confessed that he really does believe in an absolute standard of right and wrong that transcends him and the suspect. The fact that everyone does this reinforces our conclusion that moral values come from one source that transcends all individuals, cultures, communities and time periods.”
So we got that out of the way. We know that the morality comes from something higher. Morality, holiness, and righteousness all come from God. But I think where we Christians all differ is our approach to introducing people to that transcendent Creator of morality and His commands for holiness and righteousness.
Now, I could be wrong about this, but for the most part Christians advocate legislation that is in direct agreement of their morality, their sense of righteousness and holiness that comes from God. Because laws are designed to control a person’s behavior from the outside? So if we legislate with what we find to be true righteousness and holiness we are doing what is right and good.
Lets get theological if we may.
We all know that with Christ the fulfillment of the OT Law was complete, and we no longer have any adherence to the Mosaic Law; at least I think theological we are all in agreement about that. If not, I dont’ want to argue that. BUT what I’m saying is that even the Mosaic Law was set up by God to control from the outside and show what sin was. It operated much like laws of society and of a nation do. In fact it was the laws of a society and nation. The nation of Israel.
But with the Mosaic system there was no changing of the hearts. The Law operated from a external stand point, but there was no factor operating from the internal standpoint.
Now comes Christ….
With the fulfillment of the OT Law complete and Christ dying for our sins, since the Law showed us what sin was, Christ can now give the promise of that internal Prompter of good, the Holy Spirit. He even gives the promise of Himself coming inside of our hearts to transform us from within to do what is good and right by the Holy Spirit. I John 3:24 says, “This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” That transformation is something the Law was never able to do, which Paul makes very clear in his first letter he ever wrote, Galatians. He wrote in Galatians 3, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” He also said in Galatians 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
So by grace through faith Christ comes to dwell within us. Charles Finney says:
“The Spirit of Christ, then, or the real Deity of Christ, dwells in the truly spiritual believer. But this fact needs to be spiritually apprehended [understood], and kept distinctly and continually in view. Christ not only in heaven, but Christ within us, as really and truly inhabiting our bodies as we do, as really in us as we are in ourselves, [this] is the teaching of the Bible, and must be spiritually apprehended by a divine, personal, and inward revelation, to secure our abiding in Him.”
And we find that once we invite Him into our hearts by the Spirit that we are to be conformed to the Image of His Son, which Paul address in Romans 8.
I wrote a previous blog about the sanctification we endure as believers. Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
So it is very clear that the OT Law did not bring about righteousness, but that only Christ dying, coming to dwell within us by the Spirit to transform us and continue to sanctify us is the only way to bring about righteousness and goodness.
We also have the promise of the work started in us being completed in Philippines 1:6.
With Christ we have a perfect standard. His flawless character is that standard. And with that perfect flawless character He shows us that deep down we want perfect moral goodness. And only by His sacrifice and promise of the Spirit do we receive that. With Christ we receive that internal prompting of what is good and right. Also, known as the Fruits of the Spirit. We no longer need the law to tell us what to do because we have that internalized sense of what is right and good because of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within us helping to bring Christ spiritually transformed within us. (Now, I do think that Nomos, the Law, can still be used to steer us in the right direction at times. Romans 6, 7, and 8 are great chapters about Sarks, Nomos, and Nooma, but that’s for another time.)
Now, if we have that internal sense of right and wrong because we have Christ dwelling in us it is our concern that others discover the sacrifice of Christ and come to relationship in him and be baptized into the Holy Communion of the Saints and to invite the transformational Spirit into their hearts.
It seems to be that the Law was concerned about the external, the appearance. But our Gracious Lord is concerned with the heart. Look at how many times he flipped the Law on its head by saying that if you look lustfully at a woman you have committed adultery or that if you hate you have murdered. Our Lord is concerned with hearts.
Which leads me to my point of if we are seeking only to legislate against those things with which we morally disagree then how can that change people’s hearts? How can that introduce to them the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? How can seeking to win a cultural and political war ever really introduce people to Christ and His righteousness when in essence it is forced upon them? A professor at JBC once told me this: “If you want to get rid of something like abortion or gay marriage you must first change people’s hearts.”
For me seeking to legislate is merely a sweeping under the rug of the real concern, people’s hearts. It’s like cutting a weed off at the top and not addressing the root.
And this for me is where Dr. Greg Boyd is so amazing. His argument that Christ’s message was not to gain the political upper hand nor to win the culture war, but to simply serve. Even Christ Himself said he came to serve not to be served.
So it’s in the administration of morality that we Christians disagree I think. Some advocate what Boyd calls the power-over approach which yields the sword (political power).
I, however, advocate the approach that Dr. Boyd and I both believe to be the approach that Christ himself preached and that is the power-under mentality that says I want to come under ALL people in love, justice, peace and service. I want to serve them as Christ would. I want to show them the goodness and love of our Savior through acts of service not through acts of coercion by a political system for acts of coercion have never brought about real change within anyone.
It is in the power-under approach that I believe hearts can indeed be changed. And IF hearts are changed then Christ comes to dwell in those hearts if they invite Him, so making it that those people now have a internal sense of morality and what is right and good in the eyes of God. They have the Spirit dwelling within them now transforming to the image of Christ. Sanctifying them.
So again, the question of can we legislate morality? I think that is too broad of a stroke, but demands a more specific answer. If by the first definition of morality then yes, I think we can legislate standards of conduct and ethics, which one may or may not see as influenced by a higher being. But those standards and ethics, like the OT Law, work only with the external. However, I am not condoning a view that suggests we forsake all laws of the land in order to focus on hearts. That would be chaos. Laws of the land are good and indeed serve a good purpose of protecting us from murderers, thieves, and rapists. I do not condone doing away with laws of the land. We need that first definition of morality whether it comes with the influence of the Divine or not. We cannot exist in anarchy.
But if we are operating under the second definition of morality, which is the holiness of God and His righteousness then no we cannot legislate that. We can influence and instigate holiness and righteousness through loving acts of mercy, kindness, justice, peace, love, and service. It is clear that the only way to have righteousness and holiness is by inviting Christ into your life as your Lord and Savior allowing for Him to send His Spirit to dwell with you transforming you. It is the internal prompting of good.
Christ told us to go and make disciples not win political battles and cultural wars. Winning those things is not spreading the Gospel and winning those things will not make converts of anyone. It is only by becoming more like Christ and being a servant and loving ALL people that the Gospel is ALIVE. And only by that will righteousness and holiness be obtained.
I don’t know if that makes any sense at all, but it’s the best I can muster to my side of the discourse. You may not agree with my stance, as I dont’ with power-over approach. But one thing is for certain, politics will never change people’s hearts. Laws will never change people’s hearts. It’s a myth that we can legislate the kind of morality that Christ brings when we invite Him into our hearts. But here is a interesting take by Gary Burger on a all too familiar story:
“Christianity offers something that no other religion or philosophy offers. Jesus offers to come live inside of us and change us so we have the internal motivation to do what is right whether or not there is a law about it or not. This is what happened when a guy named Zacchaeus met Jesus (Luke 19). Zacchaeus was a tax collector for the Roman Empire. He was told how much tax to collect from people. He had to collect this amount and give it to the authorities. Now it was typical for a tax collector to bring his ‘friends’ with him to your house and collect more than the official amount. The Romans would look on. As a result they were wealthy and hated. I guess they would rather be wealthy than popular. One evening, Jesus and a large gathering of people were eating supper with Zacchaeus in his house. (Jesus invited himself to dinner.) I wish I could have been in on the conversation Jesus and Zacchaeus were having to know what Jesus said to the man. All of a sudden, Zacchaeus stands up and says, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’ What did Jesus say to him, ‘Zacchaeus give back all the money or I’ll turn you into a toad’? I don’t think so. And it probably wasn’t just what Jesus said but who Jesus is. Zacchaeus found himself in the presence of Someone with a flawless character who showed him that deep down inside we really want perfect moral goodness. Zacchaeus internalized the desire to do good. He didn’t need a law to force him to do it.”
In essence morality is no longer about laws, ethics, or standards from the external prospective. Morality is now, by Christ own doing, an internal matter. No matter how many laws we make or legislate the root of the problem is still someone’s heart. We can seek to control by external means, but Christ has called and equipped us to work with the internal. Just think if we spent half as much energy we do on seeking the political and cultural upperhand on actually focusing on the internal issues of the heart what the US and the world would look like. Let’s start following the radically beautiful kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the One whose focus is hearts.
A good friend of mine here at JBC summed it up like this:
“True morality can never be legislated: no, a character that truly reflects the heart of the God of infinite holiness must flow out of heart filled with God Himself. As such, a life pleasing to God must flow from Him and to His glory. It’s a matter of allegiance, not external piety.”
I hope I have justified my arguement coherently. Whether you agree or not I hope you enjoyed reading and were possibly challenged.
May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you,