What is the “Civil Law” to be Enforced?
There are several principles that must be understood in order to fully grasp the Reformed Libertarian vision. For our purposes, we will refer to the “law-enforcer” as the “government” and the reader should understand by now the differences between the government, which is a role that Rothbard said could exist on the free market, and the State, which is the institution in society that has a monopoly on force and government services. Thus, “government” should not be synonymous with “The State.”
To start, we must note that the civil law in the Old Testament was based upon the eternal moral law. This moral law transcends the Civil Law enforced by Israel and is the foundation for ethics. “Thou shall not kill” was a restriction on Cain’s activities long before the stone tablet was engraved on Mt. Sinai. Israel as a State was to enforce God’s law because Israel was the Kingdom which God was rising up temporarily. Israel was a theonomy. Thus, the question of who in society is to deal with ethical concerns is answered under the Old Covenant with “the State of Israel.”
But it is our belief that ethics today are dealt with quite differently. In the New Covenant, God has written his “law upon our hearts” and it is no longer the State of Israel which convicts us but rather, as Romans 2:15 notes, it is our conscience (or the Holy Spirit) which bears witness, and our “thoughts accuse or even excuse” us. When it comes to issues of the law then, the New Covenant is such that we deal directly with God in our ethical and unethical activities. And the ethical stipulations, the commandments that God has given, are applicable to every individual worldwide, regardless of class, nationality, gender. All are on equal footing before the commands of God. Nobody gets special privilege. No one is allowed to sin. No one is allowed to steal, neither the citizen nor a group of people calling themselves the State. No one is allowed to take from one group and give to another. No one may murder another person. Neither the citizen in violent rage nor the State in immoral wars. Indeed God’s objective ethics apply to every group. It is not right for the poor man to commit adulterous actions, and neither is it appropriate for the politician. No human being is justified in committing homosexual actions or getting drunk. For these are the stipulations of God. As the judge, he will appropriate his wrath to all. To those under Adam, wrath still awaits them. For those under the head of Christ, wrath was applied to Christ on the cross.
Thus, not only is the State of Israel no longer with us to apply the ethical standard, it is my argument that the entire OT model of “State as ethics enforcement” is no longer applicable.
Civil law only makes sense within its kingdom. The Kingdom which Christ rules over is heavenly. The earth has its own kings and kingdoms, all of which will one day be ultimately put under Christ’s feet. Thus, since ethics refers to God’s standard for our actions, and since there is no longer a physical kingdom to enforce God’s ethics, the enforcement of ethics must not be physical. It is spiritual. All that we are held to as subjects of God according to the eternal moral law of God is enforced by the King of that Kingdom. The Ten Commandments as ethical standard applied today are dealt with by God and the Holy Spirit. When we sin, we have an advocate who pleads to God on our behalf (1 John 2).
It is therefore my contention that, since ethics are eternal and Christ is the King of the heavenly kingdom, then he is also the law-enforcer of his kingdom. “Vengeance is mine, declares the Lord.” Ethics are God’s commands and thus ethics are dealt with by the heavenly kingdom, not the earthly one. If a murderer kills a neighbor, the murderer may be given a heavy sentence by the State today, but this is not his consequence eternally. That punishment still awaits. The power of the “government” to use coercion today is not a replacement for God’s desire to seek vengeance on the great day of judgement.
So then, the “government” is not to use its coercive powers on the only basis that an unethical activity took place. That is, a breach of God’s standard of ethics is not the only qualification that allows the State to act. There is already a King who will take care of a breach of his moral law. So what is the litmus test for allowable coercion today? What is the role of the “government” (whether its form is monarchy, democracy, free-market, or oligarchy)? To use the terminology of John Murray (from his Collected Writings), what is the “restricted sphere of authority [of] the civil magistrate, in his capacity of civil magistrate”?
The nature of the “law-enforcer,” civil magistrate, or “government” is coercion. That is what sets it apart from all other legitimate institutions. This is precisely why Rothbard held that it could only be used against criminals, that is, those people in society who had committed a coercive act. If God has declared it unethical and unlawful for any man to steal or murder, it is implied that men have a right to their own person and property by virtue of God’s command. So therefore, to breach the individual right of another human being is a divine restriction on action. This is no human principle. All ethics are dealt with by God but when an individual breaches the God-given right of another individual, it is here that a civil crime is committed. When there is a victim who has been coerced, when there is a perpetrator who has done the coercing, then there is also an institution that may seek justice via coercion as well. All ethics are dealt with by God, but he has designed several institutions to carry out his will here and now. The civil magistrate uses the tool of coercion against those who coerce and the Church has tools of Church discipline to use against members of the Church who are in public sins, such as adultery. The Church is not to exercise its authority coercively and the government is not to exercise its authority beyond matters of coercion. Where neither Church discipline nor coercion apply, then we let God take care of the matter privately.
Thus we have submitted that the government, by its very nature, was intended to respond to only those evils characterized by coercion. This is how we define the “lawful commands” of the government. Thus, it is a fallacy to say that, since we don’t find it appropriate that the government use its tool of coercion to limit drug use, we are in support of that drug use. All things will be judged by God eternally, but in his divine wisdom he has given some the authority to coerce here in the now. And the basis upon which the coercer may lawfully coerce is in response to the coercive criminal. This is for the sake of justice and punishment. And it is to the glory of God and the public good. Sproul noted: “The question instead is what law would God wish us to have [for the government to apply].” As Rothbard had said:
Those who invade the rights of others by violence deserve their proper check and punishment by the force of law.
Now, all individuals have sinned and “deserve” the wrath of God. But the government only has permission to be a “proper check” against those who coerce. And what if those who act as government are the ones who initiate coercion? Then the law ought to apply to them as well. No one is outside of the Non-Aggression Principle. And for those individuals in society who had not invaded the rights of others, let them live free from the tentacles of the State and let God be their final judge. This is the foundation for a Christian libertarianism: God is the only ultimate law enforcer. The State is the idol of our age.
Let liberty ring throughout the land.