This article is about theonomy, and specifically about the judicial laws, the relation of Old Testament and New Testament, and how government should look at judicial laws today.

Source: New Horizons, 1994. 2 pages.

Theonomy and Judicial Laws

I have quite a few friends who call themselves theonomists, but some of them are not sure whether the state should use the same penalties for crimes that God gave ancient Israel in the Old Testament.

A comparison of Hebrews 12:18-29 (esp. vs. 25) with 9:13-14 seems to indicate that the judicial laws of the Old Testament, like the ceremonial laws, have passed away. Hebrews 12:18-29 teaches that the final judgment of the New Covenant and New Jerusalem (vss. 22-29) is far greater than the judicial penalties associated with Mount Sinai (vss. 18-21,25b). In Hebrews, when that which is greater comes, it fulfills that which is lesser, and that which is lesser passes away. As a result, Christ will fulfill the punishments of Sinai in the Last Judgment, just as he fulfilled the animal sacrifices in his death, resurrection, and intercession.

Looking at a few specific passages will help us see this. Hebrews 12:18-20 tells us we have not come to Sinai and its form of judgment. Verse 20 lists one of these forms of punishment – stoning. Verse 25 contrasts this type of Old Testament penalty with the greater final judgment of the New Covenant:

For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.

This indicates, like verses 18-21, that these penalties have passed away to make room for their fulfillment in the final judgment.

The use of the construction “for if… much less…” underscores this point. It is practically parallel to the construction “for if… much more …” in 9:13-14 – “For if the blood of goats and bulls … sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ… cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Clearly, the writer of Hebrews used this construction in 9:13-14 to contrast the blood of the New Covenant with the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which have passed away. This indicates that the writer used the same construction in 12:25 to contrast the final judgment on New Covenant breakers (“much less shall we escape”) with the penal codes of the Old Covenant (“those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth”), which have passed away.

Hebrews 2:2-3 indicates that all the standing judicial penalties of the Old Testament, not just the penalties imposed on those who transgressed at Mount Sinai, have passed away. It refers to the “just recompense” that was inflicted on every transgression and disobedience; that is, it refers to all the penalties inflicted on lawbreakers in the Old Covenant. These verses use the same kind of construction that we have seen in Hebrews 9:13-14 and 12:25 – “For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” Just as in 9:13-14 and 12:25, the writer is indicating that an element of the Old Covenant has passed away to make room for its fulfillment in the New Covenant.

Similarly, Hebrews 10:28-29 states,

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God.

According to the pattern we have seen, the judicial penalty of death under Moses has passed away, since verse 29 contrasts it with the worse punishment of the final judgment.

Hebrews indicates that God does not call civil magistrates to turn to the judicial laws of the Old Testament as the standard for present-day penal sanctions. Even Calvin did not believe that general equity required the state to execute adulterers and homosexuals:

For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be enforced everywhere.Institutes, 4.20.16

This is the spirit in which our Confession was written (WCF, 19.4).

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