One of the most unique conversations of my life occurred a few years ago on the bank of a small tributary in Brazil. We were doing mission work deep in the Amazon River Basin and had the occasion to interact with some indigenous people in a tiny village. We pulled up to the bank in a small Jon boat that we had taken from the larger boat we had departed from earlier that day. Stepping out onto the bank we were greeted by a few representatives of the village, one who was discernibly older and who seemed to hold the role of chief or leader. We introduced ourselves, our occasion for being there and asked about his people and village. It was at that time that he made the statement which took me off guard. As he made it, a large grin spanned his face that raised the tattered skin around his eyes. It was followed by a chuckle on the part of our translator. Eagerly I awaited whatever joke that was made by our new friend. In part, it was not a joke. That is what made it funny to them. The translator, with a look that identified him more with the man than with us, translated for us. “He said that if we would have arrived during his grandfather’s generation, their village would be having us for dinner”.
So, question, what changed between the time of this conversation and just three generations earlier? God’s Word had changed a society. God’s law had been adopted by an officially pagan community. Does this mean that every individual in the society was now a regenerate or even a professing Christian? It does not. It does mean that missionaries and businessmen from another nations had brought their basis for law to this nation. However imperfect this import of law and for whatever good and evil motives that may have been present, it occurred nonetheless.
Before we can discuss covenant evangelism, we need to clear up some important preliminary questions. These questions relate to God’s law in general, beginning with the Decalogue specifically. We need to understand His law in relation to Israel, a nation formally in a special covenant with Him, and the rest of the nations of the world at that time. The subject here is not laws applying to the priesthood, land or ritual worship at that time in Israel. What is under discussion is the Ten Commandments, which are accepted in the Church as still binding today. In addition, the subject extends to the case laws (i.e. the civil code) that are situated directly following the Decalogue in scripture.
We know that Israel, in keeping the laws of God, Israel would be a light to the surrounding nations. “Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Duet. 4:6-8 ESV). But, here is the important question. Were the Ten Commandments and case laws of Exodus binding on the nations outside of God’s people Israel? Three possible responses are as follows:
- Both the Ten Commandments and the case laws were only for the nation of Israel.
- The Ten Commandments were for all nations but the case laws were only for Israel.
- The Ten Commandments and the case laws were binding for all nations.
Let’s take them one at a time. The first position must be invalid given God’s treatment of Nineveh as well as other examples in scripture. Jonah was sent to a pagan nation to instruct them and call them to repentance. On what basis? On the basis that His laws applied to them individually and as a nation. This would have included at least the Ten Commandments.
To hold the second position one must maintain that the case laws are not judicially connected to the Ten Commandments. The case laws provide equity or principles for the application of the Decalogue in reference to the laws of State. This is an important issue but let me leave it at that given that a full defense of the application of the case laws of Exodus today is outside the scope of this article.
So, if we hold that the rest of the nations were bound to keep the Ten Commandments, and the case laws judicially supported one or more of the commandments then God’s laws extended beyond just being a “light” for the nations around them. They were in fact responsible to keep them. In turn they would be blessed for obedience just as Israel was.
Were the surrounding peoples not obliged to govern their civilizations according to the rule of their Creator as outlined in Scripture? Were pagan nations free in God’s eyes to mistreat the widow and the orphan? Certainly not. Were there really two different laws governing humanity, or just one law, and an opportunity to formally covenant with the one lawgiver? Deuteronomy 4:6–8 makes it clear that Israel’s civil law code was to be held out as an example for the nations to follow.
I submit that it is not different now with God’s Church and the nations of today, if one believes in the continuing validity of God’s Commandments. God calls all men to repentance. He created them. He either gives them the faith needed to submit to him or they suppress the knowledge of their creator. All have sinned and have death wages due them. Without God’s revealed law applying to all people and all nations, there is no basis for a final judgment in history.
What I am arguing is that we might take a position denying that all of God’s Word is binding on all people but practically we know better. Scripture says that we are made in the image of God. This is the basis for God’s law against murder and a host of other instructions from His Word. To put it another way, when we spread the gospel of Jesus Christ we are to teach his commands and obedience to them. This will over time change the laws of a society. The obedience of converted individuals will not just change their families and churches and then stop at an imaginary boundary around the civil sphere. Their obedience will necessarily result in changes to their society around them. This is manifested through their national laws. To hearken back to my example at the beginning of the article, cannibalism is no longer lawful in the society where individuals have been converted and are seeking to live under the terms of God’s Word. We can accept that. We need to accept that we cannot cherry-pick the laws that seem most palatable to us. Just like Ninevah, we are responsible to submit to all of God’s commands. We need to understand all of the implications as to why today there are fewer people eating people. Following this, we can pick up a discussion on covenant evangelism.