Civic Law: Why It Matters To Christians

September 28, 2011 at 11:40 am Leave a comment


God’s law is external to us and internal in us all at the same time.  On the one hand, it is external to us.  God, quite apart from our opinions and objections, has clearly revealed His law in His Word.  And regardless of cultural sentiments, sensibilities, or sensitivities, and oftentimes in direct opposition to these, God’s Word stands.  As the prophet Isaiah declares, “The word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).  On the other hand, God’s law is also internal in us.  In Romans 1 and 2, the apostle Paul discuses how those who do not have God’s external, revealed law, as given in Holy Scripture, nevertheless know right from wrong.  This is his conclusion:

When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to the gospel, God judges the secrets of man by Jesus. (Romans 2:14-16)

Thus, even if someone is not a biblical scholar, he can still know right from wrong and righteousness from wickedness, for God has gone to the trouble of sketching and etching His law on every individual’s heart.  This is why, when we fall prey to immorality, an innate twinge of guilt wells up inside of us.

In doctrinal parlance, we call the sketching and etching of God’s law on each human heart the doctrine of “natural law.”  Because human beings are created by God, human beings know, by nature, what God’s law requires.

The theological principle of God’s natural, moral law, and the way it is sketched and etched on every human heart, has long been foundational in understanding our nation’s legal, civic law.  Traditionally, in order for a person to be convicted of a crime, they have to be found to have a mens rea, a Latin legal term meaning “a guilty mind.”  Under our nation’s legal system, it is generally assumed that a person must know he is committing a crime in order for him to be found guilty of that crime.  This is why if a dog, for instance, mauls a postal worker, though we may put the dog down, we do not put the dog in jail.  For he does not have “a guilty mind.”  He does not know that what he has done is wrong.  But this principle of mens rea is changing.

Yesterday, in The Wall Street Journal, Gary Fields and John Emshwiller published an article titled, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines.”[1]  They note, “What once might have been considered simply a mistake is now sometimes punishable by jail time.”  The authors go on to explain that in order to convict a person of a crime, prosecutors no longer have to prove that a defendant has a mens rae.  One especially disturbing incident cited by the authors involves the 1998 case of Dane A. Yirkovsky. While doing some remodeling work, Mr. Yirkovsky found a .22 caliber bullet underneath a carpet, which he subsequently put in a box in his room.  Though he did not think he was doing anything wrong, because he had a criminal record, federal officials contended that possessing even a single bullet violated a federal law prohibiting felons from having firearms.  He is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence.

Part of the problem, Fields and Emshwiller note, is the rapid proliferation of federal laws.  The article states:

Back in 1790, the first federal criminal law passed by Congress listed fewer than 20 federal crimes. Today there are an estimated 4,500 crimes in federal statutes, plus thousands more embedded in federal regulations, many of which have been added to the penal code since the 1970s.

With so many new laws on the books, it’s no wonder people can commit crimes utterly unaware that what they’re doing is illegal!  And these days, it doesn’t matter whether or not a person is aware that what he’s doing is illegal.  A person can be tried and convicted quite apart from the principle of mens rea.

Why should Christians be concerned with the deterioration of mens rea?  Because it marks the divorce of our nation’s civic law from God’s internally inscribed natural law.  For decades, our legal codes were generally tied to overriding and undergirding moral concerns, internally ingrained into humans by their Creator.   Even something as seemingly morally arbitrary as the speed limit was connected to a moral concern – that of human safety.  But as our civic law has become more and more divorced from its moral counterpart, our civic law now permits things like abortion, something that clearly defies moral law, for it involves the deliberate taking of a human’s life in the name of human choice.  When this kind of activity is permitted by civic law, it not only makes civic law confusing, because it has no natural rhyme or reason but is instead bureaucratically and politically driven, it also diminishes natural, moral law.  For when something permitted by civic law contradicts natural, moral law, people often use the civic code to bludgeon and silence their consciences which testify to God’s natural, moral law.  This, in turn, radically alters even Christians’ attitudes toward basic moral and ethical issues.  For example, in a survey conducted by the Barna group, researchers found among people aged twenty-three to forty-one, 59 percent thought cohabitation between unmarried persons was morally acceptable, 44 percent considered sex before marriage to be morally permitted, and 32 percent thought abortion was a moral option for an unwanted pregnancy.[2]  Our civic permissions are changing our God-given moral sensibilities.

Finally, when people rebel against God’s natural, moral law, they walk down a road, even if this road is paved by civic permissions, to deep pain and suffering.  And this should break our hearts and, kind of ironically, trouble our consciences.

Civic law that contradicts moral law is immoral.  And because God has inscribed His moral law into the natural, and thereby universal, realm, we, as Christians, should lovingly and steadfastly stand up for that which God has given, even when our civics contradict it.  It’s only natural.


[1] Gary Fields & John R. Emshwiller, “As Federal Crime List Grows, Threshold of Guilt Declines,” The Wall Street Journal (September 27, 2011).

[2] Cited in David Kinnaman, UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity And Why It Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007) 53.

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