October 18, 2017

Should We Legislate Morality?

Joel Arnold

For years I have been perplexed when it comes to religious liberty. Should gay marriage be illegal? Definitely. What about adultery? Not so sure. No question in my mind that heroin should be illegal. But should we outlaw alcohol too?

One over-worn stock phrase is that “you can’t legislate morality.” And in fact, history demonstrates that people won’t become more obedient to God’s Word just because disobedience is illegal. So do we try to legislate morality, or do we accept people’s choices as they are?

Laws Are Inherently Moral

All legislation is fundamentally moral. In fact, the only way to really avoid legislating morality is not to legislate. Even if the moral basis is unstated, every legal mandate must contain underlying ethical judgments. This is fairly obvious with laws against murder or theft—these actions wouldn’t be illegal unless killing people or taking their property was wrong. Nor can I do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. Even if a group decided to privately harm themselves or commit suicide, it would still be wrong, and in most societies it is rightfully illegal.

That’s because legal mandates exist not only to protect us from each other but also from ourselves. Sin is so ravaging, so potent, so awful, that human societies would tear themselves apart were it not for God’s goodness and grace. He lovingly instituted rulers as “God’s ministers” (Rom. 13:3–6) in order to help fallen humanity survive on this sin-ridden planet. And even the fact that we institute these laws manifests the common grace of God. Disparate societies all over the world display God’s image by establishing moral laws to restrain their sin-natures from running out of control. This is God’s morality, manifest in our consciences, enshrined in legal mandates, and testifying to His wisdom and grace. But we also foolishly resist.

Laws Are a Moral Indicator for Society

Legislation always reflects moral values, but not all legislation reflects God’s values. This is yet another reason that “not legislating morality” is utterly vacuous— both legal constraint and legal inaction are moral judgments. Make abortions illegal and you’ve asserted that killing infants is wrong. Make them available and you’ve asserted that it’s okay.

And many societies have done just that. Following their warped collective conscience and values, they openly set God’s ways aside by creating laws that contravene His morality. Why does our society still make moral demands on its citizens? Because of God’s universal grace and His image in human hearts. Why does our society create laws contrary to His Word? Because fallen people resist His gracious rule.

And so delighting in the “freedom” that culminates in their own destruction, people cast off God’s gracious protections, given from His loving hand. To whatever extent our laws reflect fallen morality rather than God’s, it represents the fraying of our society and the sign of our self-destruction.

That’s why legislation is a bellwether. Compare the laws of a society against the ethical absolutes of God’s Word and you have a picture of its moral state. But legislation leads as well as follows. In other words, laws represent the group-think of a society on moral issues, but they also serve to instruct that society on what they will soon come to believe.

And that’s exactly the threat that existing legislation can come to have on God’s people. Should homosexuality be illegal? What about alcohol, recreational marijuana, pornography, or adultery? For many Christians, our views on these questions simply reflect the moral judgments of those around us. Without reflection or analysis, we imbibe the views of our culture because it’s all we’ve ever known. We assume that many morally opprobrious actions should be legal; with more time, we might even view them as acceptable. Many believers have already given way, precisely because their thinking was shaped more by society than by Scripture. But the challenging process of unsorting and filtering through a Biblical worldview points us back to reality.

Laws Point Us to the Perfect Judge

Most believers feel helpless before the tsunami of moral relativism that is now crashing through our national institutions. Faithful believers should be grieved at the destructive onslaught of sin afflicting our nation. The legal code of any secular state intermingles just and righteous moral guidelines with immoral assertions of autonomy and rebellion against the Most High. In the last few years, the latter has only increased.

But these distortions of truth, justice, and equity are an ongoing reminder that the present world is broken. Some nations’ laws are better than others’. The founding documents of the United States may have been some of the best. But at the core there are no perfect systems, and there cannot be until Jesus comes.

Rather than despairing before the corruption of our present world and government, can we view it Biblically and theologically? Good laws are a wonderful exception in human history, but we shouldn’t be surprised by moral confusion. Morally bankrupt laws point us to another time and place, where righteousness dwells. Every time you see the destructive forces of sin, let it remind you that Jesus is coming. Let every corrupt ruler, every societal perversion, and every distorted law point you again to the One who will finally establish justice and righteousness in the earth (Isa. 9:7).

And ironically, this is the one sense in which it’s true that you can’t legislate morality. Civil laws are only a partial curb to the destructive process of sin. There can be no true change apart from the crucified Christ. As we longingly await His return, may the despair and moral bankruptcy of our nation’s laws wean us from our love of this present world. May our longing hearts look upward in hope and gladly confess, “Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.”

And while we wait, let us confront the moral bankruptcy of our society by clearly speaking the truth. The ultimate question of religious liberty is not whether to legislate morality or not. The question is whose morality we will use. Living in a democratic society, it is all too easy to assume that we determine civil morality through group-think. But consensus doesn’t make things right or wrong. Right moral judgments come only from the perfect moral Judge—God Himself. We must be courageous, living as salt and light in a decaying morass of sin. When we declare God’s light in the darkness, many will ridicule us, but some will be silently pricked in their hearts, and some will believe.

All laws legislate morality. The problem is that the moral judgments they legislate are occasionally Biblical, but generally they are not. And so we wait for the Savior whose rule will finally bring a flood of righteousness, filling the whole earth. May we live out the tension of being strangers and sojourners in a fallen world while we wait for the One who will finally make all things new.


Biographical Info when first published: Joel Arnold (PhD, Bob Jones University) is raising support to train national church planters in the Philippines, beginning this fall. He writes regularly at EveryTribeAndTongue.com.

Dr. Arnold is now serving in the Philippines and now writes regularly at Rooted Thinking.

(Originally published in FrontLine • September/October 2013. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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