Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?

Q. This is a sort of church and state question that is more theoretical than anything. What I’m wondering is if Christianity is true, and God made the universe according to his nature such that there are objective moral absolutes and so on, should Christians try in any way to impose a Christian moral code on people who don’t believe? In other words, if the best thing for human flourishing is to live in alignment with our God-ordained natures, to what degree should Christians try to make laws that outwardly compel people to live according to more or less Christian values (for their own good)?

For starters, let me say that I believe there’s a practical problem with the  approach you’re asking about. Passing a law forbidding something doesn’t effectively prevent it, and passing a law requiring something doesn’t effectively make it happen. That’s because people typically don’t obey a law if they really don’t want to do what it says, or if they want to do what it says not to do. Fear of punishment is only a partial deterrent.

The classic example of this in the American experience is Prohibition. It did not compel Americans to become teetotalers. No one knows the actual effect it had on alcohol production and consumption, because it made those things very difficult to measure. But the general understanding is that consumption went down at first because supplies were limited, but as soon as illegal supplies came on line, consumption increased steadily. On the other hand, there was a significant and measurable decrease in alcohol consumption in the years before Prohibition, through social influences rather than legal force. I think that’s instructive. The most effective measures were persuasive, not compulsory. In our own day, organizations such as M.A.D.D. are having a renewed effectiveness through such persuasion. So this is something of a parable that Christians everywhere, and particularly in America, should bear in mind, as a reminder of the limits of legal force and the power of social forces.

In fact, I think your question leads directly to another one: For any given behavior we want to discourage, are we really better off passing a law against it? Or are we risking driving people who want to continue that behavior into the hands of criminals, strengthening their enterprises? Some things we simply must forbid, and enforce those sanctions as fully as possible, for the sake of social order and the protection of life and safety. I’m not advocating anarchy here. But we do have to consider that it may be better to allow certain things to remain legal and work to address their causes, rather than try to pass laws against them. In fact, even for things that unquestionably should be illegal, the laws against them are only a preliminary step. Those activities won’t go away, either, until their causes are addressed.

The Bible itself teaches us the capabilities and limits of the law. In arguing that Gentiles shouldn’t be expected to follow the Law of Moses, Paul writes in his letters that it did serve the functions of teaching and restraint. It illustrated for people how they should live, and it restrained, with strict penalties, the worst cases of personal injury and social disorder. But Paul also says pointedly that the Law was not capable of giving people the ability or desire to live in the way it specified. That depended instead on the transforming effects of life in a community that was living in covenant relationship with God, and ultimately on the gift of the Holy Spirit to that community and its members.

In our own day, societies can use all aspects of their “law,” from criminal penalties to features of their tax codes, to discourage some behaviors and incentivize others. In the process, they will teach, because this provides a picture of how they believe people should live. Allowing a tax deduction for charitable donations shows that the society encourages generosity to those in need. Creating and enforcing speed limits and other traffic regulations shows that the society does not want its members to endanger themselves or others by driving heedlessly. Societies also use laws to restrain. Having much more serious penalties for things like murder and robbery shows that such activities are dangerous and antisocial above all.

But this isn’t actually compelling people to live in a certain way. People will continue to do whatever they believe they can get away with until the causes of behavior are addressed, and that takes a lot more than passing a law. So the bottom line is that I don’t think we can “outwardly compel” people to live in a certain way through laws, though they can be an important first step.

But here’s the other side of the coin. In a democracy, people get the laws they work for. Otherwise, they get laws they haven’t worked for. So if Christians really do believe that, by God’s very design, certain activities are harmful and destructive, while others are beneficial and life-giving, then they need to be out there in the public-policy mix, at the very least trying to get positive things incentivized and negative things discouraged.

But I need to state some further qualifiers:

• I’m not talking about creating a theocracy, in which Christians take power and enforce the law of God (as they understand it) as the law of the land. For one thing, every time this has been attempted in church history, it has been a disaster. But in more theological terms, I believe that as redemptive history unfolded, the days of theocracy ended when Jesus introduced the new covenant and the people of God became a multinational community. Followers of Jesus now have a primary loyalty to the kingdom of God that is breaking into our world, but an important and continuing secondary loyalty to their own nations, to help them live up to their own highest ideals, consistently with the values of the kingdom of God. As an American, for example, I believe that I should support the ideals of democracy and civil liberties, while at the same time critiquing American culture’s extreme individualism, which (as social observers have been documenting) has caused narcissism to flourish and undermined our social fabric.

• What I am advocating is being in the mix. Pick your battles. Work for what matters most. To reach particular goals, form strategic alliances with people and organizations who might not agree with you about everything. In fact, they might agree with you about only one thing. But if that’s the thing you’re working for, you’ve got the potential to create a limited partnership with them.

• If what you’re really after is what you believe is best for people—human flourishing—then take care that your campaign, through its tone and tactics, doesn’t have destructive side effects. That would be tragically counterproductive.

I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect to be able to pass a comprehensive set of laws that will compel everyone, at least outwardly, to live as Christians believe people should. But if you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God. Probably the best place to start is with practical contemporary expressions of, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Plenty to work for there.

Thanks for your thoughtful question! I hope these reflections give you further food for thought.

This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.
This poster from the 1920s illustrates the dilemma of Prohibition: once the law was passed, campaigns needed to continue for its enforcement, because people were simply disobeying it.

Does God sometimes answer prayers before they’re prayed?

“Liberation of St. Peter” by Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734). Peter was set free from prison while, or possibly even before, the other believers met to pray for his release. Does this kind of thing happen because God is outside of time?

Q. I’ve had the experience of praying for a need and then talking to the individual afterwards to find that the prayer was answered a few days earlier. Kinda interesting in a way; makes me think of our God being outside of time and not limited by it. It would seem to a skeptic that prayer was not needed in the first place and it was going to happen that way anyway but I feel a sense of amazement instead. What do you think? I realize that this is not usual; a need lies before us, we pray, and our prayer is answered in future time (can take years in some cases). I’m also aware of Peter’s release in Acts but curious what I might learn from you.

One possible explanation of your experience is the one you suggest, that God acted in response to the prayer but, being outside of time, was able to implement that response at a point in time prior to the prayer. Another explanation would be that for some reason God stirred up the prayer even though its object had already been realized.

I do believe that the initiative in prayer is God’s. Whether God simply wants to commune with us in deeper fellowship for a time, or whether God wants to accomplish something in partnership with us, He puts what is often called a “burden” on our hearts to pray. When this burden has to do with another person’s need (as in the case you describe), then I believe that God summons us to pray for that need for at least a couple of reasons.

For one thing, at least as I see it, God delights to work in partnership with us to such an extent that He will even choose to answer a prayer in a way that we have suggested, to give us a tangible part in His work. God, being omniscient, knows all possible ways to meet the need, and so is able to see how it can be done “our way” (so to speak), presuming that this path can indeed be followed consistently with His character and purposes. In this God is not humoring us, but honoring us with a genuine part in helping to bring about His purposes through prayer.

Another reason why God would lead us to pray for a need that He already intended to meet—and this is the one that relates more directly to your experience—would be so that when the need was met, it would be clear that God had done it. That way the prayed-for person wouldn’t just be helped practically, they’d also be assured of their Heavenly Father’s love and care for them. This might help explain your recent experience. God might have wanted your friend to know with confidence that He was the one who’d met the need and that He’d done this out of love. That’s the conclusion I’d draw if I learned that someone had been led to pray for me about a situation after it had already been resolved.

The case you mention from the Bible, of Peter in Acts, is similar, except that in that case the prayer was answered right while it was being prayed. Peter was miraculously freed from prison and he went to a house where the followers of Jesus were gathered and were already praying for him. (Depending on how you read the chronology of the account, however, it could even be argued that the angel came and started setting Peter free before this prayer meeting had quite gotten started.) One of the things that gives us confidence that God has done something in answer to prayer is that the answer comes while we are praying. I’d argue that God sends the answer at this time to give us the assurance of His love and care for us and of His involvement in the particulars of our lives.

So the timing of an answer to prayer can accomplish something further beyond meeting a practical need in a person’s life. If the answer comes during or even before the prayer, that’s an indication that it’s truly an answer from God.

And even if, as you also describe, it’s only after much prayer that an answer comes, we should still remember what Jesus said, that we should persist in the confidence that God loves us and is listening. “Won’t God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won’t he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them.” Sometimes the needs we’re aware of form only part of a set of complex, long-term, big-picture goals that God is working away at steadily. Once those needs are finally met, we recognize how this necessarily had to be done within a larger context. 

What is a “man of the Trinity”?

Q. Several years back, a few of my close Christian brothers and I met a guy who was gifted, it was said, with the ability to prophesy. (That still exists, right?) If someone were to prophesy over you and tell you, “When I look at you, I see a man of the Trinity,” how would you interpret that?

First, I do believe that God still gives some believers the gift of prophesy. That is, God gives them insights about the character and gifting of a person or group to encourage them, and also gives them insights about the likely future consequences of the course that a person or group is on, either to warn or encourage them. But believers also have a responsibility to “weigh” what self-described or popularly-accepted prophets say, assessing it by the full counsel of the Scriptures and by the community’s collective wisdom. “Prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

As for what a (presumably genuine) prophet might mean by a “man of the Trinity,” I suspect that this involves more than just a belief in God as three-in-one. I would take it to be describing someone who had a relationship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know that in some mysterious way, God is three persons in one being. A man or woman of the Trinity, I’d say, would know each of these persons individually, without in any way compromising the unity that they have together.

In other words, such a person would know God as their kind, loving, generous, care-giving but also disciplining heavenly Father. (“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and corrects each one he accepts as his child.”)

Such a person would also know Jesus as their Lord and Savior and in addition as their brother and friend. (“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family, so Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.”)

And a man or woman of the Trinity would also know the Holy Spirit as comforter, companion, helper, counselor, and advocate—all the various translations of the term paraclete that’s used at the place in the gospel of John where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit shed a bit more light on the role that the Spirit is supposed to play in our lives.

So your question provides, for all of us, a good point of reflection. How well do I know each of the persons of the Trinity? Do I know God as Father, or do I have “father issues” that make me keep my distance from a God I regard as stern, harsh, and remote? Do I appreciate Jesus primarily for something he did for me 2,000 years ago, or can I say with the hymn writer, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? Is the Holy Spirit primarily a mysterious force to me, or do I speak and pray to the Holy Spirit and recognize the voice I hear in response? (If you’re not used to praying to the Holy Spirit, consider as examples the many hymns and songs that do this: “Gracious Spirit, Dwell With Me”; “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart”; “Spirit of the Living God”; “Spirit Fall”; “Breathe On Us.”)

May we all become “men and women of the Trinity”!

Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham's three visitors.)
Andrei Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, representing all three as full persons. (Portraying divine symbolism behind Abraham’s three visitors.)

What if I’ve never had “that moment” of asking Christ into my heart?

Q. A lot of believers have “that moment” when they officially asked Christ into their heart. I never had a moment like that. I was blessed to grow up in a Christ-filled home, go to a Christian elementary school, be involved in the Church, etc. I did profession of faith as a teenager, went on a missions trip to Peru, and I was even baptized 4 years ago. Is it “wrong” that I never had a “moment” like so many believers have?

There are two main paradigms or models that Christians have used over the centuries to envision a person’s entrance into the life of faith.

The first is the conversion paradigm. It’s a binary model, expressed in terms of before vs. after, out vs. in. You’re lost in darkness, but then you have “that moment” when you ask Christ into your heart and afterwards you’re walking in the light. Saved. Everything is immediately different. “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought since Jesus came into my heart,” as the old hymn puts it.

This may be the paradigm we’re most familiar with in our contemporary experience. However, it’s actually the one that has been used less commonly over the whole course of church history. The pilgrimage model could be called the “majority view” of Christians over the centuries. It’s progressive rather than binary. It envisions a person coming closer and closer to Christ through a series of steps over time. Within this model, it’s often hard to pinpoint an exact “moment” that determines precisely when a person comes “in.”

Probably the best-known expression of this model is the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. But many classic hymns express it as well, for example, “Draw Me Nearer” by Fanny Crosby:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith
And be closer drawn to Thee.

In my experience as a pastor, I’ve observed that people who become Christians under a conversion model often realize afterwards that God has been at work in their lives in many ways beforehand to lead them to the moment of conversion. There are specific experiences they point to as illustrations of this. They also take many steps of commitment later on that they sometimes feel are as significant as asking Christ into their hearts was in the first place. I’d say that these people are applying a pilgrimage model to their experience and finding it more meaningful and explanatory than the conversion model alone.

I’d encourage you to apply this same pilgrimage model to your own experience. It seems to me that God has been making what are sometimes called the “means of grace” available to you from an early age (Christian family, church, school, etc.) and that you have been using them fully to draw closer to God. If you really needed to nail down “that moment” in your life, you could point to either your profession of faith or your baptism as a time of definite commitment or conversion. But I think you’re actually already describing your entrance into the life of faith in terms of pilgrimage. I don’t think you really need to “translate” it into a conversion paradigm. You just need to recognize that the pilgrimage paradigm is a valid and time-honored understanding among Christians.

There’s a great danger in stressing conversion over against pilgrimage. I’ve heard preachers say, when “preaching for a verdict” (as it’s sometimes called—urging commitment to Christ), that if you can’t name the exact day and hour when you accepted Christ, then you’re not really a Christian and you need to get saved now. I think this can actually undermine the assurance of salvation that people would otherwise have if we encouraged them instead to think back over their lives and recognize the ways in which God had been “drawing them nearer.”

I think that profession of faith and baptism are excellent and appropriate ways for us to express a commitment that we’re growing into. But our assurance shouldn’t rest on having done those things, nor should it rest on having asked Jesus into our heart at a definite time. Instead, our assurance of salvation should rest on our recognition of God’s activity in drawing us to Himself, and our acknowledgment that we have been responding positively at each step along the way. We can be confident that “he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” as Paul writes to the Philippians. And in that sense we’re definitely “in,” with or without “that moment.”

An illustration from Pilgrim's Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he's
An illustration from Pilgrim’s Progress of Christian entering through the narrow gate. Is that when he’s “in”? Or is it when he comes to the cross and his burden rolls away? Or is it at some other time during his pilgrimage? Or is he just on his way in all along?

Was Jesus ever in Egypt after being there as a child?

Q. Was Jesus in Egypt anytime after his first entry?

Thank you for your question. Nothing in the Bible or in Christian tradition suggests that Jesus ever returned to Egypt during his lifetime on earth after being taken there for safety as a child. (For more information about that, see this post: How long did Jesus live in Egypt?)

A Coptic image of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to Egypt.
A Coptic image of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to Egypt.

What does Proverbs mean by “wisdom”?

Q. We’ve been studying Proverbs and throughout the book we are told to seek wisdom. Solomon tells us at every turn to seek it and while he provides many examples, he doesn’t really define it. On the surface, seeking wisdom seems simple and straightforward. But when I go deeper and ask myself what exactly wisdom is, things can get a little cloudy. Certainly many people think they are wise, but I don’t think Solomon is referring to earthly wisdom. God’s wisdom is in His holy word, and I can listen for God’s voice, but is that all Proverbs is referring to? What is wisdom, and how can I obtain more?

Proverbs is one book of the Bible written in the wisdom tradition, but there are others as well, and they help flesh out the picture of wisdom. Other books include Job, Ecclesiastes, and James. There are also wisdom psalms, such as Psalms 14, 34, 37, 49, 94, and 112. If we look at the entire biblical wisdom tradition, we get a good picture of what wisdom is.

It says at the end of the famous “hymn to wisdom” in the book of Job, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” In other words, if we’re seeking the wise course in life, when we rule out anything we know God wouldn’t approve of, then we are in the right position to discover the wise path God has for us.

Psalm 14 also offers something of a definition of wisdom: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'” “Foolish” and “wise” are actually moral terms in the wisdom tradition. The fool is the person who lives without regard to God. Such a person believes that either God doesn’t exist, or that God can’t see what we’re doing, or that God doesn’t care. (As Psalm 94 puts it, “They say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob takes no notice.'”)

In other words, the fool leaves God out of the picture. But the wise person recognizes that God is alive and real, God is aware of everything, and God is actively at work to bless obedience and correct disobedience. In other words, the wise person keeps God in the picture, and is therefore able to find and choose the path to take on which God can and will bless them.

We can recognize the same general idea behind other definitions of wisdom in these biblical books. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Psalm 111 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” James says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

The consistent picture is that not daring to choose any path God would disapprove of, but in reverent fear doing only what we know will please God, opens up the way for us to find creative and insightful approaches we might have missed otherwise. To me, that’s the classic biblical concept of wisdom.

A sculpture of wisdom above the door of a cathedral. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out
A sculpture of wisdom above the door of a cathedral. Wisdom is personified in Proverbs as a woman who calls out “at the entrance,” “Leave your simple ways and you will live, walk in the way of insight!”

Does a believer have authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead?

Q. Does a believer have authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead?

Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to
Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to “heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead.” Are believers authorized to do the same today? (Image: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Die Bibel in Bildern [“The Bible in Pictures”], 1853.)
As I understand it, God still does use believers to do works of healing and deliverance in our day. However, I would stress that the authority we’ve been given to do this is delegated authority. It is to be used under God’s directions, in God’s way and in God’s time, to fulfill God’s purposes, which are to declare through such works like these that His kingdom is  breaking into our world.

In other words, we don’t have a blank check simply to “take authority” over any sickness or case of oppression that we might encounter. There needs to be a discernment process in which we seek to discover how God wants us to use the authority he has delegated to us in this particular situation.

Jesus himself said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” And so, for example, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he first explained to his disciples, ““This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.” In other words, Jesus had discerned that God wanted to use the occasion of Lazarus’ sickness and eventual death as an opportunity to announce the coming of His kingdom. Many people believed in Jesus because of the miraculous sign he did in raising Lazarus from the dead.

However, if Jesus had discerned instead that Lazarus’ sickness was “unto death,” that is, that his “time had come” and God meant instead to bring him home into His presence, then while Jesus would probably still have gone to provide strength and encouragement to Lazarus and his sisters, he wouldn’t necessarily have healed him, or have acted with such authority (“Lazarus, come out!”) if he had died before his arrival.

It’s really  hard to imagine this second possibility, however, because Jesus was something of a special case. He actually embodied God’s inbreaking kingdom in his own person. And that’s why we hear over and over again in the gospels that Jesus healed everybody who came to him. It’s hard to picture Jesus not using any occasion as an opportunity to announce God’s kingdom.

But later in the New Testament we discover that Jesus was indeed exceptional in this way. Paul had to tell Timothy in his second letter, for example, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” Even though previously Paul had done extraordinary miracles of healing, in this case he had to go on without a badly needed co-worker because God apparently had a different purpose at work in the situation, as difficult as it might be for us to understand what it could have been.

All that said, I would encourage a person who felt strongly that God wanted to demonstrate His power and presence in a given situation, in order to announce the presence and liberating, life-giving character of his coming kingdom, to pray and act in bold faith, believing that God might indeed use them as a channel to bring about healing and deliverance.

Here are a couple of other posts that relate to this same subject:

Should we try to heal people today the way the apostles did?

Why doesn’t God intervene to relieve suffering?