Law and Gospel and Gun Control

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Another shooting. Another round of debates. Tears shed. Sides taken. Stats quoted. Voices raised. Laws passed.

Another shooting. Another round of debates. Another set of laws.

Another shooting…

Tragically, this cycle is common enough that it leaves people wondering, through tears and righteous anger, “When will it end?” The anguish of the psalmist has become our own: “How Long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1).

There are those who would remind us, “All this will continue until Jesus returns.” They are right in a certain sense, and one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs beautifully echoes this truth. Yet the abolition of slavery and the hope for an end to abortion are at least two issues where we have recognized that real and positive good can be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ So it seems to me that, in addition to our cries of How long?, we must learn to ask the shorter but even more important question, How? That is: How does the world work? How do people change? How does law benefit (or not) a human society? And how can what is wrong be made right?

All this has led me to write ten theses about law and gospel and gun control. They do not argue for a specific position on this or that law. Instead, they offer truths about basic aspects of life in God’s world. Each point builds on the others such that none of them conveys the whole picture. So read them all and hold them together. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Finally, by way of apology, if there are certain points that seem rather elementary or self-evident, it may be that Orwell was right: “[W]e have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”[1] (See also Hebrews 5:12.) Or it may be that the present author isn’t very intelligent. Or it may be a bit of both. In any case, it seems that we need a place to start if we are going to get off the merry-go-round of gun debates. The following is an attempt to find some solid ground on which to stand.

1. Inanimate objects don’t commit crimes.

The ‘stuff’ of the world doesn’t make us sin; rather, we seek out ‘stuff’ to sin with. We know how to sin with gold (by hoarding it) and we know how to sin with food (by moralizing it) and we know to sin with guns (by murdering with them)—but gold and food and guns aren’t the source of our problems. They are but the ‘tools’ that we sin with. Regardless of how people have abused this idea, the truism is still true in itself: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

2. Humans are blame shifters.

We are blame shifters by nature, and we have been perfecting a deadly game of denial since near the beginning of history. It was the woman you gave me. The serpent made me do it.[2] And we have become experts at this: “The boy didn’t have a father.” “The man was on medications.” “He had easy access to guns.” “It was an automatic weapon.” None of these factors overrule the fundamental reality that a choice was made by a human, a moral agent. As any competitive eater will tell you, spoons enable you to eat large quantities very quickly. Yet, by themselves spoons do not make us fat. There is a hand holding the spoon, and there is a heart directing the hand.

3. Not all tools are created equal.

I have in my toolbox a screwdriver and a power drill that both address the basic task of affixing a screw into some object. Both tools can do the same job, yet there is no doubt about the superior power and efficiency of one over the other. Similarly, while rock and sword and gun may prove equally fatal in the hands of a determined murderer—they all can kill you dead—the three tools clearly differ in the relative ease of their capacities for lethal harm. It is dishonest to pretend otherwise.

4. Everyone draws a line somewhere.

Morality, like art, consists of drawing the line somewhere.[3] Every sane person agrees that it is unwise to allow citizens to own nuclear weapons. The risk of massive loss of life far outweighs whatever hypothetical benefits private possession of nuclear weapons might confer. That line is easy to draw.

But it gets more difficult when questions are asked about a gun’s rate of fire or the length of its magazine: How many bullets are too many? Is ten enough? Why not eleven? So, we need to draw a line. But you cannot simply state where the line is, as if to pick one arbitrarily. You must also show why it should be drawn there, and who has the authority to draw it.

5. The ‘lines’ of our laws can never change hearts.

Jesus was clear that all evil thoughts and actions arise “from within, out of the heart of man” (Mark 7:21). So, then, the heart is the ultimate problem—but law is not the ultimate answer. Jesus reserved his most severe criticism for those who attempt to change hearts through laws: the outside-in approach (Matthew 23:25-26). For you cannot legislate man into moral goodness, and anyone who supposes that stricter laws will bring about a near-utopia of peace and order are, in principle, Pelagian heretics. Our biggest problem lies within, not without.

6. Laws can (sometimes) restrain evil behavior.

The church has debated with vigor the so-called “third use” of the law in the life of a Christian (usus didacticus), but no major sect of Christianity has ever denied that laws can curb evil behavior (usus politicus; cf. Deuteronomy 13:6-11; Romans 13:3-4).[4] Martin Luther King Jr. summarizes the use of law in this way:

  • “If the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.”[5]

To give a blunt example, anti-abortion advocates intuitively know this truth. Laws won’t change hearts, but they might save lives.

7. There is an inversely proportionate relationship between virtue and law.

Thomas Aquinas rightly points out that the more a person’s internal desire to do what is good comes from the strength of their moral character, the less that person needs the external force of law to compel him to do what is good.[6] In other words, the more virtuous a society is, the less it needs laws to regulate its way of life. Conversely, the less virtuous a society is, the more its needs the threat of law to motivate its citizens toward moral behavior and/or away from immoral behavior (cf. 1 Timothy 1:8-11).

8. In view of the previous point, the explosive proliferation of laws in a society is a sign that something is very wrong.

Paradoxically, the trend of sinful societies is toward more law, not less. In the beginning there was but one law—of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat—then, because of the sinfulness of man, there were ten. Then there were 613. And then, not satisfied with all those, fastidious rabbis added even more laws on top of God’s commands (cf. Mark 7:8). This is what legalists do: they see a problem, and they conclude that the true solution is another law.

Thus, while individual laws are not problematic and may in fact be much needed, a society in which laws multiply faster than rabbits is one that clearly doesn’t understand point #5, has too much faith in point #6 and is filled with people on the wrong end of point #7. Let the reader understand.

9. In view of all this, we need an approach to lawmaking that is highly specific, demonstrably beneficial, reasonably enforceable and suitably modest in its expectations.

Good laws should be specific, beneficial and enforceable. The specificity of a law ensures that unintended consequences are kept to a minimum and freedom is maintained to the greatest degree possible. (We don’t want to become Big Brother.) The benefit of a law must be established through logical reasoning and solid empirical evidence—not hearsay and conjecture about what seems to have happened in someplace like Australia.[7] (For example, did you know that all rifles, including “assault rifles,” are responsible for less than 3% of all homicides—less than knives and even human fists?[8]) The enforceability of a law should be something that can be accomplished to a reasonable degree without metastasizing the bureaucratic rot of an already bloated government. (We really don’t want to become Big Brother.)

Finally, laws should be depended upon with modest expectations. It is already illegal in our country to murder, for example. Yet murders still occur. This doesn’t mean we do away with the law, of course. It is good to live in a land that agrees with God’s thou shalt not kill. But we ought not expect more from a law than it can deliver. Righteous laws can point to what is good, they can show us where we’ve gone astray and they can sometimes restrain the bad from being even worse—yet laws cannot change hearts; they cannot heal our broken world.

10. Jesus remains our last, best and only hope.

Laws are good, even necessary, but they cannot wean us from the need for more laws—only Jesus can do this. Only Jesus can turn lawbreakers like us into the kind of people who “obey from the heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance” (Romans 6:17). And only Jesus can finally and fully eradicate all sin and every cause of evil. One day, at his return, there will be no more sickness, no more shootings and no more tears. All will be forgiven. All will be healed. All things will be made new.[9]

God forbid that we live as if that day isn’t real, acting as if peace and order are finally dependent upon the lone efforts of humankind. But may God also forbid that we live as if his kingdom isn’t here already—not fully but really, and growing all the while, like a tiny mustard seed on the way to becoming an enormous tree with room enough for all.[10] As this already-not-yet kingdom comes into contact with the societies in which we live, we will see there is a modest place for law—but even more we must see there is an enduring need for the gospel.

Image Credit: Christopher Burns / Unsplash

[1] George Orwell, “Review of Russell’s Power: A New Social Analysis” in Adelphi, January 1939. Accessed 10/4/2017.

[2] Genesis 3:12 and 3:13, respectively.

[3] This is a modified form of G.K. Chesteron’s original quote: “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere,” which first appeared in the Illustrated London News, May 5, 1928.

[4] Calvin summarizes the biblical teaching on this purpose of the law: “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice,” Institutes, II, 1:307.

[5] Taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address at Western Michigan University, “Social Justice,” December 18, 1963, cited in Scott Kulsen, The Case for Life (Crossway, 2009), 266.

[6] Aquinas, Summa Theologica I–II, 92.1.

[7] Australia famously confiscated more than a half million firearms in the wake of a mass shooting. The gun violence statistics since that time has become the subject of much debate. It is variously touted as a “total success” by one side and a statistical farce by the other, who claim that mass killings were too infrequent to be of statistical significance before the reform measure was passed, and who note that a reduction in gun-related suicides accounts for the bulk of the reduction in gun-related deaths. In any case one can see why Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

[8] The U.S. Department of Justice — Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Murder Victims by Weapon, 2005–2009,” Crime in the United States, September 2010.

[9] Revelation 21:4-5.

[10] Matthew 13:31-33.

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Doug Ponder

Doug Ponder (M.Div., Th.M. Southeastern Seminary) is the Teaching Pastor at Remnant Church in Richmond, VA. He also serves as Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biblical Studies at Grimke Seminary. He and his wife, Jessica, have four sons.

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