Mar 1, 2011

Restraining Sin: The Civil Use of the Law

6 Min Read

Of the three uses of the law, the so-called “civil” use may strike us as the least interesting theologically. It involves no inward transformation of the heart or Spirit-wrought righteousness that is pleasing in God’s sight. By this use, the law restrains the sinful excesses of sinners through the fear of shame and punishment, promoting an external obedience to moral standards and a measure of peace in society. It may be hard to get excited about this civil use of the law in comparison to the pedagogical use, which exposes people’s unrighteousness and drives them to repent of their sins and rest in Christ alone. And how can the civil use compete for our affection with the didactic use, which guides believers in bringing forth the fruits of true faith from a Spirit-renewed heart?

Matched against her two sisters, it is true, the civil use of the law has less curb appeal. Yet a few moments’ reflection quickly reveals the folly of underestimating its importance. Do you appreciate being able to walk out your door in safety each morning to pursue your gainful employment? You should be thankful for the civil use of the law. What if your neighbor did serious damage to your property and you sought restitution, or what if you were wrongly accused of a violent crime and faced decades in jail if convicted? You would most certainly be concerned about the efficiency of the legal system and whether your judge and jury had a sense of justice — and this has everything to do with the civil use of the law. But perhaps you are tempted to think that these are merely mundane matters that shouldn’t be that important to us. In this case, ask whether you are grateful to be able to own a Bible or to gather peacefully for worship on Sundays without the threat of being arrested. Once more the civil use is at work. The civil use may not directly involve the bestowal of saving blessings in Christ, but God wonderfully gives it an indirect role in promoting gospel proclamation and saving sinners.

In this article, I explore this civil use of the law and God’s generosity in restraining unrighteousness in the world. To do so, I first discuss how the civil use operates in bringing sinners to know and (externally) obey God’s law. Then I describe a few biblical examples of the civil use at work.

How the Civil Use Works: Common Grace and Natural Law

The pedagogical and didactic uses of the law involve the special saving operation of the Holy Spirit in the elect. In the former, the Spirit brings sinners to a true appreciation of their sin and illumines them to see the gospel as the answer to their miserable plight. In the latter, the Spirit utilizes the law to direct the life of redeemed saints whom He is sanctifying. Things work differently with the civil use. The civil use involves the Spirit’s work of common grace.

Common grace refers to general, non-saving blessings that God gives to all sorts of people. Believers and unbelievers alike share them in “common.” Perhaps the most familiar biblical verse describing common grace is Matthew 5:45, which says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The civil use of the law is a work of common grace because it does not involve God’s special saving work among His elect. In its civil use, the law checks and bridles sinners from giving full vent to their sinful desires. It should be apparent, then, that the civil use is primarily for unbelievers. Though they do not render pure obedience, stemming from true faith and a desire for God’s glory, they very often render external obedience in response to the restraining force of the law. But we also see the civil use of the law at work in believers. At times we Christians refrain from doing evil only because we are afraid of getting caught and suffering for it, instead of from faith-inspired love of the good. This too is a common grace of God, for it’s better to refrain from evil for the wrong reasons than to do it. But Romans 13:5, for example, shows us a better way: “one must be in subjection [to civil magistrates], not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

The idea of natural law is also important for understanding how the civil use works. Natural law refers to God’s revelation of His moral will in the created order as apprehended through the human conscience (Rom. 1:18–32; 2:14–15). It is true that God’s law as revealed in Scripture can also serve the civil use. Some people, without coming to true faith, hear the Scriptures and try to conform to its commands, driven by a general fear of God’s anger, social pressure, or the like. But most non-Christians do not read the Bible or listen to sermons. Their knowledge of God’s law comes primarily — or entirely — from the natural law. The natural law is God’s law, and through its testimony to His will and His coming judgment it often serves to restrain wickedness and to work much external good in society.

The creation and enforcement of human laws supplement this work of natural law. Human laws that forbid bad behavior and threaten to punish it by the point of the sword can serve to restrain wickedness in particularly effective ways. This too is the work of God’s common grace.

The Civil Use in Scripture

Scripture speaks about the civil use of the law — or describes it in action — in a number of places. I briefly mention four good examples.

First is the story of Cain in Genesis 4. After God condemns Cain to a life of restless wandering for the murder of his brother, Cain complains that anyone who finds him will kill him. God responds by ordaining a sevenfold (that is, perfectly proportionate) punishment for anyone who kills Cain. This threat of punishment for the crime of murder apparently works. Though Cain and his people are not true believers, God preserves enough sense of justice among them to enable the development of culture and city-building.

A second example is the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9. This is a covenant of common grace, which God makes not with believers alone but with “every living creature,” promising to preserve the natural and social orders after the flood. In this covenant, God ordains the preservation of justice in society: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Here again we find the principle of proportionate justice: the punishment should fit the crime. However imperfectly, many legal systems around the world, both ancient and modern, do indeed express a commitment to proportionate justice, giving to each his due and seeking punishments that match the misdeed.

A third example is the story of Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20. Even though Abraham wrongs him by passing off his wife as his sister, Abimelech (a pagan) appeals to norms of justice (“things that ought not to be done”) and gives Abraham the chance to defend himself (honoring due process). Abimelech is king of that land and may have the power to ignore any human laws that stood in his way, yet this unbeliever appears to have a certain “fear of God” that restrains him from taking disproportionate vengeance on Abraham.

Finally, Acts 16 and 22 describe occasions when Paul, being unjustly accused and arrested, appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen. On both occasions, the unbelieving civil officials acknowledge his claim and, out of fear of punishment, treat him appropriately. Here we see how God uses a benevolent feature of Roman law (protecting due process) to promote justice and to curb wickedness — in this case for the special purpose of promoting the mission of the church.


The biblical examples should reinforce a point I made above: the civil use of the law is a gift of God that should not be despised. Through it God permits His people, to varying degrees, to live “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2). Even more importantly, through keeping order and protecting basic liberties, it allows the church to gather peacefully and to carry out its mission.

A threefold response from Christians seems appropriate. The first is to thank God for this common blessing of the law’s civil use. The second is to pray for its continuation. We should pray for the cities in which we live (Jer. 29:7) and especially for our civil magistrates, whose special task is to enforce righteous civil laws (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Tim. 2:1–2). Finally, through our conduct and speech, pursued with wisdom and love, we should provide a constant example of what is good and promote wholesome relationships in whatever sphere of life we find ourselves. As Paul puts it, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 13:18).