It is ironic, and more than a bit hypocritical, that those who claim the most stridently that the law cannot legislate morality are those who most earnestly try to induce moral behavior (as they see it) through the passage of laws. If passing defense of marriage acts or anti-sodomy statutes or laws against prostitution or the exploitation of children cannot be expected to induce morality for the sexually immoral, we ought not to expect that campaign finance laws or gun control laws will have any positive effect for virtue either. As I have discussed elsewhere at some length , the purpose of the laws has never been to legislate morality in the first place, but rather to enforce the lawgiver’s preexisting sense of morality, whether that lawgiver is God (through a prophet like Moses) or the corrupt political elite of a nation, or a king or dictator or court or junta who is equally corrupt. No matter how immoral our moral systems, no matter what political ideology we possess, if we are in power we will seek to govern others and enforce our own system of morality, whether it is a just one (like the laws of God) or an unjust one (like the statutes of Omri ). This is even true for those who claim officially to deny any one standard of morality whatsoever–when they are placed in positions of power they will judge by their own moral standard and fulminate as passionately as a minister when it comes to the sins they hate the most (even if, especially if, they are guilty of the same sins themselves).
It is often said that the law is made for the unrighteous, and truly this is so. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and so the law is made for all of us to remind us all how we fall short of God’s standards and how if we fail to repent and receive the grace of God that He generally offers that we will suffer eternal death as the result of our sins. Since all of us are unrighteous in the eyes of God, the law is made for all of us, however disparate the unrighteousness we may wrestle with or succumb to in the course of our lives. The same is true of the laws of man as is true of the laws of God–there are at least a few laws that I have disobeyed over the course of my life largely because I did not see how they were wrong, but at the same time an honest man who sins (whether against the laws of man or God) is going to be willing to pay the price of disobedience even to unjust laws. The difference between one’s personal standards and the statutes of God or man is a visible reminder of the alienation between the ways of God and other man and our own ways. We can generally be expected to either seek to live in those places that most correspond to our own ways or to seek to change the laws of our realms to correspond to our own personal standards of morality. We attempt such means with God by arguing over what statutes are “Old Covenant” or “New Covenant,” and which scriptures have spiritual versus physical application, but God is not interested in our skill in hermeneutical gymnastics, but rather our obedience to His ways and our conformance to His thoughts.
Even given that we are all unrighteous by the standards of God, there are still gradations to the quantum of evil that is within us. To the extent that we are wicked, we will be motivated by the laws of God and man to rebel against them. We will say to ourselves, and perhaps (if we are bold) to others, “The law has no authority over my mind/mouth/heart/womb/chemical intake/sexual organs,” and deliberately and defiantly rebel against it. There are times where we might have a slight inclination to a particular sin but knowledge of the law (whether God’s laws or man’s laws) inflames that desire, as Paul spoke hypothetically in Romans 7 about the law against covetousness. The effect of the law (whether the laws of God or man) on the unrighteous is rebellion and hostility. And to the extent that all of us are unrighteous we will be motivated to rebel by laws that are hostile to our own interests and inclinations.
The law has a different purpose for those who are (comparatively) righteous. The godly man studies and loves the law not to prove himself righteous in the eyes of God or to earn salvation, for such behavior is impossible and improper besides, but rather to model himself after the godly standard that has been given. When I read of the example of Boaz in the book of Ruth, I feel inspired to show such graciousness and kindness as he did as a kinsman redeemer, who was granted the fondest desires of his heart as a result of his noble character. The passion of a Moses or a Nehemiah or a Micah or an Amos for justice in the face of the exploitation of the people also fires me. A godly man (or woman) is inspired by the example of believers to copy that example in his (or her) own life. The purposes of the law for the righteous are as a model of godly and righteous conduct, and as a way of showing love and concern and respect for others. These purposes are no less real because we all struggle with some aspect of unrighteousness within our natures.
Therefore, we tend to find that the nature of law, by which those who are in power seek to enforce their own standards of morality on the people that they govern, has purposes for both the righteous and the unrighteous. We all need to remember that we are all under the law by nature, that we all have a natural urge to rebel in some fashion against the righteous laws of God (or the less righteous laws of mankind). I recognize this tendency within myself and others. Equally, to the extent that we are godly, we will be inspired to copy some aspect of the godliness of others as it corresponds with our own godly nature. Let us hope that we can all overcome those aspects by which we naturally rebel against God’s ways or rebel against the authority of others, and let us instead cultivate those qualities that serve to model the righteousness of God as it is expressed in His laws and His ways. Let us do so as best as we are able, and to enjoy the righteous purposes of the law as a model for godly behavior.