by John Sikkema
“See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10)
My previous article, “Creation and Politics,” focused on God’s sovereignty as the creator and sustainer of all things. In His sovereignty, God gives authority to man. Therefore, while God’s authority is “original, eternal, unlimited,” man’s authority is always “derivative, temporary, and limited.”  By God’s design, His character is reflected in human relationships and authoritative offices – including civil authority, which He created (Col. 1:16, Acts 17:26). God’s character is also reflected in His word, by which He made, sustains, and governs creation and directs history (Job 12, Ps. 19, 33; Heb. 1; 2 Pet. 3). Another article on creation and politics might have delved more into topics such as creation stewardship (Gen. 1:28, Ps. 24:1) or sexuality and marriage (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5), among others. But the main point of my last article was that God’s word sets norms for all of life. God’s creation is good and His word is perfect (Ps. 19).
What, then, is wrong with the world? The Bible tells us: man rejected God’s word. To explore the significance of the Fall for political life, let us return to the biblical story.
Rebellion, curse, and continuity
Tragically, Adam and Eve, God’s image bearers and vice-regents over His good creation, bought into the lie that they could determine good and evil on their own. They thought they could rule themselves and creation without answering to God or following His word. They thought they could be autonomous – a law unto themselves. In the Fall, God allowed His good purposes in creation to be frustrated, but not defeated or undone. God subjected His creation to a curse on account of man’s sin (Gen. 3:14-19; Rom. 8:19-23). Yet even in pronouncing the curse, God offered hope. Eve would bear children. Her offspring would crush the serpent’s head (through Jesus Christ, as we later learn). God would defeat this rebellion in His kingdom and undo its damage to His creation, but not immediately. Human life would continue, but the nature of fallen man would soon be manifest.
Next thing we know, Cain murders Abel. God did not immediately punish Cain. He even prevented others from doing so. (Some commentators think this is because God had not yet formally instituted human authority to punish such wrongdoing, though the Bible gives no direct explanation.) We also read about several basic cultural developments in Genesis 4. Cain tilled the soil and Abel raised livestock. Cain later built a city. His descendants made tents, musical instruments, and metal tools. God built the potential for such developments into creation. The question is, would mankind use this potential for good, for God’s glory? Sadly, Cain’s line descended into further violence, polygamy, and wicked boasting (Gen. 4).
But God granted Adam and Eve another son. Genesis 5 gives a hopeful “account of Adam’s family line” through Seth: “When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. […] Adam had a son in his own likeness, in his own image, and named him Seth.” So, it seems, fallen man’s place as image bearers in creation endured! After hopeful notes of faithfulness in Seth’s line (Gen. 5:22,29; 6:9), though, we learn that the earth was “corrupt in God’s sight and filled with violence” and man’s thoughts were “only evil continually.” God decides to destroy all flesh, saving only Seth’s descendant Noah – “a righteous man” who “walked with God” – and his family (6:9-18).
A “reckoning” for man’s blood
Despite man’s astounding lawlessness and God’s just punishment for it, God preserved mankind and the other creatures He had made. Immediately after the flood, when Noah offered sacrifices to God, God promised “never again [to] curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of his heart is evil.” God’s plan was (and is) ultimately not to curse, but to bless and renew. Thus, God renewed the “cultural mandate,” (Gen. 9:1), blessed Noah and his family, and promised that there would be no such flood again (9:9-17). Calvin sees God’s redemptive purpose at work in Genesis 8-9. God “not only renews the world by the same word by which he before created it,” Calvin writes, “but He directs his word to men,” so that through Noah’s family, “He shall raise up mankind from death to life.”
Noah was, in a sense, a new Adam. God blessed Noah as He had blessed Adam and gave Noah the same mandate (9:1), but added something new here. Noah’s situation was not the same as Adam’s original situation. In light of the Fall (and man’s subsequent violence) God tells Noah that He would demand a “reckoning” for man’s blood from his fellow man (9:5). What does this mean? “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” God would henceforth hold sinful mankind responsible to protect people and punish those who shed human blood.
Bavinck notes the connection between punishment, authority, and justice: “All punishment presupposes that the person who pronounces and imposes punishment is clothed with authority over those who have violated the law.” This authority, he goes on to say, “cannot have its origin in humanity itself, for what human being can claim any such right vis-à-vis others who are of the same nature?” It must, says Bavinck, be rooted in justice, and justice itself depends on God. “The fact that God punishes evil is the basis of all human punitive justice,” he writes. Therefore, “The moment God’s justice is denied, and there is no longer any belief in a moral world order elevated far above human beings, the right and essential character of punishment immediately collapses as well … there exists no final principle on which punishment can be based other than the justice of God.” Without justice, then, there is no punishment – only acts of raw power.
Cain, having murdered Abel, asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 9:5 says: Yes! In a fallen world, our duties toward each other entail not only, say, joyfully sharing belongings. We must also try to prevent and punish violent attacks against our fellow man. Given how brutish and violent mankind had become, it’s worth pausing to consider why God demands this. God’s reason is stated simply: “for God made man in His own image.” God demands this for His own sake. John Calvin comments on this post-fall, post-flood imago dei reference by saying that “the Celestial Creator Himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of His original creation.”
The origin of human government?
Genesis 9:5-6 is often referred to as the origin or foundation of government. We readily connect Genesis 9 with Paul’s statement that a ruler “does not bear the sword in vain” and is “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13). Genesis 9, together with Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, teaches us that, in a fallen world, a primary duty of human rulers is to punish “those who do wrong” (Rom. 13). This “wrong” is not limited to murder, though we might ask how far, or to what kind of wrongdoing, the magistrate’s mandate to punish extends. Paul also refers to rulers as God’s servants for our good. Cornelis Van Dam, in his book God and Government, emphasizes that God is the origin of government, His justice is the norm for government, and that Genesis 9 contains “an early hint of government.” God’s word to Noah in Genesis 9 begins to teach fallen man what God’s justice requires in a broken world. Thankfully, His word will have much more to teach us on that score.
Genesis 9 is a key passage, but we need a fuller biblical picture for grasping the nature and responsibility of civil government in God’s world. Should a ruler enact laws or appoint judges to resolve property or business disputes? Should a government take action to rescue starving or homeless people after a natural disaster? Should civil government mandate or coordinate conservation, sanitation, or public infrastructure projects? Even returning to the basic issue of punishing murderers, Genesis 9 does not offer detailed instructions for how this is to be done, or by whom. We learn more about the avenger of blood, witnesses, judges, and so on later in the Bible (e.g. Num. 35). Even then, we should be careful not to take such passages as directly prescriptive for today, though we may decipher from them certain timeless principles of justice. We might say that Genesis 9 is foundational, but we still have more to learn about what justice requires beyond the base rule of condemning murder.
Returning to the story in Genesis, the first reference to a “kingdom” is found in chapter 10, in connection with a mighty warrior who built cities: “Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior … The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad, and Kalneh, in Shinar. From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen… a great city.” (A city might be a kingdom itself or a kingdom center.) In the next recorded event, people gathered to “build ourselves a city” and “make a name for ourselves,” but God scattered them. Here again, as at the Fall, man tried to establish his own kingdom apart from God, to live autonomously. The city of Babel, or Babylon, comes to represent the kingdom of darkness (Rev. 18). God continually tears down rebellious kingdoms (Jer. 1:10, Dan. 2:21, Luke 1:52) in order to build a righteous, renewed kingdom (Jer. 31:27-34).
It’s not that cities, kingdoms, or rulers are bad per se. It depends on where they stand in relation to God and his law. Abraham obeyed God’s calling, Hebrews says, because he was “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” God’s plan is to bless all nations of the earth through Abraham, to make Himself and His Kingdom known to the world through them. His redemption plan continues. Ultimately, the city Abraham looked forward to is the new Jerusalem. It is a “heavenly city” in the sense that there we will do God’s will as perfectly as the angels in heaven. But the heavenly city will come to earth. We will live there not as disembodied souls, but as resurrected, whole persons. And it will have, as its Lord of lords, the only perfect human ruler, who is also God, namely Jesus.
But we’re only at Genesis 12! There is more to learn from the story between here and Revelation 21. In future articles, we will look more closely at God’s calling for Abraham, Israel, and the Church.
Lessons for today
In view of the big story of Scripture – that God renews this fallen world into the Kingdom of God – some Christians believe the civil government functions as a kind of stage manager for the drama of redemption. That is, civil government plays no part in God’s redemptive work and falls outside of God’s redemptive kingdom, but maintains a basic level of order in this broken world, the stage for the work of the Holy Spirit and the Church. Others would say that, because God is renewing the creation that belongs to Him, civil government can and ought to play a role in God’s renewing work. That is not to say, of course, that civil government pays for our sin or makes us right with God. Rather, the idea is that, in light of Christ’s victory, God’s Spirit can transform and use civil government, as He transforms and uses individuals, families, and other social institutions, to reform and renew society to better reflect what kind of King He is and what His final Kingdom will be.
Whichever of these two views you favour, the Bible is clear that, in light of the fall, God ordained to use human rulers to restrain and punish human evil. Sin is so deep and its effects so far-reaching, that human government’s mission is profoundly shaped by it. A society ignores God’s word and God’s justice when it neglects to protect the innocent or punish murderers. Crime is not an evolutionary glitch, nor solely a product of social conditioning. People are morally responsible beings. The end for which crime is punished is justice, first of all, rather than rehabilitation or deterrence or social improvement.
Rulers may be selected by various means in various societies, but their authority to punish wrongdoing comes from God, not from themselves or “the people”. A government that fails to deal with violent crime at all utterly fails as government and rulers who perpetrate violence lawlessly and unjustly no longer act as rulers. They not only act beyond their God-given authority in so doing, but in direct violation of His law. Nobody is above God’s law.
The Fall is no excuse for anyone, including rulers, to treat anyone else as less than human, no matter how twisted or broken a person may seem. The Bible teaches that we remain image bearers after the Fall. God Himself is assaulted when we assault another. Calvin, ever practical, comments, “Were this doctrine deeply fixed in our minds, we should be much more reluctant to inflict injuries.”
What would change in our country if the imago dei doctrine were either more deeply embedded in our culture and laws, or more ignored?
This is part 3 in a series on “Politics in Light of Redemptive History” (also the title of part 1). Part 2 was on “Creation and Politics”. Stay tuned to ARPA’s website or sign up for our emails for more parts to the series (D.V.).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2, 615.
 As Bavinck writes, “All relations that exist among creatures between superiors and inferiors are analogies of that one original relation in which God stands to the works of his hands. What a father is for his family, what an educator is for the young, what a commander is for the army, what a king is for his people—all that and much more God is in a totally original way for His creatures.” Ibid.
 See especially Al Wolters, Creation Regained.
 Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 43.
 Bartholomew and Goheen’s excellent book (ibid) broadly outlines the Bible story in terms of God establishing His kingdom, rebellion in the kingdom, and redemption of the kingdom.
 Calvin, for one, seems to think God preserved Cain for the sake of his children (already born or yet to be born). Calvin does not mention the absence of civil government at this point in his Genesis commentary.
 Calvin comments (re. “in his own image”) in Gen. 5:3 that this “refers in part to the first origin of our nature,” namely the imago dei, and “at the same time its corruption and pollution is to be noticed, which… flowed down to all his posterity.”
 Calvin, Genesis (translated by John King).
 All quotes in this paragraph are from Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, section 336. Bavinck goes on to discuss how the decline of the worship of God and the deification of man, society, and the state in the 18th and 19th centuries led to “the falsification of all moral and judicial concepts” and “the banishment of the concepts of good and evil, responsibility and accountability, guilt and punishment.”
 Oliver O’Donovan thinks the positive role for government in Romans 13 (“you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good”) and 1 Peter 2 (“praise those who do good”) has to do with judging cases and declaring a party innocent or guilty/liable – see Desire of the Nations. Cornelis Van Dam believes the phrase “servant for your good” applies more broadly, to encompass various efforts that civil leaders might undertake for the common good, or to protect and sustain the weak, poor, and vulnerable – see God and Government, ch. 2.
 See God and Government: Biblical Principles for Today: An Introduction and Resource (2011), in particular chapter 2 of his book, “The Origin and Task of Civil Government,” 27-46. The law of Israel, certainly, teaches that doing justice entails a lot more than punishing murderers, though certainly not less.
 For example, Bavinck explains that the “avenger of blood” was a common feature of the ancient world of Israel’s day, which Mosaic law takes for granted and incorporates into a more robust system of justice (Num. 35). See Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, ch. 4
 See Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, 166 – “If the state has no other right to act against criminals than thereby to protect itself and to improve them, on what grounds then will it be denied the right to deal with all kinds of sick people on its own authority and by its own methods…” C.S. Lewis develops this point in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”.