Universal Revelation as a Grounds for Ethics, Legislation, and Public Policy        


How and to what extent Christians should be engaged in cultural renewal and public legislation is a matter of some debate among evangelical Christians. What shouldn’t be controversial, however, is the basis on which believers can build their case for cultural ethical norms, public policy, and legislation.  

The doctrine of God’s general (I prefer, universal) revelation is the biblical teaching that God has disclosed the truth of his existence and his moral law in the creation and to the human conscience. This revelation is constant, unceasing, unchanging, and global. We can say it this way: Universal revelation is infallible knowledge of God that is possessed by all people, at all times, in all places, under all circumstances (see Ps 19:1-5; Rom 1:18-20; 2:14-16). (For more on the doctrine of universal revelation, please see my recent article.)     

God’s Moral Law Revealed to All People at All Times
One of the implications of this doctrine is that all people, regardless of geographical, religious, or educational background, have some knowledge of the true God and of what he requires of his image-bearers. While it’s true that God chose to reveal himself to Israel in a particular way that went beyond his universal disclosure to the rest of the world, Israel did not need that special revelation in order to know, for example, that it is wrong to murder, or that it is sinful to dishonor one’s parents, or that idolatry is evil, or that theft is unjust, or that lying is destructive. These truths are embedded into the very fabric of creation, which is why Paul could say of unbelievers: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Rom 1:32). There is, in all people, an inherent knowledge of God, his law, and that breaking his law deserves death.    

Just prior to that statement in Romans, Paul had listed several sins of which unredeemed humanity is collectively guilty: unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, insolence, boastfulness, and disobedience to parents (vv. 29-31). The context indicates that Paul is referring to all unredeemed humanity, not just those whose societies have enjoyed Christian or Jewish influence.  

The point, therefore, is that all people have an inherent knowledge of right and wrong whether or not they’ve ever had any personal or cultural contact with God’s special revelation in the Bible. Malice is wrong because it seeks to harm God’s image. Murder is wrong because it unlawfully removes God’s image from the earth (see Gen 9:6). Envy is wrong because we live in a world governed by God whose goodness is maligned when his creatures express their discontent by being jealous of what other people have. These moral standards are true and real, regardless of where or when a person has lived. People intuitively know that malice and murder and envy are wrong because God has written these truths on our souls (see Rom 2:13-14).      

Universal Revelation and Public Morality
What does all of this have to do with a society’s moral standards, laws, and public policy? Everything. First, Christians know that the universe is governed by a God whose nature and will dictates what is right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood. We also know that God has revealed his moral standard to all his image bearers, not just those who possess a Bible, and that this standard ought to be upheld by all people, regardless of their religious commitments (see Ps 119:136). When it comes to public policy, ethical standards, and national and local legislation, Christians have an ally in the unbeliever’s conscience to press for policies, standards, and laws that reflect God’s moral order that he has embedded into creation. Christians ought to work to uphold these standards and laws for two primary reasons.  

When it comes to public policy, ethical standards, and national and local legislation, Christians have an ally in the unbeliever’s conscience to press for policies, standards, and laws that reflect God’s moral order that he has embedded into creation.

The first reason that Christians should uphold God’s creation law is that obedience to God’s creation law glorifies God, even if that obedience is only external. I am not suggesting that God is glorified by the person who is obeying, for the unregenerate person can do nothing to please God (Rom 8:7-8), and it will often be the case that such obedience will be rendered without any reference to God. Nevertheless, God is glorified when his law is upheld within a given society, even when that obedience is partial (i.e., mainly outward and not motivated by a spiritual principle) and comes from someone who is spiritually at odds with his Creator.    

The second reason that Christians should find ways to uphold God’s creation law is that God’s law is good for all people. It is good for a society to punish murder, for murder destroys the very image-bearers who comprise that society (see Rom 13:3-4; also Gen 9:6). It is good for a culture to resist economic models that are built on envy (e.g., socialism) and develop laws that protect property, curb theft, and incentivize hard work. It is good for a culture to promote respect for one’s parents, for that will lead to stable relationships and institutions. It is good for a society to exalt marriage, stigmatize adultery, and resist the normalization of homosexuality, transgenderism, and other forms of sexual deviance, for marriage is the building block of society, and temporal devastation usually follows in the wake of culture-wide sexual perversion (Gen 19:1-29; Rom 1:24-26)  

No Need to Be Intimidated
Granted, how God’s creation standards should be maintained in a given society is a matter of debate among some Christians, and it certainly requires careful thinking from all of us. Nevertheless, it cannot be disputed that God’s revelation in the creation and conscience provides us the grounds by which Christians can build their ethical cases for right and wrong in their current cultural setting. Rather than being intimidated into a corner, Christians have God, his creation, and the unbeliever’s conscience on their side.     

Some might argue that requiring unbelievers to uphold God’s creation law will create Pharisees—unbelieving people who have learned to obey externally without obeying from the heart—and thwart our evangelistic work. I’ve heard Christians articulate this very objection as I’ve discussed with them the question of a Christian’s involvement in politics and other forms of cultural engagement. But requiring people to obey God’s creation laws doesn’t create Pharisees. Pharisees are created when we require people to live like Christians without any inward heart renewal. By requiring people to obey God’s creation law, we are only requiring people to act human, not act like Christians.      

No Law is Value-Neutral
Furthermore, this objection fails to recognize that all legislation originates in and promotes somebody’s values and standards. No law is value-neutral. Every piece of policy or legislation has a worldview and moral values baked into it. To yield these aspects of culture because we fear that we might create Pharisees (a wrong assumption anyway) is to concede to rulings that may be in direct conflict with God’s creation law and thus harmful to God’s image-bearers and society as a whole. Loving our neighbor would seem to include at least a desire for people to live in a societal setting where God’s creation laws are upheld. When God’s creation laws are upheld in a society, the government will be better able to discern what is good and evil, and reward and punish accordingly (Rom 13:1-7).  

While we may continue to disagree on exactly how Christians should influence ethical standards, public policy, and legislation in their various settings, one thing we must not disagree on is the basis by which we make our case. God’s universal revelation enables all Christians to engage moral questions on the basis of God’s disclosure of himself in the creation and the conscience.        

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