Kevin DeYoung: does immorality always have a victim?

In a very thoughtful post at the Gospel Coalition Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), points out the difficulty that Evangelicals have convincing the broader culture of the immorality of actions that do not seem to have a victim. The problem is with our society generally, DeYoung suggests. We tend to think that an action is only immoral if it has an immediate victim.

To be sure, Americans are not always consistent on this point. “Think of spanking or speed limits or prohibiting harmful substances. Some victimless crimes are still crimes, and sometimes insisting on the right thing produces ‘victims.’” But in general, and especially when matters of sexual immorality are in view, Americans default to their ordinary tendency. If you are not hurting someone, we won’t stop you from doing what you want to do.

DeYoung notes two basic points in response to this pervasive approach to morality. First, he points out that Christians need to do a far better job exploring the effects that sinful actions have on others.

[W]e must do more to show the long term consequences of seemingly innocent behavior. This is not a call to play the victim card but to do our homework. The sexual revolution of the 1960s seemed like a good idea at the time. But now we know that communities were made weaker, women have not been made happier, and children have been put at greater risk. Just because everyone seems happy with the sin right now doesn’t mean people won’t suffer in the long term. Just look at no-fault divorce.

Second, he notes that not all crimes have victims per say.

While oppression is always sin, sin cannot be defined solely as oppression. Sin is lawlessness (I John 3:4). An action is morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on God’s standard. This definition will not be accepted by many, for God has largely been removed from our culture’s definition of evil. But try we must. The culture war is not the point except to the degree that God is the point. And our God rests too inconsequentially upon our country and our churches. The world needs to see the true nature of sin as God-defiant. Only then will it know the true nature of our sin-defiant Savior.

I entirely agree with DeYoung on both points but I have to admit that a little clarification would be helpful in terms of whether we are talking about civil law or about basic morality. DeYoung’s discussion is about morality in general but many of his examples come from the realm of civil law or from political controversies. The fact is that when it comes to civil law it is important for us to show that actions have an unjust effect on other people if we want the government to condemn those actions. The whole purpose of government is to enable us to live together in peace and basic justice. Government should not and is not capable of making us moral before God or worthy of the kingdom. On the other hand, we should never pretend that the civil law is exhaustive of morality. To paraphrase with a twist one character from O Brother Where Art Thou, you may be right with the state of Mississippi, but God is a little more hard-nosed (the actual line in the movie pertains to the gospel, not the law: “Even if that did put you square with the Lord [Delmar’s baptism], the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”).

The way that Reformed theology classically dealt with this point was to distinguish between the first and third uses of the law on the one hand, and the second use of the law on the other (note, here I am using John Calvin’s numbering; others put the uses in a different order). The first use of the law places the sinful human being before God’s absolute standard and demonstrates to that person how unworthy he or she is to attain to the blessing of the kingdom. The third use of the law teaches the regenerate human being how to conform to that same standard having been made worthy of the kingdom. Both of these uses emphasize the relation of a person before God, both in terms of outward actions and in terms of the heart. This is what DeYoung is getting at in his second point above.

But the civil law is different. It does not judge a person according to the standard of the eternal kingdom of God, but according to the needs of human society in the passing present evil age. It does not consider the heart; it is merely interested in outward actions. If such actions cannot be demonstrated to bring concrete harm to others, government has no interest in prohibiting them. Government prohibits things like murder, theft, and adultery, not sins like lust, covetousness, or hypocrisy.

Am I splitting hairs here? I don’t think so. I agree with virtually every point DeYoung makes in his post but it is still unclear at the end of that post whether his concern is about what government does or whether it is about the Christian witness to the moral law of God for the sake of the gospel. Given that DeYoung’s basic question is about how concerned we should be to determine whether or not immorality always has a victim, and given the fundamental role that question plays in the distinction between the civil use of the law and the other uses of the law, I would think keeping the difference between politics and morality straight is important. In our ridiculously politicized society, Christians could afford some clarity on this point.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 20, 2012, in Law, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Kevin DeYoung: does immorality always have a victim?.

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