46 – Discipling the Nations

Chapter from "Priorities and Dominion" by Gary North.

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen (Matt. 28:18-20).

This is the Great Commission. Its theocentric focus is the resurrected Christ as sovereign over heaven and earth in history.

Discipline and Law

A disciple is under discipline. He is under authority. If he breaks the rules imposed by the authority, he is punished, i.e., disciplined.

This text, more than any other in the New Testament, places the nations under Jesus Christ. The text calls on Christians to disciple the nations, i.e., the various peoples of the earth. The word "nations" implies collectives. This is not a call to make disciples of individuals as covenant-free individuals. It is a command to bring covenanted nations under God's authority by way of their rulers and citizens. This means that the entire individual is to be redeemed in all of his institutional covenantal relationships: church, family, and State.

To bring someone under discipline means that you must have rules. The discipling of the nations is inescapably a judicial matter: "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." The question is: What has the church been commanded?

If ye love me, keep my commandments (John 14:15).

He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him (John 14:21).

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love (John 15:10).

And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (I John 2:3-4).

And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight (I John 3:22).

And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us (I John 3:24).

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (I John 5:2-3).

The New Testament's focus is on the individual and the church. Family government is mentioned, but not nearly so often as ecclesiastical government. There are issues of life and death that concern civil government, but these are rarely discussed specificly in the New Testament. This has led conservative Bible commentators to conclude that the New Testament is not concerned with social and political issues. But this assertion raises a major question: How are we to disciple the nations? If there are no explicitly biblical standards for right and wrong — economically, politically, socially, militarily — then how can the national discipling process take place?

Old Covenant Civil Laws

I have categorized the Mosaic law under seed laws/land laws, priestly laws, and cross-boundary laws.1 Those laws having to do with the fulfillment of Jacob's messianic prophecy — seed laws and tribal laws — were annulled with the resurrection/ascension of Christ. This prophecy announced: "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be" (Gen. 49:10). Seed laws were tribal laws that preserved Judah's line. Next, there were land laws, which had to do with the conquest of Canaan and the genocide of the Canaanites. These were modified with the return of Israel from captivity (Ezek. 47:22-23). They were annulled with the declaration by Jesus of the Jubilee year (Luke 4:18-21). The priestly laws were annulled in principle with the advent of Christ: "For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law. For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood. And it is yet far more evident: for that after the similitude of Melchisedec there ariseth another priest, Who is made, not after the law of a carnal commandment, but after the power of an endless life" (Heb. 7:12-16). They were annulled historically with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.

This leaves the cross-boundary laws. It was these that God mandated for Nineveh. They are still in force unless annulled by the New Testament. The New Testament does not repeat most of these cross-boundary laws. An obvious one is bestiality. "And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast. And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them" (Lev. 20:15-16). Most conservative commentators argue that for an Old Testament civil law to be mandatory in the New Covenant era — let alone the specified civil sanction — it must be recapitulated in the New Testament. They have a major problem with this passage. This sin is not mentioned in the New Testament, but commentators have not rushed to announce its abrogation. But they do not know what to do with it and its mandatory capital sanction.

The preservation of any social order requires laws and civil sanctions. The question is: What is the proper source of these laws? Is it the Bible? Or is it man's mind, which is under the authority of one or another god, ending with would-be autonomous man? The Great Commission points out the inescapable task of bringing societies under God. But how can this be done if there is no legal order that is uniquely Christian? This is the Great Commission's great dilemma for political pluralists.2


The Great Commission is a call to the comprehensive subduing of the whole world. It is the New Covenant's recapitulation of the dominion covenant (Gen. 1:26-28).3 It is not limited to personal evangelism. Personal evangelism is the beginning of the discipling of the nations, but it is not the end. Modern pietism would like to limit the Great Commission to personal evangelism, church government, and family renewal — three of the four covenants. But the pietist joins the humanist when it comes to civil government. He rejects any suggestion that civil government or society at large must be brought formally under the kingship of Christ, at least during the era of the church before Christ comes again physically to set up an earthly kingdom.

The Great Commission is greater than pietism. It is comprehensive. Wherever sin reigns, there the Great Commission applies. To argue otherwise is to argue either that the Great Commission does not have as its standard the eradication of sin, or else that natural law — the hypothetically unified civil and moral order that springs from the minds of fallen men — is somehow without the taint of sin. This latter proposition is difficult to reconcile with the doctrine of original sin. The Great Commission applies to the State as well as the family and the church.4

This means that civil laws regulating the exchange of goods and services, contracts, and justice must come from the Bible. But the New Testament rarely comments on these matters. Thus, we must turn to the Old Testament for guidance. We must ask, "If not biblical law, then what?" We must ask, "By what other standard?" 5 The Great Commission should move us back to the Bible, not to pagan natural law theory.

Gary North, Leviticus: An Economic Commentary (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994), Conclusion.
Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989).
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Greatness of the Great Commission: The Christian Enterprise in a Fallen World (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), ch. 1.
4. Ibid., ch. 10.
Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991).

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