Chapter 12: The Ordinances of God

Our Faith
by Emil Brunner

Chapter 12: The Ordinances of God

Man is favored above the rest of creation in having a free will. "God created man in his own image"; created man as a personal being, that is, as a being that does not simply develop of itself into that for which God created it, but rather as a being who achieves his destiny only by saying his "yes" to it. Children have dolls that say "yes," too. But they can say "yes" only when one presses them on the right spot; they can say neither yes nor no by their own decision or insight. They are automatons. Man is no automaton, he can and must continually decide how he is going to live. This capacity of deciding is the personal element in us, the free will.

Therein also lies, since we can freely decide for ourselves, our ability to do evil. An animal can do no wrong; it acts as it must, it has no freedom of choice. There are no good and bad rabbits, no good and bad foxes. They all do more or less the same, and have therefore neither a good nor a bad conscience. But men do not all act the same; each goes another way than the other, because each chooses his own way. Therefore no one is as the other. And yet the Apostle is right when he says "there is no difference, for all have sinned." This is so because every one chooses his own way, in- stead of God's way. There are as many individual ways as there are men, but there is only one way that is right, and that is God's way. And it is precisely this way which we do not follow -- or are you perhaps the exception the Apostle overlooked, do you follow God's way?

But God in His creative goodness, having given man freedom to choose for himself, gave him something more in that when he sinned he might not wholly corrupt his life and the life of Others, might not wholly deviate from God's way. This gift is the Ordinances of God. There are many things, despite our disloyalty, and wilfulness that come out right in our life, because God Himself has made it right. Thank God, we have no power over the change of seasons from summer to winter, over the course of the stars, no power over the laws of nature at work in our bodies. There are limits drawn about our lives by God's creative ordinance which we cannot trespass and within which, therefore, God's order prevails in spite of our sin.

There are, however, certain areas of God's creation where we can go out of bounds, but which limits we know ought not be transgressed. It is this I have in mind by the term, the Ordinances of God. Because they have been implanted in our nature by the Creator, every normal man has a kind of instinct for them, and yet they are ordinances lying within the realm of the will. The most important of these ordinances is the fact that God has so organized human life that no man can live for himself. He cannot live without the other. Man needs woman, woman needs man. The producer needs the consumer, the consumer the producer. The people need the leaders, the leaders need the people. Human life is so ordered by God because God has created man for Jove. Love is something voluntary, not even God can or will force it. But He does want to lead us in that direction. And so He has ordered life, that the individual can never take this direction without the aid of others. We are to be "exercised" so to speak, thereby, for love. It is because of the Ordinances of God that there is fellowship among men despite the dominating self-will which would wholly separate us. However, just because man is intended to learn some- thing by them, these Ordinances are no inviolable laws of nature, but can be disregarded by man. The more a man thinks of himself alone, and purposes for himself, so much the more are these Ordinances threatened with ruin. The more conscious man becomes of his ability to shape his own life, so much the more are these Ordinances of God endangered. And never in world history has that been more so than today. Every natural -- instinct for "what is fair," for those Ordinances that hold mankind together, is almost lost. The fellowship of man is consequently more and more dispersed. This can be most clearly noted in the marriage question. In earlier days people knew -- even the heathen knew -- that man and wife belonged together for life. Today that is no longer custom. Self-will begins to shatter even this most elemental Life Ordinance. In earlier days every one knew that children belonged to parents and parents to their children, the homogeniety of the family was taken for granted, but today it is threatened with collapse by the thought of self-sufficiency. In earlier days every one knew that there must be rulers and ruled, both needing each other but today every one wants to rule himself and take no advice.

Evil is present in every age, but it is not as predominant in one age as in another. Our day is in many respects better than earlier generations. But its difficulty and its evil consists in our no longer knowing the Ordinances of God, because every one wants to be "independent."

There has been selfishness in every age, but selfishness is today the recognized spirit because man no longer knows that God and how God created human beings for each other. Even the intellectual leaders of our time know it no more, for they think the highest achievement is to be a personality. But God has so formed life that one can become a personality only when he knows that he belongs to others and serves them. The man who recognizes nothing higher than reason becomes "independent" -- he no longer needs others, he is his own master -- even his own God. And then human fellowship is dissipated like a string of pearls when the cord is cut. What binds us together is the Ordinances of God, behind which Stands God's love. He alone, who is bound to God and through God to his neighbor, can really become a man.