The Definition of Crime

1 Peter 2:9 But ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light:

I am not declaring these definitions to be universally binding, only that this is how I will be using them in this study. I will be using words that normally have broad meanings, but I will be using them here in a narrower capacity. I will define below the narrower meanings that I will be using in this Bible study.

Government: the organization of the civil magistrates. Also called the State, Ruler, etc. Basically, the government which punishes crime in a nation (as opposed to the government of the church, family, etc.). The fourth definition in Webster’s 1828 definition of government: “The system of polity in a state; that form of fundamental rules and principles by which a nation or state is governed, or by which individual members of a body politic are to regulate their social actions; a constitution, either written or unwritten, by which the rights and duties of citizens and public officers are prescribed and defined; as a monarchial government, or a republican government.”

Vertical sin: a sin whose punishment is predicated on the fact of its being against God. A sin that has as its principal object God. Some have called these sins “spiritual.” It is contrasted with “horizontal” sins. Of course, all sins are inevitably against God, whether indirectly or directly. But a vertical sin is mainly, if not exclusively, against God and no other. The punishment of a vertical sin is not because it is against or involves another human, but because it is an offense to God.

Horizontal sin: a sin that is mostly against mankind and his temporal extensions (his property and etc.). A sin that has as its principal object another human rather than God directly. Some have called these sins “temporal.” It is contrasted with vertical sins. Horizontal sins are always sins against either another person’s life, their liberty, their property, or against a contract with a person. The punishment of a horizontal sin is based on the injury done to another human being, not on the offense it is to God.

Crime: a sin which is in the jurisdiction of the government to punish. The whole purpose of this Bible study is to define crime, so as it progresses, more delimiting factors will be added to this definition of crime. Some people call heinous sins “crimes” whether or not they have anything to do with government. In this Bible study a crime is limited to a sin punishable by government.

Two Covenants

On mount Sinai, and in revelations following, God made and established a covenant with a nation. This covenant changed the course of that nation’s history, and the course of the world. Within it was the wisdom of God, speaking of things greatly to our profit. It spoke of the nature of God, and so commanded the respect of the nations on all sides of that blessed nation whom God had called His own: Israel. This covenant also spoke of our inherent depraved nature, and our need for redemption. It did not provide the answer to the problem that it revealed, however, but foretold the answer. It told of a new covenant, one that would be perfect, and which would create a new kind of nation, a nation which would transcend the world. This new covenant would replace the old one and bring in a new age of Godly wisdom and insight onto the mysteries of God.

But this first, great covenant bore with it a great responsibility.

Exodus 34:10-14 And he said, Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do marvels, such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou [art] shall see the work of the LORD: for it [is] a terrible thing that I will do with thee.
11 Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
12 Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee:
13 But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves:
14 For
thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name [is] Jealous, [is] a jealous God:

23-26 Take heed unto yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make you a graven image, [or] the likeness of any [thing,] which the LORD thy God hath forbidden thee.
24 For the LORD thy God [is] a consuming fire, [even] a jealous God.
25 When thou shalt beget children, and children’s children, and ye shall have remained long in the land, and shall corrupt [yourselves,] and make a graven image, [or] the likeness of any [thing,] and shall do evil in the sight of the LORD thy God, to provoke him to anger:
26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong [your] days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard [of it,] and inquired diligently, and, behold, [it be] true, [and] the thing certain, [that] such abomination is wrought in Israel:
5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, [even] that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; [but] at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.

The nation of Israel was promised great good if they hearkened to and obeyed the laws of God that He gave them through the covenant. But it was also required of them that they hold to no other God but the Lord. He gave them many laws that dealt with this. He also gave them laws that were shadows of the covenant that was to come: the covenant that would redeem them.

In this first covenant, the old covenant, God was intimately connected with its workings. He made the laws, organized the nation, commanded the order of the battles, guided the rulers, and in all respects was its King. Even during the monarchy He maintained this close connection, giving orders and judgments through His prophets. The entire Old Testament is full of accounts of His direct and visible working in the political realm of Israel. Although He ruled and reigned over all nations, and raised up and put down kings in other kingdoms, Israel was indubitably special.

Deuteronomy 4:5-9 Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.
6 Keep therefore and do [them;] for this [is] your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation [is] a wise and understanding people.
7 For what nation [is there so] great, who [hath] God [so] nigh unto them, as the LORD our God [is] in all [things that] we call upon him [for?]
8 And what nation [is there so] great, that hath statutes and judgments [so] righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?
9 Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons;

Deuteronomy 4:32-34 For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and [ask] from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been [any such thing] as this great thing [is,] or hath been heard like it?
33 Did [ever] people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?
34 Or
hath God assayed to go [and] take him a nation from the midst of [another] nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?

Although this covenant was a magnificent and glorious testimony among the nations for God, despite Israel’s frequent rebellions, it has come to an end. The long awaited and long sought for new covenant came with the death of Christ. There is now a new covenant that is perfect and without flaw. There is a heavenly kingdom of which we can all be a part, regardless of earthly nationality and heritage. This new covenant does not destroy the old, but rather fulfills it, for the old was there to herald and speak of the coming of the new. Every word and piece of the old covenant has a message for us in the new covenant, even if it is not directly applicable, it is figurative of some aspect of the new relationship we have with God.

Hebrews 8:5-13 Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, [that] thou make all things according to the pattern showed to thee in the mount.
6 But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of
a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
7 For if that first [covenant] had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
10 For this [is] the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
13 In that he saith,
A new [covenant,] he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old [is] ready to vanish away.

So what is the nature of this new covenant? What differences lie between the new and the old? What changes are made in our responsibility?

Hebrews 7:11-12 If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need [was there] that another priest should rise after the order of Melchisedec, and not be called after the order of Aaron?
12 For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.

Hebrews 9:9-10 Which [was] a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;
10 [Which stood] only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed [on them]
until the time of reformation.

Hebrews 12:24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than [that of] Abel.

Colossians 1:17-22 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
18 And
he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all [things] he might have the preeminence.
19 For it pleased [the Father] that in him should all fulness dwell;
20 And,
having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, [I say,] whether [they be] things in earth, or things in heaven.
21 And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in [your] mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled
22 In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:

John 18:36 Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.

John 6:15 When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone.

There has been a drastic change in the law. Not only in its effect on us, but in its nature. The day before Jesus’ death you were required to give sacrifices for your sins, the day after His death it was wrong to do so. This is only a case example: the differences were not limited to sacrifices and priests. The differences encompassed the very nature of God’s relation to government. His kingdom was not earthly, but heavenly. Because of these differences we cannot declare a sin to be a crime merely because it was a crime in the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Covenant is not binding, and so cannot be used to justify requirements on government: it has other purposes, mainly illustrative. Even the Pentateuchal text itself clearly states that its laws were only for Israel, and for the purpose of making Israel a separate nation.

New Testament Definition of Crime

Romans 13:1-6
1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil.
5 Wherefore [ye] must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
6 For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

This is an obvious passage to study when we are looking to the New Testament for the definition of crime. It has much insight at first glance, but the deeper I probe into its meaning, the more startling and profound are its revelations. Notice first of all the use of the word “evil” in the 3rd and 4th verses. This is a key word, and yet it has a very broad definition. Even the Greek gives little help in narrowing the scope of this word.

But notice the qualifying words that are seen in each instance: works, do, and doeth. These denote action, ruling out heart sins. We know that God considers even evil thoughts and intents of the heart to be sin, but we see from this passage, as we see from other passages also, that government is to have nothing to do with these heart matters. It can only punish actions. This is clear in both the English and the Greek: they both talk about actions done outwardly and even towards others in the Greek.

We know that the government is not to punish all evil actions. So we must determine what type of evil it is referring to from the context. Let us look at the preceding passage in Romans 12:

Romans 12:17-21
17 Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.
18 If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.
19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but [rather] give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance [is] mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is clearly a “horizontal” relationship passage, discussing how we ought to deal with our neighbors’ hurting us. We are not to avenge ourselves against wrongs done to us. This is clear. We are not to avenge ourselves against wrongs done to us because that is God’s job. We are to leave that to Him. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” But notice chapter 13:4 “he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Verse 19 directly pertains to our passage 13:1-6. Verse 17’s word “evil” is the same word used in chapter 13:3-4. This passage gives us a clear definition for the type of evil actions government is to punish with its sword: evil towards others. The civil magistrate is God’s delegated servant to execute punishment on what you would otherwise have executed vengeance on: wrongs done to you.

1 Peter 2:13-14
13 Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.

A smaller passage, but just as meaningful. This clearly outlines the purpose of the civil magistrate: to punish evil-doers and praise well-doers. Notice the word “evildoers.” It specifically means (in the Greek) injurious. Its roots and other forms also mean injurious. It also refers to injury to others. So we have again what we had in Romans 12 & 13: crime (sins punishable by government) is an action that is injurious to other people.

1 Thess. 4:3-6
3 For this is the will of God, [even] your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:
4 That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour;
5 Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:
6 That no [man] go beyond and defraud his brother in [any] matter: because that the Lord [is] the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.

This passage’s context is discussing specifically our behavior toward God and our walk of holiness and sanctification before Him. Then it contrasts this with a result of what happens if you fail to keep yourself pure. Notice where this happens in verse 6, “That no [man] go beyond and defraud his brother in [any] matter: because that the Lord [is] the avenger of all such.” Notice the word “avenger” is the same as in Romans 13, where we learned that the civil magistrate is God’s agent in carrying out just punishment on crime (avenge). This verse defines crime! “That no [man] go beyond and defraud his brother in [any] matter: because that the Lord [is] the avenger of all such” So what does it mean to “go beyond” and “defraud”? Just what it says. The Greek also includes the important concept that an attack on a person’s exclusive jurisdiction (private property, liberty, etc.) is an attack on him. So we have the extension of crime to a person’s liberty and property at least. Also again we have a separation between sin against God and crime against Man.

Because of the importance of the New Testament’s definition of crime, I will iterate here what we have learned, and what we can draw from that. I will use some of the Old Testament laws as examples to illustrate some obvious deductions, which is the proper use of those laws.

  1. Crimes are done, not thought. They are not necessarily acted, as a deliberate or careless refusal to act has the same denotations and consequences as an actual action.
  2. The punishments for crimes are based on the fact that they are towards other people, not towards animals or God. All sins are against God, but the punishment of the government is limited to that part of a sin that is against mankind. This is the principle of restitution, as separate from the principle of guilt towards God. If you sinned against another in the Mosaic Law, you had to pay restitution, and give an offering to God. The one was for the offense to man, the other for the offense to God. Government can only exact the former, the offense to man. Government only deals in restitution in the New Testament.
  3. Crimes are against another person. They are injurious to him in some way. An attempt at an injurious act is also a crime because although it might have been thwarted, it was against the other person. In the Old Testament we see and example of this deduction with the law of false witness. The false witness is not merely punished for the limiting of the accused liberty because of the trial, but for the accusation, what he had intended to do to the accused party. So restitution is required even if the attempt fails, though maybe not always in the full amount.
  4. Crimes are not limited to a person himself, but extends to his properties and liberties. A person has exclusive jurisdiction over his property, and to violate that exclusive right, is to violate himself. This extends to his liberty as well, as is required by logic and indicated by many laws in the Old Testament, including the kidnapping laws. Because of this, we can also add contract law, as that is a necessary extension of both property and liberty. To break a contract is to commit a crime against the other parties.
  5. It is not a crime to punish crime if you are delegated to punish crime. It is the government’s responsibility to punish crime, and to do so they must exact punishment, which itself falls into the category of actions that defines a crime. Criminal type actions can only be done by delegated government officials in punishment of proven crime. If a criminal type action is done without due process of law (however that is defined) then that action is a crime and needs to be punished as such.

So from this we may conclude the following definition of crime (keep in mind that government in the New Testament is limited to punishing crime and praising righteousness): a crime is a breach of contract with fellow men or a sin against a fellow man, which includes violations of his life, liberty, and property without due process of law.

We will need to continue our studies to discern whether things like adultery, divorce, striking/cursing/rebelling against your parents, usury, murder, immigration, threats, and etc. are crimes by this Biblical definition. We will also need to determine which crimes must always be in the government’s jurisdiction, which ones may be excluded from it by the decision of the offended parties, and etc. These must follow the hermeneutic principles outlined in this study of they are to be useful, however. We must study the Old Testament law to discern what punishments were given for what reasons, and then conclude how we ought to view these laws in light of the New Testament that we live in.

With joy and peace in Christ,
Jay Lauser


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