The key doctrine which distinguishes abolition from rival approaches to national sin is known as immediatism; the opposing view is called gradualism, or incrementalism.
As an illustration of the conflict between these two schools of thought, pro-life activists and legislators will put forward laws stating that it should be illegal to kill a child once she has a heartbeat. This kind of bill is marketed as an attempt to save some children, as a step toward gradually abolishing abortion. Abolitionists on the other hand will oppose this bill because it does not completely, immediately abolish abortion.
The resistance of abolitionists to incremental measures can seem like nonsense — why would someone who loves children and opposes their murder be against a law that protects at least some children? Aren’t incremental measures a good thing to enact, on the way to complete and total abolition?
Because immediatism is so counterintuitive, a video or article that is both short and persuasive is difficult to create. In this case, I will err on the side of trying to be persuasive, so please bear with me as we examine this conflict in some detail, as succinctly as possible.
This first point of course does not prove immediatism in any way, but by way of reminder, it’s worth remembering that the gospel itself is counterintuitive. Why would the creator of the universe enter our world as a single cell, without ceremony, implanted in the womb of a poor virgin, a carpenter’s wife? If His purpose in coming was to crush the head of Satan (Gen 3:15), how could he accomplish this by dying on a cross? For a brief period of history, God’s plan of redemption makes it look as though Satan has won. Yet through His genius, God turned the plan of Satan on his head, and used it to secure His own victory on the cross.
As we examine various philosophies and beliefs in the world, it’s important to critique them on their biblical quality, not their perceived human rationale, because very often God’s wisdom and ways are categorically different than our own (Is 55:8). So just because an idea or doctrine offends the sensibilities of normal thinking people, that doesn’t at all make it wrong; often the pragmatic wisdom of man is the very thing that prevents us from seeing the truth of God’s wisdom (1Co 1:25).
There are many godly, thinking people in history who have believed in immediatism — against all of the advice of worldly thinkers. The following was written by Elizabeth Heyrick in her groundbreaking pamphlet, Immediate Not Gradual Abolition:
“The enemies of slavery have hitherto ruined [the abolitionist] cause by the senseless cry of gradual emancipation. It is marvellous that the wise and the good should have suffered themselves to have been imposed upon by this wily artifice of the slave holder, for with him must the project of gradual emancipation have first originated.
“The slave holder knew very well that his prey would be secure, so long as the abolitionists could be cajoled into a demand for gradual instead of immediate abolition. He knew very well, that the contemplation of a gradual emancipation, would beget a gradual indifference to emancipation itself. He knew very well, that even the wise and the good, may, by habit and familiarity, be brought to endure and tolerate almost any thing…
“He knew very well, that the faithful delineation of the horrors of West Indian slavery, would produce such a general insurrection of sympathetic and indignant feeling; such abhorrence of the oppressor, such compassion for the oppressed, as must soon have been fatal to the whole system… Our example might have spread from kingdom to kingdom, from continent to continent, and the slave trade, and slavery, might by this time, have been abolished all the world over: “A sacrifice of a sweet savour,” might have ascended to the Great Parent of the Universe, “His kingdom might have come, and his will (thus far) have been done on earth, as it is in Heaven.”
“But this GRADUAL ABOLITION, has been the grand marplot of human virtue and happiness; the very masterpiece of satanic policy. By converting the cry for immediate, into gradual emancipation, the prince of slave holders, “transformed himself, with astonishing dexterity, into an angel of light,” and thereby “deceived the very elect.” He saw very clearly, that if public justice and humanity, especially, if Christian justice and humanity, could be brought to demand only a gradual extermination of the enormities of the slave system; if they could be brought to acquiesce, but for one year, or for one month, in the slavery of our African brother, in robbing him of all the rights of humanity, and degrading him to a level with the brutes; that then, they could imperceptibly be brought to acquiesce in all this for an unlimited duration….
“The father of lies…deceived, not the unwary only, the unsuspecting multitude, but the wise and the good, by the plausibility, the apparent force, the justice, and above all, by the humanity of the arguments propounded for gradual emancipation. He is the subtlest of all reasoners, the most ingenious of all sophists, the most eloquent of all declaimers. He, above all other advocates, “can make the worst appear the better argument;” can, most effectually pervert the judgment and blind the understanding, whilst they seem to be most enlightened and rectified. Thus by a train of most exquisite reasoning, has he brought the abolitionists to the conclusion, that the interest of the poor, degraded and oppressed slave, as well as that of his master, will be best secured by his remaining in slavery.”
In the same fashion, the pro-life movement in our day has converted the cry, “Protect all children now!” into the cry, “Protect some children now; protect others later!” This is done under the belief that gradual steps are more practical, and more humanly achievable than a cry for immediate and uncompromising justice — and herein lies the error of gradualism. It is conducted under the belief that sin can be abolished by human effort and cunning.
The historic terms “gradualism” and “incrementalism” can be unfortunate, because they often give the impression that abolitionists believe sin will be abolished overnight; “uncompromising” might give a better description of the doctrine. It should be noted that abolitionists/immediatists do believe that change will likely be gradual, and that we do not oppose all forms of gradual change. Rather, we are opposed to a specific misapplication of gradual change.
For people familiar with Christian theology, this can be easily seen on the level of personal sin. Given that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), there are two basic philosophies used by people to remove the guilt of sin from their lives (Gen 4). First, some will change the standard of right and wrong by which they are judged (or think they are judged), so that their actions no longer reflect a breach of law; this is called moralism. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of His day for this practice, saying,
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mar 7:6-8)
Others will confess their sin (i.e. align with God’s standard of right and wrong), and trust in His provision, the punishment of Jesus on the cross in our place. This is called substitutionary atonement, and according to scripture (Gal 2:15-21), it is the only way to become righteous in God’s eyes.
Both methods of dealing with sin use law as part of the process. Moralism changes God’s standard of right and wrong into something that man can practically keep, through his own effort. Albert Mohler puts it the following way,
“The seduction of moralism is the essence of its power. We are so easily seduced into believing that we actually can gain all the approval we need by our behavior. Of course, in order to participate in this seduction, we must negotiate a moral code that defines acceptable behavior with innumerable loopholes. Most moralists would not claim to be without sin, but merely beyond scandal. That is considered sufficient.”
Substitutionary atonement on the other hand uses law by presenting an uncompromising, impossibly high standard of righteousness, so that our sin is revealed, and our need for Christ is made clear (Gal 3:21-24).
On a personal level, evangelicals recognize that changing God’s standard of right and wrong is a false, unbiblical, and ultimately a failing strategy for dealing with the presence of sin in a human life. Gradualism negotiates a moral code with innumerable loopholes, so that the subject can be righteous in his own strength. It equates to telling the adulterer, “You can only cheat on your wife once a week,” then once he complies, changing the law to once every two weeks, then once a month, and finally ending the affair and telling him to love his wife. Immediatism on the other hand recognizes that this is impractical due to the nature of sin, and he instead tells the adulterer, “If you cheat on your wife at all, you are a sinner worthy of death in God’s eyes. You need to repent, turn to Jesus, and rely on His Spirit to cleanse you from this unrighteousness.”
Gradualism is intrinsically moralistic in its philosophy and use of law. It tries to deal with the presence of sin by changing God’s call for an uncompromising standard of right and wrong (do not cheat on your wife ever; do not murder any children ever) into a compromise that tolerates and regulates sin (you can only cheat on your wife once a week; you can only murder a child if she doesn’t yet have a heartbeat). This is impractical, because tolerating and regulating sin only further embeds it into a human life or society (1Co 5:1-6).
To be clear, abolitionists are not opposed to gradual change, nor do we naively believe that change will necessarily happen overnight, although it certainly can (Jon 3, Luk 19:8). Scripture teaches that sanctification (the removal of sin from a life) is progressive, gradual, and incremental (2Co 3:18); it is biblically reasonable to expect gradual change.
Abolitionists have no problem with efforts to save some children, along the way to total abolition; this is one reason why we work at the abortion mills, the schools, and out in the culture, to save as many children as we can. We have no problem working to abolish abortion first in one state, then in another, prior to completely abolishing it from the United States or the world at large.
We recognize fully that sin is abolished gradually through the power of the Spirit; immediatism simply opposes any strategy of gradual change which presents an unbiblical standard of right and wrong to the culture. The law is good, if it is used lawfully (1Ti 1:5-11); however using the law to justify murderers through a false, reduced definition of murder — providing innumerable loopholes and exceptions — is an unbiblical use of civil law. This is moralism, an attempt to abolish sin through the power of human effort, rather than the uncompromising law and gospel of Jesus Christ.
At this point, some Christians will strongly object that the laws of a nation (civil law) are not the same thing as the law of God (moral law); therefore different principles apply, and human law can be used moralistically. The law of God is moral in nature; it is everlasting; it is the law by which all individuals will be judged. The laws of a nation are allegedly amoral (at least in part), temporary, and applying only to those under their jurisdiction.
Many great thinkers (including several founders of the United States) have written extensively on the relationship between God’s law and man’s law, and a full discussion of the matter would transcend the limits of this brief primer on immediatism. However, in this politically allergic form of modern Christianity, some discussion about the nature of civil law is unavoidable if immediatism is to be given any degree of respect and consideration.
The secularization of western governments in recent years has led to the increasing belief, both in the culture and the Church, that civil government is an institution created by man, and governed entirely apart from the revealed word of God. Because scripture is so bound to the life of the Church, often to the exclusion of family and civil government, the phrase, “separation of Church and State” has come to mean “separation of State from all accountability to God and His word.”
Whether explicitly or implicitly believed, this doctrine grants unlimited civil authority on Earth to one or more institutions of man. This stands in direct contradiction to the kingship of God in Christ, who in His ascension stated the following:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mat 28:18-20)
And in Romans, Paul states the following about civil authority:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.
“Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom 13:1-4)
The kings of the earth are servants of God, created to approve what is good, and carry out His wrath on the wrongdoer. Rather than separate civil authority from God, defining it as a human institution that can carry out its own whims as arbitrary rulings, the Bible places civil authority under God’s authority — carrying out His wrath on those who break His standard of right and wrong.
Much can be said concerning how Christians should act when the civil government fails to uphold God’s standard of morality; the very apostles who encouraged submission to civil authority were killed because of civil disobedience, their unwillingness to worship Caesar as God. For the purposes of this article however, it is sufficient to point out that human civil government, and therefore civil law, is created under the authority of God; Jesus is presently ruling as a king over all kings, and He will return to Earth to judge the great and the small for their faithfulness or unfaithfulness to His rule (Ps 2, Rev 6:15-17)
Because of these truths, the burden of proof rests upon the moralist to demonstrate that scripture considers it just, and morally right for rulers to produce laws which contradict or compromise the higher law of God as a means to deal with national sin. Rather than use the law as the instrument of national salvation, establishing a righteousness after our own image, it should be used to reveal our sin according to God’s image and standard of righteousness, that we will be driven to the cross of Jesus Christ. If rulers are unwilling to produce uncompromising legislation, they should be called by the Church to repent, not compromise.
Law is not a neutral tool that can be used however we like. It is a theologically important aspect of human society that is rooted in the very character of God. When gradualists produce compromised legislation, this does not work to incrementally abolish abortion, as the last forty-five years of nonsense has demonstrated. Rather, tolerating sin works to further embed its practice into the fabric of our society as the culture grows increasingly accustomed to it.
Some of these considerations can sound obscure, or valuable in theory only; however they have real-world implications on the earth. First, it should be remembered that history backs the claims of immediatism. Though imperfect, the British abolitionists of the slave trade (like William Wilberforce) were principally immediatists in their work, and they fought against the incrementalists of their day who wanted to abolish the slave trade gradually. More pointedly, the American abolitionists of slavery were explicitly, self-consciously immediatists in their theology and practice, and they stood against the gradualist colonizationist movement, the popular yet unsuccessful anti-slavery movement of their day. History shows us that immediatism succeeds in abolishing sin, and gradualism does not, whatever the pragmatic naysayers may say (presumably, “nay”).
Second, from a cultural perspective, it’s a curious phenomenon that the same, arbitrary standards created by the pro-life movement — it’s illegal to kill a child after 24 weeks, except in the case of rape, or if the mother’s health is at risk etc. — are the same standards used by the culture to judge whether or not it has done something wrong. The effectiveness of street evangelism and activism is significantly stunted because the culture largely believes that it is morally righteous enough that it does not need to repent.
This is easily explained when we recognize that human beings look to the authority figures in their lives to define and understand what is right and wrong. Children will learn morality first from their parents — those authority figures in their lives who are able to define a moral code (whether right or wrong), reward good behavior, and punish bad behavior as they grow. Educators and employers will define their own moral codes (whether right or wrong), reward good behavior, and punish bad behavior, Finally, the state will define its own moral code (whether right or wrong), then reward good behavior, and punish bad behavior.
So when the state, or a parent etc. legislates a form of morality that is a false reflection of God’s morality, this educates the people under their authority with an unbiblical standard of right and wrong. When deciding whether or not to abort a child, or whether or not a previous abortion was right or wrong, the hardened men and women in our culture cannot comprehend the true evil of aborting a child whose murder is sanctioned by the “pro-life” laws of the civil government. As Solomon observed,
“Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” (Ecc 8:11)
Whether one is spoiling a child, or spoiling a nation, compromised legislation and punishment leads only to an increase in unrighteousness.
Third, supporting gradualist legislation instead of abolitionist legislation causes the wrath of God to continue piling up against our people (Rom 2:5). Partial obedience is still disobedience (Jas 2:10), causing unatoned blood guilt to increase and threaten the nation’s survival (Deu 18:9-12).
Finally, when compromised legislation is provided to a king or legislator, this allows the ruler to appease the Christian populace without risking the disfavor of the humanists — and it always detracts from legislation that establishes righteousness. Pro-life legislation is easy; abolitionist legislation is risky. It takes real courage to put forward a bill that opposes the wicked, and aligns to God’s standard of righteousness. When Christians and pro-lifers give a cowardly ruler the option to compromise, he will do it every time.
You can no more empty a flooding reservoir with a thimble than you can end abortion with incremental legislation. If you want to empty the reservoir you have to open the floodgates. If you want to end abortion you have to totally and immediately abolish it.
This does not mean that activists should abandon tactical efforts to save as many individual babies along the way as they can. At the tactical level there are a great many similarities between immediatists (i.e., abolitionists) and gradualists (i.e., traditional pro-lifers). Both will be out at the kill mills advocating for the preborn, for example, though the message will often be different.
At the strategic level however there are major differences. The strategy of gradualists is to pursue legislation that tries to empty the reservoir with a thimble. The strategy of immediatists is to pursue legislation that opens the floodgates, by honoring God’s word, and outlawing abortion as murder.
We have already begun to see legislators adopt this strategy. If we can get enough pro-lifers to begin supporting abolitionist legislation rather than incrementalist legislation, those metaphorical floodgates will soon be opening all across the land.
Many Christians instinctively recognize that they have a God-given duty to help the needy and the oppressed. In a culture where the neediest people are the 1,000,000+ people being killed by abortion every year, they understand that Jesus does not give us the option to walk by these children on the other side of the road as they bleed into the ground (Luk 10:25-37).
Many Christians know that they should do something, but they don’t know where to begin. The Activate series is designed to give you a simple, free way to educate yourself about the abolition of abortion, and to make an impact on the people in your social network.
Five minutes out of your day can save the child of someone you know. Join the great social campaign to help shift the culture’s perspective on abortion toward repentance and trust in Jesus Christ.