Augustus was the emperor of Rome when Jesus was born. When he took the office, the empire was morally bankrupt. Men and women cared little for marriage and childrearing. Prostitution and fornication were common. Augustus had vision enough to see where this behavior was headed. No nation that trashes the institution of marriage and the family can survive. Concerned with the future of his people, Augustus set forth unusually high moral ideals for the empire. In fact, he passed laws to check the prevalence of sexual immorality and promote marriage. He actually passed a law that required all marriageable males under sixty and females under fifty to marry. Penalties were imposed on those who ignored the law. In addition the emperor issued what is called the Julian law of repressing adultery. This law made adultery a crime that was punishable by death.
How did these laws work in the Roman Empire? Not very well. The people found loopholes such as marrying to obey the law and then divorcing soon afterwards. The penalties were difficult to carry out and the people in general complained about the severity of the laws until Augustus annulled them. He came to conclude that “laws are vain when hearts are unchanged” (Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, pp. 222-224).
The Church was established less than twenty years after Augustus’ reign ended. As the gospel spread throughout pagan Rome, it changed hearts and lives by the thousands. The apostles taught these converts the purity of marriage (I Cor. 7:1-5). They taught husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-33; I Pet. 3:1-7). A growing part of Roman society came under the stabilizing influence of the teaching of Christ. Fishermen and farmers did what the most powerful man in the world could not. They changed people from the inside out.
Sometimes people say, “You can’t legislate morality.” If they mean that laws should not be passed that touch on moral issues they are demanding more then they realize. Murder is a moral matter. Should there be laws against it? Stealing is a moral issue. Should it be legalized? In the past this statement was aimed at issues such as abortion and pornography, and it still is. But now it is offered as a justification for same-sex-marriage. The government should stay out of people’s lives, its proponents argue. Then what about laws against pedophilia, incest, and rape? Since these are moral issues, should the government stay out of people’s private lives in these areas?
There is another sense in which this statement can be meant, however. Laws can help to curb moral evils, but it takes the Word of God to change hearts and lives. All the laws in the world cannot take the place of instilling the Bible into the consciences of children and men. Laws govern the behavior of men. They do not regulate the heart. This is why enacting “hate laws” is ludicrous and dangerous. Civil laws by themselves cannot make a man moral. This is why teaching the Bible is so important. The Word of God changes men on the inside, and their actions on the outside follow. When the laws of the land reflect these values, people who disobey the Word will be restrained from harming others by the arm of the government. When the two forces work together, society in general and Christians in particular will be at peace. When one or both fail, there will be confusion and chaos.