In the first part of this series, featured in May, the author reviewed the relevance of the Old Testament Law to all time, including the New Testament era. In the second part, featured in July, the author showed the significance of the Old Testament Law in the life of Old Testament saints. In this concluding part of the serial, the author argues for the relevance and the importance of the Old Testament Law for Christians today. —Editors.
By now we should have grasped the Old Testament understanding of the relationship between law and grace within the divine plan of salvation and sanctification. The Scriptures are consistent in asserting that sinfulness is a universal plight. In the words of Isaiah, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isa. 64:6, NIV).1 Paul echoes the same thought: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, NIV). The Scriptures also maintain that salvation results from God’s grace to those who believe in Him, and that no one in either Old or New Testament time is saved by their works of righteousness.
However, within the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, Yahweh graciously reveals the standard of righteousness by which His redeemed people may live and be confident of His approval. There is no conflict here between law and grace. The Torah is a gracious gift. It provided His people with an ever-present reminder of Yahweh’s deliverance, His power, His covenant faithfulness, and the way of life and prosperity.
Affirming this truth, however, raises a problem to some Christians. After all, we have Paul’s outspoken statements regarding the death dealing effect of the Law in contrast to the life that comes by the Spirit (Rom. 2:12, 13; 4:13–15; 7:8, 9; 8:2–4; 10:4, 5; 1 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:12, 13, 21–24; 5:18). Is there not a divergence of views between Moses and Paul, with one standing for the Law and the other for grace? We now turn to this apparent problem and propose a solution that shows Scriptures are always consistent and never contradictory.
The problem: Paul versus Moses
In our approach, we need to keep in mind a couple of important considerations.
First, Moses’ statement concerning the life giving/sustaining effects of the Law is consistent with his teaching in Deuteronomy 30:15–20, and with the teaching of the Old Testament elsewhere. In Leviticus 18:5, Yahweh declares, “ ‘ “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am [Yahweh]” ’ ” (NIV). Similar statements are found in Ezekiel 20:11, 13 and Nehemiah 9:29. The psalter begins with an ode to the life-giving nature of the Law (1:1–6). Psalm 119 is devoted entirely to the positive nature of the Law. References to the relationship between keeping the Law and its life-giving nature are common (vv. 17, 40, 77, 93, 97, 116, 144, 156, 159, 175). The basic Old Testament stance is summarized in Habakkuk 2:4, which in context is best interpreted, “As for the proud one, his person [nephesh] is not right on the inside; but the righteous in his faithfulness shall live.” Ezekiel offers an extended exposition of this notion in 18:1–23. After describing the ethical behavior of a man, on behalf of Yahweh, he declares, “ ‘[He] is righteous; he shall surely live’ ” (v. 9, RSV). After describing the unethical behavior of his son he declares, “ ‘He has committed all these abominations, he will surely be put to death’ ” (v. 13, NAS). Later he declares that if a wicked man turns from his wickedness and observes all of Yahweh’s decrees, and practices righteousness and justice, “ ‘he shall surely live’ ” (vv. 21–23, NAS).2 The assumption in each case is that the outward actions reflect the inner spirit of the person,3 on the basis of which a judgment concerning the spiritual status of the person may be made and the sentence of life or death rendered.
Second, from a hermeneutical and theological perspective, later revelation cannot correct earlier revelation, as if there were some defect in it. Later revelation may be more precise and more nuanced, but it cannot be more true. Accordingly, Paul cannot be interpreted as correcting Moses, as if Moses was wrong or there was some kind of error in his teaching. If Paul appears to declare something different from Moses, who celebrates the life-giving/sustaining function of the Law (cf. Lev. 18:5), then we need to ask whether or not he addresses the same issues as Moses. His statements must be interpreted both in the light of Moses and in the context of particular arguments. In both Romans and Galatians, Paul was responding to those who insist that salvation comes by the works of the Law, as represented by circumcision. To those who represent this view he replies that if one looks to the Law as a way of salvation, it will lead to death. On the other hand, if one looks to the Law as a guide for those already saved, it yields life (cf. Gal. 5:13–25). On this matter Moses and Paul are in perfect agreement. In fact, Paul himself says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13, RSV). The notion of “the obedience of faith,” that is, a faith that is demonstrated through acts of obedience, is common to Old and New Testaments.4 Both Testaments attest to the same paradigm:
—Yahweh’s gracious (i.e., unmerited) saving actions yield the fruit of a redeemed people.
—A redeemed people yield the fruit of righteous deeds.
—Righteous deeds yield the fruit of divine blessing.
It is evident from the New Testament that in the light of Christ, Christians do indeed have a new disposition toward the Law. Not only do they see Him as its fulfillment and through their union with Him delight in its fulfillment themselves, but the Law of God is written on Christian’s hearts even as it was written on the hearts of true believers in the Old Testament times. But we should not imagine that the Law written on our hearts is different from the Law revealed in the Old Testament. Jesus said, “ ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ ” (John 14:15, RSV), and “ ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ ” (v. 21, RSV). In lifting these statements right out of Deuteronomy Jesus identifies Himself with Yahweh in the Old Testament. Furthermore, His use of the plural “my commandments” (tas entolas mou) presupposes a specific body of laws with which the disciples are familiar. Here Jesus does not say generically and vaguely, “If you love me you will do as I say,” as if this refers to marching orders for the future.
Accordingly, when we reflect on whether or not we need to keep any or all of the Old Testament laws, perhaps we have been asking the wrong question all along. When confronted with a specific commandment from the Pentateuch, instead of asking, “Do I as a Christian have to keep this commandment?” perhaps we should be asking, “How can I as a Christian keep this commandment?” Of course, when we read the commands concerning the sacrifices, we recognize that the blood of bulls and goats could never by itself take away sin (Heb. 10:4), but we keep these laws by celebrating the fact that when the Old Testament rituals were performed in faith by those who walked with God, the sacrifice of Christ, slain before the foundation of the world (1 Pet. 1:18–20),5 was applied to them, and that this sacrifice has been offered for us, once and for all. When we approach the laws concerning the civil administration of Israel we analyze the functions and objectives of those laws and translate them into equivalent goals for the people of God in our context. When we encounter criminal laws, we interpret the drastic responses required as reflective of the heinousness of the crimes in the eyes of God. When we read the family laws, we hear the voice of God affirming the sanctity of this institution and the responsibilities of all members for the maintenance of the household. And when we hear the pleas for compassion to the poor and the marginalized members of society, we remember the words of the Old Testament sage: “He who oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is kind to the needy honors him” (Prov. 14:31, RSV).
How, then, are New Testament Christians to apply the Old Testament Law to their own lives? It is evident from the deliberations and the decisions of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1–21 that in the light of the Cross and the redemptive work of Christ, Gentile Christians are not subject to the laws of the Old Testament in the same way that Old Testament saints were; particularly that conformity to the ritual laws (specifically circumcision) was not to be viewed as a precondition to salvation (v. 1). On the other hand, the Council did not absolve Gentile Christians of any and all accountability to God as outlined in previous revelation. On the contrary, the demand that Gentile believers “ ‘abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood’ ” (v. 20, NKJV; cf. v. 29) assumes not only familiarity with the Old Testament laws but also a continued relevance of some of those laws for New Testament believers. These prohibitions may be viewed as shorthand for Deuteronomic calls for exclusive allegiance to Yahweh/ Christ, scrupulous ethical purity, and the respect for the sanctity of all life, including that of animals.
How, then, should Christians approach the Old Testament laws? Let me offer a few suggestions.
First, Christians must take 2 Timothy 3:15–17 as the starting point, recognizing that this statement affirms not only the reliability of the Old Testament as divinely breathed Scripture, but that it is ethically relevant and through its application God creates a transformed people. This means also that before we impose the Old Testament laws on others, we must adopt the commitments of Ezra as our own, setting our hearts to study, to apply, and to teach it to God’s people (Ezra 7:10).
Second, while we recognize that with the sacrifice of Christ all the Old Testament sacrifices have been terminated, we also recognize the essential theological and ethical unity of the two Testaments, a unity summarized in Jesus’ call for covenantal commitment (love) to God and to one’s fellow human beings. This means that the redeemed scrupulously seek to please God in all areas of life (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17, 23; cf. Lev. 19), and they compassionately always put the welfare of others ahead of their own (Phil. 2:3, 4). At the same time we look to the New Testament for guidance on which Old Testament laws have been rendered obsolete in Christ. Most evangelical Christians assume that unless the New Testament expressly affirms the continued relevance of an Old Testament ordinance, we may assume it has been abrogated in Christ. One should probably rather adopt the opposite stance: Unless the New Testament expressly declares the end of an Old Testament ordinance (e.g., the sacrifices), we assume its authority continues for believers today.
Third, we recognize that without the background of Old Testament Law, Paul’s call for obedience to the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21, RSV; Gal. 6:2), and Jesus’ call for adherence to the “commandments” remain vague and empty, subject to anybody’s personal and subjective interpretation. Familiarity with the Old Testament laws is indispensable for an understanding of Jesus’ and Paul’s ethical exhortations.
Fourth, even as we accept the fundamental theological and ethical unity of the Testaments, we must respect the distinctions among different categories of Old Testament Law.6 By “categories” I do not mean the classical distinctions of moral, ceremonial, and civil laws— which in any case are not biblical categories—but the laws governing criminal, civic, family, cultic, and social affairs. In some of these the relevance for New Testament believers is on the surface (Deut. 6:4, 5), but in others it may be couched in culturally specific terms. This is the case, for example, in the law concerning houses with parapets (Deut. 22:8). In arguing for the ongoing relevance of this commandment we obviously do not mean that Christians must build houses with parapets. Rather, we recognize and live by the theological principle illustrated by this law: Heads of households must ensure the well-being of all who enter their homes. In the context of a modern city like Chicago, this translates into an appeal to keep the sidewalk leading up to the house clear of ice and snow in the winter.
Fifth, we need to investigate carefully not only the features of Old Testament laws but their social function and theological underpinnings as well. Many of the specific regulations (e.g. haircuts, tattoos, and gashing the body [Lev. 19:27, 28]) represent responses to specific pagan customs, whose nature can be determined only by careful consideration of the cultural context out of which these ordinances arose and which they seek to address. Particularly in Deuteronomy, we observe a fundamental concern to protect the weak and vulnerable from abuse and exploitation at the hands of those with economic and political power. The principles obviously have permanent relevance.4
Sixth, seize the underlying principles of those that are culturally and contextually specific and apply those principles to the contexts in which we live. It is impossible to establish the particular kind of haircut Leviticus 19:27 seeks to ban, but it is not difficult to identify parallel contemporary practices that need to be reined in. While hairstyles change from generation to generation, and even from year to year, surely the principle applies to all forms of dress that represent ungodly values.
The problem of applying Old Testament laws to contemporary contexts is much more complex than these few summary statements would imply. However, the time has come for us to re-examine the fundamental assumptions that we bring to the matter. Follow me carefully. I am not hereby advocating any kind of works salvation. No one has ever been saved by works. Salvation is made possible only through the unmerited grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Salvation is a gift to be received by faith, not earned by human effort. But we are concerned about a salvation that works; that is, a salvation that results in a life that conforms to the will of God. At issue is the believer’s sanctification. While obedience is not a prerequisite to salvation, it is the key to the blessing of the redeemed. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself declares the relationship between obedience to the law and the believer’s well-being: “ ‘Then the King will say to those on his right “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” ’ ” (Matt. 25:34–40, ESV).
1 Compare the repeated assertions of the psalmist that (apart from relationship with Yahweh) there is none who does good: 14:1, 4; 53:1, 3.
2 For a detailed discussion of this chapter, see Daniel I. Block, Ezekiel 1–24 (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 554–90.
3 This principle is operative also in Jesus’ teaching: Matt. 7:15–23.
4 For a helpful discussion of these and related issues from the New Testament perspective, see S. J. Hafemann, Paul, Moses, and the History of Israel: The Letter/Spirit Contrast and the Argument from Scripture in 2 Corinthians 3 (WUNT 81; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1995).
5 Cf. Matt. 25:34; Eph. 1:4; Heb. 4:3; 9:26; Rev. 13:8; 17:8.
6 In the following comments I am heavily indebted to Christopher Wright. See especially his four methodological principles outlined in Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995): 114–6.