MENU

Where the world comes to study the Bible

21. Position Statement on the Use of the Old Testament Law by Christians

How should the New Testament believer relate to the Old Testament law? I was brought up in the tradition of Biblical interpretation called Dispensationalism. Under that interpretative structure the Old Testament law was considered useful for history of creation and of Israel, and prophecies of Christ. I do not recall hearing a single sermon on any commandments of the law as a source for direction to Christians for our behavior. Louis Chafer, in his book He that is Spiritual, stated that though the Old Testament had many things in common with the New Testament, it was actually the Acts, the epistles, and half of the Gospels (presumably the events recorded after Matthew 13) which were the marching orders for the New Testament believer.

While I was attending Trinity Divinity School and studying the Older Testament under Walter Kaiser, I began to think through the issues more carefully for myself. After reading Luther and Calvin, and others, I developed my own ideas which I have used in the writing of this book. The starting point of my thinking was to take seriously the writings of St. Paul when he said:

2 Timothy 3:16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 3:17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.
(NET Bible)

It is highly unlikely that Paul is using the word “Scripture” any differently than does his Master, Jesus, and Jesus specifically speaks of Moses as being included under that term:

Luke 24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures. (NET Bible)

For His part, Jesus said of the Law…

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 5:18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place.5:19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 5:20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (NET Bible)

We have also noted that in the Sermon, Jesus comments on each of the commandments from 6-10 and backwards from 5-1. In doing so, He implies that the Commandments are relevant to His disciples—insofar as He commissions them at the end of that Gospel to use all His teachings to disciple the nations. Paul could arguably be said to have employed the structure of the Ten in outlining his only ethical treatise: 1 Corinthians. That letter is, of course, directed to the Church. [See the chart in Appendix J for the precise division.]

But Paul also clearly rejects putting the Christian “under the Law” (Galatians 3). Jesus is also said to have removed the kosher laws by declaring all foods clean.

Mark 7:18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? 7:19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) 7:20 He said, “What comes out of a person defiles him. 7:21 For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, 7:22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 7:23 All these evils come from within and defile a person.” (NET Bible)

How then do we harmonize these texts? Some suggest that all in the Old Testament law is assumed to be applicable to the Christian unless it is specifically disallowed by a statement of the New. The early Church seems not to accept that approach. In Acts, the Church is concerned that Gentiles understand that they need not become Jews in order to become Christians.

Acts 15:8 And God, who knows the heart, has testified to them [Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 15:9 and he made no distinction between them and us, cleansing their hearts by faith. 15:10 So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke [the Law of Moses] that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 15:11On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.” (NET Bible)

Should we then reverse the principle and assume that nothing in the Old Testament should be placed on the believer unless it is found in the New? That seems to disagree with the teaching of Paul, just cited in his letter to Timothy.

The approach practiced in this book is to feel free to go to any law in the Old Testament and discern the moral principle of which it is an expression. Then to apply that principle to life as we face it. Let me give an example.

Deut. 22:8 If you build a new house, you must construct a guard rail around your roof to avoid being culpable in the event someone should fall from it.
(NET Bible) [Emphasis mine]

The moral concept here is integrity. A wall built around an existing roof (old house) would not have integrity with the house and be weak. A person seeing the wall might lean on it and fall off the roof, with the wall materials falling with and on him. Clearly the direction of this command is the love of the neighbor regarding liability for his safety while on our property. In applying this law, we could be as broad as establishing any number of such building codes or we could be as narrow as a rule NOT to build a wall around a roof which is slanted and could trap snow and cause a roof collapse. In the latter case, we have taken the principle and applied it to modern circumstances in which our roofs have no access and are inappropriately shaped. By putting a wall around such roofs today, we would go against the rules meaning in the text by endangering people living in the house below. This is using divinely guided wisdom to discern principle from a revealed rule and apply appropriately to new situations. We have not, by doing so, placed ourselves under the Mosaic Law, nor have we argued that our application is an updated inspiration of the text. We have used the Law to instruct in righteous behavior for today’s Christians.

This approach is similar to Jesus’ method in the Sermon. He drew out personal moral implications from the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Code. He looked to the laws and discerned their essential meaning. He found the principles within the commandment and drew out of it the spirit of the laws, which He then applied to His hearers. And…He told His disciples to teach what He had been taught. I also believe that He intended us to do likewise. While admittedly He did not invite his disciples to do with the Ten as He had done, Paul does by necessary implication in 2 Timothy. By complying with him we are not thereby adding to the New Testament or claiming inspiration for our applications.

Paul is saying that Moses’ Law—all of it—is useful for reproof, correction and training in righteousness—personal and ecclesiastical issues. The question is not whether but how it is useful for those things. This book has unashamedly gone to the Old Testament to learn what God thinks of marriage, divorce and remarriage. The principles we find there are still relevant to today. Marriage was intended to be permanent. Divorce was either a control of hard-hearted husband (Exodus 21) or permitted to them so that their rejected wives would be protected from further abuse (Deut. 24:1-4). Divorce was also a punishment for wicked partners (wives) who strayed (Hosea). Remarriage was permitted for the divorced innocent, who would then have their needs met (Deut. 24). The guilty were required to confess, repent, and restore (Hosea). All of those things were taught and have not passed away. To ignore them because they are in the Hebrew code is to reject Paul.

But what is the “profit” of the adultery penalty law found in Leviticus 18? Jesus speaks to the issue of punishment in Matthew 18, when, in general, He says that a person who is unrepentant should be excluded from the faith by representatives of the Church. Paul’ teaching agrees with that when he admonishes the church at Corinth to exclude the man who was living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5). Exclusion or excommunication is to ethics in the Church, what execution was to civil law in Israel. An application of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings would be that the execution of adulterers and adulteresses is replaced by excommunication and perhaps by divorce. Of course, in the Church, a repentant adulterer/adulteress should be forgiven and returned to fellowship, a la Paul’s (believed) reinstatement of the repentant incestuous man in 2 Cor. 2:5 ff. Does this mean that if society adopted the principles of the Mosaic Law in the drafting of their nations civil laws, that forgiveness should be extended to adulterers/adulteresses rather than execution? Probably not. I suspect that if there is a Millennial Kingdom, something akin to the Mosaic Law—including execution for adultery—will be reinstated. But that will be under the control of the Messiah.

The hermeneutic above is intended to follow in the tradition of the distinction between interpretation and application. The interpretation includes the meaning of the words in their original setting AND the principle that gives them meaning. Applications of that meaning are many and necessary if the meaning is to be meaningful to us. The Scripture itself reveals applications, and those applications are inspired. Our applications are not. But ours may and should be true to the Divine revelation.

Instone-Brewer, in Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible,642 includes a chapter titled “Different Ways to Interpret the Biblical Text”. One of those ways he calls: “The New Testament Affirms the Old Testament Law.” A subcategory (?) of this view is one which tries to show that all the O.T. laws should be accepted today. Along with Rushdoony’s encyclopedic approach (in Institutes of Biblical Law), Instone-Brewer includes this book. He seeks to reduce any such view as untenable citing such laws as those which require the execution of unruly teens (Deut. 21:18-21) and the rejection of loans at interest (Exodus 22:25).

This reminds me of the time when I was teaching adult Sunday School at our local Bible Church. The teacher of the grammar school class was sick and the children were forced to go to class with their parents. My son sat with his mother while I was up front. It happened that I was teaching on the Ten Commandments and was dealing with the Deuteronomy passage just cited. After the class, as we left the church, my son rushed up to me leaving his friends close behind. When they saw that I was his father, one exclaimed. “OH! That’s Will’s dad. He’s the one who believes in stoning children!” They apparently did not understand the qualification of incorrigibility!

The problem with an objection like that of Instone-Brewer is that it seems to imply that God lacked wisdom with regard to the law as He gave it to the Israelites in the wilderness. Is the capital punishment of incorrigible teens too harsh? Such criticism fails to see the wisdom of nipping “incorrigible delinquency” in the bud. God would rather such youth be removed from the scene, than allow them to grow up and commit violent sins (perhaps involving the death of an innocent person) which would then require their execution. If such teens would “attack” the very source of their own lives, how can they be expected to respect the lives of others?

Considering the other legislation Instone-Brewer cited (Exodus 22:25), we may ask if God lacked wisdom in the opposite direction (namely, was too lenient toward loaners) as regards charging interest on loans. I believe that the O.T. law on interest is designed to keep the poor from being pushed further into debt and poverty. I believe that the Law in Exodus, et passim, assumes the borrower is poor. The rich would be like the foreigner, who could be charged interest—presumably because he borrows to become wealthier, as opposed to the Hebrew who borrows to eat. God did not stutter through Moses. A willing nation could adopt either law, even verbatim, without any fear of offending the God Who originally gave them. This does not institute the Mosaic Law in their courthouse, they only draw from it.

Of course some laws were given to give identity to Israel and it would be wrong or meaningless for a nation to adopt them verbatim. Included would be such laws as: instructions for the tabernacle in which alone God was to dwell on earth, the regulations related to ceremonies involved with that tabernacle, laws of feasts which celebrated Israel’s peculiar history, and food, clothing, and agricultural laws which made Israel a peculiar people…different from what God had previously allowed all peoples. Some may consider these laws irrelevant since “ceremonial”, and the rest as relevant as “moral”, but that is not how I understand them. As noted before, the Law comes as a unit. Such laws-types as just listed were object lessons in purity, integrity, propitiation, etc. as such they are just as relevant as the less “object-lesson” laws such as “Do not Commit Adultery”. But they are relevant per principle, not verbatim.

But does not the New Testament sometimes negate Old Testament Law? When Jesus “renders all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), He does not abolish those laws insofar as they teach the need to be pure of soul, the very point Jesus was making. Purity was the underlying principle taught by the semi-arbitrarily based concept of unclean foods. Pigs are unclean. God used their uncleanness to picture the need to be pure of heart. Those who view the kosher laws as merely or even as primarily teaching hygiene or as revealing an eternal verity regarding food consumption, apparently forget that earlier God gave all living things (Gen. 9:3), including pigs, as food for man to eat. Assuming once again that God isn’t making all these laws up as He goes along, the narrowing of permissible food in the Mosaic Code was not trans-cultural, and the exact form—as it sits in the law—is not what is profitable to those who are not sons of Jacob as addressed by Moses. But the principle of kosher—purity—is profitable to all peoples of any period of history.

I believe that the New Testament does affirm the O. T. Law for N.T. believers, but per principle not necessarily verbatim. To use an old theological distinction, the N.T. believer, who is a Gentile, never was under the civil law of Moses (the First Use of the Law). And having understood that he falls short of God’s standard and needs God’s grace, he is no longer under the laws condemnation (the Second Use of the Law). But he goes to the law [of Moses] as a guide for behavior (the Third Use of the Law). He does this by learning from that righteous standard its timeless principles and applying them to his life.

Lord willing I intend to produce two works on biblical ethics: Systematic Biblical Ethics and Righteous Relationships in the near future. Those should help clarify the points made in this Appendix.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Grace, Law