December 17, 2017

The Old Testament Law and the Believer (1)

Brian Trainer

All Fundamentalists are quick to embrace and endorse the significance of the inspiration of the Word of God. We note that the text of Timothy states that “all scripture is given by inspiration [breathed out] of God, and is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). We would readily defend each verse from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. We speak of our commitment to God’s Word doctrinally and our love for God’s Word personally. This is right and appropriate. Yet this commitment to all of God’s Word is often accompanied by an internal preference for parts of God’s Word in our daily spiritual diet and an avoidance of other sections. This avoidance is not prompted by a lack of confidence in inspiration. In most cases it is generated by questions of personal profitability. We do not question that the text is from God, but we are just not sure what it has to do with us.

The Old Testament Law is one such section of the Scriptures. Each year in our Bible reading, with steely resolve we pledge to get through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. At times with pure will power we manage our way through each verse, but internally we long to move on to Psalms, Proverbs, or some New Testament text that seems to speak more directly to our Christian walk. We acknowledge that David loved the Law of God, but surely that was because he had few other reading options. We understand the moral imperatives of the Ten Commandments, but the thirty verses of the “laws of discharge” do not strike the same chord with us. How are we to respond to this practical dichotomy within our belief system? We acknowledge that all of Scripture is profitable, but we only profit from or deem relevant some of Scripture.

The Profitability and Place of the Law

The question of the profitability and place of the Old Testament Law in the life of a New Testament believer is a vital one in distinguishing dispensationalism from other systems of Biblical interpretation. It is also a question that has engendered much debate. As the Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards observed, “There is perhaps no part of divinity attended with so much intricacy and wherein orthodox divines do so much differ as stating the precise agreement and difference between the two dispensations of Moses and Christ.”[1] Views range from literally applying nearly all of the Law to the believer’s life, to selecting parts of the Law, to suggesting that the New Testament believer is completely free from all of the Mosaic Law. Our goal is not to answer all of the questions that arise from this discussion but to quickly survey the theological landscape and to practically seek principles that appropriately apply Old Testament Law passages to the believer’s life.

Two systems of interpretation view the Old Testament Law as directly binding or applying specifically to the New Testament believer today. The most extreme view is that of the Christian reconstructionists or theonomists. They desire to make both moral and civil elements of the Law binding on believers and unbelievers alike. This view holds that the Mosaic covenant is God’s divine mandate and ethic for all society. They see Old Testament Israel as a model citizenship to which all cultures should aspire. Though there are various implications of this view, the adherents would include Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, R. J. Rushdoony, and some members of the political Christian Right movement.

Covenant theologians also believe there is direct application of the Old Testament Law in the life of the believer. John Calvin wrote, “I understand by the word ‘law’ not only the Ten Commandments, which set forth a godly and righteous rule of living, but the form of religion handed down by God through Moses.”[2] Whereas dispensationalism distinguishes between the relationship that God had with ethnic Israel and the New Testament Church, covenant theology identifies the Church as a continuation of one people group through whom God is working. Covenant theologians identify the Church as “spiritual” Israel. As such, they identify more continuity between the laws and promises to Israel and the standards and future of the Church. For example, many covenant theologians delineate between what they define as three categories of law: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The civil and ceremonial they believe were uniquely time-limited to the children of Israel. The civil law was a means by which God regulated His theocracy, and the ceremonial pointed to the coming Messiah. Yet they deem all elements of the moral Law of Moses to be transcultural and timeless and thus binding on all believers today.

Dispensationalists, on the other hand, do not see the Old Testament Law as binding in the life of the New Testament believer. The primary reasons for this are threefold. First, the Old Testament Law is viewed as a binding covenant between God and ethnic Israel. In Exodus 19:3ff God instructed Moses to speak the words of the covenant to the people of Israel. Throughout the narrative in Exodus, God highlights the unique relationship that the people of Israel would have to the Mosaic covenant. This is further highlighted at the second reiteration of the Law in Deuteronomy 5. As a covenant between God and Israel, and because ethnic Israel is distinct from the NT Church, dispensationalists do not see the Church as being under the obligations of the Law.

Second, a dispensationalist sees the Law as a unified whole. The covenant as given by God to Israel was a single covenant. Israel was to keep the Law in totality. There clearly are instructions which relate to human relations within the community, to priestly functions, and to moral imperatives. Yet there is no indication that these were to be viewed as distinct from one another. In both the Old and New Testaments the Law is always referred to as singular. To suggest that parts of it are functional today while other aspects are nonfunctional is to dissect a single entity and to arbitrarily create divisions which are not suggested in the Scriptural text. It is inappropriate and unthinkable from a first-century Jewish perspective to divide the Law. Paul argues in Galatians 5:3 for the unity of the Law, noting that the acceptance of one part of the Law (circumcision) makes one a debtor to the whole.

Third, a dispensationalist views the Law as being fulfilled via the life and death of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is presented in the Gospels as being the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17) and in the Epistles as being “the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). He was the perfect completion of the Law, thus freeing those in Him from the obligations of all aspects of the Law. Chafer wrote,

Only those portions of the Scriptures which are directly addressed to the children of God under grace are to be given a personal and primary application. … It does not follow that the Christian is appointed to conform to those governing principles which were the will of God for people of other dispensations.[3]

Throughout Paul’s life and epistles he stresses the believer’s freedom from the Law. As noted above, Romans 10:4 is the climax of his teaching as it relates to the role of the Law in the believer’s life. The concept of “end” or telos can indicate “end” or “abrogation” of the Law or also signify “goal” or “culmination” — that which the Law anticipated. Arguing for this dual sense of telos, Moo notes, “The analogy of a race course (which many scholars think telos is meant to convey) is helpful: the finish line is both the ‘termination’ of the race (the race is over when it is reached) and the ‘goal’ of the race (the race is run for the sake of reaching the finish line).”[4]

Ryrie notes that this does not free the believer to live without any moral boundaries, but that we are bound only to New Testament commands and those Old Testament directives that are restated in the New Testament as part of the law of Christ. The distinction between these two laws is important. He states, “As a part of the Mosaic law they are completely and forever done away. As a part of the law of Christ they are binding on believers today.”[5] It should be noted that Paul refers to the “law of Christ” not in terms of a list of stipulations to be obeyed but primarily of it being fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit as believers love one another.

To be continued in tomorrow’s P&D.

Brian Trainer is the chairman of the Bible and Missions Department of Maranatha Baptist Bible College. He was in pastoral ministry for ten years prior to transitioning to college education for the last ten years. In the summers Brian and his wife, Sherry, travel overseas to teach and lead student mission trips.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July / August 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Note: for additional articles on the subjects addressed herein, click on the tags accompanying the article.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, “Inquiry Concerning Qualifications for Communion,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. One (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1995), 465. []
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.7.1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1993), 300. []
  3. L. S. Chafer, Major Bible Themes (Chicago: Moody Press 1994), 97. []
  4. Al Hus, “The OT Law and Sanctification” in workshop notes from the Leadership Conference at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA, on 02/27/03. Hus quotes Doug Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996), 641. Hus’s workshop notes are a valuable summary of the Christian’s relationship to the OT law. []
  5. C. C. Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” BSac 124 (1967), 246. []

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