Christians and Old Testament Law (My Two Cents on the Andy Stanley Controversy)

A lot of folks have been talking about Andy Stanley this week. The North Point Community Church pastor has drawn fire (again) for his controversial comments on the Old Testament.

Earlier in 2018, Stanley stated in a sermon (which you can view here) that Christians need to “unhitch” their faith from the Old Testament.

His reasoning was that if the earliest followers of Jesus saw fit to leave behind certain Jewish laws in order to make it easier for Gentile converts to enter the faith, then likewise we today should make it easier for non-believers to accept Christianity by leaving behind all that difficult Old Testament stuff.

Saying that Stanley got some push-back for this would be an understatement. Later in the year, he offered some explanation and clarification in a podcast interview with some professors at Dallas Theological Seminary (where I previously attended — you can view that podcast here).

After listening to Stanley’s DTS interview, I felt like I could understand where he was coming from, and even agree with most of his arguments. He admitted that “unhitch” was a bad choice of words to describe how Christians should treat the Old Testament, and explained that his intention was to help believers realize their need to properly interpret and contextualize the Old Testament in light of the New.

All well and good.

…But then he lost me again.

Last week Stanley wrote a piece for Relevant Magazine in which he argued that Christians “are not required to obey any of the commandments found in the first part of their Bibles. Participants in the new covenant are expected to obey the single command Jesus issued as part of his new covenant: as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

He goes on to write: “The church has a terrible habit of selectively re-branding aspects of the old covenant and smuggling them into the new.”

Long story short: While there’s a bit of truth to what Stanley says, he’s taken it much too far here.

So by way of response, I figured it would be good to say some things about how Christians should approach the subject of the Old Testament law.

 

The Old Covenant and the New: Continuity and Discontinuity

First things first, it is indeed true that Christians are no longer under the old covenant. The New Testament makes that abundantly clear (hence the name “New Testament,” aka new covenant). Stanley is right to emphasize the importance of the shift from old covenant to new, along with the fact that Christians must be careful to interpret the old through the lens of the new.

As Paul writes in Romans 10:4 (CSB), “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

And in Ephesians 2:15 (NLT), “He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups.” 

This means that no matter what your understanding of the Old Testament law (or Torah) is, it must take into account the fact that Jesus has changed things dramatically. There is a significant degree of discontinuity between the old and the new. This is the one point Stanley is right to enforce.

If you’re not convinced there is discontinuity, consider this: When was the last time you offered an animal sacrifice?

You see, no Christian living today follows all of the Torah. There isn’t even an active levitical priesthood to officiate sacrifices these days, so technically no one can literally follow the whole Torah anymore. This simple fact of life reveals the discontinuity.

In the era after the cross, we do not live under the old covenant, nor are we to follow its regulations in the same way Jews did before Christ came.

But, does that give us a license to throw out our Old Testaments?

Should we make like the second-century heretic Marcion, who literally cut everything even remotely Jewish-sounding from his Bible?

Not if we take the New Testament seriously!

And this is where I would say Andy Stanley makes a fatal mistake in his approach.

In the Relevant article, he tries to assert that Jesus’ apostles — as depicted in the New Testament — were the ones who instituted a wholesale rejection of the Old Testament until the later Catholic Church went back and picked it up again.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just listen to how Jesus himself and the other NT writers actually talk about the OT:

Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.” — Matthew 5:17-18 (CSB)

“What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law. …So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” — Romans 7:7, 12 (CSB)

“The people here were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, since they received the word with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” — Acts 17:11 (CSB)

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” — 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSV)

Keep in mind that when those passages were penned, the NT was still in the process of being written. That means that the “Scripture” referred to there is the Old Testament!

To word 2 Timothy 3:16-17 another way, we might say: “Every single sentence in the Old Testament was God-breathed and is still 100% relevant for guiding readers toward salvation and teaching them what a life devoted to God’s righteousness looks like.”

We could add to these all the times Jesus prefaced his teachings with the words, “Have you not read?” Over and over again, when our Lord was questioned about his views he appealed to the Old Testament as the authoritative revelation of God’s will.

Verses like these reveal that there is also some degree of continuity to the Old Testament. It has abiding significance for believers.

Even though we believe Christ has “fulfilled” the Mosaic Law and its function has in some ways come to an end, it continues to be important “until heaven and earth pass away,” and it continues to be a guide to understanding salvation and how to walk in God’s ways.

So then why does Paul say we “are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:14)? Why do believers eat pork and wear clothes of mixed fabrics and worship on Sunday rather than Saturday?

Can we appropriately say that the Ten Commandments and other useful laws in the Old Testament (for example, the prohibitions against incest, bestiality, and witchcraft, among others) still apply?

If so, how?

That’s really the question of the hour. How is the Old Testament still relevant?  How is it “useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness?”

Christians have taken a variety of approaches in answering this question. The best approaches (listed below) are the ones that account for both the continuing relevance of the Old Testament as well as the changes in how it applies to us now that Jesus initiated the new covenant. We need to see the discontinuity and the continuity.

And all of these approaches are much better than Andy Stanley’s suggestion of kicking the Old Testament to the curb.

 

The Continuing Significance of the OT Law: Three Christian Approaches

In his book How to Read the Bible in Changing Times (pgs. 117-125), Mark Strauss outlines the main ways Christians have traditionally understood the role of Old Testament Law for the believer. Here are what I find to be the three most important approaches:

Approach #1: We could make a distinction between moral laws and civil or ceremonial laws. 

On this view, moral laws would be things like the Ten Commandments, and they are to be seen as always binding. Ceremonial and civil laws, on the other hand, would be all the rules that had to do with the Jewish sacrificial system and life in the land of Israel, and therefore are now obsolete.

This is a common approach among Reformed churches. In support, the book of Hebrews has much to say about how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross fulfills and makes obsolete the old covenant rituals, sacrifices, and ceremonies. As mentioned above, we don’t need to make animal sacrifices since Christ has offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

But the weakness of this approach by itself is that a division between ceremonial vs. moral laws is not found in Scripture itself. It’s an artificial dichotomy that has to be read into the text.

Indeed, such a division doesn’t really make sense of the text when you consider that in the book of Leviticus you constantly see moral laws and ceremonial laws woven together in the same chapter — they were inseparable at the time they were originally given. The rules — moral, civil, and ceremonial — were a package deal! They were all key elements of the covenant agreement between God and Israel.

And that covenant has been replaced. No Old Covenant means no binding Law of Moses — moral or ceremonial.

So this approach by itself doesn’t work.

Approach #2: The Mosaic Law merely reveals our sinfulness and need for a savior. 

On this view, God never meant for the Israelites to be able to keep the whole Law. Rather, it was designed to show how far short they always fell of his righteous standards so that they would throw themselves upon his grace.

Paul certainly teaches that this was a purpose of the Law (see Galatians 3-4 and Romans 7). But it can’t be the whole story, since the Bible also affirms the Law as a good thing, not just a burden (go read Psalm 119!). The Law itself was a gift of God’s grace, intended to instruct the people of Israel how to have a fruitful life in the land.

Approach #3: The Mosaic Law is a paradigm that the New Testament builds upon.

A paradigm is a pattern or template. It’s a starting point that we build off of and organize our learning from. So on this approach, the Old Testament Law established a pattern of life for Israel to follow so they could show all the nations what it looked like to serve the Lord (see Exodus 19:4-6; Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

Later on, when Jesus introduced the new covenant, the Mosaic Law no longer functioned as a binding agreement for God’s people, but nonetheless it continued to be the template which the apostles built off of. In other words, its purpose as law ended, but its purpose as instructor continues. We no longer take its commands as directly addressing us today, but instead we seek the redemptive values behind the concrete laws and see how the New Testament picks up and reapplies those values.

The writers of the New Testament constantly assumed that their readers were familiar with — or were becoming familiar with — the Hebrew Scriptures. They used the Law and the Prophets as their base from which to instruct new Christians in what it means to live under God’s reign, only now it’s filtered through the lens of Christ. We follow what Paul calls the “law of Christ.”

But how do we know what it looks like to fulfill Christ’s “law?” What does it looks like to love God with all our heart and all our strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves? Through the Old Testament!

Here’s an example to help clarify what I mean: the New Testament frequently forbids “sexual immorality” (the Greek word is “porneia“). But how did the early Christians know what was considered “immoral” sexual behavior? The New Testament never explicitly spells out that things like incest, bestiality, rape, etc. are forbidden. Instead, when Jesus and the apostles spoke out against porneia, that catch-all term assumed the moral standards of the Old Testament. The values instilled by the Torah served as the paradigm.

As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:11 (CSB), “These things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our instruction, on whom the ends of the ages have come.”

 

The Law: Just As Relevant As Ever

There is truth in each of these three approaches, and we do best to hold them together like multiple facets of one diamond.

The levitical system has been retired thanks to the better priesthood of Christ and the once-for-all sacrifice he made, so the Old Covenant rituals are indeed no longer binding. But those rituals still have powerful truths to convey about God’s holiness, our sinfulness, and the beauty of Christ’s atoning work.

The Law could never be 100% perfectly kept from the heart, so it indeed exposes our need for a Savior. But it also gives us a concrete picture of what it could have looked like for a society to function with God dwelling in its midst, and teaches us how to apply God’s values in everyday life.

And the redemptive principles behind the laws, as well as the moral character of God revealed therein, continue to instruct believers and provide the paradigm off of which the New Testament builds.

Imagine trying to comprehend the key New Testament concepts of atonement, of Christ as our Passover Lamb and heir to the throne of David, of the future Day of the Lord, of what a “covenant” even is, etc., without ever reading the Old Testament. Yet these are the ways the apostles describe key elements of the Christian faith — with Old Testament terms and concepts.

So it’s more than a little concerning when Andy Stanley chides Christians for their “incessant habit of reaching back into old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives to support our own teachings, sayings, and narratives.” He apparently does not realize that he’s criticizing the exact practice of the apostles!

However you decide to make sense of the Old Testament, we must refuse the temptation to say that it is totally irrelevant for Christians today. To do so is to say that three-fourths of our sacred Scripture is pointless.

It runs afoul of both the teaching and the example of Christ and his apostles.

It violates the truth that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful.”

It’s a view that’s “unhitched” from reality.

See you down the path.

 


Want to go deeper? Here are some helpful resources:

Tom Schreiner’s book 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law is a handy reference guide. It’s not an exhaustive treatment, but it’ll stimulate your thinking on the subject. A good jumping-off point.

For scholarly discussion of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, check out Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testamentsedited by John S. Feinberg.

Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God is a must-read on the Old Testament. He explains in greater detail the paradigmatic approach to the OT.

Some readers will notice I haven’t gone into much detail on the subject of Paul’s understanding of the Mosaic Law. This is a hotly debated topic within the field of biblical studies. If you’re familiar with that debate, you might notice I’ve kept this discussion within more of a Traditionalist stance on the matter, as opposed to a “New Perspectives on Paul” approach. For an introduction to the issues involved in that debate, I recommend checking out the book Four Views on the Apostle Paul. For a very brief summary, check out Simon Gathercole’s article “What Did Paul Really Mean?” And if you really want to go deep, check out Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey by Garwood P. Anderson — a scholarly treatment of Paul’s theology that seeks to incorporate the best insights of both the Traditional and New Perspectives on Paul.



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4 replies

  1. I don’t agree with many Christians ambivalence towards the old testament. Summarised, it commands us to love God and others. I don’t see the contradiction with Jesus’ command to love others as He has loved us. If anything, although the letter of the civil and ceremonial law is done away with, the spirit of the moral law is affirmed by the new testament, principally in the sermon on the mount. Thanks for the post 🙂

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  2. Very well expressed. Over the last 2000 years Christianity approach towards the law has been loose. This approach has been the source of most of our divisions. This controversy is an example of the risks of this approach. This contributes to confuse many secular people. Secular people can’t understand why the Christians promote so much tithing but do dot forbade eating unclean animals. Why we follow 9 out 10 commandments and do not keep the Sabbath. When secular people read the Scriptures the see that these are pretty clear and straight forward commandments. On other side, if you are a Christian that will like to follow these commandments, you will be condemned by other Christians. They will accuse you of being legalistic or judaizer. Nothing far from the truth. Jesus lived without sinning, which by definition means that he followed all commandments perfectly. This truth is what provides the real redemptive value of his death. It also identifies him as divine and the true Messiah. Imitating our Lord Christ means trying to live, as close as humanly possible, obeying God’s commands. With our obedience we demonstrate our love to God. Making your best effort to obey the law is an expression of love to God and not the way to salvation. When we realize that the only way to express our love to God is by being obedient to his law, is when we start seeing the spiritual relevance of learning about the law to help us in our sanctification and in our relationship pursuing to be one with the Father and the Son

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  1. Covenants | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher
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