The Law and New Covenant Christians, part 3

So the question has been posed, “what is the law”. I offered my definition as the “revealed will of God that binds creature (creation) to obey”. I like my definition. That same day I read the first chapter of Thomas Schreiner’s book, The Law and it’s Fulfillment. The chapter, “The Meaning of the Term Law in Paul” was completely unhelpful. He basically says that the term is used in several different ways (see second post on this topic). He does acknowledge that when Paul uses the term ‘law’, he is usually referring to the Mosaic Law.

That brings us to another discussion particularly about the Mosaic Law. Theologians, both Dispensationalists and Covenant theologians, have long divided the Mosaic Law into three parts – the civil, the ceremonial and the moral. Calvin and Luther agreed on this, and both agreed that the civil and ceremonial have passed (the civil because it dealt exclusively with the theocracy of Israel and the ceremonial because Christ fulfilled all the ‘types’ it contained). However, Calvin and Luther disagreed about the role of the moral law in the Christians life. Calvin believed the Christian was still bound to obey the moral law as revealed in the Ten Commandments. Luther, on the other hand, thought the Christian was set free from any obligation to the moral law and that Christian/New Testament ethics was all about the Spirit (though I do not believe he really was, it’s obvious why Luther could so easily be charged as being antinomian).

Recently, a group calling themselves “New Covenant Theologians” have pushed against this and asserted that there is no simple neat division of the law that came be made. The Mosaic Law, according the the NCT, is an indivisible whole that has passed away in it’s entirety. Admittedly, I do not know much about NCT and have found it difficult to get good scholarly info (try a search on CBD and see what you can find!).

Another group that has risen in Reformed circles is the Theonomists (also called Christian Reconstructionism). They agree with Calvin and Luther that the ceremonial law has passed away because it was meant, in all its symbolism, to point to Christ. They agree with Calvin, not Luther, in that they affirm the normative role of the moral law for believer. Furthermore, they disagree with Calvin and Luther on the role of the civil law. They believe that the civil law as recorded in the Sinaitic Covenant should be the standard by with laws of nations should be judged and to which they should conform. As a natural conclusion, many Theonomists are postmillennial in their eschatology, believing that the church will, by influence (not coercion) Christianize the world and it’s systems through evangelism and the that Kingdom will precede the return of Christ. Greg Bahnsen has been the most significant theonomist within the Reformed circle (for a collection of his articles, check here. This one on Theonomy looks interesting, but I haven’t read any of it yet), and his influence has only been rivaled by R.J.Rushdoony (who’s unique views put him outside the Reformed community).

That’s my overview, I’ll try to add some comment and evaluation later tonight.

13 thoughts on “The Law and New Covenant Christians, part 3

  1. Dan,

    Do you see a distinction between commands and law? I think there is and that your definition is an apt one for the question, “what is a command?” I’d describe law as “a system of rules that regulate the actions of a given community and are enforced by the imposition of penalties.”

    If I had to choose a label for my current view of the Mosaic law I’d probablty say, although I do see differentiation of civil, ceremonial and moral briefs, I consider it to be a unitary whole, rather than a fusion of 3 discrete categories.

    I would also say that the principles or revealed will of God that underlies the civil, ceremonial and moral briefs is reconstituted in the New Covenant by the command to live by the Spirit, and such a reconstitution does not merely maintain the civil, ceremonial and moral standards codified by the Mosaic law but in fact exceeds it. In defiance of antinomian claims and by analogy, the Mosaic law is to New Covenant life in the Spirit as a learner’s permit is to a holding a full driving license, or a father teaching his child to ride a bicycle with stabilizers versus the kid being able to ride a real bike by themselves.

  2. I’ve always loved Luther and now Dan has given me another reason!

    Doug–nicely put. I also find myself something of a unitarian rather than trinitarian w.r.t. the Mosaic law.

    Now that my children are all adults (more or less), I don’t legislate at them the way I did when they were little. But I do discuss spiritual principles with them.

  3. And despite Luther’s view of law, he thinks the Ten Commandments are applicable enough to be placed at the beginning of his shorter catechism, and he himself used them during his prayer time as an outline for his confession.

  4. Sorry for no responses or posts. The weekend was crazy, starting with a wisdom tooth extraction that was not planned.

    I find it hard to articulate a distinction between ‘law’ and ‘command’, though there may be one. There is definitely a distinction between ‘law/command’ and the ‘will of God’. There is much in the ‘will of God’ that is secret and therefore not morally binding. I guess you there are also revealed aspects of his will that aren’t morally binding, like when God declares his intention to bless Abraham or to pour out his Spirit. It’s God’s will, but it’s a declaration of what he will do, not what he demands his creation do.

    Regarding your analogy, the person with the drivers license still must follow the same rules of the road that they learned under while driving with the permit. The person living by the Spirit is still, in my view, responsible to keep the same moral law as the person living before Pentecost. Now, however, the Spirit is writing the law on the heart, not just on the tables of stone.

  5. Mark, I also love Luther, but find it inconsistent to saw that the believer isn’t bound by the moral law and then use is it as an outline for confession. See what I’m saying. If you’re not bound by it, you can’t transgress it. If you can’t transgress it, what are you confessing? Consistency dear Martin!

  6. In terms of distinction between ‘law’ and ‘command’ I’d say that ‘law’ consists of a series of ‘commands’ (hence the obvious name of the 10 commandments). But it does follow that all ‘commands’ are ‘law’.

    Personally speaking, I am convinced that the Mosaic law is not the perfect showcase or a full expression of God’s moral qualities that he ultimately desires us to embody. Don’t get me wrong, the law was a good and holy thing but it was limited. Its limitations were bound up in its purpose, which on the most basic level was to regulate the actions of the God’s chosen community, the nation of Israel. God gives them the Mosaic law in order to form them into a nation that was supposed to showcase the missio dei to the other nations. To emphasise the seriousness of sin and the helplessness of humanity to do anything about it, by Isarael’s inability to keep it. To highlight the separation that sin has wrought between: God and man, man and fellow man, man and himself, and man & the rest of the created order. You see that message driven home in the format of Old Testament worship with the various sacrifices, the separation of Jew & Gentile, male & female, Levites & priests – separation and seriousness. And ultimately the interaction of the law and Israel were to foreshadow and prepare for the Messiah and the New Covenant. The unitary whole that was the Mosaic law, with its civil, ceremonial and moral briefs was all about accomplishing the above stuff and at the same time preventing Israel from completely spinning out of control with sin. It was not a complete and exhaustive A-Z of moral behaviour or actions that if obeyed will result in God’s pleasure.

    In short, the moral qualities of the Mosaic law are good and righteous but limited in scope. The principles that underpin the moral aspect of the law, which arise from the character and will of God, are not dispensed with or cast aside in the New Covenant, they are taken up and re-expressed in form that is a higher standard than before. If the Kingdom was a beach, the Mosaic law is picked up by the surf from somewhere near the shoreline and re-deposited much further up the sand by the action of the tide. So I see a qualitative difference before and after Pentecoste.

    To substantiate my previous driving analogy. The Mosaic law takes the role of both the driving instructor and the restrictions that a learner must endure. The learner ultimately learns how to drive from the instructor in a restrictive environment that is designed to foster the learning process and minimise harm coming to the learner or anyone else he encounters. Once you’ve passed your test, the restrictions are removed and you grow into a better driver who will ultimately exceed the minimum skills and standards that were necessary to pass. Thus, the instructor and restrictions are designed to engender the minimum skills and knowledge necessary to take the test, which is the gateway that precedes the possession of a greater skill and knowledge level.

    For example: From the 7th day being kept as a Sabbath, holy to the LORD – now all our time 24/7 is Sabbath, holy to the LORD. Do not commit adultery – lustful thoughts are unacceptable. Do not commit murder – don’t say to your brother ‘raca’. From an eye for an eye – to do not resist an evil person, love your enemies.

    Do you see what I’m driving at?

  7. What Doug said.

    Moreover, I see no inconsistency in Luther. He is finding an applicability in the Decalogue, which tells us a lot about God’s moral will. To illustrate (picking up on one of Doug’s comments), perhaps Luther on a Thursday would find reflection on the fourth commandment to stimulate a confession of neglect to rest in Christ’s completed work, or an over-attention to his own achievement. Or on a Sunday, he might confess to a kind of sabbath-breaking that was never forbidden by the fourth commandment, which addressed the last day of the week, not the first.

    I don’t mean to claim that Luther, or indeed any of us, was fully consistent. We’re human after all, and even our most polished theological systems are imperfect, inconsistent approximations.

    Not being under the Law does not mean lawlessness. It is a “higher up and further in”, a moral life of the Spirit to which the Law pointed, but of which the Law, like the tabernacle/priestly cultus, was but a shadow. We have the great privilege and blessing by God’s grace through Christ’s blood to participate in this higher life of the Spirit. Why go back to the shadow (Hebrews argues) when we have the substance?

    The shadow is still useful. The Law serves as a reminder and as a rebuke to the kind of excesses that immoral imitations of spiritual life try to pass off as real. In fact, even Gentile civil law/morality can be used in this way, as when Paul rebukes the Corinthians for accepting a kind of immorality not even tolerated among the Gentiles.

    By not mowing your lawn on Sunday, you are not so much obeying the fourth commandment as you are expressing a visible devotion to God, at the expense of personal gain and striving, a principle embodied for a particular time and people in the fourth commandment, and now applied by Dan in accordance with his wisdom and preference in the 21st century. You certainly don’t find the fourth commandment binding in the same sense that the observant O.T. child of Israel would have.

    I’m writing this from Amsterdam, where one could heartily wish for more lawfulness, but even more for an outpouring of the Spirit to regenerate the souls and fill the great emptiness people are uselessly trying to fill with sex and drugs.

  8. Doug, I can buy that distinction between ‘law’ and ‘command’. In fact, as I was thinking about it, it seems like the ‘law’ is often personified as ‘commanding’.

    Your clarification on the analogy is helpful. However, to push the analogy to its breaking point, even the advanced driver who has been set free from the restrictions of the novice driver and the watchful eye of the instructor must obey the traffic lights and stop signs.

    I agree in part that we have move “further in and higher up” (I remember seeing a blog by that title somewhere, but it’s never, ever updated). However, I think we need to be careful not to make the OT and Mosaic Covenant merely an external form or religion and the NT and New Covenant completely internal. For example, the command to Love God and Love Neighbor (both internal attitudes/actions) are Old Testament commands, which I think, the Ten Commandments explains in greater detail. In addition, the command not to hate comes from Lev 19:17. Job seems to understand that lust is a sin (Job 31:1). And God had commanded that the law be “on your heart” (Deut 6:6) and laid up in one’s heart and soul (Deut 11:18).

    Certainly the internal transformation of mans heart in integral to the New Covenant. But I think we should frame this in terms of being freed to keep the law, not freed from keeping the law (speaking specifically of the Decalogue – we still haven’t addressed fully if the law can be parsed into three neat categories). Certainly we are freed from striving to keep it in a legalistic way or in an attempt to earn our justification (I disagree with NT Wrights analysis of Paul’s argument – different post, different topic).

  9. Since we are pushing metaphors…

    What if there was a place where there were no stop signs or traffic lights or highway code, instead drivers drove in such a way and to such a standard that they exceeded the quality of driving exhibited by others who needed a highway code to conform to the accepted minimum standard?

    You lost me a bit with what you wrote about being careful not to make the OT or Mosaic law an external thing. Explain to me again.

    What does keeping the law in a non-legalistic way look like?

    “never, ever updated”… ouch. Ha ha… if I received comments on the things I put on it, I’d be inclined to updated more frequently.

  10. Doug, I know of a town that did exactly that. Read about it

    I want to think through how that metaphor applies before replying.

    My comments about the internal aspects of the Old Covenant were prompted by your paragraph in which you were showing how the commands not to murder have morphed into commands not to hate/say racca, etc. I understood you, maybe misunderstood you, to be saying that the OT code was an external list of do’s and don’ts while the NT is more of a ‘heart religion’. If I misunderstood you, I apologize – but it is a common way of representing the transition from Old Covenant to New, but not one that does all the Biblical data justice (in my humble opinion).

    About not commenting – I only found your site in May, and I commented on one of the posts.

  11. I think you misunderstood what I meant, no worries though. I was trying to give actual biblical examples of OT commands that are taken up and reconstituted in a NT form that is qualitatively higher in moral terms. Rather than pushing an external vs internal agenda.

    Living life in the Spirit, in other words in intimate moment by moment relationship with God that opens us fully to the sanctifying work of the Spirit and makes us progressively more like Jesus, will mean that we no longer think hate-filled or lust-filled thoughts, and therefore we will automatically also not commit either adultery or murder. The moral brief of the Mosaic is not only maintained but also exceeded.

    You’ve goaded me into pondering what new stuff I should post on my own blog now…

  12. Doug, You said in your last comment, “The moral brief of the Mosaic is not only maintained but also exceeded.” I feel like we’ve come full circle. I agree wholehearedly with that. Well, ok, i don’t know that I agree with the exceeded part. I think even under the Old Covenant things like hate and lust were also condemned (see my comments from earlier). I’m going to proceed to my next post assuming we both, and Mark included, see value in the OT law from NT believers, even if we don’t think we’re beholden to obey its moral commands or not. Cool?!

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