Grace, law and the covenants: A biblical review
Part 2 (Part 1 ran in the Oct. 31 issue)
Gary Fakhoury is the author of "The Nature of God: A Biblical Review" and "Observances in the New Covenant: A Biblical Review," available from the author and at www.thejournal.com. This is the second installment of a two-part series. Comments may be sent to The Journal or to 248 Blue Hills Parkway, Milton, Mass. 02186, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Gary Fakhoury
MILTON, Mass.-Last month I mentioned that my study of the issue of the covenants, law and grace led me to six conclusions. This, the second of this two-part series in The Journal, completes the fifth and concludes with the sixth point of that study.
In the first segment we reviewed the proper role of grace in the Christian life, the critical role of sanctification in salvation, the impact works will have on our eternal reward, and the Spirit-based nature of the New Covenant. Last, we began to explore conclusion No. 5: why the Ten Commandments define sin and are therefore binding upon men in every age.
Having already unveiled the correct implications of the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15 and Romans 7:1-6, we will examine the rest of the New Testament scriptures that anti-law advocates incorrectly employ to prove their case, then the passages that contradict their position.
Romans 13:8-10: "Owe no one anything except to love one another," Paul writes in Romans 13:8, "for he who loves another has fulfilled the law" (New King James Version throughout except where noted).
Paul goes on to recite some of the Ten Commandments, which, he says, are summed up in the command from Leviticus 19:18 to love one's neighbor. So we see here Paul's conviction and experience that the Ten Commandments are actuated through love. It says nothing, however, of the Ten Commandments being eliminated through love.
Moreover, summing something up doesn't make the whole cease to exist. A book review may sum up a book, but it hardly renders the book irrelevant.
No, to Paul love in action equals Commandment-keeping, because these Commandments (all from the Ten) still express fundamentals of love, in this case love toward neighbor.
Although love is certainly more than these things, someone who loves another will not steal from him, will not lie about him and so on. Love, to Paul, has concrete expressions in everyday situations, and the Ten Commandments contain some of them.
Ernest Reisinger in his excellent The Law and the Gospel well expresses the truth of this passage: "Love is the only true motive for all worship and duty, but by itself it does not define either . . . Love is a motive for and expresses itself in obedient action. Such action fulfills the law: "Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Motive and action cannot be more tightly joined than they are in this passage" (p. 94).
Galatians 3:15-25: When the larger context of the letter to the Galatians is ignored, misunderstanding of particular phrases and passages is virtually assured.
To be specific, verse 25 of this passage is often quoted by anti-law advocates to prove that Paul believed the law has no continuing role in the Christian life: "The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor."
At first glance, and taken by itself, it might well appear that Paul is saying at least something close to what anti-law teachers suggest. He is, after all, saying that the law is a "tutor" and we who are in Christ are no longer under that tutor. What else could this mean but that the law has no continuing role in the Christian life?
Actually, it means something quite apart from this, and to understand why we need to understand the specific issue this letter, and this passage especially, is discussing.
Galatians covers a number of topics but the heart of it addresses the fundamental issue raised by the Judaizers' work in Galatia, which we discussed at some length last month: How do men attain right standing-or justification-with God?
In other words, what is the means and method by which we enter into a relationship with God? This is another way of asking: How does one become a legitimate and full member of God's covenant people?
The section of Galatians 2:16 through 5:6 is entirely devoted to this issue. Justification, the legal term Paul uses for finding peace with and acceptance by God, is mentioned by name no fewer than eight times in this section, from beginning (2:16) to end (5:4). This particular passage appears squarely in the middle of the section, with direct reference to justification (3:24).
With that in mind, we are prepared to understand Paul's argument. In verses 15-18 Paul explains that the covenant the Galatians have with God is not to be identified with the Mosaic covenant-as the Judaizers claimed-but with Abraham's. Paul insists that Abraham's covenant was the preeminent covenant, the first and foundational covenant.
This was because the Mosaic covenant, coming 430 years after the Abrahamic, could not annul or alter the nature of the relationship established by and through Abraham's covenant, which, Paul argues, was a relationship established by promise, or grace, not by works (verses 5-9, 17-18; 5-9; Genesis 12:3; 15:1-6).
Earlier in the chapter Paul laid the foundation for this argument. There he noted that Abraham "believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (Galatians 3:6).
Paul explains that Abraham's relationship with God was made possible and grew out of faith, not works, and was based on God's promised gifts, not human effort.
Just as Scripture foretold that the nations would be justified by faith just as Abraham was (verse 8), the Galatians received God's Spirit, signifying God's acceptance-or justification-by faith, not law-keeping (verses 5-6).1
Therefore, he says, "those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham" (verse 9).
What Paul saw at work in the lives of the Galatians was nothing less than the manifestation of God's ancient, solemn promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his seed; indeed, if a human will cannot be annulled, how much less one established by the living God? (verses 15-17).
But the giving of the law (through the Mosaic covenant) could in no way alter, add to or detract from God's original means of salvation, established by covenant with Abraham (verses 8, 17).
Only through faith in Christ's substitutionary death for our sins can we receive God's acceptance, just as Abraham received it through faith (verses 13-14).
The natural question to ask, then, is why was the law given at all?
Paul answers that it was "added because of transgressions" (verse 19) or, as the New English Bible has it, to "make wrongdoing a legal offense" or to define and expose sin.2
Keep in mind that Paul made this same argument in Romans (Romans 3:20; 4:15; 5:20). God designed the law to officially certify certain behaviors as a revolt against His authority and will. Of course, sin existed before the giving of the law (Romans 5:12-14).
But the law in its complete codified form lifted the lid off man's inner nature and exposed him as the rebellious, hopeless sinner he really was. Yes, "before the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed (or officially laid upon men) when there is no law" (Romans 5:13).
Since, therefore, all have been found in revolt as exposed by the law, it could not give us life, but put us all under the curse of death. As Paul told the Corinthians, "the sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law" (1 Corinthians 15:56). If there were no laws in force, no penalty would be demanded!
Perfect obedience to the law might have fulfilled God's purposes, Paul admits (Galatians 3:21); but, since Scripture itself proclaims that no one has been perfectly obedient, the point is moot. Therefore, Paul concludes, faith in Christ's substitutionary sacrifice can be man's only avenue to salvation (verse 22).
To use an example from civil courts, if one is convicted of a crime and receives a sentence of a year in prison, he remains under the law, or under its judicial condemnation, until he has paid off the last day of his sentence.
Then he is no longer under the law or its penalty; his debt to society has been paid in full; and he walks.
But, if his crime exacted the death penalty, as does violation of God's laws, nothing the criminal could do could pay off that debt. This is why men can't be justified by works; no one ever paid off a death penalty and lived to tell about it!
As we saw last month, justification, from dikaioo, in the legal or judicial sense Paul uses it, means to be "put right" with God as it pertains to law, condemnation and punishment.
So, when Paul speaks of law in relation to justification, he is speaking of the judicial role of the law: the law as it affects our standing before the court of heaven. In that role the law serves as judge, jury, prison guard and hangman in our certain walk to eternal death.
We saw in verse 19 that the law's value as pertaining to justification is exposing sin, showing sin as sin. As a code of law it reveals that standards have been broken and exactly how they have been broken, pronouncing a "curse," or sentence of death, for our transgression of it.
Thus Paul says the law "confined all under sin" (verse 22) and that men were "kept under guard" by the law (verse 23), suggesting activity like that of a prison guard.
Various translations bear this out: ". . . held prisoners by the law, locked up . . ." (NIV); "imprisoned and guarded under the law . . ." (NRSV); "kept in custody under the law . . ." (NASB).
All mankind was on death row, as it were, held in "custody" by the law in anticipation of the faith that would bail us out.
So here the law is pictured as a custodian, a kind of bailiff for the court. We have, in a sense, been released from a holding cell in which we were held pending the results of our case. Thanks to Christ, Paul proclaims, we walk away free men!
This reminded Paul of something everyone in the Greco-Roman world could relate to. The law, he says in verse 24, was like a pedagogue. A pedagogue was a child attendant, usually a slave, whom parents in that time employed as custodian of their children.
The term has been variously translated, for its relationship to Paul's argument has been variously understood. It is "tutor" in the NASB and NKJV, "schoolmaster" in the KJV and "custodian" in the RSV.
Of course, tutor and schoolmaster both imply an educational role of the law, but that has not been Paul's subject thus far in this letter and isn't his subject afterward.
Never once does he mention the law's teaching role in this letter, since that would have played right into the Judaizers' hands; they no doubt believed it and stressed it.
Therefore, of these, custodian seems to best capture the sense of this word in the judicial context in which it appears here, for in just the previous verse Paul argues that, by identifying sin and condemning us for it, the law held us in custody until we came to faith in Christ.
So by analogy the pedagogue, the custodian, keeps us firmly in his grip until all guilt is removed and we are redeemed from the curse of the law-death-and pronounced right with God and freed from all condemnation for sins: "justified by faith."
So after faith has come we're no longer held in custody by the law (verse 25). We've been set free from the condemnation of the law, because God accepted us upon the ground of the death of His Son and our faith in that.
The law, then, has done its job as it pertains to justification: to define sin and reveal our sinfulness (verses 19-22) that we might in faith throw ourselves upon the mercy of God's throne of grace and receive His acceptance through Christ's substitutionary sacrifice (verses 22-24).
Other than to reveal our sinfulness, the law, Paul insists over against the Judaizers, has no other contribution to make to our justification.
Thus Paul can say that, "after faith has come, we are no longer under the custodian." We are no longer, by analogy, confined by the law and held in custody to face our just punishment; rather we are set free and accepted by God as His sons. (See also 4:1-7, where Paul reiterates this argument.)
By using these analogies, Paul is trying to convince this confused group that the law was never intended to provide salvation, but to convince men of their need for it.
So, then, is Paul saying that the law has no authority in a man's life after conversion? Yes! But only in regard to the specific role he is speaking of here: its judicial role of condemning us to eternal death for our sin and confining us to that fate.
Once we have received our pardon before the court of heaven through Christ's substitutionary death, the curse of the law-eternal death-no longer hangs over us, and we do not need to try to-indeed, we cannot-earn our way out of our condemnation.
The law in that role in now a thing of the past for those who have already received pardon. This passage is not, as was historically taught in the Worldwide Church of God, speaking of the doing away with Levitical or ceremonial laws, or any other laws. That is indeed discussed in Hebrews, but not here. Here Paul is speaking of the end of the law's power to hold Christians liable for their spiritual crimes before the court of heaven. If we are already in Christ, we have been freed from that condemnation.
Now that we have seen what Paul is saying, we are prepared to see what he is not saying. He is not saying the law had some value before Christ but no value after Christ; he is saying the law had value in revealing our need for a Savior before Christ but no value in attaining justification in addition to Christ.
He is not saying the law defined sin before Christ but doesn't define sin after Christ; he is saying the law revealed our sinfulness before Christ but has no power to condemn us after we are justified by His sacrifice.
He is not saying we had to obey the law before we had faith but don't have to obey it after we have faith; he is saying the law confined all under sin, but through Christ we are released from that confinement.
All of this is certain, because in verse 24 he clearly states his concern: our justification; that is, how we sinful men can have acquitted our legal condemnation before the court of heaven.
His subject is not yet the Christian's response to God's grace; this he will not broach until chapter 5, where he will proclaim, among other things, the good news that the law can now be fulfilled by men empowered by the Holy Spirit of love (Galatians 5:14-16). We will see more on that later.
Proof positive on Sinai's bondage?
Galatians 4:21-31: This passage also is tantalizing for those who seek freedom from God's laws, for Paul writes, "These are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar-for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia . . . What does the Scripture say? 'Cast out the bondwoman . . . ' "
Here is proof positive, it would seem, that keeping the Commandments given at Mount Sinai is a form of bondage.
It only seems that way when people do not take care to understand Paul's subject. Paul is still battling with the Judaizers, who claimed that men can justify themselves with God through works of the law, signified by circumcision.
In this chapter Paul says, "I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain . . . They [the Judaizers] zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them" (verses 11, 17). What did these false teachers want the gentile Galatians to do? Receive circumcision according to the law, for the purpose of meriting God's acceptance (5:4, 10-12; 6:12-13).
So, as we have seen, already the question here is: How does one become a partaker of God's covenant? What is needed for one to be fully accepted by God and enter a covenant relationship with Him? Can the works of the law secure for us God's acceptance? This is what the Galatians were becoming confused about.
To further explain his position, in this passage Paul will provide the Galatians with yet another analogy, actually an allegory utilizing well-known Scriptural characters.
In Sarah and Hagar and their sons Isaac and Ishmael, Paul sees a perfect figure for the two covenants: the Mosaic covenant, which was championed by the Judaizers, and the New Covenant, which is like the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant of "promise," which Paul has been promoting in chapter 3.
The one corresponds to slavery, the other to freedom; the one to earthly things, the other to heavenly; the one to human works, the other to miracles. This is the difference between the two covenants, in Paul's example.
The covenant at Mount Sinai, Paul is careful to say, was not itself bondage, but "gives birth to bondage" (verse 24); that is, it was susceptible to the moral frustration and futility everyone in "the flesh"-that is, without God's Spirit-suffers (verse 29; see also verse 3).
For, as he explained earlier, the Sinai covenant depended upon purely human works to succeed, and it did not succeed (Galatians 3:10-14, 21-22; see also Hebrews 3:7-4:13; 8:7-13).
This is where the allegory comes in, for Paul sees that the human effort that was the hallmark of the Sinai covenant is much like the way Abraham took matters into his own hands and lay with Hagar, who bore him Ishmael (verses 24-25; Genesis 16:1-2, 15).
But we are like Isaac, Paul insists, children of "promise" (Galatians 4:28; see Genesis 15:1-6); for it required a supernatural act of grace for Isaac to be born.
God had promised, and God delivered. In truth there is no way Abraham or Sarah at their advanced age could take credit for Isaac. They of all people knew Isaac was a gift from God, a miracle.
So Paul is saying we have no part in the futile, slavish works-righteousness such as the Judaizers were suggesting; we are not of "the flesh," Paul says, but of "the Spirit" (Galatians 4:29).
This new covenant, then, is founded upon what God does to bring men into a covenant relationship with Him, not what men do to bring themselves into covenant with Him.
Therefore, Paul tells the Galatians, there is no reason to work to merit God's acceptance, for He has already accepted you.
Paul likens our inheritance to that of Abraham's miracle son, Isaac: not born to be slaves, but genuine begotten sons, begotten of the Spirit (verses 30-31; see also verses 6-7). And we know we have received God's acceptance already because He has given us that Spirit (3:3-4)
Therefore the Galatians should "cast out" the Judaizers who "persecuted" them by making them so insecure in their standing with God (verses 29-30).
Paul then concludes his treatise on justification by urging his young converts not to submit to a yoke of bondage through the works-righteousness represented by circumcision, by which no man will ever be justified (Galatians 5:1-2, 4).
Again, now that we have reviewed Paul's argument we are prepared to understand what he is not saying. Nowhere does he say that keeping laws given at Sinai is slavery. The laws are not, in fact, in question here at all. His subject is "the two covenants," or arrangements, by which a relationship with God is established (verse 24).
The Galatians needed reminding that having already been given God's Spirit they are of the Spirit (verse 29), children of "promise" (verses 23, 28), having been justified by grace, not through their own efforts. Therefore they are in bondage neither to sin, nor the need to work their way out of it so that they might earn God's acceptance.
Ephesians 2:11-15: Here Paul proclaims the truth that Jesus Christ "abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances . . ." What did he mean by this? Again, studying the context helps us greatly.
As apostle to the gentiles, Paul was especially sensitive to the issue of unity between Jew and gentile. Until E.P. Sanders wrote Paul and Palestinian Judaism about 20 years ago, the significance of this was largely overlooked, even though the relative status of Jew and gentile figures prominently in nearly all Paul's church letters (Romans 3:29; 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Galatians 3:28; Philippians 3:3 and following verses; Colossians 3:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:13-16).
This concern stemmed from Paul's fundamental theological conviction that Christ cannot be divided (1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18; Ephesians 2:11-22; 4:1-6).
We know this is Paul's concern at this moment, because the immediate context here begins with a reminder of the division between the people of the covenant and the gentiles, signified by a particular ritual ordinance: circumcision (Ephesians 2:11-12).
For centuries circumcision, table-fellowship regulations and other ritual concerns divided Jew and gentile, demarking in a visible way the insiders, as it were, from the outsiders from a covenantal point of view.
This is clear from first-century rabbinic literature and is reflected in the New Testament itself (Acts 15:1; Galatians 2:3-4, 12).
This is why uncircumcised gentiles like the Ephesians, Paul says, were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise"; under the Old Covenant stipulations and Jewish tradition, they had no access to God (Ephesians 2:11-12).
But now, through Christ, gentiles who were once "far off" have been brought into the household of God (verse 13), for Christ has broken down the "barrier, the dividing wall of hostility" (NIV), between Jew and gentile (verse 14).
What is this referring to? A. Skevington Wood, in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Vol. 11, p. 39), notes:
"This Paul describes as a 'barrier' (phragmos) and as a 'dividing wall' (mesotoichon). The first word means simply a 'fence' or 'railing.' The second is much rarer and it is literally a 'middle wall.' Josephus used each of these terms separately with reference to the balustrade in the Jerusalem temple separating the court of the Gentiles from the temple proper . . . Paul's language here also recalls the common rabbinic idea of the law as a fence dividing Jews by their observance of it from all other races and thus arousing hostility."
But that's not all he says. There are things that have been abolished in Christ, "the law of commandments contained in ordinances." What are these?
Commentators note that this phrase is syntactically difficult and unclear because it employs a combination of wording not found elsewhere in the New Testament. Ralph Earle in Word Meanings in the New Testament (p. 305) thinks Weymouth's translation probably conveys its meaning best: "the law with its commandments, expressed, as they were, in definite decrees."
If this is correct or nearly so, it should be noted that Paul could have simply said "the law" was abolished in Christ's flesh. He uses "the law" scores of times in his letters when he means to say the entire Torah. But he narrows it down considerably here by saying the law, with its commandments, expressed in specific decrees.
Clearly, Paul has something more specific in mind than the entire law of Moses, and this is generally recognized today among commentators.
In the absence of any elaboration, and given the direct reference in the immediate context to circumcision and the indirect reference to the temple, the only likely possibility is that this phrase refers to circumcision and other ritual practices that separated Jew and gentile in the first century.
Indeed, commandments not to steal from one another or lie to one another or go after another man's wife hardly divide people. But we know that the ritual concerns of circumcision and table fellowship, for example, did divide Jew and gentile to the extent that the resulting crisis had to be dealt with decisively at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:19-20).
Colossians 2:13-14: Here Paul wants the Colossians to know that in Christ, God "wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." Was this the law of Moses?
The key term is "handwriting of requirements" (chairographon tois dogmasin). Unfortunately, the phrase is not etymologically or syntactically clear and has thus been variously understood.
So we must again look to context for Paul's most probable meaning, and the context suggests that the most likely meaning of this phrase is our spiritual debts resulting from sin.
First, the immediate context speaks directly of sins being wiped out. Paul says that in Christ our sins have been removed from our flesh (verse 11) because we have died with Him in baptism and are being raised to new life in Him (verse 12).
So we were dead in trespasses of the flesh, and Christ has made us alive through forgiveness of those trespasses (verse 13).
Therefore, verse 14 would be a non sequitur if he were suddenly speaking of the law being wiped out and nailed to the cross; all along he has been speaking of our sins being removed.
This same word for "wiped out" (exaleipho) is used in regard to sins by Peter: "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out . . ." (Acts 3:19). Nowhere in the New Testament is exaleipho used for laws being removed.
Second, in all the many chapters Paul writes on the subject, he nowhere says the law has been removed to solve the problem of sin. Paul is clear that sin reigned before the giving of the law (Romans 5:13).
Although the law "made wrongdoing a legal offense" (Galatians 3:19), whereby sin could be "imputed to us" (Romans 5:13), "nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses" (Romans 5:14).
So removing the law cannot make us sinless, for the law is not what made us sinners. What made us sinners was sin, a nature contrary to God (Romans 7:13-24; 8:5-7). The law served to "make wrongdoing a legal offense" (Galatians 3:19, NEB; Romans 4:15).
As for the phrase "handwriting of requirements" itself, then, Curtis Vaughn, in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Vol. 11, p. 201), reports:
"Exactly how Paul uses the term (chairographon) is not certain. Scott, for example, points to its use in ancient times for an indictment drawn up against a prisoner . . . Others point to the use of the word for a note of hand, an IOU. Bruce, for instance, calls it a 'signed confession of indebtedness.' "
If this is the sense in which we are to take it, perhaps Phillips best conveys it: "He has forgiven you all your sins: he has utterly wiped out the written evidence of broken commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it to the cross."
Of course, because of verse 14's unclear phrasing, all conclusions must be provisional. But the above suggestions are the most compatible with the context: that of sin and forgiveness of sin and our triumph with Christ over the dark powers of sin (Colossians 2:15).
Hebrews 7:12-18: Hebrews 7:12 says: "For the priesthood being changed, of necessity there is also a change in the law."
What law? Anti-law advocates say this refers to the entire Torah.
This is easily shown to be in error. First, in the larger context the Levitical system of law is clearly the subject, from the beginning of this section (Hebrews 7:11) to the end (Hebrews 9:10).
In Hebrews 9:10 he says that what he has been speaking of is "concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation."
Indeed, the words priest and priesthood are mentioned no fewer than 27 times in this section. There is no mention of any laws other than Levitical.
In this particular passage of Hebrews 7:1-28, the writer is unmistakably speaking of the change of priesthood from the Levitical back to the foundational Melchizedekian priesthood.
The particular "change of the law" the writer speaks of in verse 12 refers to the widely known law that no one but a Levite could be a priest (Numbers 3:9-10); yet Jesus was from Judah. So the law regarding who could be a priest had to be changed to facilitate this change in the priesthood.
This is all made clear in the next two verses, 13 and 14.
Anti-law advocates also say that the annulment of law mentioned in Hebrews 7:18-19 refers to the law of Moses generally. All one needs to do is glance at the verse before this (" 'You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek' "; verse 17) and after it ("And inasmuch as He was not made priest without an oath . . ."; verse 20) to show clearly that verses 18-19 in context are speaking of laws of priesthood being annulled; specifically, the Levitical.
That anti-law advocates would even think to pluck these phrases from a clear context like this reveals the desperation with which they pursue their task.
Hebrews 8:13 with Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13: Hebrews 8:13 tells us: "In that He says, 'A new covenant,' He has made the first obsolete." So the Old Covenant is obsolete. The question is, then, what was the Old Covenant?
The word for covenant here and most of the New Testament, diatheke, carries virtually the same sense as its English counterpart. A diatheke simply is a contract or agreement between two parties with terms and conditions that are mutually agreed upon.3
WCG leaders recognized this when presenting their arguments in the Jan. 10, 1995, issue of The Worldwide News (p. 1):
"In simple terms, a covenant is a formal agreement. It can be an agreement between two people, a treaty between nations, or a relationship between God and a human individual or nation."
But, just a few paragraphs later, they set aside this correct understanding of covenant as an agreement and equate the Old Covenant with some of the requirements of that covenant, the Ten Commandments! They do this by quick reference to Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13, where the Sinai covenant is directly associated with the Ten Commandments. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if the Old Covenant is obsolete, so must be the Ten Commandments.
About this sea change in outlook WCG evangelist David Albert, writing in the June 20, 1995, Worldwide News (p. 5), relates:
"I didn't know and nobody had ever taught me in my 35 years in the Church that the Ten Commandments were the old covenant . . . I see now that we were ignorant about such basics as how God in his Word defines the old covenant-namely, by the Ten Commandments and vice versa."
There are reasons we were never taught this. First, if these verses teach that the Old Covenant was, by definition, the Ten Commandments, what about the laws of Exodus 21-23, called "the Book of the Covenant"?
After Moses read all the laws of Exodus 20-23 to the people, they agreed to God's terms and entered into covenant with Him by saying, "All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient" (Exodus 24:7).
This formal agreement, this covenant, was then ratified by the sprinkling of blood by Moses, saying, "Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words" (verse 8).
There was no prior agreement to the Ten, then to the Book of the Covenant. It was all agreed to together. And that was the Sinai covenant.
Paul understood this well. In 2 Corinthians 3 he discusses the differences between the Old and New Covenants (verse 6). The Old Covenant, he says by way of explanation, was "written . . . with ink" and "on tablets of stone" (verse 3).
These are direct references to the Book of the Covenant, penned by Moses according to God's instruction, and the tablets of the covenant, written by God Himself.
Therefore, the Old Covenant, or old agreement, cannot be, by definition, the Ten Commandments.
Of course, the Sinai covenant included the Ten Commandments and, as Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and other scriptures suggest, were seen to be the most important of the laws and emblematic of the whole.
But the scriptural record shows the Old Covenant was not the Ten Commandments; indeed, they didn't even constitute all the terms of that covenant.
Going further, a covenant by definition also includes articulation of reward for adherence to the agreement and punishments for breach of contract; otherwise it is an agreement with no consequences.
This was certainly true of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 23:20-33). The apostles understood that a critical component of the covenant was its promises, not just its requirements, so much so that it was the Old Covenant's inferior promises that, in part, required its obsolescence (Hebrews 8:6).
Moreover, the apostles understood that another critical factor in what obsoleted the Old Covenant was not the laws, or the requirements, of the agreement, but one of the parties who agreed to them. The writer of Hebrews says the first covenant "was not faultless" (Hebrews 8:7).
We should understand clearly that, if the WCG is correct in teaching that the Ten Commandments were the Old Covenant, the fault the writer speaks of must have been with the Ten Commandments.
But the writer does not say this. He says the fault was "with them," the Israelites, one of the parties to the agreement (verse 8).
Even more, the way the apostles write about the law and the covenants shows clearly that, in their minds, they were not synonymous.
In Romans 3:31 Paul writes: "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law." Are we to believe Paul is reestablishing the Old Covenant?
Furthermore, in Romans 9:4 Paul clearly distinguishes "the covenants" from "the giving of the law."
The apostles evidently understood that the linguistic shorthand of Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 that directly associated the Ten Commandments with the Old Covenant was not to be taken literally, just as the golden calf was not literally "Israel's sin" (Deuteronomy 9:21). And it's the apostles' understanding and teaching that determines Christian doctrine.
Even so, anti-law advocates say, the fact remains that the Ten Commandments were the core of the Sinai agreement that Israel was to obey, signified by the fact that the "tablets of the covenant," as they were called, were placed into the "ark of the covenant" (Exodus 40:20).
Thus, they conclude, the Ten Commandments were forever installed into the heart of the Old Covenant, which is now obsolete.
At first blush this appears to be plausible reasoning, except that the Scripture never says this and Jesus and the apostles repeatedly contradict it, as we'll soon see.
John 1:17: Here John writes, "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Did John mean to say that neither grace nor truth existed before Jesus? Or is he expressing some less-literal but deeper truth about Jesus' life and what it meant to the world?
First, let's understand that John was a Jew who knew Scripture. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures repeatedly in his Gospel to illustrate who Jesus was and what His ministry and work on the cross meant from a prophetic standpoint (John 6:45; 12:15, 38, 40; 13:18; 15:25; 19:24, 37).
So we can be confident that John understood that Exodus 34:6-9, Deuteronomy 32:4, Psalm 25:5, 10 and countless other scriptures reveal that both grace and truth were very much part of the Hebrews' religion.
We can be sure John did not think the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was a liar, and we can be sure that he would have been taught by his observant mother from an early age how God graciously saved the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
So what is his meaning here? We should note that the but that appears in some translations is not John's word; translators added it, and it serves to imply a sharper division and more of an antithesis between Moses and Jesus than actually appears in the text.
That said, John is still clearly expressing the idea that something spiritually extraordinary has come in Jesus that did not exist before and that Moses could not and did not deliver to men. This was nothing new; it was prophesied by Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18:15).
In his Gospel John has Jesus saying: "If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me" (John 5:46). And "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).
For John, Jesus was the culmination of all that the patriarchs foresaw and the law and prophets taught. Far from being antithetical to Moses' legacy, Jesus was its ultimate champion and the fulfillment of it!
John wants us to know that, what the patriarchs and prophets saw in shadow, Jesus manifested in reality. What they taught in morality, Jesus surpassed in spirituality.
John's conviction, which issues forth throughout his Gospel, is that Jesus was not merely a servant, as all others before Him, but God's own Son.
Therefore, John's Gospel emphasizes that Jesus was in a position to reveal the full truth about God and His ways as no man ever has revealed or ever could reveal (John 3:16; 8:32-42; 14:7; see also Hebrews 1:1).
Matthew 15:3-6: "Why do you transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?" Jesus demands of the Pharisees. "God [not Moses] commanded, saying, 'Honor your father and your mother' . . . [but] you have made the commandment of no effect by your tradition."
Notice how indignant Jesus becomes over the circumvention of this fifth "commandment of God." Are we to imagine that He got this annoyed because this commandment still had a year or two to go until its "fulfillment"?
By reading His words we see that it is clear He knew the moral "effect" this command was intended to give, and it angered him that the scribes' and Pharisees' traditions had circumvented it.
Moreover, it is also clear by His wording that the Pharisees' behavior was damnable because it contravened one of the Ten Commandments (verse 6).
Matthew 19:17-23 and Mark 10:17-23: "If you want to enter into life," Jesus told the rich young man, "keep the commandments." Which commandments? And did he really mean what He said?
Anti-law advocates think not. About this incident they suggest:
First, let's see what we can deduce about this young man's attitude. Mark reports he came running down the road to see Jesus and, finally catching up, knelt before Him.
In all His public ministry, only two others are recorded as kneeling before Jesus in recognition of His true status (Matthew 17:14; Mark 1:40). Even though they came only for physical blessings, these both were immediately granted their healing request.
So right from the outset we see this young man giving Jesus the highest honor as a representative of God, one of the few to genuinely do so.
Then came his question: "What good thing shall I do to have eternal life?" Is this a focus on personal obedience and good works?
Of course, it is. It was all any Jew at that time would have known about God's way. To think Jesus thought poorly of this young man because He did not yet have the complete understanding of justification by grace through faith, which had not yet been revealed, is to think anachronistically.
Jesus' own inner circle of disciples, remember-even after three and a half years with the Master-had thoroughly Jewish (that is to say, physical) notions about Jesus and the Kingdom of God, even after His death and resurrection (Matthew 26:51-54; Luke 22:24; Acts 1:6).
So what was Jesus' response to his question? As Mark has it, "You know the commandments . . ." This matter-of-fact reply shows that Jesus did not teach a foundational ethic any different from that He gave to Moses.
But what did He mean by "commandments"? In Matthew Jesus lists five of the Ten, then says, "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself," from Leviticus 19:18.
And is kai, which separates the Decalogue commands from Leviticus 19:18.
Even so, why did He not include the first four commands or coveting? Are we to conclude that Jesus was not concerned about whether the young man had other gods before Him, worshiped idols, took God's name in vain or coveted?
We ought to know this shouldn't be our conclusion. Clearly, by excising from the Ten those that specifically dealt with love toward neighbor and attaching to them the summary command from Leviticus 19:18, Jesus was focusing this man's attention on that issue.
Why? It doesn't say.
But the young man said he had indeed kept these from his youth. Jesus did not deny this or question it, for it is hardly impossible that a man could for the most part avoid killing people, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness against a neighbor and dishonoring parents.
So the young man responded, "What do I still lack?" He wanted to know: Where am I falling short?
Anti-law advocates need to see this as an insincere question from a self-righteous young man. I would suggest this is one of the finest questions anyone had ever asked the Master in His public ministry. That Jesus thought so is clear by His response:
"Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, 'One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor . . .' "
Additionally, Matthew notes that Jesus bade the young man to "follow Me," the same offer he made to Peter, Andrew and Matthew himself as His personal disciples. Is this really Jesus sparring with a fool here?
Finally, then, what is the lesson we should glean from this incident? Anti-law advocates have their idea, but Jesus had His: "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"
Relying on works for salvation and not trusting in Jesus' grace do not even enter the discussion.
It is also said that Jesus' instruction to this young man to "keep the commandments" was given only because He was speaking to one "born under the law." What is not recognized is that Jesus is here offering the "Kingdom of God."
It is a dubious assumption that Jesus laid out one road to His Kingdom for those He dealt with before His death and another for those He deals with afterward.
Anti-law advocates insist the Commandments, as "the core of the Old Covenant," have passed away, and now we should obey Christ. Well, this is Christ speaking to us here.
Romans 7:78:4: In this passage Paul says (among other important things), "I would have not known sin except through the law." This is the same thought he expressed in different words earlier: "Where there is no law there is no transgression" (Romans 4:15).
Thus he raises a critical issue that all Christians must understand: We can all agree that sin is bad and to be avoided, but how can we know what sin is? Who decides?
Presumably, God decides. But when did He decide it? And how did He communicate His decision to men?
And-although sin is by no means limited to the violation of one of the Ten Commandments-as we'll see, Paul is clear in Romans 7:7 that sin includes violation of the Ten Commandments. This can be possible only if the Ten Commandments express God's will for men.
Paul in no way intimates here that coveting used to be a sin back in the old days; nor that coveting used to be a sin because it violated the Ten Commandments, but it's now a sin because it violates the "law of Christ" or the "spirit of the gospel."
No, to Paul sin is a violation of God's will, and God's will has always been and is still discovered in the Ten Commandments. As he said earlier in this letter, "For by the law is the knowledge of sin" (3:20), and "where there is no law there is no transgression" (4:15). And here in verse 7, "I would not have known sin, except through the law."
Were it not for God's moral law, in fact, Paul says that he would never have faced the death penalty (verses 9-11; 4:15). But, because of transgressions of laws like "Thou shalt not covet," Paul "died," for sin was revealed in him through the Ten Commandments.
Through his violation of those commandments, the eternal-death penalty was incurred. Certainly it is a curious set of obsolete laws that can put a man to death forever.
Throughout these verses Paul is clear that, if there is no transgression, there is no condemnation. And, if there is no condemnation, there is no need for justification and no need for Jesus to have died!
Not all Protestants have been deceived on this point. John Bunyan agreed exactly with Paul when he wrote, "The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Savior."
Archibald Alexander, the first professor of Princeton Theological Seminary, rightly observed, "Where there are none sick, there will be no need of a physician; and where no law is preached, there will be no conviction of sin, and none crying out, 'what must we do to be saved?' "
In our own day Ernest Reisinger in The Law and the Gospel sums up Paul's argument in this passage with great conciseness: "If we do away with the law, there is no sin, and therefore no need of a Savior. If we do away with the cross, we have no answer to the sin problem. If there is no righteous judgment of almighty God, there is no point to talking about sin or a Savior" (p. 36).
Reisinger, a Baptist minister, has been well positioned to witness the theological and spiritual poverty that often results from the persistent distortion of Paul's doctrine of law and grace: ". . . Some evangelical churches have emphasized the love and grace of God while never showing sinners the holiness of the God against whom they have sinned. Scores of people who have been told they are forever saved have never learned the law of God.
"Having never understood that sin is separation from God, they have never come to embrace Christ's death on the cross as satisfaction of God's just and eternal wrath against their sin. They have failed to grasp the meaning of free, unmerited grace" (p. 29).
The irony here is extreme. Where grace is spoken of most, it is often understood and appreciated least! For it is only where God's moral law is understood to be in force, convicting us of sin as it convicted Paul, that we can appreciate what Jesus has done to save us from its curse of death!
No wonder Paul can proclaim with no fear of contradiction: "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law" (Romans 3:31).
Paul is adamant that the law must be established for us to have any reason to feel the need to be saved from its condemnation and any appreciation to God for His gracious gift.
He concludes, then, that, if the Commandments indeed revealed sin in his carnal nature, ipso facto the law must be "holy" and the Commandments "holy and just and good"; that is, they must reflect the holy mind and character of God (Romans 7:12).
Holy, we remember, is from the same root word from which we get sanctification (hagios). Thus God's moral laws are guideposts to sanctification. But how?
"For we know," Paul says, "that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin" (verse 14; see also 8:7). God's moral laws lead men to hagios-to holiness-because they are "spiritual." Is spiritual temporary? Is spiritual unworthy of the gospel? Is spiritual buried in a lost ark somewhere?
No, in Paul's mind he loves the spiritual law of God, though his flesh does not want to cooperate (verses 15-23).
But because he is in Christ there is no condemnation for his sin (Romans 8:1). Why? Not because the laws were annulled, but because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ, which paid the just penalty for his violation of God's standards as expressed in those laws (verse 3).
Again, from Reisinger: "The law, able to condemn but unable to save, sends the convicted sinner looking for salvation in the only place it can be found. It sends him to Jesus Christ who, in His perfect law-fulfilling life and perfect law-fulfilling death, gave himself to redeem helpless sinners" (p. xi).
What is the moral and spiritual end result of all of this? Earlier in the letter Paul wrote something that is often misunderstood: "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).
So if we are "under grace" sin no longer rules our lives; its tyrannical power over us is thwarted completely. How? Why? Because the laws were canceled?
No. God "condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3).
Finally, Paul is saying, the "spiritual" law has met a "spiritual" people that can keep it; namely, those who have been freed of their condemnation by Christ by grace and given His Spirit.
Anti-law advocates have failed to understand that, although Jesus indeed freely pardoned the sin of the woman taken in adultery, His instruction to her was to "go and sin no more."
The NIV has it, "Go and leave your life of sin" (John 8:11). She did indeed receive gracious pardon from Jesus. But the law that required her pardon was the very same law that should regulate her life afterward.
As he wrote earlier in the letter: "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!" (Romans 6:15).
Jesus and Paul understood that the wrongness of coveting or adultery or any other sin is not somehow mitigated because we are forgiven of it! And the law is the thing that revealed that to Paul and still reveals it.
Therefore, Christians are still obligated to keep God's moral laws to avoid sin, just like everyone else. In fact, he insists, it is the Spirit of Christ Himself that will do the work! (8:2, 4).
1 Corinthians 7:19: Anti-law advocates are quite fond of quoting Galatians 5:6, but for some reason they never seem to get around to its companion scripture, 1 Corinthians 7:19: "Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters."
If they took a moment to ponder its implications, they might reconsider their position. Paul's total view is this: Rituals are unimportant; what matters is faith expressing itself through love, which includes keeping God's commandments in the Spirit.
But some are quick to note that 1 Corinthians 7:19 doesn't say "the Ten Commandments"; it says only "the commandments of God."
True enough. But we should note that the word he uses here for "commandments" (entolon) is used repeatedly in Romans 7 in direct reference to the Ten Commandments (see verses 7-13).
Nevertheless, in this one sentence Paul obliterates two major assumptions of anti-law advocates.
First, it reveals that in Paul's mind there is a critical distinction to be made between ceremonial and moral laws, for circumcision was indeed a "commandment of God" in the Torah, as everyone knew (Exodus 12:48; Leviticus 12:3).
So, if he is not flatly contradicting himself within the same sentence, Paul must be saying that there are laws in the Torah that mean nothing in the Christian life and laws that mean a great deal. Although he doesn't specify the Ten Commandments here, he certainly does so elsewhere in his writings.
Thus, although it is true that Paul does not formally mark out which laws in the Torah are "ceremonial" and which are "moral," such is the clear implication of this verse.
Indeed, we may not have all the specifics we would like, but we can be sure of this much: The "commandments of God" that matter are found in the Decalogue (see all the passages cited in this section from Matthew 15 through Revelation 11).
The second anti-law assumption this verse exposes is that Paul did not believe Commandment-keeping was sub-Christian (see also 1 John 5:3). Although Paul indeed argues that Christians are not "under the law"-that is, under the failed former regime of earned righteousness-he is clear here that Christians are under the authority of specific God-given laws.
Those who suggest that prescriptive behavioral commands have no place in the life of the Spirit have no real understanding of Paul's position.
Ephesians 6:1-3: Paul here quotes the Commandment to obey one's parents. Certainly this is strange behavior if anti-law advocates are correct about Paul's view of the law. Why would he quote to gentiles a dead commandment as if it were still a living one?
He tells the Ephesian young people, " 'Honor your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with promise." Paul certainly seems to think the promise is living; do dead commands deliver living promises?
Note that Paul also seems to assume a familiarity with this command on the part of the Ephesians; no one, apparently, had told them they had been terminated with the Old Covenant, and this appears to be the last thing on Paul's list of things to do.
1 Timothy 1:5-15: Paul speaks here of loving "the commandment" "from a pure heart." What commandments is Paul speaking of whose purpose is "love from a pure heart" (verse 5) and "good if used lawfully" (verse 8)? We get our answer by what he cites as the sins of the unrighteous.
"Murderers of fathers and mothers" is actually "smiters" in the text; this obviously breaks the Fifth Commandment. Next is manslayers (murder, No. 6), fornicators and sodomites (adultery, No. 7), kidnappers (stealing, No. 8), liars and perjurers (false witness, No. 9).
The New Bible Commentary: Revised (p. 1169) notes: "Paul obviously here follows the order of the Ten Commandments and bluntly specifies violations in their most extreme form."
So we know now the "commandments" and "law" Paul is talking about are the Ten Commandments specifically, and they are "good" when not abused by false teachers who do not know what they are talking about (verse 7).
In verse 5 we are told that their very purpose is to promote "love from a pure heart." Is this something only ancient Israelites and Jews needed? Obviously not, and in verses 10-11 we see that these commands correspond to "sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God."
The Decalogue, far from being alien or irrelevant to the gospel, is foundational of it, because it gives us an outline of God's absolute, fundamental values (Romans 7:7, 12, 14), which men coming out of a lawless age need.
But anti-law advocates counter that Paul isn't saying he and Timothy, in their state of imputed righteousness, needed the Ten Commandments; their only purpose is to show to the unregenerate-the "lawless and insubordinate"-their need for a Savior.
Indeed, Paul seems to be stressing here the Ten Commandments' "lawful" function of exposing and perhaps restraining sin in the unrighteous (verse 9).
But who is the unrighteous? Paul is quick to admit that he himself had been a recklessly sinful man, "chief among sinners" (verse 15). Even Paul, "Pharisee of the Pharisees," could see in unholy and profane men a shadow of his former self.
But what is troubling about the anti-law view of this passage is the idea that the law's "only purpose is to show to the unregenerate their need for a Savior."
Let's consider for a moment exactly what this must mean. We are being asked to believe that God has established a body of law of such grave importance as to require the death penalty for its violation-necessitating no less than the death of His own Son to pay for them-and yet, after that penalty is paid, those very same laws become irrelevant.
How and why could we die eternally for transgression of laws that are only temporary? Do those laws articulate values that are important to God or not? Can values ever be only temporary?
If it is a sin to covet the day before one's baptism, is it not a sin to do so the day after? How could the word sin in the anti-law advocates' vocabulary carry any meaning at all if certain behaviors are sin only during one part of a person's life and not another?
Is it sin for my neighbor-an "unregenerate" man who does not yet know Christ-to take God's name in vain, but not for me, because I am in a state of imputed righteousness?
With ideas like this floating around, it isn't difficult to see how the Christianized nations of the world have become among its most morally sick.
James 2:10-12: James writes to his Christian brothers and sisters: "Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all." Clearly, there is a unitary body of law spoken of here. What would that be?
Anti-law advocates are certain that whatever it is it isn't the Ten Commandments. Their focus is on verses 8-9, and their position is this:
Let's look at this carefully. The big problem with anti-law advocates' interpretation is that they ignore that James employs two terms here, and there is no reason to believe they refer to the same thing. How do we know they are different things?
Because first he speaks of a "royal law" in verses 8; that is, to "love your neighbor as yourself," from Leviticus 19:18. But later he speaks of a "law of liberty" in verse 12, which, we are told, has a number of points (verse 10).
But the royal law didn't have more than one point; Leviticus 19:18 does not feature a number of points, only the single command to love your neighbor as yourself.
The idea that "showing partiality" (verse 9) was in fact a point of the royal law is a chimera; no such command appears in Leviticus 19:18 or anywhere in the Old Testament. Rather, showing partiality is a behavior that James sees as breaking the royal law, not a point of law unto itself.
But doesn't he use the word for at the beginning of verse 10 in reference to what went before?
Yes, he does, because his main sermon point to his Christian audience is that God's laws are all to be kept, and, if any are broken, we are rendered lawbreakers. He links the two examples of that by use of the word for.
While we're in verse 10, let's consider that he says, "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one . . ." This again indicates that he is beginning to think about something other than Leviticus 19:18, because a single verse with a single command would not be called the "whole law."
In fact, there are only two real possibilities here: that he is referring to the entire Torah or that he is beginning to think about the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, from which he will quote in the next verse.
The first possibility is unlikely, since James himself supported the Jerusalem council's decision to release gentiles from circumcision and participation in other Mosaic ethos-or ritual customs-even though they are all commands in the law. Certainly he would not have done this if he had thought this would lead the gentiles to sin.
So we are left to conclude that the "whole law," the "law of liberty" with more than one point, is the Ten Commandments, from which he quotes in verse 11.
But why did he quote only two of the Ten Commandments?
Because he needed to quote only two of the 10 for his audience to know exactly what body of law he meant by the "law of liberty"; they simply represented the whole. Citing all 10, as anti-law advocates require, was simply not necessary for people who knew the Scriptures.
To sum up, then:
Those who live by every word of God need no more than this one passage to be convinced that the Ten Commandments carry the force of law for men in the age of the Spirit.
Deuteronomy 10:5 and Revelation 11:19: Anti-law advocates suggest that, because the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were placed inside the ark of the covenant, they are inseparably bound and forever contained in that covenant, which, of course, was made obsolete in Christ.
The whole counsel of God, however, reveals that the tablets' placement in the ark actually signifies durability across ages.
Shortly after the Old Covenant was ratified, God instructed Moses to gather offerings to make Him a sanctuary, "according to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle . . ., just so shall you make it" (Exodus 25:8-9).
Twice more He reminded Moses to make sure the workmen fashioned the tabernacle and its furnishings exactly like "the pattern I showed you on the mountain" (Exodus 25:40; 26:30). Why?
The writer of Hebrews tells us that the priests who offered in that tabernacle "serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle" (Hebrews 8:5; see also 9:23).
The writer recounts that the ark of the covenant, prepared according to the heavenly pattern, was built to contain the tablets of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, as God commanded (Hebrews 9:4; Deuteronomy 10:5).
Now, the ark was the most sacred item in the temple, placed as it was in the holy of holies. Over it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat where God dwelt (Exodus 25:20; Hebrews 9:5), dispensing mercy for the violations of the enclosed Commandments.
How does that relate to partakers of the New Covenant?
In every way, "for Christ has not entered the holy place made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us" (Hebrews 9:24).
Everything in the tabernacle while it was on earth was patterned after that in heaven! And now Jesus mediates for our transgressions in the heavenly sanctuary, in the heavenly holy place on the heavenly mercy seat (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 2:1).
If the Ten Commandments do not have the force of law for us, Jesus is mediating over an abrogated law. But if in fact the Ten Commandments are "spiritual," as Paul claimed (Romans 7:14), this scriptural picture of heavenly realities reveals much.
In Christ's revelation to the apostle John, something amazing happens (actually, quite a few amazing things happen, but I mean something having to do with the ark of the covenant).
At the seventh trumpet, when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord (Revelation 11:15), the temple of God is opened in heaven and the ark of the covenant is seen in His temple! (verse 19).
Why, if the ark with its Commandments related only to long-lost ancient Israel, would God reveal it at the precise moment Christ takes control of the nations? Why, indeed, has it been there at all?
Would this not signify (perhaps among other things) the Commandments' role as a fundamental law code in the millennial reign of Christ, which begins at this moment?
Whatever its exact connections, the ark of the covenant, which was constructed principally for the Ten Commandments, appears in Scripture to have not only a past but a present and a future.
In Jesus' conversation with the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-23, He stated clearly that the Ten Commandments reflect fundamental behavioral requirements for those who would have "eternal life." Unless Jesus was lying to this man, that is precisely what He is saying in verse 17.
But it is just as obvious that, to Jesus, these were minimum requirements because, when the young man responded that he had been obedient, Jesus was ready: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor . . ."
Now, this was a level of righteousness the Ten Commandments never anticipated, never required. The Ten, for the most part, speak to refraining from doing bad things, and this is important.
Obviously, a loving God would not want people in His eternal Kingdom to habitually dishonor Him and do bad things to other people, since love is the chief operating principle of His Kingdom (Matthew 22:37, 39; John 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 13:13).
Sinners need to learn that they are sinners and learn to stop doing these bad things to God and others before they can begin doing good things.
But, if the Ten are foundational, certainly that foundation was laid so a superstructure could be built upon it, and that superstructure is found not in the Torah but in the example, teaching and salvific work of Jesus Christ.
The prophet foresaw that Messiah would "magnify the law and make it honorable" (Isaiah 42:21), and, indeed, Messiah did.
We witness Jesus raising the ethical and moral bar throughout the Gospels. When He opened His Sermon on the Mount, He said that, "unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:21).
Pharisees like Saul were committed to obey every precept of the law of Moses (Philippians 3:6), but Jesus came to tell the world this was not nearly enough. His Sermon on the Mount begins to show us how much greater His expectations are under the New Covenant than they were under the Old (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 38-39, 43-48).
Jesus came to make a people that would love and walk as He loved and walked. No longer was it only "Love your neighbor as yourself," as the commandment teaches. Now it was, "Love your neighbor as I have loved you" (John 13:34).
The former isn't canceled by the latter, because it's obviously included within it. As one well expressed it, New Testament morality may go beyond the Commandments, but it doesn't go around them.
Even so, no number of laws can possibly cover all ways love can be expressed in the thousand and one individual circumstances we find ourselves in every day, though the law of Moses took a good shot at it. There are hundreds of detailed instructions there to cover a dizzying array of contingencies, as we know; yet it never accomplished God's purpose.
But love can, and love will, because love is a living power within that fulfills all that is good in the law (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14) and all that is not there too.
It was the inability of his countrymen to see this that pained Paul. The perfect fulfillment of all that the law stood for was now possible in Christ, through His Spirit, as we are transformed into His glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).
But there's more. In the New Testament, we are taught that, along with the prohibitions in the Ten Commandments, sin includes outbursts of wrath, selfish ambition, contention, envy, hatred, malice, guile, revelry, hypocrisy and so on, because these are sins against the Spirit.
In fact, under the new spiritual covenant, awareness of sin has become expanded to such a degree, and reaches so deeply into our hearts, that Paul can say with all assurance that "whatever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). That covers an awful lot of ground!
We in the Church of God have always understood that some of the Mosaic laws were expanded to reach into the human heart, especially when reading the Sermon on the Mount.
But we have not always reminded each other that the New Covenant, being a Spirit-based covenant, brought to light a whole new set of spiritual concerns, and sins, that had no connection at all with any laws given to Moses.
Obviously, meeting all these great spiritual expectations requires a heart better than we were given at birth. Thus you cannot separate the Spirit-based nature of the New Covenant from its ethics, and vice versa.
Moreover, sin is now not principally avoided by steeling oneself not to disobey written commands, but through a changed nature, through becoming a new creation (Romans 6:1-4; Galatians 6:15; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Thus sin is thwarted at its very source: the mind (Matthew 15:19-20).
In the New Testament a godly life is not accomplished by us, as in Judaism, but in us, through God living in us (Romans 8:4; 2 Corinthians 3:3).
Measured against the law, Paul was "blameless" (Philippians 3:6). Measured against the towering example of holiness and love in Jesus, Paul realized he was an "insolent," or violent, man (the same word he uses in Romans 1:30 for sin-sick gentiles of the Roman Empire) and a "blasphemer" (the same word he uses in 2 Timothy 3:2 for latter-day degenerates).
But Paul didn't learn the truth about God's ultimate values at the feet of Gamaliel but at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ (Philippians 2:5-8). That this was God's plan all along is seen in the Torah itself (Deuteronomy 18:18).
Unlike most men, Paul kept the Ten. But, like all men, Paul still had a selfish nature within him that only the Spirit, together with the example and teaching of Christ, could expose.
It is principally upon Christ's example and mind that the apostles drew for guidance. For instance, when sexual sin was found in Corinth, Paul could have readily quoted any number of sex stipulations in the law of Moses. Instead, he argues that our bodies are Christ's and Christ would never join Himself to a harlot; end of discussion (1 Corinthians 6:15-17).
When he instructs about marriage, he does so by equating it with how Christ leads the church, as a living sacrifice (Ephesians 5:22-29; see also 2 Corinthians 5:14-15).
In my years in the Church of God, rarely has anyone in my presence quoted me chapter and verse from the law to settle a questionable ethical issue, though that can certainly be helpful at times, as Paul himself knew (1 Corinthians 9:8-10).
But in my experience the inquiry was almost always framed as, "Well, what would Christ do?" This opened us up to the full range of spiritual instruction and example that reaches into our deepest selves, where every insidious form of selfishness lies hidden until God's Spirit reveals it to us.
As we learn to live this Christian life, we find it is no longer enough to know what is unsinful to do; we want to know what is the best thing to do.
As long as we continue in this, our righteousness will exceed that of the Pharisees, and we will be the profitable servants Jesus always wanted as His followers (Luke 17:10).
I think it has become obvious that the principal error of the anti-law advocate is either-or thinking as pertaining to law and grace:
In the end the New Testament exposes each of these as false alternatives: choices forced upon us by men unwilling to recognize Scripture's distinction between justification and sanctification and the law's irrelevance to the former and proper role in the latter.
On the other hand, the chief pitfall of those of us who recognize the continuing authority of the Ten Commandments is that we will, subconsciously at least, allow ourselves to feel that our relationship is based upon what we do for God when it is really based upon what we allow God to do in us; or to assume that love can be authentic only if it directly connects somehow to one of the Ten Commandments; or to distrust Spirit-guided conscience so we will not "hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way, walk in it' " (Isaiah 30:21).
I have seen all of these things in my time as a Christian and been guilty of them too.
Indeed, the road to the Kingdom is narrow: more narrow than any of us, I suppose, ever imagined.
1. I am aware that on the basis of Genesis 12:1-4 and 17:1 some argue that obedience was necessary for Abraham's participation in his covenant with God. Paul's focus here, however, is upon the events of Genesis 15, which do not feature any instruction or command to do anything and where it is said that Abram "believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (Genesis 15:6).
2. Since "the law" Paul speaks of here is one that "could have given life" and "righteousness" (verse 21), he could not be speaking of the Levitical ordinances, which are specifically said in the New Testament to have always been unable to give life (Hebrews 9, 10).
3. See Kittel, p. 157f., abridged edition.
Editor's note: The print version of this article also contains a sidebar article, "Is Obedience a Condition for Salvation?," by Jack J. Blanco, reprinted by permission from Perspective Digest.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God