5/16/10

What is Moses' Law to Christians?

Quid est veritas? It's maddening sometimes to parse the scriptures. When attempting to perform proper exegesis on the scriptures pertaining to some of the more debatable issues, I am tempted to throw my hands in the air and side with the atheists and anti-Christian pundits when they cry "contradictions... the bible is full of contradictions!" I realize in more sane moments that it is my own fleshly short-comings that allow me to think in such a way. There is one truth, one way, one life. God has shone His word before my feet, and calls deep within my soul that I should order my steps thereby. I need to align myself with His word as best I can. I am finding that the best way to do so is to start from a position of Christ's most important commandments - Love God with your everything, and love your neighbor as you would yourself.

But how are we supposed to love? Do we love in a relativistic manner, allowing all to just "be themselves", "find their own path", allow ourselves and others to sin, "that grace may abound/increase?" Certainly not, according to Paul. So, there are constraints that are laid on the believer of the new covenant, as we see consistently throughout the new testament scriptures. But are these constraints none other than the "ho nomos kai hoi propheteis" - the law and the prophets - the fullness of Moses' law and the testament of the prophets, minus that which is abrogated or replace explicitly by the new testament law? Is R.J. Rushdoony right in stating...

1. God's covenant with Adam required him to exercise dominion over the earth and to subdue it (Gen. 1:26 ff) under God according to God's law-word.

2. The restoration of that covenant relationship was the work of Christ, His grace to His elect people.

3. The fulfillment of that covenant is their great commission: to subdue all things and all nations to Christ and His law-word.
[R.J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ:Craig Press, 1973)]
Wow. That's a lot to take - subdue all things to God's law ("law-word"). Many are tempted to say, "but we are not under the law!" Some, likely the minority, might wholeheartedly agree with Rushdoony. Thus we have the battle lines drawn between the Antinomians (those that believe that there is no law) and the Theonomists (those that believe that God's law is still fully in effect, minus some points). Like many debates and battles between Christians (those that hold God's word to be authoritative), the truth is likely to be found somewhere between two extremes.

This is something I have agonized over for some time. Some would say that it's a silly debate, but I've been a member at a theonomist-leaning church, where some call for stoning to be re-instituted by the state for such infractions as adultery and homosexuality, and that it is God's incarnate love for a parent to stone a rebellious-lazy-good-for-nothing child. I once believed that these positions were completely tenable from the scriptures. Please, let me explain how this position can be defended...

It begins with the completely acceptable understanding that there is a continuity from Old to New Testaments, a "covenantal" understanding, whereby a God with unchanging/immutable attributes interacts with and makes promises to His people through the modicum of Covenants - thus, Covenant Theology. However, theonomy is born out of an overzealous treatment of this system of theology and of the scriptures that tie the Old and New Testament (old and new covenants) scriptures together, to the point that there is little separation between the two - the New is an extension of the Old, with a few tweaks. Similar logic is used to support infant baptism - every element from the OT must have a replacement from the new, unless somehow abrogated. Problems arise from a strict covenantal view, however, because the "shadows and types" of the old stones cannot possibly accommodate the perfect and living covenant of the new - they are not completely compatible, and find themselves at odds as it pertains to the "...weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith..." (Matt. 23:23b).

To theonomists, Matthew 5:17-21 is seen as a re-affirmation of the law and prophets by Christ, in a literal and wide-sweeping manner; we must all view ourselves, Jew and Gentile alike, to be law-bound, and all of its promises, blessings, cursings, rewards, punishments belong to us as Christians.

When presented with the positions from Galatians 3 that believers are no longer under the law, most theonomists attempt to draw a clear line between justification and sanctification, stating that the law does not pertain to justification in any way, shape or form. It becomes, though, the primary means by which the believer finds acceptance in God's eyes AFTER they have been saved - many would even say that the curses and blessings of Deuteronomy based on believers' adherence to the law yet belong to us in Christ. This logic is found wanting in light of Galatians 5:28, however, where those that are led by the Spirit are "no longer under the law" - this is a clear delineation of those that are being sanctified (one cannot be led by the Spirit, otherwise), and the proceeding passages outline the daily behavior of such a one that obeys and is sanctified in their obedience.

A true believer in Christ, theonomists say, will seek to follow the Mosaic law because He loves God - this, based on 1 John 3:5, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments ; and His commandments are not burdensome." (and God's commandments include the whole of the O.T.). Similarly, when confronted with the fact that we can no longer be under the curses of Deuteronomy 27, because "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law" (Gal 3:13a), theonomists claim that this is the singular curse of damnation, and that Revelation 22:3 is the final retraction of curses from mankind, only after the end of time and we meet God face-to-face. Until then, we will likely be cursed by God for sinning, though God may be longsuffering when He wills it. Surely this can't be the perfection that we are urged to seek, nor do I see the new covenant merely enveloping the old or expanding directly from its tenets into new and more complete codes (etched in stone) that all believers must harken to. No, there is a more direct relationship called for, a more perfect covenant called for, and theonomists are left with too many gaps and difficulties.

Conversely, and even more problematically, Antinomians decree, "there is no law!" In this camp, the law is not worth considering in any manner, except to display God's grace in that we are released from the law in Christ. They certainly have difficulties with Matthew 5:17-21, but try to cite a systematic refrain that allows us to be free in Christ and thereby retain no measure by law. They also have problems with such scriptures as Romans 7:7-12, 8:4, 1Cor 9:20, Galatians 3:24 that depict a useful place for the Mosaic law in a Christian's heart. It's not surprising that Luther decreed Antinomianism to be a heresy, among other mainstream reformers. Too bad he thought that absolute theonomy had to be the natural answer.

Never fear, the scriptures can be kept aligned with each system by tap-dancing around the difficulties. Maybe not, and maybe we don't have to. I think some flavor of New Covenantal position on the law is somewhat more tenable. It finds a much better balance by placing believers solely in the care of the Holy Spirit as it pertains to justification and sanctification, but realizing that there is still a place for God's law in our hearts and minds - to what extent, there is a great difficulty found while parsing that out. I think perhaps considering the "moral law" of the reformers is wise, but as an example I think that we need to be careful about the idea of how this applies to the state and the church. Unlike the reformers, I think that our efforts should be poured into evangelism and those things that we have been commanded to do by Christ Himself, in His covenant. So, instead of applying myself to one system or another, I think my most scriptural approach is to treat the Mosaic law instead with the system identified directly by the scriptures...

We know from various scriptures that Christ instituted a new covenant; in His own words, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood." (Luke 22:20b). We also know that the majority of scriptures seem to focus mainly on separating the new covenant from the old. What is the nature of this new covenant? Is it only an addendum to the first contract started by God? I sincerely doubt it. Hebrews 8:6 tells us, "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises." A better covenant. Better promises. Paul continues by quoting Jeremiah 31, showing that God had always planned on replacing his old covenant with a new one, one where all believers would know him. God "has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away." Though I know that theonomists try to say that this applies only to the administration of the covenants - the slaughter of animals, the priesthood, and only those things that are obviously abrogated within the new covenant - this is highly unlikely, as God states that He will not make His new covenant "according to the covenant that I made with their fathers", and the old is "obsolete" and "is ready to vanish". The new replaces the old, and the old is obsolete (like an old wineskin or old garment - we don't put patches on it to get along, they are incompatible according to Christ, and we have to replace the object completely with the new, rather than applying new patches to the old).

Then, within this new and better covenant, God takes the focus away from works and calls His children to tend to the condition of their hearts (and this by grace and faith and the power of God alone); truly, God re-focuses us all on the circumcision of the heart, and He then asks us to do works out of the condition of our hearts. The focus is now to not fear the breaking of a code, but to love God so much that we live for His pleasure and glorification.

In this manner, I believe God has"circumcised" the old covenant with His people - He is stripping away the national treatments, the land grants, the physical trappings of a people that have to maintain symbols of separation from the other tribes and nations. Faith is outside of the law of Moses; God's promise came to a faithful Abraham before the law, after all. So God's promises remain true by His complete replacement of the old with the new - through faith, by grace, via the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ ALONE. All the blessings of eternity come in this manner, and in no other. The veil of flesh is pulled back with finality, and we have a perfect union with Christ, one in which we are saved AND sanctified in Him, and no means but faith is necessary to achieve all of it.

Should the old be thrown away, then? Do we find no place for the law at all? Paul says "may it never be!" Whither these collections of old wineskins and rags? I think they become the shadows and types of a better thing, the shining and pure objective that Christ always intended. Israel was a national image that represented the true bride of Christ. True, the elect were in Israel, but only by grace through faith, and only by looking forward to the promise of a messiah. In the new and better covenant, Christ is realized, we are all called to believe in the revealed Messiah or be left in the "outer darkness, where there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth". Here is now a clear delineation - we each of us either know our savior heart to heart, or we are eternally dead. For the blind in need of guidance, the law either leads to Jesus or causes further death; once we come to faith in Christ, we have no more need of the law. We are led by the Spirit into salvation, yes, but we are continuing to be led by the counselor - certainly through God's word, but also as it pertains to our personal gifts, leadings, and even specialized revelation (another argument for another day). The Holy Spirit counsels us, leads us on a daily basis, and writes a NEW law on our hearts and minds - one that I believe transcends and does not contradict much of what is found in Moses' law.

We also have to remember that there are moments in all believers' lives where we lose track of who we are and commit sin as if we were non-believers. We are told to confront each other with God's word in such moments - "scripture is god-breathed" (inspired by God), " and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Every word of God can be used to help us in our walk; we are not "under" the law - but neither can we be a judge over it (James 4). It is the place we go to see our Lord's character and nature - Judge and Savior in one. The law and the prophets pointed to Christ as the pinnacle achievement of history, and we give up the historical and moral perspectives of those texts to our own detriment. Christ was the fulfillment of the law, and more, and if we are to be anything like Him in "running the race so as to win", then we would be wise to reference the "weightier points of the law" - mercy, love, grace. Somehow, it's there, and it's up to us to keep it in mind as we range about this creation of His.

"We love God by following His Law!" the theonomist shouts. "Throw the law out altogether!" raves the antinomian. "I think it says commandments", I would say to the theonomist, and Christ commanded an impossible series of tasks of looking deep inside our heart, transcending the law of Moses in a manner that could never be enveloped by the Mishnah or any other codification of faith; the law is now written directly on our hearts and minds by the Holy Spirit. And yet, I would tell the Antinomian that the word of God has been kept in its fullness and that the law can yet aid us in understanding our sin in our darkest moments; it also informs the non-believer of their need for a savior; and most of all, the Lord chastens those whom He loves, placing constraints on our hearts and lives in new ways that supersede the old.

I think we can all agree that we have one mediator, and that is Christ Jesus, and He is before the throne always pleading the case of His children, we covered by His imputed righteousness. We cannot think that with one hand He presents evidence against us (as we have broken every law) and with the other He pleas our innocence - instead, all sins we have ever committed are completely blotted out, and there is no more accounting for wickedness, for those of us that run against it (and yet sometimes stumble). We are not then to be bound to constant punishments and curses. And yet, our beloved is holy and pure, and our heart should leap for every glimpse we get of Him, even in those "shadows and types" that point to Him. Live for the wholeness of God's word, but fear not, for our Savior reigns over those whom He loves!

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