Author: John G. Reisinger
[This article was published online by Sound of Grace; Issue 162 November 2009]
Different theological systems provide different answers to the question of what continues when covenants change. Regardless of what view one takes on the continuity or discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New, we believe that the following five foundational principles are essential for any theological system within evangelicalism. Each of these principles has implications; we have identified some that we feel are significant and have offered some brief observations about the application of those implications.
Principle One: Every verse of Scripture, no matter in what part of Scripture we find it, is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15, 16). The word Scripture in this text is either referring to the Old Testament or includes it.
Implications of this principle: We use this text to prove the inspiration of the Scriptures, and rightly so, but if we stop there, we have failed to heed all that this text teaches. According to this text, all of God’s inspired Scripture is profitable for training new covenant believers in righteous living so we must actually use all of the sixty-six books of the Bible to teach us something about holy living today.
Adherents to Covenant Theology are disingenuous when they use this text to argue against New Covenant Theology. Their system divides the law into three sub-categories, one of which, the ceremonial law, they view as done away in Christ. They then ignore those laws, for all practical purposes, for God’s people who live on this side of the cross. In the system of Covenant Theology, the ceremonial laws provide one aspect of what constituted righteousness, or holy living, for God’s people who lived prior to the coming of Christ, but those same laws have no practical value, in that system, to equip God’s people who live after the cross for good works in holy living. Covenant Theology’s tripartite division of the law fails to recognize the implications of this text. It seems to me, however, that some adherents of New Covenant Theology do exactly the same thing via a different route. It is vital to remember that interpreting the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament is not the same as discarding the Old Testament altogether.
All of the Old Testament Scriptures are still part of the Word of God that helps new covenant believers to be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Therefore, our system of theology and our actual practice must incorporate the book of Exodus, and every other book in Scripture, to teach, to rebuke, to correct and to help train God’s people in 2009 to live righteously in some sense. Regardless of in what way or to what degree Christ’s death on the cross did away with the ceremonial laws, as ceremonial laws, those verses of Scripture must have some function in helping new covenant believers to live God-honoring lives today.
Principle Two: Being under the Scripture and being under the law are two different things. We have established from 2 Timothy 3:15, 16 that all of God’s people are under the Scripture in the sense that it (all of it) is necessary and sufficient for training in righteousness. Paul, in his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians, establishes just as clearly that Christians are not under the Mosaic law (Rom. 6:14, 15; 7:6; Gal. 4:21-31).
Implications of this principle: The Christian must see himself as completely and forever free from the Mosaic law and must not allow anyone to place his conscience under that law in any sense. At the same time, however, Christians must also see themselves as under the absolute authority of Scripture, and that Scripture includes everything to which 2 Timothy 3:15, 16 refers.
Applications of this principle: When someone asks, Are Christians free from the law, meaning the Old Covenant? we respond, Absolutely. If someone asks, Are Christians free from the Old Testament? We respond, Not as long as 2 Timothy 3:15, 16 is in the Bible. We can see specific examples of this application by considering the third principle.
Principle Three: There is a clear distinction between the Old Testament, meaning the thirty-nine books of the Bible written before Christ came, and the Old Covenant, meaning the legal covenant that God put Israel under at Sinai. These two nouns (testament and covenant) are not synonyms for the same thing, but name two radically and distinctly different things.
Implications of this principle: Christians, while being free from the Mosaic law the Old Covenant are not free from the Old Testament. Failure to maintain this distinction will result in confusion and can lead either to legalism or to antinomianism.
Applications of this principle: Evangelicals disagree over the status of the death penalty. Some point to Romans 13:4 to establish the death penalty as continuing under the new covenant. Others, however, understand bearing the sword in that verse to refer not to capital punishment, but to the authority of the government to enforce its will. They view the death penalty as an old covenant law, rescinded by the advent of the new covenant. It does not matter which of the two views are correct, or if neither is correct since the status of the death penalty does not depend on one’s interpretation of Romans 13:4. God grounds both the necessity of the death penalty and the promise of the rainbow in the covenant he made with Noah, recorded in Genesis 9:5-17. This covenant predates the Old Covenant; therefore, these verses are a part of the Old Testament, but not a part of the Old Covenant. If we believe that the promise of the rainbow continues because the Noahic Covenant continues, we must also believe that the necessity of the death penalty continues, unless we have specific Scriptural evidence to the contrary. Therefore, when we go back to Genesis 9:6 to prove that the death penalty is still in effect today, we are not going under the law. Instead, we are heeding a law that God gave to mankind long before he gave the law covenant to Moses and the people of Israel. While we are mindful that the new covenant rescinds all the laws, as covenant terms, that the Old Covenant instituted, we must remember that the Old Covenant did not institute all of the laws in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Principle Four: God requires his people to be holy. He commands it under the old covenant (in Leviticus 19:2) and under the new covenant (in 1 Peter 1:15, 16).
Implications of this principle: There is continuity in God’s sovereign purpose in election unto salvation as well as unto holy living for his people under both the old and the new covenants. God’s people are responsible for obeying the command to be holy, regardless of which covenant they live under. The details of holy living may or may not be the same under both covenants. Therefore, God’s people must find out, from God’s revelation to them, how their covenant delineates holy living.
Applications of this principle: In Leviticus 19, God, through Moses, provides a partial list of what being holy will look like in the daily life of his old covenant people. The passage gives them a list of very specific laws defining what God demands of them. He grounds his commands on the truth that they are to be holy because he is holy: Ye shall be holy; for I, the Lord your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2). This list includes respecting parents, keeping Sabbaths, making various sacrifices, gleaning, stealing, cursing the deaf, bearing tales, mixing fibers in cloth, sowing different seeds in the same field, acquiring tattoos, shaving, and others such things. Israelites (the old covenant people of God) demonstrated their love to God by obeying, among other things, the laws listed in Leviticus 19. This obedience constituted holy living for them. Peter quotes this verse when urging followers of Christ (the new covenant people of God) to be holy. Peter says Christians are to be holy in all they do: But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: Be holy because I am holy (1 Pet. 1:15, 16). Unlike Moses, however, Peter does not follow this command to be holy with a detailed list of what holy behavior will look like in the daily life of God’s new covenant people. Given this lack of specific detail, how are new covenant believers to know how to live in order to be holy by God’s definition of the word? Does Peter intend his readers to understand themselves as under the Mosaic law and to turn back to that law to find out how to be holy? Do they obey everything in Lev. 19, some things in Lev. 19 or nothing in Lev. 19?
Covenant Theology would answer yes to the first question above. They would send a new covenant believer back to the law of Moses to learn what constitutes holy living. They believe that holiness is the same under both covenants, although they jettison many of the details found in Leviticus 19 by appealing to their tripartite division of the law. The moral law list remains while the civil and ceremonial law lists pass away. New Covenant Theology, however, draws a different conclusion from Peter’s quotation. An Israelite demonstrated his love for God in all he did, and some of what he was supposed to do were spelled out in clear and specific rules in passages like Leviticus 11 and 19. Those rules prescribed behavior that we can classify as moral in nature, ceremonial in nature, and civil in nature. However, the essence of all those rules/laws was the same to the Israelite. An Israelite obeyed the law of God, period. For Israel, there was one law of God. The old covenant believer did not have moral duties, civil duties, and ceremonial duties. He obeyed every law God gave him and he obeyed them all for the same reason they were commandments of God.
One reason that New Covenant Theology rejects the tripartite division of the law is that it is impossible to go through Leviticus 19, or the whole Pentateuch, and find three distinct lists of law: one ceremonial, one civil, and one moral. There were moral laws, ceremonial laws, and civil laws, but there was not three codes, or lists, of laws whereby you could keep one list and dismiss another list. The statutes and rules are mixed together, regardless of what kind of behavior they govern. The second greatest commandment, according to our Lord, is found in Leviticus 19:18: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. No one would deny that was a moral commandment. The very next verse forbids crossbreeding two kinds of cows, planting two kinds of seed in the same field, and mixing linen and wool in the same fabric. No one would think of making any of these three in verse 19 a moral commandment. It is obvious that the Holy Spirit does not make any distinction between verse 18 and 19. An Israelite was equally responsible for obeying everything in both verses 18 and 19 (as well as all that precedes and follows those two verses). Yet most theologians teach that none of the three things in verse 19 in any way teach a Christian how to be holy today. What justifies saying that verse 18 is still binding but verse 19 is not? To answer this question is to begin to establish a New Covenant Theology hermeneutic.
What was God teaching Israel with all the rules in Leviticus 19 as well as the long list of food laws in chapter 11? From the time an Israelite got out of bed until he retired at night, he had clear rules detailing how to dress, how and what to eat, how to shave, and how to do a multitude of other things. Imagine a Gentile asking an Israelite why he dressed, ate, planted his garden, and the like so differently from the custom of other people. The Israelite could only say Because God told me to. God was teaching, in a series of object lessons, that his people were different from other people. The God of the Israelites controlled their entire life. God was saying, and enforcing by specific and detailed laws, the need to come out from among them and be ye separate. But is that not exactly the same thing Paul teaches in the new covenant (2 Cor. 6:17)? The Israelite showed he was different from the non-Israelite by obeying a comprehensive list of minute rules.
We have continuity of principle between covenants because new covenant believers, like the Israelites, show that they are different from unbelievers. And, like the Israelite, the believer today does the same thing out of love for God. Both groups, the Israelites, and new covenant believers live differently from those around them. However, the two groups also live differently from each other, as well. This means that we see discontinuity of detail. How the Israelite marked the difference between himself and non-Israelites differs from how the Christian marks the difference between himself and non-Christians. The new covenant believer does not show his love to God by adopting a new and different list of rules that marks him as distinct from non-Christians, but by adopting Christ as a moral example. The old covenant had prophets, priests, and kings, but none of them could serve as a moral example for the people of God because the very law that established those rules also restricted them. A Levite could not say to a non-Levite, If you want to be holy, do what I do and perform sacrifices. A non-Levite was not allowed into the Holy Place much less authorized to offer sacrifices. No single figure under the Old Covenant could be a moral role model for the people of God. The new covenant, however, has a single figure who is prophet, priest, and king, and who serves as a true moral example for all new covenant believers. Thus, Paul can say, If you want to be holy, imitate me (and others like me) as we imitate Christ (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:9).
Both covenants (the old and the new) command Gods people to be holy, but what constitutes a holy life for a Christian differs from what constituted a holy life for an Israelite. How both groups manifest holiness is one of the differences between law and grace. In the absence of a functional role model, law is necessary. The advent of a functional role model, however, renders law obsolete. Grace marks the age of Christ, our total role model. I fear that some New Covenant Theology people are neglecting the role of Christ as a sufficient moral example. They seem to want to create a new old covenant that is just as rule, or law, centered as the old covenant. This observation brings us to the fifth principle.
Principle Five: The new covenant has no parallel to the Ten Commandments. By this statement, we mean that there is no new covenant law list, in the same sense that the old covenant had a list that served as its founding document. Implications of this Principle: Some theologians want to make the phrase, the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), do the work in the new covenant that the Ten Words did in the old. To do so, however, is to misunderstand and hence misuse the term. The phrase, the law of Christ, as Paul uses it in Galatians, probably means that the law that governs the new covenant people of God is love (see also James 2:8). It does not refer to an exhaustive and detailed list of laws. The new covenant has clear and specific commands, but it does not have any laws in the sense of true law. Law without a penalty is not law per se, but only good advice. A law that sets a speed limit of sixty-five miles an hour but has no penalties for violation, no law officers to enforce it, and no judges to punish infractions of it is not true law. It is the penalty, enforcement, and punishment aspect of law as law that makes it impossible for a new covenant child of God ever to be under the law. We can argue about whether or not the new covenant establishes severe consequences for violating its commands, but the Scripture is clear about punishment: it is impossible for a Christian ever to come under condemnation (Romans 8:1). Thus, one essential element of law is missing. If there is no condemnation, there is no punishment (because there must be some ground on which to mete out punishment), however, Who shall bring an accusation against God’s elect? [It is] God who justifies (Romans 8:33). There can be no condemnation because all of the evidence against us was destroyed at the cross!
Application of this principle: The law of Christ is not a new list of laws (even if we want to qualify them as higher laws than those that God gave Moses), that replaces the laws given to Israel. The new covenant ethic is not law-oriented but grace and love centered. The new covenant believer does not first ask when considering an action “Is it a sin according to some law,” but “What kind of person do I want to be? Is this action consistent with the attitude of someone who wants to be like Christ? Will this honor my Lord?” The old covenant believer asks, “What does the law say?” The new covenant believer asks, “Is this appropriate behavior for the child of the King?”
The new covenant established by our Lord is not based on a legal works relationship, as was the old covenant. It is based on a personal and familial relationship with God as our Father. We are still commanded not to kill and steal but the reason is not that it is one of the laws that determine our covenant relationship with God. It is because such behavior is totally inappropriate for a member of God’s family.
When someone asks, “Is it a sin for a Christian to get a tattoo?” we should not say either yes or no. Instead, we should say, “Why are you asking? Are you thinking about getting one? Why would you want to get a tattoo? Is this a ‘personal yen’ or are you trying to impress someone? Are you trying to make a statement or trying to attract attention? Do you believe Jesus would ever get a tattoo? You confess Christ as your lord; you are a soldier under his orders. Would he, your general, ever order you to get a tattoo or to refrain from getting one? Would it be a matter of indifference to him? If your general allows it, then it is allowable. Just be sure you have heard him correctly.” If the imaginary conversation above demonstrates how we are to think (and live), then it also demonstrates how new covenant preachers and teachers should preach and teach. If the new covenant insists that whatever is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23), then it follows that we cannot formulate a universal list of rules comparable to the old covenant laws. Faith is personal and individual. To make such a list would be to deny (unconsciously, I hope) the heart of New Covenant Theology. Instead of making a list of rules that prescribes or prohibits certain acts, we ought to reframe the questions. We need to shift the perspective of the person asking the question away from a law-centered, action-centered ethic because that belongs to the old covenant. We need to ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” This puts the focus on Jesus Christ, where it belongs in the new covenant age. A legalist will be satisfied with nothing less than a new covenant rulebook. The New Testament Scriptures do not oblige him nor should we.
Conclusion: the new covenant has replaced the old covenant in totality, but it has not replaced the God-breathed Old Testament Scriptures.
Implications of this conclusion: (1) If we are discussing the one sovereign, unchanging, purpose of God’s grace, then there is complete continuity in all of Scripture. (2) If we are discussing the two major covenants around which most of Scripture is built, the old and new covenants, then there is complete discontinuity. We alluded to this continuity/discontinuity aspect of the covenants when discussing the applications of Principle Four: God requires his people to be holy. He commands it under the Old Covenant (in Leviticus 19:2) and under the New Covenant (in 1 Peter 1:15, 16). We saw there that we find continuity of principle, but discontinuity of detail. We would expect nothing less when considering the loving action of God toward his people (continuity) joined to his sovereign purpose in placing the objects of his love—his people—in distinct and different settings (discontinuity). The most significant factor for ethics in the new covenant is that God expresses his love in the new covenant era through the means of a fulfilled promise—the person of Jesus Christ. It is, therefore, appropriate to view him as our role model and to order our lives accordingly.
The article in full is available as a printed paperback through Cross To Crown Ministries