Law, Gentiles, and Decalogue in the NT

I’ve been arguing over the past week that followers of Jesus don’t go to the Decalogue as the starting point for our ethics. We begin with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, we have kept coming back to the Sabbath as a command that is no longer binding on God’s people.

I want to focus on Paul, but before I get there I want a brief pit stop in Acts.

In Acts 15, the “Jerusalem Council” decides what the Gentile believers must (or must not) do as they come into the family of Israel’s God:

“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue. ” (Acts 15:19-21, CEB)

The Decalogue as such is notably absent, as is the Sabbath command in particular. It seems that if there were some requirement that the Gentiles adopt this distinctive Jewish practice this would be the place to tell us.

But to Paul.

In particular, to Paul and the Decaglogue and the Law of Sinai more generally.

When Paul wants to contrast the present epoch of salvation with what came before, it is the Law given at Sinai that serves as his point of differentiation.

In 2 Cor 3:7ff., here’s how it goes, where Paul is contrasting the Law carved in stone with his ministry of the gospel:

  • The Law brings death, though with glory–Paul’s ministry brings the Spirit, with greater glory.
  • The Law brings condemnation; Paul’s ministry brings righteousness

It’s not simply that Paul’s ministry is more glorious than Moses’; it’s that the law on stone–i.e., the Decalogue itself–is the point of contrast between Paul’s ministry of the Spirit and Moses’ ministry of Torah.

Then there’s Galatians. The whole point of Galatians 3 is that the Abrahamic covenant is the point of continuity between God’s people old and new–and therefore the Law is the point of discontinuity. Law is not about the promise or the people of promise–it participates in curse and enslavement that must be overcome (Gal 3:10-18).

Then what’s the Law’s purpose? Funny we should ask…

So why was the Law given? It was added because of offenses, until the descendant would come to whom the promise had been made. It was put in place through angels by the hand of a mediator.

It’s a placeholder. It’s a custodian or guardian, a temporary stand-in from the time between Abraham and Christ. This is specifically the Laws that God gave on Sinai to Moses.


The tradition of angels mediating the Law was common in early Judaism (see also Heb 2:2). That’s what Paul is alluding to here.

None of this is to say that the Law was bad, or that it was experienced as a burden, or any of those stereotyped denigrations of the Law that people have fallen into.

It is to say, however, that what defines us as a people is tied to a different covenant, and therefore what it looks like to be the people of God is fidelity to a different sent of covenant norms.

The Decalogue was Israel’s covenant, and this is why Israel was known for keeping Sabbath among the nations.

The death of Jesus is ours, and this is why we are to be known as those who lay down our lives so that others might live. Our summons is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Deriving our ethics from the Decalogue is binding ourselves to the shadow rather than Christ who is our life-giving substance. Our ethics begin with the self-giving Christ, not the Exodus; with the new covenant rather than the old.

55 thoughts on “Law, Gentiles, and Decalogue in the NT”

  1. You are by no means the first person to reach these conclusions, Dr K; so welcome to the great multitude of dissenters from the WCF (and lots of other confessions and creeds). May I add that in the passage you cite from 2 Cor, Paul explicitly identifies the decalogue as the old covenant. Only the ten words were ‘written and engraved on stones’, and it is specifically those ten words that Paul shows to be not applicable to those who are in the new covenant. The new covenant, it can never be overstated, is ‘not like the covenant which the LORD your God made with your fathers when he took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.’ (Jer 31:31-34) Whilst the keeping of days, times and seasons is allowed by Paul as a concession to weak faith (either to the keepers or those who look up to them), that very optionality demonstrates that it is not an eternal, binding moral regulation.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    First of all, disclosure: I’m currently working on a book on the Ten Words in the US cultural context, so have more than my normal interest in this series of posts. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20, particularly verse 19.


    1. Sean,

      Sorry (again) to be so tardy getting back to you.

      There are two big questions with Matthew 5, one of which is “What does Matthew mean by ‘fulfill’”? and the other of which is, “What does Jesus do with the Law when he talks about it?

      The latter first: after Jesus says he didn’t come to abolish but fulfill, he launches almost immediately into the antitheses: “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…”

      In each case but one, Jesus is citing something from the Law. And in each case, Jesus gives his own teaching on a related topic. Sometimes his is a harder, internalized obedience. Sometimes it is a reframing of the issue.

      But by the time you’ve gone through the antitheses the point is that you have no idea how to obey God and attain to this righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees unless you heed the teaching of Jesus rather than either the teaching of the Law then current or the Law itself.

      Jesus is “fulfilling” the Law, not by restating it or even simply affirming it. It is filling it up with new content not previously available.

      What is happening here is something that happens throughout Matthew, a dynamic I call the “paradox of proximity.” What I mean is this: the closer that Matthew draws Jesus to the scriptures of Israel and its Law, the more different Jesus becomes than the Law for those who still hold to it without following Jesus. Closer becomes farther away.

      When Jesus gets to the end of the Sermon, he tells stories of judgment. There’s the wise man and the foolish man. What determines whether their houses stand or fall? Not whether they keep Torah or not, but, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them…” Jesus has placed his own teaching where Moses’ teaching, and the Decalogue, stood prior.

      The point of going up the Mountain and giving the amazing teaching on his own authority is to reconfigure what it looks like to be the faithful people of God. Now: it’s heeding the words of Jesus.

      So, within that narrative context “fulfill” doesn’t mean, “I do the Law,” or, “I’m telling you to go do the Law,” but something along the lines of, “The Law is this container that I’m going to fill up with new content–some of which will overflow.”

      In Mt 5, Jesus says he came to fulfill not only the Law but also the prophets. Perhaps a good exercise is to review Matthew’s fulfillment citations–most of which do not depict Jesus fulfilling predictive prophecy, but bringing some sort of new and unexpected embodiment of the OT prophets and stories of Israel.

  3. Hi Daniel,

    In addition to Sean: I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on Paul’s words in Roman 13: 8-10: is this an reference to the Decalogue?

    1. According to Jesus…”I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” Jesus fulfills. Fills full. So you don’t have to….

      1. Geoff, this reading of the Law is problematic. There actually isn’t any NT author who depicts Jesus as keeping the Law so that we don’t have to.

        Trust me. I’ve looked.

        This opens up yet another can of worms, the idea of the “active righteousness of Christ,” that has been a rabbit trail in Reformed Theology. That’s not how anyone in the NT talks about Jesus’ relationship to the Law. (For more than you ever wanted to know, you can look here and here.)

  4. John Shakespeare:

    Just a thought to gently nudge you on the “weak faith” for us Sabbath and kashrut keepers. Maybe it’s not weak faith if we are Jewish followers of Jesus. Maybe we’re supposed to say yes to God and to Jesus, so that following Jesus does not cancel out our covenant-obedience to God. And maybe Paul’s law-free teaching concerns the sign commandments of Torah not being obligatory for gentiles. And consider too Mark Nanos’s exegesis of Romans 14 — “weak faith” is Paul’s rhetorical stab at anti-Jewish Christians who were failing to appreciate the “dough offered as firstfruits” (Rom 11:16).

    1. Derek, I’m curious, what would law-abiding Messianic Jews do if the Temple was re-established? Would they partake in the sacrifices? Thanks.

  5. Time has kept me from responding fully to these posts, but I would point out a few things.

    First, noting that the Mosaic Law served a temporary purpose for the people of Israel does not automatically rule out that there aren’t other purposes for the Law in Scripture for Christians. Our Lord seems quite free on the Sermon of the Mount not only to use the Seventh Commandment as valid but makes sure his hearers understand the full import of the command in terms of how to continue to obey it. And, that’s not the only commandment he addresses in that pericope. Further statements by Jesus in the gospels also serve to underline the importance of both tables of the law in contradistinction to your earlier claim that nothing from the first table shows up in the New Testament as enforceable.

    Second, Paul also does not limit his use of the law to a contrast between what is old with what is new. Rather, Paul has no issue at all using the moral principles behind Old Testament case law to justify Christian polity in a book ostensibly written to Gentile Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 9:9 ff.). But, Paul doesn’t just cite the case law as precedent but instead goes further to state that such law was written “for our sake”. If something is written for our sake, it obviously implies a continuity and importance that to date is rather unemphasized in your posting on this subject. 1 Corinthians 7:19 says likewise that the ceremonial law is of little use but what matters is keeping the commandments of God. Are we really to think that such a call had no connection with the Decalogue?

    Along similar lines, we find 1 John defining the love of God in obedience to the commandments (5:3 ff.). I suppose one could try to make a stark difference between the Ten Commandments and the commandments mentioned in 1 John but loving God and one’s brother in the first place does seem to echo the first and second greatest commandments of the old Law quite nicely. It would be strange to think that this new commandment is not really new but old and not identify it in some sense with what went before Christ (cf. 1 John 2:7-8).

    When we understand that the Decalogue is a summary statement of the entire Mosaic Law and does not serve merely as its own functional law code in contradistinction to the rest of the Torah, things become clearer. The use of the Law by the Apostles is by no means limited to being seen as ‘the schoolmaster that brought us to Christ’. Traditionally, Reformed Christians have seen at least three uses of the law relevant to the Christian life–civil, pedagogical, and normative and they found these distinctions via a close read of Holy Writ.

    When we stop to consider Hebrews chapter 8, the matter gets even more complex for those who would say the Ten Commandments are not relevant to Christians but we need to follow some separate Jesus-based ethic. The Law, echoing directly what we have in Jeremiah, becomes written on our hearts to the point that no longer is there a need for the priestly class to teach the people. What law would that be first to Jeremiah and then to the writer of Hebrews except THE Law of God given to his people framed in a context quite similar to that of the giving of the covenant at Sinai? ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’ is offered up to the reader of Hebrews and Egypt and the Exodus explicitly mentioned here by way of contrast from old to new. The difference in Hebrews chapter 8 between old and new is exactly that the New Covenant will be successful in establishing the Law in the hearts of God’s people where the original old covenant failed. That doesn’t mean that we are equating the law mentioned in Hebrews 8 with the Mosaic Law but it would be strange to exclude it as irrelevant to the context. Rather, the law here is the moral principles of God’s law first outlined in the Torah and then explained and further put forward for us in God’s Word as we have it in the Scriptures.

    Last, by the nature of the case, the Law has relevance to us simply because 2 Timothy 3:16 makes clear that every Scripture is profitable for “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Given that the original context of Paul’s words there in 2 Timothy was most certainly the Old Testament, we have to consider the didactic and normative nature of the Commandments for Christians and their behavior or we are not playing fair with the Apostle’s view on the matter.

    All of this, then, points to a united New Testament witness that the Ten Commandments and the underlying moral principles of the Law are most certainly still valid and relevant for our use as Christians.

    1. Not quite sure how to respond to the Law as “valid” and “relevant.” Who is going to argue that the Law of God is not valid? It is pure, holy, and enduring. It is absolute in its evaluation of our condition. In short, we fail. Miserably. Our fall is cataclysmic. The issue is this: What is it that produces what God is really after? God is determined “to bring many sons to glory”. He is also determined to “make all things new”. Most of all, He is committed to His own glory and the vindication of His Son Jesus Christ (lots of words could be used here). The law (whether its decalogue, civil, ceremonial, royal…) is not the landscape of new creation stuff. The life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ as Lord and King is God’s final word on where everything is headed….in our individual lives, in the church, in the cosmos. Jesus does all of this as the ultimate covenant-keeper, the perfect law-keeper, the One in whom the Father is “well-pleased”. All of creation is waiting on tiptoe in breathless anticipation as history moves to its consummation. “In Christ”…maybe the most profound two words in the NT.

      1. I think I’ve provided a fair amount of material from Scripture for my position if you want to really interact with it.

        As I said above, the fact that the law points us to our condition does not make it its only use. The NT quite clearly advocates a normative behavior based on the moral principles of the law, established and performed first by Christ, and then followed imperfectly in taking up our own cross in following him. Not sure why that’s rocket science.

        The closer we get to Christ–the more we are in him–we put him on and our lives reflect the very obedience God desires as normative for us as we go (Eph. 4:17-32). It looks different than the behavior of the lost not only because it’s Spirit-inspired and reflective of Christ’s work in us but also because it matches the very words He’s spoken in both old and new covenant.

        1. Kevin, I would say that our behavior is transformed as we embrace the Gospel, not “normal behavior based on the moral principles of the Law”. Under law, my normal behavior is that of a rebel. That kind of focus produces only frustration, condemnation, and despair. Thats the law doing its job. And thats not rocket science (ahem…) And as far as getting “closer to Christ”, I would prefer to just be “in Christ” by faith. Sanctification flows out of death and resurrection, not moral principles.

          1. You can argue with the Apostles about the semantics. The admonition to “put on Christ” is a virtual synonym for ‘obey his commandments’ just as to love God means to ‘obey his commandments’ as well.

            We’re not under the law in the same way once redeemed and that’s not what I’m saying. Rather, the freedom we have in Christ is a freedom to obey and serve as he has called us to serve. “If you love me, keep my commandments” is no empty phrase nor is it necessarily connected to the behavior of a rebel. Paul says our mind is of the Spirit and that we do the things of the Spirit. It all matches together once you grasp the full import of the law. But, please, by all means take the time to go through what I’ve presented, the Scriptures I’ve put forward in my points above and let me know where there is a disconnect. Because, to merely point out you’d rather phrase the reality of the Spirit working with the law stamped on our hearts as it works out in our lives a different way is not exactly a convincing argument contra what I’ve already outlined.

    2. Jesus’ statement about the 7th commandment was hardly an attempt to help his hearers understand how to continue to obey it. The “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” constructions seem to suggest that Jesus was teaching more authoritatively than the scribes (who no doubt “borrow” authority from Moses) of the day.

      Paul’s use of “for our sake” in 1 Cor. 9:9ff seems to be referring, not to all Christians, but more specifically to those that teach. 1 Corinthians 7:19 maybe “commandments of God” has some connection to the Decalogue. But Jesus uses the same phrase (“commandment of God”) in this way:

      “And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the COMMANDMENT OF GOD for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER,’ and, ‘HE WHO SPEAKS EVIL OF FATHER OR MOTHER IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.’”

      Are we to assume that Jesus referred to only “Honor your father and mother,” as the ‘commandment of God’? I certainly think not. Should we include the death penalty for kids who curse their parents in the ‘commandments of God’ the way Jesus did?

      On the Hebrews 8 passage…the author does not detail what exactly The Law is that is written on the heart. And it seems like he doesn’t feel the need to. The emphasis in Ch. 8 seems to be on the bringer of the New Covenant. In an effort to pile on more about The Great High Priest, he states that “But now He (not Moses who was build the tabernacle) 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” (Heb 8:6). The author seems to be focusing on the Bringer of the covenant, not “About which law does the prophet speak, Moses’ or someone else’s?” The import of the passage seems to be “The bringer of the covenant vs. Moses!”

      Regarding 2 Timothy 3:16. Does Paul use “The Scriptures” and “the Law” interchangeably? I don’t think he does.

      I think there are elements of “Old Covenant Ethics” are certainly present within the “New Covenant Ethics,” but I think the point that is being emphasized here is STARTING POINT. Where do we DERIVE our ethics from. Certainly not from the story of the Exodus (which heads up the Decalogue), but instead from God’s great redemptive act in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

      1. JP,

        You are certainly welcome to theorize that Jesus’ use of the Seventh Commandment in the Sermon on the Mount was not put forward to help people understand and obey it properly, but just stating such doesn’t help us. Can you really demonstrate otherwise?

        Paul’s use of “for our sake” in 1 Corinthians 9:9 is most certainly inclusive of the church even though it directly refers to those who would minister. The reason this is so is that Paul tells them that there is a moral principle at work here that they should understand and that applies to them as much as it does to him. The church ought to remunerate clergy for their work just as any laborer is worthy of their hire. He had every right to press this on them even though he didn’t. Furthermore, the work and privileges of the ministry are representative of the congregation and so what is true of ministers here as a general principle in the law is also doubtless true for congregants.

        I’m not sure what relevance you attach to the phrase “commandments of God” as it is used in 1 Cor. 7:19. I would certainly say that the Decalogue is in mind and really more, the whole law of God in such a statement. I don’t have qualms with the moral basis of what you think are extreme commands. As I’ve already stated, the Decalogue functions as a summary of the law and not a law to itself. You either take the whole law or none of it. Clearly, the commandments Jesus always refers to are not something entirely new but based in the Old Testament law. I would further submit that Jesus himself makes little sense if we limit our understanding of him to the New Testament witness alone. Really, what are the biblical categories of things like righteousness if not found in the Old Testament first?

        Regarding Hebrew 8, I’m only taking the meaning of “law” here in line with the original prophetic context offered by Jeremiah. If you have another more reasonable viewpoint regarding its meaning, by all means feel free to share. The word means something here in yhe passage whether you choose to focus on it or not. We don’t get a pass on defining and using certain words in a passage simply because we’d prefer to focus on what we consider is a main point in the passage itself. That’s a very selective way to interpret the text before us and undoubtedly all too convenient to establish your point of view. In short, it really just amounts to begging the question.

        Regarding 2 Timothy 3:16, we know the Ten Commandments are recorded in Scripture and therefore are Scripture — so Paul’s intention in 2 Timothy most certainly does include what we have in Exodus 20 (and elsewhere) as Romans 13:8-10 no doubt demonstrates.

        The truth is you can’t have mere New Testament or Jesus-based ethics. Everything in the New Testament is tied to the Old Testament. Without it, the coming of Christ makes little sense and all the categories we take for granted do to. I agree that Christ is the interpretive key to the Old Testament but in saying that we do not abolish the law, but rather see it fulfilled first in him and then by consequence in our own lives as we put on Christ and live as he commanded. “If ye love me, keep my commandments” is no small thing. When we understand that Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity and also the covenant God of Israel, we have to see continuity between what went before and what is now. God’s moral character and his expectation for his people have not changed. The commandments and the moral principles behind them that he gave in the Old Testament are just as relevant today if not more so than they were back in Moses’ day. The difference between then and now is that this New Covenant and the work of Christ in his death, burial, resurrection and ascension establishes our ability to truly live them out in the context of our various faith communities. The same was true even for the Israelites though in a more limited sense due to the shadow-like nature of the Old Covenant. Victory in Christ is not merely a victory over sin and death sufficient to procure our salvation, but it is also victory in how we live our lives to his glory. That’s why we’re enjoined to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:8-14; Eph. 4:17-32) and live in the likeness of God.

        1. BTW, JP, I missed where you dealt with 1 John 5:2-3:

          2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.
          3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

        2. ‘You either take the whole law or none of it.’ Well, there’s the rub. It stands together as an entire covenant given to Israel via Moses, at Sinai. You can’t take little bits of it and call them the ‘moral law’. You can’t dismiss the feats and the fasts, and yet retain the Sabbath (which, by the way, is essentially and intrinsically the seventh day, and cannot possibly be the first — nor, if you are taking the whole law — reduced to ‘one day in seven’.) You can’t dismiss the cities of refuge, the treatment of slaves, the range of punishments, or the entire sacrificial system. All or nothing, please.

          1. No. Not exactly. The Scriptures delineate where continuity or discontinuity apply. Our guide to interpreting these things is not some rigid wooden approach to putting things in various boxes.

            The ceremonial law (translate: outward administration) was definitely abrogated here on earth with the advent of the New Covenant but celebrated eternally in Christ. However, there is no sense in the New Testament that the moral principles of the law were abrogated as both covenants represented the same salvation.

                1. Then Kevin, perhaps you could explain how ‘You either take the whole law or none of it’ can be read non-woodenly so the words continue to mean something that the rest of us can understand. You seem to be suggesting that accepting the words (which are, after all, modern English exchanged between 21st-century users of English, rather than ANE enculturated language) as non-wooden means allowing them a different meaning from that which the rest of us would naturally assume.

                  And while you are at it, can you also explain, please, how you’ve got a nice little picture adjacent to your name while I can only access that grey (gray) thing. Thanks.

                  1. John,

                    What I’ve been busy outlining is classic Reformed covenant theology and my remarks should be taken in that context rather than be treated as universal bumper-sticker like truisms. I realize we live move and have our being in the same culture but that does not guarantee there won’t be misunderstandings on occasion. I’ve clarified my viewpoint and you can either take it or leave it–but what you can’t do is take my words well beyond what I actually meant and retain any sort of charitable dialog in the process.

                    As for the icon — you need an account on I believe and you can load up a picture/profile there.

                    1. I am well aware, Kevin, that you have been giving us classic Reformed covenant theology. I am also aware that covenant theology seems to want to keep its cake and eat it, in its insistence that the law of Moses is to be taken as a whole or not at all, and yet at the same time picking and choosing those aspects of it that it wishes to observe whilst discarding those that are inconvenient. Moreover, I don’t see how my probing this issue can be thought uncharitable, and I regret that you seem to suggest that it might be.

                      As I have already averred, the Sabbath command (or, rather, group of commands) can be both observed and at the same time modified. The essence of Sabbath observance is rest after labour, as exemplified in both accounts of the Decalogue, so it is beyond the bounds of that command to claim that it may be legitimately observed on the first day of the week, or its principle reduced to the keeping of one day in seven.

                      I am very far from subscribing to Reformed theology, especially in its WCF manifestation, which seems to me to be deeply flawed: the system distorts or ignores scripture in order to retain its systematic integrity.

                      Two examples, which are deeply intertwined with the current discussion of law: first, the nature and identity of the two covenants, which are identified by the WCF as those of works and grace, the former being a supposed covenant with Adam, so that the Mosaic covenant is taken as an administration of the covenant of grace. But Paul explicitly identifies Sinai as the old covenant.

                      Second is imputational theology, in which Adam’s sin is imputed to his progeny, the elect’s sin imputed to Christ, and Christ’s law-keeping ‘active obedience’ imputed to the elect. There’s a whole lotta imputation going on.

                      Not only do these two key aspects find no scriptural support, but in some cases are explicitly contradicted by the Bible. The view of law which you have been enunciating is of a piece with these ideas, and is such an essential component in the system that it must be defended and promoted in order for classic Reformed covenant theology to be left standing.

                      I intend neither discourtesy, nor lack of charity, and having myself been an advocate of much of Reformed theology for many decades, I have been forced to find it fatally flawed in its divergence from scripture.

                    2. John,

                      I have no need to defend the peculiarities of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the apparent weaknesses you point out in that regard have not been a part of my presentation here. Suffice it to say that the Reformed traditions carry both a depth and a breadth historically speaking that does not require me to follow lock step in that direction or mount a defense of points which are largely irrelevant to what I have already pointed out regarding the law.

                    3. BTW, I did not say you were being uncharitable only that continuing to press me on a point I’ve already disavowed *would* be uncharitable. I hope you can see the difference.

        3. My attempt to demonstrate that was in the “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” constructions. For instance, “It was said, ‘Whoever sens his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you [I'm sure you know the rest]” (Matt 5:31-32]. How are we to understand the “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” constructions, when, in the teaching above, Jesus clearly comes with a different teaching than that of Moses?

          1 Cor 9:9ff- The phrases “God is not concerned about oxen, is Hs?”, “the plowman ought to plow in hope”, “the thresher in hope of sharing”…these phrases suggest that his was written for the sake of (contextually) Paul and Barnabas and (more generally) those that teach. It wasn’t written to protect oxen, but to make sure Paul and his companions were taken care of. It was written not for the sake of oxen, but “for our sake” (Paul and Barnabas).

          I appreciate the fact that you don’t have qualms about what I MIGHT consider extreme. I don’t think it is extreme. God commanded it. But I also don’t think it’s normative for a NT ethic (where personal forgiveness and love reign). So I’ll ask one question: Should THE CHURCH administer the death penalty to children who curse their parents in obedience is what Jesus called the “commandment of God”? If not, then I’ll have to go with what you (and Paul by the way): “You either take the whole law or none of it.” (including circumcision, which can’t be swept under the rug as “ceremonial law”).

          As you’ve said the Hebrews 8 discussion is complex. So hopefully, I can give a more detailed response when I have more time. But here is a short response. Does the author use the Hebrews passage to make the point that the Law is still valid for Christians? Does the author explain that ‘the Law’ mentioned is indeed the Decalogue and all that Moses said?

          I know “the Scriptures” include the Decalogue, but that is not the question here. The question here is: Does Paul use “the Scriptures” and “the law” interchangeably. For instance, would Paul say “the Scriptures” are a placeholder?

          “Moral principles” are subjective. How are we to determine such moral principles? I am willing to say that there are “moral principles” behind the law (even
          though morality is a more complex issue than you are making it), but my thought is that Jesus and Paul have explicitly taken a single “moral principle” from the law. Love. That is the “moral principle” that finds continuity with the Law. All other “moral principles” to be gathered are left to the interpreter…and that is scary.

          To disregard the Law as normative does not divorce Jesus from the story of Israel. Far from it. I like what Dr. Kirk (and I think Paul) says on this issue: the story of finds continuity at Abraham not Moses.

          1. I have already answered the meaning of “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” below in my latest response to Daniel.

            The phrase “for our sake” in 1 Cor. 9:9 could refer only to Paul and his companions or it could refer to Paul and those reading the letter. The pronoun usage does not give us a clue either way. Even when I grant your point and we say that it refers merely to Paul and his companions, the passage still obligates the congregation on the basis of OT case law to pay ministers appropriately. The fact that Paul did not require them to do so does not nullify that he had that right nor does it nullify the fact that the moral principle behind the case law of the Old Testament did not apply to the church at Corinth and correspondingly to the church at large.

            But, we can certainly go to other passages to see similar use of the law by the Apostles without wrangling over the details of a particular phrase. I’m not sure it’s popular at Fuller, but one such passage is 1 Corinthians 14:34 where Paul again uses the law as his basis for saying what he says. James 2:9 ff. speaking to a Christian community (v. 1, “my brethren”) tells us that engaging in partiality is to be convicted by the law and that to break one point is to break all of it. It goes further and mentions specific commandments from the Decalogue and says that to break one commandment and not the other means you are still a transgressor of the law. 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 even invokes a moral argument on the basis of being ritually clean according to the law (cf. Isaiah 52:11) and avoiding yoking oneself to an unbeliever. How is any of this possible if “all we need is love” and the law is irrelevant to the Christian life?

            You ask whether or not “THE CHURCH” should administer the death penalty to children who curse their parents. I would say that’s not what is being advocated in that passage and to throw the church under the bus as the acting agent is anachronistic and uncalled for, an extreme example, and does not at all speak to what I’m advocating. Rather, civil penalties today are generally carried out by the state–the law to which you refer is serious enough to have us reflect more on what it means rather than do the Jedi Mind Trick and pretend these things really aren’t the droids we’re looking for. In other words, my viewpoint is not endangered by your overly simplistic presentation of such a law or that I ought to be following it as you describe just because I’ve endorsed the law as morally appropriate.

            In regards to Hebrews 8, we must define the word “law” in context at the very least both in terms of the book of Hebrews and the corresponding Jeremiah prophecy from which it came. If you can find another suitable definition, then by all means put it forward and we can talk about it.

            Moral principles are not subjective. Sleeping with another woman other than your wife is wrong and objectively so. Thinking about doing the same is wrong too. That’s not subjective. That’s based off an objective presentation of the Word of God and informed also by the objective internal witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

            Last, to mark the point of continuity of Jesus and Israel with Abraham and not Moses is preferential and skips over a large part of the history and work of God among his people as well as the fact that the NT writers most certainly use the law of God extensively in their writings. In point of fact, the continuity goes from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to Solomon and then on to Christ.

            1. You ask whether or not “THE CHURCH” should administer the death penalty to children who curse their parents. I would say that’s not what is being advocated in that passage and to throw the church under the bus as the acting agent is anachronistic and uncalled for, an extreme example, and does not at all speak to what I’m advocating. Rather, civil penalties today are generally carried out by the state–the law to which you refer is serious enough to have us reflect more on what it means rather than do the Jedi Mind Trick and pretend these things really aren’t the droids we’re looking for. In other words, my viewpoint is not endangered by your overly simplistic presentation of such a law or that I ought to be following it as you describe just because I’ve endorsed the law as morally appropriate.

              Disclaimer: This reply will address one issue and one issue only Jesus’ use of “commandment of God.”

              Who is to administer this “commandment of God”?

              I’m sorry my explanation was overly simplistic. I will explain my reasoning here:

              I thought you were saying that “commandment of God” is a phrase used in the new testament that has its basis in the OT and…

              given that Dr. Kirk’s post was about normative ethics for “God’s people” (I call this “the church,” I’m thinking you might define “the church” differently?)…

              My thought was that “God’s people” ought to obey what Jesus called the “commandment of God.”

              Granted, in Matthew 15 Jesus is not saying, “Carry out this commandment of God,” instead he is using this to prove a point to some Pharisees and scribes: that they value tradition over God’s commandment, thus invalidating God’s word.

              But given your paradigm (that the OT provides ethical norms for God’s people today), Jesus’ acknowledgment of this command (Death penalty to kids that curse their parents) as “the commandment of God” needs serious attention, in my opinion.

              My thoughts on the issue. Jesus is of greater authority than Moses. If I obey Jesus and disregard Moses, I have not erred in anyway.

              1. JP,

                I have no issue saying the law in question is moral – the question is how does it apply and the answer I give generally is that I’m not sure. There is a whole host of work to be done on what’s behind such a command and then also in terms of what it means to apply it in our context if we do at all. Our problem is generally we wince on hearing such a command because it affects ears trained to hear by the masters of the Enlightenment, we don’t bother to do the spade work in really defining and understanding its use, we condemn a whole culture and law code in the process, and then pat ourselves on the back for being such good little arrogant moderns.

                It would be better if we take the time to realize the depth and nature of our sin and how that affects those we sin against. All sin carries with it the wage of death so there is no sin which is free from being thought of in such a context even though typically speaking we prioritize and collate sin like we have some sort of rolodex on the heart of God on these matters. This becomes especially apparent when we consider the more communal nature of the Israelite community — something which today we simply don’t have in our context of individualized American religion very often if at all.

                It may very well be that such a command is also an opportunity for parents to learn grace in dealing with their children and not merely a command to woodenly exercise. If we can with our Lord get “Love your enemies” out of “An eye for an eye” perhaps there is reason to see that the command itself has more than just blind obedience attached to it in terms of how to apply it. Is it not possible that at once such a command teaches the depth of disobedience to parents and children in terms of the sin being committed and yet at the same time makes the soul of a parent cry out to God in order to enjoin mercy and grace for the son or daughter he or she truly loves?

                I ask this because we forget that God is our Father and (whatever you think of the creation story) we originally sinned as his children. What was the penalty for sinning in the Garden but death, ‘In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’? Are we ready to call God the Father unjust as well because he made good on his word and continues to? Wouldn’t that also call into question the cross of Jesus Christ and its import and purpose?

                So, yes, I think this command has much wisdom to it in spite of the fact that we don’t like it as moderns trained as we are to think about these things in only one way. We have to remember that there is just as much grace attached to the commands and law of God as there is condemnation. Just take the time to read Psalm 119 some time and I think you’ll see what I mean.

                1. Kevin,

                  I’m not questioning the morality or immorality of the law. Honestly, I don’t wince at such a command at all. God is the one who commandeded it. I am not a fan of the Enlightenment at all(and that’s putting it nicely). Enlightenment thinking has many, MANY weaknesses if you ask me.

                  I love Psalm 119! In my opinion, the operative word in it is not statutes, ordinances, commandments, law, or any of the other terms used…

                  The operative word is YOUR. Your statutes, Your law, Your ordinances, etc. The psalmist is thankful that YHWH has given such things to him. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob spoke through Moses. But in these last days has spoken to us in one who is a Son.

                  To go forward with Jesus as “the new law-giver” does not mean we have erred at all. Going forward with Jesus also makes a whole lot of sense out of Paul’s sweeping negative statements about those who are attempting to use the law as a yoke for the Gentiles. It also makes sense out of Paul’s COMPLETE AND UTTER BEWILDERMENT at those Gentiles who are seeking to be placed again under “a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

                  There’s no chaos without the law. That’s what the spirit is for.

                  Anyway, I see the law as a legal code for blood Israelites given at Sinai. But upon us “whom the end of the ages have come,” our figurehead is Jesus not Moses.

                  And as Moses himself said, if we ain’t listening to “that prophet” we will be cut off from among the people.

                  New wine requires new wineskins.

  6. ‘None of this is to say that the Law was bad, or that it was experienced as a burden, or any of those stereotyped denigrations of the Law that people have fallen into.’

    Whilst this might be an understandable caution against the post-Lutheran position of those who see the law as pressing down on unbelievers, we nevertheless need to remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians, describing the ten words (no others were written and engraved on stones) as ‘the ministry of death’, ‘the ministry of condemnation’, the ‘veil’ that lies on the hearts of those who still observe it (Paul’s words, not mine). And again, to the Galatians, that to be under the law is to be under the curse (3:10, 13), that the covenant from Sinai ‘gives birth to bondage’ (4:21-26). And again, the writer to the Hebrews, that the commandment was unendurable, as signified by the terrifying sights and sounds that accompanied the giving of the law (12:18-24).

    These statements must be reckoned with; the temptation of explaining them away avoided. They are as much part of the story as the assertions of Sinai’s obsolescence (indeed, they are part of the same passages that speak of the obsolescence, and may not be easily disentangled).

    1. John you are spot on. The law can neither save nor sanctify. It is holy and good, but it is “the ministry of condemnation”. It reveals our cosmic treason against God. It is merciless in its indictment of Adam’s race. Christ has set us free from “the curse of the Law”. He has fulfilled all of the law’s righteous demands. By His grace (new covenant) and the power of the life giving Spirit, we are changed from the inside out, to live lives that please the Lord and point to a new creation. Why dance in the shadows, when substance beckons…

      1. Thanks, Geoff, for describing me as spot on. Unfortunately I don’t agree with your take on this. I don’t think Gentiles, who were never under the law, were condemned by it. Indeed Paul talks about those who sinned without the law and those who sinned in the law (Rom 2:12). It is a mistake, I think, to see the law in any way as God’s eternal set of standards by which all men are judged, and that the work of Christ is ‘fulfilling all of the law’s righteous demands’ on behalf of those he redeemed. That view ascribes characteristics to the law of Moses which are not found in the Bible, and misses others that are. It is essentially, I think, a Lutheran lens through which we have become habituated to reading the Bible.

  7. Pastor /Doctor -you sounded like an New Covenant Theology advocate! I am also a former WCF subscriber -until I saw the discontinuities in the Sabbath,tithing and then infant baptism. I have nothing against the idea of Confessions-since it was a tutor to me regarding the whole counsel of God-but in the area of Covenant and Law I should have listen to dispensationalists. Except I am still postmil.

    1. I think one of the besetting problems in this area is the assumption that one must either adhere to covenant theology or else be a dispensationalist. There are other positions. I think covenant theology overdoes continuity, and dispensationalism overdoes discontinuity. Both are mistaken.

      In addition, there are various takes on new covenant theology. I tend towards the version that sits in the narrative understanding of NT Wright (without agreeing with him about everything). If you want Wright’s view on these matters you could do worse than look at ‘The climax of the Covenant’.

  8. I’m inclined to think that it is not only the Law (Torah) that is the placeholder, but the (ethnic) nation of Israel was only ever a placeholder. It was the carrier of knowledge about God and his purposes, so for that reason privileged by God. It was not a nation in a special place re the salvation available in Christ. So, I’m inclined to think that the ‘story’ gospel is mistaken, so that we are not really in a story of continuity with ethnic Israel.

  9. Mike:

    You asked if Jews (and I assume you also meant Messianic Jews [Jesus-believing] Jews] would offer sacrifices were the Temple rebuilt. Absolutely. So did Paul. See Acts 21 and his Nazarite vow.

    Many do not understand what the Temple sacrifices were for. They were not for the same purpose as the death of Messiah (they cleaned the Temple, he cleans us).

    I have a book coming out late August (Yeshua Our Atonement) which will spell out this theology. Jacob Milgrom’s commentaries on Leviticus in the Anchor-Yale series (don’t get the one-volume by Fortress) are crucial.

  10. Thank you all for carrying on an energetic discussion here while I have been derelict in my responsiblogeries to respond and engage.

    The layers of this discussion are complex: starting with Sabbath, we’ve backed up to the Decalogue; now we’re talking about the Law as a whole, and Davey has brought up the larger issue of how to conceptualize the relationship between the OT and the NT.

    Kevin, you’ve laid out a series of scriptural citations. Some of which are more challenging than others.

    Thus, for example, the 2 Timothy passage is question-begging. It says all scripture is profitable for instruction, that doesn’t tell us what to do with it. Except for this: prior to the quoted portion, it says that scripture can make us wise unto receiving the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. It’s value in instruction is diachronic and in reference to Christ, not in referring us to itself.

    This isn’t the only way scripture works in the NT, but it is consistent with what Paul says, e.g., in Romans 3.

    1 John, following in the tradition of the Gospel of John, redefines commandment around Jesus’ commandment of self-giving love. Love in the Johannine corpus is the Father giving the Son and the Son giving Himself–the command for us to love one another is to walk in this same love.

    It is interesting that you should bring in 1 Cor 7 here. Paul must be providing a revisionist reading of the Law if he is distinguishing between commands and circumcision. Elsewhere he’ll say neither circumcision nor uncircumcision but “faith working through love” and “new creation.” Paul’s understanding of what has displaced circumcision as the marker of God’s people is tied to and shaped by his gospel message.

    One last thing for this comment: there is no distinction in Jewish law between ceremonial and civil and moral. That’s an attempt to parse this question we’re wrestling with, but in terms of the Law itself and the NT’s use of it, it won’t work. The Sabbath is the clear example of the gymnastics required to uphold that position: a moral law whose ceremonial element is enshrined on the stones themselves? That’s special pleading.

    1. Daniel,

      A few things…ok, maybe more than a few:

      1) Where did I ever say the law was somehow to stand free apart from the revelation and work of Jesus Christ? Of course, there’s discontinuity between the covenants old and new but what you haven’t explained appropriately is that exact relationship. The fact of the Christ event does not take away from the excellence that is God’s law. Rather, Christ establishes, fulfills it, and enables believers to live it.

      You only handled part of what I’ve presented. You didn’t bother to respond to 2 Timothy 3:16 and Romans 13:8-10 together both of which seem to speak well against your point. It would be one thing if Paul wasn’t busy quoting the Decalogue in order to help Roman Christians understand how to behave in their newly found life of Christ. So, the charge of question-begging here is completely groundless.

      2) Furthermore, the passage in 2 Timothy does not merely refer to how the Scriptures point us to Christ and salvation but also refer to what Timothy was to continue in in regards to training in righteousness. The Christian life is not a one point in time decision made for us to realize how sinful we are and then the law simply becomes irrelevant. Paul provides us with the understanding that the law is helpful in regards to “training in righteousness”.

      3) We use words often without meaning and as placeholders and our euphemistic postmodernism allows us to hide what is actually being said behind a curtain of otherwise intelligible words. What we have to realize is that Paul is saying that what God directly said or wrote for us in the Old Testament is profitable for training in righteousness. Timothy already had salvation as the passage makes quite clear yet Paul instructs him to continue in that which he had learned. Why? Because the Old Testament law is a help to our continued sanctification in Christ. Romans 13:8-10 is simply a plain witness to that fact.

      4) The passage in Romans also helps us to understand that the meaning of the term “love” is inherently wrapped up in an understanding and practice of the law. All these terms you use whether in 1 John or the gospel have meanings attached to them which are inherently defined in the Old Testament and then further made clear through the person and work of Christ. We can’t clear the New Testament of its Old Testament context even with the coming of Christ first because for NT believers the explicit witness of Christ and what the gospel meant in their lives was the Old Testament itself. Nothing of Jesus Christ made any sense without the witness and relevance of the Old Testament and that is quite true even today. Even at Athens in Acts 17, Paul invokes language reminiscent of Isaiah and the completely new Gentile context and witness of the gospel there is framed by what the Old Testament presents us with even if Paul doesn’t mention it explicitly. When Paul and John both provide believers with the ability to see the dictates of the law in light of the first and second greatest commandments and then draw additional parallels to other commandments it’s a bit difficult to say that the law is providing no normative role in the life of a Christian.

      5) 1 John does not redefine “commandment”. Notice in 1 John 2 that John provides us with this statement:

      Beloved, I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. (1Jo 2:7 NAS)

      The old commandment to love one another is found in Leviticus 19 among many other places and our Lord even said it’s part of that upon which hang the whole law and the prophets. The very next verse says this is also a new commandment. But, the commandment is not new in form or substance but new to them because of what Christ had done in enabling them now as new creatures in Christ and those with the mind of the Spirit to actually obey it.

      6) Note, too, that in 1 John 5:2-3 we have not just A new commandment but that to love God is to obey all the commandments. From singular to plural. So, here you argue for a singular commandment to love as Christ loved and yet the text actually says that there are several commandments to obey in loving God. The same language is echoed in the gospel of John where Christ says, “If you love me, keep my commandments”. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 says similarly.

      If all we are left with in the gospel is the commandment to love as Christ did then we’d have no reason to see commandments in the plural. What commandments? Where are these commandments enumerated except in the Old Testament law? Even the Sermon on the Mount in our Lord’s own words makes it clear that the moral principles he was working with were first found in the Decalogue and the Old Testament law. “You have heard it said, but I say to you” is not a redefinition of the law but instead a clarification of its intent and extent. Jesus didn’t repeal “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Instead, he tightened the commandment to show just how much it really applied well beyond the basic statement.

      A more sensible read of both the gospel of John and 1 John is that Christ most certainly colors in and further illustrates for us the nature and intent of the moral law as it relates to our sanctification and continued life among the community of the faithful.

      7) Is it somehow lost on us that the gospel of John begins very much like the Pentateuch and ends in the same way as the first five books of the Old Testament and yet we’re to think that the law is irrelevant to the preaching and living of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Why would John write that way if so? Yes, Jesus Christ and his acts of death, burial, resurrection, and ascension changed things but that does not mean we throw out the whole law. Rather, we understand it and apply it in our lives in line with who Christ is and what he accomplished. 1 Cor. 7:19 is testimony to that. We do not circumcise any more, but we do still follow the commandments. What possible other commandments could Paul be talking about in that verse?

      8) Of course, this is reinforced in places like Hebrews 10:26-30 where the writer does not seem to think that the Mosaic requirement of two or three witnesses is somehow irrelevant to Christian faith and practice. Rather, the writer to Hebrews argues from the lesser to the greater in saying that one who tramples underfoot the blood of the covenant in Christ is even more guilty now as a result of sinning against God by breaking his moral law. The verses conclude by invoking the vengeance of God on his people as mentioned in Deuteronomy. Strange that if “all we need is love”.

      9) In regards to the threefold use of the law — I really don’t need to justify its use. It’s a historical category that classical Protestants have used in observing the obvious. Whether or not there are formal distinctions in place via “Jewish law” is irrelevant when we know some laws by nature of the case were civil in nature, some were ceremonial, and many were moral. The New Testament quite clearly tells us that circumcision was a ceremonial aspect of the law and the same with the sacrifices and temple cult. Laws governing the practice of Israel as a nation are clearly civil in nature, and the whole of the law is informed by moral principle–some explicitly so in the Ten Commandments. The fact that the Sabbath had both ceremonial implications for the Old Covenant and yet deeper and more true eternal implications is no discouragement from understanding this. Unlike your hermeneutic, mine does not require seeing the ceremonial practice of the Jewish Sabbath and the ultimate intent of the Fourth Commandment as inseparable. Certainly, the early church had no qualms about switching normal synagogue and church worship to Sunday just like they abandoned circumcision. The tendency to see Sunday as the Lord’s Day then is merely a natural outflowing of seeing the commandments for what they truly are in Christ and not the special pleading you suppose.

      I find it a bit amusing that what I’m being accused of here at this point regarding the threefold use of the law is inconsistency and special pleading when all I’ve done is merely outline classic Reformed covenant theology on these points. The Reformed were not inconsistent in their approach to these things and neither am I. What is different here is the underlying way in which we interpret the text, as usual. My view is inherently scriptural as I’ve already laid out and it is because it comports both with the underlying hermeneutic I’m using and the reality of the matter as we have it in the Scriptures. I don’t see the same in your view. If you really want to resolve the differences between us, the real work that needs to be done is in thinking and talking about how we approach God’s Word when we interpret it in this or that way.

      10) Last, I missed where you dealt with 1 Corinthians 9:9 ff. and Hebrews 8 to any great degree. Perhaps you’re still working on a further reply, but it does seem to me at least that what you’ve given me so far in reply is decidedly incomplete.

      1. Kevin,

        You’ve brought a lot to the table. Feeling yourself victorious because folks don’t have time to deal with every single scripture reference is a comforting way to spin things, but perhaps a bit more patience?

        I recognize the classic Reformed Covenant Theology. I left that fold precisely because the only way to hold onto its view of the Law is through ignoring the theological contours by which the NT makes sense of the Law and due to the extraordinary amount of special pleading involved in putting things together just so.

        I plan on dealing with the appearance of the 2d Table of the Decalogue in a post next week.

        1. Victorious? That’s a cheap shot, Daniel, and unappreciated. I realize everyone has time commitments and I don’t expect immediate or even complete responses necessarily. Take all the time you need or don’t respond at all. That’s up to you. I figured you really wanted to discuss these things in detail. Noting that your response was incomplete was merely a way of encouraging you to say more and not at all meant in a spirit of undue triumph.

          I get that you’re not into Reformed theology but simply presenting your view like it’s the only one is part of the reason why I’ve spent so much time here discussing these things. There are other competing views and ones, like mine, that have much to offer even if you don’t personally appreciate the contribution of the Reformed on these points.

  11. So the Jerusalem Council is cited for not imposing the law of Moses nor the Sabbath? My mouth is agape. In summary, the Council determined that gentiles MUST abstain from unlawful blood foods and sex (certainly for their own good) but especially for the sake of Jews who would be grossly offended by such behaviors and put them out of the synagogues. For pity sake… they are ONLY given the short-list precisely BECAUSE why? Because MOSES is preached every what.. SABBATH. the very purpose if the Council was to restrain the behavior of gentile converts who were sabbath-keepers attending synagogue and learning the whole law.
    The passage explicitly testifies that Sabbath synagogue attendance and learning the Mosaic law were presuppositions of the Council’s decision.

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