Why Christians Need the Old Testament

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I mentioned in my preceding post that Christians need the scriptures for encouragement, growth, and spiritual fruit, because of the very fact that the scriptures reveal God’s saving purposes for mankind. Martin Luther went so far to say that the Word of God is itself a lengthened telling of the gospel.

In this post, I want to consider just exactly how the Old Testament tells this gospel-story.

And what I want to propose is that the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. And because of this, the entire biblical narrative is concerned and centered on Jesus — and, as I said in my last post, this is why we need the scriptures, Old Testament too!

So then, how does the Old Testament bear witness to the gospel?

If read carefully, and in context, it should become clear that the Old Testament is concerned with the gospel as much as the New; it just communicates it in different ways. Vaughan Roberts says (source),

[Many] have debated for years whether or not it is possible to point to a unifying theme that binds the whole Bible together…Any unifying theme that is used to help us to see how the Bible fits together must arise from scripture itself…and it must be broad enough to allow each part to make its own distinct contribution. The theme of the kingdom of God satisfies both requirements…

[God’s kingdom can be defined as] “God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule” …[Scripture throughout presents] God longing  for human beings to enjoy an intimate relationship with him in his presence. As he is a perfect, holy God, that is possible only as we submit to his loving rule and do not sin.

What Roberts wants to communicate here is that the Old Testament may not mention the word “gospel”, but the concepts of the gospel are there. Roberts proposes that it’s easier to present “kingdom” as a unifying principle that presents the same gospel-truths, both across the Old and New Testament. I agree with him. I think that the beginning chapters of Genesis present God’s people under his rule and blessing, submitting in humility to him — they present God’s kingdom in perfect form. And Revelation 21, at the very end of the Bible, presents it that way too: God’s people under God’s rule and blessing. This is God’s goal a presented throughout the entire Bible, from beginning to end. However, we find that Adam’s sin (and ours too) corrupted and ruined this kingdom relationship. And for that, all have fallen short and deserve God’s condemnation (Rom 3:23).

God’s response, however, was not to destroy us, but to provide a means for humanity to be in blessed fellowship with him once more. Roberts says well, “[God] is certainly not defeated by the fall”; because in Genesis 3:15, we are told that God promises to restore his kingdom relationship through a Seed (a child) who would come from Eve and undue the effects of our sin, ultimately restoring creation to its original state. How will this happen? Through Jesus. This Seed is Christ, and God will use him to restore his fallen creation. Even in the first few chapters of the Bible, Jesus comes into the picture.

And this is the theme of the Old Testament, which finds fulfillment in the New: God will provide someone who will rescue humanity from their sin. The Old Testament presents God’s preparation for this great rescue.

God begins this rescue-plan by calling Abraham from his land, and giving him a promise. God promises to Abraham that through his Seed (recall Genesis 3:15?) he will bless the world. Roberts rightly says, “the covenant with Abraham is a promise of the kingdom of God…It is a promise to reverse the effects of the fall”. Paul would eventually explain that although Isaac was Abraham’s immediate “seed”, Christ is the final Seed who would bless the nations (Gal 3:16).

Then, after God established this promise, he created a nation called Israel whereby he would reveal this Seed, and set a context for redemption. Many may ask exactly why God dealt with this nation Israel before Christ’s coming? John Piper aptly answers this (source):

Israel’s history is not just about Israel. It’s about “every mouth” and “the whole world.” This was not a 2,000-year detour. God was writing a lesson book for the nations. It’s not an accident that our Bible has the Old Testament in it…Because in God’s wisdom he knew that the nations of the world would grasp the nature of Christ and his work better against the backdrop of Israel’s 2,000 year history of law and grace, faith and failure, sacrifice and atonement, wisdom and prophecy, mercy and judgment.

What Piper here is explaining is that God established Israel’s kingdom in order to teach both Israel, and the observing nations about their need for redemption. God wanted to communicate to all peoples that they could not save themselves. And God needed years of history in order to accomplish this. Paul tells us that the sacrifices, the Law, the priesthood, the temple, everything, was given in order to be a tutor to explain our state in sin, and our need forgiveness and holiness. Paul says that the Mosaic Law “was added because of transgressions…until the Seed would come to whom the promise had been made…The [Law] has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal 3:19-22). So, God used Israel and the Mosaic Law as a training station to teach the nations how one is to be saved; namely through an atoning Savior who would die for the sins of others.

In this way, the Old Testament presented the promise of a Savior, and also presented our need for him. And in the New Testament, Christ became the embodiment and fulfillment of that promised. As Paul says, the Old Testament was “a mere shadow of what was to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17). God is a great strategist, and this is how he accomplished this great redemption.

So when we read the Old Testament, we are reading God’s promises. God is “getting ready” to present Christ. And he is doing it by revealing through Israel what he will look like, and accomplish.

In this way, the Old Testament is just as much about the gospel than the New. For this reason, we should read, treasure, enjoy, and consume God’s Word on every page.

The Offense of the Cross

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“But if I brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” – Galatians 5:11

In this magnificent letter, Paul writes the Galatian church who had been inundated by false teachers. These teachers had come into the Galatian fellowship, and had started preaching salvation by self-merit. In fact, they went so far as to force the Gentile Galatians to become Jewish and to follow the Mosaic Law (Gal 5:1-12). Paul therefore wrote this letter to defend his gospel of salvation by Christ’s merit, not our own.

In this letter, Paul had to argue on a myriad of levels in order to convince his hearers that his gospel was the true gospel. Because of this, Paul gave many differing defenses of his gospel.

One of Paul’s defenses for his gospel was the fact that he was being persecuted heavily for preaching it (by both Jews and Gentiles — the persecution was just as bad on either side). In fact, in Galatians 5:11, Paul called his message “the offense of the cross”. Apparently, for Paul, the fact that his preaching was an offense to man was confirmation of the validity and veracity of his gospel. And in fact, Paul did offend most of his hearers. Over the course of his ministry, his gospel earned him scores of beatings, mockings, imprisonments, and banishments. And this was for Paul a good thing, because it meant that his gospel was about Christ and not him.

In contrast, however, Paul mentioned repeatedly that the false teachers who were misleading the Galatians had not been mistreated or persecuted at all for their message. Paul said that they preached their message of salvation by self-merit in order to be praised. He argued that the false teachers preached their “gospel” in order that they might be esteemed by others (Gal 4:18), and boast in themselves (Gal 6:13). In fact, Paul accused the teachers of preaching salvation by merit for the very purpose of avoiding persecution (Gal 6:12).

One question that we have to ask from all this is: what was so offensive about Paul’s gospel? And, what was so non-offensive, even self-promoting about these false-teachers’ message?

I think the obvious answer is merit: Upon whose merit are you attempting to be saved?

The false teachers preached a gospel of self-merit. It was a salvation that depended on proving yourself worthy of love and acceptance by God. It was a gospel that esteemed human willpower and morality. It was a gospel of self. And for this, these false teachers were praised (and they loved the it!), because the message boasted in its hearers. It was a message of, “You can do it! Just follow the rules!”

In contrast, Paul preached a gospel that pleaded the merit of Another. It was a gospel that despaired of human ability. It disparaged of self-will, and insulted the moral capacity of men. Instead, Paul’s gospel pleaded and hoped in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It found acceptance in Christ’s righteousness, and forgiveness through Christ’s death. It was a gospel that boasted in Christ alone, through whom we die to the world and find acceptance, love, and fellowship with God (Gal 6:14).

This was what Paul was trying to highlight when he gave attention to the false teachers’ need and desire for praise. They had a man-centered gospel! And, this is why Paul highlighted his own persecution. He had a Christ-centered gospel; one that was offensive to his hearers. It was a message of offense — and Paul did not want that offense removed, even if it led to his own martyrdom (which it eventually did).

James Boyce comments on Galatians 5:11, saying, a man-centered gospel is “part of a system that seeks to attain standing before God through merit. In opposition to this, the cross proclaims man’s complete ruin in sin, to the degree that nothing he does or can do can save him, and thus also proclaims man’s radical need for God’s grace. The natural man does not understand such teaching (1 Cor 2:14) and, in fact, hates it, because it strips away any pretense of spiritual achievement”.

Luther adds to this, saying, “God forbid, therefore, that the offense of the cross should be taken away. This would happen if we should preach what the prince of this world and his members would be glad to hear — that is, the righteousness of works”.

 

Should Christians Support the Death Penalty? Part 2: My Answer…

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I wrote a post the other day on two theologians’ perspectives on the death sentence. Al Mohler says that based on Genesis 9:6, we should support it. However, Roger Olson, a theologian, heartily disagrees, believing that the death sentence is something that is never a necessary measure.

What are we to think of these things? After having thought over this for quite a bit, I want to give my answer (this is a complicated issue, so this post is longer than usual).

First, I do find an ongoing principle of retribution in Genesis 9:6. However, I’m not sure I see a command of the death sentence. The verse does lay down a principle of blood for blood, much like eye for eye, tooth for tooth found in the Mosaic Law. At the very least, this passage is espousing civil law enforcement.

Nevertheless, the death penalty clearly is communicated and supported in the Mosaic Law. Exodus 21:22-25 advocates tooth for a tooth, eye for eye. So, under the circumstance that a person takes someone’s life, their life should be taken as a result (Exod 21:12). There are numerous other circumstances in which a person would be sentenced to death: for kidnapping (Exod 21:16), for blasphemy and idolatry (Exod 22:20, Lev 24:16), for rebellion against parents (Deut 21:20-21), rape and homosexuality (Deut 22:25, Lev 20:13), etc (for a whole list, follow this link).

More than this, within the Mosaic Law, God saw some sins as more meritorious of death over others. For sins which were unintentional, the people of Israel could give an offering to God for which their sins would be atoned (Lev 4). However, intentional, or high-handed sins deserved death (Num 15:29-30). The point here is that some sins were covered by an offering, while intentional or deliberate sins merited being “cut off from the people” (Num 15:30). 

What we can gather generally from this is that the death sentence as a mode of operation is not sinful. In fact, it is just. If the Mosaic Law was a revelation of the holy character of God, than the death sentence can’t be wrong.

In fact, we learn that if God is to remain holy, he must punish and separate himself from sin (Is 59:2). And in the Old Testament, if Israel was to be a holy nation, they had to align themselves with God’s holy character as revealed in the Mosaic Law. And, if Israel should disobey, they would suffer the consequences — i.e. being cut off. This is why the idea behind the death sentence was to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 17:7); i.e., be holy by removing the evil person.

And we find that Israel did suffer the consequences for their sin. We learn from the prophets that most of Israel committed sin deserving of death (Jer 2-3). They practiced idolatry and immorality, even sacrificing their children to false gods. As a result, everyone was worthy of being sentenced to death. And for that, they were exiled and enslaved to pagan nations.

But what we must also consider is that the Mosaic law, and the exile of Israel, is not the end of the story. While Israel bound themselves to God by this covenant, God knew it was an inferior covenant, because the law only hindered their holiness. Paul tells us that the law was unable to free Israel from sin (Acts 13:39). Paul further clarifies that the covenant was inferior not because of the law itself, but because of the sinfulness of man (Rom 7). 

For this reason, rather than destroying Israel (and all humanity for that matter), God chose a better new covenant (Jer 31, Ezek 36). He decided to make another covenant that would not only atone for the peoples’ sin permanently (Heb 10:1-14), but also enable them to be holy unto God (Jer 31:33). And, God did this by sentencing Jesus to death on our behalf. Jesus took the death sentence that all Israel, and indeed all humanity, deserved (Gal 3:13).

Here’s where my opinion on the death sentence comes in: by sentencing Jesus to death, considering him accursed, God dealt with the need for the death sentence found in the Mosaic Law.

Practically, this means two things. First, this means that the kingdom of God’s beloved Son is a totally different realm wherein lies the forgiveness of criminals and murderers deserving of wrath, because Jesus absorbed God’s wrath in himself. For this reason, Christians should live out the economy of Christ, and give grace where wrath and justice would otherwise be deserved. Jesus says this himself:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Christians should live differently. Rather than distributing justice or vengeance, we should give grace. Why? Because we are forgiven of our own travesties against God. And, if we were to be dealt justice, we would also deserve death! So, Christians should be for the forgiveness and repentance of criminals through Christ.

However, and secondly, the government does not operate by these principles. The economy of the kingdom of Christ is a foreign thing for them. And, if it is just for God to sentence sinners to death, it’s not unjust for the government to sentence guilty murderers to death (I’m not considering whether any given justice system is fair or corrupt; I’m just considering whether the death sentence itself is valid).

What this means, to me at least, is that I can’t fault the government for working on principles of justice. Life for life is certainly a just thing. But, I also can’t gloat in the face of the death penalty. Rather than being glad that criminals are put to death, as a Christian, I mourn for them. And, rather than scorning their evil, I am reminded of my own evil.

This is obviously a hard issue. But, I guess my answer toward the death penalty would be this: While the death penalty is just, there is a new and better way found by faith in Christ. And I’d rather restrain and incarcerate a murderer for life than sentence him to death in the hopes that he would be redeemed by faith in Christ. As a result, I certainly don’t condemn the death penalty, because it’s simply operating on principles of justice and retribution; but neither do I delight in it. And I personally wouldn’t be able to execute anyone without violating my conscience. What I prefer is governmental restraint toward criminals (i.e. incarceration and rehabilitation), and deadly violence when needed.

I’ll end with a quote by Scot McKnight on this issue: “the system of grace taught by Jesus deconstructs the system of justice by taking it to an entirely new level. Not the level of offense and punishment, but the level of offense and punishment-with-redemption. Perhaps time and efforts on our part will lead [a convicted murderer] to the sort of honesty before God that discovers that God’s redemptive work can make murderers anew. The Apostle Paul is a good example” (link).

Indeed, Paul is one of the greatest examples of this!

**I wrote a follow-up to this post, and you can read that here

 

What is the Purpose of the Mosaic Law Today?

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There is much debate on this question. Many Reformed thinkers see that the Law has 3 main purposes: to reveal sin, to be a positive guide for the believer, and for civil use. Other theologians, mainly in the Lutheran camp, would see the Law more primarily as a means toward revealing sin and pointing us to Christ. Still others see no real application for the Law. Dispensationalists see that the Law in its fullness has been fulfilled in Christ, and that we are now driven by the Law of Christ (Gal 6:1-6), meaning we are to strive toward being like Jesus. He is the ultimate embodiment of the Law, and so we look to a person rather than a list of rules.

While I can see a lot of truth in the Dispensationalist camp, and really tend to shrink at the Reformed understanding (mainly because Reformed thinkers would generally agree that the Mosaic Law is still in effect in its moral codes today), I still see some truth in the Reformed understanding of the Law as being a positive guide. My reason for this is because there are many moral expectations in the Mosaic Law that were set in place before it was instituted. For instance, “do not murder”; the expectation that man should not take a life of another is explicit in Cain’s guilt (Gen 4), and is specifically prohibited for Noah (Gen 9:6). So, although I would say that the Mosaic Law was fulfilled in Christ, moral expectations still abide.

And besides this, I can also appreciate that God’s moral character is eternal, and he does not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8). And so we can read the Mosaic Law, for instance in Leviticus, learn about God’s unchanging character, and live that out. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that we are to learn from Israel’s example, and not fall into the same sin they did. This implies that we can learn moral lessons in the Old Testament, and (if we are filled with God’s Spirit) live them out. Otherwise, what did God mean when he told Israel that the heart of the New Covenant is divine enablement to live out the Law by his writing “it on their hearts” (Jer 31:33)?

However, I would tend to disagree with the Reformed view that these moral expectations are a continuation of the Mosaic Law. What else can Christ mean in Matthew 5:17 when he says that he came to fulfill the law? Which law? He explicitly says, the “Law [and] the Prophets” (5:17). So when Christ said, it is finished, he was not merely pointing to his final payment for sins, but to his active fulfillment of God’s righteousness. So I would agree with the Dispensationalist by saying that we are not bound (in an official sense) to obey the Mosaic Law.

Finally though, I heartily agree with Lutherans (and all theologians who affirm human depravity) that, without regeneration and divine enablement, the effort to live out God’s moral character by one’s own power will only fail. In fact, as Paul says in Galatians 3:10, that all who “rely (as a means toward righteousness) on the works of the law are under a curse”. Meaning, if you think that apart from justification and the regenerating work of the Spirit, that you can work yourself into the kingdom of God, you will find yourself even more condemned (Mark 10:17-21). In fact, Paul says that the Law is a prison to those who would try to be saved by it (Gal 3:22). And in this way, the Law reveals the wickedness of those who think they can abide by it, and who believe they don’t need Christ. And so, even Gentiles, who would desire to be a good and moral person (see Rom 2:15), will find that they can’t abide by their moral principles forever, and will find themselves in need of saving.

I love Luther’s remarks about this purpose of the Law from his Commentary on Galatians. He says, “Now, when a man is humbled by the law, and brought to the knowledge of himself, then followeth true repentance…and he seeth himself to be so great a sinner that he can find no means how he may be delivered from his sin by his own strength, endeavor and works…Here then cometh in good time the healthful word of the Gospel, and saith: ‘Son, thy sins are forgiven thee’ (Matt 9:2). Believe in Christ Jesus crucified for thy sins, [and] if thou feel thy sins and the burden thereof, look not upon them in thyself, but remember that they are translated and laid upon christ, whose stripes have made thee whole (Isa 53:5)”.

And I think that by looking to Christ, and finding this wholeness in him, only then can the law be used positively by the work of the Spirit in us.