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.

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Should Christians Support the Death Penalty? Part 3: Three clarifications…

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I have gotten into a few different conversations with people about my last post on my stance regarding the death penalty. If you missed the conversation, you can read my post here. I want to take a little more time to clarify a few things regarding my stance.

Here is a quote from my conclusion on the death penalty: “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”. 

First, I want to clarify this: I don’t condemn the death penalty. If someone is genuinely guilty of murder, and is put to death, I cannot argue that “life for life” is wrong. But neither do I have to like it, because there is a better way found in Christ.

The Mosaic Covenant as a revelation of God’s holy standards is just and right. But there is a problem: James says that those who want to operate by this standard need to obey the entire set of rules, or they fail at them all (Js 2:10). The Mosaic Law is a pass / fail system. You either keep every command or none of them. In other words, you either be perfect in every way, or you find yourself to be a sinner deserving of death.

And Paul goes on to say that when this standard is placed on the shoulders of sinners, we all fail. The Law silences us (Rom 3:19), makes us aware of our sin (Rom 5:20), and most importantly, the Law teaches us of our need for a new way toward holiness by way of redemption in Christ (Gal 3:24). The Law reveals that we cannot be holy like God is holy. Consequently, the Law reveals that we all deserve death.

And we can be sure that when God gave the Law to Israel, he not only knew they would fail, but he also had a provision in mind for their failure. This provision was the New Covenant. It was a covenant that, instead of operating by “eye for eye”, “tooth for tooth”, it operated by grace. The New Covenant was a way to make sinners worthy of the death penalty holy as God was holy. Paul says that amazingly, God found a way to be a just God and a justifier of sinners (Rom 3:25).

My point here is that God’s response to our own guilt is not to sentence us to death, but to provide a better way to saving sinners. There’s a big difference between what is “good” and what is “better”. Justice is clearly good. But grace is better! And so if God could have justly killed us all, but instead provided a better way for redemption through Jesus, why shouldn’t Christians desire a better way for those sentenced to death? It baffles me that any justified sinner would want a convicted criminal to die under the death penalty and go to hell, considering what they’ve been forgiven of.

So, I’m not arguing that the death penalty is wrong. I’m simply saying that there is a better way found in Jesus. And as redeemed, justified sinners, we should wish to God that convicted murderers would be redeemed from their situation. And lest we think that murderers can’t be rehabilitated from their sin, there are three murderers that I can think of that did just that: Moses, David, and Paul. Have we forgotten that even a “man after God’s own heart” committed murder? God should have killed him; instead, he forgave him (2 Sam 12:13).

Second, I’m not arguing against God’s inherent ability to give and take life. God obviously has the right to take life. 1 Samuel 2:6 says that “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up”. As the ruler of the cosmos, this is his inherent right.

And I just want us to consider this: God is the only objective Being in the universeAnd, God is the only Person who can truly judge our hearts. Why is it that God struck down Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the church, and not David for adultery, false testimony, and murder? Well, we have to assume that God new the intentions of their hearts, their repentance and faith, and made a righteous judgment.

But humans are inherently subjective. We do not judge impartially as we should (Js 2:1-13). How can we be sure that sentencing someone to death is the judgment that God himself wants? How can we be sure we aren’t overreaching our authority? I would argue that we simply cannot know. Beyond this, why does one person receive life in prison and another receive the death penalty? Research shows that when one person receives life and the other the death sentence, it “ranks” murder by a faulty system, or at worst, it is arbitrary (link). Not only this, but it traumatizes the victim’s family when one person gets the death penalty and one gets life in prison. My whole point here is that the American justice system, while it may try to be objective, is subjective. We don’t know people’s hearts, which means that only God can truly judge objectively

Third, I am not arguing that the government isn’t used by God. Paul clearly says this in Romans 13. All of this I will obviously agree with. But I just want you to notice that in Roans 13, Paul is not giving a course on politics. He is commanding believers not to rebel against the government, because God is sovereign and has allowed rulers to govern. He is not speaking with court officials. He doesn’t even say whether the death penalty is right or wrong; and he certainly doesn’t command it. This passage is inconclusive when it comes to capital punishment, mainly because Paul here is addressing Christians and how they should relate to the government: they should submit.

And I’m not arguing against violence involved in war, or violence done through self-defense or by necessary measure. But this is all deadly violence done necessarily, and beyond that, swiftly. But in America, it takes years, sometimes decades, to finally send a guilty murderer to the chair. The justice system in America is wrought with appeals and long court processes that arguably do more harm than good, both to the murderer, and also to the victim’s family. Rather than spending this time toward recovery, the family is left to spend arduous amounts of effort and time in court. And there are billions of dollars sunk into this process. Many organizations (even non-Christians organizations) have argued that if we distribute that money to rehabilitation for the murderer, and recovery for the victim’s family, that it would do far more good (link). I’m not arguing that the death penalty can’t be used by God (he is sovereign after all), I just think that our system of doing things could arguably be better.

For me, when it comes to the death penalty in America, I do not prefer it, and if I were to be asked about it by a state representative, I’d tell them my opinion. But I certainly don’t want to start a revolution either. Nonetheless, the better option for a criminal is redemption, rehabilitation, and recovery for the family of the victim.

Hopefully this helps clarify things.

 

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.