In the ongoing debate over the morality of the homosexual lifestyle this question is becoming more and more relevant, and yet the focus has been entirely on the issue at hand with most people quietly refusing to ask the hard questions that should be at the center. Can we accept the Gospel apart from the Old Testament? Is the Old Testament reliable, and is it compatible with the message of the Gospels?
Over the past few weeks, I have repeatedly seen info-graphics, pictures of facebook discussions, short “stories”, etc. that take an aggressive posture against the teaching of the Old Testament, particularly when it comes to basic definitions of morality. The argument is that the Old Testament Law is separate from the New Testament teaching of grace and forgiveness. The idea is that when Christ introduced the Gospel of grace all obligation to the Old Testament law was lost. For Christians, according to this line of thinking, the Old Testament is outdated and shouldn’t be relied upon for sound moral teaching.
Those who teach this seem to have forgotten to read the Gospels in all of their haste to separated them from the Old Testament.
Jesus said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” Matt 5:17-20
We should note that this passage comes right after the ever popular beatitudes, in the middle of the sermon on the mount, and just before all of the “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” teaching that no one wants to dispute.
Is it possible that Jesus could really have meant to uphold the teaching of the Old Testament law? Look at the teachings on murder (5:21-22), adultery (5:27-30), and divorce (5:31-32) that follow right after this teaching. In most of these cases, true to what He said in 5:20 Jesus’ moral teaching either affirms the strictest Pharisaic interpretation of the law or goes beyond it. From this it is safe to gather, that just as He said, Jesus fully intends for Christians to adhere to the Old Testament’s moral teaching.
All the confusion comes from what we see happening in verse 17 “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”. The key to understanding what is going on in this passage is to have a correct view of the unity of Scripture.
The Bible is divided into to two testaments, or covenants, but it stands as a unified whole. The key is to understanding this unity is to properly recognize the purpose of the Bible itself. The purpose of Scripture is to tell the history of God’s redemptive working for mankind after our fall into sin, and to ultimately tell how God stepped down to redeem us from our sin and show us the way back to Him through grace.
This purpose is clear from the message itself. Genesis 3 tells the story of mankind’s deception and fall into sin. Yet look what God promises from the first moments of man’s sinful condition, in speaking to the deceiver:
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”
Even from the beginning God had promised to send One who would crush the head of the Serpent, but since a testament is a covenant, we should recognize that everything that proceeds the giving of the covenant to Abraham in Genesis 12 is the prequel, the back story that explains why the story is necessary. Look at the covenant itself and God’s plan is perfectly clear:
Now the Lord had said to Abram:
“Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Genesis 12:1-3 (emphasis mine)
From the very institution of the covenant, God is working to see the redemption and blessing of all the peoples of the earth, in fact, those who read the Old Testament well will find that the “Great Commission” is simply a restating of what God has been getting at all along.
When we recognize this unifying theme in Scripture, then we can ask ourselves what the point of all those dreaded books of the Law is. The New Testament writers as well as the early church fathers all agree, the purpose of the Law is to demonstrate to mankind our own sinful condition, the insufficiency of animal sacrifice as well as our own works, and our ultimate need for redemption. This means that the moral requirements of God do not simply go away because we cannot meet them, they are tied directly to God’s divine nature and cannot change. What does change is the means by which mankind ACCESS God.
God gave us the full weight of His moral law, and a sacrifice system for when we failed to live up to it, to demonstrate in fullness that we are unable to live up to His just requirements. As shown above Jesus reiterated and reinforced these just requirements, but then chose to introduce the power of grace. Christ bore the punishment of our moral failure on the cross, once for all time, and freed those who place their faith in Him from the just recompense of their sinful ways. In so doing He put an end to the need for the sacrifice system, by His one perfect sacrifice.
It gets even better though! Rather than excuse us from the demands of God’s just law, the power of Christ allows us to receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirt who makes us able to meet God’s righteous requirements. The moral demands of God cannot go away because to do so would make God not God, but being God He has chosen to not only pardon our past sins but also to empower us to walk a life free from entangling sin. The message of Christ is not that holiness will be redefined so we can reach it, but rather that we will be transformed so that we can attain true holiness.
Where does that leave this discussion? What is it we are actually doing when we try to reject the moral nature of God and His just requirements? There are two ultimate issues with choosing to ignore the Old Testament because we don’t like what it has to say.
First and foremost, those who reject the moral teaching of the Old Testament are closing the door to God’s grace. The Old Testament is necessary to demonstrate to mankind that we are sinners in need of grace, without the knowledge of sin, there is no room for grace. When we try to redefine sin to make ourselves or others more comfortable, ultimately we are blocking God’s ability to forgive us of that sin and to empower us to overcome that sin. God had to give the Old Testament first, before we would have any ability to comprehend what the New Testament meant. Apart from the knowledge of sin, there can be no forgiveness of sin. The reason for this is obvious, I won’t repent of sin that I don’t acknowledge is there. Our goal ought to be to recognize and repent of ALL sin in our lives, and as followers of Christ we are under command to help others recognize and repent of their sin as well.
Second, those who fail to study the Old Testament will fail to see the working out of God’s constant faithful dealings with those who follow Him. The New Testament doesn’t attempt to cover any ground that the Old Testament has already thoroughly addressed, for this reason it dwells on the Gospel itself, the establishment of the Church, and the teaching necessary to establish the Gospel in men’s hearts. Most of the great stories of God’s faithfulness to those who trust Him are in the Old, not the New Testament. Christians would have a much better grasp on how to handle suffering and walk faithfully through difficult times if they would just read the first 2/3 of their Bibles.
Ultimately, Scripture is a unity. It is all written for man’s redemption. If we choose to ignore part of it, we damage the means of our own redemption.