But let’s take a step back. The reason that the post could be considered controversial is that there are some people—very smart people, whose opinions I respect—who believe that we are still under some of the law, even now that Jesus has done His work. These people would divide the Old Testament laws into three categories:
|Civil Laws||These are laws that concerned how the nation of Israel was to run itself as a nation.||You could argue that these laws could still apply to the current nation of Israel, but they don’t apply to modern-day Christians. We are not a “nation,” except in a very metaphorical sense. (The New Testament tends to prefer using a body as a metaphor for the Church, rather than a nation, but that doesn’t mean that a nation couldn’t be used as a metaphor for the Church.)|
|Religious or Ceremonial Laws||These are laws that concerned the Jewish religion; things like rules for sacrifices and holy/celebratory days and dietary rules.||These laws do not apply to the Christian, period. They may or may not apply to modern-day Jews; I’m led to believe that at least some of the laws have changed over the years.|
|Moral Laws||These are laws which are considered to apply to everyone everywhere, not just Jews and not just Israelites/Israelis. The moral laws are easy to figure out, they’re the Ten Commandments.||Ah, here is where the controversy is: Those who believe that the law is divided up into three types of laws like this believe that we are still under the Moral Laws, even though we’re not under the other two categories of law; those who do not believe that the Law is divided up into categories like this believe that we are no more under these laws than we are under the rest.|
So why do I bring this up now? Because there is really only one point I can think of where this matters: the Sabbath. For sure there are other differences between Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology, but on this point as to whether there are three types of laws or not, the Sabbath is the part that makes a day-to-day difference in the life of a Christian. (Well… maybe we should say week-to-week difference. There’s only one Sabbath in a week…)
You see, for the most part this question of whether the “Moral Law” applies to us doesn’t have any practical bearing on the Christian. There are definitely some theoretical religious questions that can be debated, and I’m sure this can lead to practical problems for the Christian, but think about it: the Ten Commandments tell us that we should have no god other than God, and that we shouldn’t create idols, and that we shouldn’t take God’s name in vain, and that we should honour our parents and we shouldn’t murder or steal or commit adultery or bear false witness or covet, and the Christian can nod his or her head at each one of these commandments and say, yes, this still makes sense to us. We definitely shouldn’t kill people; if we do we can be forgiven for it because of Christ’s work on the cross, but it’s a sin and we know that we shouldn’t do it. Similarly, neither should I have any other god but God, or steal, or murder, or commit adultery, or covet.
But there’s a commandment that I skipped over: Number 4 is that we should keep the Sabbath. It says specifically that we should do no work on the seventh day (Exodus 20:8–11 (ESV)). So for people who believe that the Law is divided into three types of laws, and that we are still under the Moral Law, well, then that must mean that Christians are to keep the Sabbath; that if we don’t, it’s a sin that has to be forgiven by Christ’s work on the cross. This is different (for Covenant Theologians) from the ceremonial laws. I can eat pork and I don’t have to be forgiven for it and Christ doesn’t have to pay the price for it because it’s not in any way wrong for me to do. It would have been a sin for a Jew in Jesus’ day, the rule applied to them, but it wouldn’t be a sin for me now because the rule is no longer in effect for Christians.
So I guess the essential question would be this: is there a Biblical basis for dividing the law up into parts like this? The facile argument would be to say that the Bible itself never makes such a distinction, but that’s a cop-out answer. I’m not here to win an argument I’m here to search out what the Scriptures actually say on this matter. Frankly, one could say the same thing of the Trinity: the Bible never talks about a Trinity, never uses the word “Trinity,” but we believe the doctrine of the Trinity is true because the logical force of other Biblical texts brings us to that conclusion, and I’m sure those who believe that the law is divided into three types of laws would say the same thing.
I’ve done some searching, and unfortunately I haven’t found a clear, concise explanation that says “this is why we believe the Law is divided into three parts.” I’m sure such an explanation exists, I just wasn’t able to find it. (And, frankly, this post took me so long to write that it’s been in danger of never actually getting published, so I might have given up searching sooner than I should have. Maybe some of you think that wouldn’t have been a bad thing…) I’m assuming that people who believe in the three types of Law, and the Moral Law still applying to us, are probably basing that belief on passages such as this one:
“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17–20 (ESV), Jesus speaking)Both camps, Covenant Theologists and New Covenant Theologists, have to do something with this passage. Jesus seems to be putting an importance on the Law here that the rest of the New Testament seems to disagree with; at first glance, one might almost assume that Paul would disagree with Jesus on this point. (Please note the phrases “seems to” and “at first glance.” I’m not arguing that the New Testament is inconsistent on this point!) I think the way we’d handle this passage would probably go something like this:
|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.|
|Covenant Theologists||New Covenant Theologists|
|Might focus more on the first part of this, Jesus has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but there are clearly laws which no longer apply (e.g. eating pork), so how do we handle that? Answer: When Jesus says he’s not abolishing the Law he is referring to the Moral Law, not the Civil or Ceremonial Law.||Might focus more on the latter part of this; Jesus has fulfilled the Law. He didn’t just take it away, because that would have been unjust; this is what He means when He says that He didn’t come to abolish it. Instead he obeyed it perfectly and fulfilled it, something nobody else has ever done.|
I don’t think the Covenant Theology camp would disagree with the fact that Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly, of course He did, but it doesn’t seem that they would take this to the point where the [Moral] Law no longer applies to us, because of the first part of the sentence.
|For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.|
|Covenant Theologists||New Covenant Theologists|
|As with before, would probably focus more on the first part of this sentence: not an iota nor a dot of the Law will pass away until heaven and earth do. But again… we have things like eating pork which are clearly not in effect anymore. So the logical conclusion is that the Moral Law is what Jesus is referring to as not passing away.||As with before would probably focus more on the last part of this sentence: “until all is accomplished.” When will that happen? It already did, on the cross.|
|Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.|
|Covenant Theologists||New Covenant Theologists|
|Once again would need to deal with the fact that some Laws clearly don’t apply anymore, so the division of the Law into categories, with the Moral Law being what Jesus is referring to here, would be a theological necessity.||Would say that Jesus is not saying here that the Law (or parts of it) is still in effect, He’s saying that the practice of treating some Laws as weighty and others as light—a distinction which rabbis of the day did recognize, such that some laws were important to obey and others less so—is not valid, and that obedience to the entire Law is demanded, not just the parts that you judge as “weighty.” Jesus was able to accomplish this and obey all of it; nobody else has been able to do so.|
Incidentally, this is an important point for me personally. I’m writing an entire blog post in which I’m saying that we are not still bound by the Moral Law, and that among other things this means that Christians do not have a concept of a “Sabbath” to obey. But if I’m wrong on this point, and there is a Moral Law, part of which is the Sabbath, then I’m doing exactly what Jesus is warning against: I am “teaching others” to “relax one of these commandments,” and that wouldn’t be something to take lightly. Again, as I said above, I’m not trying to win an argument here, I’m trying to search the Scriptures to see what they really say. (I don’t know much about what the next life will be like, but there is one thing that I think I can guarantee you: Nobody is ever going to approach you in Heaven or in the New Earth and say, “I told you so!!!”)
|For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.|
|I think both the Covenant Theology camp and the New Covenant Theology camp would agree on this point: In order to have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you’d have to have Jesus’ righteousness applied to you. Whether you believe that the Moral Law still applies or not, whether you believe that transgressing the Sabbath is a sin or not, the fact remains that you are a sinner, just like me and just like everyone else. To enter the kingdom of heaven you must be sinlessly perfect, and even the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t live up to that measure. So this sentence applies to people who are covered by Jesus’ work; we’ll be judged as if we are sinlessly perfect, because Jesus has taken away our sins and already paid the price for them.|
So Covenant and New Covenant folks would agree on this, the disagreement would be on whether transgressions of the Sabbath are sins that Jesus has to pay for or not.
Another passage that people might find interesting is 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (ESV):
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.So wait a second… what is this “law of Christ”? That’s not a term that’s defined anywhere in the New Testament (unless you count Galatians 6:2 (ESV), but that would be a pretty roundabout “definition”); Paul just throws it out here, and seems to assume that we’ll know what he means. And the overall thrust of the passage doesn’t help us here either, because Paul isn’t writing about the Law, he’s writing about rights; this is just an example he’s using to illustrate his point. So what do we do with this term? Again, my assumption is that Covenant Theologists would say that this “law of Christ” refers to the Moral Law—or maybe the Moral Law plus faith in Christ?—while New Covenant Theologists would say that this “law of Christ” would refer to faith in Christ and seeking to live a life which is pleasing to God, but without a specific set of Laws to obey. The ESV Study Bible note on verse 21 says:
Paul seems to distinguish between the Jewish law and something he calls alternately “the commandments of God” (cf. 7:19 (ESV)) and “the law of Christ,” which is of continuing validity for Christians, whatever their ethnicity. This second law appears to include the ethical teaching of Jesus as well as absorbing both the theological structure and many of the moral precepts of the Mosaic law. (See, e.g., Rom. 7:7 (ESV), 12 (ESV), 22 (ESV); 13:8–10 (ESV); Gal. 5:14 (ESV); 6:2 (ESV); Eph. 6:2 (ESV); see also the articles on Biblical Ethics.) This “law of Christ” today would also include the moral commands of the NT epistles, since in them the apostles interpreted and applied Christ’s life and teachings to the NT churches.And honestly, I think the phrase I used above is probably the source of much of the disagreement between Covenant Theologists and New Covenant Theologists: “seeking to live a life which is pleasing to God, but without a specific set of Laws to obey.” I have a feeling that would drive some Christians crazy; how do you seek to live a life which is pleasing to God without rules to follow? It’s not a cut and dried issue; I already alluded to the fact that I’m pretty sure Covenant Theologists and New Covenant Theologists would agree on nine out of the ten moral laws, we’d all agree that it’s a sin to murder or to commit adultery for example, but we don’t agree that disregarding the Sabbath is a sin.
So my point in writing this post is not to say that I think New Covenant Theology is superior or inferior to Covenant Theology, it’s just to point out that if you disagreed with the views I put forth in the Sabbath post, it’s probably because of the difference between the two theologies.
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