In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works (as our adversaries maintain), but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect…. There is much less to trouble us in the name of righteous which is usually given to believers. I admit that they are so called from the holiness of their lives, but as they rather exert themselves in the study of righteousness than fulfill righteousness itself, any degree of it which they possess must yield to justification by faith, to which it is owing that it is what it is.
–John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.17.10
And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the grace [Greek charis] of God was upon him. –Luke 2:40
This verse is one of the rare descriptions of Jesus’ childhood found in the New Testament. Many English translations (ESV, NIV, etc.) render the Greek word charis here as “favor,” although the standard translation of this word in other contexts is “grace.” This is understandable, given that it is hard to see how the sinless Savior could have received grace from God. The meaning of grace is a contested issue, which is complicated by the fact that the Bible nowhere gives it a precise definition. Exactly what is grace?
In truth, I don’t think we need to limit ourselves to a single definition. Within the Reformed tradition, it has been taken in the broad sense of God’s loving and benevolent posture toward all his creation. On the other hand, it has also been taken in the narrow sense of God’s redemptive response toward sin. If we limit ourselves to this narrow definition, it would be inappropriate to speak of “grace” in God’s original covenant with Adam. But if Christ as the Second Adam was able to receive grace from God (which was surely not “grace” in the sense of mercy toward a sinner), could not the first Adam have as well?
This was the perspective taken by many of the early church fathers, including those in the Alexandrian tradition like Athanasius (On the Incarnation of the Word 1.3) and Cyril (Commentary on John 1.32-33). These men acknowledged that Adam was originally created in a state of grace, although his continuation in that state depended on his perfect obedience. This in turn might have important implications for how we derive our systematic and hermeneutical categories from the text of Scripture.
If you are confused about recent discussions involving the covenant of works, this reference guide can help you. I’ve listed some of the most significant theologians who have written on the doctrine, including a brief bio for each theologian, a summary of their position on the covenant of works, and recommended further reading. Enjoy!
John Calvin (1509-1564)
- Who was he? A French lawyer who led the Protestant Reformation in Geneva. He is best known for his systematic Institutes of the Christian Religion.
- What did he say? Calvin did not have an explicit covenant of works, although he affirmed Adam as the unique progenitor of the human race, whose sin brought about the universal corruption of human nature. It is debatable whether Calvin affirmed Adam’s federal headship, as would later Reformed scholastics. He referred to Adam’s state in the garden as a “trial of obedience” (later called “probation;” Inst. 2.1.4) leading to a heavenly perfection, but denied that the terms of this probation were meritorious.
- Further reading: Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 276-304; Aaron Denlinger, “Calvin’s Understanding of Adam’s Relationship to His Posterity: Recent Assertions of the Reformer’s ‘Federalism’ Evaluated,” Calvin Theological Journal 44 (2009): 226-250.
Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583)
- Who was he? Early German Reformed theologian and coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the Three Forms of Unity (the confessional standards of the Continental Reformed churches). Studied under Philip Melanchthon, successor of Martin Luther.
- What did he say? He (with Caspar Olevianus) is credited with being the first to explicate the idea of a pre-fall covenant (credit for the exact term “covenant of works” probably goes to Dudley Fenner). Drew the distinction between the pre- and post-fall covenants along the lines of law and gospel, but also saw the gospel as empowerment to observe the law as a rule of gratitude.
- Further reading: Lyle Bierma, “Law and Grace in Ursinus’ Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman (Wipf & Stock, 2007).
Robert Rollock (c. 1555-1599)
- Who was he? Early Scottish Reformer, considered to be foundational in developing the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (bi-covenantalism), and in bringing covenant theology to the British Isles.
- What did he say? The covenant of nature/works promised life to Adam under the condition of good works proceeding from his nature (this excludes works proceeding from grace). This works principle is restated in the Mosaic Covenant (Lev. 18:5) to expose sin. Not a meritorious arrangement, since Adam’s works were obligatory and merit is supererogatory. Consequently, Christ’s active obedience was not meritorious (nor is it imputed), although his passive obedience was meritorious.
- Further reading: Aaron Denlinger, “Robert Rollock’s Catechism on God’s Covenants,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 (2009): 105-129.
Westminster Divines (1643-1649)
- Who were they? The Westminster Assembly was appointed by the English Long Parliament to reform the doctrine, polity, and worship of the Church of England. It consisted of 30 laymen and 121 divines (clergymen). They produced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism, which would all become the confessional standards of most Presbyterian churches.
- What did they say? The divines affirmed a covenant of works (WCF 7) but had differing views as to its precise nature. All affirmed the federal headship of Adam. The majority view (e.g., Samuel Rutherford, William Bridge, and William Gouge) was that it was a gracious covenant, and Adam’s obedience was not strictly meritorious. Nevertheless, “life” was promised upon condition of Adam’s perfect and perpetual obedience. Such life was either understood as continuation in the blessings that Adam already enjoyed in the garden (Thomas Goodwin, William Gouge, Jeremiah Burroughs), or as a future heavenly reward (William Bridge, Anthony Burgess). No explicit mention of a garden probation.
- Further reading: Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012).
Francis Turretin (1623-1687)
- Who was he? A Swiss-Italian theologian who wrote at the height of Reformed scholasticism. He is best known for his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which summarizes and refines the covenant theologies of his day.
- What did he say? Adam’s relationship to his posterity is both “natural” and “federal,” and his fall led to both the corruption and guilt of humanity. The covenant of works is understood in contractual terms. Adam’s obedience during his probation was a condition for blessing, leading to a heavenly reward/inheritance. It was meritorious not as a matter of strict justice, but because God graciously called it so (congruent/nominalist, not condign/realist).
- Further reading: Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 2:263.
John Murray (1898-1975)
- Who was he? Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
- What did he say? Adam’s pre-fall relationship with God was an “administration” but not a “covenant,” since covenant is defined as an unconditional, redemptive arrangement. This administration included provision for Adam’s passing from a contingent, probationary state to confirmation in perfect obedience (indefectibility). This provision was still a gracious condescension on God’s part, and not earned as a matter of strict justice/merit. Adam is federal head for humanity. (Identical to Anthony Hoekema’s view.)
- Further reading: Murray, “The Adamic Administration,” available online here: http://www.the-highway.com/adamic-admin_Murray.html (accessed October 7, 2013); Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1991), 2:49, 130.
G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996)
- Who was he? Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at the Free University in Amsterdam. Best known for his 18-volume Studies in Dogmatics. Followed in the thought of S.G. De Graaf (1889-1955) and Klaas Schilder (1890-1952).
- What did he say? Affirmed a “covenant of creation” or “covenant of God’s favor” but rejected the perceived legalistic implications of a covenant of works. He argued that a merit-based arrangement with Adam would erroneously imply a “nomological ur-existence of man,” which undermines the priority of life in fellowship with God. Adam’s relationship with God was primarily filial rather than legal. Denied probation, diminished federalism.
- Further reading: Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), 332-46; idem, Studies in Dogmatics: Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 206-8; Cornelis Venema, “Recent Criticisms of the Covenant of Works in the Westminster Confession of Faith,” available online here: http://www.grebeweb.com/linden/Venema_Criticisms_of_Cov_of_Works.htm (accessed October 6, 2013)
Meredith Kline (1922-2007)
- Who was he? Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His approach to covenant theology is often contrasted with John Murray’s approach.
- What did he say? The covenant of works was strictly legal. God’s original disposition toward Adam was gracious in a broad sense, but the administration of the covenant itself excluded grace (“grace” being narrowly defined as the substitutionary application of the merit of Christ’s active/passive obedience). Adam was in a state of probation, and would be confirmed in a glorified state of indefectibility by the merit of his perfect obedience. This reward is not graciously bestowed, but is earned as a matter of strict justice.
- Further reading: Kline, “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” available online here: http://www.upper-register.com/papers/ct_under_attack.html (accessed October 6, 2013)
- Who is he? Former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who provoked controversy in the 1970’s over his covenant theology. This controversy reverberates today.
- What does he say? Acknowledged a pre-fall covenant with Adam, but flattened the distinctions with the covenant of grace, leaving him open to the charge of “monocovenantalism.” The conditions for every covenant involve the “works of faith” or “obedient trust.” Rejected not only Adamic merit, but also the merit of Christ. Denied probation.
- Further reading: http://trinity-pres.net/study/normanshepherd.php (accessed April 24, 2014); “A Critique of Professor Norman Shepherd’s Theology,” available online here: http://basketoffigs.org/NewPerspectives/Jones.htm (accessed April 24, 2014)
O. Palmer Robertson
- Who is he? Taught Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, and Africa Bible Colleges in Malawi and Uganda.
- What does he say? Prefers the term “covenant of creation,” which has a general and a focal aspect. The general aspect concerns Adam’s responsibilities as vice-regent and image-bearer (creation ordinances), while the focal aspect concerns the probationary test which leads to confirmation in indefectibility. Believes that emphasizing the focal aspect at the expense of the general aspect leads to a reductively anthropocentric/ecclesiocentric understanding of redemption. Adam is federal head.
- Further reading: Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 67-92; Robertson, “Current Reformed Thinking on the Nature of the Divine Covenants,” Westminster Theological Journal 40.1 (Fall 1977): 63-76.
- Who is he? French evangelical theologian. Taught Systematic Theology at Wheaton College.
- What does he say? Rejects the imputation of Adam’s guilt (federalism), but acknowledges the transmission of a corrupt nature (habitus) from Adam to all his posterity. Adam had free and regular access to the Tree of Life in the garden, which sacramentally signified continuing communion with God. Rejects a “garden eschatology” (along with accompanying ideas of probation and merit) as counterfactual speculation, but affirms a gracious Edenic covenant.
- Further reading: Blocher, “Old Covenant, New Covenant,” in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. A.T.B. McGowan (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 240-70. Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001).
- Who is he? Principal of the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, where he lectures in systematic theology.
- What does he say? Prefers “headship theology” to covenant/federal theology. There is an Adamic Administration and a Messianic Administration in an overarching covenant of grace, but no covenant of works. Highlights the priority of grace. Law did not exist pre-fall (in starkest contrast to Kline’s denial of pre-fall grace). Adam was created in the singular knowledge of God’s will (indwelt by the Spirit), but his fall into the knowledge of good and evil brought “law.”
- Further reading: McGowan, “In Defence of ‘Headship Theology,’” in The God of Covenant, ed. Jamie Grant and Alistair Wilson (Apollos, 2005), 178-199.
- Who is he? Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Best known for his book Far as the Curse Is Found, an introduction to covenant theology.
- What does he say? Like Robertson, he prefers the term “covenant of creation” and emphasizes its general aspect (Adam as vice-regent for all creation). Unlike Robertson, he ascribes a much less prominent role to its focal aspect, questioning the existence of a garden probation. Grace, blessing, and life take precedence over law. In the covenant of creation, law-keeping serves the purpose of nurturing prior relationship, but it does not merit further reward—relationship is the reward. Affirms Adam’s federal headship.
- Further reading: Williams, “Adam and Merit,” Presbyterion 35/2 (Fall 2009): 87-94.
This week Dr. R. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California wrote a post on the exegesis of Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” He gives an overview of the verse’s literary context and describes its “magisterial Protestant interpretation,” quoting Calvin himself as an example of this supposed historic consensus.
The upshot of Clark’s interpretation is this: when Paul says that the “doers of the law” will be justified, he is actually referring to an empty set. Hypothetically, one could gain justification by perfect, sinless law-keeping, but since no one is sinless, this verse is merely intended to present the law’s impossible standard, which drives readers to despair and trust in the gospel alone for their justification. In other words, there are no “doers of the law” except Christ. Clark contrasts his own interpretation with that of Norman Shepherd’s, who taught justification “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness.”
Reading his post, one would get the impression that only two alternatives are available: either you side with Clark, or you side with Shepherd. And if you side with Shepherd, you sacrifice Protestantism’s fundamental distinction between law and gospel (for my own thoughts on the law/gospel distinction, see my post here). However, I would suggest that these aren’t the only two options open to us. And not only that, but Clark’s own interpretation—though amply attested in the Reformation tradition—was not as monolithic among early Reformed interpreters as he suggests.
In Justification: Five Views (IVP, 2011), Michael Bird presents a “third way” of reading this text. Along with an increasing number of scholars, he suggests that this verse refers to Gentile Christians, who fulfill the requirements of the law by walking according to the Spirit (p. 142; cf. Rom. 8:3-4). Whether such law-obedience constitutes the basis of a future justification (as N.T. Wright argues—mistakenly, in my opinion) or merely its evidence (but see Bill Evans’ comments here), the point is that we do not need to read the phrase “doers of the law” as an empty set, and we don’t need to import artificial categories like hypothetical works-righteousness.
Bird’s position is labeled the “Progressive Reformed” view, to which Michael Horton responds with his own “Traditional Reformed” view. To be sure, Horton agrees with Clark’s reading of Romans 2:13. But Horton admits, “Even so, I’m open to Bird’s interpretation, and his distinction between a judgment according to (kata) works rather than through, much less on account of (dia/ek) works is well attested in classic Reformed treatments” (p. 159). Although Horton does not specify which classic Reformed treatments he has in mind, he is likely referring to Samuel Rutherford, one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. In his famous treatise against antinomianism entitled The Spiritual Antichrist, Rutherford writes, “Holy walking is a way to heaven… and Christ maketh a promise of life eternal to him that doth his Commandments.” (2:37-38). In his exegesis of Romans 2, Rutherford argues that works, though not the condition of our justification, are nevertheless required of those who are saved (2:40).
So it turns out that there might be “doers of the law” after all. And I don’t think this confuses law and gospel. Rather, I believe that the proper way of understanding the law/gospel distinction (which Clark rightly argues is Protestant, not merely Lutheran) is not as a distinction between two valid ways of justification—one hypothetical and one actual—but between an invalid way and a valid way. The law was never intended as a means of justification. As Paul himself writes, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). The law does indeed promise life, and it gives it to those who obey it (which we can actually do, by the Spirit’s power). But the “life” promised by the law is not forensic justification, but rather the abundant life of blessing for God’s children. This is what Moses meant when he wrote, “The one who does these things shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5).
How does God order history?
|History is divided into dispensations, and God deals with humans differently in each dispensation.||History is divided into covenants (with Abraham, David, etc.), and each covenant builds on the previous ones.|
How many peoples does God have?
|Two peoples: Jewish Israel and the Christian church.||One people: the Christian church today is the true Israel.|
Who receives God’s promises?
|Jews (even if they don’t believe in Jesus) receive God’s physical promises, including the land of Israel in the Middle East. Christians receive the spiritual promises of salvation.||Only those who believe in Jesus receive the promises of God, and these promises are physical and spiritual. One day, believers will inherit the whole earth. But Jews who deny Christ have forfeited the promises of God.|
Who is the Old Testament for?
|It is for Jews, whose laws and promises are different from those of the Christian church.||It is for Christians, who receive the laws and promises of Israel, but these laws and promises are understood and applied differently in light of their fulfillment in Christ.|
What about the modern nation-state of Israel?
|The modern nation-state of Israel is protected by God and will fulfill biblical prophecies.||Modern Israel has the same rights as any other nation, but it is not directly fulfilling biblical prophecies today.|
What about the biblical prophesies about the Jewish temple, like Matthew 24?
|The Jewish temple will be rebuilt in Jerusalem before Jesus returns.||The prophecies about the temple were fulfilled in AD 70, when the Romans destroyed it.|
Who is the Antichrist?
|He is a future leader who will deceive the world and persecute believers for 7 years.||He is a figure of every false teacher in history who tries to deceive the church. He is sometimes distinguished from the “Beast” of Revelation, who represents every political leader who persecutes the church.*|
What is the Rapture?
|The Rapture is the “secret” return of Christ to rescue believers from the earth before the 7-year tribulation. After that, Christ will come again.||The Rapture is no different from the Second Coming. Believers will not be taken away from the earth, but will rule on earth with Christ.|
What is the Millennium?
|The Millennium will be when Jesus returns and rules on earth for 1,000 years before the final judgment.||The Millennium represents the entire time between the Resurrection of Jesus and his Second Coming. We are living in it now, as we witness the expansion of God’s kingdom across the world when we preach the gospel.**|
Who are leading advocates of this view today?
|David Jeremiah, Tim LaHaye, Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock||R.C. Sproul, Michael Williams, Michael Horton, Vern Poythress|
*There are actually a variety of views on the Antichrist among advocates of covenant theology. Some believe that there will still be a future individual who will oppose the church just before the Second Coming.
**Some advocates of covenant theology believe in a future millennium. Their position is generally called “historic” premillennialism, as opposed to dispensational premillennialism.
Run, John, run, the law commands
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
—(probably) John Berridge, 18th century
I first heard this poem during my first semester in seminary. Since then, I’ve heard it repeated in sermons, books, and blogs. It’s usually seen as a pithy description of the proper relationship between Law and Gospel. Now in some respects, I like it. For one, it reveals the lofty demands of the Gospel—notice how it says that the Gospel bids us to “fly” rather than merely “run.” This goes counter to some theologians who claim that the Gospel is all about believing and not obeying. But biblically speaking, the Gospel does demand obedience—see 2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17 (in other words, the Law/Gospel distinction is not the same as a faith/works distinction).
What I don’t like about this poem, however, is how it seems to turn the Law into an inferior revelation of God. This is evident in two respects: 1) it demands less of us (running, not flying), and 2) it does not empower us to carry out its demands (gives us neither feet nor hands).
Regarding point 1, this is a simplistic understanding of Law, and not in keeping with biblical usage of the term. The Law most certainly does demand much of us. According to Jesus, the two greatest commandments of the Law are to love God with our whole being (Deut. 6:5) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18; see Matt. 22:36-40). Can the bar really get any higher than that?
Regarding point 2, there is a sense in which this is true, but it’s not the whole story. The apostle Paul says: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:3-4)
So there is something that the Law cannot do: it can’t justify us. In our unbelieving, unregenerate state, we cannot earn a right standing before God through the Law. But for those of us who do believe, the Law is most certainly a life-giving guide and a goal to which we can aspire by the empowering grace of God’s Spirit. In this sense, it can help sanctify us. The psalmist prays to the Lord, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Ps. 119:93; cf. 19:7; 119:156). If we are in Christ, the law is life.
That’s what I don’t like about the Law/Gospel distinction. It’s valid for our justification, but not our sanctification. I fear that many Christians turn the preaching of Law and Gospel into a “good cop/bad cop” routine—the Law tears us down, so the Gospel can build us up. The Law brings judgment and condemnation, while the Gospel brings comfort and protection. But this way of understanding it focuses too much on the negative use of the Law. At its worst, it fosters a dismissive and antinomian attitude toward the Law—“I can’t keep the Law, but Jesus kept it for me, so I don’t have to.” To be sure, we need to remember that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet complete. The law still exposes sin, and we can never outgrow our need for the cross. Nevertheless, believers should strive to see in the Law the positive end for which it was originally intended—the promotion of holiness. We need to appreciate the continuing value of the Law as our heavenly Father’s instruction to us, intended to lead us into the fullness of life and blessing.
 OT scholar Gordon Wenham distinguishes between law as “floor” and ethics as “ceiling.” Law/floor is concerned with the minimum enforceable requirements that allow a society to function (e.g., do not murder), whereas ethics/ceiling is concerned with the ideal attitudes and values toward which we should aspire (e.g., do not harbor resentment). I think it is more appropriate to speak of law as both floor and ceiling, depending on the context. See Wenham, Story as Torah (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 79-107.
 NT scholar Thomas Schreiner, who rejects John Calvin’s third use of the law (as a guide for believers), stumbles on this text, even though he acknowledges that its direct application here is only for believers. He thinks that the Law brings life only in an indirect sense, as it convicts believers and causes us to rely on the grace of God. But for the psalmist, the law is grace (119:29—lit. “grace me your law”). See Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law (Kregel, 2010), 85-87.
(Note: I originally presented the following paper in January 2013 for the second annual meeting of the Theological Fellowship at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.)
One of the ongoing debates within the evangelical world centers on the question of infant baptism—that is, should we baptize professing believers only, or should we baptize both believers and their children? As both sides of the debate agree, there is no explicit command in Scripture for one practice or the other, so it is generally believed that the matter must be settled indirectly, by determining the role that baptism plays within broader theological frameworks. This morning I’m going to survey various attempts to situate baptism within the context of the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is a recurring theme in Scripture. In the OT, it’s mentioned explicitly only once, in Jeremiah 31. According to this passage, which is found in the context of Judah’s promised return from Babylonian exile, the Lord makes a “new covenant” with the houses of Israel and Judah. This covenant is unlike the old covenant that their forefathers had broken; it leads to the internalization of God’s law and to the full forgiveness of sin. We could also connect Jeremiah 31 with the restoration prophecies in Deuteronomy 30 and Ezekiel 36. While these prophecies do not explicitly refer to a New Covenant, they do share the underlying idea that the Lord himself will deal directly with the problem that had necessitated Israel’s punishment by exile in the first place. Since the problem was Israel’s heart, God would intervene to change their heart. In the NT, the phrase “new covenant” is found in several places, including Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11, 2 Corinthians 3, and Hebrews 8, 9, 12. These passages variously tie the New Covenant to the Lord’s Supper, to a ministry of the Spirit rather than the letter, to Christ’s mediation and sacrificial death, and to better, eternal promises.
Now there is no passage of Scripture that explicitly ties the New Covenant either to the practice of baptism or to the children of believers. Connecting these three concepts must therefore be done inductively, based on inferences from the biblical text. In this paper, I will present and evaluate three different views on the relationship between the New Covenant, baptism, and believers’ children. These three views are not exhaustive of Christian views on baptism; rather, they represent three different perspectives from within the Calvinistic tradition. In the order that I am presenting them, they are the Progressive Covenantal view, the Augustinian view, and the Traditional Reformed view. The first view opposes infant baptism, while the second two support it. I will personally land between the Augustinian view and the Traditional Reformed view.
The Progressive Covenantal View
I begin with the Progressive Covenantal view. This position, which is gaining popularity among Reformed Baptists, is described primarily in two works—first, in Believers’ Baptism, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2007), and most recently in Kingdom through Covenant, by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). This second work seeks to take a middle ground between traditional Covenant Theology and dispensationalism; hence the name “Progressive Covenantalism.”
The essence of Progressive Covenantalism is that the New Covenant signifies a visible community consisting of spiritually regenerate believers only. Or in Wellum’s words, “All those within the ‘new covenant community’ are, by definition, people who presently have experienced regeneration of heart and the full forgiveness of sin.” So unlike OT Israel, God’s people are no longer understood as a mixed entity of believers and unbelievers, but now every covenant member has a saving knowledge of the Lord. Progressive Covenantalists likewise understand the New Testament church as a heavenly and spiritual entity whose members are “in Christ,” but no spiritually unregenerate person can ever be united to Christ. Therefore, since baptism signifies union with Christ and New Covenant membership, Progressive Covenantalists argue that it should only be applied to those who show evidence of spiritual regeneration—that is, professing believers. You will notice then a significant implication of Progressive Covenantalism: it collapses the traditional distinction between the visible and invisible church—that is, the distinction between the visible community of God’s people and those within the community who are eternally elect.
Now in my opinion, Progressive Covenantalism has three significant problems. First, we cannot baptize individuals on the basis of their status as eternally elect—a status which is unknowable to us. Rather, we could at best only baptize them on the basis of their profession of faith, which may or may not be genuine. This fact alone makes the visible/invisible church distinction inescapable. Second, Jeremiah 32:39 declares that the New Covenant is for the good of both Israel and their children after them. The problem, as Jeremiah saw it, was not the presence of children in the covenant, but rather apostates. And third, Progressive Covenantalism cannot adequately account for the existence of covenant breakers within the church, such as we find in the NT warning and apostasy passages. Holding to the Calvinist doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, Progressive Covenantalists teach that it is impossible for those who are spiritually regenerate to lose their salvation. So if the New Covenant community is restricted to only those who are spiritually regenerate, then the New Covenant is by definition unbreakable. And yet Hebrews 6:4-5 says that there are individuals in the church who “have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” but who nevertheless fall away. Further, according to Hebrews 10:29, such an apostate has “profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” How do Progressive Covenantalists deal with such passages? They say that these verses only present a hypothetical scenario by which the author intends to spur his readers toward perseverance in their faith. In other words, the threat is merely fictitious. But this sounds like special pleading to me. A natural reading of these warning passages strongly suggests that covenant members can and do fall away. I am convinced that another approach is needed.
The Augustinian View
This brings us to the second view, which may be called Augustinianism, after its most famous defender in church history, Saint Augustine of Hippo. In more recent years, it has been supported by J. Oliver Buswell, Robert Rayburn and our own Dr. Jack Collins. One of the most extensive treatments of this view is found in Joshua Moon’s recent publication, Jeremiah’s New Covenant (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010).
To understand the Augustinian view, one must understand the difference between the objective administration of the covenant and the subjective appropriation of it. “Objective” refers to the various external structures, ceremonies, and sacraments that regulate the community of God’s people. “Subjective” refers to those individuals within the community who have embraced the covenant from the heart, clinging to its promises by faith—again, think visible and invisible church. Further, the objective side of the covenant may change progressively over time, as we see with the adding of circumcision, then the priesthood, then the monarchy, and so forth. But the subjective side remains the same throughout history; OT saints were saved in the same way that we are today. The Augustinian view teaches that the New Covenant refers to this subjective aspect of the covenant, not the objective aspect. This means that the New Covenant is not a redemptive-historical development of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. Instead, one could say that Abraham, Moses, and David were themselves members of the New Covenant. And conversely, “old covenant” does not refer to a bygone era in redemptive history, but rather to individuals whose standing in the covenant is merely external. So similar to the Progressive Covenantal view, the Augustinian view also restricts the New Covenant to those who are spiritually regenerate. But the difference is that the Augustinian view still maintains a visible/invisible church distinction. The old and new covenants—faithless fakers and true believers—exist side-by-side within the covenant community throughout all ages, until the Eschaton.
Now with respect to baptism, Augustinians understand it to be an objective ordinance of the visible church. It may signify the spiritual realities of the New Covenant in a sacramental sense, but it does not automatically guarantee one’s status as a regenerate participant of the New Covenant. Therefore, Augustinians have no problem applying the rite of baptism to believers’ children.
Now in my opinion, the Augustinian view has a lot to commend itself, especially with respect to the OT data. First, it accounts for the close literary connection between Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy and Israel’s restoration from Babylonian exile. Second, it can take at face value the subjective aspects of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy. And third, the Augustinian view can make sense of the fact that we see New Covenant realities expressed in the lives of certain pre-exilic saints. For example, in Jeremiah 31:33, the Lord prophesies, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” But in Psalm 40:8, King David can also pray to the Lord, “Your law is within my heart.” Similarly, Deuteronomy 30:6 says of the returning Jewish exiles, “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart… so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” But 2 Kings 23:25 says that King Josiah, who reigned before the exile, “turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul.” So it seems hard to deny that subjective aspects of the New Covenant existed well before the Christian era. But the chief weakness of the Augustinian view, as I see it, is its difficulty in handling the NT data [see treatment below].
The Traditional Reformed View
This brings us to the third and final view, which I call the Traditional Reformed view. This position has been described in a number of works, including Richard Pratt’s essay, “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” and Far as the Curse Is Found by our own Dr. Mike Williams (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005). According to the Traditional Reformed view, the New Covenant brings with it sweeping changes to the administration of the covenant. In fact, nearly all that distinguishes the NT church from OT Israel may be subsumed under the heading of the New Covenant. The arrival of the Messiah—New Covenant. The outpouring of the Spirit—New Covenant. The institution of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—New Covenant. However, for all the changes that the New Covenant brings, certain things remain the same. Just as the children of Israelites were included in the old covenant, so also the children of believers are included in the New Covenant. The New Covenant does not further restrict covenant membership, but rather expands it, so as now to include even the Gentiles. And since baptism is understood to signify membership in the New Covenant, it may also be applied to infant covenant members.
The NT evidence in support of the Traditional Reformed view seems to be pretty substantial. When Christ institutes the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22, he calls it the New Covenant in his blood. Now an Augustinian would interpret this statement sacramentally, in the sense that the Lord’s Supper is a physical sign of the spiritual reality of regeneration. Now I agree that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, but is that all that Christ means in calling it the New Covenant? After all, in the OT, circumcision and the Passover were likewise sacraments, but would we say that they too constituted the New Covenant? In addition, Christ is called the mediator of the New Covenant in Hebrews 8, 9. But he did not assume his mediatorial role until after he had accomplished his work of atonement. Pre-incarnate Christ was not a covenant mediator. So either we have to say that the New Covenant existed unmediated prior to the Incarnation, or we acknowledge that in some sense the New Covenant was inaugurated by the mediation of Christ. The latter sounds more plausible to me.
In conclusion, it might be helpful to frame this whole discussion in the context of the two Latin theological terms, ordo salutis and historia salutis. Ordo salutis, meaning “order of salvation,” refers to that “golden chain,” the personal experience of salvation that leads an individual from regeneration, to faith, to justification, to sanctification, to glorification. By contrast, historia salutis, meaning “history of salvation,” refers to God’s dealings with humanity in general throughout the course of world events. The three views we’ve examined this morning all relate the New Covenant to these two concepts in different ways. The Traditional Reformed view sees the New Covenant as a matter of historia salutis; the Augustinian view sees it as a matter of ordo salutis; and the Progressive Covenantalists want to have their cake and eat it too.
Now as I said previously, I personally think the truth lies somewhere between the Traditional Reformed view and the Augustinian view. It seems to me that Scripture does not use the term “New Covenant” univocally, with the same meaning in every passage. In some places, such as Jeremiah 31, the emphasis appears to be on the subjective side. But in other places, such as Hebrews 8, 9, the emphasis appears to be on the objective side. I do not think that these emphases are mutually exclusive; rather, they are complementary. The physical signs of the New Covenant administration are meant to point to the spiritual realities of a New Covenant relationship. Now you might ask me if I’m not trying to have my cake and eat it too. My response is yes, but not in the same way as Progressive Covenantalism. I do think that the New Covenant can be understood as both objective-visible-historia on the one hand, and as subjective-invisible-ordo on the other. But I also think that a distinction between these two categories needs to be maintained, at least until the church militant becomes the church triumphant. So I’m trying to integrate the strengths of each position. This in turn will have very practical implications, not least of which is addressing the question, should believers baptize their children? And in my personal opinion, the answer to that question is yes. If believers’ children are covenant members, and if baptism is for covenant members, then baptism is for believers’ children.
Appendix: Anticipated Objections from the OT to the Augustinian View
While I believe that the OT evidence generally favors an Augustinian reading, there are two potential objections from the OT that need to be addressed. First, I mentioned how Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy corresponds to the restoration prophecy in Ezekiel 36. In that passage, God promises to put his Spirit within his people, so that they will obey his commands. A similar idea is echoed in the prophecy of Joel 2, where God promises to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, so that men and women will prophesy and have visions. The apostle Peter quotes this very passage in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, inaugurating a new era in redemptive history. This would then tie the New Covenant to the Christian era. So this objection reasons from Jeremiah 31 to Ezekiel 36 to Joel 2 to Acts 2. The weakest link in this chain is the connection between Ezekiel 36 and Joel 2; they might refer to two different workings of the Spirit, the former being regeneration for the purpose of obedience, and the latter being outpouring for the purpose of supernatural gifts. This would then exclude Joel 2 from the category of New Covenant prophecy. This appears to be supported by Ezekiel 37, the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. In v.14, the Lord says, “I will put my Spirit within you… and I will place you in your own land.” For Ezekiel, the Spirit’s activity is directly connected with the return from exile, not Pentecost.
The second possible objection is based on Jeremiah 31:34, where the Lord declares, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” One might see in this statement a reference to the cross, where the true forgiveness of sin was actually accomplished. After all, the book of Hebrews tells us that the blood of goats and bulls could never take away sins (10:4), and Romans tells us that God had passed over former sins until he put forth his own Son as a propitiatory sacrifice (3:25). In this regard, OT sacrifices were merely “IOU’s” or “promissory notes” that had no inherent power to forgive. So if Jeremiah 31 is talking about forgiveness actually accomplished, one may argue that it is a messianic prophecy. However, I think it may help to distinguish between the subjective and objective conditions for forgiveness. On the subjective side, forgiveness requires repentance. On the objective side, forgiveness requires an atoning sacrifice. It seems to me that Jeremiah’s prophecy is concerned with the subjective side. I don’t see in Jeremiah any hint that something was fundamentally wrong with the OT sacrificial system per se. Although in retrospect we as Christians can say that the cross achieved our forgiveness, it is doubtful that that’s what Jeremiah had in mind.
 Kingdom through Covenant, 64f.
 Ibid., 72f, 691.
 Wellum says that this is “merely a human epistemological problem,” but that we should still do our best to baptize only when we see evidence of regeneration (Kingdom through Covenant, 693). But this turns baptism into nothing more than a mark of our best guess, which nullifies any real efficacy to it and any material connection to the covenant (a point which Wellum would probably not deny). In fact, by spiritualizing the church, it undermines any material reality to the covenant whatsoever, even calling into question our ability to call a particular community of professing believers a church. This has the unintended effect of creating a dualistic split, elevating the spiritual at the expense of the physical. Does this really fit the NT picture of the church?
 Believer’s Baptism, 3-5.
 In The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003).
 C. John Collins, “The New Covenant and Redemptive History” (unpublished essay, 2012), 16.
 At the same time, proponents of the Traditional Reformed view must still account for the subjective language used in Jeremiah 31 and the parallel restoration prophecies in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. Taken together, these prophecies form a picture of a people with transformed hearts and an unmediated knowledge of God and of his law. Surely, such language goes well beyond the realities we experience even today in the Christian church. After all, we are still a mixed company of regenerate and unregenerate. And even the most sanctified ones among us still need to hear instruction in God’s Word. So how does the Traditional Reformed view deal with this interpretive difficulty? Richard Pratt appeals to the concept of inaugurated eschatology—the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Many of the New Covenant promises have already come to fulfillment, but many others still await Christ’s return. It will not be until the Eschaton that we finally see the complete merger of the visible church and the invisible church. Pratt, 168. See also Williams, 215-216.
 So Williams, 216-217.
 Williams acknowledges that the problem as Jeremiah saw it was not the Mosaic Covenant per se, but rather Israel’s failure to keep it. Ibid., 210.
 For both objections, a connection to the Christian era may still be established typologically, with the return from exile setting a pattern that finds a heightened fulfillment at Calvary and Pentecost. Such a reading would respect the integrity of the prophecies in their original OT context.
(This is a follow-up to a previous post of mine: How Should Christians Apply Old Testament Laws?)
I suspect that for the majority of people who come across this blog, whether Christian or non-Christian, this is an obvious question. Most would consider it beyond dispute that stoning adulterers—and more generally, treating private sins as capital crimes—is barbaric and inhumane. In fact, they would argue, that point should be so self-evident to any rational person that even raising the question is deeply offensive. After all, we’re not the Taliban. But the instinctive hostility that most people feel toward this practice faces one major problem: it’s biblical. Leviticus 20:10 reads, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” So how can we call this practice barbaric and inhumane, without also saying the same thing of the God who commanded it?
Christians have had different ways of dealing with this difficulty. At one end of the spectrum are dispensationalists,¹ who argue that Old Testament law applied only to ancient Israel. They say that trying to appropriate Israel’s laws for ourselves is a lot like “reading other people’s mail.” Therefore, what may have been appropriate for Israel might nevertheless be unconscionable for us today. But this view is problematic for a number of reasons. First, we Christians believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So we should expect the OT to reflect his unchanging moral character just as much as the NT. Second, Jesus himself says that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matt. 5:17-19). And third, it proves too much. There are many other Old Testament laws given to ancient Israel that do clearly apply to us today, like the commands to love God (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-40) and to love our neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 13:8-10). The NT goes even further in saying that all Scripture (here meaning the OT) is meant for our instruction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-6). So the question we need to ask is not whether Old Testament civil laws apply to us (they do), but how.
At the other end of the spectrum are theonomists (theos = God, and nomos = law),² who advocate a direct application of nearly all OT laws (penalties included) to modern civil society. Now theonomists generally acknowledge some degree of cultural conditionality in these laws, but for the most part their operating principle is, “Every OT law directly applies to us today, unless the NT explicitly repeals or modifies it.”³ And although most theonomists believe that this process should happen gradually only as a culture becomes increasingly Christianized, their end goal is to see all the nations of the world governed by the law of Moses.
Now in my opinion, there is a lot that theonomists get right. First, they rightly affirm the continuity of the OT and the NT. Second, they rightly affirm the lordship of Christ over all the nations of the earth. And third (and this is tied to the second), they rightly reject a split between the sacred and secular realms. So in general, I am much more sympathetic to theonomy than dispensationalism.
With that said, I want to explain why I am not a theonomist.4 Since a comprehensive critique would get pretty lengthy for a single blog post, I’ll limit myself to two basic points. Negatively, I will attempt to make a brief case for why, in general, we should not directly apply OT penal laws to civil society today. Positively, I will offer some suggestions for how we should determine particular laws and penalties today.
Now I should point out here that the OT never explicitly states that Israel’s civil laws should be directly applied to Gentile nations.5 Then again, it never explicitly states that they shouldn’t be either. Therefore, any argument one way or the other will depend on one’s prior hermeneutical framework and inferences from the biblical texts (much like the issue of infant vs. believer baptism). Further, considering the particular perspective6 from which one approaches the evidence will go a long way in determining who really bears the burden of proof. Theonomists tend to emphasize a normative perspective, focusing on the universal character of God’s laws. But in my opinion, they neglect the situational perspective, which takes into consideration Israel’s unique cultural and historical position, as well as their unique covenantal status before God.
Taking into account Israel’s unique covenantal status is especially important when considering the nature of OT penalties. The Mosaic law is frequently couched in the language of covenantal privilege and responsibility. Consider, for example, Leviticus 11:45: “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” With great privilege comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes greater punishment for transgression. That is why God says to Israel in Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The sanctity of Israel was paramount in her mission—more so than for any other nation, then or now. No other nation is covenantally bound to God like Israel was.7
This, I believe, is precisely why penalties were so severe for those crimes that demonstrated covenant infidelity, such as adultery (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10), idolatry (Deut. 13), and rebellion against parents (Deut. 21:18-21; according to Wright, the family was the primary unit in which the covenant relationship was preserved and experienced).8 On the other hand, the death penalty for murder had a different basis; it was rooted not in the Mosaic covenant, but rather in the more universal Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:5-6). And the reason here for the death penalty had nothing to do with Noah’s unique covenantal standing (a privilege enjoyed only later by Abraham and his offspring), but rather with the fact that humans are made in God’s image. For these reasons, I believe that a case can be made for the continuing validity of capital punishment for murder and related crimes, but not for covenant infidelity.
I also believe that theonomists fail to account for the typological character of OT penal laws (this is one of the main points of Poythress’s book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses). These laws served as symbols and shadows pointing to a reality that was fulfilled in the finished work of Christ. Like the tabernacle, sacrifices, and ceremonial purity laws, we can say that the OT penal laws were intended to point us to the greater destruction of sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fullest expression of God’s justice is therefore found not in the OT laws themselves, but rather in the person and work of Christ. The OT laws certainly reveal God’s justice, but only in a subsidiary sense, as they point us to Christ. This Christological orientation of OT penalties means that we should not necessarily expect a direct, one-to-one correspondence with our situation today.
So if we can’t base our penalties today directly on the Mosaic law, then how should we determine the appropriate penalties? And how far should our legislation go? Should it also encompass so-called “private” and “moral” offenses? Here I can only give some preliminary considerations. For one, I am rather skeptical of the libertarian principle: “Persons should be free to harm themselves and consenting associates … as long as they do not harm others or infringe on their rights.”9 Theonomist Greg Bahnsen rightly points out that this principle is ambiguous, arbitrary, inconsistently applied, and (above all) not biblically derived.10 I would also add to Bahnsen’s objections the fact that adultery, for example, most certainly does cause harm to, and infringe on the marital rights of, the betrayed spouse. As a consequence, I would at a minimum reject the notion of “no fault” divorce laws.
Beyond that, different kinds of offenses need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As I mentioned above, we should expect the severity of penalties to be different outside a covenantal context such as Israel’s.11 So instead we need to take into account the kind and degree of harm caused by the offense. And we need to ask questions like, what will be the effects of imposing such-and-such penalties on such-and-such offenses? Conversely, what would be the consequences of not imposing such penalties? And what kind of values should our laws seek to foster within a society?
I’ll conclude by highlighting some of the insights that we should draw from theonomists. For one, they rightly point out the fact that our current judicial and penal system is seriously broken. The U.S. currently has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, at about 743 adults per 100,000. This is combined with a very high rate of recidivism (re-arrest/imprisonment after release). By contrast, there is no OT precedent for incarceration as a form of penalty. Instead, penalties took the form of corporal punishment (Deut. 25:1-3), exile (19:1-10), and restitution (Ex. 22:1). It is worth considering whether such penalties would be a viable alternative to our current system. We should also ask what it might look like to have an entire community directly involved in the execution of a criminal, as was the case with Israel. At the end of the day, we may find that some of our emotional reactions about these issues derive more from cultural prejudices than from biblical authority.
Postscript: if you’re a Christian, I’d discourage you from appealing to John 8 (the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery) in discussions on theonomy. In all likelihood, this is a spurious text; it’s not found in the earliest manuscripts of John, and it differs in style and vocabulary from the rest of John’s gospel.
1 Dispensationalism stresses the discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments, by relegating the former to an obsolete “dispensation” of God’s dealings with humanity. Leading representatives have included John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer.
2 Theonomy is also variously referred to as Christian Reconstructionism and Dominion Theology. Leading representatives have included R.J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary DeMar, among others. While certain theonomists have also called for rather particular civil reforms—such as a return to the gold standard or a radical commitment to laissez-faire capitalism—these points are more peripheral. I would consider any position to be broadly theonomistic which advocates the (more or less) direct application of OT penalties to modern society.
3 The Westminster Confession of Faith distinguishes three categories of law: moral, civil, and ceremonial (XIX). It further states that while the moral law continues unchanged today, the civil and ceremonial laws have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. Theonomists instead argue that only the ceremonial laws have been abrogated, while both the moral and civil laws continue. This description is helpful though somewhat simplistic, since the OT itself does not categorize its laws in so neat a fashion.
4 I am indebted to a number of sources for my critique. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), Appendix B (available free here online); Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 403-408.; Gary Scott Smith, editor, God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1989).
5 Theonomists might point to proof-texts such as Deut. 4:6-8; Isa. 2:3; Mic. 4:2. However, with respect do Deut. 4, Poythress points out how the perspective one adopts informs what one notices in this passage (Poythress, Appendix B, Part 2). When the Gentile nations look in envy at Israel and her laws, do they desire to adopt Israel’s laws wholesale for themselves (normative perspective), or rather to enjoy the same unique covenantal standing with Israel’s God (situational perspective)? And with respect to Isa. 2 and Mic. 4, we cannot automatically assume that these prophetic texts speak of the Mosaic law extending to the Gentiles in every respect and without modification.
6 Here I am indebted to John Frame’s theory of multi-perspectivalism. A brief primer to this theory can be found online here. For a more in-depth treatment, see Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987).
7 Historians and Bible scholars have described Israel’s unique covenantal status as a “theocracy” or “church-state nexus” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.17; C. John Collins, “A Study Guide for the Old Testament Prophetical Books,” [Covenant Theological Seminary, 2008], 96). In a sense, theonomists believe that the entire world is on its way to becoming a theocracy. Eschatologically speaking, this is true. But that does not mean that nations today (even Christian-majority ones) can become specially, covenantally bound to God before the arrival of the New Jerusalem.
8 Wright, 407.
9 Ronald Sider, “An Evangelical Vision for Public Policy,” Transformation 2.3 (Jul-Sep 1985), 6.
10 God and Politics, 43.
11 Technically, no one exists outside a covenantal context. Our very humanity binds us to God in a covenantal relationship. That is why I have consistently attempted to speak of Israel’s “special” or “unique” covenantal status throughout this post.
What’s the problem?
Old Testament laws are tricky for Christians. On the one hand, some OT commandments sound fairly sensible to us—love God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5), love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), don’t murder (Exodus 20:13), and so forth. On the other hand, many OT commandments sound pretty weird—what’s so bad about boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), or about trimming your sideburns (Leviticus 19:27)? And other OT laws sound downright cruel—is it fair for a slaveholder to get away with murdering his slave, just because the slave happens to survive a couple days (Exodus 21:20-21)? Or isn’t it sexist for a woman to become ritually unclean for twice as long when she gives birth to a girl as when she gives birth to a boy (Leviticus 12:2-5)? As appalling as many of these laws may sound to us, we need to confess the truth, beauty and goodness of all of God’s Word. Therefore, we need a way of interpreting OT laws that doesn’t simply reduce to cherry-picking what sounds convenient to us. But how do we do this?
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the New Testament also seems to give a mixed picture of OT laws. On the one hand, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:17-19). On the other hand, there are several OT laws that seem to have been done away with in the NT, such as the kosher food laws (Mark 7:19), sacrifices (Hebrews 7:26-27), and circumcision (Acts 15). And then there’s the apostle Paul, who says both that Christ is the “end of the law” for believers (Romans 10:4) and also that Christians must fulfill the commandments of the law (Romans 13:8-10). If it is true that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), then there has to be a way of reconciling all of these seemingly conflicting statements.
The law’s place in the story of salvation
To understand how Christians should apply the OT laws, we need to read the Bible as an unfolding story. It’s a story of how the world, though created good by God (Genesis 1-2), was corrupted by humanity’s rebellion (Genesis 3; Romans 8:18-23), and is now being redeemed by God’s grace. And this plan of redemption develops in stages—first God gives a promise of redemption (Genesis 3:15), and then he selects one man, Abraham, to be the vehicle of blessing to the rest of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham’s descendants become the nation of Israel, with whom God makes a covenant at Mount Sinai after delivering them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 24:7-8). It is important to remember where Israel is at in the story when the law is given to them—they are an infant nation, wandering in the wilderness, surrounded by pagan neighbors and in need of divine instruction. The law is therefore only the beginning of God’s revelation to his people, and is further developed and clarified as the history of redemption unfolds.
When God gave the Israelites the law, it served several purposes. First, it served to show God’s own holy and loving character, which his people are supposed to reflect (Leviticus 19:2). Second, it served to show the people their sin and need for God’s mercy (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). Third, it separated them from their pagan Gentile neighbors, whose practices had become an abomination to the Lord (Leviticus 18:3,27). Fourth, it established an elaborate priestly and sacrificial system (Leviticus 1-10)—the priesthood showed the people their need for an intermediary to approach God, while the sacrifices pointed to their need for a means of atonement to remove their sins. And fifth, the law enabled Israel to fulfill its unique historical role as a theocracy, where church and state were joined together in a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:6).
The NT also sheds some light on the role that OT laws played. In a discussion on divorce, Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses permitted the Israelites to divorce on more relaxed grounds because of their “hardness of heart,” but that was not a part of God’s intention from creation (Matthew 19:8). God was willing to make certain concessions for Israel in light of their stubbornness, in order to set a minimum level of civility. But these laws were not the ideal, and they anticipated the revelation of a greater righteousness in Jesus. Likewise, Paul says that the law served as a “guardian” (or even a babysitter!), restraining Israel’s sin until Christ would come and deal definitively with sin (Galatians 3:19-26).
With the coming of Christ, the OT reaches the goal toward which it was heading. We now enter into a new act of the unfolding story, which brings both continuity and change with respect to the law. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he quotes from the OT: love God, and then love your neighbor (Matthew 22:35-40). This doesn’t change for Christians. But with Jesus’ death and resurrection, several things do change. First, his atoning death is accepted by God as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf (Hebrews 9:26). The OT sacrifices were necessary for their time, but they were merely an imperfect shadow, pointing to the reality that Christians now possess in Jesus. Second, the boundaries of God’s people have expanded to include all the nations of the earth, so that now there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28). Christians have differing views about what exactly happens to ethnic Israel after Jesus (does the church somehow replace Israel, or do the promises to Israel continue?), but almost all agree that the church does not play the role of a theocracy like OT Israel did.
Asking the right questions
So where does all of that leave us in relation to the OT laws? Many Christians are quick to jump to the personal application question—“How does this or that OT law apply to me?” But to do this is to fail to see the primary purpose of the law, which is to shape our understanding of God’s own holy character and of ourselves as beings created in God’s image, marred by our own rebellion, and restored by God’s grace. Therefore, when we approach any given OT law, we should begin by first asking these questions:
- What does this law tell me about God’s holy and righteous character?
- What does this law tell me about my own sin and need for redemption?
- What does this law tell me about my relationship and responsibility to my neighbors? To other believers? To unbelievers?
- What does this law tell me about how the world works?
- If this law reflects a different cultural/historical setting, what general principle can I derive from it that can bridge the gap to my own cultural/historical setting?
Asking these questions first will help give us the proper mindset as we then come to wrestle with matters of concrete application. We need to keep in mind that all of the OT is God’s Word, and therefore all OT laws have authority, value, and significance. But the question we as Christians need to ask is, how do these laws apply to us in light of the fact that Jesus has come? This isn’t always easy to answer, but as a general rule, most OT laws give us direct guidance on how we should live, EXCEPT:
- Those laws that served to distinguish Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, kosher food laws, etc. Now that Christ has come, he has created a new and unified people by tearing down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14-16).1
- Those laws that established the priestly/sacrificial system. With Jesus as our great High Priest and perfect sacrifice, we no longer need to rely on the types and shadows of the OT ceremonies.
- Those laws that established Israel’s role as a theocracy. It is not the church’s job to bear the sword to punish sin, but rather to proclaim God’s Word faithfully and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19). That is why, for example, we don’t stone adulterers.
- Those laws that were given to Israel as a concession due to their spiritual immaturity and hardness of heart. Sometimes the NT actually “raises the bar” set by OT laws, such as in the case of divorce (Matthew 19:9) or slavery (Colossians 4:1; Philemon 16).
While these categories will go a long way in helping Christians apply OT laws, they won’t answer every question for us, and it might not always be easy to tell if a certain law falls into any of these categories. Sometimes we are left with ambiguity. For example, what are Christians supposed to do about the Sabbath? On the one hand, it stems from the creation order (Genesis 2:2-3), and it is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), which suggests universal validity. On the other hand, Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the Sabbath (John 5:18), while Paul says that it’s okay to esteem all days equally (Romans 14:5) and that we should not pass judgment on each other with respect to Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16). Christians have different ways of dealing with all of these texts, leading to differing conclusions. At the end of the day, we may not get all of our questions resolved, but the important thing is that we as Christians act in wisdom, treating God’s Word with respect and treating our brothers and sisters in Christ with love.
1 Some interpreters may attempt to include OT sexual laws in this category as well (Leviticus 18), suggesting that, for example, homosexuality should no longer be considered a sin. But the NT shows that God’s purposes and parameters for human sexuality have remained the same since creation, and are therefore not restricted to OT Israel (1 Corinthians 6:9-20).