Preaching the OT Law

One of the so-called problems that arise from preaching the Old Testament is the place of the Law in the context of new covenant realities [for example, how do we preach passages that forbid the wearing of clothing woven from two kinds of material (Lev. 19:19) or the eating of pork (Deut. 14:8)]? On the surface of it one might say that was then and it’s not for today however the issues are more complicated than many of the trite answers that have been proffered. My goal here is not to settle the question once and for all but to help each other think through this weighty issue in a more balanced and faithful way. As always, your comments and thoughts are always welcome

A number of solutions have been suggested and many of them seem to do violence to the text whether it is through strained allegory and typology or by essentially ignoring entire sections of Scripture all together. Among the historically Reformed the problem has been answered by narrowly defining the law as the Ten Commandments. This is readily seen in documents like The Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 19). However it is an overstatement to conclude that the Law is only contained in the Decalogue. Jesus Himself identifies the Law with the entire work of Moses in the Pentateuch (Luke 24:44; cf. Acts 28:23).

Another solution which is a further development of the Westminster Confession and prevalent in both Reformed and Dispensational communities is to view the Law as a tripartite division of moral, ceremonial and civil. While such categories may be helpful to express various elements contained in the Law, such a view does not result from a faithful reading of either testament. In the OT the law is a unit which stands together as the Lord’s complete testimony of covenant faithfulness to His chosen people. In the NT James is likely referring to the whole law when he writes that with one single offense a person is guilty of all (panton in James 2:10; cf. Gal. 5:3). Additionally, with maybe one exception, it might be pointed out that the NT always uses the word “law” in the singular pointing back to a unified whole. However, it’s doubtful that theologians and preachers will ever agree on these matters as long as they hold to the prevalent attitude that exalts theological systems over sound exegesis of a given passage.

So where does this leave the preacher with his Bible open to Leviticus? First, I would agree with Carter, Duvall, and Hayes who write concerning the popular tripartite view of the Law, “We discourage you from using this approach for several reasons. These categories (civil, ceremonial, moral) are arbitrary and are not indicated at all in the Scriptures. It is often difficult to classify a passage cleanly into one of these categories. All of the legal material—even the so called “civil” or “ceremonial” texts—has “moral” connotations. We are hesitant to use the open-ended and hard-to-define categories of “civil” and “ceremonial” as a criterion to dismiss large portions of the law” (Preaching God’s Word, 238).

Moving forward we then can admit that there is a certain level of discontinuity between the testaments whereby things either come to an end or are further developed (cf. Mt. 5:17; Rom. 6:14; Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 1:2; 8:13, etc.). Even while certain elements in the one law of God may have reached their climax in Christ and in some sense the new covenant believer is no longer under this law, the Apostle Paul can still claim that this law has abiding value in that “All Scripture is…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore Carter, et al can further write, “Be careful that you do not proclaim a works-oriented theology. Instead, preach the timeless and applicable theological principles that undergirded the original law. In addition, bring the principles through the teachings of the New Testament and proclaim these truths in the context of new covenant realities for today’s believers (i.e., the “law of Christ”)” [245]. The writer’s emphasis here is both careful and helpful in that it avoids the fallacy of “reading backwards” into the OT and it preserves the authorial intent of a given passage even in the progress of revelation calling us to read “through” (i.e. forward).

24 responses to this post.

  1. Great subject and good conclusion. The implications are endless. Hopefully, this post will not be. Some comments on the value of the Pentateuch when preached according to authorial intent.

    1. The problem of saying that was for then and this is for now is a problem that constantly comes up and not just in the Pentateuch. On the extreme end, you could argue that all of the Bible with the exception of parts of John 17 were for then and not for now. I don’t know anyone that extreme but it does get you out of a lot of theological pickles: the Sermon on the Mount, headcoverings, divorce and remarriage, tithing, the Great Commission, the prosperity gospel, etc. etc. etc. Seriously, if our people understood from us how to apply the Pentateuch, they would also know better how to apply the rest of the Bible.

    2. The Law includes Genesis and other narrative portions. There is a lot more to the law than rules. Genesis is primarily a book of biblical theology and the basis for the giving of the law. If the five books are to be seen as a whole with one purpose, i.e., to reveal Israel’s covenant God, Yahweh, to them; then there must be on some level a revealing of God to them (and us) through the dietary laws, etc. Otherwise, God just gave arbitrary laws. We know better. If the Pentateuch teaches anything about God, it is that He is not arbitrary but rather the whole forming of the Jewish nation was God’s perfect plan.

    3. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy an awful lot and almost every Old Testament book refers directly or indirectly to the book of Deuteronomy. If a book was so important to Jesus and the later Israelites, it would be surprising if there was not a lot of value in that book for us in understanding the God who came to redeem us. I find constantly in my sermon preparation that this is so.

  2. […] Today, Paul Lamey at Expository Thoughts also tackles this issue. […]

  3. Posted by Greg Smith on October 11, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    I have never been comfortable with the tripartite seperation of the law. Now I know why. However, an example would lend some clarity. For instance, how would you teach the passage on a garment woven of two types of cloth?

  4. Greg,

    That’s a great question. I plan to answer the “how-to” in a seperate post which is coming soon.

  5. […] Preaching the OT Law « Expository Thoughts – Part 1 […]

  6. Law preaching is actually opposed to Pauline thought which teaches us that we are to know nothing but the gospel among the Gentiles. Law preaching assumes that the gospel cannot cut the heart in a saving way, but we know from Acts ch 2 that this is not correct. Law preaching is the foundation of Catholic and Protestant legalism and covenant theology. It is not according to the scripture as my website shows.

  7. Gary,

    With all due respect, Marcion held essentially the same position. Are you saying you don’t preach the OT at all? I think you are misunderstanding what “law” actually is and means.

    If you would like to sustain an argument with something we have written then do it here in the comments. Please do not use this blog to direct people to your website.

    Thank you.

  8. A helpful article on this is Daniel Block’s “The Grace of the Torah: A Mosaic Prescription for all of Life” in Bibliotheca Sacra, 162:645 (Jan. 2005) which is based on Block’s 2004 W.H. Griffith lecture he delivered at Dallas Theological Seminary.

  9. I am not saying that the gospel was not hidden in the law. I do not draw a false distinction between law and gospel, as if they are mutually exclusive. But Paul is clear, the law was weak. That means it has no power to save. If the law could save, then animal sacrifices would have been sufficient. The law, in no way, shape, or form can save. Only the gospel can save. Anyone who teaches otherwise has not uncovered the mystery of the scriptures. Salvation is by divine revelation, by a cutting of the heart through the message of Jesus Christ.

    It can happen as in Acts 2 with the spoken word, or it can happen alone with only a person and God there (after at least once having heard the good news previously). Scripture is crystal clear that the power of God is the gospel, not the law.

  10. The gospel is as a two edged SWORD. It does the cutting, and the guilt of law means nothing in terms of salvation. Paul even says that all men have a law unto themselves in which they accuse or excuse themselves. No, the law is a killer, but is not a convictor.

  11. Gary,

    Has anyone here at this blog or in any article that has been linked here stated that the law can save? It seems you are answering an argument no one here has made.

  12. Ok Paul. It is good of you to agree that the law has no power. That guilt which is derived from going against one’s conscience is not saving. That the gospel is wholly and completely the power of God from first cut to joy in the Spirit.

    Of course, you only have me and the 1644-46 London confession people who are with you as all of Protestantism is against us, from Augustine (the father of Calvin theologically), Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon and even the free will Protestant, Billy Graham.

    You have come outside the gate to suffer with the real believers. Congratulations!

  13. One more time Gary. It might be helpful if you actually interact with something in the post here in stead of making comments that lack context or logic (so I kindly ask, please refrain from making any more “off-topic” comments). This is not one of those blogs where we talk past each other. If you would like to continue please answer my questions which were directed to you starting with :”Are you saying you don’t preach the OT at all?”

  14. Paul, you have a low pagerank. You need people to post. But I can find blogs elsewhere if you are uncomfortable.

    Now the first sentence of the original post says “One of the so-called problems that arise from preaching the Old Testament is the place of the Law in the context of new covenant realities ”

    Now preaching the Old Testament includes teaching the law as a means of conviction. If you don’t agree I can show you many examples from Calvin’s Institutes. Preaching the Old Testament in the context of the gospel being hidden in the Old Testament is authorized by Paul. But preaching the Old Testament in order to muddle the truth by making the gospel less important is false religion.

    I was responding to the very first sentence, and I am only speaking past you if you cannot hear the message.

  15. I want to be clear here. I don’t agree with the view that preaching the law as a means of conviction is correct. It is not correct. It is false teaching. But, many historical protestants did exactly that.

    Again, finding the gospel in the Old Testament is the correct use of that book for us. The types and shadows speak of Christ. He is the sabbath of the New Covenant. He is the king of Israel (Acts 13:33). He is the high priest, and the perfect sacrifice. He is the new law.

  16. Gary, your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes and shows us that you are only concerned with putting forth a narrow thesis that is 1) off-topic 2)not held by anyone else 3) accusatory and 4)unresponsive to critique. Also, the constant tone of your comments is one of heat and no light. Therefore I kindly ask you to please refrain from making any further comments here. This is not a debate blog so please understand that we desire to keep the level of discussion here at a Christian level which means honesty, integrity, and mutual respect. If that is not your thing then maybe a blog with a higher “page rank” than ours will make you feel right at home. Thank you.

  17. You have no integrity, Paul. Take care.

  18. Gary,

    Now you have gone from illogical to offensive. I’m not sure how this has become an issue of my integrity (BTW: have we actually met?) but thanks for the “helpful” reminder. Your response here has reminded me of the many drawbacks of internet discussion and why the unbelieving world mocks Christian’s treatment of one another.

    Please direct any further comments to the contact email above and please know that I am praying for you and will be happy to minister to you should you ever need assistance. If you would like to pray for me (integrity issues aside) you can pray “that I may behold wonderful things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18).

    All blessings in Christ,

  19. […] There are two passages in the Old Testament law in the book of Deuteronomy that discuss testing the spirits who claim to speak the truth. Now, it is easy to say that the Law was for then and not for today, for example in the law against eating pork which is also in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 14:8). We understand though that the law is more than the Ten Commandments and when Jesus said He came to fulfill the law He meant all of it, not just the moral code but also the civil and ceremonial aspects of the law. Not only that but as we saw about a month ago, “All Scripture is…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). So how do we apply the Old Testament tests? By finding and investigating the timeless principles that apply to the subject of testing the spirits as taught in 1 John. (Ideas in this paragraph with thanks to Paul Lamey of Huntsville, AL.) […]

  20. Posted by Nathan Smith on August 11, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Hello all. Glad to jump into a heated discussion ;)

    It seems to me, with my youthful understanding of the subject, that understanding the law is essential to understanding the gospel. God is not sometimes holy and sometimes merciful, He is both at exactly the same time. True conversion comes only from true repentence, and true repentence comes only from true understanding of and conviction from the moral law.
    Rom 10 ‘3For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.’

    It is upon seeing the holy law of God that Grace makes any sense. Most non-christians will tell you that they are pretty good people. But they are ‘comparing themselves among themselves’ and ‘are not wise’ as paul also says. We may appear almost pure next to Adolf Hitler.

    Law and Grace go hand in hand. Jesus did not come to abolish the law but fulfill it, and fulfill it in us. The curse of the law has been abolished for those in Christ but not the standard. ‘The law of God is Perfect’ and that will not change, not even one ‘jot or tittle.’

    Galatians 3:23-25 23But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.
    24Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
    25But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

    I do beleive in preaching the ‘law’ to non-christians. Not preaching that the ‘law’ is the way to salvation, but to convict them of their need for grace. John 16 ‘8And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:’ talking of the Holy Spirit.

    In short I believe that the law has been given to us for convicting the unconvicted, so that they can be brought to the light of the Gospel. But the Gospel without the law makes no sense. As I said before true conversion comes from true repentence.

    Discernement is neccesary. Many are already convicted of their sin, and all that is needed is the message of grace. But to the ‘pharisees’ of this world only the law will ‘stop their mouths.’

  21. Posted by Nathan Smith on August 11, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    No one take me for a legalist please. This is very far from my position. But the law all the same has it’s purpose.

    “Amazing grace how sweet the sound
    that saved a wretch like me’

    Praise be to God forever for his perfect sacrifice that is perfectly holy and perfectly merciful. What love the Father has for us.

  22. The Westminister Confession of Faith does make allowance for the application of ALL OT law for the NT Christian through it’s “general equity” clause (in chapter 19). In short, the idea being conveyed is though the specific laws of OT Israel applied directly to their situation, there are appropriate applications to be made today, though they might vary from the original use, they do not vary in God’s intent.

    You can find the application of the OT law debated heavily among the Theonomic branch of reformed orthodoxy.

  23. Posted by Bruce on October 10, 2007 at 10:04 am

    >> One of the so-called problems that arise from preaching the Old Testament is the place of the Law in the context of new covenant realities [for example, how do we preach passages that forbid the wearing of clothing woven from two kinds of material (Lev. 19:19) or the eating of pork (Deut. 14:8)]? <<

    This presents no problem. Christ clearly illustrates the preaching of the Law to bring conviction of sin when He used five of the Ten Commandments in an attempt to get the rich young ruler to see his desperate sinful situation. When that failed, Christ used the essence of the first and second commandments to show the young man that money was his god (“sell all of your goods and give the money to the poor and come follow Me” – and the young man went away sad). The reason we need not expand “the law” to include the ceremonial commandments (etc.) is that Christ and the Apostles used (only) the Ten Commandments to bring conviction of sin – but never included any (Jewish specific) commandments beyond them. So there is no issue here.

  24. Bruce,

    I referenced your proposed solution in the original post and would note again that it’s no real solution at all. Preaching the law can not be reduced to merely preaching the Decalogue. Additionally, if we follow your proposal the authorial intent of two thirds of our Bibles would be meaningless. Are you suggesting that the original context does not matter at all?

    You also stated that “Christ and the Apostles used (only) the Ten Commandments to bring conviction of sin.” I’m not sure where you heard this but it’s not even remotely true whether implicitly or explicitly. Matthew chapter five alone shows that this does not not stand up to the biblical witness.

    Your last sentence rests upon the faulty assumption that the Law has three divisions. Could you tell us what part of God’s Law is “moral” and does this then mean that the rest is “immoral” or “non-moral”? Are you also suggesting that only the Decalogue has New Covenant implications?

    Thanks for your comments.

    Thanks for your comments.

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