The Bible is the standard, the norm, for Christian ethics. The New Testament gives direct instructions to Christians today. However, a significant portion of the Bible is the Old Testament and it is often hard to identify how Old Testament ethics apply to us, a New Testament people. In this article, I hope to offer two principles by which we as Christians can use the Old Testament Law in ethical decision making and unpack the different perspective the New Testament provides for ethics. In the Old Testament, Israel was given an extensive series of laws that dictated the actions individuals and the state should take in many different contexts. This law provided a sufficient guide for making ethical decisions in God’s world at the time, under the Old Covenant and in the kingdom of Israel. However, things have changed since then. Christians are no longer under the Old Covenant. We are no longer under the law.
We are free (e.g., Gal. 3-4). The debate over how the OT laws relate to NT Christians is complex and has been discussed since the completion of the NT. I cannot hope to give a definitive answer or even interact with the greater theological debate to any serious extent here. All I hope to do is outline a few principles the New Testament provides Christians as they consider ethical decisions in light of both Testaments.
The first principle is the discontinuity of the Law. Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 5 that not even the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet will pass from the law until it is fulfilled. We read in Galatians 3 that the law is indeed fulfilled in Jesus. Paul spends much of His writing ministry explaining to Jews and Gentiles that the law is no longer valid for Christians; they have died to it (Rom., esp. Ch. 6-7; Gal., esp. Ch. 3-4).
The author of Hebrews confirms this. Where a new covenant is instituted, the old is clearly obsolete and passing away (Heb. 8). Yet, in the place of the OT Law, the NT authors do not propose radical license—do whatever you desire, eat drink and be merry! Paul appeals to the teachings of Jesus and his own God-given authority to provide moral direction for the churches to which he writes. James goes so far as to appeal to “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (James 1:25). Paul similarly appeals to the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Speaking of the transition from the Levitical priesthood to Jesus under the New Covenant, the author of Hebrew states that a change in priesthood requires “necessarily a change in the law as well” (Heb. 7:12).
There is then a new law, connected to the institution of the New Covenant. The original law was God’s divine will communicated to a specific people, Israel, to be His kingdom on earth. This law was inextricably connected to the Old Covenant, which mandated an earthly kingdom. Jesus ministry was concerned primarily with the coming of a new kingdom, the institution of a new covenant. Therefore, Jesus ministry was the institution of a new law—the law of Christ. Jesus teachings, His own words and the apostles’ interpretation and application thereof, are then a new law—a law governing a new people and a new kingdom.
The second principle is the continuity of the Law. The original law was given by God, so it is an expression of His eternal will. We saw that there is discontinuity in the changing of the covenant, of the kingdom, yet there is also continuity in that the giver of the law is our unchanging God. Thus, Jesus is able to apply the Torah to the new circumstances of His kingdom. Adultery, for example, is still wrong; yet the prohibition concerns the heart, not only actions (Matt. 5:27-28). Paul is also able to apply the OT to the new circumstances of the Church (1 Cor. 9:9), and extol its goodness (Rom. 7:7, 12).
God’s character has not changed, what has changed are the circumstances in which His standards are applied. No longer are God’s people an earthly kingdom. They are citizens of a heavenly city (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:1). No longer does God’s law legislate unbeliever and believer a like, now it is communicated by the Holy Spirit in regeneration (Jer. 31:33, Heb. 8:10; 2 Cor. 3:1-18, 4:6). No longer is it the believer’s job to spread an earthly kingdom (Gen. 1:28) but to spread the Kingdom of God through the Gospel (Matt. 28:18-20).
In this way, the OT is still applicable to us today, but it must be filtered through the lens of the New Covenant and the New Creation (of which Christians are participants). Jesus did this, the apostles did this, and we can continue to do this in our day.
The third principle is the eschatological nature of the Church. Christians are to make decisions in light of the age in which they partake and God goals for the end of time. God, we read in Scripture, has a plan to work all things together for His glory in Christ. This is the ultimate purpose of creation. Thus, it is no surprise when an orientation towards God’s glory is given as a key ethical principle in the New Testament. Paul says that whatever we do we are to do to God’s glory, that we are to all things with thanksgiving, prayerfully—in dependence on God (1 Cor. 10:31-33; Eph. 5:20; Phil. 4:6, 10-13; Col. 3:17, 4:2; 1 Pet. 4:11).
Our goal is the glory of God, and we seek that goal as aliens, sojourners in a foreign land. Paul writes that in Christ we are new creations: God’s eschatological New Creation has broken into the fallen, Old Creation through His Church. Therefore, we live between the times. The Old Age or Creation is on the verge of passing away, but the New has come in Christ, through His resurrection. Christians, therefore, live on the razor’s edge of two ages. We are to always anticipate the coming of Christ, the last event in salvation history—the history of this creation. Jesus’ Parousia is the next event slated to happen, it is the next thing God has promised. Therefore, the time is short: He could return at any time.
Christian ethics are then the ethics of the immanent end: time is short! we are to redeem every moment, make the most of our time (Eph. 5:15-16; Col. 4:5), for Christ could return any minute. We are called to hast His coming and fulfill His will while time remains (2 Pet. 3:12). Though Christ’s return has been at the threshold for two millennia, we are not to scoff as if He will not return, for “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” to the Lord and “he is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter. 3:8-9). The Lord tarries for the sake of the repentance of the nations, yet we must not shrink back for He will come soon (Heb. 10:36-39). With sober expectation we are to await his coming, ever ready (1 Thess. 4:6). This ethical orientation towards the eschaton is not a call for withdrawal from society, to sell everything and be idle. Christ could come at any moment, meaning that we should make every effort to live a life pleasing before Him, to fulfill His will in the great commission, build up the body of Christ, and be lights shining for the glory of God in the dark world around us (2 Thess. 3:6-15).
In sum, we are not to get relaxed in this world and lose sight of our nature and the next event in history. We are aliens, new creatures in an old world, awaiting Christ’s immanent return. We are to be awake, ready, vigilant in doing good and giving all our effort to seeking God’s kingdom above all else. Christians are to work normal jobs, lest we be idle and burden the church, but we are to do so with an eye to the coming of Christ—not finding fulfillment or comfort in it. And we are to make plans confessing “as the Lord wills” (James 4:15). Above all else we are to seek His glory through obedience to His will. God himself is the normative standard for Christian ethics, and His will is revealed in the Bible. These three principles are ways that the Bible leads us in reading it for ethical guidance and general guidelines for ethics. What remains for us to consider is the individual Christian and his or her life.
This article adapted from the first appendix of my paper, To Love God with All One’s Heart Soul and Strength.
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