Do Christians Pick and Choose When It Comes to Old Testament Laws?

One of the criticisms that is sometimes aimed at Christians, is that we “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws, applying some of them to today, and not others. For example, we agree with the command “You shall not commit adultery”, but we seem to ignore other commands, such as the command not to eat pork and shellfish, or not to wear clothing made of fabrics made up of more than one material (i.e. that poly-cotton blend shirt). Why, someone might ask, do Christians say that the commandments about certain sexual behaviors are still applicable, but they don’t say the same about other commandments, such as executing people for breaking the Sabbath? Aren’t they just arbitrarily picking and choosing according to whatever they deem convenient for them?

The answer is: because we must differentiate between the different types of laws in the Old Testament. To do so isn’t arbitrary at all, in fact it is the only faithful way of handling the Old Testament laws.

John Calvin, the 16th-century reformer, pointed out that the New Testament treated the 613 Old Testament laws in three different ways. There were:

  • Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, dealing with behaviors and the punishments for crimes.
  • Ceremonial Laws, about “clean” and “unclean” things, various sacrifices and other ritual practices.
  • Moral laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong, such as the 10 Commandments.

For the people of Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a moral law had civil and ceremonial consequences. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem. These laws went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, being both a nation and a worshiping community. God was their sovereign, their king, their ruler, not only over their worship, but over their entire civil society. They had no concept of “the separation of church and state.” Since that is the case for us today, our relationship to the Law is obviously different.

This helps us to understand what often seems contradictory about the New Testament view of the Law. The New Testament says that Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and because of what He did in his life, death and resurrection, we are released from the Law (Romans 7:1-6; Galatians 3:25).

Understanding how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we still look to some of the Old Testament laws to instruct and guide us, and “ignore” others.

The Civil Laws were set up to benefit the nation of Israel. However, we are not bound by the civil codes of the Old Testament because there is no longer a theocratic nation-state on earth. We may wisely glean from some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws, such as those regarding public health, caring for the poor, etc. – but in Christ, we have become a “new nation”, the people of God spread out through every tribe, tongue and nation of the Earth, who are subject to the ruling authorities of our respective countries when it comes to civil laws (see Romans 13:1-7)

Things like not eating shellfish, for example, were incredibly thoughtful and merciful commands in the ancient world, for people who did not have refrigeration and did not understand microbes and bacteria. The same is true of pork. As they submitted to these laws without understanding why God had commanded them or what God’s purpose was with them, even if they might have seemed arbitrary to them at the timethe Jewish people benefited from them. There is certainly a lesson for us in that in regard to obeying God’s commands, even when we don’t understand why He has given them.

The Ceremonial Laws illustrate God’s holiness and our unholiness and the inherent problem that we have in approaching God. As the book of Hebrews shows us, the sacrifices were fulfilled in Jesus’ perfect life and death. He is the final sacrifice, who cleanses us inwardly, not only outwardly, and makes us acceptable before God.

The Moral Laws were fulfilled by Jesus in that He lived a perfect life, free of moral failure. Unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were bound to particular times and situations, the moral laws show God’s assessment of good and evil, right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since His character doesn’t change, neither do His views on morality. In fact, whenever Jesus talked about the moral laws, he either re-affirmed them or intensified them! (see Matthew 5:21-48).

Thus the reason why Christians “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws is not at all arbitrary, rather it is faithful to understanding the roles and purpose of the different laws, and it is faithful to the teaching of the New Testament.

For more on the topic of the moral law, read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer is More than Just Showing You that You Need a Savior

Sola Scriptura: All Scripture is Breathed Out by God

Yesterday we began a 5-week series at White Fields in which we are looking at the 5 Solas of the Reformation: the slogans that the Reformers used to summarize their core beliefs:

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
  • Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
  • Sole Fide (Faith Alone)
  • Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone)

We started by looking at the first of these: Sola Scriptura.

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Sola Scriptura means: the Bible alone is our highest authority.

Martin Luther and the other Reformers found themselves in a situation, where – having read the Bible, they discovered that many practices and teachings of the church in their time were actually in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the Bible – particularly on the issues of absolution of sin and justification.

This is what led to Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet (Congress) of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against this knowledge. May God help me. Amen.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we reject other sources of truth and wisdom, nor that we reject or ignore tradition. To do so would not only be foolish, but it would be ignorant of the fact that the very way that we got the canon of Holy Scriptures that we now have was in large part by God working through reason and tradition to transmit the Scriptures to us.

What Sola Scriptura means is that when it comes to what we believe and how we live, there is no higher voice, no greater authority than the Holy Scriptures, and everything must by judged by them.

So, if church councils say one thing, but the Bible says another: Who wins?  The Bible does. If our culture and society says one thing, but the Bible says something else, then who do we believe?  Who do we submit to?  The answer is: the Scriptures.

Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16 says: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

What Scriptures are being referred to here?

Obviously it is referring to the Old Testament scriptures, but interestingly, this comes from 2 Timothy, the last letter which Paul wrote, at the end of his life. By this time — almost all of the books that we have in our New Testaments had already been written, and were being distributed amongst the Christians, to be read and studied in their churches.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — he’s not just talking about the Old Testament, he’s also talking about the New Testament!

In the New Testament, what you find is that the Apostles understood that God was using them in their time to bring about a New Testament of Holy Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures”
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul referred to his own message as “the word of God”
  • In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul takes a quotation from the Gospel of Luke – and he calls it “Scripture” (Luke 10:7)
  • In some of his letters, Paul instructs the recipients to distribute his letters and have them read in the churches. (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27)

What Paul is telling Timothy in this text is to stick to the Scriptures, because they come from God, not from man.

The Bible is not only inspired in the sense that it is like a great work of art that we might say is “inspired” – but it is inspired in the greater sense, that the words it contains were breathed by God Himself!

What that means is that the Bible is no ordinary book — it is the very word of God to us, and therefore it alone is worthy to be the highest authority in our lives.

Want to Join a Korean Doomsday Cult?

This past Sunday I received a message from someone who attends White Fields. She said that she was in Alta Park in Longmont when a couple approached her who were from the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God, seeking to evangelize her.

When she told them that she is a Christian, they questioned her salvation and told her that Jesus had claimed that he would come again as a man, give his church a new name, and that in order to be saved, one needs to be part of this church, and adhere to several “new covenant requirements” including keeping all of the feasts mentioned in the Book of Leviticus.

They mentioned that they belonged to a branch of this church which had recently started in Boulder, and that they were planning to start a Longmont branch soon as well.

I had never heard of this group before, so I looked them up. Turns out they have some pretty crazy doctrines, which, unsurprisingly, they kept quiet about in this interaction in the park.

Who are they and what do they believe?

The Worldwide Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG) was founded by Ahn Sahng-Hong in South Korea in 1964. He was a long-time Seventh-day Adventist, until he split off to establish his own religion.

They believe in God the Father and God the Mother, and they believe that their founder, Ahn Sahng-Hong (deceased) was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (this is what the people in Alta Park were talking about when they said Jesus came back as a man and gave his church a new name), and that his wife (still alive) is the incarnation of God the Mother.

Ahn Sahng-Hong’s wife, Jang Gil-ja, is not only considered to be divine as God the Mother, but she is also known as “The Bride of Christ” – because she was married to Ahn Sahng-Hong, whom they believe to be the reincarnation of Christ.

Along with referring to him as “Christ Ahn Sahng-Hong,” they also believe that he is the Holy Spirit and they baptize and pray in the name of the Father, Son and Ahn Sahng-Hong.

I just threw up a little bit in my mouth as I wrote that…

They teach that all people were originally created as angels in Heaven, but then sinned against God and were sent to Earth as a second chance to return to God. The only way for humans to be saved and return to heaven is by keeping the Levitical feasts and following the teachings of Ahn Sahng-Hong, which includes believing in God the Mother, AKA Jang Gil-ja, Ahn Sahng-Hong’s wife, who gives everlasting life.

When you lay it out like this, it’s pretty clear how crazy this is. Not only is it a cult of personality, it is a radical deviation from Biblical doctrine. It’s not surprising that they keep most of this stuff to themselves when they go out preaching in parks.

And yet, the WMSCOG is growing very rapidly. They boast of 450 churches in Korea and 3000 around the world.

The member of our church who met them concluded her message to me by saying that this whole experience made her realize how unprepared she was to explain and, if necessary, defend what she believes and why.

How should you respond if you are approached by the WMSCOG? Or by any other pseudo-Christian group that has their own heterodox interpretation of the Bible?

There is one thing which is common to every religion in the world, other than Christianity: they teach that salvation is something that you have to earn. The gospel message of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is something that Jesus earned for you, and which is given to you by God as a free gift.

Notice that the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of the WMSCOG is one of salvation by works.

Here’s what the Bible has to say:

“for it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast,” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

On the matter of feasts and Sabbaths:

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:9-11).

The gospel is not a call to celebrate feast days and Sabbaths in order to obtain salvation, it is the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done for you, in order to save you. Anyone who teaches that such things are necessary for salvation is not only wrong, they are creating a different gospel.

Jesus said that when he would return again, he would come to judge the living and the dead. The teachings of the WMSCOG are not only incorrect and dangerous, they are heretical; both in their deification of Ahn Sahng-Hong and Jang Gil-ja and in their teaching of salvation by works, which goes contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible that we are justified by God through faith in Christ and his finished work on the cross.

In the big picture, this is just another re-branding of an old, and widespread lie: that you can (and must) work your way to God. The good news of the gospel is that salvation is not earned by your performance being good enough, but on the sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Rest in that, and be on guard against those who teach otherwise.

For more on the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God and sources for this article, check out these sites:

What Are We Fighting For?

Recently I have been reading the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

I’ve been very impressed with the way that Bonhoeffer acted as a Christian during the Nazi period, in which EVERY Christian was faced with an intense ethical dilemma because of the evils acted out by the Nazi regime.

This Sunday at White Fields I taught 1 Samuel 11. In that chapter the town of Jabesh-Gilead is attacked by the Ammonites, and Saul, hearing the news, sends a message to all the men of Israel that they need to come to the defense of the people of Jabesh-Gilead, or else.
This was a time in Israel, when it would have been wrong to do nothing.

Surely, Bonhoeffer lived in such a time as well – when it would have been ethically wrong to do nothing in the face of the evils of the Nazi regime. If being a Christian is all about being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), and as those who are part of the body of Christ, God would have us do His work, being his mouthpiece, his hands and his feet – there are great implications, as Bonhoeffer knew better any, for us as Christians and how we act and respond in the face of evil, injustice and other things which God is opposed to.

Bonhoeffer famously said:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In light of this, I can’t help but wonder what the great issues of our day, and our time and place are. What are the things that God would have us as Christians stand up for and fight against in this day?

It says there in 1 Samuel 11, that when Saul heard about how the people of Jabesh-Gilead were being mistreated, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he became angry. That anger moved him to action.

I wonder what the issues are in our day that we should rightly be upset about, and that God would move us to righteous action for.

Yesterday, Eric Metaxas, the author of that biography about Bonhoeffer wrote this on Twitter:

Do you agree?  If so, what are the issues in our day that we should be pushing hard about?

To add a counterpoint, this is what Timothy Keller posted on Facebook today:

Jesus didn’t come to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins. – Timothy Keller

It is true that Jesus did come to redeem the world, not by fixing the social problems of the day, or by driving out the Romans, but by dying on the cross for our sins.

What does this mean for us as Christians? Should our focus be other-worldly, i.e. saving people from this world unto the next life and the world which is to come, since this world will soon pass away — or, since eternal life starts now (John 17:3), should we be seeking to do the will of God here and now by coming against evil social structures and injustice, working to put an end to human suffering? Certainly this was a major theme of the Old Testament, but not something addressed much in the New Testament.

Are these two concepts at odds with each other, or can they be reconciled?

I don’t believe they are at odds – I think there is a healthy “both this and that” approach, but finding that balance of focus and knowing which hills God would have us fight on is something for which we must seek wisdom and guidance from God.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to comment below.