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

The Empty Soul

This past Sunday we finished the 5 Solas series at White Fields with our study of Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone) – click here to listen to that message. Something I learned through preparing for this study, is that for the Reformers, Soli Deo Gloria referred specifically to their view of work: that everything a person does, not just work in and for the Church, can be service to God. They rightly elevated the place of work – and all God-honoring, people-benefiting work – to its biblical place of significance and importance. This doctrine went hand in hand with the teaching of “the priesthood of all believers.”

Here is an excerpt from Luther’s article “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” on this topic:

It is pure fiction that Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the “temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office. . . . We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet. 2: 9). The Apocalypse says: “Thou hast made us to be kings and priests by thy blood” (Rev. 5: 9– 10).

As I was preparing for this message last week, I came across something interesting written by Dorothy Sayers, who has written a lot on the topic of the integration of faith and work.

While the biblical view of work is that it is good and part of God’s good design for us as human beings, there are certainly some pitfalls that we can fall into in regard to how we see our work. If we look to our work to “make a name for ourselves” – rather than looking to God to receive our “name” (identity, status, value) from him, then we will inevitably have an unhealthy, and destructive, relationship with our work.

Dorothy Sayers, in Creed or Chaos?, points out that there is a common misunderstanding about the meaning of “sloth” or “slothfulness” – one of the traditional seven deadly sins. Usually, we tend to think of sloth as laziness, but the Greek word Acedia means more of a life which is consumed only with cares about oneself.

Acedia is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing and only remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die. We have known it far too well for many years, the only thing perhaps we have not known about it is it is a mortal sin.

She goes on to say that because a person characterized by acedia only cares about their own needs, interests and comforts, they might not necessarily be lazy at all. They might seem quite driven, in fact. She says though that acedia is “the sin of the empty soul.”

We think that if we are busily rushing about and doing things we cannot be suffering from Sloth. Gluttony offers a world of dancing, dining, sports, and dashing very fast from place to place to gape at beauty spots. Covetousness rakes us out of the bed at an early hour in order that we may put pep and hustle into our business; Envy sets us to gossip and scandals, to writing cantankerous letters to the paper, and to the unearthing of secrets and scavenging of desk bins; Wrath provides the argument that the only fitting activity in a world so full of evil doers and evil demons is to curse loudly and incessantly, while Lust provides that round of dreary promiscuity that passes for bodily vigor. But these are all disguises for the empty heart and the empty brain and the empty soul of Acedia. In the world it calls itself Tolerance but in hell it is called Despair.

Timothy Keller, referring to Sayers’ writings on Acedia in his book Every Good Endeavor, points out that Acedia is really misdirected passion. It is passion that only cares about oneself, but true passion – like the Jesus’ Passion – is passion for the good and well-being of others.

Jesus said: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:35)

To live for yourself, caring for your own needs, interests and comforts, will leave you with an empty soul – but to give your life in service to God and others in response to the gospel will leave you with a soul that is full to overflowing. Jesus emptied Himself for you, but in doing so, His heart was full! May He empower us to live that way as well!

What Happened That Made You Like This?

Since the shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday, authorities have been searching for a motive for why Steven Paddock opened fire on a crowd of people with the intent to kill as many as possible. So far, no leads have turned up. Everyone who knew him seems genuinely shocked. He doesn’t seem to fit any of the expected patterns or usual profiles. People are confused and asking: How does someone get to the point where they would do something so profoundly evil and terrible as this?

The modern worldview is that we are progressing as a society, we are evolving and getting better. Furthermore, it believes that “evil” doesn’t really exist per se, but that “evil behavior” is the result of outside factors:

  1. You have a psychological complex because you were raised improperly.
  2. You did it because of bad sociology: you weren’t educated enough, or you were poor.
  3. It’s a result of bad genetics and/or you are aggressive because of millennia of natural selection which favored aggressive behavior.

There might be some truth to the matters of how someone is raised, but this theory is insufficient. This theory has no category for a Steven Paddock, who doesn’t fit any of these models. He wasn’t poor, he wasn’t uneducated, he was raised in a loving home… It’s interesting to watch reporters grasp at straws to find a reason for what happened to him that made him like this…

It reminds me of a scene from the book, Silence of the Lambs, about the serial killer: Hannibal Lecter. Officer Starling goes in to interview Hannibal Lecter, and she is looking at him and considering what he has done, and she sees his attitude, and she asks:

“What happened to you that made you like this?”

Officer Starling is the quentisential modern person. She thinks: “You are doing bad things, therefore something must have happened to you, something must have come from outside – it couldn’t have come from inside!” This is a philosophical leap of faith, which assumes that people are basically good, and if they do anything bad it is only because of outside influence.

Hannibal Lecter replies:

“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – and nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand and say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?” (The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris)

Hannibal Lecter is making a very important point: the modern worldview has no category for evil.

The modern world view has actually been eroding very quickly. In the 20th Century, the world became wealthy and educated, many of the problems of poverty were overcome, and yet wars and violence didn’t end, they escalated. The 20th Century was the most bloody century in history – at a time when the world was more educated, industrialized and wealthy than ever before.

The Christian worldview, however, which is based on the Bible, has no problem accepting these things – because we have a very comprehensive view on sin.

We have a category for Hannibal Lecter and for Steven Paddock. The Bible tells us that within all of us lurks the capacity for terrible acts, because we are fallen and corrupt. The theological term is: Totally Depravity. That means that, apart from God’s work within us, even the good things we do, we do for less-than-pure motives: either to benefit ourselves, bring praise to ourselves, or to justify ourselves.

But the Bible doesn’t just stop there with telling us what’s wrong, and that evil lurks inside of us; it also tells us what God has done to save us and redeem us. It tells us what God has done to destroy evil without destroying us: He took on human flesh, became one of us, and died a substitutionary death, so that through His death He might destroy the one who holds the power of death, and set free those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

We should pursue better legislation, further education and the eradication of poverty, because we have been given a calling and vocation from God to “subdue the Earth,” i.e. to manage it well and to do all that we can under God to promote human flourishing. But we must remember that such things do not change the heart. We must place our ultimate hope in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

…The Harder They Fall

On my way home from church on Sunday I saw a Facebook message saying that the pastor of the largest church in the movement I’ve long been associated with had resigned due to moral failure.

I hate hearing this kind of stuff.

Over the last several days I have seen tons of posts on social media from other pastors about this pastor’s fall. I understand that they want to address what’s going on. I understand that they are upset and want to talk about it. I’m not sure if we should be posting that kind of news everywhere though. At what point is it just gossip? Gossip is still gossip if you present it as a “prayer request”. Isn’t it spreading sensational news about someone else’s junk that really has no bearing on us personally?

I opened the CNN app on my iPad on Monday, only to see an article on the front page about this pastor’s moral failure and resignation. Great – more fuel for those who are always looking for fodder against Christianity and the Church.

I’m upset that someone in that man’s position would risk his legacy, his family and the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ for some fleeting moments of pleasure.

I am sad for his wife and kids who have to go through all of this in the public eye. I am concerned for that church, and pray that the people who attend there will have the maturity to walk through this process as a body, faithful to the heart and will of God.

I am glad to see that high moral standards are upheld, and exceptions aren’t made for someone because they are gifted, talented and popular. Personally, I loved listening to that man teach. He is truly a gifted communicator. I heard someone put it this way: “David kills Goliath no matter how you read the story, but some teachers are able to make the story come alive – whereas other teachers make you wish someone would hit you in the head with a stone and put you out of your misery.” This man is a great teacher. But I am glad that his skill and celebrity were not used as an excuse for making an exception to the rules for him when it comes to moral standards for those who will serve as leaders in the God’s church.

This situation is one more sober warning for Christians, and especially for those of us in leadership and ministry, that we must watch over our hearts with all dilligence, because it is from the overflow of our hearts that our actions proceed.