Thursday, March 20, 2008

Breakin' the Law, breakin' the Law

Let's say someone has cited several psgs from Leviticus and suggested I pick and choose which to follow.
Not I, however, but the New Testament itself picks and chooses, and explains why.

Some parts of the Old Testament Law deal with
1) ceremonial/ritual purity,
2) punishments for breaking purity laws,
3) morality,
4) punishments for breaking moral laws,
5) civil laws, and
6) punishments for breaking civil laws.

Remember OT Israel was a theocracy, where God ruled the people directly and appointed human proxies; judges, high priests, and (reluctantly) kings later on.
1 & 2 - OT Israel had a state religion - the worship of the LORD. There are OT Laws that deal with the permissibility of approaching the sacrifices for priests, of cleanliness for priests and laypeople, of entering the temple, etc. One could become unclean by handling unclean food, going near a dead body, contracting a disease, etc. Ceremonial purity was necessary for several reasons:
-To set apart the LORD as absolutely holy in the minds of the worshipers.
-To set a standard of rigor for approaching Him; one must not do so flippantly.
-To set the Israelites apart from the surrounding pagan societies' religious practices.
-To foreshadow the coming of the Messiah.

Such laws are fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah, as the Epistle to the Hebrews goes to great pains to explain. My cleanliness and purity to approach God is based on Christ's perfect righteousness, granted to me by His grace on the basis of faith only, rather than rituals that I must perform. When I come to God now, God sees Christ's righteousness and perfection, not my impurity and uncleanness.

If we want to get technical, God would also see a true believer in OT Israel as clothed in Christ's righteousness. The difference is in the command for the actions of the community, and in the community itself. OT Israel was a community where everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, had the same obligations, whereas the New Testament church has different kinds of obligations b/c it has a different kind of membership. Salvation is the same (faith in Christ as Savior, not by anything we can do) but the context in which I live has been defined differently by God.

3 - Expands on the moral law that was already in place. This is an important point - the Mosaic Law was not the 1st occurrence of the moral law.
The moral code was partly innate and stated in forms here and there before the Mosaic Law. How did Adam and Eve know they weren't supposed to eat from the tree? God told them. How did Cain know he wasn't supposed to murder Abel? Perhaps God told him, perhaps it was an innate knowledge – in either case, he knew. How did Noah know the rest of humanity was "wicked" before the Mosaic Law? How did Abraham know that he should honor his guests w/ food and hospitality? How did Lot know that homosexual assault on his guests was wicked? That law comes from God and has been made known (mysteriously) by God to humanity.
Thus, just as the moral law did not originate with the Mosaic Law, neither does it come to an end when the Mosaic Law is fulfilled in Christ. One could think of moral laws as those which reflect the pre-Mosaic Law-law. They are thus still in force.

4 - That is not to say that the punishments for breaking the moral law remain the same.
A few examples:
Genesis 9:6 - Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.
Here capital punishment for murder is laid down in the earliest days of human existence. The Mosaic Law continues that punishment. Romans 13 refers to "the sword" to punish evildoers that the state is justified in wielding.
On the other hand...

-Homosexual sex
No explicit condemnation exists until the Mosaic Law (though it was obviously known to be wicked before), and the punishment is execution.
But the New Testament gives no provision for the execution of homosexual offenders. Rather Romans 1 describes the penalty for such as spiritual death (and, interestingly, mentions homosexual activity as a penalty itself, a judgment for sin, not just a cause of judgment).

5 & 6 - These laws relate to how the civil society was to work. Property laws, safety, restitution, cities of refuge, etc. Obviously such things do not apply when one does not live in OT Israel.
The books of Romans (specifically Rom 13) and 1 Peter teach the student of the Bible how to live in a non-ancient-Hebrew-theocratic society.

All the examples that people usually cite (to trip up the Christian) relate to punishments prescribed for the Hebrew theocratic society, even though some of the moral violations remain moral violations today (ie, adultery).

Strictly speaking, civil laws ARE moral laws, as I've pointed out before. Any law is a moral statement.
It's wrong to go faster than 25 mph in a school zone.
It's wrong to burn down someone's property.
It's wrong to hold up a bank.
It's perfectly fine to stick a scalpel into a nearly-born baby's brain and then dismember her and 'birth' her that way.
It's perfectly fine for the gov't to force me to give them lots of the money that I earned.
It's wrong to kidnap a woman in order to protect her baby from the scalpel at the abortuary to which she is en route.


But of course, not all moral laws are civil laws, and not all civil laws are moral. It's not objectively wrong to drive 30 mph on a certain road; it is proscribed when a school is constructed on said road and concern for children's safety provokes the passing of a 25 mph speed limit law. Conversely, it is objectively wrong to murder a baby, yet that is perfectly legal in many cases in the US.

This does not mean the punishments remain or should remain the same; it means they remain violations of the moral code. Executing convicted adulterers, say, was a command for the ancient Hebrews only to follow; while adultery itself remains a moral violation, resulting in a physical/temporal/earthbound penalty (or lack thereof) to be prescribed by the society in which it is performed, it results "merely" in spiritual death and further condemnation for the one who does not have saving faith in Jesus Christ.

The civil gov'ts in countries in which Christians live make laws which Christians are obligated to follow, except when they command us to do sthg contrary to God's commandment (ie, the moral law).

So, quick review:
-Moral, civil, and ceremonial laws exist in the Mosaic Law.
-Ceremonial/purity laws are fulfilled in Christ.
-Civil laws were applicable to OT Israel, which society no longer exists.
-Moral law violations remain violations, but their penalties are in many (or even most) cases different now.

I imagine I'll be referring people back to this post quite alot, but only time will tell.


Unknown said...

Hey Rhology,

Good post! I would be a little careful saying this:
"(faith in Christ as Savior, not by anything we can do)" as the way to salvation. OT people didn't know about Christ, Jesus the person, so they couldn't possibly put their faith in him, nor were they required to.
Instead, I'd say they had to have faith (alone) to be saved, in God - which includes Christ of course.


Kyle said...

It is helpful for you to lay it all out. Nice job.

"It's perfectly fine to stick a scalpel into a nearly-born baby's brain and then dismember her and 'birth' her that way.

It's wrong to kidnap a woman in order to protect her baby from the scalpel at the abortuary to which she is en route."

It gives me chills. God have mercy on our murderous, barbaric nation.

Kurt K said...

Hi Rhology,

Thanks for your post. I know that oftentimes unbelievers love to throw around challenges like: "So, do you eat unclean animals? Do you perform ceremonial washings? No? Then you're not obeying your own Scriptures, you hypocrite!", and your post is thoughtful in dealing with the fulfillment of the Law in Christ.

That being said, in light of your comments on 5)& 6), the civil law, such as "Obviously such things do not apply when one does not live in OT Israel.", I must ask you a question, since you brought up Romans 13. In this passage (13:1-7) Paul clearly articulates the nature, function, and responsibility of civil authority as 1) God's servant and minister (13:4,6), 2) His avenger upon evildoers (13:4), and 3) a giver of praise to those who do good (13:3).

In light of this, how shall civil rulers fulfill God's purpose given herein if their governance is not informed by the civil law given in the OT? How does the person in God-ordained authority define "τῷ ἀγαθῷ ἐργῷ" and "τῷ κακῷ (ἐργῷ)" (13:3), or identify "τὸ κακὸν πράσσοντι" (13:4)?

(And I don't only mean Christians in government, I mean unbelievers as well. Romans 13:2 does not discriminate between saved and unsaved civil rulers.)

If rulers don't enforce God's civil law, then how can they claim to be His minister, His servant?

Rhology said...

Hi shepherd boy,

Nice talking to you! Thanks for commenting.

You know, you're right that I probably missed out on adding that. I agree that rulers now could do a lot worse than following the OT civil laws. But they can't ALL be applied, so that's as far as we could go.
If rulers don't enforce God's civil law, then how can they claim to be His minister, His servant?

Well, I think we have to be careful here, b/c
1) no current authority will EVER fulfill God's law perfectly, and
2) OT Israel didn't either.

You go a long way towards answering your own question when you say Romans 13:2 does not discriminate between saved and unsaved civil rulers.
Yet Rom 13 calls them His servants. There's no "if they do ____" in that statement, is there? Nope. :-)
A bit mindblowing to think that even horrible gov'ts, those that allow millions of abortions, those that are hopelessly corrupt, those that murder millions of people, are God's servants, but they are. I don't know exactly what that means, but I do know that God has used lots of evil people in world history. I'm one of them.

Grace and peace,

Matt said...

What!? Abandon the Mosaic Penology and the OT Civil Statutes? Greg Bahnsen would not be happy with this post if he were alive to see it. :-)

Seriously, I haven't yet personally worked out the issue of theonomy, and what laws are still applicable, but on the basis Matt. 5:19, we should be reticent to throw out OT commandments, unless we know from NT passages that such commandments and rules of observance are no longer in force.

On the other hand, good distinction between civil laws of the secular State, and moral laws of God. With the rise of secular humanism, it seems to me that the State more and more is trying to pass laws on the basis of its own supposed moral authority, and as such, we need to continue to remind people that the law of a government is subservient to the law of God, and any human law that contradicts the law of God is unjust.

Kurt K said...


Praise God that He deigns to use evil people like us! :)

You mentioned that "There's no "if they do ____" in [Romans 13:2], is there?", referring to ALL instituted civil authorities as "God's servants." I agree; Christians are called to submission irregardless; that's beyond the shadow of a doubt.

However, I believe that the soteriological status of a civil ruler does not negate their God-given responsibility to fulfill their Romans 13:4 purpose (punish evildoers/praise good-doers). I believe that God will judge both the unbelieving ruler and the believing ruler based on execution of their God-given roles, regardless of their salvation. That is why I believe that Martin Luther wrote this.

In other words, they may not be believers, but Nero, Hitler, Stalin, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and all others placed in authority will answer to God regarding their civil service. These rulers need Christians like Luther and ourselves to advise them on how to do this very thing. We support them with taxes so that they can do this (Romans 13:6); how much more should we support them by reminding them of their responsibility as rulers, and what God's standards are for their rule?

Rhology said...


Presbys and their optimism, man. They really get on my nerves!


And of course I'm not advocating we "throw them out"; that's a bit hyperbolic. Perhaps I should have added a more positive slant to the post rather than say "we're not obligated" and saying "not" all the time.

shepherd boy,

Agreed almost 100%. I wouldn't say that we're called to submit regardless (I laid out the exception in the post, and I'm sure you'd agree with this, given the rest of what you've said), but rather that the gov't is God's servant regardless.

Other than that, you're right on.

Grace and peace,

Terry said...

Good work, I might refer to that myself from time to time.

One thing, however (and you know that I'm going to use your answer to this to destroy certain other arguments you've made). You say:

"But of course, not all moral laws are civil laws, and not all civil laws are moral."

Does that mean you don't believe that all civil laws MUST be moral? Or, conversely: can a moral person enact a civil law that is amoral or immoral without himself becoming immoral?

Rhology said...

Good, I hope you'll find it helpful. I expect to link back to it more than a few times myself, since atheists seem to like to ask why I don't obey the OT Law in its entirety and similar nonsense.

Civil laws have a moral component, as I explained, but I was using those terms "civil" and "moral" as formal categories in the post.
Some civil laws, like the permission to murder a baby, are immoral. And yes, he who enacts a law like that or supports it is committing sin, is acting immorally.

Terry said...

Is it our responsibility as Christians to fight against immoral laws?

Rhology said...

Yes but it's not our primary responsibility.
Law does not change human hearts; only the Gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, does so.

Anonymous said...

Instead of subdividing the Mosaic law and dealing with it piece by piece, can we not simply apply Galatians 5:18? "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law." (nb also the rest of Galatians, especially 3:10-14, 3:23-25, 4:9)

Rhology said...

Well, I'm not sure what you're driving at here.
The Mosaic Law divides itself by the nature of each piece, for one thing.

Gal 5:18 tells us that we are not under Law, that is, not under the curse of the Law, since we are led by the Spirit. Only those who are saved are led by the Spirit.
Paul is telling the Galatians not to submit themselves to the Judaizers, to believe that salvation is faith + something. Yet Paul certainly wants us to obey God's commandments.