The Role of the Decalogue in Christian Ethics

How are Christians to evaluate the laws of the Torah? How are we to use these writings, some of which the New Testament calls “obsolete” — and yet all Scripture is “useful for…training in righteousness”? (New Revised Standard used throughout this chapter).1 Some Christians tend to emphasize the obsolescence of the OT; others stress continuity between the old covenant and the new, including continuity between the Ten Commandments and Christian behavioral expectations.2 Some Christians take the permanence of the Decalogue so seriously that they keep the Sabbath on the seventh day of each week, as it commands.

The Sabbath, a worship regulation that includes ethical instructions, is a useful test case to help us clarify a Christian approach to the Decalogue, and thus to other Old Testament laws.3 Before we comment on the role of the Decalogue in Christian ethics, we must take the Sabbath command into consideration. An interpretive method that leads to an incorrect answer on the Sabbath question is thereby shown to be invalid, and such a method should not be used. Nevertheless, invalid arguments are common, and they create potential hazards for Christians who are unaware of the problems.

Prooftexts of continuity

Many Christians teach that the Decalogue was spoken by God himself, written in stone, the major expression of the moral law, based on the unchanging character of God and therefore permament.4 Many teach that Christians should keep the Ten Commandments — yet often the same teachers say that the Sabbath command is changed or obsolete. But it makes no sense to say that we have an unchanging moral law that has a change in it. There is little to be gained by claiming to uphold Ten when only Nine are meant.

Continuity of the Decalogue may be stressed in two basic ways: 1) a prooftext5 approach that may be used in popular presentations, and 2) a more sophisticated approach that views the old and new covenants as two aspects of God’s covenant of grace. The question of the Decalogue becomes intertwined with the larger question of covenantal continuity.

The prooftext approach may use these points: God himself spoke the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-22). He wrote the words himself (Exodus 34:1), and commanded that they be stored in the ark in the holiest place (Deuteronomy 10:2). Jeremiah describes the new covenant not as a new law, but as the same law written in the heart (Jeremiah 31:33). Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law of God (Matthew 5:17), and all of it would remain as long as heaven and earth remain (v. 18). Jesus advocated righteousness (v. 20), quoted commandments as authoritative (Matthew 19:18-19), and obeyed Old Testament laws (Hebrews 4:15). Paul said the law was holy and good, and he quoted commandments as authoritative (Romans 7:12; 13:9). Old Testament scripture is God-breathed and a good source of Christian teaching (2 Timothy 3:16). James quoted commandments as authoritative for Christians (James 2:11), and Revelation tells us that the saints are commandment-keepers (Revelation 14:12).

Some draw this conclusion: “Our attitude must be that all Old Testament laws are presently our obligation unless further revelation from the Lawgiver shows that some change has been made.”6 However, everyone agrees that some Old Testament laws are obsolete. Therefore, we cannot conclude that Jesus meant the continuing validity of all Old Testament laws, nor did Paul mean that all Old Testament laws are normative ethical standards. Since exceptions exist, even the most conservative person must ask which laws are normative today — and the verses of continuity do not answer the question. Since exceptions exist, all verses of continuity need careful qualification, which is not easily done with a prooftext approach.

The prooftexts of continuity may be countered with another series of texts: Jesus argued that Old Testament ethical requirements were not strict enough (Matthew 5:21-32); the most important ethical principles are not even laws in the traditional sense (Matthew 23:23). Christians are not under the law that Moses brought (Acts 15; Galatians 3). The old covenant is obsolete, faded, and set aside (2 Corinthians 3:11; Hebrews 8:13). Old Testament laws are not the best laws, and some are no longer normative. They can be inspired and educational without being requirements today (Colossians 2:11; Hebrews 10:1). We cannot assume that every God-given law reflects God’s character equally, or that every law is as eternal as he is. Some are concessive (an allowance for the people’s hardness of heart) and temporary.

Because exceptions exist, we cannot make blanket statements about “the law” as if they applied to all Old Testament laws. We cannot assume that every law is still normative, nor that every law is obsolete. And since ethical, civil, and ceremonial laws are mixed together in the Torah, we cannot judge a verse by its neighbors. For example, we cannot assume that Leviticus 19:19 is normative even if we believe that all the other verses in the chapter are normative and based on God’s holiness (v. 2). Each law must be judged on its own merits – by standards given in the New Testament.

Even in the Decalogue, we cannot assume that all the verses are equally permanent. Questions about the Sabbath in particular force us to examine this assumption. Further doubt may arise when we note that the Decalogue is equated with the old covenant (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13), a covenant that the New Testament calls temporary and obsolete. It is not just the sacrificial laws that are obsolete — the stone tablets themselves (a clear reference to the Decalogue) are contrasted with a covenant that is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). This suggests the possibility that at least part of the Decalogue may have changed.

Covenant theology

A more thorough case for continuity is developed in covenant theology.7 O. Palmer Robertson argues that “the cumulative evidence of the Scriptures points definitely toward the unified character of the biblical covenants.”8 He notes that Scripture describes several covenants, but that each covenant builds on the previous ones rather than replacing the previous relationship. “The Abrahamic covenant continued to function actively after the institution of the Mosaic covenant…. The Davidic covenant in its turn did not annul or interrupt the Mosaic covenant…. The covenants of Abraham, Moses, and David actually are successive stages of a single covenant.”9 Robertson uses Jeremiah 31:31-34 to conclude that in the new covenant, “the substance of the law will be the same” as in the Sinaitic covenant.10

William J. Dumbrell also argues for continuity in his analysis of Jeremiah 31. He asks, “What is the place of ‘law’ in the New Covenant framework?” He answers by saying that v. 33 refers to the Sinai law — “specifically, one presumes, to the decalogue by which the Sinai covenant was primarily expressed…. God is returning to the original intent of the Sinai covenant.”11 Thomas McComiskey notes that Jeremiah “spoke not of a change in the nature of torah, but of its localization. The covenant context of the passage would certainly lead Jeremiah’s hearers to think in terms of the Mosaic legislation.”12

Covenant theologians stress continuity between the covenants, and, as part of this continuity, they stress the validity of the Decalogue. Willem VanGemeren says, “The Ten Commandments…are the summary of the moral law…. Each one of the Ten Commandments expresses the moral law of God.”13 Robert Knudsen writes, “It is also inconceivable that there will be any changes in the meaning of God’s law as expressed in the Ten Commandments.”14 Tremper Longman draws this conclusion:

Moral law states God’s principles for a right relationship with him and with others. The Ten Commandments are the most visible and powerful expression of God’s will for his people. As we read the New Testament and reflect on the Bible as a whole, we see that these commands are still operative. Thus Jesus heartily approved a legal expert’s summary of the Ten Commandments.15

However, if the Ten Commandments are eternally valid laws, what are we to make of the Sabbath command, which specifically states that God’s people should rest on the seventh day? An eternally valid law cannot be changed or abrogated, so if these theologians are consistent, they should keep the seventh day as a Sabbath, as a day of rest. Most covenant theologians do not, and a variety of explanations are given, all claiming that the New Testament changes the Sabbath command in some way:

1. The Sabbath is changed to the first day of the week, and is still a day of rest. The Westminster Confession 21.7 supported this view and cited some New Testament examples of believers meeting on the first day of the week. However, these examples do not show that the day of rest was changed. The Ten Commandments forbid work on the seventh day; the fact that believers did something else on the first day is logically irrelevant. It is quite possible to keep the seventh day as a Sabbath and to meet on Sunday. The New Testament does not give any imperative about the first day that could correspond to, counter, or change the imperative of the Decalogue about the seventh day. Nor can church tradition overrule a biblical command. The Westminster approach, by claiming the permanent validity of the Decalogue, yet claiming a change within it, creates an internal contradiction that Sabbatarians sometimes exploit.

2. Another alternative to Sabbatarianism is to argue that the day is changed to the first day, and its focus shifts from rest to worship. This approach at least acknowledges that the New Testament verses are about something different than the Old Testament command,16 but it fails to show that the verses are relevant. It does not show that the command to rest is abrogated, nor that there is a command (not just an example) to gather for worship on a specific day of the week. The resurrection of Jesus on a Sunday does not in itself cancel a command regarding the seventh day.

3. A third approach is to argue that the Sabbath command was moral and eternal in requiring people to rest one day each week, but ceremonial in specifying that it must be the seventh day.17 This approach may note the ethical value of requiring rest for servants and animals, but it admits that part of the Decalogue is ceremonial and temporary.18

Whether these arguments are valid or not, they all involve a change in the Sabbath command and therefore imply that the Decalogue is not an unchanging moral law. It would then be misleading to call the Ten Commandments the moral law, as if the entire package were moral law. Individual commandments may well be moral and unchanging, but it is misleading to call the Ten as a unit “the moral law.”

It is therefore appropriate to explore the authority by which the Decalogue might be changed. Let us briefly examine the question of the Sabbath in the New Testament.

Has the Sabbath been changed?

The Gospels describe several incidents involving Jesus and the Sabbath. Although Sabbatarians often cite this as evidence that “Jesus kept the Sabbath,” the text never makes this point. It never uses the word “rest” or “keep” — instead, it describes Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath. Jesus’ example is always one of liberty, of breaking traditional restrictions. Jesus never affirms any Sabbath restrictions, and is never portrayed as supporting the focus of the Sabbath as found in the Old Testament, that is, the avoidance of work.

Moreover, Jesus treated the Sabbath as a ceremonial law, not a moral law. In the grainfield incident, Jesus defended the activity of his disciples by pointing to David breaking a ceremonial law and the priests keeping a ceremonial law (Matthew 12:1-6). The priests are said to “break the Sabbath” by their ceremonial work. The text is not saying that the Sabbath command permitted such work; rather, it is saying that the Sabbath command was violated by the work, but that the ceremonial work was so important that the Sabbath could be broken in order to do it. I cannot imagine Jesus saying that a moral law could be broken because a ritual had to be performed! Rather, he is putting the Sabbath on the same (or lower) level as ceremonial laws. He does this also in John 7:22-23, saying that the requirement to circumcise was more important than the requirement to avoid work on the Sabbath.

Further evidence that the Sabbath law is ceremonial rather than moral: It is patterned after what God did only once, not on his eternal nature. God does not live by a six-one cycle of activity and rest, nor do the angels. The Sabbath command says that behavior that is good one day is forbidden the next, merely because it is a different day of the week. But God’s morality does not change with the rotation of the earth.

The apostles preached on the Sabbath, but they preached on other days, too. Their example is not a command. More important than the apostolic activity on the Sabbath is the apostolic teaching — and the Sabbath was not an important part of their teaching. The word “Sabbath” is found only once in the epistles — in Colossians 2:16. There, Paul puts the Sabbath into the same category as other ceremonial laws (food, drink, festivals and new moons) and says it is not a matter on which Christians should be judging one another. Allusions to the Sabbath may also be seen in Galatians 4:10, where Paul disapproves of the Galatians observing special days, and Romans 14:5, where Paul seemed to be unconcerned about special days.19 These statements support the conclusion that the Sabbath command does not apply to Christians.

The evidence throughout the New Testament is that the Sabbath command was abrogated, without being replaced by any comparable commands. The day that the Decalogue had specified is now unimportant. The rest that the Decalogue commanded is no longer required. It is therefore misleading to call the Decalogue the moral law, as if all ten commandments were moral and permanent. Some are, but the Ten as a unit are not.20 Indeed, because there are internal differences of applicability to Christianity, it is misleading in Christian ethics to treat the Decalogue as a unit. It is a unit within the old covenant, but it does not function as a unit in the New Testament.

Authority for change

If we focus on the Decalogue, we might wonder why a command would become obsolete. But if we view the Torah as a whole, we see hundreds of laws that are no longer in force. The Sabbath is not an isolated case, but a representative case. After we see that the New Testament sets aside hundreds of biblical commands, it is less of a surprise that the list of obsolete laws happens to include the Sabbath, too.

Early Christians may have been surprised that any biblical command (including the sacrifices and rituals) could become unnecessary. If God had given these laws, what human could say that they were done away? Only one authority could do away with canonical commands: God. So we look to the New Testament to see whether it has overturned Old Testament laws, and this will help us clarify the role of the Decalogue in Christian ethics.

The New Testament does not itemize all the valid Old Testament laws, nor all the obsolete ones. Some laws (unclean meats, sin sacrifices, washings) are mentioned; others (tassels on garments, grain offerings) are not. The New Testament quotes some Old Testament commands (even ones that are now obsolete) with approval; others are quoted as being inadequate or in need of replacement (Matthew 5:31-37). Commands from the Decalogue, the Holiness Code, and Deuteronomy are quoted as valid; other commands from those same codes are treated as obsolete. Some are moral and eternal; others are not, and in this, the Decalogue is no different than other Old Testament laws. The Decalogue does not require a different method of interpretation and should not be given special treatment.21

Commands from the last half of the Decalogue may be quoted together, or they can be quoted with another law of similar authority (Matthew 19:18-19). Although the New Testament appropriates most of the Decalogue, it does not cite the Decalogue as a whole as a moral authority for Christians. It uses the last half several times, but never uses the whole. It never even refers to it by name. When the New Testament quotes the last half together, there is no reason to assume that it is endorsing any larger group, such as the Ten, the Book of the Covenant, or the old covenant as a whole. It would be arbitrary to assume any larger group.

Although the New Testament cites many individual Old Testament laws as valid, it does not specify a general category as permanently valid.22 However, when it declares laws obsolete, it uses large categories. In Acts 15, it is “the law of Moses.” In 1 Corinthians 9:20, it is “the law.” In Galatians 3:17, it is “the law” that came 430 years after Abraham, that is, at the time of Moses. In Ephesians 2:15 it is “the law with its commandments and ordinances,” the law that separated Jews from gentiles. In Hebrews 8:13 it is the Sinai covenant. Although various terms are used, there is a consistency in what is meant. A large category of law is being declared obsolete. That does not mean that every command within the category is obsolete, but the package itself is.

What is the New Testament explanation for this significant change in divinely given laws? It is a change in covenants. The book of Hebrews makes this clear in chapters 7 to 10. Although the focus in Hebrews is on the ceremonial laws relevant to the priesthood, the conclusion is more broadly stated — it is the covenant itself that is obsolete (8:13). A new covenant has replaced the Sinai-Moses covenant. The Sabbath, which was a sign of the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 31:16-17), is obsolete, and so is the covenant itself. The new covenant has some similarities to the old, but it is a new covenant.

Hebrews uses strong terms: laws are set aside, changed, abrogated, abolished, because one covenant has ended and another has begun. Of course, since the old and the new covenants were given by the same God, we should expect some similarities. We should expect truly moral laws to be found in both covenants. It should be no surprise that laws against adultery, which predated Abraham, should also be included in Sinai, a later and larger package of laws. But we accept those laws as moral not because they were given to Moses (the fact that a law was given to Moses does not automatically make it moral), but for other reasons.

Paul tells us that the law of Moses was a temporary addition to the Abrahamic promises (Galatians 3:16-25). The Sinai covenant, which includes the Decalogue, civil laws and ceremonial laws, came 430 years after Abraham, and it was designed to come to an end when Christ came. John Goldingay puts it this way: “Paul does not mean that the Hebrew scriptures are annulled. Indeed, his argument that the law is annulled appeals to these scriptures. But he does assert that they are no longer binding as law.23 And the Bible makes no exception for the core of the Sinai covenant, the Decalogue.

Paul deals with the Decalogue directly in 2 Corinthians 3, where he describes laws written on stone tablets and Moses’ face shining with glory. It is clear that he is talking about the Ten Commandments, and he calls them “the ministry of death” (3:7). He is not talking about the administration of the Decalogue, as Walter Kaiser claims24 — he is saying that the “ministry of death” itself was chiseled on the stone. The word “ministry” in this verse refers not to administration, but to the Ten Commandments themselves. That is what was chiseled on stone, and that is what was fading. Paul is talking about Moses’ glory because it parallels the Mosaic covenant. It once had glory, but no longer does because it has been eclipsed by the new covenant. In verse 11, he says something that “came through glory” was “set aside.” It is the stone tablets that came in glory, and it is these stone tablets that have been set aside, replaced by “the permanent” (the new covenant), which came in greater glory.

In other words, the Ten Commandments have been set aside, and we should expect at least some change in it. We do not look to the stone tablets as the standard of godly living. Every moral law within the Decalogue is also found outside of the Decalogue, and one of the Ten has specifically been annulled in the New Testament. The Decalogue is neither sufficient nor necessary for Christian ethics. Saying, “It’s one of the Ten Commandments” is no more proof of current validity than saying, “It’s in Deuteronomy.”25

An Old Testament law’s validity cannot be assessed by its location — it must be assessed by new covenant criteria.26 Theft is immoral not because God happened to forbid it in the Decalogue, but because by new covenant principles we can see that it was immoral long before God gave this law to Moses. Love is moral not because it was written on stone (it wasn’t), but because it was moral long before the Torah was written. The Decalogue is not the standard of comparison we need; its role in Christian ethics is ambiguous. It proves nothing in itself.

Morality of nine commandments

In showing that the Sabbath command has been abrogated, in showing that the Decalogue as a package has been set aside and that it should not be our primary point of reference, we do not mean to say that Christians have no moral standards, no ethical duties. The New Testament has hundreds of commands, hundreds of behavioral expectations for how forgiven people should respond to their Savior. Some of these commands are also found in the Decalogue, but their validity does not rest on the fact that they were on the stone tablets. As shown by the Sabbath command, we cannot equate stone with permanence. The validity of such laws rests on moral principles that transcend the specific situation of Sinai.

Jesus affirmed the validity of the first commandment (Matthew 4:10), and of five more (Matthew 19:18-19). But the two most important commandments were not even in the Decalogue (Matthew 22:37-39; 23:23); Jesus also said that true morality went beyond the wording of the Decalogue (Matthew 5:21-28).27 The Decalogue, when isolated from its historical context in Exodus (as it often is in Christian moralizing), easily becomes a mere list of rules, a legalism.

Jesus was not claiming to be simply a better interpreter of Moses — he claimed to have more authority than Moses. He allowed what the law of Moses did not (John 8:1-11) and forbade something that Moses allowed (Matthew 5:33-34). He was setting a new standard for right conduct. In Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples, he told them to teach people to obey, but the standard he gave was not the Decalogue, but his own teaching. Jesus’ teaching is a better basis for ethics than the Decalogue is, and it is unethical for us to refer people to an inferior standard when a better one is available.28

Law as story

What then are we to do with the Decalogue? How are we to approach it as Scripture inspired by God, “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16)? We should approach it in the way it is written – as a report of what God gave his people in the time of Moses. We read it as a narrative first, before jumping to conclusions that we are supposed to obey every command within it.

The Decalogue, like other Old Testament laws, was given as a norm for Israelite behavior. That was its original intent. However, the New Testament tells us that the Old Testament is informative but not normative. If we approach the Torah as law, as command, then we quickly run into erroneous conclusions about what Christians are required to do — thus showing that this approach to the Bible is not valid. A different model for reading is needed, and the narrative model takes the text seriously yet without leading to erroneous conclusions.29

Even the commands must be read as part of a narrative. When we read in Genesis 17 that the males among God’s people were to be circumcised, we do not assume that we should do so today. When we read in Exodus 13 that God’s people are to have a festival of flat bread, we do not assume that we should do so today. Those commands were given for a specific people. So also the commands we find in Exodus 20. They begin with this preface: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This gives a historical context to the situation: it was a multitude of just-escaped slaves, in a desert, surrounded by polytheistic nations. And God gave them laws that would compensate for their lack of civic experience, laws that would help them resist polytheism, laws that would help them become a distinct nation, laws that would help them structure society in a new land. These laws were good for their situation, but it is another question as to whether those same laws are good for us today in our situations. This is to be explored, not assumed.

Much of the Old Testament is narrative. Nevertheless, 2 Timothy 3 can say that this type of writing, since it is part of Scripture, is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Stories can help inform our ethics. They can illustrate consequences, misunderstandings, deficiencies and flexibilities. The story of Abraham and circumcision is useful for teaching and for training in righteousness without requiring us to practice circumcision. The commands about sacrifice are to be read as story, not as commands for us today. The details may be useful typologically, but they are read first in the context of a story, not as currently valid law. Even the civil laws of the Old Testament are useful illustrations of how moral principles may be fleshed out in a specific culture.30

Genesis is a story, and in that story God gave certain commands and implied other commands. Some of them apply to us today and some do not. Exodus continues that story and gives more commands, commands about how people should worship, how to behave with one another and what to do when someone disobeys. Some of these commands apply to us today; others do not. So we must see them first in the context the books give them: a covenant or arrangement God made with a specific people at a specific time in history, a covenant God has now revealed to be obsolete. The commands that God gave them are instructive but not necessarily imperative for us. They may have exemplary value, and may be reinterpreted for different contexts. Their ethical value must be cautiously explored, not assumed,31 and in our evaluation we must give greater weight to the New Testament revelation, the part of the canon that has the authority to cancel and change the laws of the OT.

Christopher Wright explains a helpful “paradigmatic” approach:

I would regard “paradigm” as a useful category for ethically understanding and applying the Old Testament itself…. We do not think in terms of literal imitation of Israel. We cannot simply transpose the social laws of an ancient people into the modern world and try to make them work as written…. On the other hand, the social system of Israel cannot be dismissed as…totally inapplicable to either the Christian church or the rest of mankind. If Israel was meant to be a light to the nations (cf. Is. 49:6), then that light must be allowed to illuminate.32

Wright notes “the narrative framework in which they [the Old Testament laws] are set”33 and provides a method for moving from narrative to principle and back to a modern situation. The goal is to see how the law functioned within Israelite society, and the general principle involved. The same law might function similarly in modern society, or significant modifications might be needed to achieve the same benefits today. The specificity of the Old Testament laws encourages us to seek practical specificity for the same principles today.34

In summary, the New Testament says that 1) certain laws are moral, holy, just and good; 2) certain Old Testament laws are obsolete; 3) the Sinai covenant and the Sinai Decalogue are obsolete in their legal authority; 4) however, specific laws remain valid; and 5) we can learn something about righteousness even from laws that are no longer valid.

When we study Old Testament ethics, the Decalogue is an important law code. It tells us basic ethical rules of what God gave those people back then. This is a major statement of the ethic that the Old Testament presents. But that is descriptive for ancient Israel, not prescriptive for Christian ethics. Christians have been told to look to Jesus Christ as a greater authority, a better ethical example and a better teacher of righteous living.

Practical consequences

Since the Sabbath command has been rescinded in the New Testament, no one should preach or imply that the Decalogue is a valid ethical standard for Christians. It is not. It has an important exception in the middle of it, and it is confusing to say Ten when only Nine are meant. It is inaccurate and misleading. Moreover, Christians have a better ethical standard in the New Testament — a bigger body of literature with better ethical balance. We have the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

Of course, the Christian church has used the Decalogue for centuries, from the second century onwards. But it is also clear that affirmations about the Decalogue have been turned into Sabbatarianism and legalism, and this shows that the traditional veneration of the Decalogue is a theological mistake. We should point people to Christ, not to Moses, for instruction on how to live like a Christian.

Endnotes

1 Hebrews 8:13 and 2 Timothy 3:16. The New Testament does not say that the Old Testament Scriptures are obsolete. Rather, it says that the old covenant is obsolete. This distinction should be taken seriously, and intend to take both thoughts seriously.

2 For a survey of conservative views, see Wayne Strickland, ed. Counterpoint: Five Views of Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996). In general, Covenant theologians in the Calvinist tradition stress continuity; Lutherans and Dispensationalists give more emphasis to obsolescence.

3 Willard M. Swartley uses the Sabbath as one example in Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Scottsdale, Pa.: Herald, 1983), though without drawing conclusions about the Sabbath itself. This paper agrees with the majority Christian view that the seventh-day Sabbath is not required today. Some of the reasons will be given in this paper, but for a more detailed defense of this view, see “What Do the Scriptures Say About the Sabbath?” (https://www.gci.org/law/sabbath1, originally published in 1995 by the Worldwide Church of God, Pasadena, California).

4 Such statements are found in the “Decalogue” articles of Carl F. H. Henry, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973), Francesco Cardinal Roberti, comp., Dictionary of Moral Theology (London: Burns & Oates, 1962), and David J. Atkinson, ed., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995).

5 I do not use “prooftext” here as a pejorative term. There are certain key verses on which claims are built.

6 Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, Tx.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), p. 3. Bahnsen ignores many New Testament scriptures that weaken his view: Acts 15, 2 Corinthians 3:7-11, Galatians 3:15-4:31; Colossians 2:16; Hebrews 7:12, 18; 8:13. Some of these are not even in his index; others are dismissed in a single sentence or paragraph.

7 Mark W. Karlberg traces the history of this concept back to Zwingli, Bullinger, and Calvin (“Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant,” Westminster Theological Journal 43 (1980) 1-57). Calvin wrote, “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in mode of administration” (Institutes II.10.2, cited in Karlberg, p. 16). The Westminster Confession 7.6 describes the Mosaic and Christian administrations in this way: “There are not then two essentially different covenants of grace, but one and the same covenant under different dispensations.”

8 O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), p. 28.

9 Ibid., pp. 33, 41. I believe that “successive” is the wrong word here. The Davidic covenant came after the Mosaic covenant and was in continuity with it, but was not its successor in the sense of replacing it. The Davidic covenant made promises to the line of David, but the Mosaic covenant remained, and was dominant. However, distinctions between various Old Testament covenants are only marginally relevant to this paper. We will focus on the distinction between the Sinaitic covenant and the new covenant brought by Jesus Christ.

10 Ibid., p. 41; similar phrases are on pp. 281-282 — “essentially the same law.” Robertson defends the continuing validity of the (Sunday) Sabbath on pp. 69-74. Space does not permit point-by-point refutation.

11 William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker and Carlisle, U.K.: Paternoster, 1993), pp. 178, 180.

12 Thomas Edward McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), p. 84. Dennis E. Johnson, although in the Reformed tradition, says that Jeremiah 31 “clearly implied the obsoleteness and inadequacy of the Mosaic covenant” in his article “The Epistle to the Hebrews and the Mosaic Penal Sanctions,” in William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 183. The text of Jeremiah 31 may be interpreted with either emphasis, and we must look to the New Testament to see whether the laws of the new covenant are identical to those of the old, and whether all Ten Commandments are valid.

13 Willem A. VanGemeren, “The Law Is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective,” in Wayne G. Strickland, ed., The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 29-30. The Westminster Confession 19.2-3 also equated the Ten Commandments with the moral law.

14 “May We Use the Term Theonomy…?” in William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, eds., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 35. Knudsen would probably phrase this differently if he were arguing against Sabbatarians instead of theonomists. It illustrates the Calvinist emphasis on continuity.

15 Tremper Longman III, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 110.

16 The Sabbath command focuses almost exclusively on the avoidance of work as the essence of keeping the Sabbath. Worship is not the focus. Leviticus 23:3 says that the seventh day is a day of “holy convocation,” but this involved only a portion of the Israelites. Most lived too far from the sanctuary to assemble there each Sabbath. After synagogues were developed, the Sabbath was used for worship, but this was a later development.

17 Walter C. Kaiser expresses this view: “This command is mixed: it is both moral and ceremonial: moral in that it requires of men and women a due portion of their time set aside for rest, for worship, and service of God; ceremonial in that it fixed that day as the seventh day” (Toward Old Testament Ethics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991], p. 89). However, the Decalogue says nothing about the Sabbath being a day for worship.

18 This approach also appears to make arbitrary distinctions between moral and ceremonial. If the day of the week is a ceremonial matter, why not the length of the cycle? Would one hour out of every seven be sufficient? Would it be more moral to rest one day out of every six, and less moral to rest one day out of every eight?

19 Some exegetes deny that these verses have anything to do with the weekly Sabbath. Space does not permit a more detailed defense.

20 Douglas Moo makes a similar point when he writes, “I am not denying that the Mosaic law, especially the Ten Commandments, contains principles and requirements that reflect God’s eternal moral will. My point, rather, is that the Mosaic law is not identical with this eternal moral law” (“Response to Willem A. VanGemeren,” in Wayne G. Strickland, ed., The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian, p. 84).

21 “There is no evidence that Jesus isolated the Ten Commandments from the rest of the Mosaic law and put them in a separate category” (Moo, p. 87).

22 As discussed above, scriptures proclaiming continuity in sweeping terms — Matthew 5:17, Romans 7:12, etc. — are so sweeping that they do not help us understand the critical question of which laws are valid and which are not. They do not describe a valid category in distinction from an obsolete category.

23 Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), p. 44. Similarly, he writes, “the New Testament writers utilize such law for theological purposes, even though they see its legal function as over; it is still the word of God, even if it is no longer the command of God” (Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], pp. 108-109).

24 Kaiser, Toward, p. 313. Kaiser notes that the gospel may also be called a smell of death, but then in a non sequitur he concludes from this, “Thus it is not the Ten Commandments per se that are a ministration of death” (ibid.).

25 The logic of such statements is false for the Sabbath command, and the logic is therefore false. Saying “It’s in the Ten Commandments” proves nothing. It is only after that we learn which command is being discussed that we can ascertain whether the command is valid today, and we ascertain that by principles outside of and more authoritative than the Decalogue, most particularly the New Testament. So, why point to an inconclusive and secondary standard? It is better to point to the more authoritative principles from the beginning.

26 “It is only as we look at the way that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament treat the commandments of the Mosaic law that we can know which ones continue to apply directly to us and which ones no longer do. The Mosaic commandments, then, are not directly applicable to us, but only as they are passed on to us by Christ” (Moo, pp. 87-88). Moo then cites the Sabbath command to illustrate his point (p. 88).

27 It is true that Jesus referred to oral law (“You have heard that it was said…”), but in these cases the oral law was a direct quote of the written law. Jesus did not argue that the written law actually meant what he was teaching. Rather, he based his teachings on his own authority (“But I say unto you…”). See Douglas Moo for further discussion (“The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” in Strickland, pp. 347-356). However, even if Jesus merely interpreted Moses correctly, it would be poor practice to point people to the enigmatic original instead of the more complete interpretation.

28 John G. Reisinger rightly asks, “If the Sermon on the Mount and the new covenant epistles do indeed teach a higher and more spiritual standard of holy living than the Law of Moses, do we not…lower the actual standard of holiness under which a Christian is to live when we send him back to Moses to learn ethics and morality?” (Christ: Lord and Lawgiver Over the Church [Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 1998], p. 16).

29 John Goldingay points out additional respectful ways for Christians to read the Old Testament: as a description of faith in God, a story of salvation, and a witness to Christ (Approaches to Old Testament Interpretation). For ethics, his chapter 2 is most appropriate: “The Old Testament as a Way of Life” (pp. 38-65).

30 Moo notes that “the detailed stipulations of the Mosaic law often reveal principles that are part of God’s word to his people in both covenants, and believers continue to profit from what the law teaches in this respect” (p. 376, emphasis added). But this validity is to be argued on New Testament principles, not assumed in advance.

31 In viewing Old Testament laws “neutrally,” we are beginning with a bias toward discontinuity. We do not begin by assuming the law to be valid, but by saying that we do not consider it valid until it is proven to be valid. Thus, even though the New Testament does not specifically repeal the laws of tassels and mezzuzim, we do not consider them required. Bestiality provides an opposite illustration. Even though the New Testament does not reaffirm this particular Old Testament law, we believe the prohibition to be valid — not simply because the Old Testament says so, but because we believe that principles within the New Testament itself lead to this conclusion.

32 Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 43-44; see also pp. 175-180. He also describes a typological approach, which is similar, for application within the church.

33 Wright, Eye, p. 21.

34 “At the very least it will keep us earthed, by showing that general principles must have particular outworking and affect the local, culture-bound specifics of human life…. If our ethics are all vague generalities, then we have not listened to Old Testament law” (ibid., p. 159). Wright shows the importance of seeking principles behind the laws: “You will not find a section of ‘moral law’ denouncing slavery, not even in the Ten Commandments. But you do find a moral principle operative within the civil law, which, when put alongside other Old Testament passages on the subject…questions and undermines the whole institution” (p. 154).

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