By Brad Finkbeiner
Published May 2, 2008
Ministers of Christ or Ministers of Stone?
Many have been taught to look to Moses as the standard of right and wrong and to Christ as the remedy for their violation of that standard. We find holiness in Moses and forgiveness in Christ. From Christ we learn of our alien perfection, but from Moses we learn of God’s personal perfection. But this view overlooks Christ’s centrality and robs Him of His majesty. For He did not merely pay for our sins and cloak us with His righteousness, He also serves as our law by exposing our sins by modeling that righteousness. If Christ incarnated God’s perfect character, it is impossible to look upon a higher and more objective standard; it is impossible, therefore, to acquire a more optimal awareness of our depravity. And by gazing upon the brilliance of Christ’s light a believer does not merely see their own sinfulness, they also see their own righteousness, i.e., the righteousness of Christ made theirs by faith. So focusing upon Christ brings conviction and comfort, sobriety and security, purification and empowerment. He Himself is our Law and Gospel; Christ is our all in all.
Theonomists argue thus: “Since God’s character is immutable and the Mosaic Law ‘reflects’ God’s character, the Mosaic Law must be immutable.” This is the logical umbilical cord that keeps Christians attached to Moses. But if the word “reflect” is taken literally, the argument actually works against Theonomy. For if God’s character is the light “reflected by” the tablets of stone, then those tablets are merely the mirror and not the light itself. I grant that the Light is immutable. But the mirror off which the Light is reflected is certainly not. Unlike the Tablets, Christ is not a mirror; as He Himself said, “I am the Light.” In the incarnate Christ the rays of God’s immutable character have been eternally captured and conveyed in all their brilliance-Christ is “the radiance of God’s glory,” the “exact representation of God’s nature” (Heb 1). The stony tablets came to man with a “fading glory” (2 Cor 3) but the glory of Christ is everlasting. An appreciation of this point will not merely lead one to the rejection of Theonomy; it will set them on the path to a truly Christian view of ethics.
1. The Abolition of the Old Covenant (OC) Entailed the Abolition of the Old Law (OL)
If the OC is still operative, the OL is still binding. The question is whether the OL can continue to bind if the OC has been rendered inoperative. I will here argue that, because of the organic relation between the OC and OL, the OL continues to bind only if the OC is still operative. For if the OL was organically related to, and thus inseparable with the OC, the OC and OL stand or fall together.
The reality of that organic relation was implied by the expression “tablets of the covenant” (Dt 9:9). Moses identified the covenant with the Decalogue: “So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, that is, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone (Deut 4:13). Elsewhere he identifies the covenant with all the commandments, not just the ten-the “book of the covenant” consisted of “all the words of the Lord” that Moses had written down (Dt 24:3,4, also 8). All these words together comprised the “book of the covenant” in which the content of the covenant was to be found (v.4). Given the inseparable relationship of the MC and OL, we may infer that if the OC is not operative the OL is not binding. As we’ll see, the OC was in fact abolished.
The author of Hebrews’ use of the expression “the tables of the covenant” (9:4) reveals his belief in the organic nature of those commandments to the covenant they explicated, the covenant he clearly identifies as abolished. After noting that “there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness,” the author goes on to say “on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” This better hope is identified as a “better covenant” (7:22), the one of which “Jesus has become the guarantee.” Significantly, the setting aside of the old commandment was conditioned upon the inauguration of a new, better covenant. He later adds that Jesus “has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (8:7). He also adds: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second” (8). That such an occasion has been sought implies that the OC was faulty. Indeed, after the author states “For finding fault with them…” he goes on to quote Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant, after which he says: “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.” Later he writes: “He takes away the first in order to establish the second” (10:9, italics mine).
Paul not only confirms the organic union of the OC and OL, he argues that being out from under the former is to be out from under the latter (Gal 4). He speaks of “two covenants,” one being identified with Sinai, Hagar and first century Jerusalem; this was a covenant of “slavery.” Significantly, it is into this category that Paul places those “who want to be under law” (v.21;as I’ll later demonstrate, the term “under law” (hypo nomon) refers to the Law’s jurisdiction). Paul says this covenant has been supplanted by one under which people live “free” within the gates of a heavenly Jerusalem. To be hypo nomon is to be enslaved within the gates of the old Jerusalem; incidentally, the destruction of her gates in 70AD represented the destruction of the entire servile system of the OC.
2. The Inauguration of the New Covenant Entails the Inauguration of a New Law
Though Jeremiah does not speak of a “new law,” the concept is implied (chap 31). The newness of that law is not merely modal, that is, in hearts rather than on stones. For if the OL, as the stipulations of the OC, is really just the content of the OC, then the new covenant (NC) requires a substantively new law (NL).
Before demonstrating how Jesus confirms this logical truism allow me to answer a common objection. Concerning the phrase “My Law on their hearts…” Theonomists argue that since the Jews would have thought of the OL, the NL would be substantively identical. But this Dispensational hermeneutic forces them into a nasty corner. For the prophesy goes on to say: “If this fixed order departs….then the offspring of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever” (36). Now then, just as the Jews would’ve become mindful of the OL by the term “My Law,” so too the term “nation” would have been understood by them as the physical nation defined by that Law-as Dispensationalists argue. But Theonomists rightly criticize their Dispensational brethren for relying on the Hebraic understanding, arguing that “nation” had a deeper meaning, i.e., the New Covenant Church. They justify this interpretation with an appeal to the NT. But if they can allot a specialized meaning to the term “nation,” why can’t they allow a specialized meaning to “My Law”? Moreover, if we literally rely on the Hebraic understanding of “My Law” (which would have been all 613 laws) then we’re forced to say that laws such as “Do not eat fish without scales” would also be written upon our hearts. That’s absurd.
Indeed, if we allow the NT to interpret the OT we’ll find the OL has been replaced by a NL. During the discourse of the last supper, when Christ broke bread and poured out wine as a symbolic gesture of His broken body and spilt blood, a gesture indicative of the soon to be inaugurated “new covenant,” we read that at that time He also spoke of a “new commandment.” It is absolutely imperative for us to acknowledge this for what it is, a substantively new law-to “love even as I have loved”(John 13:34).
a. “To Love Even As I Have Loved”
Immediately before he records Christ’s new law, John wrote: “Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of his love” (13:1). John then records how Jesus washed their feet, leaving them an example to selflessly serve one another. Keep in mind that this discourse was given immediately prior to His crucifixion, an event the disciples still failed to apprehend. As the final lesson to His disciples, this supper discourse represents the culmination of Jesus’ teaching; it represents the heart of His doctrine. Interestingly, we find this new claim stressed several times during the supper (14:15, 21, 23, 24; 15:10,12,13,14,17).
A review of these texts shows that the one thing Jesus does not say is “If you love Me keep Moses’ commandments.” But if Jesus is simply requiring men to do what Moses required, why is He putting so much focus on His commands? Why doesn’t He simply tell them to obey those of Moses, as Theonomic pastors so diligently do?
Moses did require the Israelites to love their neighbors (Lev19:18), but not in the same manner that Christ loved. Christ’s love was “new” because it was greater than Mosaic love. Jesus clearly identified His manner of loving as greater than anything they were accustomed to, even as might be found in Moses. For He said “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (15:13, italics mine) and nowhere does Moses command one to lay down his life for another. Washing His disciples’ feet provided but a taste of that unfathomable love exhibited upon the cross. As Paul noted: “God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). We’re to love in that way! One will search the Torah in vain for such a requirement; there is not even a single command to forgive. Hence Jesus was not reiterating Moses; He was commanding His disciples to go above and beyond Mosaic duty. For example:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:38-42).
This is most empathically NOT Moses speaking here! Christ was not simply reiterating the Tablets. If we restrict ourselves to what the Law actually said, to what it literally required, we’ll find it did not require the sort of love required by Jesus.
Consider the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). By referring to the chapter the reader will find this lonely requirement floating quietly within a galaxy of prohibitions. It is no surprise that Jews were led to interpret this as “Do not do unto others what you do not want them to do unto you”-as many still do today. The term “your neighbor” is contextually defined as “your fellow countrymen” and “the sons of your people.” Since there was no obligation to direct this love toward those outside the physical covenant community, the Jews inferred that they could hate such people-non sequitur though it was. Jesus addresses this point: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” He then continued: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48, italics mine).
It is this additional commandment to love one’s enemy that characterizes Jesus’ new law to love “even as I have loved.” For Christ expressed His love by serving and then dying for His enemies. Concerning Christians Paul says, “we were children of wrath, even as the rest, but God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:3-5). That Jesus Himself believed in some sort of substantive difference between loving friends and enemies is clear: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”
That the law “love your neighbor as yourself” is not identical to “love even as I have loved” can also be proved from the fact that Jesus did not love others merely as He wanted others to love Him. Since He was sinless, there was no need for others to forgive Him, yet He forgave others.
It is sometimes suggested that Christ came to restore us to the upright estate of prelapsarian man. But since Christlike love is a love for sinners and since there was no sin before the Fall, Christlike love could not have been exercised before the Fall. Without an offense there’s nothing to forgive. As Christians, who no longer live in a sinless Edenic environment, we are commanded to forgive as Christ forgave. Hence the restoration of the prelapsarian ideal does not constitute our ethical goal. We’re to go above and beyond mere Edenic rectitude.
Theonomists argue that since John (in his epistle) defines “love” as obeying the Lord’s commandment, love must be defined as obedience to the ML. But this reasoning smuggles in the assumption that the “commandment” John is referring to is Mosaic. To the contrary, John expressly identified the commandment as the “new” one given by Christ, the one he recorded in his gospel. He writes: “I am not writing a new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. On the other hand, I am writing a new commandment…” (2:7-8). Is John speaking in riddles here? No. He’s simply being ironic. The reference to “the beginning” in the phrase “an old commandment which you have had from the beginning” is interpreted for us earlier in the epistle-“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life” (1:1). John is clearly referring to the incarnate Christ and His three-year ministry among the disciples. Hence the commandment that John’s audience “had from the beginning” was not that given 1500 years earlier at Sinai. It was the commandment given by Jesus only a handful of years earlier. This is why John could call it “old” and “new.” It was old because they had already heard it, but it was new when they heard it. It is still new in the sense that Jesus permanently named it so.
According to Bahnsen, “men are committed to keeping that law code which gives expression to genuine love” (TICE, 253). This assertion explains why a Theonomist might struggle to exhibit Christlike love. They are not looking to the expression of the genuinely genuine love. Which of the Ten Commandments tells us to forgive others? Which of those commands requires us to bless our enemies? Those of us who are harboring an unforgiving spirit will derive no conviction from the Tablets. As long as we meditate upon the Law we will have no legal reason to love one’s enemies. But every time I look to Christ I see within myself an unforgiving heart and only He exposes that.
b. The Incarnate Standard
Paul said he was not under the ML but rather the “law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:20). He later defines obedience to this law as “bearing one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). The NL is a servant ethic, an ethic of restoring destitute lives with the healing balm of grace. It was partly on this account that Paul did not – like Theonomic pastors – encourage his flocks to look to Moses. For Moses required only a generic morality, what the Gentiles themselves already knew apart from Moses (Rom 2:14-15). Instead, Paul constantly tells us to follow living examples of Christlike love in order to know how we’re to walk: “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Php 3:17). Again: “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you…but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example” (2 Thes 3:7,9).
Paul had us follow his example because he himself was following Christ, our ultimate example-“I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Peter kept his Lord’s words in mind: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” (1 Pet 2:21). The author of Hebrews states “…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:1-3, italics mine).
Not only did Christ demonstrate perfect uprightness-in which case the Law is superfluous-He also went above and beyond it by exemplifying grace. To look upon Him is to see much more than what can be found written upon the Tablets. In keeping with the assumption that Christ came only to conform us to Moses, Theonomic pastors encourage their flock to dwell upon and emulate not Christ but rather the cold, lifeless and abstract imperatives of stone. Flocks fed on Moses are thus flocks starved in the doctrines of Christian charity (I consider it no coincidence that Theonomists rant and rave about penal justice; yet how can those to whom Christ refused justice be so obsessed with giving it to others?).
God predestined us to be “conformed the image of His Son” (Rom 8:29, italics mine), not the Tablets of stone. He is the most complete and concrete expression of God’s loving character, the character we’re to emulate. But the Theonomic paradigm holds Christ up merely as an example of how to obey Moses; He is thus Moses’ servant. How contrary to the truth! Moses was buried with Christ, but he did not rise with Him. To dig up Moses is to throw Christ back in the grave. Christ’s death is the key to understanding this sobering claim.
3. Though Jesus Did Not Abolish The Law By His Life, He Did Abolish It By His Death
Because Christ was born under the OC and thus “under the Law” He acted in accordance with it. Indeed, as long as He remained under the OL He would not abrogate it. Since both covenants could not be simultaneously operative, the OC and its law would be in effect till the NC was inaugurated. And since the NC could be inaugurated only by His death, the living Christ necessarily remained under the OC and its law. But with His death the NC became operative and the OC became inoperative, as did its law. The author of Hebrews explicitly teaches this:
“For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood” (9:15-18).
Paul likewise confirms this point: “For He himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace…” (Eph.2:14,15). The subject of the past tense verb “abolished” is the “Law of commandments contained in ordinances.” Christ came to abolish (katargeo) the enmity “which is” the Law. Some would say that Christ abolished the so-called “ceremonial” laws only, for the context is concerned with the cultic separation of Jews from Gentiles. Yet even if we grant this artificial view (and I do not), the Theonomist cannot consistently do so. For Theonomy teaches that in fulfilling the “intention” or “underlying principle” of the ceremonial laws, Christ did not abolish them.
4. Paul Confirms That The Law Has Been Abrogated
The above text is but one of many that speak of the OL as abrogated. In numerous non-legal contexts Paul uses the term katargeo to designate abolishment, e.g., in reference to the physical body being done away with (1 Cor 6:13) as well as the body of sin (Rom 6:6); also to the passing away of the worldly rulers (1 Cor 2:6) and the nullification of the worldly great (1 Cor 1:28); also to the doing away of imperfect knowledge (1 Cor 13:8,10) and the abolishment of death (1 Cor 15:24,26; 2 Tim 1:10); also to the termination of the lawless one (2 Thes 2:8) and the Judaizers severance from Christ (Gal 3:17); also to (hypothetically) the nullification of the Abrahamic covenant\ promise (Rom 4:14; Gal 3:17) and (again hypothetically) to the faithfulness of God (Rom 3:3); and finally to the (again hypothetically) abolished stumbling block of Christ (Gal 5:11). In all these non-legal contexts the term katargeo denotes destruction.
Having noted Paul’s use of katargeo in Eph 2, I’ll now address its use in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18. According to this text, a glory is fading away. But what glory is it? Paul clearly refers to the glory of Moses’ face in the first and third mentions of the fading glory. Bahnsen claims that the second use also refers to Moses’ face. He concludes that it is only the glory of Moses’ face that faded away, not the Mosaic Law itself. But Bahnsen not only misses the logical flow of Paul’s reasoning here, he completely trivializes the text. Paul is arguing that since the glory of Moses’ face represented the glory of the Covenant and the Law, the fading of the glory upon his face represented the fading of their glory as well. Note also that it was not merely Moses’ face that is explicitly said to have possessed glory. Paul says that “ministry of death” and the “ministry of condemnation” (synonyms for one and the same ministry) came with glory also. Be it fully understood that this ministry came “in letters engraved on stone.” It is identified as the “tablets of stone,” the Ten Commandments. Moses’ face represented the glory of that ministry. Therefore, the fading glory of Moses’ face represented the fading glory of the ministry itself. Immediately after referring to the Decalogue by “ministry of death” and “ministry of condemnation,” Paul stated: “For indeed what had glory, in this case has no glory because of the glory that surpasses it. For if that which fades away was with glory, much more that which remains is in glory.” In this statement we find the second use of katargeo. We also read that the Decalogue “had glory” (past tense) and “has no glory” (present tense). Hence, in saying that the glory of the new Law “surpasses” the glory of the old, Paul is not making a relativistic comparison (i.e., that the old still has glory but not as much as the new, as Bahnsen unbelievably claims), but an absolute contrast; it is only the New Covenant that “remains.” With the phrases “reading of the Old covenant” and “whenever Moses is read” (recall that Moses himself called the Law “the book of the covenant”) Paul is clearly thinking of the Decalogue and the other 603 commandments.
The temporal nature of the Mosaic Law was hidden by Moses’ veil. Moses only allowed the Israelites to see his face when it was fully illuminated, before it faded away. By keeping them from seeing the temporal nature of his glorified face, he kept them from seeing the temporal nature of the Law. This veiling was a judicial hardening for their disobedience in making the golden calf. In saying that the sons of Israel could not “look intently at the end of what was fading away” (i.e., the glory of Moses face) Paul is trying to show that failure to see the temporal nature of that glory was indicative of their failure to hear and understand the temporal purpose of Moses’ Law. Because of their rebellious hearts they were unable to perceive its fading glory. Hence we read: “But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (italics mine). Since Paul spent his days debating stubborn Jews who did not believe that the Mosaic Law had passed away, he could rightly say that the veil Moses placed over his face still remained over their hearts.
NC believers are likened to Moses; as he went into the presence of the Lord and came out illuminated, so we are transformed daily through the Spirit (18). Though we are not outwardly glowing as Moses was, we are transformed inwardly (chap 4). But our glorious transformation is not deficient and temporal; it will be complete and everlasting.
When Paul rhetorically asked the Corinthians “Do we need as some, letters of commendation to you or from you?” (2 Cor 3:1), he was making the rather profound point that the Corinthians themselves were his letter and that the Spirit of Christ Himself was the One who commended him. But the Corinthians were a letter “written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on the tablets of human hearts” (v.3). This was Paul’s clever way of assuring them that he was a servant of a “new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills but the Spirit gives life.”
God had made a covenantal change, from a covenant of the letter to a covenant of the Spirit, from tablets of stone to tablets of the human heart, from a ministry of death to a ministry of life, from the ministry of condemnation to a ministry of righteousness. Paul’s discussion reveals that the Mosaic Law was a temporal code that is no longer operative. As the old law defined an old covenant, the new law defined a new covenant. Hence with the coming of a new covenant and its new law, the old covenant and its old law passed away.
I’ll next address Romans 7:1-14. Logically, the statement “the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives” need not refer to only the Mosaic Law. The first statement may be taken as a general principal. But the parenthetical comment reveals that Paul is addressing this general principle to Jewish Christians in particular. As the first sentence makes clear, Paul is concerned with the jurisdiction of the Law. More specifically, he is addressing one of the necessary conditions for being under its jurisdiction and binding regulations. The necessary condition being dealt with here is simply being alive. Obviously a law cannot bind the dead. Dead men are no longer obligated to pay taxes, for example. So too in the case of marriage: A living wife can only be bound to a living husband; when he dies, the bonds are dissolved. In fact, it is only because those ties have been severed that she cannot be charged with breaking them when she remarries. Since the marital obligation has utterly dissolved it is not there to be violated.
It is with this example in mind that Paul wanted Jewish believers to understand their former obligations to the Law. Significantly, Paul does not say that the Law, as the Jew’s husband, has died, but that the Jews, as the Law’s wife, have died. But the principle is nevertheless the same. For just as a living wife is no longer under the jurisdiction of a dead husband, so too a living husband no longer has jurisdiction over a dead wife. In either case the “marital” obligation has been abrogated.
This point correlates with Paul’s claim elsewhere that “through the Law I died to the Law that I might live to God” (2:19). We must come to terms with this claim. Paul could not live to God without first dying to the Law! Having stated, “you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ,” Paul adds “so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (italics mine). Dying to the Law was a necessary condition for having a fruitful life. Paul elsewhere identified the Law as the “power of sin” (1 Cor 15:56). He elaborates on that point here: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” Many suppose that Christ freed us from the flesh through regeneration in order to obey the Law. But Paul sees our release (katargeo) from the Law as the condition for serving in the new manner, i.e., under the new covenant and in accordance to the new law by the power of the Spirit-“But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (italics mine).
Paul could not have portrayed the freedom of the Christian Jews from the Law’s obligation any better. Yet, in an effort to save their theory, Theonomists are forced to impose a meaning on this text that can be neither drawn from it nor even sustained by it. It is not the obligation of the Law that we’re released from, according to them, but rather its condemnation.2 But note the complete absence of any talk about condemnation here. They’re not only trying to find what’s not there to be found, they’re ignoring what ought not to be missed. The obligatory language could hardly be clearer. Marriage-the analogue of their relation to the Law-is a legal bond, a covenantal tie. Notice the terms “jurisdiction”\“bound by”\“were bound”\“released from”\“joined to”\“free from.”
Being under the Law’s obligation does not necessarily entail condemnation. Christ was under the Law, but He was not condemned. The Law condemns only those who violate its obligations. Hence condemnation is a contingent by-product-not a necessary concomitant-of being bound by the Law. This point will become clearer from the following.
5. We Are No Longer Under The Old Law
Though it is sufficiently evident that “under law” (hypo nomon) denotes merely an objective legal relationship (i.e., being under the Law’s jurisdiction) Theonomists have sought to argue otherwise. For example, Greg Bahnsen insists that by “under law” Paul is referring to “a law-principle or legalistic system, not the Mosaic law….” (TICE, 221). He adds: “To be under law is to take a legal system and its demands for your reckoning before God…” (221). In a later work Bahnsen said, “it is equivalent to being under sin” (NOS; p.82, italics mine). Since we are clearly no longer hypo nomon, Theonomists must identify the relation as something negative, be it sin or condemnation or both. But this is a fatal line of reasoning. For Paul writes: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4,5).
In saying that Christ was born hypo nomon in order to save those who were hypo nomon, Paul is stating that Christ assumed the same relationship to the Law that the Jews had. Was Christ born “under sin,” as Bahnsen’s definition would entail? Surely not. Hence we must reject any negatively formulated definition of hypo nomon; it denotes a merely objective legal relationship. Both Christ and the Jews were under the Law in the exact same sense-there is no justification for taking the second use of hypo nomon differently than the first. Yet there is an accidental difference. For when it comes to being under the Law, there is a vast difference between sinless and sinful men. A sinless man has no problems being hypo nomon, but the problems never cease for a sinner. Yet the difference was not in their objective relation to the Law (i.e., their legal relation), but in their subjective relation to it (i.e., their experiential relation). The Law stirred up and condemned sinful subjects. But where there’s no sinful nature (as in the case of Christ) there is nothing to stir up or condemn.
Earlier in the epistle Paul stated that “before faith came”
i.e., before Christ’s death-the Jews “were kept in custody under the law” (3:23, italics mine). Being hypo nomon was thus a pre-crucifixion status (note the relevant references to the crucifixion in this context, 2:20 and 3:1). Paul immediately added that to be hypo nomon was to be “shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed” (italics mine). These two claims reveal that to be in a post-crucifixion relation to God is to be out from under the Law. The binding force of the Law was of a temporal nature. Paul stated that the “Law was ordained…until the Seed should come” (3:19). It would shut Jews up (i.e., keep them under it) only until Christ abolished it by His death. Earlier, after saying “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith,” Paul went on to add, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (25, italics mine). If the tutor is the Law and believing Jews were no longer under the tutor, then they were no longer under the Law. Paul’s premise is this: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:17-16). It was through their mystical adoption in Christ that they died His death to the Law“For through the Law I died to the Law that I might live to God” (2:19). So regardless of what we might say about the Law’s intended purpose-though Paul here offers the explicit answer, “on account of transgressions”-the fundamental point remains that the Law’s binding force was temporal. The Law is no longer operative.
We know Paul had Timothy circumcised. Yet he elsewhere rebuked “every” man who sought circumcision (Gal 5:3). This apparent tension is resolved only if Paul rebuked those who sought circumcision on the assumption that it was still binding. This is further evidenced by the claim that such people are “under obligation to keep the whole Law” (v.4). In logical parlance, Paul is relying on an enthymematic use of modus tollens. He is arguing, “If we are to seek circumcision, we are obligated to keep the whole Law. However, since we are not obligated to keep the whole Law, we are not to seek circumcision.” It is only on the assumption that the comprehensive system of obligations has been severed that Paul can infer (in this context) that the obligation to be circumcised, as one of those obligations, has likewise been severed. Hence Paul’s word-play: “You have been severed (katargeo) from Christ” (v.4).
Now consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law.” Paul then continued to say that “to those who are without the Law, as without the Law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:20). If being “under the Law” is an essentially sinful relationship (ala Bahnsen), then Paul sinned while trying to convert sinners! For he acted as though he were “under the Law.” In fact, Paul meant only that in doing the things the Law required (e.g., observing the shadowy seventh day Sabbath during his missionary journeys), he was to that extent acting as though the Law were still binding. This was not an act of compromise but of condescension. Paul was carefully leading his confused Jewish brethren out of the Mosaic system into the freedom of Christ. We “Gentiles” cannot appreciate the amount of glass Paul had to walk on in communicating the gospel to the Jewish mind. His method must have been quite surgical. In any case, he explicitly denies that he is under Mosaic jurisdiction-”…though not being myself under the Law.” To the contrary, He is under another jurisdiction, i.e., Christ’s jurisdiction. Though Paul goes to the Gentiles Mosaic-less, as it were, he denies being an antinomian in doing so. For in moving out from under the childish Mosaic yoke (he himself called it a “child-conductor”) into the restful bonds of Christ, Paul did not move out from under God’s jurisdiction.
To the Romans Paul wrote: “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (6:14-15). Bahnsen liked to portray this verse as the hinge upon which non-Theonomists rest their case, but I prefer a different metaphor-it is more like a silver bullet within a 1000 round clip. The only possible way to render this statement meaningful is to assume that Paul is referring to the Mosaic obligations. For on no other assumption can we make sense of the clause: “Shall we sin…?” Why would anyone ask Paul that question unless they believed he was setting aside Moses? It is precisely because Paul had taught this that he anticipated the objection. I can fully appreciate Paul’s mindset here. For whenever I tell a brother that Moses had been put away, the invariable response is something like: “So we can commit adultery, then?” Their objection rests upon a clear understanding of what I have said. Nor was Paul speaking in riddles. Just as we Calvinists use Paul’s anticipated objection to God’s complete sovereignty (Rom 9) as proof that Paul actually taught such a thing, so too in this case. Paul’s anticipated objection presupposes that he deemed the ML completely abrogated. Moreover, if hypo nomon means what Bahnsen says it means, we could logically rephrase Paul’s question as: “Shall we sin because we are not under sin but under grace?” But who in their right mind would make this inference? It is clear that in his effort to evade the damaging meaning of a couple words, Bahnsen unwittingly rendered an entire statement unintelligible.
By the way, those non-Theonomists who say that only the “ceremonial” laws have been abrogated also render Paul’s words here nonsensical. For they would have us to read him as asking, “Shall we sin then since the ceremonial laws have been abrogated?” Obviously, the rationale behind Paul’s anticipated objection disappears on this interpretation too; it is a complete non sequitur.
There is much more to say. But I have been under the moderator’s law of a 7000-word limit. I have yet to address all the internal problems of Theonomy. They have many “proof-texts” that need to be explained in light of my position. I’m looking forward to doing so in the next several rounds.
1 The qualification “I am speaking to those who know the law” would be entirely trivial if it were not directed to Jews concerning the Mosaic Law-of course the adult Roman readership would “know” about law per se!
2 Bahnsen’s attempt as “resolving” this text is frightening. He simply ignores the data (TICE, 222-223).
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