Protestants, It’s OK to say Jesus called Peter “this rock.”

From the biblical record one can see that Peter was an impulsive man. He said things at the wrong time (“Lord, it is good for us to be here, let us build three booths.”)  He did what he shouldn’t do (cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant.) And of course, he denied the Lord Jesus in the hours after his betrayal. None of this surprised the Lord. For all this, Peter was also the one who spoke the clear confession of who Jesus really was: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16) What follows that has been a point of contention between Roman Catholicism and the rest of Christianity.

Jesus answered thus: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)

I want to suggest that Protestant explanation of this need not go where it sometimes has in order to counter Roman Catholic claims. Many have said that it is Peter’s confession—the truth he spoke about Jesus—that is the thing Jesus would build his church upon, but not Peter himself. Roman Catholics see it as Jesus talking to Peter about himself, calling Peter the rock. From this comes the establishment of the papacy, the founding of the “Petrine office” and the beginning of the hierarchy.

It is neither of these, that is, in the way it’s usually understood. On the Protestant side, discomfort with Roman Catholic claims, and a desire to steer clear of any hint that Peter possesses anything like papal authority, have driven the exegesis of this, more than the text itself. We are uneasy with the thought that Jesus may have been speaking of Peter himself when he answers with “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” One can see that Jesus does indeed speak of Peter in this, without going on to the entailments that Rome has attached to it. Peter was a leader of the Twelve, despite his foibles. And indeed, after the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, Peter shows boldness and power that indicate the fulfillment of what Jesus spoke to him.

But none of this means that Peter occupies an office that was monarchical and foreign to the New Testament, as the papacy has come to be. He held no office in the Jerusalem church, as is evident from the Jerusalem council where James is clearly a leader. And although it is post-Pentecost and the Spirit had been given, Paul still finds occasion to rebuke Peter for his error in walking not according to the truth of the gospel. Indeed, in describing the situation, Paul wrote that “from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me.” (Gal. 2:6) Paul views Peter not as his superior, not as a possessor of an office, but one whom Paul had to rebuke and correct in this instance.

Moreover, Jesus words elsewhere to the Twelve show that the idea of one man holding a chair above the others is antithetical to the church Jesus would build. “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.” (Matt 23:8-10.) When Peter and Andrew’s mother asks of Jesus an exalted position for her sons, Jesus replies that “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:25-26) Peter’s own letters eschew any thought that he occupied a position above any of the Twelve. He refers to himself as a fellow elder. (1 Pet. 5:1).

All of this evidence leads to a conclusion that Jesus’ words to Peter go beyond a view that sees him only commenting on the confession of Peter as the rock on which the church is built. It is instead a proclamation of the church built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Peter being the chief representative of the apostles. It is upon the Twelve that the church is built, Peter’s subsequent history demonstrating that he doesn’t have a preeminent office that gives him authority over his fellow apostles, to command them. It is a particular exegetical fallacy that supports the inverse. D. A. Carson points this out in quoting Cardinal Avery Dulles’s defense of the Papacy.

According to the New Testament, Peter has his lapses, both before and after Easter, but Catholic apologists defend the doctrinal infallibility of Peter in the post-Easter situation, and consequently that of the pope in whom the ‘Petrine Office’ is perpetuated.” The appeal is to “Catholic apologists” and implicitly to Roman Catholic traditional interpretations: those not convinced by the status of these authority figures and traditions will not be helped much by Avery Dulles’s argument.[1] It is an a priori assumption that these Catholic apologists have an authority, but as Carson points out, it’s a circular argument to cite only those from the camp.

But let me assume for a moment that Jesus’ words to Peter did intend to invest him with unique authority among the Twelve. That is, that he was indeed the head of the Church. Even if this were so, it does not include the transfer for this authority to an endless stream of successors, each with this same authority. In other words, the idea of apostolic succession is not found in Matthew at all.  As Hans von Campenhausen has noted, “The rank and authority of the apostolate are restricted to the first ‘apostolic’ generation, and can neither be continued nor renewed once this time has come to an end.”[2] It is, as Paul says in Ephesians 4, a foundational office, not to be repeated or transferred.

Protestants don’t need to deny Peter’s position as a leader of the Twelve in order to see that Jesus’ affirmation of his confession is in no sense an establishment of the papacy. Let us be faithful to the text—all of it, not just what is recorded in Matthew 16—and we will see that the scriptural evidence argues for something other than what Rome has claimed, but indeed something more than what Protestants have often said.

[1] D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 1996), 123.

[2] Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1969), p. 23.

The Fallacy of Red Letterism as an Interpretive Grid

Most people have heard of “Red Letter Christians.” Who are they and what do they believe? According to, 

“Red Letter Christians is a movement that holds the teachings of Jesus—which are highlighted in red letters in many Bibles—as central to our understanding of the Bible. Christ is the lens through which we interpret the Word — and the world. Not only do we have words on paper, but the Word becomes flesh — in Jesus.”

This is not much different than what one person expressed on social media: 

Jesus’ actual life and teaching preceded the epistles, the contents of which were in circulation orally prior to being recorded in the gospels. We all have a functional canon within a canon, and a red letter one makes most sense since we are Christians, followers of Jesus.

This sounds fine, until you begin to work through the assumptions and implications of it. At a basic level, we need to recognize that the decision of which letters to make red is an editorial one—made by the people publishing your Bible. John 3 is a good example of how it is difficult to tell exactly where Jesus’ words may end, and where John’s words begin. It’s possible that the most famous verse in Scripture, John 3:16, are not words Jesus spoke, but what the apostle John recorded as commentary on the interview Jesus had with Nicodemus. However, it makes no difference whatsoever in terms of the authority of these words. To be fair, the demarcation in most places where Jesus speaks is clearer than the John 3 example. But one also has to contend with the synoptic differences. That is, in the same incidents, Jesus’ words differ slightly from one gospel to another. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus states them as, “Blessed are those who…” while in Luke’s version they are in the second person: “Blessed are you when…” 

The point is that the gospels represent the words the Holy Spirit wanted recorded about the life and ministry of Jesus. He used the four evangelists to do so, but quite clearly, the Holy Spirit is an editor, since there are slight differences in each gospel. If one’s view of inspiration is “these are the exact words that Jesus spoke” then it leads to difficulties in explaining the variations. If, on the other hand, one sees that these are the words that God inspired the evangelists to record, it is a truer representation of what we have in the gospels. The Holy Spirit was not active only in these four accounts of the life of Jesus. Luke wrote a gospel, but also the book of Acts. Is Acts less the Word of God than his gospel because it contains far fewer words of Jesus?

The usual way in which this sort of hermeneutical principle is presented is that the words of Jesus have priority and thus a controlling influence on how we read the rest of Scripture. Some have in particular called attention to the epistles of Paul, to set these in contrast to Jesus’ words. In an interaction with someone espousing this, I asked for concrete examples, that is, which texts in Paul’s letters are being misunderstood, or misapplied because we are paying insufficient attention to the words of Jesus? No examples could be cited. Another person offered the case of German Christians appealing to Romans 13—submission to authorities—as such an example. By privileging this over what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount against violence, this violates the principle of reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus. But this is not a compelling example. One can go back just a few verses into Romans 12 and find plenty that would represent a renunciation of violence. 

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Rom. 12:17-19. 

This is just as much a case of not reading all of Paul coherently, rather than ignoring the words of Jesus.

None of this is to say that the words of Jesus are unimportant. But it is sometimes the case that what we mean by the words of Jesus are not what is recorded in the gospels, but our inferences of his words. It represents a kind of Midrash on these words. We may extrapolate from our sense of the ethics of Jesus, and where no commentary is made on a matter directly, we construct what seems to us to be in harmony with this ethic.  “If Jesus were on the earth today, I think he’d _______.” This may mean we affirm something the epistles denounce, with the justification that Jesus cared more that people are compassionate toward one another than that they are doctrinally correct. To cite one example, Jesus told the Jews that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) There is some doctrinal content that is necessary. It defines who Jesus is, and if one redefines Jesus outside the biblical parameters, one cannot say they believe Jesus’ self-revelation.

But it can also define compassion differently than a full reading of Scripture would support. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, the Proverbs says.  Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” In other words, love and truth belong together, and are never set against one another in any kind of hierarchy in Scripture. We are not more compassionate toward others if we withhold the truth from them. As many have noted, Jesus spoke more of hell than just about anyone else in Scripture. Believing it insensitive or lacking in compassion to speak these truths is not, in fact, loving.

We also need to recognize the genre differences between the gospels and other writings of the New Testament. The gospels are mainly narrative, and while they do contain direct teaching, they contain much that isn’t, or that is parabolic teaching. The epistles, on the other hand, are exhortation, encouragement, correction—all of which was suited to the local congregations that received the letters, and by extension, any and every congregation. It can be challenging to take narrative sections of Scripture, attempt to draw out a principle, and set it against parenesis that is clear. Indeed, sometimes it ends up creating a conflict where one should not exist, and the result is that those clear passages in the epistles are reinterpreted by the narrative sections in the gospels; sections which may (or may not) contain the principle someone insists is there. 

We need gospels and epistles, history and apocalypse. We need all of the New Testament to understand God’s will and plan for believers. Paul insisted his words were the words of the Lord, not secondary, but God’s true word. As I haven’t really seen good examples of where this is happening, I have to conclude that Red Letterism is a solution in search of a problem.



The Law as “Wisdom” or the “Third Use”—What’s the Difference?

When one reads the New Testament, and in particular Paul’s epistles, one can’t help see how the law of Moses is a prominent theme in the apostle’s thought. How he treats it is of great importance to how Christians should regard it. First, one has to say that for Paul, “the Law” is specifically those commandments given at Sinai, and following. The holiness code of Leviticus 18-22 is also part of the law, and an overarching truth for Paul is summarized in Rom. 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law.” In other words, Paul refers to the Jewish nation. To them alone were the laws of the Mosaic covenant given. Paul earlier in Romans spoke of Gentiles who “do not have the law.” (Rom. 2:14). It is true that Gentiles sometimes act according to what the law requires, but Paul is careful to point out that they do this not because of Scriptural revelation, but by nature or conscience, “even though they do not have the law.”

How then does Paul regard this law with respect to Christians? For everyone within the Protestant category, all would say that justification comes by faith apart from doing any of the law. But some retain a use for the law as a guide to know how to live, what God requires of us, how to please God. This, in brief, is the “Third Use of the law.” John Calvin expounded this quite clearly, and later confessional standards took it up as well. Calvin said, “The third and principal use of the law, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”[1] He continued, “however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.”[2]

Against this view is another that sees the Law less as a standard we must adhere to, and more as wisdom and prophecy that informs and complements the specific instructions of the apostle’s themselves. Brian Rosner of Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College in Australia ably expounds this in his book Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. Rosner notes among other things how Paul repudiates the law as a covenant in any way binding upon believers.

“Unlike Jews, believers in Christ are not under the law, nor are they in the law or from the law. They are not imprisoned and guarded under the law, nor are they subject to the law as to a disciplinarian. Those who are under the law are under a curse and under sin. Even though the law promises life to those who keep it, it is evident that no one keeps the law. Consequently, no one receives life through the law. The law used as law is for the lawless. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”[3]

He notes that any covenantal aspect of the law is for Jews only. A covenant is a binding treaty, and thus comes with obligation. Indeed, one can scarcely read the Pentateuch without seeing God’s repeated warnings to be careful to keep the entirety of the law.“You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.” (Deut 7:11) Such an obligation does not belong to Christians now, because we are not under the Mosaic covenant, nor part of Jacob’s seed.

The other point Rosner makes is that although we are not under the law as a covenant, this does not mean there is no value in it at all. It is in “wisdom and prophecy” where the value comes to believers. This sometimes comes in surprising applications. Paul, for example, cites the commandment to not muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain (Deut. 25:4) as a reason why ministers of the gospel who labor full time in the Word should be paid for this work—a rather unexpected application of this law, to be sure.

Even in the sections where Paul seems to directly cite the commandments, such as Romans 13:9-10, which contains commandments 6,7,8, and 10, Paul doesn’t in fact say “You must keep these commandments.” Rosner notes

“Paul’s point is that loving one’s neighbour is the goal of keeping the law. But keeping the laws (even those of the Decalogue, such as laws against adultery, murder, stealing and coveting) does not mean that one will love one’s neighbour. But if one loves one’s neighbour, one will do more than just keep the law, fulfilling what Paul takes to be its real intent.”[4]

What Rosner outlines is where I believe the Third Use digresses. That is, Calvin had assigned to the law abilities that Paul explicitly rejects, namely, the ability to call forth obedience in the believer. (“The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.”) Paul says instead that the law arouses sin (Rom 7:5), and was given to increase the trespass. (Rom 5:20) But, doesn’t Calvin qualify his counsel to say that the law “finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”? Indeed, Calvin does, but is this what Paul teaches? Paul has set the Spirt and the law in opposition to one another, not because the law is bad, but because it belongs to a prior covenant, to a different people, and to those not under the headship of Christ. Paul told the Galatians that the law is not of faith. No such thing as a faith-enabled keeping of the law is anywhere in Paul’s teaching.

To the extent that the Third Use of the law presents Christians obeying or keeping the law through the enablement of the Holy Spirit, it strays from the apostolic use of the law. Paul’s avowal that we have died to the law in order to live to another rules this out. Indeed, in Galatians 5:18 he notes “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” To follow the Spirit’s leading and guidance in our lives does not lead us to “keep the law” —though indeed we fulfill the law’s intent of loving one another. To distinguish between keeping and fulfilling is in essence the difference between the Third Use and the Law as wisdom.

If advocates of the Third Use agree that Paul repudiates any obligation to the law for Christians, that he instead uses it as wisdom, but a kind of lowest common denominator of what we are called to, that would be a different matter. Indeed, the law’s commandments are not in conflict with the holiness God now calls us to, but they in fact don’t go far enough. As Rosner pointed out, just “keeping” them does not mean I love.  I have most often encountered a view that presents the law (and only the Ten Commandments) as not only a required standard for Christians, but indeed, a revelation of God’s mind and will for Christians. That does not accord with the multiple ways Paul presents the law in his epistles. The topic is a complex issue, to be sure. For further discussion, please see my book, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life. (Wipf and Stock, 2018).


[1] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.12.

[2] Calvin, loc. Cit.

[3] Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2013), 221.

[4] Rosner, 193.

Biblical Theology Comes from Reading More of the Bible

Most Christians at least acknowledge the fact that reading through all of Scripture is something they should do. One hears complaints about the great difficulties of making it through Leviticus, the implication being that it is so far removed from our contemporary experience that it is rough sledding indeed to push on. I recall being part of a study a few years ago on the last four books of the Pentateuch, and one participant remarked at how good the study had been for him, because “I’ve always been a New Testament kind of guy, and didn’t really read the Old Testament.”

This is less surprising than it should have been to me. In 2018, Crossway publishers surveyed readers about their Bible reading habits and found some startling responses.

Among 6,000 readers (and one assumes since they are signed up to receive Crossway emails that they are Christians) about a third of them have read Numbers, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, or Ezra in the last three years. Among some of the minor prophets, nearly half of readers have read these books only in the last three years. Judging from the graphic, it appears about 15% of readers have never read some of the minor prophets.

The result of this is an impoverished understanding of God’s truth. If we are reading infrequently (or not at all) we will have a poor grasp of the plot-line of Scripture, and of what God is doing, what he has planned. That theological and biblical illiteracy are at high levels within the professing church is without question. Those levels are attributable to a failure to read all of Scripture. Proof-texting one’s way to a view of some particular teaching is common, but a whole Bible understanding of how a doctrine fits in with all of revelation, much less so. Biblical theology, (as distinct from systematic theology) is the understanding of this plot-line of Scripture, the unfolding of all that God has done, is doing, and will do.

In his book, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, John S. Feinberg writes about his father, Charles Feinberg. The elder Feinberg is not so well known as he should be, but he served as the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary. On his father’s Bible reading habits, Feinberg noted this:

“For my father didn’t read just a few verses or even a chapter or two each day. Rather, it was his habit each day to read ten pages in the OT and five pages in the NT. Dad had seen a Bible reading plan that showed that if one reads the aforementioned number of pages each day, one would read through the whole Bible four times every year! As a result of following this strategy, during his lifetime my father read through the whole Bible well over one hundred times.”[1]

Some Christians commit to read through the Bible each year, but Feinberg’s plan takes it beyond this. Rather than measuring by chapters (you can get through the whole Bible in a year by reading about 3.5 chapters per day), reading 15 pages a day means that you get a greater portion, and indeed, a grander sweep.

What you notice by reading larger portions are the overarching themes, the detail that appeared 7 chapters back, but had you read it two days prior, you might have forgotten. Reading in a larger portion promotes biblical theology. It promotes a drone’s-eye view of the unfolding drama of redemption. I’ve been following Feinberg’s plan, and I have seen these benefits. I can’t see going back to reading less of God’s Word each day. This, too, is one of the effects of the living Word of God—it increases your appetite for God and his plans. If you’re putting in here and there, reading piecemeal, it’s more difficult to get these benefits. If you struggle with Bible reading consistently, the solution may in fact be to read more. I recommend this method for your consideration.


[1] John S Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2018), 763.

When Deconstruction Becomes Destruction

It is, I think, an unfortunate choice of words that some speak of examining their belief system as “deconstructing faith.” It is unfortunate because the origins of deconstruction are in literary critical theory, a theory that has no particular regard for objective truth. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of deconstruction is that there is no such thing as truth, there is only culturally conditioned understandings of our world.

One should distinguish between this and revising the tenets of a belief system because we find something to be unscriptural or unreconcilable with Scripture.

For example, if I through my upbringing am led to believe that a minister of the gospel must wear special vestments while performing his ministerial duties, yet I come to see through research and investigation that such was never part of the early church, I should revise this to say I no longer believe it necessary for a minister to wear such clothes. Is this a “deconstruction” of belief? Perhaps it is, but most of the deconstruction one sees is not as innocuous as this.

The deconstruction we see most frequently is, at the core, a hermeneutical enterprise. That is, it gets at our approach to the text of Scripture, and at its authority. If I am convinced that there is no reading of Scripture that is not culturally conditioned, and that the biases and presuppositions we each bring to the text color our understanding, I may conclude that a true and accurate understanding of Scripture is not possible. Indeed, this is where some arrive when they have thoroughly “deconstructed” their faith.

But such a sharp dichotomy is far too facile an understanding of what is possible. Our understanding of language and text is rarely such that we say we understand absolutely everything, or absolutely nothing.  D.A. Carson comments on such a misconception.

“Although none of us ever knows any complicated thing exhaustively, we can know some things truly. Our confidence in what we know may not enjoy the certainty of Omniscience, but it is not condemned to futility. Even a child may believe and understand the truth of the proposition “God loves the world,” even when the child’s knowledge of God, love, and the world is minimal, and her grasp of Johannine theology still less (John 3:16). With patient study and increased learning and rising experience, a believer may come to understand a great deal more about the proposition “God loves the world” than does the child.”[1]

And it is here where many assume that through their deconstruction they are freeing themselves from oppressive or wrong-headed beliefs of their former community. Thus “Exvangelicals” point a finger at abuses within the evangelical world and stand apart from it. But it’s less often considered whether this is but an exchange of one culturally-conditioned understanding of Christianity for another. If one cannot know anything with certainty, then one cannot know that the new interpretive community is any truer than the last. Indeed, by the principles of deconstruction, one can in fact affirm it is not truer—only different.

The outcome of much deconstruction is a backdoor scuttling of both the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. The line of thinking proceeds something like this: Scripture may be inerrant and infallible (or not) but our interpretations of it are certainly fallible. For this reason, no interpretation of Scripture is to be favored or privileged over any other. They all have equal validity. The personal experience of readers then assumes an outsized role in how we understand God’s Word, or whether God has spoken authoritatively at all. But all readers haven’t done the same work or study of the text. To say that someone reading John’s gospel for the first time has an interpretive position of equal validity to one who has studying the text for decades is ridiculous. We treat no other human endeavor in such a way

There are revisions to our understanding of Scripture we can undertake. But we shouldn’t confuse the setting aside of human tradition or of cultural accretions with an embrace of uncertainty and confusion. Deconstruction leads to destruction if we think that our limitations in understanding mean that God has not given us a revelation, has not spoken with an intent that we do understand him.  John writes that “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Revelation as a basis for faith, and the knowledge of God—this is why John wrote. Luke, also, told Theophilus he was writing “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4) None of us knows exhaustively, but Scripture is given such that we may know sufficiently and confidently. If your deconstruction leads you away from this, it’s taken you in the wrong direction.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 121-122.

All Commandments Are Not Equal: Salvation History has Consequences

I have engaged people in discussions about the Mosaic law in the Christian life on many occasions. One direction the discussion can go is that someone quotes back the writings of John, the beloved disciple. Jesus told the disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). God has given his people commandments, and if we love him, if we follow him, we will keep these commandments. John’s first epistle is also a place many point to. “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2:4-5) But, which commandments? When we encounter the word, does it always mean the commands of the Mosaic Covenant, or always encompass every commandment we find in Scripture? It is rare to meet a Christian who insists we need to keep every commandment God has spoken. They don’t insist we need to appear 3 times a year in Jerusalem to celebrate the set feasts of the Lord. There is now no temple, no tabernacle, but those were ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant. Similarly, nearly everyone sets aside the dietary laws found throughout the law, although these are certainly among the commandments given by God.
Not every commandment applies, then. The reasons for this are sound, too. They were commandments given to the nation of Israel alone, not to Christians, and they belong to the Old Covenant. Where most people draw the line is the Ten Commandments, insisting that these are the ones we’re still on the hook for.
But when Jesus speaks to the disciples, prior to what he says in chapter 14, he has told them this:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
Here, then, is what is truly new with Jesus. The commandments of the Old Covenant included loving one’s neighbor, even loving the stranger, but not loving one’s enemies. And we, because of our sin and rebellion against God, are his enemies. Had anyone loved as Jesus loved, even to the giving of one’s life for an enemy? No one.

It is thus inadequate to look at the Johannine language and insist that what Jesus was talking about was that we keep the Ten Commandments. For they, too, belong to the Old Covenant, the covenant with Israel. As good and right and holy as the Ten are, they are not the new commandment, and they don’t go as far as Jesus calls us to go in giving us His commandments. One can indeed proof-text one’s way to a position that keeping God’s commandments is keeping the Ten Commandments, but it isn’t a very cogent position to take. For example, some will cite this:
“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” 1 John 3:21.

God has given use his commandments, and it’s pretty plain we need to keep them.

But read on:

“And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” 1 John 3:22.

It is not the Decalogue or the Sabbath or other commands of the Old Covenant that John puts before believers, but we are again back to the gospel command that we both believe in the name—the authority—of Jesus, and we love one another.
All commands are not equal.This is nothing other than the progress of salvation history; that what prevailed in the Old Covenant no longer prevails in the New. That is, we as New Covenant believers are not called upon to live by and under the commands of the Old Covenant. The new citizenship we have in Christ, our heavenly citizenship, means that we have a higher calling. A calling not inconsistent with the holiness called for under the Old Covenant, but one in fact that exceeds it.

If Christ is not Raised: Physical Resurrection is Essential to the Gospel

Is the resurrection of Jesus an “essential doctrine” of the Christian faith? Or stated differently, must one believe Jesus rose physically from the dead to have one’s sins pardoned? This question came up, as it does each year, around Easter. Social media was ablaze with opinions on this, and among them was the suggestion that “We are not saved by believing a certain set of propositions, but by allegiance to Jesus.” I may paraphrase slightly there, but I don’t think this is misrepresenting my interlocutor. Such a statement is, ironically, a proposition, and where would one turn to demonstrate it, if not to the Scriptures? When we speak of allegiance to Jesus, one has to ask, “Who is he? Who to the Scriptures proclaim him to be?” On the point of the resurrection, there is no honest reading of the New Testament that can omit the resurrection of Jesus as an integral part of his identity and essential to the gospel message. Every single instance of gospel preaching in the book of Acts is accompanied by an affirmation that Jesus rose from the dead. This is so much a part of apostolic preaching that it is not at a stretch to say that if one is not proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is no gospel whatsoever. When Paul comes to his summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he says that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

It was amazing to read the NY Times interview of Union Seminary President Serene Jones, and find Nicholas Kristof having a better grasp of the truth than she did. Kristof asked, in response to Jones’ apparent doubts about the resurrection,

“Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.”

Jones’ answer is not atypical of an exceedingly expansive view of “love:”
“For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.”

Alas, poor Paul. It seems the apostle had a pretty wobbly faith, for he told the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (15:14) And, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (15:17)

What’s at work in these views of the resurrection of Jesus as something other than a physical raising, is a redefinition of the boundaries of faith to something that is personal and subjective. A “spiritual” resurrection is a category of resurrection that Scripture knows nothing of. To claim as some have that this is the kind of resurrection they believe in, and that they do believe Jesus rose from the dead, is to define Jesus in a completely different way than the New Testament does. What good, then, is allegiance to such a one? Paul says it’s no good at all—futile, vain, and pitiful.

There are areas of doctrine that are secondary, and Scripture signals these by not focusing on them in the way it does on the primary ones. I know of no one who would say a boundary marker for whether one is or is not a member of the body of Christ is correct eschatology, or the polity of the local church. But when it comes to the person and work of Christ, the New Testament gives us no such latitude. The incarnation of God the Son, God taking humanity to himself, is a truth we encounter at the very start of the gospels and all through the remaining New Testament writings. Jesus was not just a moral teacher, an example we should follow. He is God manifest in the flesh. Similarly, at the end of the gospel story, we have the resurrection and the triumph of Jesus over death and Satan. Paul did not write what he did to the Corinthians to suggest some additional things they might consider. He wrote them because these things are essential to knowing who Jesus is, and thus believing in him.

Nicky Cruz, former gang leader, says of his conversion, “When I first became a Christian, I knew nothing about anything. So far as the things of God were concerned, I was a totally ignorant man.”[1] Some want to put the question as “How little does one need to know in order to become a Christian?” But that isn’t really the question Cruz was addressing, and it isn’t a claim that Dr. Jones was making.  Rather, Cruz was speaking of a growth in understanding of God’s truth, and importantly, how he received it. Fred Sanders, who relates the story, goes on to note how Cruz came to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, which at first he had a very faint grasp of.

“He had moved from accepting it on the authority of Scripture and his trusted elders to understanding it from within. ‘I didn’t understand it. I believed it was true, though at first only because I had such great confidence in those who taught it to me. Then later I believed it was true because I saw it to be true in the Bible.’”[2]

Cruz’s experience shows what allegiance to Jesus actually looks like. As we come to understand more of what Scripture says about who he is and what he has done, we accept that as God’s testimony concerning his Son. If we deny the record of Scripture, (and the physical resurrection of Jesus) we are in fact showing a posture toward God that the New Testament does not recognize as faithful discipleship.

Being a faithful follower of Jesus is more than this, more than just assenting to the truths of Scripture. But it is surely not less than this.


[1] Cited in Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), 31.

[2] Sanders, 32.

Substitutionary Atonement and the Gospel

One of the many gospel foundations that’s under attack and scorn is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s seeing the crucifixion as “divine child abuse” or otherwise dismissing the death of Jesus as wholly unnecessary for our forgiveness, these are among the ways in which the atonement is under attack.

To understand why this is, we need to back up a bit, prior to the crucifixion, and ask why the death of Chris was necessary? Our sin and separation from God are the reason. Denying the necessity of the death of Jesus comes back to a denial of either our sinfulness, or that this is the God-ordained way to overcome our sin. To dismiss the sinfulness of mankind is foolish on two counts. First, Scripture repeatedly and clearly presents our natural condition as sinful and at enmity with God because of our sin. Genesis 6:5 has always struck me for the way it describes our sinfulness in a way that leaves no wiggle room. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The modifiers alone show this: only every intention, only evil and continually evil. It isn’t just Genesis, but Paul quotes extensively from the Psalms in Romans 3 when he is laying out the universal guilt of all mankind.

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” Rom 3:11-12.

And that is just the half of it.

Consider your own experience. As you look at the world around, do you see evidence that mankind is essentially good and wants to choose the right? Or, do you see evidence of fractured relationships, violence, oppression and hate? An honest assessment must admit that human beings, left to themselves, choose the wrong path.

But God loves us!

You might admit these things are true, and yet doubt that the way our separation with God is bridged is only by the death of Jesus. After all, God is love, and love covers a multitude of sins, does it not? Indeed, God is love, but the unmistakable message of the New Testament is that out of love, God has given his Son to die in our place. It is not love only that is the basis of our salvation, but that the giving of Jesus comes from God’s love for us. This doesn’t mean that the death of Christ isn’t necessary. When the angel announced to Joseph that Mary was to have a son, he said “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus means “God is salvation” not “God is our example.” We didn’t need a good example, or someone to show us how to live by the Golden Rule. On the contrary, because sin is so heinous and offensive to God’s justice, the only way to overcome the enmity Scripture says natural man has to God is through the death of His Son. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed (by God’s command) and God told Israel, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Lev 17:11. When we come to the New Testament, the writer to Hebrews picks up this theme and identifies that these animal sacrifices were never sufficient, they only pointed forward to the one true and all-sufficient sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross.
“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Hebrews 9: 25-26.

The substitution of Jesus in our place, the place of sinners, satisfied God as a full and complete payment of our guilt. If we dismiss this, we dismiss what God has set forth as the only way of peace, the only way for sinful humanity to have a relationship with the living God. The death of Jesus was not a plan B, nor something that mankind did, subverting God’s will. Paul puts it at the very heart of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” 1 Cor 15:3. It was for our sins, and in our place—our substitute—that Jesus died. Was God satisfied with what He did? The resurrection is the Father’s loud Amen.

10 Things About the Law of Moses (and 5 Answers to Objections)

1. The Law was given to Jews, and not to Gentiles.

The law was given at Sinai, after the people were redeemed from Egypt. The Ten Commandments form the “treaty document” between God and Israel. (Gentry/Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 327-28.) The psalmist wrote “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules.” (Psalm 147:19-20) Following the giving of the Decalogue, God spoke many more laws to the nation, but these were still given to Jacob’s seed—Israel. After condemning all Gentiles for their disobedience to God, Paul wrote in Rom 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” In short, God spoke his laws to Israel.

2. The Law is a unit that Scripture doesn’t divide.

While it may be helpful to think of various laws by the area of life in Israel they regulated, dividing the law into various categories with the goal of determining what does and doesn’t apply any longer is not sustainable from Scripture. It’s common to say that the civil and ceremonial parts are gone, and the moral law remains, but there are many commandments that deal with moral issues, but are outside of the Ten Commandments. Paul quoted Deuteronomy 27:26 to the Galatians: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Throughout the Old Testament, God repeatedly told the people to be careful to do all that he commanded. Choosing to obey some, but not all was not a choice for Israel. When we come to the New Testament. Paul only knows a single category called “the law.” He never speaks of divisions that remain, while others have been annulled.

3. The purpose of the law is to reveal sin, rather than to bring life or righteousness.

In his indictment of both Jew and Gentile in Romans, Paul arrives at this: “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) Whatever purpose the law had in Israel to govern the people, the law didn’t precede the promise to Abraham. “Scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal 3:22) In Galatians especially, Paul speaks of the law as an imprisoning force, taking advantage of the weakness of our flesh. Indeed, the law not only reveals sin, but in some sense exacerbates it: “while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members.” (Rom. 7:5)

4. Obligation to the law remained until Jesus fulfilled it. He did this at Calvary.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill. Though some point to these verses as evidence that an obligation to the law remains, Jesus is in fact setting the end point of the law’s jurisdiction at the cross. There he absorbed the curse of the law fully and completely. Since there remains no more curse, there remains nothing of the law that commands believers. The law belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, and Paul contrasts this with the New Covenant in Christ, in 2 Cor. 3. He speaks of the law as “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all.” This is clear only if we understand that covenant has ended. If we think Matt 5 is teaching we still have to keep the law, ask this: What part of the law do you think Jesus did not fulfill?

5. Christians are not obligated to keep the Law—even the Ten Commandments.

Paul used the illustration of marriage with the Romans, and when a spouse dies, the marriage has ended. “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.” (Rom 7:4) Dying with Christ, by faith, means that any obligation to the law is severed. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive.” (Rom 7:6) If Paul meant to exempt the Ten Commandments from this, he wasn’t very careful, as he used the Tenth Commandment as the example of a law that aroused sin and killed him. (Rom.7:7-8) Prior to this, Paul strongly implies that to be under the law is to be under the dominion of sin. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)

6. Although the Law’s covenantal object is Israel, its spiritual object is those in Adam.

Understanding what Scripture has said about the law as given to the Jews, there is an aspect of the law that is directed toward those in Adam. Gentile hearts are no different from Jewish ones, and the law’s commandments will do to all what it did to Paul: arouse sin. But Paul makes clear that those who trust in Jesus are transferred from darkness to light and under the headship of Christ. He acted representatively for us at Calvary, even as Adam acted representatively in Eden. Experiencing death with Christ means we are raised with Him, (Rom 6:7, & Col. 3:1-3) and thus we now live where the law cannot reach nor condemn. Paul also speaks about adoption in Galatians, and as Thomas Schreiner says, “it is more likely that the “we” who receive adoption in Galatians 4:5 refers to both Jews and Gentiles. Otherwise, Paul would be undercutting one of the central themes of Galatians—both Jews and Gentiles are adopted as sons.” (Schreiner, 40 Questions on the Law, 79)

7. Saying Christians are free from the Law is not saying Christians are free to disobey God.

In the several places where Paul pronounces our freedom from the law, he follows these with explanations of how believers serve God. Why have believers died to the law? “so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Rom. 7:4) Being free from law enables us to bear fruit to him. Paul wrote to the Galatians that if they walk by the Spirit, they will not gratify the desires of the flesh, (5:16) and that walking by the Spirit means they are not under law. (5:18) While some teach that the Holy Spirit now enables believers to keep the law, nothing in the New Testament supports this. Indeed, Paul always joins law to flesh, and always pits the flesh against the Spirit. Notably, the apostle Paul never once corrected sin in the various congregations by telling believers they needed to keep the law.

8. Christians fulfill the Law, but they don’t keep the Law.

While it may seem like hair-splitting, or an artificial distinction, a careful reading of the New Testament bears out a difference between keeping the law, and fulfilling the law. Christians are never called upon to keep it, but they are told to fulfill it—through love. After quoting several of the Ten Commandments in Romans 13, Paul doesn’t say, “So make sure you keep these.” Rather, he says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10) He repeats this to the Galatians, saying, “through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14) Finally, Paul says that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” who walk by the Spirit (Rom 8:4) I suggest that the overarching requirement of the law is holiness, and it is that which is fulfilled in believers, but not by the law.

9. The believer’s pattern is not the Law, but the Lord Jesus.

The law commanded love for neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and even love for the stranger (Deut. 10:19) but never love for one’s enemies. We only learn of this when Jesus comes and demonstrates it ultimately at Calvary. Based on this, he gives his disciples a “new commandment” that they love one another as he has loved us. In the various commands that the apostles give toward Christian maturity, these are portrayed Christ-likeness. “Imitate me even as I imitate Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1) Imitate God as beloved children. (Eph. 5:1) Victory over sin and the flesh is by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 13:14) As new creatures in Christ, we are to have the mind of Christ, who demonstrated the humility of a servant. None of this comes to believers through the Law.

10. Serving God in the way of the Spirit takes us beyond where the Law ever could.

The law is certainly not contrary to what God now calls believers to, but neither does it go as far as we are called to go. Recall that the love and humility of service that Jesus showed is what Paul gives Christians as the mark and the goal. The law doesn’t articulate this humility the way apostolic instruction does. Paul doesn’t teach believers no longer need the law because the law was bad, but because of the change that the coming of the Holy Spirit brings. It is the fruit of the Spirit, not the works of the law, that we pursue. Recalling that if we walk as having put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we need not worry about whether or not we are doing the law.

5 Objections to Saying Believers are Free from the Law of Moses

1. Doesn’t Paul quote several of the Ten Commandments in the New Testament? Why would he do this if we don’t have to obey them?

Paul does indeed quote several commands of the Ten, but a careful look at how he does so reveals his use. In Romans 13, he never tells them to keep any, but to walk in love. In Ephesians 5, he starts not with the Fifth commandment, but with his own word, “children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” and then uses the Fifth to illustrate the principle that the law is not inconsistent with Christian holiness. He also quotes from Deuteronomy, “You shall not muzzle the ox as it treads out the grain” and applies it to the financial support of pastors. What Paul is doing is applying the law, using it as wisdom, even as he does not put believers under it. For a full treatment of this see Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God.

2. Isn’t this Antinomianism?

The word antinomianism is, by most accounts, one that was coined by Luther. He battled opponents who were rather free in their interpretation of what God requires of believers. What is usually meant by this charge is that saying we are free from the law is saying we are free to sin. (See #7 above) Paul himself was apparently the target of this charge, or something close to it. “why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” (Rom 3:8) One of the great weaknesses in the charge of “antinomianism” is that it in fact weakens God’s law, robs it of the ability of what Paul says it does—killed him. (“I through the law, died to the law.”) Those who say believers must keep the Ten Commandments also say that when they break one, there is no condemnation, no consequence. This is not treating the law as Scripture treats it, but rather remaking it as the Ten Suggestions.

3. By faith (and through the Spirit) believers are enabled to keep the Law—Paul says so.

Romans 3:31 is a verse that many point to as demonstrating that by faith a believer will keep the law. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” I suggest, though, that Paul is not talking about commandments here. He earlier said that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (righteousness by faith) At end of the chapter, he is answering the objection that the justification by faith he has just shown in ch. 3 now means that the Pentateuch—the Law—and God’s history with the patriarchs has now been set aside. Paul will show in Romans 4 how Abraham and David both demonstrate justification by faith. The righteousness Paul argues for in Romans was there in the Old Testament, and in this way, Paul and his doctrine uphold the Law.

4. Paul said he was under the law of Christ. This shows he obeyed the Ten Commandments.

In 1 Cor. 9, Paul’s purpose is evangelistic, to win some to Christ, and he speaks there of three groups. The Jews, Gentiles, and “those under law.” This last group is not the Jews themselves, to whom the law was given, else it would make no sense to speak of them separately. It is instead “God-fearing” Gentiles; those who were attracted to the monotheistic faith of the Israelites, and who themselves began to follow the law. Cornelius in Acts 10 is an example. Paul is here saying that his freedom allowed him to do whatever the situation required in service to the gospel, but that he is not under the Mosaic law, rather he is “under the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is not the Old Covenant law. It is that principle of self-giving that Jesus showed at Calvary, and which every believer is called to emulate.

5. The Law reveals God’s Mind and Character. We can’t go wrong by keeping God’s Law.

It is common in Reformed theology to view the law as the highest revelation of God’s will and as a transcript of the divine character. (This was Calvin’s view, among others) but it rests more on a desire to reconcile apparent contradictions between the Testaments than on the revelation in Scripture. There is no contradiction if we recognize what Paul said about the temporal nature of the law. It belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, and that with the coming of Christ, the law no longer rules. (Gal. 3:15-29) Hebrews 1 says that “in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son.” It isn’t the law that is the highest revelation of God’s will and character, it is Jesus. As one born under the law, a Jew, Jesus kept the law, but he did so much beyond that. It wasn’t the law that compelled him to go to the cross, it was love. The continual exhortation in the New Testament is “the truth is in Jesus” and that Christ is the wisdom of God. We are called to look at him, to follow him, to delight in him. As Paul says in Rom 10:4, Christ is the end of the law.

Notes from the Resistance: How the Old Testament Continues to Assert its Value

I have written before about the “unhitching” of the Old Testament from the New, and the furor caused by some suggestions Andy Stanley made in his preaching. My previous post considered some statements he had made in public speaking. Having now read his book, Irresistible, I want to consider some of what’s in it and whether it offers a better explanation of his public preaching. There was a strong reaction against Stanley, and the invocation of “Marcionism” over what he was saying. I don’t believe he has embraced full blown Marcionism. Stanley is not claiming there is a separate God in the Old Testament from the God of the New, but at the same time, I can’t go with him in his suggestions that Christianity does not need the Old Testament.

The Mosaic Covenant and the Christian

Stanley is absolutely correct in highlighting the differences between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. He enumerates the long centuries of Judaizing that have plagued the church, including some discontinuities between Old and New Covenants. “Why do some churches have priests?” (p. 90) Stanley points out the temporality between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. (“Jesus had come to put in place something designed to fulfill and replace all that had been in place before.” (p. 77) The types and shadows of the law find their fulfillment in Jesus, as Hebrews explains) and the Mosaic Covenant is brought to an an end by Jesus, as 2nd Corinthians 3, among other places, explains. Stanley also is right in saying that the Old Covenant is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t cherry pick it. (p. 143) (Though this is indeed what many people do with the laws of the Mosaic Covenant.)
He correctly notes the real continuity is between the Abrahamic Covenant (a covenant that preceded the Mosaic) and the New. “The inauguration of a new covenant signaled the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.” (p. 85)

The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian

Earlier in the book, Stanley writes, “I’m not discounting the importance of the Jewish Scriptures. When it comes to Jewish sacred texts, I’m with Jesus, his view is my view.” (p. 69) But the later parts of the book undercut this statement, and indeed, demonstrate a view that is quite different from the one Jesus had. At the core of much of what Stanley worries about is the way in which the Old Covenant can “get in the way” of our evangelizing. (This is my paraphrase of his concern.) In short, if we have to explain why there is so much violence, arcane rules, in short—defend the harmony of both Testaments, it is something that too few Christians can do in a way that convinces non-Christians or new believers. The result is that those who hear the gospel balk at so much of what is in the Bible, while new Christians can end up “de-converted” because the tension has become too great for them to reconcile.

The problem with this approach is that it is not the way Jesus or the apostles dealt with the Jewish Scriptures. Stanley too often conflates Old Covenant with Hebrew Scripture. “Christianity has a compelling, verifiable, historical story to tell. The moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace.” (p. 158) Perhaps Stanley is just being inexact here, not distinguishing enough between Mosaic Covenant and Hebrew Bible, but it does bring the mind what Jesus himself said in Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” While the reference to Moses includes the history of Abraham, the inclusion of “all the Prophets” makes it very likely that Jesus spoke of all 5 books of the Pentateuch and the rest of Israel’s history, too. That is, he leveraged the Jewish Scriptures to demonstrate that he, the Christ, is found throughout. That is even more undeniable by what Luke records later in the chapter. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Lk. 24:45. The Lord Jesus himself shows how even in the law—obsolete as it is—points us to him.
Paul wrote that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully. Without question, there is a lot of unlawful and unwise use of the law today, but Paul also showed how justification by faith is found in the “law” as well, that is, in Moses. But Stanley dismisses this sort of use of the Hebrew Scriptures with such statements as “The Jewish Scriptures describe God’s activity in connection to one particular people group.” (p. 161) This is at odds with apostolic use of the Jewish Scriptures. When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to justification by faith, and that this justification is for both Jew and Gentile (Rom 3:21-23) it is not a description of God’s activity only with the Jews.

How do you know what you know?

A lot of Stanley’s method is to get beyond a mere reliance on things like “the Bible says” in order to convince unbelievers of the truth of the Christian gospel. “As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture, and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people beyond Scripture.” (p. 314) But this is wordplay. How do we know what Jesus said, or what Paul said? We only know it because of what we have written in Scripture. Appealing to eyewitnesses was valid as long as there remained living eyewitnesses. But now we have the record of those eyewitnesses, and to suggest the written record is somehow less valuable, less trustworthy, is dangerous. I can’t help wondering about Stanley’s view of the power of God’s word. That is, in his concern to be relevant to the surrounding culture with the gospel, he seems to dismiss God’s ability to use his word to convict and convert, as if our time and culture are unique. I don’t believe they are, nor do I think the gospel somehow faces longer odds than it ever has. God’s word is still powerful, living and active. We don’t need to accommodate it to the culture, we need to preach it.

Love above all

One of the things Stanley points out in the stark difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant is that love is the guiding principle of our ethic now. How do we treat others? With love. Why do we not murder? Not because the 6th Commandment says not to, but because as followers of Jesus it is wholly unloving to do so. Indeed, Paul exhorts us “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Eph 5:1-2. All of this is true, but if we cast aside the authority of Scripture, what keeps us from applying the love principle not as God defines it, but as we do? In other words, what prevents someone from saying that just as the Hebrew Scriptures have no lasting applicability to believers now, in fact, neither does the New Testament have any such applicability. What matters above all else is love, and if we want to win in the marketplace of ideas, we have to go to what they understand. Much of Western culture is decrying Christianity and the ethic that accompanies it as intolerant and unloving. I see no reason at all for someone who takes Stanley’s logic about the Hebrew Scriptures from doing the same thing with the New Testament. Indeed, there are examples all around of many who have done just that.

Stanley hints at the proper solution to the dilemma he addresses, and that is, to rightly divide the Word; to see what is applicable to Israel, and what is applicable to Christians. But that is not the same as casting aside the Hebrew Bible as no longer relevant. Paul wrote to Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:15) Paul is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures when he says that are able to make wise unto salvation. In other words, there is gospel in the Old Testament.
No one doubts that reconciling the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament presents challenges, but the solution to this is not capitulation, but further study. The faithfulness of God to his people in the Old Testament is a vivid portrait to us of our promise-keeping God. The sentiments expressed in the Psalms, while not all of them are those we can echo, are yet a rich trove of praise to the God whose lovingkindness endures forever. Christians today need encouragement that there is inestimable value in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are as surely God’s Word as the latter 27 books.