Andy Stanley’s claim that we need to unhitch from the Old Testament has created quite a splash, and he defends his view in a new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World. The old covenant has passed away in its entirety, Stanley argues. In a blog post (“Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All”) he quotes me in support of his view: “Paul argues that the entirety of the law has been set aside now that Christ has come. To say that the ‘moral’ elements of the law continue to be authoritative blunts the truth that the entire Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers.” He ends the post by saying that we don’t treat others based on the Ten Commandments but on the law of love, the love Jesus expressed for his disciples (John 13:34–35; 15:12).
Michael Kruger has written an excellent response to Stanley from the standpoint of covenant theology. I’m in fundamental agreement with Kruger, and we nearly end up in the same place, but I get there a different way and would frame the issue a bit differently as one who subscribes to progressive covenantalism instead of classic covenant theology.
Distinguishing Old Covenant and Old Testament
The quote Stanley attributes to me is correct, but it needs to be set in proper context. Yes, the old covenant has passed away in its entirety, and believers aren’t under the old covenant but the new covenant, which was inaugurated with Jesus’s death and resurrection (cf. Jer. 31:31–34; Gal. 3:15–4:7; Rom. 6:14–15; 7:4–6; Heb. 8:1–10:18). But moral norms still exist for believers. Love isn’t just a sentimental feeling.
Saying that the old covenant has passed away doesn’t mean the Old Testament is no longer (or somehow less) the Word of God. All of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, are the final authority as God’s infallible and inerrant word. All of the Old Testament has a revelatory and pedagogical authority for believers in Jesus Christ. We must interpret the Old Testament in terms of God’s progressive revelation in his covenants in order to discern how to apply it today.
New Testament writers don’t decide how to apply the Old Testament based on the moral, ceremonial, and civil divisions, where the moral law continues to function as a moral norm. Such categories are actually quite useful, and there is significant truth in such divisions, but the New Testament itself doesn’t apply the Old Testament law to believers based on these categories. Doing so can introduce distortions when applying the Old Testament to our lives.
Since believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant, we’re not under the stipulations of the old covenant as a covenant. The Mosaic or Sinai covenant was enacted with Israel, not with us. Yahweh inaugurated the covenant with Israel when he freed them from Egypt. Israel’s covenant with the Lord contained both religious and political elements, and thus Israel as a nation, as a distinct people, received specific commandments for both its religious and political life. The laws given to Israel were its charter as a nation, as God’s special people in the ancient world. But the laws and stipulations aren’t the requirements for the church of Jesus Christ, which is under a new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:26–27; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8–13).
Such statements make some people nervous, and they might say progressive covenantalists are antinomians! They might say we don’t even believe we should keep the Ten Commandments! But we need to be careful here, because progressive covenantalists don’t end up at the same place as Stanley, and we do believe in universal moral norms.
Distinguishing the Law of Christ and the Law of Moses
When we consider the Ten Commandments, we have to situate them in their covenantal context. After all, they’re part of the Mosaic covenant, and Christians aren’t under that covenant. For instance, the sabbath is the sign of the Mosaic covenant, of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel (Ex. 31:13, 17), but believers in Christ are no longer under the sabbath command, since it’s a shadow that points to Christ (Col. 2:16; cf. Rom. 14:5). The sabbath points to our rest in Christ (Heb. 4:1–11), and I make this case in a book on progressive covenantalism. Since the sabbath is no longer required for believers today, it’s too simplistic to say that believers must obey the Ten Commandments.
Since the sabbath is no longer required for believers today, it’s too simplistic to say that believers must obey the Ten Commandments.
We need to remember in interpreting the Old Testament that there is both continuity and discontinuity, both abolition (Heb. 8:13) and fulfillment (Matt. 5:17–20). The law points to the fulfillment in Jesus. It doesn’t follow, however, that there are no moral norms for believers. The law of Christ functions as a norm for believers (Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14; 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:20–21), the heart and soul of which is love for neighbor. And this love was exemplified supremely in Christ’s self-giving on the cross.
Someone might say at this point, “You do hold the same view as Andy Stanley!” Not so fast. Romans 13:8–10 helps us unpack the nature of love, and Paul tells us that love keeps particular commands, which include commands that prohibit adultery, murder, stealing, and coveting. Paul tells us that other commands fall under this umbrella as well. In fact, when we read the New Testament, we discover that nine of the ten commandments are repeated in the New Testament (again, the exception is the sabbath). Such moral norms prevent us from sentimentality in defining what love is.
So we know from the New Testament itself—from the new covenant, from the fulfillment in Jesus—the moral norms that guide our lives. No one can claim to be living a life of love while transgressing such moral norms.
Moral Norms and the Character of God
The commands that are normative for believers today aren’t normative merely because they’re in the Ten Commandments or because they’re part of the old covenant. We know from the New Testament, from the new covenant, which moral norms apply today, and they remain moral norms because they express the character of God. There are indications even in the covenant with Adam and the covenant with Noah—which is in many respects a recapitulation of the covenant with Adam—that such moral norms were present at the beginning, prior to the Mosaic law. For instance, the permanence of marriage (Gen. 1:26; 2:18–25), the prohibition of murder (Gen. 9:6), and complete devotion to the Lord are present from the beginning, showing that the commands of love for God and neighbor (Matt. 22:34–40) are anchored in creation.
Progressive covenantalism and covenant theology come close to saying the same thing about moral norms. We just get there a different way, and we don’t disagree that idolatry, dishonoring parents, adultery, murder, stealing, lying, coveting, or same-sex marriage are morally wrong and transgress the love command.
The Old Testament is God’s authoritative Word to us, but we have to read the whole Bible covenantally, and in light of the fulfillment of Christ, to apply it well to our lives.