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No. 1: The Mosaic Law and Social Issues

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 1
January, 1989
Copyright 1989, Biblical Horizons

One of the most pressing problems facing Christians today is how the faith relates to the crises of our civilization. On all sides, Christian spokesmen are trying to offer solutions and perspectives on social issues, in order to try and reform our degenerating society. Abortion, pornography, homosexuality, immigration, war, criminal justice, and poverty are but a few of the pressing issues before us.

Christians naturally say "the Bible has the answer" to these problems. In the history of Christendom, however, there has sometimes been another approach to social matters. Some have said that we should not bring the Bible into the marketplace, but should approach social issues based on "common sense," as in Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. Others have said that we should leave the Bible closed and work on social issues on the basis of "natural law." Still others have advocated "common grace" as the foundation for Christian social theory.

I have found all these things to be silent, however. When I ask "natural law" to give me information on how to approach these problem, I hear no voice, and I get no help. When I was saved, God gave me the Bible, not something else. Of course, I do believe that God reveals Himself to all men in the creation (one view of "natural law"), and I believe that God restrains the wickedness of the unbelieving heart (one view of "common grace"), but these things are not sources of information for the Christian. Natural law, common grace, and "true" common sense all are supposed to communicate the same moral truths that are in the Bible, and since the Bible is clear, it is the Bible that I have to use.

Happily, more and more Christians today are using an "open Bible" approach to modern problems. This is really what the Church has always done. Our modern views of common sense and natural law are actually based on the Bible. After all, for the Greeks, "natural law" meant that homosexual love is higher and purer than heterosexual love. "Common sense" to a Hindu may mean that when he dies, his wife is to throw herself on his funeral pyre and be burned up with him. The only reason "common sense" and "natural law" are different in Christian civilization is because of the influence of the Bible.

Once we realize that we need an "open Bible" approach to modern issues, we face a dilemma. The place in the Bible where God gives far and away the most information on social affairs is the law of Moses. This is frightening to many Christians because they have the idea that the Mosaic law is full of cruel and absurd things. During the past decade, however, many Christians have begun to study the Mosaic law, and are finding that it is not horrible and vicious, but a revelation of a loving and concerned God.

A more significant problem lies in the fact that the Mosaic law is law. We are supposed to obey law, and this raises the question of whether or not we are bound to obey the Mosaic law as law. One school of thought has answered yes to this question. I see problems with this.

First, as I pointed out in my study of Exodus 21-23 (The Law of the Covenant, 1984, out of print), the Mosaic law is not "law" in our modern sense. Nor does it resemble the law codes of the ancient world. It is full of exhortations and principles, and thus is at some points more like "fundamental teaching on basic principles" than it is like a law code. Thus, even in Moses’ time it was not a simple matter of "obeying the law code" as much as it was "hearkening to and being transformed by the fundamental principles."

Second, the primary purpose of the Mosaic law, as of all of Scripture, is to reveal God and Christ. The "law" was first of all a Tree of Life to point Israel to their King and Savior, and only secondly a Rule of Life to show them how to live in the covenant. Any failure to keep Christ central at every point of the Mosaic law will lead in the direction of legalism.

But third, we in the New Covenant are not "covenantally bound" to Moses. This means that we approach the Mosaic law in a way radically different from the way Old Covenant believers approached it. When an Old Covenant believer read a stipulation like, "Do not wear a garment of mixed cloth," he was to obey it, whether he understood it or not. He might not see how this revealed his King, and he might not see why God would want him to do it, but he was supposed to do it anyway. For him, obedience to the Mosaic law preceded understanding.

For us the reverse is the case. The New Testament makes it clear that we are not to obey Moses for the sake of obeying Moses. Rather, we obey the New Covenant law in this manner. When we read that women are not to be elders, we are to obey this whether we understand it or not. For us, obedience to the New Covenant often precedes understanding.

This is not how we are to approach the Mosaic covenant. As we look at the Mosaic laws, understanding has to precede obedience. This is because we are only to use the Mosaic law in a New Covenant way, and that means we have to understand how the principles of the Mosaic law apply in the New Covenant before we can obey them.

The clearest and most obvious example of this is the sabbath. We are not to obey the Mosaic sabbath law. If we were, we should have to rest on the seventh day. The Church has always held, however, that we obey the New Covenant and gather for worship on the Lord’s Day (the eighth or first day). We do this whether we understand it or not, because God requires it.

But that is not how we approach the Mosaic sabbath commandments. Rather, the Church seeks to understand the basic principles of the Old Covenant seventh-day sabbath, and then apply these principles to the New Covenant eighth-day Lord’s Day. In this way, the Church makes full use of the Mosaic law, without being "under" it.

Moreover, keeping the day holy means something else in the New Covenant. As I point out in my book Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty, the priest were forbidden to drink wine in God’s presence, while we are commanded to do so, on the day of worship. Moreover, keeping the day holy in the Old Covenant entailed the death penalty for building up a fire, while this is not the case in the New Covenant, as we see in Acts 28. Thus, there are important changes in how we are to apply even the Ten Commandments themselves.

Do you see the difference clearly? The Old Covenant believer submitted to the Mosaic law before understanding it. We, however, must understand it before submitting to it. The New Covenant believer submits to the New Covenant before understanding it. The New Covenant believer must understand the Old Covenant in the light of the New before he can submit to it.

The Mosaic revelation was law for Israel, while it is wisdom for us. It is wisdom for us not only in the general sense of good ideas, but also in the special sense of being legal wisdom. After all, the Mosaic law is "law" in some sense, and so it gives us wisdom in the area of law. We have to maintain, however, that we are not "under" the Mosaic law as law, but rather we are enjoined as "whole Bible — open Bible" Christians to make full use of all that God has said as we approach modern problems.

I believe that keeping this in mind will keep us clear of the problem of legalism on the one hand ("submitting to Moses") and antinomianism on the other hand (rejecting what God said through Moses).

By way of conclusion, we know that the Bible is wholly authoritative for us in all its parts. We are to submit ourselves to all of God’s Word. The Bible contains absolutely authoritative questions, promises, declarations, laws, wisdom, parables, exhortations, etc. Thus, to say that the Mosaic law functions as wisdom for us is not to reduce its authority one whit, but simply to clarify the way in which we New Testament believers are to approach it.

God requires us to study, be discipled by, and implement all of His revealed Word — including the revelation given to Moses. Unlike the antinomian, the Christian wants to understand and use the wonders of the law God gave Israel. Unlike Israel of old, however, the Christian receives the Mosaic law not first of all as law to be obeyed, but first of all as absolutely authoritative legal wisdom.