|Progressive Covenantalism and the Doing of Ethics
Stephen J. Wellum
How should Christians apply the whole Bible as our ethical standard? Today, this question is important for at least two reasons. First, in a growing secular and pluralistic age, we need to articulate God’s moral standards as necessary, good, and objectively true. Second, in response to various unbelieving critics, we need to demonstrate that Scripture’s ethical teaching is consistent across the canon because it is grounded in God’s unchanging nature and will.
Covenant theology has sought to do ethics and establish the basis for moral law by following the venerable tradition of dividing the Mosaic law into three parts: moral, civil, and ceremonial.1 With the coming of Christ, the law’s civil and ceremonial parts are now fulfilled and abrogated, yet God’s eternal moral law as revealed in the Decalogue remains unchanged.2 A direct equation is made between the Decalogue and eternal moral law3 and a general hermeneutical rule is followed: unless the NT explicitly modifies or abrogates the Mosaic law (as in the ceremonial and civil parts), it is still in force today. This rule becomes the principle by which moral law is established across the canon.
There is much to commend about this approach and it is important not to exaggerate the differences between progressive covenantalism and covenant theology in doing ethics. In the end, both views arrive at similar conclusions regarding God’s moral demands today. However, the difference lies in how we arrive at our conclusions given progressive covenantalism’s rejection of the tripartite distinction of the law as the principle by which moral law is biblically established. This difference is also illustrated in the ongoing debate over the present-day application of the Sabbath command—a debate which functions as a crucial test case for how the biblical covenants are “put together” and moral law is established.4
In this chapter, I will outline in five steps how progressive covenantalism seeks to determine what the moral law is and thus establish the biblical norm for doing ethics. Given our rejection of the tripartite distinction, what is our alternative approach? How do we escape the charge of being antinomian? How do we establish God’s moral norms, especially in our secular and pluralistic age, as those who now live under the new covenant?
All Scripture is authoritative and thus provides the norm for Christian ethics.
What is our standard for ethics? How do we establish moral norms? The simple answer: All of Scripture is our standard and it alone establishes moral norms. In this regard, 2 Tim 3:15-17 is a crucial text. Paul describes Scripture, specifically the OT, as God’s breathed-out word and thus fully authoritative for Christians. In other words, the entire OT, including the law-covenant, functions for us as the basis for our doctrine and ethics. Although Christians are not “under the law” as a covenant, it still functions as Scripture and demands our complete obedience.5
It is important to stress this point at the beginning of our discussion. All Christians ought to confess that God’s nature and will is the objective standard of morality, and as creatures, we know this standard by revelation. Christian ethics is not antinomian. Although Scripture is not an exhaustive revelation, it is a true and objective revelation of God’s moral will. Our triune God has not left us to ourselves; Scripture is our sufficient and authoritative moral standard.
Nevertheless, although all Scripture is our standard, its moral instruction requires careful application depending upon our covenantal location. Some specific commands under the old covenant such as circumcision, food laws, gleaning laws, and so on, which are all moral laws, no longer apply to us today in exactly the same way (Gen 17:9-14; Lev 11; 19:9-10; cf. Mark 7:1-23; Hebrews 5-10). This is why it is crucial to distinguish between biblical morality and Christian ethics.6 As Michael Hill explains, “Biblical morality has to do with the morality found in the Bible.”7 It describes God’s moral demands in specific places in redemptive history, but “Christian ethics is locating what is normative for Christians in this present age.”8 As Hill grants, “Some unreflective Christians believe that the revelation of God is exactly the same in any part of the Bible.”9 Thus the doing of ethics is simply taking “a moral rule, principle or virtue from any part of the Bible and without further interpretation apply it directly as moral guidance for Christians today.”10 But this ethical use of the Bible fails to do justice to the Bible’s own teaching and the progressive unfolding of the biblical covenants.
So all Scripture is for our ethical instruction, but not all Scripture applies to us in exactly the same way! How, then, do we rightly apply the entire canon to us as our ethical norm?
Negatively, we reject the tripartite distinction of the Mosaic law as the means by which Christians determine what is morally binding upon us today.
As already noted, covenant theology determines what is morally binding upon Christians by appealing to the tripartite distinction of the Mosaic law. Although this approach is noteworthy, we reject it for the following three reasons.
First, Scripture views the old covenant as a unit or package and it does not appeal to the tripartite distinction as the means by which the continuity and discontinuity of moral law is established for Christians today. This is not to say that within the law-covenant distinctions can be made (e.g., certain principles are more important [Matt 5:24; 9:13], weightier matters of the law [Matt 23:23], laws regarding sacrifices [Leviticus 1-7] versus civil matters, or even noting the central place of the Decalogue [Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5]). Instead, it is to say that Scripture views the law-covenant as a unit which serves a specific role in God’s plan for the life of Israel, and as an entire covenant, it is brought to fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant.11
Texts such as Gal 5:3 and James 2:8-13 point in this direction. Keeping or breaking one part of the law assumes the keeping or breaking of the whole law. Or, as the author of Hebrews argues, the law-covenant is an integrated whole grounded in the priesthood (Heb 7:11), and with a change in priesthood (Ps 110; Heb 7), there is necessarily an entire covenantal change, not merely parts of it (Heb 7:12; 8:7-13). Or, think of how Paul views himself as a Christian: before he was under the law-covenant as a Jew but now he no longer is. Instead, he is under God’s law by being ἒνομος Χριστοῦ (1 Cor 9:21), i.e., under the new covenant. Paul views the covenants as entire packages; the old having reached its end in Christ.
Second, Scripture teaches that the entire law-covenant was temporary in God’s plan, serving a number of purposes, but ultimately pointing forward to its fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:15-4:7; Heb 7:11-12).12 In order to grasp the role of the law-covenant in God’s redemptive plan, we must locate it with the progressive unfolding of the covenants. When one does so, Scripture teaches the opposite conclusion of first-century Judaism. Jewish thought believed that the old covenant was eternal and unchangeable (e.g., Wis. 18:4, Ag. Ap. 2.277; Mos. 2.14; Jub 1:27; 3:31; 6:17); the NT teaches that as important the law-covenant is in God’s unfolding plan, it has now come to its end as an entire covenant.13
It is for this reason that the Mosaic law, as a covenant, is no longer directly binding upon the Christian. In fact, the law’s supervising God’s people and directing their behavior as a παιδαγωγὸς (Gal 3:24) has reached its end with Christ’s coming and the new covenant (Gal 4:1-7).14 Two important implications follow. First, it is difficult to separate the law-covenant into three parts and suggest that only its moral parts apply to us today. Second, given that the law-covenant has reached its telos in Christ, we only apply its ethical instruction to us in and through Christ and the new covenant.
Third, and related to the previous points, the NT teaches that Christians are no longer “under the law” as a covenant and thus it no longer functions as a “direct authority” for us (e.g., Rom 6:14-15; 1 Cor 9:20-21; Gal 4:4-5; 5:13-18).15 On this point, Paul’s argument is thoroughly redemptive-historical: the old covenant served its purpose in God’s plan, but now in Christ, it has reached its telos (end and goal) (Rom 10:4; Gal 3:15-4:7).16 A common way to avoid this conclusion is to interpret Paul as saying that Christians are no longer “under the law” either by a legalistic misuse of it or in its ceremonial requirements.17 Both of these interpretations fail, however, since Paul does not equate “law” (νομός) with a “legalistic” misunderstanding of it; instead, “law” refers to the entire law-covenant which Christians are no longer in Christ.18
On this point, 1 Cor 9:20-21 is a crucial text. As a Christian, Paul no longer sees himself as “under the law” and, remarkably, he does not equate God’s law with the Mosaic law! Instead, Paul views himself as under God’s law but God’s law is now defined completely in relation to Christ (ἒνομος Χριστοῦ).19 This entails, as Moo suggests, “The ‘law’ under which Christians live is continuous with the Mosaic law in that God’s eternal moral norms, which never change, are clearly expressed in both. But there is discontinuity in the fact that Christians live under the ‘law of Christ’ and not under the Mosaic law. Our source for determining God’s eternal moral law is Christ and the apostles, not the Mosaic law or even the Ten Commandments.”20 This fact helps make sense of why Christians do not “do” or “keep” the law; instead, in Christ, we “fulfill” the law due to Christ’s work and the power of the Spirit.21
What do these three points teach us? Scripture does not appeal to a tripartite division in the law as the basis for determining the moral law today. The law-covenant is viewed as a whole. It has now reached its end in Christ. This is why the law-covenant is not directly binding upon Christians. This is not to say that it has no present relevance. In fact, if we ask—what is the purpose of the law? (Gal 3:19)—diverse answers may be given.22
Central to the law’s purpose was to reveal God’s character, the nature of human sin by imprisoning Israel under sin, and also instruct how God would graciously redeem in priesthood and sacrifice (e.g., Rom 3:19-20; 5:20; 7:7-12; 8:2-3; Col 2:14; Heb 7:11; 10:3). The law-covenant held out the promise of life (Lev 18:5; Rom 2:13; Gal 3:12), but due to human sin it could not save us despite being “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7:12).23 In fact, ultimately, the law-covenant was never intended to save, yet in its typological patterns (e.g., sacrificial system, tabernacle-temple, priesthood, etc.) it pointed forward to how God would save. Yet, in the end, God’s righteousness comes apart from the old covenant (Rom 3:21), and it is only found in the new covenant—that to which the law pointed (Rom 3:21-31; 8:2-4; Gal 3:13-14; 4:4-7). For a time, the Mosaic law supervised God’s people (Gal 3:24; 4:1-7), but now that Christ has come, its supervisory work is done. Yet, the law-covenant still functions for us as Scripture, teaching us about God’s glorious plan of redemption, making us wise to salvation in Christ, and instructing us how to live wisely in the world as God’s new covenant people.24
Positively, we determine what is morally binding upon us today by appealing to the entirety of Scripture viewed through the lens of Christ and the new covenant.
Although Christians are not “under the law” as a covenant, it still functions for us as Scripture. As with any biblical text, however, before we directly apply it to our lives, we must first place it in its covenantal location and then second, we must think through how that text points forward, anticipates, and is fulfilled in Christ.25 It is only by doing this that we correctly apply any biblical text to our lives as Christians. In fact, apart from following this hermeneutical process we will incorrectly apply Scripture.
For example, if we ask—does the Levitical sacrificial instruction apply to us today?—the answer is no, if we mean as God’s covenant instruction to Israel. We, as Christians, live after Christ, who by his glorious work has brought the OT sacrifices to their telos (Heb 5-10). Yet, Leviticus as Scripture does apply to us in diverse ways—as prophecy, instruction, and wisdom—but now only in light of Christ. What is true of Leviticus is also true of the law-covenant (e.g., circumcision, food laws, civil laws, and Decalogue). No part of the law is applied to us without first placing it in its covenantal location (immediate and epochal context), and then asking how the entire covenant is fulfilled in Christ (canonical context).
In answering the question—what is the moral law for Christians today?—we must follow the same path. We first gladly confess that the entirety of Scripture is our standard. But we must simultaneously add that all of Scripture’s moral teaching is only binding upon us in light of its fulfillment in Christ. Both of these points are needed to discern God’s moral demands for new covenant believers, and Hill nicely emphasizes these points in his discussion of the Ten Commandments and their application to us today.
On the one hand, Hill notes that “[t]he Law of Moses does not provide a complete and binding guide to Christian morality.”26 Moo rightly asserts that “[t]he entire Mosaic law comes to fulfillment in Christ, and this fulfillment means that this law is no longer a direct and immediate source of, or judge of, the conduct of God’s people. Christian behavior, rather, is now guided directly by “the law of Christ.”27 For Moo, the “law of Christ” reflects all that God has given to us under the new covenant, especially “the teaching and example of Jesus and the apostles, the central demand of love, and the guiding influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.”28
On the other hand, as Hill insists, the Mosaic law cannot be ignored either since it is authoritative Scripture. As a covenant, the law does not govern us directly, yet as Scripture, and applied to us in Christ, it now takes on a prophetic-wisdom function. Hill comments: in the Mosaic law “[t]he basic shape of God’s rule, and God’s just order established at creation, is confirmed and further delineated in the Law. Yet it is delineated in positive and negative ways”29—ways which ultimately point forward to a better covenant. Hill rightly notes that “[w]hile Christians are not under the package called the Law (a package designated as the ‘Old Covenant’), the moral elements in the Law are part of a continuum that gives shape to an ideal.”30 That ideal is first given in creation, distorted in the fall, recovered in the law-covenant, but ultimately, it is only fully restored in Christ. In this way, the law-covenant expresses God’s moral demands but it also points forward to a greater covenant. In the new covenant the previous moral instruction is not dismissed; rather it continues and is transformed in light of the ideal which has begun in Christ and which will be consummated at Christ’s return. The new covenant, then, not only replaces the old, it also fulfills it.
Both the replacement and fulfillment of the old covenant by the new is taught in the NT.31 On the one hand, in the new covenant, the old is replaced by the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:20-21). Instead of reliance upon the law, we rely upon Christ (Gal 2:19-20; Phil 3:4-14), and we discern God’s will in Christ and apostolic instruction (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 7:19; 9:21). As Rosner contends, “Christians are not under the Law of Moses, but under the law of Christ, the law of faith and the law of the Spirit. We have died to the law, Christ lives in us and we live by faith in the Son of God. . . . We do not keep the law, but fulfil the law in Christ and through love. We do not seek to walk according to the law, but according to the truth of the gospel, in Christ, in newness of resurrection life, by faith, in the light and in step with the Spirit.”32
On the other hand, the new covenant fulfills the old. A crucial text in this regard is Matt 5:17-20. Although debate surrounds this text, fulfillment is best understood in a redemptive-historical sense (see Matt 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point forward to him, and Jesus is the one who brings them to their intended end. The Law and the Prophets, then, have a prophetic function as they foreshadow and predict the coming of Christ.33 Obviously, the prophetic foreshadowing varies depending upon whether it is a typological pattern (e.g., exodus, sacrifices, priesthood, and temple), or whether it is the law’s instruction. Yet, in light of the antitheses in Matt 5:21-48, Jesus teaches that just as he has “fulfilled OT prophecies by his person and actions, so he fulfilled OT law by his teaching.”34 As Carson notes, “In no case does this ‘abolish’ the OT as canon, any more than the obsolescence of the Levitical sacrificial system abolishes tabernacle ritual as canon. Instead, the OT’s real and abiding authority must be understood through the person and teaching of him to whom it points and who so richly fulfills it.”35
If this is so, it is important to see that in Jesus teaching, he fulfills the law not simply by extending, annulling, or merely intensifying it but by demonstrating “the direction in which it [OT law] points.”36 In so doing, Jesus views himself as “the eschatological goal of the OT, and thereby its sole authoritative interpreter, the one through whom alone the OT finds its valid continuity and significance.”37 From this text, Moo draws the following ethical implication: Jesus teaches us that “[t]he OT law is not to be abandoned. Indeed, it must continue to be taught (Matt 5:19)—but interpreted and applied in light of its fulfillment by Christ. In other words, it stands no longer as the ultimate standard of conduct for God’s people, but must always be viewed through the lenses of Jesus’ ministry and teaching.”38
In order for Christians, then, to determine what God’s moral law is, we must apply all of Scripture in light of Christ. God’s moral law is not discovered, as covenant theology teaches, in an a priori manner, that is, by isolating the Decalogue from the law-covenant and then applying it directly to us. Instead, “moral law” is determined from the entire Bible in an a posteriori way, that is, by reading and applying biblical texts to us, first in their covenantal location, and then in light of Christ. Carson is right to insist: “we do not begin with a definition of moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law but observe (for example) what laws change least, across redemptive history, in the nature and details of their demands, and happily apply the category ‘moral’ to them. This seems to me to reflect better exegesis and allows space to see the teleological, predictive, anticipatory nature of Tanakh as it points forward to the new covenant and beyond to the consummation.”39
What this entails is a careful reading/application of the whole Bible in ethics. The entire OT, including the law-covenant, is for our moral instruction. Reading Scripture by placing each covenant in its immediate, epochal, and canonical context is the way we determine what God’s moral law is. We do not follow either the hermeneutical rule which says that unless the NT explicitly modifies or abrogates the Mosaic law (as in the ceremonial and civil parts), it is still in force today, or even the rule Moo suggests, namely that Christians are only bound “to that which is clearly repeated within New Testament teaching.”40 The former approach wrongly assumes the validity of a tripartite distinction of the law as the principle by which moral law is canonically established and it fails to grasp the law-covenants’ place in the progression of the covenants. The latter approach, if not careful, is open to the charge that since certain behaviors are not clearly repeated in the NT—e.g., bestiality (Exod 22:19; cf. Lev 18:23; 20:16) or the cursing of the deaf (Lev 19:14)—then we have no NT warrant to say that these actions are immoral.41 What is needed is a “whole Bible” hermeneutic, unpacking the Bible’s own internal categories, placing texts in the Bible’s unfolding storyline according to their covenantal location, and then thinking through their relation to Christ. Let us develop this approach briefly in the last two points.
The doing of ethics requires a careful unpacking of the Bible’s storyline and categories.
How is ethics done from a whole Bible? I will stress one central point. In using Scripture to do ethics, it is crucial to unpack the Bible’s own intrasystematic categories,42 which involve both the Bible’s progressive unfolding of the covenants and the larger biblical-theological framework of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.43
Why is this important? Just as it is crucial to begin the Bible’s storyline and covenantal unfolding in creation in order to grasp God’s plan;44 it is also necessary to ground ethics in the norm of creation. As Hill rightly insists, it is the original creation with its revealed goals or purposes which “provides us with the basis for determining what is morally good.”45 This point is especially significant in ethical discussions over the nature and dignity of humans, the proper use of our sexuality, marriage, the value of labor, and so on.
For example, take the case of bestiality. Before the law forbids it (Exod 22:19), we know from creation that there is a qualitative distinction between humans and animals, and that the only valid expression of our sexuality is in heterosexual marriage (Gen 2:18-25). Given our sin and rebellion, in the law-covenant God reminds Israel what is and is not morally acceptable, but this does not entail that we only know that bestiality is wrong from the law-covenant. Also, even if the new covenant does not explicitly forbid bestiality, this does not entail that the Mosaic law is still in force unless the NT explicitly modifies/abrogates it, or that we are only bound to that which is clearly repeated in the NT. Both of these approaches fail to do justice to a “whole Bible” reading, grounded in the Bible’s own biblical-theological framework, and which moves across the covenants from creation to the consummation.
In order to discern God’s moral will, we need first to begin in creation, then think through how sin has distorted God’s order, walk through the covenants, and discover how God’s redemptive promise will restore and transform the created order—a reality which has now been realized in Christ. At every stage in redemptive history, the covenants reflect God’s moral demands, thus explaining why we expect and find a continuity of moral demand across the canon. But earlier covenants on their own do not provide a complete and binding guide for Christian morality.46 No doubt, the earlier covenants are crucial parts of God’s one redemptive plan, but now, due to Christ’s work, as covenants, they have been fulfilled. As Scripture, all of the covenants, including the law-covenant, are instructive for us, since as Hill observes, “the basic shape of God’s rule, and God’s just order established at creation, is confirmed and further delineated in the Law.”47 But applying specific ethical instruction to us must be done by a whole Bible reading viewed in Christ—the one in whom “all the elements of the moral ideal are realized and revealed. . . . In [Christ] we see God’s just and good order.”48
Some illustrations of doing ethics from a “whole Bible” and under the new covenant.
Hill summarizes how Christians ought to approach Scripture and draw ethical conclusions. He writes, “On any particular issue we will need to put together the relevant sections of Scripture so that we can know what is good in particular cases. The basic creation pattern is the starting-point for this exercise. The Law and the Prophets point to the original shape and purpose of God’s good order and highlight the fractures and disorder caused by sin. Finally, the revelation in Christ gives us a glimpse of the completed and perfected order. With minds renewed by the Spirit of God through the work of Christ believers can use this information to discern what is right and good. Such discernment is the substance of wisdom.”49 A few examples may help, but admittedly, the discussion is brief, a kind of priming of the pump.
First, let us think about sexual ethics. Scripture teaches us God’s norm for human sexuality is in creation (Gen 1:26-30; 2:15-25). In the creation of male and female, God designed human sexuality to function within the permanent, covenant relationship of heterosexual marriage (Matt 19:4-9). All misuses of our sexuality, whether it is fornication, adultery, divorce, homosexuality, bestiality, and even polygamy are distortions viewed against the backdrop of God’s creation-intent for us. Sadly, in light of the fall, all sexual distortions are introduced. In earlier stages of redemptive history, a less than normative behavior is sometimes allowed (e.g., polygamy), but viewed against God’s creation order and in light of the greater Christ-church relationship, polygamy is never viewed as normative.50 It is for this reason, that with the dawning of the new covenant, polygamy is no longer acceptable. God’s creation standard is reaffirmed and lived out in the church.
Although the Mosaic law explicitly forbids specific sexual distortions (Lev 18:1-30), it is important to see that all of its prohibitions simply unpack the “one flesh” ideal of creation. In addition, given the prophetic function of the law-covenant, as the law anticipates a greater righteousness to come, the ethical demand under the new covenant is greater. Also, in the prophets, as they anticipate the dawning of the new creation, they speak of a day when God will so transform the entire community that God’s new covenant people will become covenant-keepers and not breakers (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:25-27), which is precisely what our Lord addresses in his teaching regarding the kingdom (Matt 5:17-48).51 In Christ’s coming and work, the new order has arrived. By the regenerating work of the Spirit, those who enter God’s kingdom are united to Christ and freed from Adam and the old era. In Christ, individuals and the church are the “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Eph 2:8-10, 11-21), hence the reason for why we begin to live out what it means to be God’s new creation, even though we still live between the times. The NT, in calling the church to a proper use of our sexuality, grounds it both in creation and what we are in Christ. This is why God’s moral demand upon us today is greater—greater in restoring us to what we were created to be in the first place and in calling us to live now as God’s new creation people.52
Second, let us think about various life issues. Given our creation as image-bearers, human life is precious (Gen 1:26-28; cf. Gen 9:6). Strife, anger, murder, and our inhumane treatment of others is a result of the fall. In the law-covenant these wrong behaviors are explicitly forbidden and punished, but their prohibition is basically the outworking of who we are as created. Jesus is clear that God’s intent from the beginning was for his image-bearers to love God and their neighbors, which is precisely what the entire canon emphasizes (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5; cf. Matt 22:34-40). Yet, in the new age, the full intent of how we are to love as God’s people is now realized in a greater way. This is why Jesus stresses that it is not merely the absence of the act of murder, adultery, or lying which is forbidden, but our very heart-attitude toward one another (Matt 5:21-48). What God demands of his people is love. In the old era, the law-covenant demanded it, but it also anticipated something more. Now, in Christ, what the old anticipated is now here. This is why Paul can say that love fulfills the law (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14)—not an amorphic love, but one governed by God’s will and our renewal in Christ by the Spirit. As this understanding of humans and love is applied to ethical issues such as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia, even though each issue involves other matters,53 a sanctity of life ethic is foundational to a Christian ethic and consistent in all of Scripture.
Third, how should we apply the law-covenant to us today? We do not apply it as if we are under it as a covenant. No doubt, prior to the coming of Christ, that is precisely how it was applied to God’s people. Nevertheless, as new covenant believers, the law-covenant is no longer directly applicable to us in this way. Thus, in reading of the law’s various moral demands, we do not directly apply them to our lives until we have first wrestled with how these moral demands have been brought to fulfillment in Christ. For example, in regard to such demands as not sowing two seeds in a field, not eating unclean foods, the need to circumcise our male children, or the treatment of blood disorders, etc., we do not directly obey these commands as covenantal obligation. However, as Scripture, the law-covenant is for our instruction. As we apply these commands, what this entails is that we must think through whether old covenant commands are tied to creation, whether they are tied solely to the old era, and how they are fulfilled in the NT. By following this procedure, we learn how to apply all of Scripture to us in Christ.
In the case of the sacrificial system, for example, it no longer functions for us covenantally. Yet, as Scripture, the sacrificial system instructs us about our sin, it teaches us something about God’s holy demand and gracious provision, and most importantly, it reveals our need for someone greater. Or, think of the food laws. Even though they no longer apply to us directly, they are instructive for us. In thinking through why God gave them in the OT and how they are fulfilled in Christ, we discover that their primary purpose was to separate God’s people from the nations and to instruct them about their need for an internal heart-transformation (Acts 10-11; Mark 7:1-23). Although these two purposes have ended in Christ, we, as new covenant believers, are still instructed by them. In fact, it was the theological and practical implications of these very issues which the Jerusalem Council had to resolve otherwise the entire Gospel was at stake (Acts 10-11; 15; Rom 14:1-15:13; Gal 1:6-10).
Or think of the various capital punishments exercised in the OT. Given the change from Israel to Christ and a church-state distinction in the new covenant, we do not directly apply the civil law of Israel to governments today, yet two points need to be made. First, given the God-ordained role of government and the sanctity of human life, the State’s role is to protect life and to punish those who do not (Gen 9:6; Rom 13:1-7), and as such, some forms of capital punishment are consistent throughout time. Yet, in other areas, there is no NT warrant to practice specific punishments today as they functioned for Israel under the law-covenant. Second, the church functions as a theocracy in the new covenant and the church’s exercise of church discipline picks up some of the punishments of the old covenant in a greater way. For example, think of various sexual sins. Under the law-covenant, sexual sin was punishable by death. Under the new covenant, the church does not deal with sexual sin in this way; instead she deals with it through the exercise of church discipline (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5). But, it is crucial to remember, if the guilty party does not repent, the verdict of excommunication is far greater than anything in the old since it is viewed as a verdict with eternal consequences (see Heb 2:1-4).
What about the application of the Decalogue today? It too must be applied in a similar manner, that is, by locating it in its covenantal location and then applying it to us in light of Christ. So, for example, as we read the opening preamble (Exod 20:1-2), we are keenly aware of its covenantal location, yet it is now applied to us in light of God’s unfolding plan of redemption culminated in Christ. Unlike Israel, we have not been redeemed from our bondage to Egypt; but in a far greater way, we have been redeemed from that which the exodus typologically pointed forward to (along with the prophets [Isaiah 11, 42, 53]), namely our exodus-deliverance from sin in Christ’s cross (Luke 9:31). Then as we apply each commandment in light of our redemption in Christ, we discover that there is a greater incentive, obligation, and demand on us to have no other gods before us (Exod 20:3) and to honor the great name of our triune God (Exod 20:7). In one sense, the moral demand has not changed; in another sense, it is greater in Christ.
As we approach the Sabbath command (Exod 20:8-12), once again, we apply it in exactly the same way. In thinking through the Sabbath’s covenantal location—that which looks back to the covenantal rest at creation (Gen 2:1-3), a day to be obeyed by Israel under the law, and a day which typologically pointed forward to a greater rest to come (Psalm 95; cf. Matt 11:28-30; Heb 3:7-5:13)—it is now applied to us in light of its fulfillment, namely Christ who has achieved for us salvation rest. All of the other commandments (Exod 20:12-17) are applied in the same way.
What about the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12)? Surely, given that Paul quotes it directly in Eph 6:2, this demonstrates that the Decalogue has direct relevance for us today? But before we draw this conclusion, it is important to observe that even though there is moral continuity in this command, as there is in the other commands, there is also a major transformation. Paul no longer says that our honoring of our parents will yield long life in the land, instead he expands the promise to the whole earth, thus giving further confirmation that the law-covenant is applied to us today in and through Christ and his glorious new covenant work.54
How does progressive covenantalism apply the entire Bible as our ethical standard? I have sought to give a brief answer to that question. Most Christians, regardless of their commitment to covenant or dispensational theology, will arrive at similar conclusions. But, as noted above, where the important difference lies is on how we get there. In the end, our aim is to achieve two results simultaneously: first, to employ a consistent hermeneutic which properly “puts together” the biblical covenants on the Bible’s own terms, and second, to learn anew to obey all that Scripture teaches. My prayer is that this chapter will achieve both results, especially the latter.