It is necessary now to make a biblical response, touching upon certain key texts that are essential to our subject. This we shall do by giving attention to five important areas.
1. The new covenant of Jeremiah 31
The famous passage in question is 31:31-34. For our purposes the question is this: when God says in verse 33, ‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts’, to what ‘law’ does He refer? To the moral law i.e. the ten commandments (decalogue)? And if not, to what?
This is where New Covenant Theology has lots to say. It proceeds along these lines. Along with the new covenant comes a new law which is higher and more spiritual than the law of Moses. This equates to ‘the law of Christ’ which is mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:21 and Galatians 6:2. So the law written on the heart (Jeremiah 31) is not the same as the law of Moses. Consequently, the decalogue cannot function as a unit under the new covenant, for, it is argued, ‘ten commandments’ equals ‘old covenant’.
What do we say in response to this? We agree with Richard C Barcellos (In Defense of the Decalogue), who writes: ‘The law under the new covenant is God’s law ... This promised blessing of the new covenant of the law written on the heart is to be enjoyed by the whole new covenant community . . . God is both the author of the law itself and the one who writes it on the heart’. He concludes: ‘The text of Jeremiah clearly assumes that the law of God under the new covenant is referring to a law that was already written at the time of writing of Jeremiah . . . Jeremiah clearly teaches that the law of God under the new covenant is a law that was written on stone by God and that will be written on hearts by God’. In other words: identical law. The law was first written upon tables of stone, whereas the great work of the Holy Spirit is to write it upon the table of the heart.
We must insist, moreover, that the decalogue does function as a unit in the New Testament. Very instructively, Barcellos, in his extended treatment of 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (which begins with the apostle’s statement, ‘But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully’) shows how the decalogue as a whole is reflected there, and quotes Patrick Fairbairn that all the vices of verses 9-10 ‘admit of being ranged under the precepts of the two tables’. The point is this: the moral law is the fundamental law for all mankind in every generation, not just for some in a limited historical season.
2. Christ’s fulfilling of the law in Matthew 5
The familiar passage is 5:17-20; in particular Jesus’ claim about having come to ‘fulfil’ the law. By ‘the law’ and ‘the prophets’ taken together we are to understand the entire Old Testament.
The antinomian position here is to assert that Jesus is declaring the law null and void for his people. They will have nothing more to do with it, for He will fulfil it for them. It is a thing of the past, since He has come.
However, this forgets certain vital things, or ‘conveniently’ puts them on one side. Things such as these:
i) The classic distinction that is often (and rightly) made between the moral, civil and ceremonial law. The ceremonial law had to do with the religious worship of Israel (and was filled abundantly with types and shadows pointing forward to Christ, types and shadows which he indeed fulfilled in His life, death, resurrection and so forth). The civil law was given to Israel as a theocracy (and while many of its principles still apply, the civil law as such no longer does). Yet, in contrast, the moral law (ten commandments) is laid down for all ages. It is (observes John Thackway) ‘for Christians the perfect summary of all the truth of God for our life and conduct — a miraculous compression of everything that God wants of us and gives us grace to fulfil’. He adds, ‘the moral law remains the only standard of righteousness acceptable to God — it is the transcript of His moral nature’.
ii) The fact that the Lord Jesus Christ actually states that he has not come to ‘destroy’ (abrogate, do away with, declare obsolete) the law. He upholds it rigorously, and speaks in very solemn tones of any ‘who shall break one of the least of these commandments’; they ‘shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven’. In contrast, ‘whosoever shall do and teach them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven’.
iii) The Lord Jesus Christ (whose law, after all, this is here, for there is no distinction between ‘the law of God’ and ‘the law of Christ’: they are the same thing) asserts the unchanging and abiding status of the decalogue: ‘For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled’. In other words, it remains authoritative until the age to come; it has a permanent and honoured place under Christ’s Lordship until His second coming.
iv) His repeated ‘For I say unto you’, as His exposition of the divine law proceeds in Matthew 5, gives His corrections of the false position of the religious teachers, His returning of His hearers to the original intent of the law, and His opening up of the spiritual heights, lengths, breadths and depths of the law (concerning, for example, murder/hatred, adultery/lust and so on) that is, the spirituality of the law, not some supposed correcting, adjusting or abandoning of that law itself.
Bringing together the teaching of Jeremiah 31 and Matthew 5, it is worth quoting Thomas Manton: ‘If the law might be disannulled as to new creatures, then why doth the Spirit of God write it with such legible characters in their hearts? . . . Now that which the Spirit engraves upon the heart, would Christ come to deface and abolish?’
3. Paul’s teaching in Romans 6
One of the most crucial texts in our interaction with antinomianism must be Romans 6:14: ‘For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace’. The moment some folk spot ‘not under the law’ and ‘but under grace’ they become very excited. ‘There it is’, they cry; ‘What more is there to be said? We’re finished with the law. It’s redundant. We’re Christians now — we’re under grace. Being under the law would be a backward step and take us into legalism’.
But not so fast! Is that what Paul is actually saying? Not at all! Often it is only the second part of the verse that is quoted. Rut there is a whole Romans 6:14, and each of the two parts begins with a ‘for’: Verse 14a: ‘For sin shall not have dominion over you’. That is a statement of fact, not an exhortation. On account of our justification we have been brought out gloriously from the dominion of sin. Not that we are without sin (we know our own hearts); but we are no longer under sin’s dominion, curse, bondage or thumb.
Verse 14b: ‘for ye are not under the law, but under grace’. John Thackway again: ‘not under law as a covenant of works like Adam was; keeping the law cannot now justify us; we won’t be condemned for falling short of it; we’re now under grace, the covenant of grace, for our hope and eternal life’. Yet does that make us lawless? Absolutely not! We have been freed to love and to obey the divine law. As Christians we remain under solemn obligation to keep the law of God. Yet a vita! difference applies. We now have the power of Christ by the Holy Spirit within us to do so.
In the light of Romans 6:14, compare ‘delivered from the law’ (Rom.7:6), ‘dead to the law’ (Gal.2:19) and ‘free from the law’ (Rom.8:2)
4. Christ and Moses in John 1
A further important text is John 1:17: ‘For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’. People get up to all sorts of mischief and confusion with this and come out with things like: Moses didn’t teach truth, only Jesus did; Moses didn’t know anything about grace, only Jesus did; Moses/Christ, law/grace, law/Gospel are in conflict with one another, enemies not friends, and have no mutual relationship. All erroneous assertions! Concerning Moses and Christ, Ernest Reisinger comments:
‘It is impossible to tarnish the glory of the one without dulling the lustre of the other’. concerning law and grace, and law and Gospel, those living in the ‘New Testament age’ can see deeper into the law and deeper into the grace of God in the Gospel than could many of the Old Testament saints. Vet let us never forget that many of them (not least Abraham, Moses himself, David and Isaiah) could see a very long way!
John 1:17 expresses not a conflict but a comparison. The law established grace and serves the Gospel, rather than opposing it. Certainly many contrasts between Moses/ Christ, law/grace and law/Gospel can quite properly be drawn. But remember Paul in Romans 3:31: ‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid; yea, we establish the law’.
5. The status of the fourth commandment
A tendency of both antinomianism and New Covenant Theology is, quite arbitrarily, to remove the fourth commandment from its nine other companions and argue that it no longer applies. As a result, ‘Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Ex.20:8) comes in for its own separate treatment.
They urge that the sabbath was an essentially Jewish institution, that in the New Testament the keeping of special days is looked upon negatively, and that the Lord’s Day is mentioned only once (Rev. 1:10 - unconnected to the fourth commandment and without any specific directions as to how the day should be observed). It will be seen that they do not accept the principle of ‘the day changed but the sabbath preserved’ and reject an Old Testament sabbath/New Testament Lord’s Day tie-up.
Once again, how do we respond? We do so by making points such as the following:
• The sabbath is a creation ordinance, predating the law given at Sinai, and so for all mankind at all times:
• What God sanctifies, it is our business to do all that we can to preserve the holiness of and not let it be profaned;
• While it is true that the New Testament indicates that Old Testament festal sabbaths were destined for oblivion as fulfilled in Christ (Col.2:16). This does not bear directly upon the fourth commandment itself, which stands tall above all those ceremonial occasions;
• The principle of ‘the day changed but the sabbath preserved’ very much applies, the practice being testified to as the New Testament period developed, and the first day of the week having particular (what we might call) ‘New Testament sabbath appropriateness’, following the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead upon that day.
So then: are the ten commandments for Christians today? Indeed they are. As Jonathan Bayes puts it: ‘They sum up the life of holiness to which we are called. They are the channel for the Spirit’s sanctifying power.
Let the Lord Jesus Christ himself have the last word. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ (Jn.14:15).
Richard Brooks is the Pastor of Stanton Lees Evangelical Church, Derbyshire
Taken from the Free Church Witness February 2005, with permission. http//www.fccontinuing.org