Several days ago I was asked by the Christian Post to respond to a recent opinion column by North Point Community Church senior pastor Andy Stanley titled, “Why Do Christians Want to Post the 10 Commandments and Not the Sermon on the Mount?” In it, Stanley suggests that the Jesus in the New Testament replaces everything in the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments. The reporter from the Christian Post asked me to respond to two questions:
1. What is your overall opinion of the Stanley piece?
2. Do the Ten Commandments still apply to Christians? Why or why not?
My responses these to inquiries were much longer than what could have been used in Michael Gryboski’s article, so I thought I might post them in their entirety here. Upon reading my answers to the questions posed to me by Gryboski it will become fairly clear that I disagree with Andy Stanley on many of the points that he expresses in his article. Nevertheless, I want to affirm him as a brother in the faith and express my gratitude for his ministry and the impact it has made for our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. What is your overall opinion of the Stanley piece?
The piece by Andy Stanley, "Why Do Christians Want to Post the 10 Commandments and Not the Sermon on the Mount?" is an echo of an issue the Church has been grappling with since her inception. Many of the issues in the book of Acts centered around the part and place of Gentile Christians who, by placing their faith in the Jewish Messiah, were now members of the Church alongside those who saw Jesus as the long awaited "seed" of "Abraham's race" (e.g., Acts 15). Indeed, the apostle Paul's theological tours de force, Galatians and Romans, were written in response (in part) to the exact same controversy, as certain Jewish believers thought it necessary that Gentile converts to "the way" first be circumcised and effectively become Jewish as a prerequisite of becoming a Christian, while others thought it necessary for Gentile Christians to follow the Torah, even thinking that the latter was a condition for salvation.
Historically there have been a spectrum of responses to this issue that have tended to vacillate between two poles related to the relationship of the Old and New Testaments: radical continuity and radical discontinuity. As regards the former, this manifests in at least two ways. Firstly there are those who have thought that Christianity is simply a particular sect and extension of Judaism. This is what Paul ran into and addressed in his letters to the Romans and Galatians. Conversely, there are those who, rather than Judaizing the New Testament, Christianize the Old! Those of this ilk like to say things about the Old Testament such as "it's all about Jesus," or "I can find the Gospel in every passage of the Old Testament." On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who hold to a complete discontinuity between Old and New Testaments, thinking that they are fundamentally incompatible and/or that the New replaced the Old. After all, a thing can only be "new" when defined against something else that is "old." Throughout history, this has come in some extreme forms such as those like Marcion of Sinope from the 2nd Century, who advocated for completely removing from the biblical canon the Old Testament along with the parts of the New that he thought were overly "Jewish."
Stanley's opinion piece hits on some of the very same issues that occasioned the first ever elder meeting in Acts 15 as well as the writing of Romans and Galatians, and he also sheds light on a glaring deficiency in the theology and biblical literacy of many Christians. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Old Testament many Christians have no idea what to do with what God has revealed there, and effectively grab stuff they like or that they think fits their lives (I want to emphasize "think" because it is not a given that what they cling to is even applicable to them personally!) and then are content to just ignore the rest (what he calls, "mix and match theology"). He is absolutely right in pointing out that this is simply not the proper disposition the New Testament believer ought to have toward the Old Testament.
Yet in response to this blind spot in the theology of many modern Christians, Stanley's solution is to basically adopt the position of radical discontinuity as described above. This is evident in how many times he describes the New Testament ("testament" is simply the Anglicized Latin translation of the Greek word for "covenant") as "replacing" the Old Testament. What is ironic about those, like Stanley in this article, who effectively adopt a position of radical discontinuity, is that they attempt to find recourse in the New Testament to buttress their position, but the New Testament itself does not support such a view of the Old Testament—the very corpus that is quoted to support radical discontinuity continually affirms the completely opposite conclusion!
Principal among the words in the New Testament that speak against radical discontinuity are from Jesus Himself, who, in taking a position atop a mountain to speak the instructions of God to His people in a manner reminiscent of Moses on Sinai, describes in His "Sermon on the Mount" the ethic that will characterize His newly inaugurated Kingdom. However, He concludes His treatise with the disclaimer: “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished.” (Matthew 5.17–18; all Scripture references taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Furthermore, on the road to Emmaus when His followers do not recognize Him, Jesus, "Beginning with Moses and all of the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24.27) and then later He states, "These are My words that I spoke to you while I was till with you—that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24.44). Here, Jesus gives the most epic Sunday school lesson in the history of mankind with nothing but the Old Testament! (It is interesting to note that the division of Law, Prophets, and Psalms is a reference to the Tanak, the Hebrew manner of referring to the entire Old Testament.)
In the opening days of the Church, the disciples were characterized by four things: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer" (Acts 2.42). Since these gatherings and activities were taking place well before any book of the New Testament was written, the "apostle's teaching" was from the Old Testament—the early Church grew by the thousands with preaching only from the Old Testament!
Similarly, Paul, in his closing words to Timothy, his protege, mentee, and one-day replacement, gives the charge: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3.14–17) Paul is speaking these words to Timothy prior to the writing of the New Testament and the "Scriptures" he repeatedly mentions are the books of the Old Testament.
These are but a few examples that could be multiplied many times over, and in particular, one could point to how often an Old Testament theological point provides the lynchpin for many of Paul's arguments in his letters. Clearly, the New Testament itself does not hold to the view that it has "replaced" the Old Testament. Interestingly enough, a similar view is actually a hallmark of Islamic theology. In Islam, there is the theological interpretive principle of Naskh, that states when various doctrines or bits of revelation are in conflict, the newer one "abrogates" the older. At no time in the history of the Church has such a principle been used.
Perhaps more troublesome though is that Stanley also has a section where he seems to suggest that failure to replace the Old with the New is responsible for some of the atrocities done in the name of Christianity throughout history, that somehow in the Old Testament one can find an apologetic and justification for the violence done toward others. This just could not be further from the truth. One cannot go very far in the Prophets (and elsewhere) without reading again and again God's displeasure with the people of Israel for violence that they betrayed against others, principally against the poor, the needy, and the marginalized. In fact, the greatest indictment against Israel in the Old Testament stems from the fact God had established His Nation, comprised of the children of Abraham, to be the means by which He would bless and reach the other nations on Earth, but Israel continually acted selfishly. Israel was to be the light to the nations and when they repeatedly failed in this task, God sent in foreign invading armies to remove His people from the land that He had promised them. The point is that those who attempt to justify violence with the Bible, now as well as in biblical times, are sinning, are gravely misreading and interpreting God's Word, and have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose and mission of God's people. That was as true in the Old Testament as much as it is in the New Testament.
The problem that such a view perpetuates is that somehow the Old Testament was God's quasi-rough draft. He wrote it before He had His coffee and was grumpy and mean, and then He went to counseling and came back as nice-guy Jesus to make up for how awful He was in the past. Jesus' claim is precisely the opposite—His claim is that He IS the God of the Old Testament in His personhood—Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are one God in three persons. Without the Old Testament you do not get the right Jesus. There are many versions of Jesus out there but you've got to get the right one to be Christian.
Have you ever Googled your own name? You'll get a whole bunch of hits and webpages that contain your name, but how many are really about you? So, just because one shares a name with another, does not mean it's the same person. When you kick out the Old Testament from the Bible and also the life of the Christian, you do not get the right Jesus. Stanley states, "He came to fulfill it, put a bow on it, and establish something entirely new." He did not. He came not to establish something "new" but to complete something that He started in Genesis 1.
2. Do the Ten Commandments still apply to Christians? Why or why not?
When it comes to whether or not the Ten Commandments still apply to Christians, there are a few things to disentangle. Firstly, in the Old Testament, as Stanley alludes, there are 613 different laws and regulations (at least by the count made popular by Medieval Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides). What many Christians don't know is that those 613 laws come in different sections with different purposes. A great majority of these 613 laws are not laws at all. We got stuck with the English word "law" for the Hebrew word Torah because of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, but the better translation for Torah is "instruction(s)" rather than "law." Instructions point you toward a goal and tell you what to do to achieve something. In the Old Testament, the Torah was a set of instructions that told the Hebrews how to stand apart from everyone else so that when the nations looked at a member of the covenant people of Israel, they saw their God (Deut 4.6-8). Following the Torah was not a works-based righteous system whereby one was "saved" if they followed it closely. Rather, in the Old Testament one is "saved" by faith in Yahweh (Ge 15.6) and after one was declared righteous by God through faith, then they were to follow Torah as a demonstration that they have been set apart as a Yahweh follower (this is precisely the argument Paul makes in Rom 4 and Gal 3).
So for these "instructions" Stanley uses the correct word once—Jesus fulfilled these (not replaced them). The way that a member of God's people is set apart today and shows the nations that they are a member of the Church is not by avoiding pork, not shaving, and nor ceasing to work one day a week. Rather, one shows themselves to be set apart as a member of God's covenant people by accepting Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit. God still wants His people to be set-apart (hence, Jesus' disclaimer that He did not come to abolish but to fulfill in His Sermon on the Mount) and so the purposes of Torah remain operative—it is just that they are fulfilled in Christ.
Once I learned multiplication in the 4th grade and moved on to 5th grade, I did not need to continue to have lessons on how to multiply. However, just because I learned the truth of multiplication and no longer had exams and quizzes on it, that does not mean that multiplication was replaced by exponents and algebra. Rather, as I continued throughout school and took more and more math, my teacher assumed and built upon the truth of multiplication. The "new" stuff I learned wouldn't work without the truth and necessity of multiplication. So it is with the Torah. As a Christian I do not follow the "old" set of instructions on how to be set apart, but I still need to be set apart. In the Old Testament, one was set apart by Torah, now I am set apart by being in Christ.
The purpose of the Ten Commandments is slightly different than the rest of the 613 instructions of the Old Testament of which they are a part. Many Christians think that the Ten Commandments established what is right or wrong, but they did not. They simply reflected and articulated what God had already established as right and wrong when He created the world. So, for example, the Ten Commandments say, "Do not kill." Well, the day before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments was killing acceptable to God? Absolutely not. If you look closely, each one of the Ten Commandments is rooted in the ethics and morality that God established in Genesis 1–3. The Ten Commandments then simply reflect and express the morality that God had already written into the universe, they did not establish that morality.
So are the Ten Commandments applicable to Christians today? Yes they are, but this is kind of beside the point. The Bible would say that the Ten Commandments are applicable to everyone! Killing is not just "wrong" for Christians or Jews to do, the Bible would say that it is a morally wrong thing to do, no matter who you are!
As for whether they should be on display in courts of law and the like, I wouldn't think that's there's anything wrong with putting them there—they reflect a good moral code irrespective of one's religion. Nevertheless, many Christians somehow think that putting these sorts of things on display in public places will actually have the effect of making the morality expressed within them manifest in society. The Ten Commandments are not a magic spell or incantation that will make crooked people righteous. Only Christ can do that.