Tim Keller on the Law: Going one step further

In a recent newsletter on the blog of Redeemer Presbyterian Church Tim Keller writes,

I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.” What I hear most often is “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?”

Keller is right to be frustrated. In my experience it is not just columnists or pundits who talk this way. I have seen professors of Christian ethics at major research universities articulate just this attitude to Christians and their use of the Bible. Keller’s response is to provide a mini crash course on biblical exegesis. Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law that pointed forward to himself and therefore Christians are no longer obligated to follow it. Jesus expanded the church beyond the nation-state of Israel and so Israel’s penal laws no longer bind Christians. Only the moral law is eternally binding.

I’m grateful to Keller for explaining the nature of the Torah’s authority over Christians, but I do think Keller could have gone a little bit further with reference to the penalties of the Israelite law. This is what Keller writes about Israel’s penal code:

Further, the New Testament explains another change between the Testaments. Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties.

But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how a case of incest in the Corinthian church is dealt with by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1ff. and 2 Corinthians 2:7-11.) Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.

Of course, I agree with this statement as far as it goes, but does Keller really fully answer his own question, “Why this change?”? Is the only reason for the change that the gospel has been released into multiple cultures and peoples? If that is all that has changed, why not simply say that all cultures and peoples should enforce the civil penalties of the Torah?

Reformed people are very good at explaining why Christians are no longer bound by the Jewish ceremonial law. We understand quite well that although its function was to point forward to Christ, we no longer need the sign now that we have the substance. What Reformed people realize less often is that Scripture talks in a similar way about the Israelite penal code. Indeed, the New Testament declares explicitly that Jesus fulfilled the curse of the law as it was represented in the civil penalties administered to those who committed various crimes. As Paul says in Galatians 3:13-14,

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the nations, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Notice that the text Paul is citing is part of the Torah’s discussion of the Jewish civil law, or the penal code. He is not talking about the curse of the law in abstraction. Deuteronomy 21:22-23, the passage cited, declares,

And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.

In other words, the curse that Christ fulfilled was the curse of the Israelite penal code. The prescription of capital punishment for 30 various crimes that could be committed by Israelites – ranging from rebellion against parents to adultery, witchcraft and sabbath violation – was never designed as a model of civil government for all nations. It was not an expression of the moral law, or of natural law. On the contrary, the purpose of such capital punishment was to teach Israel about the curse that falls upon sin and injustice. It was this curse that Jesus satisfied, and his satisfaction of the curse made it possible for the wall that divided the Jews and Gentiles to be broken down (Ephesians 2), such that the gospel of faith could be preached to all nations.

Reformed Christians get this when it comes to the ceremonial law, but for some reason we get confused and less clear when it comes to the civil law. Yet Paul is actually quite clear, as is the rest of the New Testament. In the contemporary debates about government coercion we should keep the purpose of the old Israelite law straight in our minds. That law was a tutor to Christ. It was not a model for the United States of America.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 15, 2012, in Law and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Tim Keller on the Law: Going one step further.

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