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XII. Theological Overview


Redemptive History and New Testament Ethics

There are five basic theological views on the relationship between Old Testament law and the New Covenant. First, Marcion and Adolf von Harnack simply jettisoned the Old Testament from the Christian canon. The second is the traditional view that regards civil and ceremonial aspects of the law as expired while the "moral" commands continue in force. A third approach sees that part of the law that divided Jews and Gentiles as abrogated, but not the law itself. The fourth finds the key in holding the narrative aspects (muthos) and legal aspects (ethos) of the "Torah" in balance. Lastly, "the only ultimately satisfactory solution to the relation of the two Testaments is to see them in terms of the movement of redemptive history."337 As Richard Gaffin observes,

A concern with the historia salutis [the history of salvation] rather than the doctrine of justification by faith or any other aspect of the ordo salutis [the application of salvation] is central to Paul. A redemptive-historical, eschatological orientation controls his soteriological outlook at every point.338

The New Testament clearly reveals that this was indeed Paul's approach to ethics. Yet, as Oscar Cullmann notes, "to my knowledge a comprehensive 'Salvation-historical ethic' is still to be written."339 This is not surprising in light of the past "flat Bible" Old Covenant orientation of New Covenant ethics. Again, Gaffin asserts that redemptive history must shape our theological methodology:

It is difficult to deny that in the orthodox tradition justice has not been done to the historical character of the Bible, either in terms of its origin or its contents. There has been and continues to be a tendency to view Scripture as a quarry of proof texts for the building of a dogmatic edifice, as a collection of moral principles for the construction of a system of ethics. Inscripturated revelation never stands by itself. It is always concerned either explicitly or implicitly with redemptive accomplishment . . . In other words, the specific unity of Scripture is redemptive historical in nature . . . It does not appear to me, however, that the methodological significance of this correlation has been reflected upon sufficiently.340

Robert Brinsmead insists that the Bible is neither an ethical manual nor a book of systematic theology, but that "The Bible is written as history. It is a story of God's redemptive acts." He adds that "When biblical ethics are removed from the context of redemptive history, they cease to be ethics . . . As far as the Bible is concerned, ethics have no independent value and no meaning outside the saving deeds of God." Paul made his ethical appeals, Brinsmead notes,

on the basis of what God has done for us in Christ. It is in view of God's gospel mercies that we are to present our lives as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1-3) . . . Paul virtually never appeals to the law - "Thou shalt not." When he demands certain behavior of the church, he appeals instead to the holy history of Christ, into which the church is incorporated, and from that standpoint then makes his ethical appeal . . .341


The Essentials of New Testament Ethics

1. A sense of the advance of redemptive history from an abrogated Old Covenant economy to an abiding New Covenant economy (John 1:17; Heb. 10:9; 13:20).

The New Testament clearly presents the New Covenant as superior to the Old - not because Mosaic Law is an irrelevant part of past redemptive history, but because it has been fulfilled and abrogated in Christ. The New is superior to the Old as adulthood replaces infancy, or as reality supercedes types and shadows (John 1:14-18; Gal. 4:2-7; Col. 2:17). With this superior Covenant came a better form of worship (John 4:21-24), and a higher ethical authority (Matt. 28:20). It is no longer Moses, but Christ who cares for God's house (Heb. 3:2-6).

2. Moses himself pleads for us to listen, not to himself, but to the Prophet of whom he wrote (Deut. 18:15, 18; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37).

Even though Moses is dead, his words live on. He still points to Christ and exhorts us, "You must listen to everything he tells you" (Acts 3:22). This does not mean that Christ's words conflict with what Moses wrote in times past, for the two are in absolute ethical harmony. It does mean, however, that it is the Prophet of the New Covenant and not the prophet of the Old Covenant that is now the believer's appointed source of revelation and ethical authority (John 5:39, 46).

3. God himself has spoken from heaven and has commanded us to listen to the Son of whom Moses wrote (Heb. 1:1; Matt. 3:17; 17:5; Acts 7:37).

Again, to listen to the Son is not to ignore Moses. The point is simply that in the consummation of redemptive history, God brought all the central institutions of Israel - Prophet, Priest and King - to ultimate and perfect fulfillment in the person of his Son. The passing of the Old Covenant, with Moses as its head, was preparatory for a New Covenant with Christ as its Head. God spoke often in ancient days; but in these last days he has spoken once for all in his Son (Heb. 1:1).

4. Christ's death on the cross ratifies his New Covenant and establishes an authoritative basis for his New Commandment (1 Cor. 11:25; John 13:34-35; 15:12-13).

When Christ said, "if you love me, keep my commandments," it was not a reference to Old Covenant law, but to his own commandments, verbalized over the course of his earthly ministry (John 17:8). The focus is not on Exodus 20, but on his own "Sermon on the Mount," and the rest of the ethical instruction he gave to his followers. A genuine love for Christ cannot be separated from a genuine desire to obey his commandments (Matt. 28:20).

God's deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt justified the imposition of a law-code on those he freed - the physical nation of Israel. Christ's redemptive act on the cross (Luke 9:31; Eph. 4:8) justifies his New Commandment to those he freed - a new spiritual nation of believers from "nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev. 7:9). "To a covenant belongs a law-giving."342

Hebrews 8:6 confirms this principle when it describes the New Covenant as "founded on better promises." The Greek verb nomotheteo used in this verse has the meaning, "that which has the force of law."343 In other words, law must be identified with the covenant that is in force - not the covenant thereby abrogated. With the shedding of Christ's blood, it is the New Covenant that has exclusive legal jurisdiction over his people. In other words, "the Law of Christ" cannot be separated from its historical ratification. This "enactment as law" settles once and for all the ethical touchstone for believers.

5. Paul's ethical orientation was centered, not in the Law of Moses, but in the "law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:21).

After Christ's resurrection, he spent many days "giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen" (Acts 1:2). Paul was not personally present for these final words of instruction, but his apostolic appointment came later when a glorified and ascended Christ revealed himself to Paul on the Damascus Road as "one abnormally born" (1 Cor. 15:8). From then on, Paul's ethical reference, once rooted in the law of Moses, became "the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). Even though he had been a Pharisee, his passion for Mosaic rules and regulations was now given over wholly to Christ's New Commandment. He understood that any righteousness the law demanded was fully met by obedience to Christ's single command, for "love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14).

6. When the New Testament draws ethical instruction and example from the Old Testament, it is always qualified by redemptive-historical realities (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 3:7-4:11; Col. 2:16-17; Acts 10:14-15; 15:10-21; 2 Tim. 3:15).

The New Testament writers certainly felt free to derive ethical instruction from the Old Testament (Eph. 6:1-2; James 5:10-11). Even so, it is never unqualified or viewed in isolation from the consummation of redemptive history in the New Covenant. To put it in another way, their approach to the Old Testament is always through person and work of Christ. This is a truth Herman Ridderbos captures beautifully when he says that Christ,

represents the new standard of judgment as to what "has had its day" in the law and what had abiding validity (Col. 2:17) . . . The church no longer has to do with the law in any other way than in Christ and thus is ennomos Christou . . . The new creation brings in a new canon, a new standard of judgment, along with it. This is above all redemptive historical in character . . . The law no longer has unrestricted and undifferentiated validity for the church of Christ. In a certain sense the church can be qualified as "without the law."344

As believers in union with Christ, we may freely use the Old Testament as a rich source of instruction in righteousness - but never in isolation from the One who has fulfilled its exacting requirements on our behalf. Through him, we have been set free from the law's bondage so that we might better understand its holy objectives. Our freedom from the law, however, is not so that we may indulge ourselves in sin, but so that we may "serve one another in love" (Gal. 5:13).

In short, New Testament ethics must center in (1) the person of Christ, (2) the words of Christ, and (3) the "New Covenant." It is in Christ's person that we find the supreme example of love (1 John 3:16). It is his words that are "the words of eternal life (John 6:68). And it is the New Covenant in his blood that provides the basis and justification for the moral demand we must obey (John 15:12-13, 2 Cor. 5:15). Only as we listen to and obey the Son will our ministry be true and our joy be full (John 13:17). It is a living process that also involves the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of other believers, and the many and varied situations of life.

Christian ethics involves both agape [love] and principles for its completion . . . Principle-agapism furnishes content and guidelines for the direction that love may take in concrete situations. Hence, principle-agapism saves Christian ethics from the twin perils of legalism and antinomianism.345

But all of this is meaningless without the Holy Spirit's ministry.

Without the Mind of Christ through the activity of the Spirit at work in the believer, the principles of the Law of Christ remain remote and unattainable . . . The precise function of the Spirit in this matter of the exercise of Christian liberty is probably best summed up in the Apostle's use of the word dokimazo, i.e. testing, determining, proving.346

Guilt or Grace?

Mainline Christian ethics has never been in a position to articulate an ethic of grace because it has wrenched ethics from its intended moorings in redemptive history. As a result, the principle motivation for ethical behavior has been guilt, rather than the grace of God exemplified and made known in Christ (1 John 3:16; Titus 2:11-12). What Robert Brinsmead says about Adventism and Romanism can be applied across the board to every religious body.

I fear that far too much Adventism is an ethic of guilt. People are motivated by guilt to keep the Sabbath, to pay tithe, to be loyal to the denomination, to eat the right food, to eschew jewelry, to avoid worldly amusements . . . The Pauline Epistles do not present a motivation of guilt but a motivation of grace. Unless a religious group gives free course to the gospel, and unless its pulpits ring with the liberating proclamation of grace, the religious group will become a religious slave camp . . . The two greatest motivational forces in the world are guilt and grace. Where the gospel is not paramount, guilt is the instrument by which we motivate ourselves and others . . . Rome has always complained that justification by faith alone severs the nerve of the moral imperative. But she is really concerned with people who are no longer guilty and can therefore no longer be manipulated.347

In a Word . . .

It would be difficult to find a better concise summary of all that has been addressed in this article than the one given by Richard Longenecker:

The Christian life in Paul's teaching is (a) based upon the fact of a new creation "in Christ," (b) directed through the correlation of the "law of Christ" and the "mind of Christ," (c) motivated and conditioned by the "love of Christ," (d) enabled by the "Spirit of Christ," and (e) expressed in a situation of temporal tension between what is already a fact and what has yet to be realized. Although they can be spoken of separately, all these elements must be combined and merged in our consciousness if the apostle's thought is to be rightly understood and the Christian ethic truly exhibited.348

- Jon Zens


Footnotes:

337. Steve Carpenter, "Paul, The Law, and Redemptive History," unpublished paper delivered at The 1981 Council on Baptist Theology, Dallas, Texas, Mav 1981, p. 14. The five approaches given above were outlined in this paper.

338. Richard Gaffin, Westminster Theological Journal, XXXII:I, November 1969, p. 128.

339. Oscar Cullmann, Salvation in History, London: SCM Press, 1967, p. 329.

340. Richard Gaffin, "Contemporary Hermeneutics in the Study of the New Testament," Studying the New Testament Today, I, John H. Skilton, ed., Nutley: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976, pp. 15, 16.

341. Robert D. Brinsmead, Judged by the Gospel, Fallbrook, Calif.: Verdict Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 209, 213.

342. Rudolf Stier, The Words of the Lord Jesus, VI, Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1868, p. 166.

343. Francis Goode, The Better Covenant, London, J. Hatchard and Son, 1837, p. 11; p. 322ff.

344. Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975, pp. 285, 286 , 284.

345. Henlee H. Barnette, "The New Ethics: "Love Alone,'" The Situation Ethics Debate, Harvev Cox, ed., Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972, pp. 138-139.

346. Richard N. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976, pp. 194, 195; Russ Ross, "The Redemptive Model and the Holy Spirit's Work in Ethics," Searching Together, 11:2, 1982, pp. 28-42.

347. Brinsmead, pp. 214-215, 291-292.

348. Richard N. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974, pp. 100, 101.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 89-93.