A Look at the Old and New Covenants
A Look at the Old and New Covenants - Continued
The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews
The Old and New Covenants in the Book of Hebrews - Continued
In many ways Ratzlaff’s view of the distinction between the Old and New Covenants is strikingly similar to that of Joseph Tkach, Jr. Consequently, there is no need to repeat what has already been said. Ratzlaff’s aim is to show that the New Covenant is better than the Old because it is based no longer on the Law but on love for Christ. Like Tkach, Ratzlaff reduces the Old Covenant to the Ten Commandments and the New Covenant to the principle of love in order to sustain his thesis that Christ replaced both the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath with simpler and better laws. For the purpose of this analysis, I focus on the major contrast that Ratzlaff makes between the Old and New Covenant in terms of Law versus Love.
Law Versus Love.
"We also found that the other Laws in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy were called the ‘book of the covenant’ (Ex 24:7) or ‘the book of the Law’ (Deut 31:26). We saw that these Laws served as an interpretation or expansion of the Ten Commandments." 20 Again Ratzlaff says that "The Ten Commandments were the words of the covenant. There was also an expanded version of the covenant: the Laws of Exodus through Deuteronomy."21
By contrast, for Ratzlaff the essence of the New Covenant is the commandment to love as Jesus loved. He writes: "Part of this ‘new commandment’ was not new. The Old Covenant had instructed them to love one another. The part that was new was ‘as I have loved you’ . . . In the Old Covenant what made others know that the Israelites were the chosen people? Not the way they loved, but what they ate and what they did not eat; where they worshipped, when they worshipped, the clothes they wore, etc. However, in the New Covenant, Christ’s true disciples will be known by the way they love!"22
Ratzlaff develops further the contrast between the two covenants by arguing that as the Old Covenant expands the Ten Commandments in "the book of the Law, so the New Covenant contains more than just the simple command to love one another as Christ loved us. We have the Gospel records which demonstrate how Jesus loved. . . . Then, in the epistles we have interpretations of the love and work of Christ. . . . So the core, or heart, of the New Covenant is to love one another as Christ loved us. This is expanded and interpreted in the rest of the New Testament, and also becomes part of the New Covenant."23
According to Ratzlaff, the distinction between "Law" and "Love" is reflected in the covenant signs. "The entrance sign to the old Covenant was circumcision, and the continuing, repeatable sign Israel was to ‘remember’ was the Sabbath. . . . The entrance sign of the New Covenant is baptism [and] the remembrance sign [is] the Lord’s Supper."24 The distinction between the two sets of signs is clarified by the following simple chart:
The above contrast attempts to reduce the Old and New Covenants to two different sets of laws with their own distinctive signs, the latter being simpler and better than the former. The contrast assumes that the Old Covenant was based on the obligation to obey countless specific laws, while the New Covenant rests on the simpler love commandment of Christ. Simply stated, the Old Covenant moral principles of the Ten Commandments are replaced in the New Covenant by a better and simpler love principle given by Christ.
Ratzlaff affirms this view unequivocally: "In Old Covenant life, morality was often seen as an obligation to numerous specific Laws. In the New Covenant, morality springs from a response to the living Christ."26 "The new Law [given by Christ] is better than the old Law [given by Moses]."27 "In the New Covenant, Christ’s true disciples will be known by the way they love! This commandment to love is repeated a number of times in the New Testament, just as the Ten Commandments were repeated a number of times in the Old."28
Evaluation of Ratzlaff’s Covenants Construct.
Nowhere does the Bible suggest that with the New Covenant God instituted "better commandments" than those of the Old Covenant. Why would Christ need to alter the moral demands that He has revealed in His Law? Why would Christ feel the need to change His perfect and holy requirements for our conduct and attitudes? Paul declares that "the [Old Testament] Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good" (Rom 7:12). He took the validity of God’s moral Law for granted when he stated unequivocally: "We know that the Law is good, if one uses it Lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8). Christ came not to change the moral requirements of God’s Law, but to atone for our transgression against those moral requirements (Rom 4:25; 5:8-9; 8:1-3).
It is evident that by being sacrificed as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 1 Cor 5:7), Christ fulfilled all the sacrificial services and Laws that served in Old Testament times to strengthen the faith and nourish the hope of the Messianic redemption to come. But the New Testament, as we shall see, makes a clear distinction between the sacrificial laws that Christ by His coming "set aside" (Heb 7:18), made "obsolete" (Heb 8:13), "abolished" (Heb 10:9), and Sabbathkeeping, for example, which "has been left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).
Why should God first call the Israelites to respond to His redemptive deliverance from Egypt by living according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments, and later summon Christians to accept His redemption from sin by obeying simpler and better commandments? Did God discover that the moral principles He promulgated at Sinai were not sufficiently moral and, consequently, needed to be improved and replaced with simpler and better commandments?
Such an assumption is preposterous because it negates the immutability of God’s moral character reflected in His moral laws. The Old Testament teaches that the New Covenant that God will make with the house of Israel consists not in the replacement of the Ten Commandments with simpler and better laws, but in the internalization of God’s Law. "This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my Law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God" (Jer 31:33).
This passage teaches us that the difference between the Old and New Covenants is not a difference between "Law" and "love." Rather, it is a difference between failure to internalize God’s Law, which results in disobedience, and successful internalization of God’s Law, which results in obedience. The New Covenant believer who internalizes God’s Law by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit will find it hard to break the Law because, as Paul puts it, "Christ has set him free from the Law of sin and death" (Rom 8:2).
Internalization of God’s Law.
The Spirit does not operate in a vacuum. His function of the Spirit is not to bypass or replace the Law, but to help the believer to live in obedience to the Law of God (Gal 5:18, 22-23). Eldon Ladd notes that "more than once he [Paul] asserts that it is the new life of the Spirit that enables the Christian truly to fulfill the Law (Rom 8:3,4; 13:10; Gal 5:14)."30
Any change in relation to the Law that occurs in the New Covenant is not in the moral Law itself but in the believer who is energized and enlightened by the Spirit "in order that the just requirements of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4). Guidance by the Spirit without respect for the Law of God can be dangerous to Christian growth. This is a fundamental problem of "New Covenant" theology espoused by the WCG, Ratzlaff, and countless Evangelicals today: it is a theology that ultimately makes each person a Law unto himself. This easily degenerates into irresponsible behavior. It is not surprising that America leads the world not only in the number of evangelical Christians (estimated at almost 100 million) but also in crime, violence, murders, divorces, etc. By relaxing the obligation to observe God’s Law in the New Covenant, people find an excuse to do what is right in their own eyes.
Perhaps as a reaction to the popular "abrogation of the Law" perception, there is a hunger today for someone to help the Christian community to understand how to apply the principles of God’s Law to their lives. To a large extent, this is what the Basic Youth Conflict seminars have endeavored to accomplish since 1968, drawing thousands of people to its sessions in every major city in North America. Referring to this phenomenon, Walter Kaiser writes: "This is an indictment on the church and its reticence to preach the moral Law of God and apply it to all aspects of life as indicated in Scripture."31
No Dichotomy Between Law and Love.
In God’s relationship with believers, the moral Law reveals His will and character, the observance of which makes it possible to maintain an orderly and meaningful relationship. Law is not the product of sin, but the product of love. God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites after showing them His redeeming love (Ex 20:2). Through God’s Law the godly come to know how to reflect God’s love, compassion, fidelity, and other perfections.
The Decalogue is not merely a list of ten laws, but primarily ten principles of love. There is no dichotomy between Law and love, because one cannot exist without the other. The Decalogue details how human beings must express their love for their Lord and for their fellow beings. Christ’s new commandment to love God and fellow beings is nothing else than the embodiment of the spirit of the Ten Commandments already found in the Old Testament (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5). Christ spent much of His ministry clarifying how the love principles are embodied in the Ten Commandments. He explained, for example, that the sixth commandment can be transgressed not only by murdering a person but also by being angry and insulting a fellow being (Matt 5:22-23). The seventh commandment can be violated not only by committing adultery but also by looking lustfully at a woman (Matt 5:28).
Christ spent even more time clarifying how the principle of love is embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The Gospels report no less than seven Sabbath-healing episodes used by Jesus to clarify that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is people to love and not rules to obey. Jesus explained that the Sabbath is a day "to do good" (Matt 12:12), a day "to save life" (Mark 3:4), a day to liberate men and women from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:12), a day to show mercy rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7). In Chapter 4, "The Savior and the Sabbath," we take a closer look at how Jesus clarified the meaning and function of the Sabbath.
Ratzlaff’s attempt to divorce the Law of the Old Covenant from the Love of the New Covenant ignores the simple truth that in both covenants love is manifested in obedience to God’s Law. Christ stated this truth clearly and repeatedly: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). "He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me" (John 14:21). "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love" (John 15:10). Christ’s commandments are not an improved and simplified set of moral principles, but the same moral principles He promulgated from Mt. Sinai.
Under both covenants, the Lord has one moral standard for human behavior, namely, holiness and wholeness of life. Wholeness of life is that integration of love for God and human beings manifested in those who grow in reflecting the perfect character of God (His love, faithfulness, righteousness, justice, forgiveness). Under both covenants, God wants His people to love Him and their fellow beings by living in harmony with the moral principles expressed in the Ten Commandments. These serve as a guide in imitating God’s character. The Spirit does not replace these moral principles in the New Covenant. He makes the letter become alive and powerful within the hearts of the godly.
Jesus and the New Covenant Law. The contention that Christ replaced the Ten Commandments with the simpler and better commandment of love is clearly negated by the decisive witness of our Lord Himself as found in
Matthew 5:17-19: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (NIV).
In this pronouncement, Christ teaches three important truths: (1) Twice He denies that His coming had the purpose of abrogating "the law and the prophets"; (2) all of the Law of God, including its minute details, has an abiding validity until the termination of the present age; and (3) anyone who teaches that even the least of God’s commandments can be broken stands under divine condemnation. This indictment should cause "New Covenant" Christians to do some soul-searching.
There is no exegetical stalemate here. Christ gave no hint that with His coming the Old Testament moral Law was replaced by a simpler and better Law. It is biblically irrational to assume that the mission of Christ was to make it morally acceptable to worship idols, blaspheme, break the Sabbath, dishonor parents, murder, steal, commit adultery, gossip, or envy. Such actions are a transgression of the moral principles that God has revealed for both Jews and Gentiles.
It is unfortunate that Ratzlaff, the WCG, and Dispensationalists try to build their case for a replacement of the Old Testament Law with a simpler and better New Testament Law by selecting a few problem-oriented texts (2 Cor 3:6-11; Heb 8-9; Gal 3-4), rather than by starting with Christ’s own testimony. The Savior’s testimony should serve as the touchstone to explain apparent contradictory texts which speak negatively of the Law.
In Chapter 5, "Paul and the Law," I examine Paul’s apparently contradictory statements about the Law. This study suggests that the resolution to this apparent contradiction is to be found in the different contexts in which Paul speaks of the Law. When he speaks of the Law in the context of salvation (justification—right standing before God), especially in his polemic with Judaizers, he clearly affirms that Law-keeping is of no avail (Rom 3:20). On the other hand, when Paul speaks of the Law in the context of Christian conduct (sanctification—right living before God), especially in dealing with antinomians, he upholds the value and validity of God’s Law (Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; 1 Cor 7:19).
Ratzlaff’s Interpretation of Matthew 5:17-19.
The problem with Ratzlaff’s rationale is that he uses the broad meaning of Law to argue that Christ abrogated the Mosaic Law, in general, and the Ten Commandments, in particular. He does this by giving a narrow interpretation to the verb "to fulfill." He argues that "in the book of Matthew every time the word ‘fulfill’ is used, it is employed in connection with the life of Christ, or the events connected with it. In every instance it was one event which ‘fulfilled’ the prophecy. In every instance Christians are not to participate in any ongoing fulfillment."33 On the basis of these considerations, Ratzlaff concludes that the word "fulfill" in Matthew 5:17-19 refers not to the continuing nature of the Law and the prophets but to the fulfillment of "prophecies regarding the life and death of Messiah."34
To support this conclusion, Ratzlaff appeals to the phrase "You have heard . . . but I say unto you," which Jesus uses six times in Matthew 5:21-43. For him, the phrase indicates that the Lord was asserting His authority to "completely do away with the binding nature of the Old Covenant. This He will do, but not before He completely fulfills the prophecies, types and shadows which pointed forward to His work as the Messiah and Savior of the world which are recorded in the Law. Therefore, the Law must continue until he has accomplished everything. This happened, according to John, at the death of Jesus."35 The conclusion is clear. For Ratzlaff, the Cross marks the termination of the Law.
The Continuity of the Law.
Ratzlaff’s claim that the six antitheses, "You have heard . . . but I say unto you," indicate that Jesus intended to do away completely "with the binding nature of the Old Covenant" is untenable because in each instance Christ did not release His followers from the obligation to observe the six commandments mentioned. Instead, He called for a more radical observance of each of them. As John Gerstner points out, "Christ’s affirmation of the moral Law was complete. Rather than setting the disciples free from the Law, He tied them more tightly to it. He abrogated not one commandment but instead intensified all."36
Christ did not modify or replace the Law. Instead, He revealed its divine intent which affects not only the outward conduct but also the inner motives. The Law condemned murder; Jesus condemned anger as sin (Matt 5:21-26). The Law condemned adultery; Jesus condemned lustful appetites (Matt 5:27-28). This is not a replacement of the Law, but a clarification and intensification of its divine intent. Anger and lust cannot be controlled by Law, because legislation has to do with outward conduct that can be controlled. Jesus is concerned with showing that obedience to the spirit of God’s commandments involves inner motives as well as outer actions.
The Continuation of the Law. Ratzlaff is correct in saying that "to fulfill" in Matthew generally refers to the prophetic realization of the Law and prophets in the life and ministry of Christ. This implies that certain aspects of the Law and the prophets, such as the Levitical services and messianic prophecies, came to an end in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. But this interpretation cannot be applied to the moral aspects of God’s Law mentioned by Jesus, because verse 18 explicitly affirms that the Law would be valid "till heaven and earth pass away." In the light of the antitheses of verses 21-48, "to fulfill" means especially "to explain" the fuller meaning of the Law and the prophets. Repeatedly, in Matthew, Jesus acts as the supreme interpreter of the Law who attacks external obedience and some of the rabbinical (Halakic) traditions (Matt 15:3-6; 9:13; 12:7; 23:1-39).
In Matthew, Christ’s teachings are presented not as a replacement of God’s moral Law but as the continuation and confirmation of the Old Testament. Matthew sees in Christ not the termination of the Law and the prophets but their realization and continuation. The "golden rule" in Matthew 7:12 is presented as being the essence of "the Law and the prophets." In Matthew 19:16-19, the rich young man wanted to know what he should do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to "keep the commandments," and then He listed five of them.
In Matthew 22:40, the two great commandments are viewed as the basis upon which "depend all the Law and the prophets." Ratzlaff should note that a summary does not abrogate or discount what it summarizes. It makes no sense to say that we must follow the summary command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:19; Matt 22:39) while ignoring or violating the second part of the Decalogue which tells us what loving our neighbor entails. We must not forget that when the Lord called upon people to recognize "the more important matters of the Law" (Matt 23:23), He immediately added that the lesser matters should not be neglected.
We might say that, in Matthew, the Law and the prophets live on in Christ who realizes, clarifies, and, in some cases, intensifies their teachings (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28). The Christological realization and continuation of the Old Testament Law has significant implications for the New Testament understanding of the Sabbath in the light of the redemptive ministry of Jesus. This important subject is investigated in Chapter 4 of this study, "The Savior and the Sabbath."
Chapter 3, Part 1a
Chapter 3, Part 2a
Notes to Chapter 3, Part 1b
Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University