Why Is the Old Covenant Obsolete?

I’ve been reading Andy Stanley’s new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New That Jesus Unleashed for the World. His main contention in the book is that pastors ought to “unhitch [their] teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant” because the Old Testament is a “stumbling block to faith”—an unnecessary stumbling block, since that covenant is obsolete.

Regular readers of this site know I agree with Stanley that the Mosaic Covenant God made with Israel is obsolete. (See “Why We’re Not Under the Mosaic Law” and “Should Followers of Christ Observe the Torah?” where I go through several passages that explain our relationship as followers of Christ to the laws of the Mosaic Covenant.) The “obsolete” language comes from Hebrews 8:7–13:

For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says,

“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;
Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers
On the day when I took them by the hand
To lead them out of the land of Egypt;
For they did not continue in My covenant,
And I did not care for them, says the Lord.
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws into their minds,
And I will write them on their hearts.
And I will be their God,
And they shall be My people….”

When [God] said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.

Though I agree with Stanley that the Mosaic Covenant is obsolete, I have many concerns about the book, and I think the root of those concerns may be his understanding of why the Old Covenant is obsolete. His misunderstanding here leads to his faulty conclusion of how Christians today ought to view and interact with the Old Testament, not just the laws of the Old Covenant.

The Jerusalem Council’s Decision

Let’s start by looking at what he says about the Jerusalem Council’s decision (in Acts 15) that the new Gentile followers of Christ would not be required to follow the Mosaic Law:

[T]hey decided unity in the church was more important than the law of Moses.

Did that send a chill down your spine?

No?

Peter, Paul, and James agreed that keeping the church together took precedence over keeping the law. To put it another way, unity in the church was more important than about half your English Bible.

Congregational unity trumped ceremonial purity. (p. 130)

First, this makes it sound like the Jerusalem Council’s decision was pragmatic. The decision wasn’t pragmatic; it was theological. They weren’t giving up ceremonial purity in order to have unity. In fact, their point was that they could have unity because they already had ceremonial purity in Christ. Peter explains this in Acts 15:8–11 in his speech to the Council:

Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.

In other words, the problem with telling the Gentiles to follow the Law wasn’t mainly that doing so would make it more difficult for them to become Christians; the problem with telling them they needed the Law was that the Law wasn’t needed. They were purified by being in Christ by His grace. That’s a theological reason, not a pragmatic one.

Second, it doesn’t at all follow from the Jerusalem Council’s decision that half of our Bible is less important. And here’s where we come to the root of the problem. Stanley argues that the old and new covenants aren’t just divided by the Mosaic Law; they’re actually divided by different worldviews with different ethics:

[W]hen Paul unhitched his wagon from the old covenant and bolted it onto the new, his entire worldview changed. Not just his understanding of justification and salvation, his entire worldview. Paul had taken the old covenant to its logical extreme both in his personal devotion to it as well as his no-holds-barred defense of it. Which may explain why he was so happy to be done with it.

This is very unsettling. Despite Stanley’s assertions that the Old Testament was inspired, he makes many statements, such as the one above, that refer to the “offensive portions of the old covenant” and indicate a sharp contrast between the “worldview,” “values,” and “ethics” of the two covenants.

For example, he says the command to love foreigners was entirely new in the New Covenant, saying Peter had “never been expected to love anyone other than other Jews” (p. 185), but see Leviticus 19:33–34; he refers to Israel’s “ancient racist ways” (p. 187), which I can only assume refers to the laws separating Israel from other nations—something that had nothing to do with racism; he says John “redefined God for his readers and, ultimately, for the world” (p. 222) when he said, “God is love,” even though God’s “steadfast love” is evidenced throughout the Old Testament; and he claims “the justifications Christians have used since the fourth century to mistreat people find their roots in old covenant practices and values” (p. 95).

The Weakness of the Law

For Stanley, the “fault” with the first covenant (referred to in the Hebrews passage quoted above) was in the “values” and “worldview” of that covenant, but this is not what the Bible teaches. Rather, the “fault” was in the fact that the Law was unable to impart righteousness, change hearts, or empower the people to “bear fruit for God” (notice the Hebrews passage speaks of God “finding fault with them,” the people, who did not follow the stipulations of His covenant, not with the laws of the covenant themselves).

Paul explains where the weakness of the Law lies in Romans 7:7–13, and it’s not with the morality of that Law:

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. [Emphasis added.]

According to this passage, the “fault” referred to in Hebrews 8:7–13 did not lie with any lack of goodness in the Law—on the contrary, “the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” The reason why we need a new covenant is not that Jesus has a better commandment for us now; the reason is that the good Law only has the power to reveal and condemn our sin, not to make us holy. The fault lies with us, with our sin and inability to follow the Law. The New Covenant is “a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (Heb. 8:6) not because the commandments are better, but because it isn’t weakened by our frailty. It’s secure because “we have been sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” and because Jesus is a better priest, who is able “to save forever those who draw near to God through Him” because He lives forever (see Hebrews 7–10 for more).

Acceptance by God was always by grace, though faith—even for Abraham (Rom. 4)—but God is also gathering us as “a people for God’s own possession, so that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), and so we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10) that will bring Him glory; and as new creations joined to Christ and raised from the dead with Him (Rom. 6), the works we do are now powered by the Spirit (Rom. 8). This power to overcome our sin and “bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4) is something the Law could never give us (as Rom. 8:1–17 explains).

Here’s the bottom line: The change in covenants is not about creating a new and better ethic; it’s about a new source of perfect, imperishable righteousness (the righteousness of God received through faith in Jesus, apart from the Law—Rom. 3:21–22) and power to live the old ethic—the reflection of God’s character revealed fully by Jesus—in a way that’s appropriate to our time and place.

Why This Matters

Why does this matter? It’s hard to imagine anyone who thinks the values of the Old Covenant are subpar spending time trying to understand the Old Testament and its Mosaic laws—laws that were meant to reveal much of who God is and what He values and to shed light on the coming Messiah. Stanley says toward the end of the book that, ultimately, once people are won to Christ through his method of convincing people that the Old Testament has “absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or His new covenant” (p. 274), they will then want to understand the Old Testament. But it’s hard for me to believe this is the case, especially after he repeatedly implies the worldview, values, and ethic of the Old Covenant are not worth knowing compared to the New. And not knowing the Old Testament can’t help but lead to a more shallow understanding of God. This consequence grieves me the most.

Secondly, there is a real danger in divorcing the Old Covenant writings from the New and then saying that the new Christian ethic is simply, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34), and that the behavioral standard is, “If it’s not good for them, it’s sin” (p. 242), and that the only question we need to ask ourselves is, “What does love require of me?” (p. 233). Here’s the problem: Without any content behind the words “love” and “good for them,” one can make this ethic and standard fit almost any action. Just ask a progressive Christian who’s promoting acceptance of homosexuality. Is it not “loving as Jesus loved” to accept marginalized gay people’s marriages? How could one respond to that question without the content God provided for over a thousand years to define what is good and what love requires?

Those who are not steeped in the background of the Old Testament will be “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14), influenced by every fad in our culture. Paul made this very clear in 2 Timothy 3:16–4:4:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. I solemnly charge you:…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

But again, why would anyone so steep himself in the Old Testament if he’s not convinced it’s actually good?

A Pragmatic Approach That Isn’t Worth the Cost

The acknowledged impetus behind Stanley’s approach is pragmatism:

Christianity has a compelling, verifiable, historical story to tell. But the moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace. (p. 158)

But God’s worldview has not changed, because He has not changed. And God Himself anchored our Christian story to the Old Covenant narrative and worldview. The two are of one piece—one unified story—and one can’t fully appreciate the end of any story without understanding its beginning.

Yes, understanding that beginning can be difficult, and work must be done in order to respond to the moral objections to the Old Testament that are currently so popular in our culture. It would certainly be much easier to simply “shrug, give ’em our best confused look, and say, ‘I’m not sure why you’re bringing this up. My Christian faith isn’t based on any of that’” (p. 290), but we would have to do so at the cost of exploring, enjoying, and proclaiming the words God inspired to reveal Himself to the world. That’s not a price we should be willing to pay.

The Law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb. (Ps. 19:7–10)

blog post |
Amy K. Hall

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