I want to talk about the 10 commandments
in this series of posts. As long as it has to do with Sanctification (growth in holiness after we’re justified), it’s a non-essential doctrine to me. What I mean is that there are Christians on both sides of this issue (on whether the 10 commandments apply to the Christian life) and while I have pretty strong convictions about this issue, it shouldn’t be something the divides the body of Christ. It’s therefore a non-essential doctrine in my opinion. However, if any Christian believes that we have to obey the 10 commandments in order to be saved – therefore this relates to Justification, not Sanctification – then that’s something serious. Serious enough that we should speak against such errors. Such teaching relates to an essential doctrine (Justification) we cannot compromise. But I don’t know any church or Christian who believes such. However, I do think there are many sermons preached that are very confusing on this point and which give the impression that we have to attain some level of goodness (be it defined in terms of repentance or whatever) in order to be saved. But that’s something else altogether.
So this series of posts is going to be about the 10 commandments merely as it relates to Sanctification. While this is a non-essential issue to me, I would challenge my readers to think through this issue and have a fair discussion – I’m still learning too. But ultimately if others don’t agree with me, I’m glad to agree to disagree with those who differ. I will not call you names, nor will I think lesser of you as a Christian. I hope those who have similar views to me will not divide the body of Christ over this issue, just as I hope the same for those who disagree with me (and Christians like myself). Because, as I’ve said, this is a non-essential doctrine in comparison to other more important doctrines.
Most of what I’ve written above has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments (the title of this series of posts), but I guess this is such a controversial issue as it relates to New Creation’s teachings that I had to write the introductory comments above. New Creation has been unfairly criticized for their view of the Ten Commandments and emotions overflow when discussing this topic. See for example the comments that follow this post by Pastor Kong Hee. I respect Pastor Kong Hee greatly (and I’ve said many times here I think City Harvest is an awesome Church) but I would strongly disagree with many things he wrote in his post – especially his case that the Ten Commandments are for today. In this post and those that follow, I’ll state why I disagree with him by pointing to the views of other Christians, though not that of Pastor Prince, because there are many other Christians who hold to a similar view (maybe not exactly the same but more similar to his view than to the views of those who criticize New Creation on this issue) to him on the non-relevance of the 10 commandments to the Christian life. In fact, I learned about how we’re not under the 10 commandments as a rule of life from other Christians.
New Creation Church is well-known for its belief that the 10 commandments has no place in the Christian life, that the 10 commandments were not meant to be a guide for the Christian. Before I even heard of New Creation Church, I already encountered the debate about the relevance of the 10 Commandments for the Christian. I’ve always emphasized this when talking about New Creation’s controversial doctrines: even though I’m attending New Creation, I held to a lot of the doctrines that New Creation is criticized for even before I knew of New Creation Church. Pastor Prince and New Creation didn’t convince me about such doctrines. They have taught me a lot of things, but I learned about the most essential aspects of grace and also about the non-relevance of the 10 commandments for Christians years ago. It’s not as though New Creation is the only church that teaches such stuff. Regarding New Creation’s view of the 10 commandments not being applicable to the Christian life, I want to argue in this post that New Creation’s view, while perhaps not a majority view among Christians (hey, for us charismatics, let’s not forget that tongues being for church today was a minority view in the early 20th century!), is held by many Christians around the world.
I do not think that the Christian is directly responsible to obey any part of the Mosaic law. Or, to put the matter differently, I think the Mosaic law as a whole was given to Israel for a limited time and purpose and is no longer immediately authoritative for the Christian.
…I want to make clear that I am not denying that the Mosaic law, especially the Ten Commandments, contains principles and requirements that reflect God’s eternal moral will. My point, rather, is that the Mosaic law is not identical with this eternal moral law. It is part of a covenant document entered into with the nation Israel and is therefore specifically addressed to Israel – and not to the new covenant community. Reformed theologians such as VanGemeren admit that the greater part of the Mosaic law was given to Israel and is no longer directly authoritative for the Christian – the “casuistic”, or the “civil” and “ceremonial” law. But they insist that part of the law is directed to the community of believers in every age – the “apodictic” laws or the “moral” law, which is found especially (or only) in the Ten Commandments. VanGemeren therefore insists on a continuity of the “moral law” within the larger discontinuity of the Mosaic covenant and its law. It is just this treatment of one part of the Mosaic law in a way different from the rest of it that I question.
…I am insisting that it means that we, as new covenant believers, no longer obey the law in the form it was originally given; we are not directly under its authority.
…The Mosaic commandments, then, are not directly applicable to us, but only as they are passed on to us by Christ.
…I am arguing, then, that the Sabbath commandment is a crucial “test case,” suggesting that the Ten Commandments, in their Mosaic form, were not intended by God to be eternally binding on all people everywhere. All ten were expressions of God’s will for his people Israel; and we know, from the New Testament, that nine of them state commands that continue to be binding on New Testament believers. They are binding on us not because they are in the Ten Commandments but because the New Testament makes clear that they are expressions of God’s eternal moral law.
…The “law” under which Christians live is continuous with the Mosaic law in that God’s eternal moral norms, which never change, are clearly expressed in both. But there is discontinuity in the fact that Christians live under the “law of Christ” and not under the Mosaic law. Our source for determining God’s eternal moral law is Christ and the apostles, not the Mosaic law or even the Ten Commandments. It is, then, the commandments of Christ and the apostles to which Paul is referring in 1 Corinthians 7:19 when he claims that “keeping God’s commands is what that counts”… This text is thoroughly consistent with the opinion that the Mosaic law does not apply directly to the Christian.
(Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 84, 87-89)
We who don’t believe that the Ten Commandments are directly applicable and relevant to Christians as a guide in the New Covenant are not saying that Christians can sin all we want. We’re not saying that there are no laws or guidelines or rules that we should obey (not to gain salvation, but because we are already saved and we want to obey God). Yes, there are. Jesus and the Apostles have given us many “laws” – what could be termed as the “law of Christ”.
We’re also not saying that the Ten Commandments are bad or evil. A lot of the “laws” given to us by Jesus and the Apostles are not different from a lot of the Ten Commandments. As Moo said, both the Ten Commandments and the “law of Christ” are expressions of God’s eternal moral law. So, one may ask, why be so critical of those who say the Ten Commandments are for today? For one reason, the Mosaic law and the Ten Commandments were there for a specific purpose and a specific time in the history of redemption. It is not that the Ten Commandments doesn’t reflect God’s character. It does. But the Ten Commandments and the Mosaic law had a role to play and that role is over. In the New Covenant, the “law of Christ” guides us and is a more ultimate expression of God’s character and the eternal moral law.
What helped me to understand the above is what theologians call Biblical Theology. When theologians talk about Biblical Theology, it’s not just theology that is biblical. Rather, it’s a way of reading the Bible that takes into account the place of the passage we’re reading in the history of redemption. For example, many Christians sing the song “Create in me a clean heart” based on David’s words in Psalm 51. There’s a part that goes
Cast me not away from Your presence, O Lord.
And take not Your Holy Spirit from me
This is taken from Psalm 51:11. I don’t think it’s right for Christians to sing these lines simply because this was David’s experience in the Old Covenant and before the Holy Spirit had been poured out to dwell in every Christian. Something new and different actually happens in the New Covenant – that’s why it’s called “New”! Guess what: We Christians living in the post-death/resurrection of Jesus and post-pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost have it really good compared to the Saints in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit dwells with us and never leaves us – that’s why our experience is different from David. Before the Spirit came at Pentecost, He didn’t dwell forever in the lives of the Saints. That’s why David could cry out to God for Him not to take His Holy Spirit away from him. Furthermore, David’s cry for a “clean heart” and “steadfast/willing spirit” (verse 10) shouldn’t really be the cry of the New Covenant Christian for in the New Covenant all Christians do have that (Ezekial 36:26-27, Heb. 10:2). Our experience as New Covenant Christians is thus very different from those who lived before. We now have a new/clean heart and a steadfast/willing spirit. And the Holy Spirit dwells in us and never leaves us. But of course that doesn’t mean we can take Him for granted. We are still to yearn to be filled more and more with His Spirit (Eph. 5:18).
My point in all of this is that it’s important to understand each passage in terms of where it is situated in the history of redemption. If we understand this principle, we’ll better understand why many Christians see that the Mosaic law (and Ten Commandments) existed only for a certain time in the history of redemption. Of course, not all people who appreciate Biblical Theology would come to the same conclusion on the Ten Commandments as me or Moo, but many do.
I’m not concerned about getting Christians to believe as New Creation or I do on the Ten Commandments. I’m more concerned to see Christians acknowledging that the above interpretation of the Ten Commandments is a viable position with good biblical support. In every doctrine, there will always be disagreements. But it’s sad to see people criticize New Creation (and Christians who don’t believe the Ten Commandments are relevant to Christians today) as though we’re trying to twist Scriptures or are ignorant of Scriptures. I think only the truly ignorant would think absolutely nothing of the arguments that theologians like Douglas Moo make. By the way, Moo has taught in two of the most moderate Christian/theological institutions in the evangelical world: Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Wheaton College, both arguably the best evangelical seminary and best evangelical college in the world respectively. So he’s by no means a radical!
In the end, we really only disagree as to where we go to see God’s will for our lives. Whether Christians believe that the Ten Commandments is or isn’t directly relevant to the Christian today, we are all still united in agreeing that obedience is important for the Christian. That’s why, for me, this is a non-essential doctrine not worth dividing the body of Christ over. And I hope Christians of both views will stop being overly critical of, and stop demonizing, the other side.