Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).
By Andrew McColl, 30th January, 2018
- What of love and the law?
One of the most conspicuous ethical themes in the New Testament is that of love. Indeed, the New Testament is a story about love-God’s love for sinners (Jn. 3:16) and their subsequent love for Him and others (I Jn. 4:19). One of the most sustained ethical essays in New Testament literature is in fact a discourse in the necessity, supremacy, and characteristics of love (I Cor.13).
Love is at the heart both of the gospel and of Christian behaviour (I Jn. 4:10-11). Few who are knowledgeable of the New Testament writings will deny that love summarises in one word the Christian ethic.
It is noteworthy that the New Testament writers demonstrate the ethical authority of love by reference to the Old Testament law. Why is love so important? What gives love its ethical pre-eminence? Why must the dictates of love be respected? What makes love such an authoritative standard? Precisely that it communicates the substance of the law’s demands!
In summarising our moral duty to love, Christ actually quoted the love commands from the Old Testament case law (Mat.22:37-39). He said that love to God and neighbour were crucial because “On these two commands hang the whole law and the prophets” (v.40).
Love is a moral necessity for Paul precisely because it fulfils the law (Ro.13:8-10; Gal.5:14). Love for your neighbour means you do not commit adultery with his wife, steal his car, or slander him behind his back- just as the law requires. Likewise, James considers love the fulfilment of the royal law (2:8), and John specifically writes, “This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (I Jn.5:3).
The assumption of the New Testament writers and the development of their thought is that God’s law is morally authoritative; because love expresses and follows that law, love too is a fitting standard of moral guidance. The foundational authority of love cannot be isolated from the law of God (p.115-116).
- What of the “Golden Rule?”
The popular and pervasive summary of New Testament living known as the “golden rule”- or whatever you would that men do to you, do even so to them- is presented as morally authoritative by Christ just because “this is the law and the prophets” (Mat.7:12). The golden rule communicates the essential demand of the law of the Old Testament, and as such it is a standard of ethics which we must respect.
Thus we observe that the most common summaries of New Testament morality- whether love… or the golden rule- derive their importance and binding character from the law of God which they express. The presupposition of the New Testament authors is continually and consistently that the Old Testament law is valid today (p.116-117).
- The assumptions of New Testament ethics?
The complete, continuous, and thus contemporary validity of the Old Testament law which is assumed without challenge in many themes of New Testament ethics, is brought out explicitly in moral judgements which fill the pages of the New Testament. In particular circumstances, when some kind of moral evaluation, direction, or exhortation is called for, New Testament preachers and writers often show that they stand firmly on the Old Testament law in making their judgements.
They treat and utilise the standing rules of ethics as found in the Old Testament as though these rules were meant for them to keep-even though these rules were given a great many years earlier, before the advent of Christ our Saviour. Particular instances of ethical decision making in the New Testament illustrate once again that the commandments of God found in the Old Testament have not been discarded, repudiated, or ignored as somehow no longer authoritative or valid (p.119).
- Did the New Testament speakers and writers ignore the law of God?
The New Testament speakers and writers themselves are more than willing to put the Old Testament law- Decalogue and extra-Decalogue- into service in critical moral judgements. They do not treat the Old Testament commandments like an expired library card or a repealed speed limit. Just the opposite is the case! They make free and unexplained use of the Old Testament law, thereby assuming its moral authority for the New Testament age (extending from Christ to the consummation).
Moreover the use of the Old Testament law in New Testament moral judgements is quite thorough. It is not limited to a single New Testament writer (although that would be enough to establish the law’s authority), to a single New Testament book (although, again, the authority of one infallible document is sufficient), or to one restricted Old Testament source.
In context of moral application, New Testament citations and allusions are taken from portions of Genesis, Proverbs, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habukkuk, and Zechariah; however, even more frequently and consistently does the New Testament make moral judgements on the basis of the Law portion of the Old Testament, citing Exodus 20, 21, 22, 23, Leviticus 11, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, Numbers 18, 30 and Deuteronomy 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27. The moral use of these Old Testament passages will be found scattered throughout Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, I Timothy, Hebrews, James, I Peter, I John, and Revelation.
Therefore, the attempt made by some Christian teachers today to reject or reduce the authority of the Old Testament law will over and over again meet with embarrassment before the text of the New Testament (p.123-124).