Andy Stanley: Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All

A brief response to Robert Foster on my book, ‘Irresistible.’
Andy Stanley: Jesus Ended the Old Covenant Once and for All
Image: Courtesy of North Point Ministries

I want to thank Robert Foster for reading and engaging with my latest book, Irresistible. To begin, I’d like to clarify a few points.

First, I’d like to put to rest any fears that my truncated quotation of 2 Timothy 3:16 in the book was intentionally shortened. Foster correctly notes that I only quote the first half of that verse. My purpose was to point out the OT is God-breathed and inspired, useful for many purposes, and I completely agree with the rest of that verse. In fact, that’s one reason I wrote Irresistible, to show that the fulfillment and end of the OT leads us to Jesus, and Jesus gives us a new ethic, one that calls us to sacrificial love and good works that make our faith irresistible to the world.

So I agree that God’s Word—both Old and New—is given to equip us for all sorts of good works, and I wish more Christians took that message to heart.

Foster provides three points to help us understand the function of the OT for Christians today:

  1. The OT can help Christians understand the implications of the gospel for our lives.
  2. The OT can illuminate Christians’ understanding of God’s way in the world.
  3. The OT can provide a foundation for Christian moral conduct.

Let me make it simple and clear. I fully agree with points 1 and 2 in this list and have said as much elsewhere. The OT is useful for helping us understand the implications of the gospel for our lives, but it must be read in context and understood as God’s Word to Israel. The OT provides us with examples, illustrations, and a rich history of God’s relationship with his people. All of this serves to illuminate the good news of the gospel. If we want an example of faith, look at Moses or Joshua. Or look at how God was faithful to his people and kept his promises despite their failure. We should also learn from how the apostles used the Old Testament, especially how they used the OT when speaking to a Jewish audience. But we must understand that God relates to people differently in the OT than he does in the NT. Something genuinely new happens with Jesus, and that changes the course of history—and the way we relate to God.

If there is one place I’d push back, it’s point 3. Foster provides an example (Deut. 35:32) of how the OT informs our moral conduct as Christians. But all this shows is how Paul used the OT. It doesn’t tell us how we should apply much of the OT to our lives today. We can take cues from the NT writers, especially the example in Acts 15, but this does not mean that the OT law directly applies to Christians today. Should we stone rebellious children (Ex. 21:15-17)? Prohibit interracial marriage (Deut. 7:3-4)? No. Because the old covenant has been fulfilled and ended and a new and better way of relating to God is now available to us.

There is a common way of dividing the OT law into three categories: ceremonial, civil, and moral. While I don’t use this division in my book, it may clarify what I’m saying. When I say that the Old Testament has ended, it means the ceremonial laws are fulfilled in the death of Jesus—no more sacrifices in the temple, no more priests. OT civil laws are no longer enforced, since they were given for the nation of Israel formed at Mt. Sinai. And while God’s moral laws have not changed, they are transformed into something new. They are reset upon a new and better foundation, Jesus Christ.

As I explain in Irresistible, the OT asked us to base our love for others upon our own standard of fairness—how we want to be treated. Jesus said this was the great commandment of the OT, to love your neighbor as yourself—the golden rule. But then he takes us one step further. Jesus gives us a new and better command, one that’s not based on you or me, but on the standard of love Jesus has shown to us. I call this the platinum rule. Jesus Christ has ended the old covenant once and for all, with all the Old Testament practices, promises, and expectations. We need to stop mixing the old with the new, because God has given us something better in Jesus Christ and his new command.

I like how Wayne Grudem explains this in his recent book, Christian Ethics:

“It is important to realize that the author of Hebrews is not saying that some old covenant laws are no longer binding on Christians (such as sacrificial laws or purity laws, for example), but that the old covenant itself, that entire system of laws that defined the relationship with God and his people, is no longer in effect.”

New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner makes it clear in 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law that the old has passed now that the new has come, giving us a new basis for Christian behavior:

“Paul argues that the entirety of the law has been set aside now that Christ has come. To say that the ‘moral’ elements of the law continue to be authoritative blunts the truth that the entire Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers.”

So, while I believe there is much we can learn from studying and preaching on the Old Testament, we must now take our cue from the promises fulfilled in Jesus—the new. The way we treat others is not based on 10 Commandments, but on one command given by Jesus—“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34; 15:12). We need to ask: what does this love require of me? And this informs our apologetic approach to reaching people. For me, it starts by introducing them to Jesus and the miracle of his resurrection. That’s something we’ve never seen before in human history. It’s brand new. And that’s what makes Christianity irresistible.

Communicator, author, and pastor Andy Stanley is the founder of Atlanta-based North Point Ministries. His new book is entitled Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World.

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