There are certain questions which are foundational to Christian doctrine and practice. For example, “Where do we find authoritative revelation from God?” If the answer is “the Bible plus subsequent books,” we shall arrive at Mormonism or Islam. If the answer is “the Bible plus the teachings of the Church,” we will become Roman Catholics. If the answer is “the Bible plus modern prophetic words”, we will align with some extreme forms of the charismatic movement. But if our answer is “the Bible alone,” we will find ourselves on the solid ground of evangelical Christian doctrine.
Looking around at broader evangelical circles, it is clear that one greatly misunderstood foundational question is, “Does all Scripture apply to us today?” Whole denominations have been built on doctrinal errors stemming from this one question. Within New Testament churches, this doctrine is correctly understood, but often it is not applied in the day-to-day questions that arise in our lives.
All Scripture Does Not Apply to Us
The answer to this question is simple: “All Scripture is profitable for us, but not all Scripture applies to us.” To illustrate this, let us use Genesis 2:16,17, which says, “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’” (NASB). This Scripture is profitable for us because it is foundational to our understanding of Original Sin. But this Scripture does not apply to us because it was unique to God’s dealings with Adam. Christians today do not need to hear impassioned sermons warning us to avoid eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil!
So, to some extent, all Christians understand that there are passages of Scripture that are not applicable to us. We cannot eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because that tree no longer exists. Regrettably though, there are many other passages which Christians misappropriate to themselves. The history of the church is littered with attempts by believers to arrogate to themselves part or all of the Old Testament Law.
That the Law is not needed for salvation should be plain. One of best known verses in the Bible, Ephesians 2:8,9, makes this very clear. And in case someone tries to put the Old Testament Law into some special category of works to which Ephesians 2:8,9 does not apply, God gave us the entire Epistle to the Galatians. For example, Galatians 3:11 says, “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’” Paul uses very strong language against those who would suggest that keeping the Law is binding on Christians, saying, “…let him be eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:9).
The Purpose of the Mosaic Law
But there are those who will make more subtle statements. Some will admit that salvation is entirely of grace, but they suggest that the Law provides a useful rule for life. However, it does not matter how subtle they try to be; at its root is an attempt to get Christians back under the domination of the Old Testament Law. But Scripture does not allow for the position that says the Law is a useful rule of life. Galatians 3:3,5 make it very clear that the Law is not the basis for Christian living. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?… So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?”
So then, if this teaching is a misapplication of the Law on believers today. How is the Law profitable to us today? What was the purpose of the Old Testament Law? Galatians 3:19 tells us, “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” Being that man was sinful, God gave man a specific code (rather than relying on his conscience) so that he would understand the nature of transgression. We also read in Galatians 3:24, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ.” This word “tutor” or “schoolmaster” is difficult to translate since it has no direct equivalent in our society. A “tutor” (Greek: paidagogos) was a slave that was put in charge of a young boy, to lead him to school, to keep him from getting into trouble, and to guide him in his school work. Though the tutor was a slave and the young boy might be the heir to the family, the tutor had the right to discipline the boy to ensure that he learned his lessons. Hebrews 6:1 nicely summarizes this by referring to Old Testament commands as “a foundation.” So the purpose of the Old Testament Law was to teach us that God is holy and man is sinful. It leads us to Christ, the only Savior, who offers for man’s sins.
All Scripture Is Profitable to Us
So let us assume we have understood these foundational teachings. What is the purpose of the Law for today’s Christians? It is not a rule of life, for having begun with Christ, we do not return to the Old Testament Law as a guide to show us how to mature in Christ! But for Christians today, the Old Testament Law illustrates New Testament commands. The New Testament warns us against sexual immorality (Romans 1:24) but it does not list all the different activities that are considered by God to be immoral. These are listed in detail in the Old Testament.
For these reasons, it should be clear that much of the Old Testament is not directly applicable to Christians today. But the Old Testament is still profitable for Christians. As seen above, it illustrates New Testament commands. It also shows us how believers in other ages lived out their lives faithfully to their God. The Old Testament teaches us about the corrupting nature of sin. It shows us where we come from and what our spiritual roots are. And yes, it teaches us elementary truths about Christ. For these reasons, some missionaries find it helpful to teach unreached people groups about the Old Testament before introducing them to the New Testament.
We should understand that people who would seek to combine the Law and grace have existed since the first days of the Church. This is not going to stop. False teachers will always be active. But we will be well protected if we understand this simple principle: “All Scripture is profitable for us, but not all Scripture applies to us.”