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A Brief Study of Matthew 5:17-20 as Applied to current Theological Trends

By Bruce Atkinson, PhD
January 15, 2019

I first heard the news the other day from a member of the North Point megachurch in Atlanta. Their pastor Andy Stanley was totally dumping the Old Covenant. So I used my search engine and found the following:

The article's title was a shocker: "Popular Megachurch Pastor Says 10 Commandments No Longer Apply to Christians." To quote the article, "In a piece posted to Relevant Magazine on Monday, Pastor Stanley said that since the Ten Commandments come from the old covenant, Christians should stop erecting monuments dedicated to them... 'if we're going to create a monument to stand as a testament to our faith, shouldn't it at least be a monument of something that actually applies to us?' Stanley openly pontificated. 'Participants in the new covenant (that's Christians) are not required to obey any of the commandments found in the first part of their Bibles. Participants in the new covenant are expected to obey the single command Jesus issued as part of his new covenant: as I have loved you, so you must love one another.'"

The article goes on describe Stanley's teaching in more detail.

It seems to me that megapastor Stanley is on board with the Mockingbird group's hyper-grace theology (see David Virtue's excellent article https://www.virtueonline.org/mockingbird-shaky-theology-hyper-grace-movement).

So what is my response? Listen to this portion of Jesus' teachings (Matthew 5:17-20) in the 'Sermon of the Mount':
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

How do preachers, priests, and Christian scholars interpret this passage? They do not all agree, but let me provide the common traditional explanation.

I will start with the last sentence first (our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees).In the New Covenant, we know that those who are born-again from above receive the Holy Spirit and a new heart. We now are enabled to obey the laws out of inner desire and not out of the sense of requirement and obligation that marked unregenerate Jews (and unregenerate "Christians" today). Even when the Jews obeyed, it was generally not from the heart, and even when it was, it did not last long. Their motives could not help but be mixed with the desire to look good and other selfish reasons. As John R.W. Stott put it, "The biblical doctrine of 'total depravity' means neither that all humans are equally depraved, nor that nobody is capable of any good, but rather that no part of any human person (mind, emotions, conscience, will, etc.) has remained untainted by the Fall."

In other words, without the Holy Spirit within, we are sometimes able to obey the letter of the law, but we are totally unable to obey the spirit. Born-again believers, however, will truly want to obey... which means from the heart.

But what did Jesus mean when He said that He did not come to abolish the laws or the prophets but to fulfill them?

It is no problem understanding how He came to fulfill the Prophets. Jesus fulfilled all the OT prophecies about the Messiah to come. However, since Apostolic times, the way the Church has interpreted the application to the Law in this passage is that the fulfillment is about the prophetic aspect of the laws, which includes the ceremonial requirements and the civil requirements--but not the moral requirements. Jesus obeyed all the laws and thus fulfilled them, but the moral laws stand forever. Re-read the Matthew 5:17-19 passage and see if this does not make total sense.

The ceremonial requirements that were to be "fulfilled" (subsumed or superseded) included the blood sacrifices of animals and circumcision. The other requirements that no longer applied included dietary (kosher) rules (and by extension, the dress code, textiles, etc.)-- made clear by the divine dreams and revelations to Peter and Paul, especially as applied to Gentile Christians (e.g., Acts 10:15, 15:1-41, Gal 5:2-11, Romans 14).

Although Paul was very much against Jewish legalism applied to Gentiles (like circumcision), he was clear that the moral rules still applied universally (note 1 Cor 6:9 and many other passages where he commands moral behavior and condemns sin).

Most Anglicans believe as I have stated. Let me insert here Article VII in the 39 Articles of Religion.

VII. Of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises.

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

Homosexuality and the Desire to Dispense with the Old Covenant

I think I understand the motivation behind Andy Stanley's new stance, which I think is the same as that of the Mockingbird group (David Zahl, et al). I do not believe that this anti-Old Covenant theology is motivated by anti-Semitism as was the Marcion heresy in the early church-- which tried to eliminate the Old Testament from the Christian canon. However, it is clear that both groups have a great distaste for any kind of religious rules, and downgrading or eliminating the OT is the logical extension of this theology.

My guess is that Andy Stanley and David Zahl are struggling with the homosexuality issue and have been deceived by the LGBT agenda sufficiently such that they are looking for ways to make it theologically OK. Or at least make it OK to look the other way. However, there is, in fact, no valid reason to make it theologically OK, at least not according to scripture (both OT and NT).

The laissez-faire approach to the homosexuality issue is attractive to millennials and younger Christians who are having to struggle with the cultural acceptance (especially among their peers) of the LGBT agenda and abortion. They don't want to come off as judgmental and fundamentalist; they fear appearing like they are beating people over the head with the Bible.

I must remind Stanley and Zahl of Acts 15, the first Christian council (which occurred in Jerusalem). It was agreed that Gentile believers did not need to obey the uniquely Jewish laws except for sexual morality (which still applies) and a couple of other things that people no longer do anyway.

Transformation is Inevitable for True Believers

What all the liberal Christian leaders seem to miss is the reality of the born-again transformation. We are not just forgiven, we are, over time, changed from the inside out. This is why our righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. They taught the Law but did not do it (see Matthew 23).

Let us apply this principle to current liberal church trends. We see that nominal semi-believers just want to be forgiven, accepted into the church, and still keep their sinful lifestyles (often called "cheap grace"). But here is how it happens when faith is real. The order of change begins with a Holy Spirit-inspired conviction of sin, then comes repentance, submission to Christ, born-again faith, and heart regeneration. The inner desires and motives are transformed and lead to water baptism (&/ or confirmation) associated with a church, and sooner or later, to lifestyle change. IF the Holy Spirit regeneration is real, then the lifestyle change will be consistent with scriptural morality.

What these straying Christian leaders need to realize is there should be no separation between the legalistic response and the pastoral response to sin. Pastorally they are to love the sinner; legalistically they are to hate the sin because it is destructive to self and others. These two responses look antithetical when they are not integrated properly. However, they are truly in agreement because all of us hate what harms those we love.

It is why some behaviors are proscribed by God, that is, to protect people from harm. Look again at the Garden of Eden situation. The first law was clearly for the protection of the first humans. Of course, this was also a relational test; would they trust God and His word, or not? (Not.)

There is a saying I often use when teaching new Christian counselors: "People don't care how much you know... until they know how much you care." We must first be caring, understanding, and empathic, and perhaps we will win their trust; but eventually we must show people the error of their ways and the consequences of their self-destructive lifestyle. It is not love to tell Christians who are sexually tempted that sin is not sin anymore. That message not only enables their self-harm in the present but also greases their path to perdition in eternity.

If Andy Stanley wants to stick with the NT, I can live with that because the NT agrees and underlines the OT law where sexual morality and other moral issues are concerned (for example, 1 Corinthians 6:9). In the area of sexual morality, there is no separation between Old Covenant and New Covenant, or else the Apostles would have made that clear. Neither Andy Stanley nor David Zahl are wiser or more spirit-filled than the Apostles.

These politically correct ministers probably realize that if they truly preached the gospel and taught NT principles, they would be increasingly unpopular in this particular culture. Megachurches would shrink. The superficial and lukewarm hangers-on would leave. Only the born again believers would stay, and I can predict that they would grow spiritually and become true disciples.

Jesus allowed the superficial followers to leave; He only wanted those who were totally committed, those who followed without qualification, those who would pick up their crosses and follow Him. Man-pleasing ministers need to remember John 6:66-69: After this [Jesus presenting some hard sayings] many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. So Jesus said to the twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God."

To conclude, I repeat the Lord's warning: "Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these [moral] commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:19)

As I am fond of saying, when a church fails to accept the authority of the Word of God and therefore avoids being called out (apart, holy) from its surrounding culture, it loses both its moral influence and its power to transform individuals. A church that emulates the culture around it will offer nothing different from what the culture around it has to offer. So people will ask: what's the point? The more the church attempts to mirror the culture, the less effective it will be. Or, as A.W. Tozer put it: "The Church's mightiest influence is felt when she is different from the world in which she lives. Her power lies in her being different; its power rises with the degree in which she differs and sinks as the difference diminishes."

Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a “cradle Episcopalian” who left TEC in 2004. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia.

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