For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. – John 1:17
If you were to go around asking people if the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were the same God you would probably come across many who would answer “no”. If you were to then ask them why they thought so the most likely answer you would hear would be “the God of the Old Testament is cruel, vindictive, harsh and punishing, whereas the God of the New Testament is loving and merciful”.
The idea that there is an inconsistency between how God is portrayed in the Old and New Testaments has been around for a long time. In the second century AD Marcion of Sinope taught that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament were different. He taught the Gnostic idea that the God of the Old Testament, the creator of the physical world, was the evil Demiurge and that the God who was the Father of Jesus Christ was the true benevolent God. He rejected the Old Testament as Scripture, and rejected several books of the New Testament as well. He taught docetism, the heresy which states that Jesus only appeared to be a physical, human being. Marcion was ultimately excommunicated from the Church and his views, sometimes called Marcionism, were condemned as heretical.
It was in response to Marcion and other Gnostics who taught similar views that the Church realized that it would have to decide which books the Christian faith considered to be canonical Scriptures and which it didn’t. It was also in response to these heretical ideas that the Church drew up the first paragraph of the Nicene Creed:
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
This was placed at the beginning of the Creed to identify the God Who is the Father of Jesus Christ with the God Who created the heavens and the earth in the Book of Genesis and to make clear that that God was the Creator of both the spiritual and the physical world. Hence the “and of all things visible and invisible”. This is the orthodox, Apostolic, Christian teaching on the subject.
Why was it necessary for the Church to define orthodox doctrine in this way? What did Marcion and the other Gnostic heretics find in Scripture upon which to base their false idea that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament? How can what they found be explained better in a way that is consistent with orthodox Christianity?
The idea that there is a discrepancy between how the Old and New Testaments portray God is based upon the perception that the God of the Old Testament is always punishing people for their sin whereas the God of the New Testament is always forgiving them. This, however, does not do justice to either Testament.
In the Old Testament, God is always showing mercy to people and forgiving them of their sins. It starts at the beginning of Genesis. God had told Adam in the Garden of Eden that he was not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and that the day he ate of that fruit he would die. When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, God drove them from Paradise, but He showed mercy on them and did not kill them. When Cain murdered his brother Abel and God sent him into exile in punishment, He also showed mercy to Cain and put his seal upon Cain, that no man would do him any harm. The Psalms frequently proclaim that God is slow to anger, merciful, and compassionate, and quick to forgive. The prophets never proclaim judgment upon God’s people without calling them to repent and without proclaiming the hope of a future restoration. The prophet Ezekiel was told to proclaim “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11). When the prophet Jonah was sent to proclaim God’s judgment upon Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the Ninevites repented and God spared their city.
Meanwhile, the New Testament frequently warns of God’s judgment. The concept of everlasting punishment beyond this life is found in the Old Testament in one verse alone Daniel 12:2: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” When Psalm 9 says that the wicked shall be turned into hell, it does not use a word meaning a place of everlasting punishment. No such word existed in the Hebrew language. It uses “sheol” which was understood by the Hebrew people in basically the same way that the Greek people understood “hades” – a gloomy, underground place, that everybody goes to, righteous and wicked alike. The concept of hell as we understand it today, everlasting fiery punishment beyond death, is taken from the teachings of Jesus. Outside of Jerusalem, there was a valley called Hinnom. In the Old Testament, this place was cursed because people sacrificed their children in fire to the demon Moloch there. The valley became the garbage dump of Jerusalem and the place where the bodies of criminals were thrown. It was constantly burning. In the period between the Testaments, Jewish rabbis had taken the name of this valley and used it metaphorically to refer to a place of punishment beyond death. Their concept of “Gehenna” was similar to the Roman Catholic concept of Purgatory. People would go there for about a year to be punished and cleansed of their sins then they would go to be with God. Jesus spoke of Gehenna as being “eternal” and “everlasting”. He spoke of it more often than anyone else in the Bible.
If God is depicted as merciful and compassionate and forgiving of sin in the Old Testament and His most severe judgment upon sin is mentioned mostly in the New Testament, then clearly the Gnostic understanding of the God of the Old Testament as harsh and severe and the God of the New Testament as loving and kind is false. Both Testaments portray God as both the just Judge of sin and the merciful and loving Father Who pleads with people to turn back to Him in repentance, trust Him, and be forgiven of their sins. The orthodox teaching of the Church then is in accordance with the Scriptures. The God of the Old Testament is the Father of Jesus Christ.
Where then did the idea that the God of the Old Testament is harsher than the God of the New Testament come from? What is the actual difference between the two Testaments?
When we speak of the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” we are speaking of collections of books. The Old Testament is a collection of Books revered as Scripture, the written Word of God, by Jews and Christians alike. The New Testament is recognized as Scripture by Christians alone. The word “testament” used to mean “covenant”. The two divisions of the Christian Scriptures are called the Old and New Testament, because they are the records of two covenants which God made. The first covenant was made with the Israelite nation at Mt. Sinai. The second covenant was made at the Cross. The new covenant can be said to be universal in the sense that everybody in the world is invited to enter it through faith. It is also a particular covenant, made with the organism/institution called “the Church” which consists of those who believe.
Both covenants arose out of events in which God saved His people. God made His old covenant with Israel after saving them from the condition of slavery in Egypt. He made His new covenant when His Son came down from heaven and became a man and died on the cross for the sins of the world. Both events were acts of grace on the part of God. The New Testament teaches that the second event was foreshadowed in the first:
For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us. (1 Cor. 5:7)
Christ’s sacrifice, which established the new covenant, was what made possible God’s acts of grace in the Old Testament, for Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) and God, Who exists outside the limits of time and space, looked ahead to Christ’s sacrifice as the justification of His grace to sinners. Now that Christ has come and fully revealed God’s grace to us and accomplished salvation through His death on the cross, God’s new covenant is to be brought to the world through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News that God has been gracious and merciful to the sinners of the world by providing His only Son as the Savior through His death of all those who place their faith in Him and by raising Jesus from the dead.
The old covenant, on the other hand, was a covenant in which God promised temporal blessings to His people, particularly the possession of the land He would give them, conditioned upon their obedience to His commandments. In Exodus 19, after the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai, God speaks to Moses and tells him:
Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. (vv. 3-16)
Moses speaks these words to the elders of Israel and the people tell him “All that the LORD hath spoken we will do.” Moses gives God this answer, and God tells the Israelites to sanctify themselves, then comes down onto the mountain to speak to Israel. After warning the people not to come upon the mountain, God gives to Moses the famous ten commandments (20:1-17) then Moses enters the darkness with which God has surrounded His immediate presence and receives more commandments from God. The commandments go on until the end of chapter 23, when God summons Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel to ascend the mountain and worship Him. They offer sacrifices unto God, then go up to meet with God, then Moses is summoned up the mountain again to receive yet more commandments. Moses is up in the mountain for forty days and nights and the list of the commandments he receives runs from chapter 25 to the end of chapter 31, where God gives Moses tablets of stone upon which His commandments were written.
The emphasis in this covenant is clearly upon rules and for this reason the books in which the covenant is recorded are called the Torah – the Law. St. John wrote in the first chapter of Gospel that “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”. How is this consistent with what we saw earlier about God’s graciousness in the Old Testament and His judgment in the New?
The God Who made both covenants is holy, just, and sovereign as well as loving, gracious, compassionate and merciful. These characteristics are eternal attributes of His and both are on display in both Testaments. In Christ’s death which is at the heart of the Gospel message it is revealed how God can be both just and merciful at the same time, how God can be “just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus”. The old covenant places the emphasis on God’s holiness and justice, however, by focusing on rules which tell God’s people what He demands of them. The new covenant emphasizes God’s mercy and grace. For this reason the old covenant, and the sacred books which record that covenant, are sometimes referred to as “the Law”. Similarly, the sacred books which record the life, teachings, works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are called “Gospels”. There is grace, which is at the heart of the Gospel message in the former, and law (think of the Sermon on the Mount) in the latter, but the covenants and sections of Scripture which record them, are characterized by their emphasis.
Law and Gospel are the two messages which run throughout Scripture. Law tells us of the holiness and justice of God and lays plain the righteousness which God demands of us. The Gospel tells us of the mercy and grace of God Who made a way for us, who being sinners cannot meet the requirements of the Law, to be given the righteousness the Law demands freely, as a gift through Jesus Christ. The Gospel is the fuller revelation of God which the Law points to.
Dr. Martin Luther saw the importance of understanding and distinguishing the purposes of these two messages. He said “Hence, whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between Law and Gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” As with so much else of what he taught, here Dr. Luther displayed a superb understanding of the writings of St. Paul in the Scriptures. To attempt to do with the Law what can only be done with the Gospel leads to disaster. This is the message of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatian Church. The distinction between Law and Gospel became very important to Dr. Luther and his followers and the confessions within the Lutheran tradition display a clarity on the subject that the rest of Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic Church can learn from. The fifth article of the 1577 Lutheran Formula of Concord is entitled “Law and Gospel”. In this article the Law is identified as any Scriptural message that “reproves sin” as distinct from the Gospel which proclaims that “Christ has expiated and made satisfaction for all sins, and has obtained and acquired for him, without any merit of his [no merit of the sinner intervening], forgiveness of sins, righteousness that avails before God, and eternal life.”
In the sixth article of the Formula of Concord, entitled “The Third Use of the Law”, three purposes of the Law are given. The first is “that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men”. This purpose of the Law is often illustrated by a curb or a fence. It contains human sinfulness and keeps it within bounds. The second purpose of the Law is “that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins”. This use of the Law is illustrated with a mirror. The third use of the Law is that believers “might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life”. This use is illustrated by a roadmap or compass. It shows us what we should be but does not provide us with the ability to be that. For that we need God’s justifying and sanctifying grace, revealed in the Gospel.
All of this is in accordance with the writings of St. Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. In his epistles to the churches of Rome and Galatia he tells us what the Law cannot do. It cannot justify us, make us righteous in God’s eyes (Romans). Nor can it produce in us the holy life it describes (Galatians). What then was it given for?
In chapter one of his first pastoral epistle to Timothy he writes:
But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust. (vv. 8-11)
What does St. Paul mean when he says that “the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient”? He could be understood as giving the spiritual equivalent of something that is noticeable in everyday life. In every institution, from the family, to the workplace, to society, there are rules. When are rules made? Frequently rules are made by those in authority in an institution when the need for them arises, because someone has been doing something wrong. We see the same thing in Scripture. God gave mankind only one rule in the Garden of Eden. That rule was broken and mankind was expelled from the Garden. Then Cain murdered his brother and before you know it the world was full of murder. God judged the world with the Flood, then He gave a new rule that “if man shed blood, by man shall his blood be shed”. God gives us rules because our sinfulness creates the need for them. If this is what St. Paul had in mind this corresponds with the first use of the Law in the Formula of Concord. St. Augustine, in a passage in his writings which Dr. Luther wrote influenced his coming to understand St. Paul’s doctrine of justification, sees this passage as being a case of the second use of the Law. The lawful use of the law that St. Paul refers to, St. Augustine wrote wrote, was to bring one to Christ to receive God’s righteousness. (1)
It is the second use of the Law that St. Paul emphasizes in his epistles, and which Lutheran theology emphasizes as well. It is the Law that shows us that we are sinners. St. Paul, in the seventh chapter of his epistle to the church in Rome writes:
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. (v. 7)
What does he mean by “not known sin”? He cannot mean “not have sinned” for that meaning would clearly contradict what he wrote to Timothy quoted above. He is speaking of his awareness of his own sinfulness which came about through the Law because when the Law spoke his sinful nature produced the very thing which the Law forbade bringing about his awareness of his own sinfulness and the conflict within himself described in the rest of the chapter.
In Galatians St. Paul writes that “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (3:24). The word translated “schoolmaster” here depicts a slave whose job was to watch over the child of the family he served and bring him to his instructors. This is the illustration St. Paul uses to describe the function God intended the Law to serve in Israel up until His revelation of Himself in Christ. While he may have partially had in mind the concept of the author of the book of Hebrews, that Christ and His sacrifice are prefigured in the ceremonies of the Old Testament, the context of the chapter would suggest that he is primarily referring to the Law revealing our sin and hence our need for Christ. This is how St. Augustine understood him in the same passage alluded to above.
In his second epistle to the church in Corinth, in the third chapter, St. Paul refers to the Law as “the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones” and a “ministration of condemnation” (verses 7 and 9 respectively) which he contrasts with the “ministration of the spirit” and the “ministration of righteousness” (verses 8 and 9) which is the new covenant (v. 6), the Gospel. The Law can only condemn people because being sinners we cannot meet its requirements. This revelation of our condition, however, if we do not harder ourselves to us, can humble and break us, making us receptive to the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This use of the Law is itself a work of grace as the hymn writer John Newton clearly understood:
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear -conviction of sin through the Law
And grace my fears relieved (2) - proclamation of forgiveness through the Gospel.
Dr. Robert Preuss put it this way:
Neither contrition nor faith is something we work out for ourselves. The Holy Spirit works both in us. He works contrition through the Law, and exclusively through the Law; and He works faith through the Gospel, and exclusively through the Gospel. The most important distinction between Law and Gospel lies in just this fact. (3)
Thus Law itself, can be a work of grace, but only if the Gospel is also preached and received in faith.
In this we see most clearly how the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are indeed one and the same.
(1) Chapter 16 of St. Augustine’s A Treatise on The Spirit and the Letter.
(2) John Newton, “Amazing Grace”, second stanza.
(3) Robert D. Preuss, Getting Into The Theology of Concord, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), p. 63.
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