The Law Both Abolished and Fulfilled: Schreiner’s 40 Questions

I just received and have been immersed in Thomas R. Schreiner’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. Since I’m heading to Atlanta for the 62nd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society where this year’s theme is “Justification by Faith” and the 2 “Toms” (Tom Schreiner and “Tom” Wright) are debating, I thought this would be a good read to prepare (in addition to the many other publications sparking such controversy).

So far I’ve really enjoyed it and, as Justin Taylor mentioned, this is a good primer for anyone interested in learning more about how law and Gospel intersect.

Question 14 “Does Paul Distinguish Between the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil Law?” really stood out to me in providing a useful framework in which to understand this familiar 3-part taxonomy of Old Testament law. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 92-93).

On the one hand, the “civil” laws of the Old Testament are no longer in force, and yet we have a hint that Paul sees such laws as fulfilled in Christ as well. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul requires the church to expel the man committing incest from the church. The mandate to remove him is expressed in the final words of 1 Corinthians 5:13, “Purge the evil person from among you.” paul here picks up the language of Deuteronomy, where the same language is used to denote the death sentence that the community of Israel must impose upon those who are guilty of blatant sins. Hence, the idolater must be put to death, “So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). A comparison of the Greek clearly shows that Paul draws on Deuteronomy. Indeed, this phrase or one very similar appears on a number of occasions in Deuteronomy (LXX) for those who are to be put to death (cf. Deut. 17:12; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24; 24:7). Nonetheless, a remarkable difference is evident between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament the evil person is put to death, for Israel is both a political entity and a spiritual people. In the New Testament, however, the evil person is not put to death but removed from the church of Jesus Christ. The law is both abolished and fulfilled. It is abolished, for believers are no longer called upon to execute those who commit the sins specified in Deuteronomy, but it does not follow that the command to purge evil from the community has no relevance to the church. It finds its fulfillment in the expulsion of the evil person from the church of Jesus Christ.

Incidentally, Schreiner refers favorably (p. 90, n. 2) to an article by David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise” available at

4 Comments on “The Law Both Abolished and Fulfilled: Schreiner’s 40 Questions

  1. I haven’t read the book. But from what you have presented here, a word from an old ethics prof… Israel ceased to practice the death penalty with any regularity some years after Moses died. This is especially true regarding adultery. Exactly when that happened is a matter of rabbinic conjecture, based on tradition, but clearly it was the case by the days of Hosea. Given that, Paul’s treatment of the man living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5) is not that different. Gomer was excluded from fellowship and physical support from Hosea, and Paul requires the same of the man in question. To Paul the Church is clearly not a civil authority, however it must be remembered that “Church” was a term which was initially used of the legislative/judicial leadership/assembly of the city-State of Athens. When Jesus first used the term (Matt. 16 & 18) it appears with a similar function, except that the “legislation” they involve themselves with seems to have already been decided in Heaven (so the Greek of “shall have been bound”). Thus the Church’s function to Jesus is discussed in the context of justice: the church prohibits what is evil from happening between the citizens of the Kingdom of God. Paul would say that the civil government also promotes what is good (Rom. 13). And so too the Church promotes “edification,” the positive side of leadership.

    Presumably, the reason that God did not enforce the death penalty during the post-Law history of His people (or, conversely, the reason He once required it to be enforced) is that the penalty being on the books) shows that the transgressor is worthy of death, while God is rich in mercy and forgiveness. It is not that the law of worthiness of death has been abolished, but rather that the path of forgiveness and restoration has been opened. But, again, that happened long before the Church came into existence, and can hardly be called a Pauline or Churchly alteration. Given all this, I am loathe to use the word “abolished” for even the OT change of penalty. Jesus clearly taught that He did not come to abolish the Law, though He assumed the penalty “change” when He spoke regarding divorce for the purpose of discipling those guilty of adultery (Matt. 5). Did He consider God’s acceptance of the penalty change as an “abolishment” of Lev. 20? Very doubtful. Even in Lev. 20 the language of execution and of exile are so interwoven that scholars note the relationship. Thus I would be very cautious about using the death penalty “change” to substantiate any discussion of “abolishment.”

    As I noted, Jesus said that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Fulfill in Matt. 5 probably means to “practice without failure,” just as Ez. 36:27 predicted “God” would do (“I will take the initiative or :“I will do that which in my statutes you will walk”). In the Sermon, Jesus declares that the righteous of His followers must exceed that of the Pharisees. The righteousness of the latter was only external…relating to what the civil law might judge. What Jesus required was the rest of the law’s righteousness…not some new ethic. Virtually nothing that Jesus says by way of correction cannot be found in the Law and the Prophets. The only exception may be the use of “adultery” for the man who treats his wife or the wife of another man as if they were chattel property. The OT would have spoken of treachery or fornication, but the sin is the same, since the breach of covenantal vows was adultery.

    Frankly, in nearly 40 years of analysis, I cannot find any principle of OT Law or practice of prophetic office that has been “abolished.” And maybe that’s the point. Instead of trying to find abolished laws, we need to embrace the principles of righteousness inherent in each and every statute and regulation. Clearly the conditions of the Kingdom of God/Church involve us in new applications of those principles, but Christ called upon His followers to be householders who take forth from their treasure things old and new.

    • Hey Bill…
      Thanks for chiming in here. You make some very valid points. I don’t think, however, that Schreiner is suggesting God’s law is no longer applicable, especially where it is repeated as commands/ethical imperatives in the New Testament. Having said that, the choice of language used by Schreiner does need clarification and this short text is not the place for such explication. Regardless, Schreiner is clear that God’s law, as a reflection of God’s character, is morally obligatory. There is a “temporal difference between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants” and that difference for Paul is one of kind as well as time. He makes his case that Paul teaches the Mosaic covenant is fulfilled in Christ (Question 9 “Does Paul Teach That the Old Testament Law Is Now Abolished?”, pp. 67-71). And, he notes that being “under law” is in reference to a redemptive-historical framework, thus making the law obsolete in Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice (Question 10 “What Does the Phrase ‘Under Law’ Mean in Paul?”).

  2. This book seems really helpful.
    I’ve read some snippets.
    Would you say I should get it?
    Do you agree w/his basic approach?
    does it add something ‘fresh’ to the convo?
    anything in there contra Theonomy?

    • Hi Vocab…
      Schreiner devotes several questions to the NPP topic and does not, as far as I see, add anything new that has not already been said. Of course, in a few weeks when I get back from ETS in Atlanta, I hope to have more light and less heat.

      I agree with Schriener’s basic approach, but still have some outstanding questions (mainly due to my ignorance). As for Theonomy, Question 39 “What is Theonomy, or Christian Reconstructionism…?” deals directly, albeit briefly. In a nutshell, Schreiner states

      The entire law has ceased to be an authority for believers. Hence, the notion that the civil laws for Israel should continue to function as the rules for nation-states today represents a fundamental misreading of the Scriptures. Believers are no longer under the law, for the law was given to Israel, which functioned as both a political and an ecclesiastical community. No nation today occupies the place of Israel, for no nation can claim to be God’s chosen nation. Sometimes believers (though not all theonomists) in the Unites States will identify their country as God’s chosen nation, but such a statement is a theological misstep, for it appropriates to a modern nation-state what was true only for Israel.

      Of course, he goes on to say much more, but you’ll have to get the book, so YES, you should get the book!

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