How Should Christians Apply the Law? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In parts 1 and 2, we looked at a method of interpreting and applying the Law (first five books of the Bible) to Christians living today. Theologian J. Daniel Hays calls the method principlism and refers to five steps in the process. In this post, Hays will take us through an example of using the method.

Leviticus 5:2 provides an example of how the method of principlizing can be used by believers today to apply legal passages without being under the Law. The verse reads, “Or if a person touches anything ceremonially unclean–whether the carcasses of unclean wild animals or of unclean livestock or of unclean creatures that move along the ground–even though he is unaware of it, he has become unclean and is guilty.”

The action required to correct one’s ceremonially unclean status in this verse is described a few verses later. So verses 5-6 should also be included: “When anyone is guilty in any of these ways, he must confess in what way he has sinned and, as a penalty for the sin he has committed, he must bring to the LORD a female lamb or goat from the flock as a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin.”

Using principlism, how should we interpret Lev. 5:2? Step 1:

What did the text mean to the initial audience? The context of Leviticus discusses how the Israelites were to live with the holy, awesome God who was dwelling in their midst. How were they to approach God? How should they deal with sin and unclean things in light of God’s presence among them? These verses are part of the literary context of 4:1-5:13 that deals with offerings necessary after unintentional sin. Leviticus 4 deals primarily with the leaders; Leviticus 5 focuses on regular people. Leviticus 5:2 informed the Israelites that if they touched any unclean thing (dead animals or unclean animals), they were defiled ceremonially. This was true even if they touched an unclean thing accidentally. Being unclean, they were unable to approach God and worship Him. To be purified (made clean), they were to confess their sin and bring the priest a lamb or a goat for a sacrifice (5:5-6). The priest would sacrifice the animal on their behalf and they would be clean again, able to approach and worship God.

Step 2:

What are the differences between the initial audience and believers today? Christians are not under the Old Covenant, and their sins are covered by the death of Christ. Also because they have direct access to God through Jesus Christ, they no longer need human priests as mediators.

Step 3:

What is the universal principle in this text? The central universal principle in these verses relates to the concept that God is holy. When He dwells among His people, His holiness demands that they keep separate from sin and unclean things. If they become unclean, they must be purified by a blood sacrifice. This principle takes into account the overall theology of Leviticus and the rest of Scripture. It is expressed in a form that is universally applicable to God’s people in both the Old Testament and the New Testament eras.

In part 4, we will finish up the interpretation of Lev. 5:2 using principlism.

  • sean

    Right, so when they lived with God, God deemed unintentional sins like making a promise without regard to what that entails, actions that needed purification before worship was possible. However, having more than one wife, or selling and buying slaves, this was not an action that separated us spiritually from God. This doesn’t distance us from his nature such that it required penitence, at least not as much as apparently these accidental actions did… Am I wrong?

    What God didn’t command contrasted with what he did command is I think very telling about what is acceptable and abhorrent to him. You have said previously that while things like slavery were not ideal God needed to allow them in order to accrue his following, it was not something he particularly liked. Here however you seem to be suggesting that there are certain actions that God simply cannot tolerate, and the extremely immoral action of owning other people as money/property isn’t on that list, but touching a dirty animal and making a foolish vow are both on the list. The law is supposed to be, in addition to other things, a moral code that reflects God’s morality right?

  • Sean,
    What you continue to miss is that God is dealing with the Israelites in their particular time, place, and culture. All of his commands happen within that context. You are trying to rip all of his commands to the Israelites away from the time period and culture within which they lived.

    Because of the time, place, and culture, we have to be very careful in how we apply God’s commands to the Israelites to our lives today. That is the point of the entire blog post series.

    If we want to look at God’s moral teaching as it applies directly to us today, we look at the New Testament, and Jesus in particular.

  • sean

    Alright. I suppose then, my problem is that I don’t see where the old laws that were not specifically addressed by Jesus no longer apply, or are to be understood differently. Certainly in the case of Jesus’ fulfillment of the prophecy I can see where there is no longer a need for sacrifice, but I don’t see how it follows then that things we no longer consider kosher today (pardon the pun) are addressed in the revision. Certainly Jesus never said anything about homosexuals, and that seems to have thus been given the green light on continuing the old school of thought. But even in America, the Old Testament was held up as to show how slavery was totally allowed.

  • Jesus, when he was on earth as a human being, never said anything directly about homosexuality, but that is entirely irrelevant. Jesus didn’t talk about a lot of things that you and I would both consider morally wrong.

    The apostle Paul, however, did speak directly against homosexual behavior, and he was a disciple of Jesus who would never contradict any teaching of Jesus. Therefore we can be certain that Jesus would agree with what Paul taught about homosexual behavior.

  • sean

    I would agree that Jesus didn’t talk about lots of stuff he’d agree with and that we agree on. But what we think isn’t the point at all under your theology. We’re fallen creatures who have sin in our hearts and minds. We’re morally corrupt. What Jesus says is good is what matters, and when we think otherwise we’re just wrong.

    I find what you say about Paul interesting. I think it leads to some very interesting syllogisms if we accept the premise that he wouldn’t contradict Jesus. Secondly, I’m not quite sure whay your definition of disciple is. I’d like you to clarify that please.

    To what the implications are here, Paul taught that it’s better to be single, and only if you cannot restrain yourself you can have on partner. Jesus’ judge not lest you be judged speech clearly endorses the idea that we should fix ourselves in an area before we tell others what I right. So I ask you Bill, as a man who has a wife and children, do you believe you (meaning Christians in general, all those married lawmakers in Washington especially)should be able to tell us (meaning Americans, specifically the gay ones, though I’m not in that group) that we cannot have our gay marriage thing? If so, I don’t see how you can do so without contradicting God. This is just the first example I thought of regarding the implications of this idea that Paul’s writing is all just as Good as Jesus’.

  • I don’t understand the question. Please re-state it differently.

  • sean

    My main question is how you’re defining disciple.

    In addition, I was originally going to concede based on the idea that Paul’s word was as good as Jesus’, but further study of scripture calls doubt to that claim. It seems that there are some points of disagreement between Paul and Jesus, so I’m not sure how that allows your explanation to be valid.

  • A disciple is a student or follower of the teacher. Where exactly have you seen disagreements between Paul and Jesus?

  • sean

    Paul teaches that salvation comes by faith and faith alone, whereas Jesus is of the mind that good works matter. Jesus teaches that forgiveness is contingent on more than having faith in him, while Paul teaches that faith in Jesus is all that is required for salvation.

  • I’m afraid you’ve misread the New Testament. Both Jesus and Paul affirm that faith is important and both Jesus and Paul affirm that works of love are important. There is no disagreement between them.

  • sean

    They both affirm faith yes, but to my understanding Paul believes only faith is required and that it’s got nothing to do with works (or obeying the commandments, though in the Christian way), while Jesus says it is about both of those things.

    I’ll get some passages to you that inform my opinion here and perhaps you can clarify this point for me.

  • When you say “salvation,” what specifically do you mean by that word? I think that is the key to resolving this problem.

  • sean

    The problem being that I don’t see that they use these terms to mean different things when in fact the two men are? You’re correct that I’m unaware of any difference in the terms. It seems that you’re probably right then, what does each man mean by these terms?