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How Does the Old Testament Law Apply to Christians Today? Dr. Tom Schreiner

Home » How Does the Old Testament Law Apply to Christians Today? Dr. Tom Schreiner

Guest: Dr. Tom Schreiner | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Schreiner about the role of the law for Christians today.

Topics of conversation include:

  • The purpose of the Old Testament laws in light of God’s covenant with his people
  • How the Old Testament laws reflect the character of God
  • The third use of the law, and how it instructs us on how to live today
  • Using the whole Bible when distinguishing between moral and ceremonial laws
  • Resources for thinking through issues of Old Testament law

Dr. Tom Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament Interpretation and professor of Biblical Theology, as well as associate dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including, as part of the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, Romans (Baker Academic, 2018), The New American Commentary Volume 37: 1-2 Peter, Jude (Holman Reference 2003), and The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Baker Books, 1998).

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:19):

One of the most frequent arguments made against Christians today is that we pick and choose what we will follow from the Bible. We obey and uphold the parts we like; we disregard the parts we don’t. I hear this most often when it comes to things like homosexuality. A Christian will point to Leviticus 20:13, which reads, “if a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” To which someone will respond, “I’ll see your Leviticus 20:13 and raise you a Leviticus 19:28, “You shall not make cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord.” As they point to the Christian with tattoos all up and down the arm. It’s a “gotcha” kind of moment. To be honest, many Christians aren’t quite sure what to do with the Old Testament law.

Brian Arnold (01:06):

How does it apply to Christians today? Does it apply, in light of Jesus and the New Testament? Are Old Testament laws arbitrary, or do they reflect something about the character of God? Well, to help us understand the Old Testament law today is Dr. Tom Schreiner. Dr. Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament Interpretation and professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Seminary, where he also serves as associate dean of the School of Theology. Dr. Schreiner is a prolific writer, having published numerous books, including commentaries on Romans and First Peter, Second Peter, and Jude. And significantly for today’s conversation, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law. And I’ve got to say as well, one of my favorite professors during my time at Southern Seminary. Dr. Schreiner, welcome to the podcast.

Tom Schreiner (01:52):

Well, good to talk to you again, Brian. And just call me Tom.

Brian Arnold (01:56):

<laugh>. Well, Tom, I will say—I’m a little less sweaty today than I was when taking Romans Exegesis class and fearing to be called on to translate. So this is a much more comfortable situation.

Tom Schreiner (02:09):

<laugh>. That’s great

Brian Arnold (02:10):

<laugh>. But in all seriousness, appreciate what you’ve done to train up thousands of ministers for the gospel. Well, we always ask our guests a big question, today that question is—how does the Old Testament law apply to Christians today? So when we even say “Old Testament law”, what is it that we’re talking about?

Tom Schreiner (02:27):

Yeah, well actually that term is somewhat complex, because the word law is used different ways in the Bible. Sometimes when they use the word law, they’re just referring to the Old Testament as a whole. Right? Paul can quote from Isaiah and say it’s the law. Or you can have “The Law and the Prophets,” which is a way of referring to the whole Bible. So it can refer to the Pentateuch, it can refer to particular commandments. But usually people are talking about the commandments found in the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.

Brian Arnold (03:02):

So let’s talk about those first five—the Pentateuch, the Torah. It has a couple different names—book of Moses—that we refer to it by. So what does law mean in that context?

Tom Schreiner (03:13):

Yeah. Well, there are laws in that there are covenantal laws, or you could say instruction. There’s actually a big debate—should we say instruction or law? I actually feel that debate…I think both are actually true most of the time, because the laws, the commands, are also instructions. So, you know, most of what we find when the word law is used, are particular commands that are given, right? Honor your father and mother, and so forth and so on. Or even the commandments you mentioned at the beginning. So usually when the word law is used, and that’s true in Paul as well, especially, it has in view particular commands that are given by God.

Brian Arnold (04:01):

Okay, well, so I’ve heard the number 613 of these laws given in the Old Testament. It can seem like God is a little persnickety in terms of what he’s wanting his people to do. Some of the laws, which seem really strange to us today as we hear them, which obviously in the original context would have meant a lot more to the original readers of the text—why all these laws? What is God trying to do? Especially if you can put that in light of covenant, I think it’d be really helpful.

Tom Schreiner (04:32):

Yeah, I think that’s a good way to frame it. What we have in the covenant is—God saves, he delivers, he rescues his people from Egypt. So he bestows his grace on them by liberating them and freeing them from Egyptian slavery. And then he gives them commands and laws. So the laws were not given, even in the Old Testament, in order to establish a relationship with God. But the laws were given as a response to God’s saving and redeeming work of his people. And yeah, there’s a lot of laws, but many of those laws relate to—how do you offer sacrifices? There’s a lot of detail there on the sacrifices and the tabernacle. And there are other specific laws as well, but the broader category we should keep in mind is their response, their loving response, to God’s grace. How do you follow the Lord? That’s what the laws are given for.

Brian Arnold (05:39):

So even if we highlight what most listeners would know—the 10 Commandments—as kind of foundational laws of the Old Testament, I think a lot of people miss the preamble, right? Which reads, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” He’s already done the saving. And I think a lot of Christians kind of get this muddled in their minds, of the laws functioning as a way of earning righteousness or earning salvation somehow. Instead of, as you mentioned, recognizing God has already done the saving, and now, in light of what he’s done, and in light of the covenant that he’s given them, they’re doing this in response, in many ways. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength? What does it mean to love God and love your neighbor? And these laws reflect the character of God. One of the things I hear a lot today from people—and I don’t know if you’re hearing this too—is that the laws seem arbitrary, or the Bible teaches things that are arbitrary. So do we see in the Old Testament law just God just kind of picking and choosing arbitrary laws? Or does this say something about who he is?

Tom Schreiner (06:41):

Yeah. Well, I don’t think the laws are arbitrary. I would argue that the laws reflect the character of God. I think it’s in Deuteronomy four, and I don’t remember the exact reference, but what other nation has such good laws? So the law was not viewed as a burden. Read Psalm 19, read Psalm 119—the law is a great gift in that sense. God clarifies, as you said really well, I think, all the laws summarize—love the Lord and love your neighbor. So they’re really a beautiful description of what it means to live in relationship with God, and to live in relationship with one another.

Brian Arnold (07:28):

So now let’s kind of even shift to the New Testament a little bit, because how are we to read the law in terms of like a Pauline lens? So you’ve spent a lot of time in your scholarship thinking about, writing about these things, especially as they come through books like Romans and Galatians, and Paul wrestling with the law. I think about something like Romans seven, where the law is this good thing that was given to the Israelite people, but Paul’s trying to help his readers—oftentimes a mix between Jews and Gentiles—understand what the law was in place for, and now their response to the law. So how is Paul wanting us, as Christians today, even to understand the Old Testament law?

Tom Schreiner (08:14):

Yeah. Well, one of the major themes that comes out is Paul emphasizes repeatedly—no one can keep the law sufficiently so that they’re justified before God. And as we said earlier, I don’t think that’s a new teaching. I don’t think Paul’s making this up, de novo. This is…I think this has already been taught in the Old Testament, but he is very clear—salvation only comes through the grace of God that is given to us in Jesus Christ. So the law is not a ladder by which we enter into a relationship with God. And clearly, even today, people misunderstand that, don’t they? I mean, most people would say—if they’re not Christians—what does it mean to be right with God? Well, it means being a good person. And Paul teaches—but no one’s a good person. Everyone falls short of what God requires. If you try to base your relationship with God on your obedience to the law or any moral code, you’ll fail. So that’s a fundamental theme, right? What does Paul say? We’re not justified by works. We’re not saved by works. He says that again and again. I think that teaching is in Jesus as well.

Brian Arnold (09:33):

So if we can even move back…I want to go back and talk about Old Testament law. Do you find it helpful to even give the threefold understanding of kind of like that moral/ceremonial kind of breakdown of the law? Do you find that to be a helpful idea? Because again, thinking about like how I started my introduction, when people say—oh, well, you say homosexuality is a sin, but then you have tattoos. And there’s a hermeneutic question that is involved with this as well, of even understanding the purpose of the law then, and how we understand it now. So is that a helpful breakdown or not?

Tom Schreiner (10:11):

I would say yes, but I want to explain. I think it is helpful. I think, at the end of the day, it is right. I don’t think Paul discusses the law specifically in that way. By which, I mean, for Paul…well, I think what Paul argues is we’re not under the covenant with Moses, the covenant with Israel. So I think he argues comprehensively—that covenant is no longer the covenant under which Christians live. We live under the New Covenant. All the stipulations of that covenant, then, have passed away. By which, I mean the covenant made with Moses. We’re not under any of those stipulations, per se. So that’s the first thing. So we’re under the New Covenant, not the Old. But then we circle back and we find Paul citing some of the commands of that covenant as authoritative, right?

Tom Schreiner (11:10):

“Honor your parents, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie,” et cetera. “Don’t commit idolatry.” So why does Paul quote certain commands as authoritative, if he says we’re no longer under that covenant? And I think the answer is—those commands are not authoritative because they belong to that covenant. We’re not under that covenant anymore. Those commands are authoritative because they reflect the character of God. And then, I think it’s right to say theologically—well, why do they reflect the character of God? Because there are absolute moral norms, and there is a sense in which that’s different from ceremonial law. So Don Carson—you know that name well, many of the listeners will know that name—I think Don rightly says—the moral/ceremonial/civil distinction is helpful, if I can use a technical term, not a priori, but a posteriori. Which means, at the end of the day, theologically, I think it’s right.

Brian Arnold (12:16):

I think it’s pretty helpful too, especially as we move into hermeneutics and how we’re to interpret some of these laws. Some of them, like you said, are repeated in the New Testament. They’re obviously something that has a Christian ethic to it for all times. Right? And some of the ceremonial ones that the whole book of Hebrews is telling us are null and void, because the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin. Christ is the final sacrifice. All those were meant to foreshadow what his atonement would accomplish for humanity. And then obviously, civilly, we’re not under any kind of a theonomy at this point anymore, no matter how much some people would like that today, <laugh> it seems like, as that’s become an enraging debate once again, of do we want to have an Old Testament Israel, kind of civil religion here in America? So how…I mean, you’ve done a lot of work in the Reformers as well, and they talked about this “third use of the law.” What is the third use of the law? And is that an appropriate way for us to view the law today?

Tom Schreiner (13:19):

Yeah. Well, the third use of the law is that the law gives us instruction on how to live. And if you keep in mind what I said in my previous answer, then I would say yes, the moral norms of the law describe for us what it means to reflect back on what we talked about earlier—to love God and to love our neighbor. So it, you know, it applies to what you talked about at the outset. Homosexual relations are wrong, because they violate a moral norm, a moral absolute. But eating, you know, pork—which was forbidden in the Old Testament—that does not violate a moral norm. Or getting a tattoo. Those…there were certain ceremonial laws that set Israel apart from the nations. And I think that was the fundamental purpose of many of those laws. Those laws are no longer needed, because now the gospel, in the New Covenant, is going to all nations. Whereas in the Old Covenant, the gospel was primarily restricted to Israel.

Brian Arnold (14:32):

Well, let’s dive in a little bit more there, because I could see somebody saying—who gets to decide which ones are more ceremonial, and which ones have more of a moral flavor to it? So why couldn’t the homosexuality piece just be a ceremonial kind of thing for Israel in that day, to set them apart from other nations, but that it doesn’t have this kind of blanket moral undertone to it?

Tom Schreiner (14:58):

Yeah. Well, I mean, the first thing I think I’d want to say is—this is not new. You know, what we’re saying. You know, I think contemporaries might think—oh, well now they’re making this up about homosexuality, because they’re biased against us, or something like that. But what we’re talking about right now, Brian, it’s the historic Christian position throughout history, making these distinctions between moral norms and ceremonial norms. So I think that’s helpful, right at the outset. We’re not saying anything new here. But then secondly, Scripture itself is our guide, and our authoritative guide. And we see, say in Romans chapter one, that same sex relations are wrong, because they violate God’s created intention. From creation, God made man male and female. So Paul doesn’t only give a moral norm, but he gives a rationale for it—when God created human beings, he created them male and female. And it was his intention that male and female unite together in marriage, one man and one woman. And that’s very clear in Genesis 1 and 2. And that’s what Paul draws on. So it’s really a whole Bible theology of what it means to be a human being.

Brian Arnold (16:21):

I think that’s really helpful. We’re not just plucking verses out and saying, “Aha, there you go!” It really fits within the whole framework of what Scripture is, and understanding why God has given us certain human institutions like marriage, what it represents in Christ and the church, and how that can only be represented through a male and a female in a marital union. That we’re not just saying, “Well, Leviticus 20 says this.” It is—look at the whole Bible and why God has given us these important relationships, and how they reflect upon him as well. Well, you’ve been, obviously, a professor for a number of years, and a pastor as well. Where do you see in scholarship—because this is one of the most contested issues, I feel like, is Paul and the law—and then even pastorally where you see Christians struggling with this idea of the law. I would love to hear your thoughts on both sides of that, of why you’ve spent so much time in your scholarship on this question, and how you’ve helped people as a pastor.

Tom Schreiner (17:21):

Yeah. Well, I suppose I’ve spent a lot of time on this because the law is so closely tied to the gospel. How we understand the law relates both to—how are we saved? Are we justified by our works? Are we justified by the works of the laws, as Paul says? Are we justified by our performance? Now the Reformers and Evangelicals have, I think, been clear throughout the years, but there are always people who are disagreeing, and there are movements that call into question these fundamental truths. And I think this is so important, pastorally, that we’re right with God not based on what we do, but based on God’s grace through faith. So that’s the first thing. And then the second thing, something we’ve talked about—yes, I also want to say that the law…by the power of the Spirit, God empowers us to live in a way that’s pleasing to God. Not perfectly. But God…you know, we’re saved by faith. We’re saved by God’s grace, but then God empowers and strengthens us through his Spirit. And pastorally, that’s really important to me. I want people to be saved, and to rest in God’s wonderful grace, and not look fundamentally to themselves. And then I want people to look to the power of God, to the Spirit, to transform their everyday lives. And that’s a beautiful and wonderful reality.

Brian Arnold (19:00):

So to get a little technical, you know, one of the interlocutors you’ve had for the past couple of decades is what we call the New Perspective on Paul. Do you still see that as a significant challenge to your reading on some of these areas of Paul and the law? Or do you see some new things on the horizon that are more challenging today?

Tom Schreiner (19:25):

Yeah, there are some new movements out there, but I don’t think they’re having a great impact—at least right now—on evangelicalism. I think the New Perspective…it’s not new anymore, right?

Brian Arnold (19:38):

Right. It’s as old as I am, I think…well, older than me, actually. Yes, yes.

Tom Schreiner (19:42):

Yeah. Sanders’s book was written in 77, so I always joke now when I talk about it—how new is this anymore? <laugh>? But I think it has, though, filtered down enough into the churches. I mean, fascinating—when I was in Ethiopia, they had tons of questions about it, because they’ve been taught a lot about the New Perspective. So I think, at the pastoral level, it’s still important. Actually, at the scholarly level, I don’t see it as…it’s not being talked about as much at the scholarly level right now, interestingly enough.

Brian Arnold (20:18):

Well, that was my feeling. Yeah, that’s why I asked, is because it seems like that was…it was like all the…like a plague, if you will, in the moment of everybody talking about it. And it was like locusts eating up all the trees of theology in 2005, kind of when I started seminary. And it was all the rage. And now I just don’t hear it as much anymore. Which is why I wanted to get your take on that. But it’s like a lot of things that start in the academy, like the New Perspective, and they filter their way down. And so I could see it actually being more of a challenge in the churches today than it was 15 years ago, as these ideas have been now brought in through so many different pastorates.

Tom Schreiner (20:55):

I think that’s exactly right. That’s where I’m encountering it more now—people in the churches. And when I went to Ethiopia, all the students had so many questions. And it’s not just there. When I’m here as well, just at the everyday church level now, there are people who have been influenced by the New Perspective. I think it’s still a minority, but it’s out there.

Brian Arnold (21:18):

Well, and I appreciate your work on this. I think it’s been important to spend so much of your career dealing with this. And saying what you said earlier in our discussion—this is what the church has held. You know, my work focused on this, even in the early church, and we see it obviously through the Reformers and evangelicalism. And when these doctrines come under attack, it makes me sad, because it’s dealing with the fundamentals of the gospel and what does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to not look to our works, not look to ourselves? But we must find our righteousness in someone else, and that’s Christ. And the double imputation that comes at the cross is so central to the gospel, that we need it. So thank you for your voice on this. What are the resources you would recommend to people as they’re trying to think through issues of the law—how that relates to the New Testament, what that means for Christians today? What do you find to be the most helpful?

Tom Schreiner (22:11):

Well, I like Steven Westerholm’s work. So he has a long book on Old and New Perspectives on Paul, but he has a shorter one called Justification Reconsidered. I think that’s a very helpful work as well. And I have a shorter book on the law called…I think it’s called 40 Questions for Christians on the Biblical Law, something like that. I also like Frank Thielman’s work on the law. I think that’s a helpful resource. And I almost forgot this one—Brian Rosner has a nice book on the law. I’m trying to think of the title, but it’s in the series edited by Don Carson in the New Studies of Biblical Theology.

Brian Arnold (22:54):

Which is a great series for understanding these kinds of questions. I’ve been helped by many of those volumes. If I could even throw one out, talking about the law—L. Michael Morales’s book on…is it, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? or whatever. It’s a biblical theology on Leviticus, which I found—

Tom Schreiner (23:12):

Yeah, I read that book. Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Brian Arnold (23:14):

It is. It’s a fantastic book. Yeah. And let me just say, it is amazing, I’m sure, for our listeners just to know how much scholarship you’ve brought to this world, that you’re not remembering the title of your own book. <laugh> That’s pretty impressive.

Tom Schreiner (23:26):

I don’t know if that’s impressive or not.

Brian Arnold (23:30):

Well, it’s in the Kregel series, and that whole series is great, especially for introductory works. I’ve not been able to look at your book on that one yet, but I’d love to—for helping my own understanding on this. Well, Dr. Schreiner—Tom—it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I’ve benefited from you, not only as a professor, but also through your writing. I’m thankful that you’ve spent so much of your career getting people to look back to Christ and the gospel. What it means to be justified by faith alone, and how the law plays into that. So thank you for your work, and for our discussion today.

Tom Schreiner (24:04):

No, it was great being with you, Brian. Thank you.

Outro 1 (24:06):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at

Outro 2 (24:49): 

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about an exciting event we’re hosting on the campus of Phoenix Seminary this spring, our first annual Sacred Truths Conference on February 24th and 25th. Our featured speakers will be Fred Sanders, Steve Duby, Bobby Jamieson, and myself. Our theme will focus on the core of Christianity—who is Christ, as one person with two natures, both human and divine. So I hope you’ll join us, and invite anyone you know who’s interested in learning more about Christian doctrine. Click the link in the show notes, or learn more and register at

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