Making Sense of Scripture’s ‘Inconsistency’

I find it frustrating when I read or hear columnists, pundits, or journalists dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.” Most often I hear, “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material and so on. Then they condemn homosexuality. Aren’t you just picking and choosing what you want to believe from the Bible?”

I don’t expect everyone to understand that the whole Bible is about Jesus and God’s plan to redeem his people, but I vainly hope that one day someone will access their common sense (or at least talk to an informed theological adviser) before leveling the charge of inconsistency.

First, it’s not only the Old Testament that has proscriptions about homosexuality. The New Testament has plenty to say about it as well. Even Jesus says, in his discussion of divorce in Matthew 19:3-12, that the original design of God was for one man and one woman to be united as one flesh, and failing that (v. 12), persons should abstain from marriage and sex.

However, let’s get back to considering the larger issue of inconsistency regarding things mentioned in the Old Testament no longer practiced by the New Testament people of God. Most Christians don’t know what to say when confronted about this issue. Here’s a short course on the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament.

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices offered in the tabernacle (and later temple) to atone for sin so that worshipers could approach a holy God. There was also a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness. You could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods and not others, wore certain forms of dress, refrained from touching a variety of objects, and so on. This vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and can’t go into God’s presence without purification.

But even in the Old Testament, many writers hinted that the sacrifices and the temple worship regulations pointed forward to something beyond them (cf. 1 Sam. 15:21-22; Ps. 50:12-15; 51:17; Hos. 6:6). When Christ appeared he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19), and he ignored the Old Testament cleanliness laws in other ways, touching lepers and dead bodies.

The reason is clear. When he died on the cross the veil in the temple tore, showing that he had done away with the the need for the entire sacrificial system with all its cleanliness laws. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, and now Jesus makes us clean.

The entire book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray “in Jesus name” we ”have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). It would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we continued to follow the ceremonial laws.

Law Still Binding

The New Testament gives us further guidance about how to read the Old Testament. Paul makes it clear in places like Romans 13:8ff that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness. And so everything the Old Testament says about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, generosity with our possessions, social relationships, and commitment to our family is still in force. The New Testament continues to forbid killing or committing adultery, and all the sex ethic of the Old Testament is re-stated throughout the New Testament (Matt. 5:27-30; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.

The New Testament explains another change between the testaments. Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament sins like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people constituted a nation-state, and so all sins had civil penalties.

But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how Paul deals with a case of incest in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:1ff. and 2 Cor. 2:7-11). Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible—about the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation—then all the various parts of the Bible make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law is repealed. Because of Christ, the church is no longer a nation-state imposing civil penalties. It all falls into place. However, if you reject the idea of Christ as Son of God and Savior, then, of course, the Bible is at best a mishmash containing some inspiration and wisdom, but most of it would have to be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

So where does this leave us? There are only two possibilities. If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity’s basic thesis—you don’t believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God—and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything. But you can’t say in fairness that Christians are being inconsistent with their beliefs to follow the moral statements in the Old Testament while not practicing the other ones.

One way to respond to the charge of inconsistency may be to ask a counter-question: “Are you asking me to deny the very heart of my Christian beliefs?” If you are asked, “Why do you say that?” you could respond, “If I believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God, I can’t follow all the ‘clean laws’ of diet and practice, and I can’t offer animal sacrifices. All that would be to deny the power of Christ’s death on the cross. And so those who really believe in Christ must follow some Old Testament texts and not others.”

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report.

  • Steve Martin

    Great post.

    In truth, there’s not a one of us who has gotten past the first Commandment, anyhow.

    We are our own little gods and therefore we are toast…unless the real God saves us. And He has done just that in Jesus.

    Nonbelievers will never understand us, or God, until they receive (by God’s grace) faith in the One who came to save the ungodly. The likes of you and me.

  • Patrick Kayongo

    Great post,
    Just one question: I understand that now through Jesus, the certain laws have been repealed such as the sacrificial laws because Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice, and we’re all counted clean because of the cross. But why are the ceremonial laws repealed? The feasts and festivals that is.
    Many of these were a shadow of what Jesus was to do, and now that we’re aware what Jesus has done, shouldn’t we continue in this with this greater understanding?

    Following the law (ceremonial too) will not make us righteous in any way, because this comes only through grace. Despite that, they were still commands given to God’s people, of who we are now a part of. My understanding is that we follow not to be counted as righteous, but to be obedient.

    • Justin Hill

      “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)

      The picture presented is that Jesus is standing in history and casting a shadow on the past. The feasts and festivals and etc. were like dark, blurry outlines of Jesus. Passover, for example, was a picture of Jesus’s sacrificial blood covering over us. If you look closely at the feasts and festivals in the Law, you can usually see these “shadows” fairly easily.

      If you want to observe Passover or the Feast of Booths or the Sabbath or whatever as a holy time, you shouldn’t let anyone judge you for it, don’t let a fear of peoples’ theologically-charged reactions control you, ESPECIALLY if your conscience is telling you it’s something you should do. Do some research, decide what you feel is appropriate for you and your family, and use it as a time to enjoy the Lord and his prophetic creativity!

      [[Sorry for the year-and-a-half-late response, but I ran across this page and I figure others will too so I decided it was better to answer.]]

  • Tom Harmon

    We don’t follow the ceremonial law, because as stated, the church is not Israel. Israel was established as a unique people, and nation, whereas, Christians are called out to a spiritual relationship with Christ, and being part of the church (local and universal).
    Acts 17. was written to show us Gentile believers we are not Israel, and are to worship following the Apostles doctrine, as proscribed in the epistles. We also don’t keep the Sabbath day, as it is a “sign” between God and the nation Israel, but Tim rightly points out the moral law has not been done away with, because those injunctions deal with “individual” behavior, and Christ in us by the Holy Spirit enables us to live that life pleasing to God.

  • Tom Harmon

    I Erred, it is Acts 15, the council at Jerusalem that was written to show us Gentile believers the way of worship today in Christ.

    • Angela

      Just curious if this is the same Tom Harmon as the Tom Harmon from Embassy Institute???

      • Tom Harmon

        No Angela. I’m simply a Bible believer who teaches a Sunday school class in a small Baptist church in southern Michigan,who was saved at the age of four in Vacation Bible school, and am now 58. I have loved God’s Word, and the living Word all these years.

        • Justin Hill

          Thank you for your service and God bless you, sir!

  • RN

    Pastor Keller remains one of finest voices of rational, Biblical-solid Christianity, and his post is excellent.

  • Ian

    As much as I appreciate this effort to unite both Testaments, I must admit I was disappointed that Keller carted out the “moral law/ceremonial law” distinction which is erroneous and unhelpful at best.

    The Old Testament in no place makes a distinction between moral and ceremonial law. Indeed it seems all law is a moral issue. The moral issue is the holiness of God’s people (Lev 11:44). What I see when I read the law is a strong language of separation, distinction and order. It reminds me actually of the creation account in Gen 1.

    So in all things, God’s people are given laws by which to demonstrate the holiness and character of the God who saved them.

    It is my conviction that this purpose of the law codes of the OT is bound up in Christ, as adherence to him, the living, breathing Law as a disciple then becomes the criterion of holiness. With this reading we allow the full law to be equally moral and we account for what changes when Jesus came.

    So in reading the law it might be more fruitful to discern what God was doing to the society and culture of Israel: What was he saying about family? About business? In this way the OT law remains a powerful voice for the Church without having to make it into a legal code OR conjuring up some fanciful ‘ceremonial law’ interpretation. An interpretation which would not have been possible when the temple fell during the Exile. So it’s not as though NT believers are the first to wrestle with questions of the applicability of the law in a radically different context.

  • Patrick Kayongo

    Thanks for your response.
    In Romans 11, Paul talks about how there were natural branches, and the rest of us who aren’t originally Jewish are ingrafted branches. By us becoming ingrafted branches, do we not become part of Israel? i.e. God’s chosen people? If we’re part of His holy people, then is the law for us just as much as it is for them?

    My intent here is really not to start a controversial discussion, and if this is best discussed elsewhere, please email me at pat.kayongo (at)

    • Ray Nearhood

      Without jumping in to the discussion, I simply want to point out an error in your reading of Paul that, in my experience, leads to interpretive error.

      You say, “Paul talks about how there were natural branches, and the rest of us who aren’t originally Jewish are ingrafted branches.” And that is not quite right.

      What Paul says that the natural branches were broken off, the wild branches grafted in and also the natural-but-broken-off branches grafted in.

      • Mike Sung Im

        “What Paul says that the natural branches were broken off, the wild branches grafted in and also the natural-but-broken-off branches grafted in.”

        Actually, what Paul explicitly says is that SOME (not all) of the natural branches were broken off. He also implicitly says that some (not all) wild branches are grafted in and that some (not all) of the natural-but-broken-off may be grafted in at some future point.

        There are four types of branches mentioned:
        1. Natural branches
        2. Some but not all natural branches are broken off
        3. Some but not all wild branches are grafted in
        4. Some but not all of the natural-but-broken-off branches may be grafted back in

        • Ray Nearhood

          I was only addressing that the ones that needed ingrafted include some that are originally Jewish. Patrick’s comment, that I was addressing, read as if the only group needing ingrafted were Gentiles.

          If that wasn’t his intent, I apologize for the presumptuous corrective – but it is a common error that I encounter. As common an error as “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

  • Lurker76

    There are few people in the evangelical world that I respect more than Tim; however, on this issue, I believe his answer here doesn’t really work. I can’t get into the details, but the gist is, there are inconsistencies that go well beyond the ones he lists in this blog, and the particular hermeneutic he assumes here is incapable of dealing adequately with them. I think Keller and many evangelicals would do well to read William J. Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic. He’s received some criticism for his conclusions and his approach is not prefect, but it is significantly better than most of what I’ve read from the evangelical world. I’m a longstanding conservative evangelical, and I found many of Webb’s ideas far more helpful in dealing with the inconsistencies of Scripture while maintaining the authority of the Bible.

    Btw, I’m not here for a debate, but simply to point to a resource that might help this blog’s readership. Blessings.

  • John T. Jeffery

    In whole-hearted agreement with Ian’s comment above I would add my objection to Keller’s notion “that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us”. He cites Romans 13:8ff as somehow making this “clear”. Reading a little further in Romans he would encounter a passage in 14:5-6 that could never have been written while the Fourth Commandment was still in force. Attempting to maintain this commandment as stipulated in Ex. 20 even via the “day changed – principle retained” formula still fails the scrutiny of Rom. 14:5-6 (and Col. 2:16-17). Furthermore, changing the “day” involves changing far more than a jot or a tittle in the law, “moral” or otherwise, which is precluded in Christ’s own words in Mt. 5:18. If changing the priesthood required a new “law” (Heb. 7:12), then changing the “day” does also. And in the case of the Fourth Commandment we are not dealing with something that can so nicely be cast aside as “ceremonial” as some attempt to do in vain.

    • Cory Moesta

      I would point you to Mark 2:27-28 as well as the actual wording of Exodus 20. The law calls for 6 days of work and the seventh day being one of rest and dedication to the Lord. It does not establish which day is to be considered the “first”.

  • David

    Dissenting commenters… consider the context here. Tim is offering a defense against those uninformed people who assume a position of theological authority in accusing Christians of being ‘inconsistent’. There are theological hairs to be split, but Tim is aiming at cutting of the split ends… see? Tim is aiming at ending the accusers’ hypocrisy in an instant, until they become as informed as all of you and have the credibility to engage an informed debate. :)

    • Tom Harmon

      Right on!

    • WATYF

      [Tim is offering a defense against those uninformed people who assume a position of theological authority in accusing Christians of being ‘inconsistent’.]

      But if his “defense” is weak and easily crushed, then we should abandon it and use a better defense. Tim’s argument fails in several areas (as mentioned in a few other comments already). We shouldn’t shut our eyes to that just because he’s “Tim Keller” or just because he’s talking to unbelievers. We should have *good* reasons to believe what we believe… not just any old reason that we can come up with.


  • John T. Jeffery

    David: As one of the “dissenting commenters” as you put it, I have considered the context of Keller’s post. I understand what he is doing. While I appreciate his intent, my objections to his inconsistencies with Scripture in this attempt do not involve what may be minimized as splitting theological hairs. If care is not taken in such an apologetic fuel may in fact be added to the critics’ fire, and what is presented as a solution actually can exacerbate the problem.

    • David

      John, do you sin? Yes. Is it okay for you to sin? No. So, there is SOME moral law ‘binding on us’. Let’s just say it’s God’s moral law, no? If you’re in the vein of “the ten commandments don’t apply anymore” then I would recommend NOT killing anyone as a case study. We’ll take your word for it. ;)

      • Paul Ellsworth

        David – the ten commandments apply only in asmuch as they are still in Christ’s law. It just so happens that most of them are. I don’t follow the 10 (well, 9) commandments because they were in the Old Covenant, though, but because they are in the New Covenant.

        There’s a big difference between that and saying that the OT law still applies. That makes it sound like *parts* of the Old Covenant are still in effect… which seems very different from the entire New Testament writer’s position :)

  • Freddy

    Thankful for Keller’s wisdom here. I share is frustration with the secular world that thinks itself a theological know-it-all when it comes to this issue. This is a crucial area of understanding for Christians today.

  • Mac

    Geez, I know this is Tim Keller’s post, and the dude is wise, and has benefitted the kingdom greatly (not to mention my own walk) but and so it’s with hesitation I even write. (This comment could be splitting hairs, which i know is pointless, but something in me tells me it’s worth writing.)

    I can’t help but believe something was missed here. Yes he wrote about Jesus as ultimate sacrifice, how the penalty of sin is paid…but then goes on to say sins are still sins and after Christ the penalty of “sins” is now different.

    But my understanding is that the penalty is in fact, the same. Death. The penalty of sin hasn’t changed. At all. I agree it glhas been paid IN FULL and so there is nothing left for us to pay. That is why I don’t have to sacrifice or be clean. I get to walk yand in hand with God, no if ands or buts. I no longer have to worry about my “standing” with God. My standing is considered forever good. And that…that is fantastic news! The Old Testament rituals don’t apply to me. I don’t even ha e to worry a out keeping the Ten Commandments. My salvation is in no way based on my behavior…the penalty of my sin is FULLY paid for. (I agree that the Ten Commandments show God’s desire for how he wants us to live and that old testament laws show us what God finds worthy and valuable…and to come into alignment with those things us good. Very good. But they are now just insights to God’s character and no longer law. I am no longer bound by the old law, in any way…thats the whole message of the new testament, and why there is an “inconsistancey” with how Christians live now compared to Old Testament law.

    I just felt compared to share, and I do so realizing Keller is reaching out to the masses here and not seeking theological debate, of which I’m horrible at anyway, as I know so little about my own faith. And again, I have a huuuuge respect for Keller who has benefitted my life greatly. Finally, i typed thus on my phone, so there are tons of soelling/grammar errors. My apologies.

    • Daniel M

      Hey Mac, I’m glad you said that. Just because there’s similarities in the covenants, does not mean one IS still in effect. God made the covenant with Jews. He made a NEW covenant with followers of Christ. “Thou shalt not murder.” I seem to recall Jesus saying something about hating my brother being sin, let alone murdering him. The Old Covenant is not a very good guide for aChristian, because when we hate our brother, we have sinned. Murder is WAY out there in the outfield, by the time I murder someone, I had been sinning for a long time. Theres a lot of sins that aren’t listed in the Old Covenant, doesn’t make them not sin. We were to always love God and love others. That’s been the same forever past and will be forever future. If we love God and our neighbor, we won’t murder, we won’t covet, we won’t commit adultery. Those things are symptoms of sin, they are external actions that come about by sin in us.

  • Mac

    Wow…I must have sausage fingers. So many errors. Wanted to clarify two things. I’m only in good standing with God because of Jesus, and because I accept him as my savior. Also…I think Christ left us with a new command, to love others as he has…with grace, compassion, selflessness and patience. I also believe God has established a NEW covenant with his people…and the covenant us we’re forgiven, for everything, for ever. We can’t change it because it’s a covenant God keeps and he promises nothing, nothing…not even “sinful” behavior from a believer will negate that. Period. That is the absolutely fantastic news if the gospel as I understand it.

  • Jonah

    “When Christ appeared he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19)” lol sorry yall but your looking at this through Greek eyes. You see in the Jewish mindset Pork and other unclean things was not ever food to begin with, they were called trifle and never even called it food. You see back then many pharisees were making their own man made law saying that certain foods were not kosher when they really were. Jesus just says that to condemn the man-made laws. If you don’t believe me then research it for yourself. You have to look at the Bible with eyes of a Jew and not with the eyes of your own culture.

    • Cory Moesta

      Your comment seems to be ignoring Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16. This is an issue that was most certainly debated and concluded 2000 years ago.

      • Jer

        Depending on who you ask, Peter’s vision in Acts 10 does not resolve the issue of the dietary laws. :-) Three times the voice in the vision replies, “Stop treating as unclean what God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). This clearly is the message. But did God revoke the dietary instructions with this statement? The surrounding context is a significant revelation from God about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. In my opinion, it is best to take the vision as supporting this theme rather than one’s diet.

        In comparison, Joseph dreamt about his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing down to his own, but the message wasn’t about agriculture and harvesting. It was about God’s plan to save Joseph’s family and Joseph’s future position in Egypt. In the same way, Peter’s vision is likely not about food. When God replies, “Stop treating as unclean what God has made clean,” we can look at the Torah to determine what God has made clean and what he has not made clean, including food.

        The man-made traditions stipulated that Gentiles and their houses are unclean. Peter confirms this taboo when entering Cornelius’ home (Acts 10:28). To our benefit, we do not need to interpret Peter’s vision since Peter interprets it for us (Acts 10:28, 34–35; cf. 17–20). The vision wasn’t given to call pigs and lobster clean and good to eat—this does not preclude other arguments that abolish part or all of the Torah—but not to “call any person” unclean. The Torah never says that Gentiles are unclean and God took issue with that view.

        • Cory Moesta

          I agree that the vision had wider implications than strictly dietary laws.

          And yet, in 1 Corinthians 8:1-10, Paul brings up a similar dilemma in regards to eating food that was sacrificed to idols. Although the issue is slightly different, the spiritual concept he zeroes in on is the relationship between us as believers, God Himself, and those whom we are in contact with outside of our communities. He specifically uses the phrase “… food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” as an illustration of the most important reason for having restrictions on ourselves. I would imagine this statement by him was seen as controversial at the time, especially with the “circumcision group”.


          The circumcision issue is a direct correlation to this topic. What was seen as an indicator of holiness in the Israelites, was made unnecessary in the work of Christ. Our lives are themselves now the indicators of holiness and the things we do we do because we are forgiven, not in order to be made holy and forgiven.

      • Simon

        It’s also worth noting that If Jesus taught that what was unclean and not good as food was changed to being clean and good for food, then why was Peter surprised at the vision and claiming never to have eaten unclean things years later during the Acts. This suggests that Jesus did not redefine what is clean and unclean and good for food and Peter always stuck to the Torah teaching. If Jesus changed it, why didn’t Peter change?

        Furthermore, the translation of the Greek in the Matthew passage is very questionable as a support for “all food now clean”. The alternate interpretation suggests it reads “purging/purifying all foods” which in context simply means that even if you don’t wash your hands like the tradition of the elder’s demanded, the body still picks out what is good and the rest goes down the toilet. This is a far cry from “anything that is alive now is good for eating.” This is clearly not the case and science has shown that there are plenty of things that are not good for food. Everyone talks pork and shellfish but how about bats or sea urchins or McDonald’s? These and a whole host of animals and plants are not good for food for a myriad reasons.

        On top of this, Noah was not a Jew and he knew the clean from the unclean as the filed onto the ark. God gave them lots of the clean and not-so-lots of the unclean. Then God said they could eat the clean after the flood.

        I therefore reject the theology that interprets the Matthew and Acts passages as Jesus telling us anything is good for food.

  • Jay Lehman

    Understanding what changed between the old and new covenants is a great step toward removing what the world sees as “inconsistencies” in the Bible. See

  • Jerry Schmidt

    Rom. 6:14?

    • Jerry Schmidt

      K, well I guess since no one responded to this, I’ll state why I posted it (and question why Keller didn’t approach it this way as well):

      Ceremony was atonement for our sins, until Christ came and was the perfect sacrifice. Although Jesus was the end-all for these ceremonies, it doesn’t change sin or our sin nature. That is why our faith now rests in that atonement, that we believe Jesus’ death on the cross is our way to be with the Father, and we confess and repent. That’s all.

      I guess I’m confused as to why this is so difficult to grasp and explain. Isn’t this the core of Christianity? I always assumed this was Christianity 101.

      We are no longer under the Law, but under grace. Grace through faith in Christ. Sinners (everyone) still sin, but forgiveness of those sins no longer come through sacrifice, but through faith in Christ.

      Am I being way, way to simple on this?

      In terms of punishment for sins (stoning to death), wasn’t Jesus clear that we’re all deserving of death for our sins (which we know, the wages of sin is death)? Didn’t Jesus teach us to extend grace to others as God has/does, and rather than fast-tracking to condemnation under the Law, we should be praying for those who commit such punishable sin? The Pharisees killed an innocent man, and instead of asking the Father to condemn them, he prayed for their forgiveness. Jesus is God, and he’s showing us that our priorities are wrong. Those who refuse to repent have already accepted their eternal punishment, stoning to death changes nothing about that.

      Okay, that was a long post. Father, please bless everyone here today!

  • Jesse

    Thanks Dr. Keller for masterfully parsing out the categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial law. What a tremendous help!

  • Guest

    Two points:

    (1) I disagree with Dr. Keller’s assertion that those who point out potential inconsistencies in scripture lack “common sense.” This subject matter is controversial, even among believers (as evidenced by the comments). More importantly, passive aggressive disparagement of our ideological rivals does not help us win souls.

    (2) How do we determine which old testament passages state “moral” law and which set forth “ceremonial” law? Once we begin categorizing laws based on our own understanding, aren’t we engaging in the type of picking and choosing of which we’re accused? (The questions in point 2 are information-seeking questions as opposed to rhetorical. I would like to hear the insights of others.)

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  • Keith

    This argument won’t ever work; no matter what your particular belief happens to be, or how confident you are of your exegesis, a body of Christians at some time carefully thought about the issue, prayerfully read the Bible, and then disagreed with you. Just agree Christianity is inconsistent and move on.

    As an easy demonstration, consider that Martin Luther rejected the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation on theological grounds. If that’s insufficient, the last numbers I’ve seen say there are tens of thousands of separate Christian denominations. Inconsistent much?

    When Christians defend a specific exegesis as if they know what the Bible really says, all they demonstrate is they don’t know Christian history: after you’re wrong the first few thousand times, it’s time to quit making pronouncements of fact.

    • Chris


      How many times have you been wrong in your life? Probably a lot more times than you can remember. Does your post mean that you have to “quit making pronouncements of fact” like the ones in your post? And would you consider yourself inconsistent?

      Saying that Christians are not always consistent with each other is not the same as proving that Christianity defined by what Scripture teaches is inconsistent.

      • DigoVerdad

        Keithy, you perhaps may not be, but in case you are on the side of atheism and science as your beacon of truth, you might consider that scientific “fact” in innumerable instances over time has been inconsistent and wrong, updated, then oops, wrong again after a new discovery has shed new light on (fill in the blank theory or “fact”). Here is a shortlist . And then just recently, the long held scientific belief that the earth was born in magma and fire has been completely re-opened and re-evaluated based on studying the earth’s oldest known element zircon (of course, it is only the oldest UNTIL perhaps an older one is found) that suggests the earth was born in water (sound like Genesis much?) Anyways, I realize you can don the noble garment of “well, at least we can admit when we are wrong and keep seeking the truth whereas Christianity is stuck in a quagmire of trying to make lies into truth). The fact of the matter, is that as science keeps discovering, and redefining its previously held “facts” as our technology and understanding gets better and better, it keeps creeping closer and closer to the ancient and steadfast truths of Scripture, be it Higgs Boson, discoveries in our microscopic building blocks, multi-dimensionality (a non-theistic version of the differences in physical and spiritual realms), quantum mechanics,…etc.

  • Mark

    I’m not sure sure that dividing the law into kinds of laws (ceremonial, civil, and moral) is going to help us understand how the law functions today. Who gets to decided which law is which? What if the Old Testament law reflected the way God’s people were to relate to both God and others in the specific context of ancient Israel, a specific ethnic community in a specific geographical context. When the OT commands Israel to put a parapet around their roofs (civil law), God isn’t saying that parapets are particularly holy. Rather, this is a practical implications of loving one’s neighbor. Today most of us don’t entertain on our roofs but if we did God would have us make it safe. No change in the real meaning of the law. Of course the way some OT laws continue today look very different but we don’t simply toss certain ones and keep others because of what category we decide they should be under. We don’t sacrifice lambs because Christ was our once-for-all lamb. We keep this OT law though by acknowledging our sin and trusting in God’s provision, which was the reality behind sacrificing the lamb in the OT.

  • Kyle

    Thanks so much for sharing this. This has been a great help to me as I have struggled with these questions for years.

  • Clark

    Great words, Pastor Tim! I wish I could get every non-believer to read this. Unfortunately, most of the atheists who accuse me of cherry-picking from the Bible are more interested in their own rhetoric and hurling insults rather than legitimately understanding what the Bible truly says.

  • TMK

    I appreciate his effort just not some of his reasoning. I would love to see how he reconciles the death to apparently the whole law in Romans 7. I find the moral/cerimonial distinction quite unhelpful. Could it be that he is describing t…he law of Christ from Gal. 5&6? or could it be that fulfillment of the righteous requirements of the Law “in us” could also mean that (not the judicial acquittal) the righteous actions that would follow from our obligation to love and work out our holiness (Rom 8:4)? We do fulfill as obedient believers but not perfectly (Rom. 7).

    Reformed theology makes little room for rewards. Is it enough to say that eternal life is through belief in Jesus and that the subsequent actions by thus believers, i.e., the homosexual offenders in 1 Cor. 6, is referring to their actions subsequent to salvation? There is something there that is merited, this inheritance. There is no need to break down into the moral, ceremonial distinction. Justification varies from sanctification here. We do not threatened our basic message of all is paid…even for the homosexual. What is at stake is fellowship and rewards. You get in trouble with the basic message trying to carry over the Mosaic Law that shows categories or carries on (Calvin may have done this but Paul does not).

  • Frank

    How do we decide whether a law is moral, civil, or ceremonial? Dr. Kessler states that “[t]he moral law outlines God’s own character—his integrity, love, and faithfulness.” Unfortunately, most people take laws they think are still in force, and from that, conclude that they are also a timeless reflection of God’s character.

    Let’s take the example of homosexuality. Dr. Kessler seems to think that the OT prohibition on homosexuality is a moral law, but he fails to say why. Can anyone explain to me why that prohibition outlines God’s integrity, love, and faithfulness?

  • Alan

    For those confused by the moral, ceremonial, civil distinction, I think it may be helpful to recognize that this isn’t some distinction Tim Keller made up in his office. This distinction has been around since the early church.
    Also, it seems that many are confused about the use of the Law. Calvin (and many other theologians after him) have helpfully discussed three uses of the law (not to be confused with the three types Tim mentioned). The law wasn’t simply a list of rules that were fulfilled in Christ and then done away with. Rather, they show us that we are sinners who can’t keep the law (use #1); they then point us to Christ who kept the law (use #2); and (this is the big one for the present discussion) they show us how to live in a Christ-like way.

    • Guest

      I understand that the distinction among moral, ceremonial, and civil law has been around for some time. But how does that make it a better answer? Once we begin applying our standards to decide whether a law is moral (i.e. still binding), aren’t we picking and choosing? The man-made distinction could be interpreted as a post hoc rationalization (even if a longstanding one) for adhering to the laws we find most appealing.

  • DRT

    The article says:

    There are only two possibilities. If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense. The other possibility is that you reject Christianity’s basic thesis—you don’t believe Jesus is the resurrected Son of God—and then the Bible is no sure guide for you about much of anything.

    When are you going to get out from the dark ages of there only being two choices, and the two choices you give being so incredibly wrong? This is an insult to most Christians.

    There are many ways of reading the bible that make sense if Jesus is god. I for one certainly believe that Jesus is god and think that there is much more going on than what you say.

    And even if you don’t believe Jesus is god then this sort of reasoning is again quite ignorant since many can find quite good wisdom and advice in the bible.

    The problem in Christianity is this type of outrageous certainty and condemnation for others. Only two things you can think. Really?

  • DRT

    …further, the whole moral/ceremonial law is obviously reading something into the text that was not there. OK, yes, you can make up some rule that is not contradicted by the text (but I can refute that in this case, by the way), but that does not mean it is right.

    Please stop trying to divide god’s church! Please! This type of post is simply destructive to the church.

  • Serena

    Good summary, for Christians. Jews don’t stone homosexuals and disobedient children anymore. I wonder why.

  • Andy

    In terms of consistency of christians in how we handle the bible, it’d be good to hear how theistic evolutionists reconcile the doctrine of original sin without there being a literal Adam as the first human.

  • Jimmy

    This is a fine example of why the bible isn’t worth the paper it’s written on (that is a slight exaggeration). Look at all the church folks who consider themselves knowledgeable about this book and yet they can’t do much more than accuse each other of incorrect interpretation. Once again… Reading the bible (and what believers say about it) is the very best evidence for it’s lack of divinity ever….

    • Steve

      @Jimmy: You make the common error of evaluating Christianity by observing flawed, imperfect Christians. Just because sincere believers disagree over finer points of theology, that does not mean the Bible is flawed. To the contrary, God’s word is perfectly consistent. It’s man’s understanding that’s flawed. Even a rudimentary study of textual criticism, fulfilled prophecy, and archaeological corroboration indicates that the Bible is uniquely inspired.

      • Jimmy

        @Steve: You make the common error of believing that your deities document is perfectly consistent and well supported by the evidence, even when there are millions of people that can demonstrate that this just isn’t the case. Every believer of every deity that ever was that had a document considered their document to be inspired and consistent with their beliefs. The quran is a FAR better example of a consistent document (yet I assume you do not consider it valid). Fulfilled prophecy would be great, but 99% of of it’s evidence for fulfillment comes from the new testament as a perfect example of circular reasoning. It’s common to blame the humans when there are errors to be pointed out.

        Sincere believers (if Christianity is true) have an all powerful, all knowing deity living right inside of them. There is no good excuse for all of this disconnect from a large group of people that can simply pray for guidance and expect to receive it. Am I to believe that these fine students of the bible have simply forgotten to ask for guidance in these matters? I’ve read the bible at least 30 times over the years, it’s pretty clear, ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find. Certainly the deity of the bible wouldn’t ignore a sincere request from a believer to have the truth of the scripture revealed, yet..the evidence doesn’t support that this happens at all. As a group, believers can’t agree on much, you can blame the humans, but that just doesn’t fly. You can say that you all agree on the big ticket items, but that doesn’t fly either. Would you really be will to say that some parts of “God’s” word just aren’t that important?

        While even “rudimentary” study of textual criticism of the bible should reveal its inerrancy, many a biblical scholar can’t agree on many of the topics right within it after doing FAR more than a rudimentary study…

        Be aware..only believers believe that “God’s” word is perfectly consistent. Keep in mind also that believers with other holy scriptures believe that their scriptures are perfectly consistent.


        • Steve

          Here’s a few things we all agree on. God created the universe. Man is sinful and fallen. Jesus is God. Jesus lived a sinless life, died a horrific death (prophesied over and over in the OT),and was raised to life, an event witnessed by hundreds of people living at the time. In order to escape the penalty of sin, one must place his or her trust in Christ for eternal life. Believers have the Holy Spirit, who is God, indwelling them. He guides them into truth as the Scriptures promise. Go into any truly Bible believing church, and you will find these truths believed and articulated consistently.

          • Jimmy

            Here’s the problem..

            You can’t prove that any particular being created the universe. Every follower of every deity will say their deity created it. I’ve talked to dozens of them, they all believe their deity did it. You might believe it, but you certainly can’t prove it.

            I certainly don’t think I’m fallen, nor do I think anyone else is. This sounds like a problem created so someone could sell something to me!

            Lots if prophecies in the OT about this and then lots of fulfillment in the NT..written by people that had read the OT and may well have had an agenda..

            An event witnessed by hundreds of people, almost none of which saw fit to document it, and the ones that did couldn’t agree on how it went down.

            “Believers have the Holy Spirit, who is God, indwelling them. He guides them into truth as the Scriptures promise.”

            No, I think it’s safe to say this isn’t true by a demonstration of the facts and a simple scrolling up of the comment section here…

            Almost every church considers themselves “bible believing” and yet..we have something like 30,000 plus denominations that can’t agree.. In my town we literally have a church on every corner..that’s because they can’t agree on what the bible says.

            I’m afraid this all adds up to doubt for me and a lot of other people. If you wonder why young adults are leaving their faith at an alarming rate..this could be a good part of it.

          • Jimmy

            Also… So you agree one some things. That’s easy, so do the muslims, the hindus, the mormons, and everyone else. That doesn’t point to your beliefs being inspired. The issue isn’t that you agree on a few things, it’s that you ALL disagree on so much. We can’t forget the supernatural factor here. Christians, according to the bible, have a supernatural teacher that is living right inside of them. The disagreements are a flag being raised that that claim doesn’t look to be substantiated…

      • Jimmy

        BTW, I don’t intend to come across offensively. I’m sure most of the people commenting here are fine people.

        • Steve

          Not offended at all. I appreciate your willingness to engage in conversation. The central question people have to ask is, “How am I going to respond to Jesus?” I have found that the main problem is not intellectual at all. It is a moral dilemma. People know that if they trust Christ, they have to give up serving their own interests and submit to him. Man’s natural response to this is disgust. However, Christ made claims that no other religious leader made, i.e., equality and oneness with God. He backed up these claims by foretelling his own resurrection and then actually being resurrected. To ignore the resurrection is to ignore one of the most well documented, “provable” events in history. Thus, the Christ event must be dealt with by every human being.

          • Jimmy

            I think you’re right that it most likely is a moral dilemma for many people. I do know many people also though that it IS an intellectual dilemma. I disagree with you concerning christ being the only person to make such heady claims. I think there were lots of people that have done that over the years. I’ve heard there were even some that came before christ and made very similar claims (Horus, etc..). I’m not sure of the veracity of those claims (about the claims), so I’m not going to offer them up here.

            While he DID apparently make a prediction concerning rising from the dead, that by no means factually happened. So he claimed it, then a little later it plays out in the same book that he predicted it in. No honest historian believes that their is reliably written evidence that there was miraculous event and someone arose from the dead. Non-miraculous events are often hard to prove. Miraculous ones..impossible. I’ve seen numerous events happen in my own life and even 5 years later no one can get the details even close to correct. I would never trust a story told 30+ years later. Never!

            If you think that the resurrection is “provable”, then by all means, I’d like to see the evidence. If you want to use some sort of written proof like a high number of written accounts that have been copied, then you had best prepare to disprove a LOT of claims of other deities. Most major religions have books that describe miraculous events. I’ve heard that believers try and claim that since they have so many copies of their not-so early documents that amounts to proof. In my book, that amounts to “having a lot of copies of something”.

            Steve…you seem like a nice guy and I’m enjoying this calm and peaceful back and forth. If you’re interested in an easier to utilize format (like email), my address is (although, if you don’t want to get that personal, this forum is fine also.)

  • Jeff Anglin

    Thanks for sharing Tim. This is helpful.

  • Sam

    This is not a coherent argument, though it IS an evangelical one. That’s the thing about evangelical intellectuals: always a hermeneutic of generosity w/r/t the Bible and often just barely enough knowledge to sound authoritative. This article proves nothing apart from its author’s own willingness to impress himself with tautologies. Not trying to sound too harsh, but this is not real biblical scholarship.

    • Rodney Timmons

      Sam you hit the nail on the head.

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  • Monica

    Dr. Keller isn’t trying to make a full apologetic for Christianity. He is providing a summary response to one common criticism from unbelievers and as such I find it quite coherent and reasonable. It is not meant to be a lesson in hermeneutics. When Christians argue about obscure points of doctrine in a forum
    like this, we destroy both our unity and credibility with outsiders. I guess if you think your point is really important you may be bound by your conscience to address it, but it just seems like this isn’t the best place.

  • Tim Keller

    Hi Everyone —

    A couple of responses:

    1. It’s clear from reading the whole Bible that the coming of Christ means there is both continuity and discontinuity between how believers obeyed God in the Old Testament and how they obeyed him in the New Testament. That’s the fundamental point–and therefore Christians should not be called inconsistent for following some of the OT rules for behavior and not others. To insist they follow them all is to essentially deny the importance of Jesus Christ.

    2. The Three-Fold division of the law is one way to help believers understand where there is continuity and discontinuity. Overall, I think it holds up, making me a traditional Presbyterian, since the division is affirmed in our Westminster Confession. There are still disagreements as to how it is applied, even among proponents–the main point of contention is over the Sabbath. A good, recent book supporting the traditional view is “From the Finger of God” by Philip Ross.

    3. Don Carson and others are right in pointing out the problems of the Three-fold division, that it is too simplistic, how it over ‘domesticates’ Paul’s views–but in the end Don grants it’s helpfulness, once you do some deeper thinking about Paul’s understanding of the continuities and discontinuities between the old covenant and being in Christ. I agree, and I know it is a bit artificial. But, as a working pastor, I have found that giving lay people the Three-Fold division is the simplest, least confusing way to help them navigate an area of great Biblical complexity–and yet an area they must navigate in order to decide how to live their lives. I tell them it’s not a perfect system, and that there remains some areas where people will disagree (like on Sabbath observance), but for most of the Biblical material it works well. (The same could be said to be true for other formulations of Systematic Theology that seek to schematize complex Biblical material, as in the areas of free will and God’s sovereignty, etc)

    Justin Taylor had a very helpful summary post on the subject of the Three-Fold Division about two years ago here –

    Hope this helps a bit

    • Nate M.

      I have thoroughly appreciated the discussion and Keller’s responses.

      Though, it seems narrow to say there “are only two options” and that we “can’t follow the ‘clean laws’, etc.” The other option would be that Jesus is the Messiah who died for us, but his intention was not to keep us from the commandments but rather give us the freedom to do them in “perfect love”. And thus, Christians could be called inconsistent in that we don’t give the ‘other’ commandments as much weight as we should.

      As a few examples:
      – What about Paul purposing to give sacrifices (vow of Nazirite in Numbers 6) in Acts 21?
      – What about the KJV alternate translation of Mark 7:19?
      – And the letter to the churches in Acts 15? Are all of those ‘moral laws’ as well?

      How about this understanding:

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  • DRT

    Addressing Tim’s most kind responsse to this thread.

    1. Agreed. Christians are not inconsistent in following the bible because all bets are off once Jesus showed his face. He represents the fullest revelation of what god looks like in human form.

    However, I feel that Christians should be viewed as inconsistent based on the plain language definitions of their various inerrancy statements. I realize that they all are nuanced, but that does not take away from the fact that the obvious and plain reading of most of them say something like the bible is 100% true throughout the whole thing. Redefining terms like “in error” and “inconsistent” are not very conducive to a chohesive Christianity.

    2. The Tree-fold view, in my uneducated opinion, is a good short hand way of referring to chunks of text and law. If all we are doing is teaching introductory courses to the bible for new Christians then it is great. It is exactly like teaching students that Isaac Newton’s laws of motion are indeed laws. But the fact is that as soon as you start looking at the details and the limits (orbital patterns for Newton, Gays, slavery, women etc for the bible) then those laws quickly break down. In both cases we start to run into problems when we try to apply the words and laws to some of the more difficult situations. In those cases we should not use them.

    3. With respect Tim (and you are my favorite TGC person), you need a stronger stance than saying they are not perfect. I ask that you say more specifically how they are not perfect because they are being used beyond their useful limits and that is unfair to everyone involved.

    Thanks for the discussion, god bless, and this is great fun!

  • John S

    I am grateful for the article, I agree with it’s main point and especially find the proposed response to this line of questioning very helpful.

    I going to cautiously say I have some problems, along with others here, with what I see as the man-decided deliniation of the Law. I believed Christ fullfilled the entire law, however you or the early church wants to divy it up. (For unbelievers the law still serves a different purpose).

    I don’t find much in the NT that would support a certain codified portion of the law be carried forward as ‘moral law’. Minimally I would rather explain it as the law of Love is what continues, and it’s expression is different in a Spiritual kingdom as opposed to a physical one – which explains the lack of application of ‘ceremonial’ and ‘civil’ laws. It’s much cleaner and clearer to me this way, fits better with what I see in Scripture, although admittedly my mind functions on a 3rd grade level compared to Dr. Keller and many others who would disagree.

    Now we live in the new life of the Spirit, and under the law of Christ which is love. The NT provides much clear instruction on how we live out the law of love for sure. But as we go to the cross to know what love is, it ‘does no harm to it’s neighbor’ and ‘does good to enemies’. The power of true love as understood at the cross, that causes one to be born again, doesn’t need to have a written code that says ‘don’t murder’ or ‘don’t lie’. There is a freedom in the law of Christ that Augustine famously summarized ‘Love God and do as you please’. Or as Jesus said the whole law is summed up by love, for God and neighbor. As Paul put it Rom 7 ‘we serve in the new way of the Spirit not in the old way of the written code’.
    Also Rom 13:8-10, John 13:34, 1 John chapters 2 + 3, 2nd John also. John particularly seems to say that what Christians do is follow Jesus teachings, which are summarized by love.

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  • Steve Cornell

    Evangelicals have not always adequately recognized how the Bible itself reflects the concessionary nature of God’s dealings with humanity. Divine concession started early in history with the convergence of a divine promise and a divine concession. This set a new kind of starting point and tone for the ways of God with humans:

    “‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease’” (Gen. 8:21b-22, NIV).

    We might not like to hear it, but we should be humble enough to admit the staggering truth that, “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” This is a divine assessment of humanity and it’s notably the second appearance of it (see: Genesis 6:5-7).

    Everything in history is affected by the truth in Gen. 8:21b-22 – including Scripture itself.

    Many parts of the Old Testament will be misunderstood if we miss the point about concession. The Old Testament reflects many concessions related to life in Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures with their fallen social structures and hardened hearts (see: Matthew 19:3-9). The Old Testament law is often concessionary to ANE social structures and realities. It doesn’t always reflect God’s perfect will but His will in the context of concession. The Old Testament was never meant to be a final guide for human beings. It testifies to its own insufficiency by pointing to the coming of a New Covenant (see: Jeremiah 31; Ez. 36, Hebrews).

    We should not be surprised to find some strange things in the Old Testament, because (as a cursory reading of ANE history will validate), they were strange times. Again, we must recognize how God mercifully meets people where they are and graciously condescends to reach out to them.

    The OT days are summarized as times when God “let all nations go their own way” (Acts 14:15); times “when He held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past ” (Romans 3:25-26); times when He “endured with much patience vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:22-23) and times when He “overlooked such ignorance” (Acts 17:30-31).

    Divorce was permitted (in some cases) as an accommodation to realities of life in a sinful world (see: Matthew 19:3-9). It was not God’s plan from the beginning just as many things were not God’s plan from the beginning nor His perfect will. When hard hearts brought destitution on others, divine allowances outside of God’s perfect plan were permitted in the mercy of God (see: Exodus 21:10-11; 1 Corinthians 7:15).

    Even when Jesus said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,’” he was (in some way) dealing in the realm of concession. Jesus’ words should be understood as a provision not a prescription but He they were given in a context of concession because of the hardness of sinful hearts. 

    For more on this:

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  • Jer

    One thing I have learned while studying biblical nomology, specifically whether the Torah has regulatory force for new covenant believers, is that there is no position that is fool proof. The Bible itself is inconsistent with some statements compared to others on this topic. The most obvious hurdle for Keller’s position is Matt. 5:17–20 (discussed below).

    Keller’s focus seems to be on unbelievers trying to undermine Christianity. What Keller does not address are the possible Messianic interpretations which use the same type of argument (although usually more nuanced and technical) to support Torah observance.

    Keller’s argument that the OT hints at the cessation of the cult is disappointing. All of his references (1 Sam. 15:21-22; Ps. 50:12-15; 51:17; Hos. 6:6) rely on dialectical negation (a.k.a. relative condemnation) to make the point that without the right heart attitude, worshiping God through the cult is meaningless. It strongly goes against the OT grain to argue that the authors/redactors thought they were hinting at the cessation of the sacrificial system. It is highly doubtful they thought anything of the sort.

    Keller also does not engage in any Messianic interpretations when he takes the common argument that Jesus declared all foods clean to eat in Mark 7:19 as a priori. The context is dealing explicitly with washing hands before eating bread (not a prohibited food) as a ‘tradition of men’ (v. 8 ESV). Jesus is actually concerned with upholding God’s Torah and not allowing the tradition of men to ‘[make] void the word of God’ (v. 13). Even more startling is the fact that the Greek text does not contain the words ‘Thus He.’ The ESV translators, for example, have taken the present participle, καθαρίζων, as a parenthetical statement, forcing them to add ‘Thus he’ based on their decision to translate καθαρίζω as ‘to declare clean’ instead of ‘to make clean.’ Καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα does not have to be a parenthetical statement but can be a continuation of Jesus’s sentence. The NKJV, for example, takes this approach when in translating Mark 7:18–19 as ‘Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?’ It is possible that Jesus is not annulling the dietary laws, contradicting his own concerns that God’s Torah be upheld in Mark 7:1–13. Jesus may be talking about defecating, using this moment to teach about the importance of the heart-attitude of the believer. Even if one translates this passage as the ESV does, it does not automatically follow that the declaration about all foods being clean is referring to the Lev. 11 dietary laws. The ambiguity allows for Jesus to be discussing the ritual purity laws as the Pharisees were applying them to already permissible food. This seems more likely given the broader context of Jesus’s concern about maintaining God’s laws of the tradition of men.

    It also seems a bit of a stretch to say that Jesus ‘ignored the Old Testament cleanliness laws’ by ‘touching lepers and dead bodies.’ There was no prohibition against touching lepers or dead bodies. It was, in fact, a necessity and required by God to touch them for proper purposes (e.g. for burial). It was only violating the law if one entered the temple after touching anything unclean without becoming ritually purified. (I’m probably the most disappointed with Keller on this point. I would have thought this an easier distinction to identify.)

    Keller is certainly right that the message God gives his people with many of the Levitical laws is that God is wholly other (a.k.a. holy) and the profane cannot access the holy. As his people, we must also be holy and set ourselves apart from the profane and secular. This is ultimately accomplished by Jesus but is not mutually exclusive with Torah observance.

    The book of Hebrews is ambiguous with the effect the cross had on the cult. In 8:4, the implication is that the cult continues, in a couple other spots, the implication is that the cult has been replaced. In most of the book, the author is either silent or his message can be taken either way. This contradiction and ambiguity must be understood within the broader rhetorical world of Hebrews. The author is not concerned whether the cult continues or is replaced. He is concerned that his audience understands the incomparable value of Jesus’s sacrifice and honour of Jesus’s position as our high priest. Therefore, Hebrews does not really help in determining the status of the Torah as regulatory for the new covenant believer. (I hesitate to get more into this line of thought since too much space is required in the comments section of a blog to set up the entire argument here. Please ask questions if you wish to hear more of this argument.)

    Keller runs up against his biggest challenge, in my opinion, when he says, ‘If the New Testament has reaffirmed a commandment, then it is still in force for us today.’ Jesus, in the New Testament of course, says, ‘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’ (Matt. 5:18–19). Since Jesus reaffirms all of the Torah instructions in the New Testament, then, as per Keller’s position, all are still in force for new covenant believers today.

    I definitely agree with Keller’s position on the civil aspect of the law. Those instructions which are predicated on a theocracy are not feasible because a theocracy does not exist. But that does not mean these instructions have been abolished.

    If I were to argue that any portion or the entirety of the OT law has been abolished, I would take another, more fundamental approach. But my post is already too long. =)

    • Jer

      One last comment came to mind. Keller’s position that ‘[i]t would, therefore, be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole if we continued to follow the ceremonial laws’ after Jesus’s death assumes that earthly sacrifices and Jesus’s sacrifice had the same purpose and are, therefore, mutually exclusive. But Scripture does not make the claim that the purpose is the same. Paul certainly had no trouble sacrificing a sin offering even after he had already accepted Jesus as his Saviour (Acts 21:17–26). I doubt Keller would say that Paul was undermining Jesus’s sacrifice.

      • Nate M.

        That was great Jer.

    • Joe Kappel

      Jer, you mentioned help for those working through the issue of the book of Hebrews and its relevance for regulating Torah observance for New Testament believers. I’m currently working through that issue, and while I may not come to all your conclusions in this brief post, I’d like to know what resources have helped you in your study, for I find your points to be a little more reasoned-out than Tim Keller’s above. I appreciate Keller a lot! but the thing about Jesus “ignoring… laws” doesn’t seem well-stated. Feel free to email me at pastorjoe[at]beijingbaptistchurch[dot]org

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  • Jason Collins

    I think we as Christians are “called out” for being inconsistent b/c we fail at the very thing Jesus wanted us to known for — “love”. By challenging our neighbor’s marriages, citizenship status, or moral aptitude, we become known for our judgements – not our love.

    Jesus amazingly held up Samaritians and Roman offices as examples of good stewardship while he ministered on earth. He allowed the woman at the well (who was living with a man who was not her husband) to call and bring in an entire town to be saved. Would any of Jesus’ disciples or the church leaders have done such a thing? No, they would have scoffed at her.

    Until we learn to go out to the people we “disagree” with and show them true love, we will always be called hypocrites…and the fact is – the Gentiles are right, we are. But instead of insisting that we aren’t, and that they are wrong, we should accept the fact that we fail at showing God’s love to the world – and then pray and ask God’s guidance on HOW to love the neighbor we feel is on a wayward path. Otherwise, we will just turn into the very people who put Jesus to death b/c HIS way was not our way.

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  • julien

    Sometimes it seems that Tim, as good as He is with the OT text and going into the hebrew text, he is still tainted by man’s theological traditions that might not be all so biblical nor orthodox, as much as they are the logic of men.

    Upon reading the OT carefully there are qualifiers for when, who, how the laws should be observed. In accordance to that, many laws do not apply to us because the qualifications are simply not there (eg, most animal offering requires a specific location, ie Temple in Jerusalem). Same with most cleanliness laws, they are tied to entering the temple. In fact sacrificing outside of the location indicated by God and by one annointed was considered transgression actually.

    One needs to looks at each law, case by case, and carefully check the qualifiers.

    On the other hand, it is not about keeping or not keeping a specific law, but about relationship with God. Reading the OT requires skill, and not many have it.

    I think what we need to realize also is that there are degrees of seriousness in breaking the law, and if we are going to start checking, one might as well start with the most serious of all which is pride and self righteousness. And as you’ve guessed it, we are all guilty of this one.

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  • alfredo

    I would only like to ask everyone here: Why evangelic christians FOLLOW ROME, when it is ROME who states when “easter” should be held on a ROMAN calendar… instead of keeping Passover by following GOD’s calendar stated in Exodus 12 ?

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  • Marcus

    I understand what you’re trying to say here, but I don’t think it eliminated the “You pick and choose” dilemma. All this article tells me is that between Old to New Testament, Christians got to pick and choose what is considered “worship” and what is considered “the way we live” and base their moral standards on those choices.

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  • Dr. Steven Guest

    I think that the issue is more fundamental than what Keller is suggesting. I propose that to be entirely consistent, we should say that the ENTIRE law has been fulfilled in Christ. Christians are not under obligation to any aspect of the Mosaic Law (even if the categories of civil, ceremonial, and moral law are valid – which they are not). By definition, ALL Law is moral in that it expresses the will of a Holy God and his righteous requirements. I find that this practice of categorizing laws into so-called moral, civil and ceremonial (and then dismissing the civil and ceremonial from consideration for application to the believer today) insinuates that the civil and ceremonial laws are non-moral (immoral?). This is ridiculous. However, since all law is rooted in God’s holy character, each can teach us about behaviors/attitudes that are pleasing to God. Moreover, the motive for obeying OT Law was not from a sense of fear of punishment, but reather was the grateful response to the God who had expressed his love and care and promises to the individuals who were members of his covenant people. As members of the covenant people of God, we should look to the instructions (in the OT and the NT) and should seek to apply these in ways taht demonstrate our love and gratitude to God.

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  • MikeCarrell

    Since Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the expectation of the Septuagint for the coming of the Messiah, then there is only one ‘law’, and it fulfills all of the Law of the OT. The perfect law, then, is to love one another as Jesus Christ loves us. It is the heart of the Gospel. Christians, through the power of the Holy Spirit, make Jesus Christ alive in the world by living the Gospel in their lives. The Gospel is to be read and understood in its intended literary form. A brief tutorial of that literary form is given on the WordPress blog, onlyinparables. Michael Carrell

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  • Michael

    I thought it was a good article but incomplete because Tim Keller failed to mention the practical part of the law.

    The five books of Moses, the Torah, was divided into three parts:

    1. THE MORAL LAW (Did not offer any salvation from sin) Example: The Ten Commandments as found in Exodus chapter 20

    2. THE PRACTICAL LAW (Physical, which did not offer any salvation from sin) Example: Food laws as given in Leviticus chapter 11

    3. THE CEREMONIAL OR SACRIFICIAL LAW (Offered forgiveness for sins) Example: The yearly sacrifice, when a goat was sacrificed for the sins of the people for a period of one year at a time as recorded in Leviticus, Chapter 16

    The practical part of the law is the component that is most neglected by Christians, yet these are the laws governing our health. God gave the practical laws in order for man to have abundant life and not be plagued by sickness and epidemics. These laws tell us what we should eat, how we should raise our children, how we should conduct our sexual lives in marriage; they teach hygiene, food preparation, food storage, how to make clothing, how to farm, how to slaughter animals, etc.

    God went into great detail to teach man about sanitation, how to handle dead people as well as animals, and what to do in an epidemic. These laws have nothing to do with salvation, but breaking them will result in poor health.

    Keller mentions food in the opening paragraph but never touches upon the practical part of the law. The article is ironically inconsistent because it is unfinished and went off the intended path.

    • Cory Moesta

      When you say “the practical law is the component that is most neglected by Christians”, do you believe that the mandated punishments for those laws should still be enforced?

      • Michael

        You are obviously thinking about specific punishments; since I can’t read your mind, would you mind sharing them with me?

        • Cory Moesta

          I’ll retract my question as after re-reading both your original comment and skimming the book of Leviticus, I see that many laws regarding food consumption and sexual purity would fall under “moral law” and I’m assuming you are not referring to those under “practical law”. Apologies for the hasty challenge.

          I am curious which practical laws you think Christians are neglectful of.

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