Is it a sin to “moralise” the Old Testament?

Whenever I preach or teach from the Old Testament, I am often asked the same question by some who stay on to chat. “Isn’t it wrong to moralise the Old Testament?”

My short answer to that question is that in 2 Timothy 3:15-17 Paul summarises two uses of the Old Testament. The first is “to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus,” and the second is that, “all scripture [including the OT] is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be proficient, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” So I explain that in God’s providence, the Old Testament has the power to show us salvation through faith in Christ, and also to transform and train Christian leaders [and presumably all Christians] to do every good work. This leads us to affirm both the “prophetic use” of the Old Testament, and also its “moral use.” What God has joined together, we should not separate!

My longer answer for the persistent enquirer is that the New Testament itself draws out the moral implications of the Old Testament for Christians. It helps Jewish believers understand the continuing moral impact of the OT. It also shows Gentile Christians how to read the Old Testament and see its ongoing moral value.

Old Testament moralising in the New Testament

Old Testament moralising in the New Testament

For Paul, a basic pattern is that the events of the Old Testament serve as warnings and examples to the Church. He tells the Corinthians that the trials and temptations of the Exodus: “… occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. … These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come,” (1 Cor 10:6,11).

Specific examples of this general principle can be found throughout the New Testament.

  • In 2 Corinthians 9:8-9 Paul encourages his readers to be generous with a quote from Psalm 112:9:
    “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.’”
  • In Hebrews the author challenges his Christian readers from the book of Proverbs:
    And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons—“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son,” (Heb 12:5,6, quoting Prov 3:11,12).
  • In 1 Peter 3:8-12, the apostle quotes Psalm 34 as part of his exhortation to humility and forbearance:
    For “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. 11 He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” (1 Peter 3:8-12, quoting Psalm 34:12-16).

Blending the moral and prophetic

Blending the moral and prophetic

In other places the New Testament also inter-weaves the “prophetic use” of the Old Testament, with its “moral use.” Thus Moses is described in Hebrews as both a distinctive and unique figure in salvation history, but also as an example for all believers. On one hand, Moses is like Christ: “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house,” (Heb 3:5,6).

Yet Moses is also a role-model for us:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward (Heb 11:24-26).

We might think that a simple solution is to use those parts of the Old Testament that promise the sufferings and glory of Christ for that purpose, and the parts of the Old Testament that deal with the life of the believer for that purpose. However, in 1 Peter 2:18, we find that Peter uses two quotations from the account of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. The first gives us an example to follow: “there was no deceit in his mouth” (1 Pet 2:22, Is 53:9); while the second points to the unique substitutionary sufferings of Christ:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Pet 2:24, collected from Is 53:4-6, 10,11).

These two uses of the sufferings of Christ are distinguishable, but not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Of course imitating Christ’s sufferings does not save us, but saved people should follow Christ’s example!

Similarly Paul applies Psalm 69:9 both to Christ and to believers.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:1-14).

Of course it is wrong to treat the Old Testament as nothing more than a source of moral instruction; it also points to God’s great act of salvation in Jesus Christ. However it is also wrong to treat the Old Testament as having only one use, that of pointing forward to Christ, when the New Testament also uses it for moral instruction. It provides both, and we are foolish to miss out on either gift of our gracious God.

Picture: Gustave Doré (public domain)