The Proper Usage Of The Old Testament

By Mike Willis

Critics have often misrepresented members of the church of Christ, saying that members do not believe the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the position which members of the church hold toward the Old Testament is different from that which is typical of denominationalism. Denominationalism does not recognize the divinely-revealed change in covenants; consequently, some of the things authorized and practiced under Old Testament law are brought into modem church practice.

Let us study the Scriptures to see the role of the Old Testament. However, before going too far, I want to dismiss the charge that “members of the church of Christ do not believe the Old Testament.” The Old Testament was given by the inspiration of God (2 Tim. 3:16,17; 2 Pet. 1:21). As a revelation from God, it is inerrant. Those who say that we do not believe the Old Testament misunderstand what we teach and, consequently, misrepresent us.

Not Living Under Monk Law

The Old Testament law was given by God to the nation of Israel. When Moses gave the Ten Commandments, he said, “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, who are all of us here alive this day” (Deut. 5:2-3). Those who know their Bible history will remember that God gave His law to Israel at Mount Sinai after delivering them from Egyptian bondage. The divine revelation was a unique treasure to Israel (Rom. 9:4; 3:2).

The covenant with Israel was given for a definite period-until the promised Messiah should come to the earth (Gal. 3:19). When Jesus came, He gave a new covenant to the world (cf. Jer. 31:31-14; Heb. 8:9-13). When this new covenant was given, Israel was no longer obligated to obey the Mosaic ordinances (Eph. 2:14-15; Col. 2:14-17). Both Israelite and Gentile are subject to Christ and His law (Mk. 16:15-16; Matt. 28:18-20). The Jewish person has no privileged status with God; if he is going to be saved, he must obey the same gospel as the Gentile.

Usage Of The Old Testament

1. The Old Testament reveals sin and God’s attitude toward it. Paul said, “Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:6). Paul learned that coveting was sinful by God revealing His will in the Old Testament. Through the law is “the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20).

Not only did the Bible reveal what was and was not sinful, it also displayed God’s attitude toward sin. God’s displeasure toward sin was manifested in Genesis 3. Other Old Testament records document His willingness to punish sin, including such things as the Flood (Gen. 6-8), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the death of Nadab and Abihu,(Lev. 10:1-2), etc. From the Old Testament record, we can learn that sin is the transgression of the law of God (1 Jn. 3:4) and that sin will be punished by God (Rom. 6:23).

2. The Old Testament reveals God’s work to bring the Messiah to redeem man from sin. The Old Testament predicts the coming of the Lord’s Messiah. The selection of Abraham and Israel was part of God’s work to bring the Messiah into the world. The prophets foretold that the Messiah would be a descendant of Abraham (Gen. 12:3) and David (2 Sam.-23,1-7), born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), perform miracles (Isa. 35), suffer for the sins of man (Isa. 53), establish His kingdom (Dan. 2:44), etc. As we read the Old Testament, we can see God’s work in bringing this promise to fulfillment.

3. The Old Testament is an example for us. Writing regarding examples of apostasy from the Old Testament, Paul said, “Now these things were our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted . . . . Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the en ds of the world are come” (1 Cor. 10:6,11). The history of Israel in the wilderness records many sins which Israel committed and God’s punishment for those sins. These apostasies of Israel warn us: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

4. The Old Testament encourages us. Paul also wrote, “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The Old testament Scriptures were written for our benefit today; we need to study and learn their great messages. Through reading them, we learn’to persevere through trial as did Job, to have the courage of Daniel, to trust in the providence of God like Esther, to walk with God like Enoch, and to be a man after God’s own heart like David. Learning the character and nature of God gives us comfort and hope.

There are other usages of the Old Testament which we have not mentioned. Men err when they neglect the study of the Old Testament.

Improper Usage Of The Old Testament

Though there are many good usages of the Old Testament, there are also some improper usages of it. We need to be just as aware of them as we are of the good usages of it.

1. The Old Testament is not a covenant by which we live. There are many things taught and accepted in the Old Testament which would not tolerated under the law of Christ. The spiritual law of Israel taught and commanded animal sacrifice; the of Israel tolerated polygamy; the civil law of Israel had many ordinance’s which are not followed by any civil government today. The Law of Moses was given to the nation of Israel for a limited period of time.

2. The Old Testament is not a means of salvation today. The Old Testament revealed God’s grace to those under the law of Moses. Those men were saved by faith, not by a system of perfect obedience (Rom. 4:6-8). David, for example, could not be justified by a system of perfect obedience; rather, he received the forgiveness of God, divine grace, when he complied with the conditions of the Old Testament for receiving grace.

The Jews of the first century, rejected the Messiah-the Lord’s appointed sacrifice for sin. Having rejected the blood of Christ as the grounds for forgiveness, they were left with nothing but the Old Testament law-a law with the divinely revealed grace removed from it. Their only means of justification, therefore, was perfect compliance with the statutes of that law. Furthermore, with the change in law, the conditions for receiving God’s grace were also changed. The one who does not comply with the conditions will not receive God’s grace. Paul assured the Jews who rejected Christ as the all-sufficient sacrifice for sin that they could not be justified by law (i.e., perfect law keeping). Paul wrote, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10).

Inasmuch as the Christ has come, men cannot be saved by obeying the law of Moses. The Lord has replaced the Old Testament covenant of grace which was given to Israel with a superior covenant of grace which is given to every manthe gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who try to be justified by the law of Moses reject the grace in Jesus Christ and cannot be saved (Gal. 5:4).

3. The Old Testament does not provide authority for religious,practice today. The Old Testament did provide authority for the worship of the people of Israel, during the period it was binding. Those who introduced things into the worship of Israel during that period without divine authority as revealed in the Old Testament were guilty of sin before God (cf. 1 Kgs. 12:25-33).

Now men are living under the law of Christ. What is revealed in the law of Christ is what men are obligated to obey. To introduce into the worship, work, or mission of the church anything not authorized by the law of Christ is a transgression of Jesus’ will (Col. 2:21-22; Matt. 15:8-9; Rev. 22:18-29).

Many things have been introduced into the church for which Old Testament authority is cited. Some churches have a separate priesthood, citing Old Testament authority for the practice, although their priests are not of Levitical descent; others use the Old Testament to authorize the burning of incense; others use the Old Testament to teach that Christians must observe the Sabbath, although the Old Testament regulations describing how the Sabbath is to be observed are ignored; others authorize their usage of mechanical instruments of music and their choirs by the Old Testament. This is a misuse of the Old Testament. The Old Testament is not a smorgasbord of worship entrees from which every man selects what is palatable to his own taste!


The church of Jesus Christ must subject itself to the will of Christ, which is revealed in the gospel. We should rejoice that we have the superior grace and worship of the New Testament, rather than looking back to the Old Testament with longing eyes for such things as a separate priesthood, burning incense, Sabbath observance, and other things which were a part of a worship system that the Lord chose to abolish.

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 10, pp. 290, 308-309
May 16, 1985