Review: The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church

The Old Testament Law for the Life of the Church, Richard E. Averbeck. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A study of for what God intended the law in its original context, how it was fulfilled in Christ, and its continuing relevance for the church today.

Let’s face it. For many in the church, the Old Testament is more or less unknown territory, especially the parts of the Old Testament concerned with the law.

Richard Averbeck has spent much of his life studying the Old Testament as well as other ancient Near East writings and he is persuaded of the continuing relevance of the law to the church, understood through the ministry of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. He contends that this was the scripture Paul asserted to Timothy as being “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But how is this so for the church today?

Averbeck asserts three theses that he develops throughout the book:

  1. The law is good. It instructed Israel how to live holy lives under God’s covenant love and it may also instruct us in holiness, particularly how to live under the law of Christ, loving God and neighbor.
  2. The law is weak. It does not have the power to transform the heart; only the Holy Spirit can transform our sinful nature and write the law on our hearts.
  3. The law is one unified whole. Averbeck sees no biblical basis for dividing the law into categories of moral, civil, and ceremonial, and while every law is not simply brought over into the life of the church, there are ways under Christ in which the whole law continues to be relevant to the church’s life.

To develop these theses Averbeck begins with an extensive treatment of the context of Old Testament law. First of all, he charts the covenants, of Abraham, of Moses, and David, each under those that precede, and then their fulfillment in the New Covenant. He follows this with looking at the Mosaic law in context, delineating the law collections, discussing the place of the Sinai narrative and the Decalogue, the book of the covenant and the other parallel collections of law, offering a comparative study of debt slavery as a case study, showing transformations even between collections. He shows how holiness, ceremonial, and civil law together shape Israel as a kingdom of priests oriented around the presence of God in their midst. He discusses in detail the significance of the various offerings and sacrifices and how they sustained the holiness and purity of the people.

He turns to how Jesus fulfills the law in life and teaching, as demonstrated in the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount. and in his treatment of questions of purity and sabbath. At the same time, he focuses attention on the law of love for God and neighbor in which the whole law is fulfilled. Then he considers the New Testament church and how this was handled, particularly in the incorporation of Gentiles in which Jewish believers continued to observe the law while Gentiles followed the council of Jerusalem, the moral instruction, and the transforming life of worship pointed to in the Old Testament law, made possible by the Spirit of truth. Averbeck then returns in two chapters to show how the law is good, how it is weak but empowered by the Holy Spirit, and remains a unified whole.

He also includes on Jewish Messianic believers and the Torah, offering one of the best defenses I’ve seen for such groups remaining observant Jews while staying gospel focused, citing the practice of the early church.

I appreciated the careful explanation of the contents of the law collections and the importance of these as well as showing how the law continued to be relevant in Christ. The discussion of the law’s weakness and the ministry of the Holy Spirit is much needed. He also shows the arc between offerings and sacrifices, and our calling as a “kingdom of priests” who are “living sacrifices.” Perhaps more needs to be said about the civil aspects of the law and the parallel being, not the secular state, but the church and how it governs itself. What may be gleaned from the law on how the church is ordered and governed under Christ? And to what degree ought the law shape our pursuit of just, though not theocratic, societies?

That said, this is one of the best studies I have seen of Old Testament law and its continuing relevance. His argument that all of the law continues to be relevant, albeit in altered form because of Christ, is a different approach worth considering that avoids explaining how we have dispensed with some aspects and not others. And his love for the Old Testament may encourage readers to explore what in fact were the scriptures for the early New Testament church.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

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