Sin, Law, and Judgment in the New Covenant
by Charles Meek and Bruce Thevenot
In his article we will consider what the Bible teaches about sin, law, and judgment now that we are living in the New Covenant era. We will specifically refute three related ancient heresies that have crept into the church from time-to-time—antinomianism, perfectionism, and universalism.
Antinomianism is the idea that moral law no longer applies in the new covenant, thus sin does not even really matter or even exist, at least for the Christian. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is the opposite idea—that moral law and sin do matter, and indeed, true Christians should achieve actual moral perfection. Universalism is the idea that God no longer judges men, thus all people are saved.
We will argue, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, that sin, law, and God’s judgment are still critical aspects to Christian theology in the New Covenant. And, while we are not saved by law-keeping per se, moral law still applies not only to Christians, but to all mankind.
ANTINOMIANISM and BIBLICAL LAW
Considering antinomianism first, this false doctrine is based on a misunderstanding of what the New Testament teaches about law and grace. Antinomianism is based on a misunderstanding of such passages as Romans 6:14, which says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
Does the New Testament’s teaching on grace mean that moral laws against theft, murder, adultery, etc. no longer apply? Of course not, so how are we to understand this? While we are under grace, Paul also said in Romans 6:1-2, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means.”
Many Christians make a sharp distinction between the Old and New Covenants. So, in the Old Covenant, men were saved by law-keeping. But in the New Covenant, men are saved by grace through faith alone. However, the distinction is not that sharp. We first must grasp that the law was never capable of securing a righteousness equal to God’s expectation for man (Hebrews 7:19, etc.). The Apostle Paul argued in Romans 4 that, indeed, even Abraham was justified by faith, rather than by law-keeping. And yet, the faithful are commanded to obedience in both the Old and New Testaments. So, the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and the relationship between faith and works, is not as distinct as many Christians think. We will elaborate.
Here’s the critical point. Standard Christian theology (as well as some camps in Jewish theology), hold that there were three classifications of law in the Old Testament: (1) ceremonial law, which included the dietary laws, as well as the sacrificial system and circumcision, (2) civil laws under Hebrew theocracy, and (3) the moral law governing our relationships with God and other humans. Note: See the links at the end for some sources of these claims. (Writers of Scripture also occasionally employ the word “law” to indicate a morally necessary relationship or principle of cause and effect, not referring to the Mosaic law at all—for example, the “law of sin and death.”)
Even without looking to theologians to make these distinctions, there is an obvious difference between theft or murder—versus circumcision or temple rituals. Indeed, this distinction is so obvious that the New Testament writers did not have to explain it in detail, but merely assumed it. Yet we can examine the text to understand that in most instances when Paul and the other writers spoke of “the law” being abolished, they were speaking of the civil and ceremonial components of the Mosaic law. The New Testament repealed those laws, but the moral law remains in effect, as demonstrated below:
God’s moral law existed even before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. We remember transgressions of Adam, Cain, Noah’s neighbors, the Canaanites, and Sodom and Gomorrah—with God’s commensurate judgments—prior to Moses and the Ten Commandments. Thus, moral law is not restricted to the written code!
Moreover, we can understand from Scripture that moral law continues after the repeal of the civil and ceremonial laws. The New Covenant, with its frequent demands for obedience, was initiated with Christ’s First Advent, and his authority continues forever (Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 7:14; Ephesians 3:21; Hebrews 1:3-12; 5:6; Revelation 11:15; etc.). Indeed, sin (violations of moral law) continues in the new heaven and new earth per Isaiah 65:20 and Revelation 22:15.
Although the Ten Commandments codified moral law, Paul explains in Romans 1:18-2:16 that moral law is known by everyone through nature and conscience. In Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 10:16 we see that it is written on our hearts. Thus, moral law applies to everyone, whether they accept it or not, or even whether they know it or not. Christian philosophers refer this to as “Natural Law” which is evident to all in nature and further elaborated in the scriptures, both Old and New Testaments in their own distinctive ways.
We cannot separate Christianity from its sublime moral imperatives. The law of God exposes the counterfeit love that will not accept its responsibilities toward God and neighbor.
The Scriptures are not arbitrary or inconsistent. Christians love to pick the passages that tend to support their presuppositions, while ignoring the ones that don’t. But the appropriate way to create doctrine is to reconcile any passages that appear to contradict each other. Let’s work through some examples:
Lastly, we would simply argue that sin is defined as “an immoral act.” Common sense validates that a violation of civil or ceremonial law is not sin, further delineating the difference between moral law and civil/ceremonial law. It can also be argued that the Ten Commandments were different from civil and ceremonial laws because they were given directly by God, while the civil and ceremonial laws were through Moses. For example, Deuteronomy 31:9 says, “And Moses wrote this law.” (See the articles linked below by Richard Anthony.)
“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Some questions result from the prior discussion: “To what extent must Christians abide by moral law?” “Are Christians even capable of keeping the moral law?” Christian Perfectionism (or “Christian Holiness”) teaches that, indeed, not only CAN we keep moral law, but we MUST do so PERFECTLY. This is legalism.
Christian perfectionists base their thinking on such passages as 1 John 3:6 which says, “No one who abides in Him keeps on sinning.” But we should never build a doctrine without considering all passages on a topic. There are many passages that teach that NO ONE IS WITHOUT SIN, for example Romans 3:9-12. “No one” is inclusive—thus includes professing Christians. There is no valid indication in that passage above—1 John 1:8, that it does not apply to professing Christians.
Many other passages in the Bible clearly teach that all men are sinful. Consider what God’s Word teaches about the pervasiveness of sin: Genesis 6:5, 8:21; 1 Kings 8:46; 2 Chronicles 6:36; Job 14:4; 25:4-6; Psalm 14; 51:3-5; 53:1-3; 58:3; 130:3; Proverbs 14:12; 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20, 7:29; 9:3; Isaiah 53:6; 55:8-9; 64:6; Jeremiah 4:22; 17:9; Mark 7:20-23; John 3:19; 8:34, 44; Romans 3:9-12, 23; 5:12-21; 7:14-25; 8:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:14, and Ephesians 2:1-3; 4:18. (You might take time to look up these passages.)
These passages are so condemning of mankind that many biblical scholars, both ancient and contemporary, have concluded that mankind is sinful by our very nature. This is confirmed by an honest assessment of our own hearts. Contrary to the claims of Christian perfectionists, these passages on sin apply to people even after they have accepted Christ. Our molecules do not suddenly begin to glow when we accept Christ. To deny our sinful tendencies is to hold to an unbiblical understanding of our human nature.
The death blow to Christian perfectionism is found in Romans 7:14-25 and Philippians 3:12. In these passages, the great Apostle Paul taught that EVEN HE, after many years in the faith, had not reached spiritual perfection. Neither the atonement nor the new birth removes sin from man’s nature. We argue that If you deny your own sin, you are not only denying Scripture but have seared your own conscience (Romans 1:20; 2:15; 3:21; etc.).
Have you ever failed to do what you should have done? Do you think that you loved God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength—and loved your neighbor as yourself—for even one hour? We note that the Bible teaches that “Whoever fails on one point of the law is guilty of breaking the whole law.” (James 2:10)
The Bible speaks of levels of sin. On one level, we can be considered “blameless” if we avoid the “big” sins—the sins of the flesh. These trespasses include theft, adultery, and drunkenness. Paul offered lists of these in such passages as 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and Galatians 5:19-21. But on another level, the sins of the heart are what condemn us too. Jesus expanded our understanding of sin to include bad thoughts, lust, pride, anger, sensuality, envy, and even foolishness—things that no person can completely avoid (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28; Mark 7:14-23).
Some Christians have also failed to appreciate the doctrine of imputed righteousness. This doctrine teaches that the righteousness of Christ is “imputed” to Christians through our faith. Even though Christians, in actuality still sin, God overlooks the sin of believers through a “legal fiction.” Thus, it is an “alien” righteousness from God who considers the persevering believer sinless because of Christ’s work. In other words, this righteousness is bestowed upon the believer by God even though he does not deserve it. This is the essence of grace, which is defined as “unmerited favor.” Bible passages about imputed righteousness include: Genesis 15:6; Psalm 32:2; Isaiah 43:25; 53:5; Romans 3:21-25; 4:3-11, 22-24; 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 3:6, 13; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 1:22-23; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17; 1 John 1:9-10.
While believers in Christ, under the New Covenant, are made new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), we are not instantly rendered incapable of sinning, but rather are freed from the “wages” of sin—condemnation to eternal death (Romans 6:23)—and enter into a new and vital relationship with God in Christ. In that relationship believers are enabled by the means of grace to acknowledge, confess, and resist sin and progressively gain mastery over it. The suggestion that the freedom and ability to sin is entirely removed upon conversion is a distortion of the Bible.
When one becomes a new creation in Christ, he experiences the beginning of a spiritual transformation. Thank God for all He does for us! He loves us. He overlooks our sin. And He guides us into a new awareness of our sin and the need for an amendment of life.
Perfectionists also teach that we cannot know we are saved until we die. But that is, too, a distortion of what the Bible teaches. 1 John 5:13 teaches: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life.”
Man’s sinfulness is a fundamental distinctive of the Christian faith, in opposition to all other religions and worldviews. The irony for the perfectionist is that if we think we are becoming perfect, then we are far from becoming perfect.
UNIVERSALISM and the NATURE OF GOD
One error leads to another. Antinomians say that sin and moral law do not apply any longer. So, consider the ramifications of that. If sin doesn’t matter anymore (to anyone), then any religion or even no religion will serve just as well as Christianity. So, anyone gets to heaven. That is universalism, which is an incredible distortion of Christianity. So, antinomianism even leads to the effective dissolution of the Christian faith.
Moral law has no expiration because it is based on God’s character. God did not retire in the New Testament, nor did his nature change in AD 70. The attributes of God include his holiness, his demands for justice, and indeed his wrath (John 3:36; Romans 1:18; Ephesians 5:3-6; etc.). God’s wrath is mentioned 46 times in the New Testament. God still hates sin and the worship of any substitute for Him. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Psalm 90:2; Malachi 3:6; Luke 1:50; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17; 1 Peter 1:24-25; Revelation 1:8).
We remember that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 9:10; 111:10; etc.) While the Great Judgment upon old-covenant Israel was in AD 70, God still hates sin and will respond accordingly. He demands allegiance.
Yes, a focus of the New Testament is the Great Judgment in AD 70 (Matthew 23:29-39). But God continues to judge individuals, and we believe nations as well (Genesis 9:5-6; Numbers 32:23; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Job 12:23; Psalm 9:17-20; 33:12; 110:6; Proverbs 14:34; Isaiah 2:4; 60:12; Micah 4:3; John 3:36; Acts 10:42-43; Romans 1:18; 6:23; 12:19; 14:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7; Ephesians 5:3-6; Hebrews 9:27; 10:14, 27; 13:4 Revelation 2:10; 14:13; 21:8; 22:14-15).
God preserves the faithful, but his wrath is poured out on the unrepentant reprobate. But we all face judgment when we meet our Maker (Hebrews 9:27). This eliminates universalism as a valid idea.
- An objection rendered by antinomians is found in Romans 4:15 which states that “where there is no law, there is no transgression.” So, it is argued, since the Mosaic Law is no longer valid, there is no longer any such thing as sin. Answer: This objection is clearly twisting Scripture by appealing to a passage in a wooden literal way, and without considering the greater context. As already explained, moral law existed prior to the law of Moses and continues today. So, the only reasonable explanation of this passage is the one given by the highly respected commentator John Gill, who explained: “The law of Moses was added for the better discovery and detection of sin.” [emphasis added]
- Another objection we sometimes hear is that God did not give the Ten Commandments to the Gentiles, only to Jews. But again, moral law is applicable to all mankind. Though the precise manner in which our sinfulness was passed on to us from Adam is not fully revealed, Romans 5:14-17 makes it clear that sin and death entered the entire human race through Adam’s disobedience. So, the “Fall” is not limited to Jewish covenants, which would make God a tribal god.
- Here’s another common objection that arises from the doctrines of original sin and imputed righteousness. If man is inherently sinful and cannot cease all sin, does that mean that any sin is permitted? Doesn’t that give the Christian a license to go on sinning? Answer: NO. Even those theologians who teach “original sin” inherited from Adam insist that men remain creatures with free will. Men must persevere in the faith, live Godly lives, and love others to reach heaven.[i]
- An objection that arises from the perfectionist camp is this: Jesus taught us to “be perfect” in Matthew 5:48. Our answer to this passage is two-fold. First, the word “perfect” in the Greek is teleios. This word is more about “completion” rather than absolute perfection. Secondly, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, Jesus said in Mark 10:18 that the only one who is truly good is God, implying that He (Jesus) is the only perfect man.
- Perfectionists may also argue that if a sin is not committed willfully, it is not really a sin. (No kidding.) That’s simply a classic case of denial akin to “the devil made me do it.”
[i] This discussion often degenerates into a discussion about Calvinism. Our purpose here is not to defend Calvinism. Even Lutherans reject some, if not all of the Five Points of Calvinism, but still accept the biblical texts of man’s sin nature. You don’t even have to accept the concept of original sin to see that those texts discussed in this article teach that all men, even Christians, are sinners. However, there is broad misunderstanding about Calvinism. For those willing to explore this further, here are two helpful books: (1) Why I Am Not an Arminian by Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams. (2) Why I Am Not a Calvinist by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell.
Let’s put this together. The New Testament writers were not speaking out of both sides of their mouth about how we are saved. There is a close relationship between faith and works. A true saving faith is one that produces good works. Luther said that the relationship between faith and works is like fire and smoke. A true saving faith will produce good (moral) works just as a fire produces smoke. The Protestant reformers taught that “we are saved through faith alone, but not through a faith that is alone.” The Scripture makes a distinction between a living faith and a dead faith. We are not saved by a dead faith (James 2), but rather by a living, penitent, surrendering faith in Jesus.
The sinfulness of man lies at the core of Christianity. This is why a Savior is even necessary. Christianity is the only worldview or religion that teaches this. We are not just sinful around the edges; our sin runs deep. The depth of man’s sin reveals the magnitude of Christ’s victory. To deny man’s sin and God’s judgment puts one on the doorstep leading out of Christianity.
(Charles Meek is the author of CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY. Bruce Thevenot is a contributor to the book.)
Here’s a good article by Robert Letham about how moral law remains extant in the lives of Christians:
Here’s an article details how moral law existed before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses:
The following article by Richard Anthony answers common objections for not obeying the Ten Commandments:
The following article by Richard Fredericks demonstrates that the Ten Commandments are not the same as the “law of sin and death”:
Here is more about the breakdown of moral, civil, and ceremonial law:
Here are articles from Jewish sources:
If you think you are a good person, how about taking the Good Person Test:
 This discussion often degenerates into a discussion about Calvinism. Our purpose here is not to defend Calvinism. Even Lutherans reject some, if not all of the Five Points of Calvinism, but still accept the biblical texts of man’s sin nature. You don’t even have to accept the concept of original sin to see that those texts discussed in this article teach that all men, even Christians, are sinners. However, there is broad misunderstanding about Calvinism. For those willing to explore this further, here are two helpful books: (1) Why I Am Not an Arminian by Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams. (2) Why I Am Not a Calvinist by Jerry L. Walls and Joseph R. Dongell.