The Old and New Covenants: Precepts vs. Principles
It is sometimes asserted that since we are believers in Jesus, we are no longer obligated to conform our lives to the laws that were given in the Old Testament. However, the moral law is still written on Man’s heart; and so his conscience is well instructed on what is right and wrong. Furthermore, it seems that many do not realize that the New Covenant in the Gospel actually requires much more from a child of God than the Old Covenant did.
The Old Covenant basically contained a set of specific precepts (do’s and don’ts) which people were expected to follow. On the contrary, the New Covenant in the Gospel is a system of principles by which people’s lives are to be governed. This is what Jesus taught His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, in Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus noted that it had been formerly said that “thou shalt not kill.” That’s fair enough, since murder is obviously wrong, and the moral law in every man’s heart tells him that fact. But then Jesus goes on to make it clear that even someone who is hatefully angry with another person is worthy to be judged! What Jesus is saying here is that it’s not enough for a person to merely go through the motion of fulfilling the obligations of the law. Anyone can go through life and “check the box” every day, and then say, “Well, I passed the test today – I didn’t murder anyone!” That’s great! They’ve obeyed the letter of the law, and this makes them feel good; and yet all the while, they may have hatred in their heart for a family member, a fellow church member, a neighbor, or a boss.
In other words, Jesus is saying that the principles taught in the Gospel require a more sanctified life than that which was expected from the law’s precepts standing alone. To apply this to the example above, a person who is truly changed by the Gospel will not only refrain from physically murdering people, but he will also remember that hatred and unrighteous anger fall under the same category. And with the Holy Spirit’s help, he will refrain from these sins as well.
No doubt Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount would have been more popular if He had provided Mankind with a list of rules – full of specific do’s and don’ts. Instead, however, He gave us a system of principles, which extend to a much broader sphere than rules alone could ever reach. And even though it is almost unbelievable at first thought, Man in his natural state would prefer to be given a set of specific precepts or rules to follow, rather than a system of general principles that he is expected to make his life match up to. This is because a set of specific rules makes it easy for him to “check the box” and feel good about himself. He can assure himself that he is “obeying the law” and “doing everything he is supposed to do.” Even worse, by twisting the meanings of the rules, or by changing the application of them, he can contrive any number of methods to circumvent them in such a way that he can still fulfill his own sinful pleasures and desires – all the while convincing himself that he is doing no wrong!
On the contrary, nothing is more irksome to an unregenerated heart than to be given a system of general principles that he is expected to conform his life to, and yet be left to his own discretion as to how to apply those principles to the specific circumstances that arise in his everyday life and conduct!
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