Review of "In Defense of the Decalogue"

Part One - Introduction

By John Reisinger
Originally posted on Sound of Grace
Statement on offsite articles

I have been asked by some friends to write a review of the book In Defense of the Decalogue written by Richard Barcellos and published and distributed by Founders Ministries, a Southern Baptist group committed to the theological position advocated by Barcellos. This is the kind of writing that I do not at all enjoy, but sometimes find necessary. In Defense of the Decalogue is not just "another book" or even just "another book in the on-going discussion on law and grace." Barcellos has laid down the gauntlet and issued a specific and detailed list of challenges to any and all who reject the Covenant Theology that he, and Founders Ministries, espouse. He has clearly set forth his objections to New Covenant Theologyi in general, and to me in particular. He quotes me at least twenty-seven times. He then challenges the people who hold to NCT to respond to his objections. We must either answer to his challenges or give the impression that we have none to give. In Defense of the Decalogue itself begs for a clear and straightforward response. We would be cowards if we were silent in the face of such a challenge.

Richard Barcellos is a pastor at Palmdale Reformed Baptist Church in Palmdale, CA. In his book, he objects to NCT in eight areas. Each chapter covers one area of his disagreement and ends with one or more specific "challenges to NCT." The eight areas of discussion form the titles for the chapters in the book. They are: (1) "NCT and the Promise of the New Covenant." (2) "NCT and the Identity of the Old Covenant." (3) "NCT and the Abolition of the Old Covenant." (4) "NCT and the Sermon on the Mount." (5) "NCT and the Identity of the Moral Law." (6) "NCT and Hermeneutical Presuppositions." (7) "NCT and Canonics." (8) "NCT and Historical Theology."

We will respond to each of the criticisms and then try to clarify exactly what we do, and do not, believe and teach about the specific texts and doctrines with which Barcellos is concerned. This is not just a review of his book; it is also an explanation and defense of our position. Both Barcellos’s book and my book will be of great help to anyone honestly interested in the subject of law and grace. If our readers will carefully digest what Barcellos writes, and we urge every reader to do just that, and then carefully compare that with our comments on the same subjects and texts of Scripture, they should be able to form an honest opinion of who is correctly expositing the Scripture.

Our response to In Defense of the Decalogue is entitled In Defense of Jesus, the New Lawgiver. The two titles clearly set forth the bottom line difference between the two positions. Barcellos believes that the tables of the covenant, or Decalogue, was and is the highest moral law that was ever given. It is THE one eternal, unchanging, moral law of God. We agree that those ten commandments were indeed the highest laws and clearest expression of God’s holy character that were ever given up to that point in history. However, we believe that the laws of the kingdom of grace established by our Lord Jesus Christ are much higher and more demanding than anything God ever gave through Moses. Barcellos writes:

As shown in the pages that follow, this critique ends up being a defense of the perpetuity of the Decalogue, hence the title. (p. 13)

The key words in that sentence are "the perpetuity of the Decalogue." Barcellos equates the perpetuity of the Decalogue with the perpetuity of the so-called moral law. Decalogue equals THE unchanging moral law in Barcellos’s position. We remind the reader that one of the synonyms used in both the Old and New Testament Scriptures for the Decalogue is the phrase "tables of the covenant" (Heb. 9:15). The words "Decalogue," "Ten Commandments," and "tables of the covenant" are phrases that are all interchangeable (See Deut. 9:9,11; Heb. 9:4).ii They all refer to the Ten Commandments written with the finger of God on the tables of stone. We can legitimately call Barcellos’s book "In Defense of the Tables of the Covenant given to Israel." That title, and "In Defense of the Decalogue" refer to the same thing and defend identical items. The Decalogue is the tablets of the covenant. Barcellos’s statement, just quoted, could also be legitimately changed to read, "This critique ends up being a defense of the perpetuity of the document that formed an essential part of the terms of the old covenant that established Israel as a nation." Barcellos never admits that the Decalogue was the basic Old Covenant documentiii that initially established the nationhood of Israel. Actually he denies that the tablets of the covenant were a real part of the Old Covenant that was done away in Christ. The Holy Spirit calls the Decalogue the "tablets of the covenant" but he never calls it the "moral law." Barcellos does the exact opposite. He insists on calling the Decalogue the "moral law," with no textual evidence, and he never calls it the "tables of the covenant," despite the fact the Holy Spirit does.

We would claim for our critique that it is a defense of the enduring laws of God contained in the Ten Commandments, and then expounded and expanded by our Lord Jesus Christ, the new lawgiver, in his ministry and later through the inspired epistles of the New Covenant Scriptures. Our basic disagreement with Barcellos has nothing to do with whether the revelation of God’s will for his people comes in clear and concrete commandments, or whether the Ten Commandments are a vital part of that revelation applicable to a child of God today. Our difference is, (1) whether Moses is the greatest lawgiver that ever lived, including the Lord Jesus Christ himself, or (2) whether Jesus replaced Moses as the new prophet and lawgiver in the very same sense that he replaced Aaron as the new high priest. These two things are the very heart of the two positions. We are defending Jesus Christ as the new, greater, full, and final lawgiver who replaces Moses. That is the bottom line! We are insisting that the laws of Christ that are given to the children of the kingdom of grace are higher laws than those given to Israel at Sinai. Barcellos is defending the belief that Moses is the greatest lawgiver that ever lived and the laws that God gave him at Sinai are the highest laws ever given.

We believe the ‘greater honor than Moses" (Heb. 3:3) that belongs to the Lord Jesus extends to his role of new lawgiver and not just his office of priest. If his role of priest were in view, the writer of Hebrews would have written that Jesus is worthy of greater honor than Aaron. Moses functioned as a prophet, not as a priest. Any attempt to make this text apply to anything other than a comparison of Christ and Moses acting as prophets is to miss the point of comparison the writer makes. We reject the notion that Moses is the greatest lawgiver and Jesus is merely the greatest exegete of Moses. The one vital question where we answer differently from Barcellos is this: "Is Christ a true lawgiver, in his own right, who replaced Moses as lawgiver in exactly the same way that he replaced Aaron as high priest?" We say yes and Barcellos says no. We insist that Christ is the new lawgiver and Barcellos insists that Christ is merely the greatest exegete and interpreter of the unchanging Law of God given through Moses. In the theology of Barcellos, the Sermon on the Mount is nothing more than a true and spiritual understanding of the Decalogue given to Moses.

The Reformed view of the Sermon on the Mount sees Jesus as introducing a contrast between the true understanding of the law and the false understanding of the scribes and Pharisees. Christ is not altering the Law or supplanting it with another. (Barcellos, "The Death of the Decalogue," Tabletalk [September 2002]: 16.)

We agree that our Lord did indeed exegete the true meaning of the Ten Commandments, however we insist that (1) he also gave some new and higher laws, some of which were impossible under the law covenant at Sinai; that (2) he also changed some of the laws written on the tables of stone; and, (3) that our Lord also dropped one of the laws written on the tables of the covenant as well as some of the laws written in the book of the covenant. As the new and final lawgiver, he had every right to do all three. I repeat; the real issue is whether Christ is a new lawgiver or merely an interpreter of Moses. One man, in the same camp as Barcellos, emphatically insists, "Christ is a Law-keeper not a Law-giver." This is a perfectly logical statement if Moses has given us THE unchanging moral law of God. Our response to that statement is that our Lord is both a Law-keeper and a Law-giver.

If the Sermon on the Mount is really only a true and spiritual interpretation of the law of Moses, then it would be quite proper to call it "The Talmud of Jesus." That is all it can be in the view of Barcellos. In no sense could Christ give new and higher revelation of the moral character of God. Barcellos will allow our Lord to be a scribe, even the greatest scribe, but he will not allow Jesus to be a prophet and law-giver. If Barcellos is correct, then Jesus did not have the authority to say, "But I say unto you" in any matters where his statements contrasted with Moses’. He could quote the rabbis, but could not speak with his own law-giving authority. We prefer to view the Sermon on the Mount as a vital part of the new law of the kingdom of grace given by the new prophet and king of the church.

This review will be of special interest to Southern Baptists who love the Doctrines of Grace, but are not interested in becoming "Reformed Baptists." Appendix A is written especially for Southern Baptists. If the reader is not a Southern Baptist, he may wish to skip the appendix altogether. If the reader is a Southern Baptist who believes in sovereign grace, he may wish to read the appendix first. The rest of this review is a general response to the arguments used against NCT in general and against me in particular. This response will be of interest to any and all who are concerned about the place of the tablets of the covenant, or Decalogue, in the life and worship of the church and the Christian today.

The question that Barcellos asks, "Is [NCT] biblical?" at the very beginning of his book is surely the right question. His answer is different than mine. You, the reader, use the same Bible that both Barcellos and I use. If you want to know the truth on this subject, then carefully and honestly weigh what both of us say in the light of that Book alone.

The issues involved are of tremendous importance. They involve the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ in his offices of prophet, priest, and king. Neither Barcellos nor I would ever consider sending a child of God back to Aaron as his priest. We would both agree that Aaron’s ministry as a priest is over. However, Barcellos would and does send believers back to Moses as their lawgiver, and NCT would not. We reject the Covenant Theology mantra, "Moses will lead you to Christ to be justified and Christ will lead you back to Moses to be sanctified." That would be appropriate if the tables of the covenant, or Decalogue, were indeed the unchanging moral law of God. If such were the case, that would also mean that Moses is still the ultimate authority in the conscience of a child of God. That reduces Jesus to the status of "servant in the house" (Heb.3:1-6) and to a mere rubber stamp of Moses, the true and only lawgiver.

The goal of our teaching and preaching is the same: to glorify God by encouraging the saints to live holy lives. We do not have any doubt that the true intent of Covenant Theologians like Barcellos is to see the saints of God honor him by walking in obedience to his revealed will. The means we use to accomplish that goal are different: they center on the content of the message we seek to instill in the conscience of a believer to help him be holy. Do we impose the law on his conscience because it is the great instrument of God to produce holy living, or do we seek to free the believer’s conscience from the law and marry it to Christ alone (Romans 7:1-5)? Barcellos would give the opposite answer than we would. Simply stated, the key question is this: do we define our ethics and moral duties with Sinai or with Calvary; with Moses or with Christ; with law or with grace? Who is the true and final lawgiver over the conscience, Moses or Christ?

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his commentary on Romans 7, has stated the position quite clearly:

In winding up his first argument in chapter six he [Paul] has said, "For sin shall not have dominion over you," and his reason for saying that is, "for (because) you are not under the law, but under grace." He seems to glory in this fact. He seems to be striking another blow at the Law. He has already knocked it down, as it were, in chapter 5, verse 20; he is now trampling on it. At once his opponents take up the cudgels and say, "Surely these are very wrong and very dangerous statements to make; surely if you are going to abrogate the Law and do away with it altogether, you are doing away with every guarantee of righteous and holy conduct and behavior. Sanctification is impossible without the Law. If you treat the Law in this way and dismiss it, and rejoice in doing so, are you not encouraging lawlessness, and are you not almost inciting people to live a sinful life?" Law, they believed, was the great guarantee of holy living and sanctification. The Apostle clearly has to safeguard himself and the truth of the gospel against that particular misunderstanding and charge. . . . .

From: Dr. Marytn Lloyd-Jones, The Law: Its Function and Limits (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974) 4, 5.

Covenant Theology insists that the only way to produce holiness is to preach the law. Its confidence is in the law to do what we believe only the grace of God can do. I repeat, their goal is the same as ours. The only difference is the means used to attain the goal. Proponents of Covenant Theology would enslave the conscience under law; we would set the conscience free under grace. They do not see grace as having a teaching power of its own; we see it as having both a teaching and enabling power. They really do believe, as Lloyd-Jones said, that "Sanctification is impossible without the Law." Lloyd-Jones does not stop there. He goes on to say:

But the Apostle has another particular object in view also, namely, to show that sanctification by the Law is as impossible as was justification by the law… As it is impossible to be justified by the law, it is equally impossible to be sanctified by the Law. As we shall see later, he even puts it as strongly as this, that not only can a man not be sanctified by the Law, but it is actually true to say that the Law is a hindrance to sanctification, and that it aggravates the problems of sanctification. That is the thesis of this seventh chapter; not only can a man not sanctify himself by observance of the Law; the Law is even a hindrance and an obstacle to sanctification." [Bolding mine - JGR] Ibid, 5.

I am sure the reader can see the clear implications of this statement. If, as Lloyd-Jones states, not only is the law not an aid in sanctification, but actually is a hindrance, then the preacher who consistently "preaches the law to the conscience" hinders biblical growth in grace. He is not helping his people to be truly holy, even though that is his sincere intention. That is an awesome consideration.

One question often used by Covenant Theologians clearly brings out the difference between In Defense of the Decalogue and In Defense of Jesus, the New Lawgiver. Their test question is this: "Do you believe the Decalogue is the rule of life for a Christian today?" In the eyes of a Covenant Theologian, any answer but an unqualified yes earns the label of antinomian. The response of NCT to that question is quite clear. We say, "Oh, my no, the tablets of the covenant, or Decalogue, are far too low a standard for a child of God indwelt by the Holy Spirit and living under grace." If you want us to clearly state our attitude to the Decalogue we will say, "The Ten Commandments, not as they are written on the tablets of the covenant and given to Israel at Sinai as a covenant document, but as they are interpreted and applied by Christ and his apostles in the New Covenant Scriptures, are a very vital part of our rule of life today." We refuse to equate the Decalogue, as written on stone tablets, with the theological concept of "THE moral law" and thereby "THE rule of life for a believer today."

Request number one to Barcellos.

Our first request to Barcellos is to ask him to show how our belief that the Sermon on the Mount is a higher law than that which God gave to Israel at Sinai can in any way whatever be labeled anti-law! How can belief in ‘higher law’ be turned into ‘against law?’ Please explain that! We will grant that we can be labeled ‘anti-Covenant Theology’s view of law,’ but in no sense can we honestly be labeled ‘anti-law.’ If we are wrong in our belief that the Sermon on the Mount is a new and higher law and not merely "a true interpretation of the law given through Moses," still do we not obey the very law that Barcellos advocates that we obey? If the Sermon on the Mount is, as Barcellos insists, the true interpretation of the Decalogue, do we not actually obey the Decalogue’s ‘true interpretation’ when we obey the Sermon on the Mount? We are merely mistaken in our terminology when we call it a new law. Is not the actual content of our obedience exactly the same in either case? What is the problem? Will not our lifestyle be the same either way? Barcellos obeys the Sermon on the Mount as the true interpretation of Moses, and we obey the identical laws as the laws of Christ. According to Barcellos’ view, are not the actual laws the same in both cases? How can we possibly be anti-law for obedience to the exact same rule of life, under a different label, that Barcellos advocates that we should obey? Why all the uproar?

Request number two to Barcellos.

The following statement by John Bunyan expresses exactly what we believe about the law and the Christian’s conscience. We ask Barcellos, "Do you believe the law should be pressed on the Christian’s conscience as an aid in his sanctification, or do you agree with John Bunyan in his article, "The Christian and the Law." The emphasis in capitals is mine.

Therefore whenever thou who believest in Jesus, dost hear the law in its thundering and lightening fits, as if it would burn up heaven and earth; then say thou, I AM FREED FROM THIS LAW, these thunderings have nothing to do with my soul; nay even this law, while it thus thunders and roareth, it doth allow and approve of my righteousness. I know that Hagar would sometimes be domineering and high, even in Sarah’s house and against her; but this she is to be suffered to do, nay though Sarah herself be barren; wherefore serve it (the law) also as Sarah served her, and EXPEL HER FROM THY HOUSE. My meaning is this, when this law with its thundering threatenings doth attempt to lay hold on thy CONSCIENCE, shut it out with a promise of GRACE; cry, the inn is took up already, the Lord Jesus is here entertained, and there is NO ROOM for the LAW. Indeed if it will be content with being my informer, and so lovingly leave off to JUDGE me; I will be content, it shall be in my sight, I will also delight therein; but otherwise, I being now upright without it, and that too with that righteousness, with which this law speaks well of and approveth; I MAY NOT, WILL NOT, CANNOT, DARE NOT, make it my Saviour and Judge [JGR: Bunyan is talking about justification], NOR SUFFER IT TO SET UP ITS GOVERNMENT IN MY CONSCIENCE; [JGR: Bunyan is talking about sanctification] for so doing I FALL FROM GRACE, and Christ doth profit me NOTHING.

From: John Bunyan, The Law and The Christian, vol. 2 of Bunyan’s Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 388.

I have participated in many discussions during my fifty years of ministry. Recently, I was involved in writing an evaluation of a view of justification espoused by another man. The first thing I did was to read all of his written material that was available to me. I then explained to him my perception of what he was teaching in six controversial areas and said, "I am in the process of giving my evaluation of your teaching on justification. Before I publish anything, I want to be sure I understand what you are saying. I do not want to misrepresent you. Here is exactly what I perceive you to be saying. I am not interested in constructing a straw man, either deliberate or unknowingly. Before I criticize you, I want to be positively sure I understand what you are saying." If Richard Barcellos had done that with my material, I sincerely doubt he would have written his book.

Please do not misunderstand me. There is only one section in the Barcellos book where I feel that I have been deliberately misrepresented. There is a great difference between someone honestly misunderstanding your position, and someone deliberately misrepresenting it. All of us can be guilty of the first; that is why we should always ask the individual we intend to criticize, "Have I correctly understood what you actually believe and teach?" The second situation is inexcusable.

Apart from a single chapter, I feel that Barcellos has tried to be honest and fair. However, it is impossible to honestly represent a position that you have never held or understood. When you talk to an Arminian about the doctrine of election, he usually responds with, "You are saying man is a robot." It does not matter how many verses you quote, or how hard you try to explain the difference between free will and free agency, the man will still hear, "Man is a robot." It is not possible for him, within his frame of reference, to understand what you really mean. The same principle is true when a person who sincerely holds to Covenant Theology hears a New Covenant theologian talk about law. That individual ‘hears’ what his Covenant Theology dictates he should hear. It is just as impossible for him to understand what we are saying when we talk about law as it is for an Arminian to understand what we are saying when we talk about election.

Appendix A

Of interest to Southern Baptists.

As mentioned in the introduction, In Defense of the Decalogue is not just another book. It was published to present the position of the Founders Ministries of the Southern Baptist on the subject of Covenant Theology and the issue of law and grace. The Founders is a group of Southern Baptists committed to restoring the doctrines preached by the founders of the SBC. The movement began with an expressed desire to promote the truth of sovereign grace as it was believed and expressed in the preaching and writings of the early fathers of the SB Convention. God has greatly honored their efforts and the Doctrines of Grace are enjoying a wider hearing in SB circles because of their efforts.

Three times in the last two years, people connected with the Founders’ movement have insisted that the leadership of the Founders was interested in reaching out and seeking to broaden their influence. I was assured they were becoming more open and ready to discuss differences. It would seem, from the request of the Founders to Barcellos, that the men who spoke to me represented their own desires, and not those of the leadership of the Founders Ministries. The message of In Defense of the Decalogue is unmistakable. There will be no deviation from their established efforts to reform the church, and the blueprint for that reformation is clearly stated. The doctrinal reformation will be guided by the 1689 Confession of Faith, and the role model for the reformation of local church polity will be the present-day Reformed Baptist movement. Both of these are quite proper if we are convinced of creedal authority and polity of the Reformed Baptists.

There are many churches and pastors in the SBC that greatly appreciate what the Founders have accomplished, but do not feel free to be a part of the movement. It is not a lack of commitment to sovereign grace or a reticence to openly preach their convictions that keeps these men at arm’s length from the Founders. It is other issues altogether. The publication of In Defense of the Decalogue by the Founders will do nothing to bring these brothers into the camp, but may well do much to further estrange them.

There are at least two concerns with the Founders Ministries among some of the Sovereign Grace Baptists in the SBC. Barcellos’s book highlights both of these issues. The first issue is this: The Founders Ministries seems to be more ‘Reformed’ Baptist than ‘Southern’ Baptist, and to put it bluntly, a lot of solid Sovereign Grace Southern Baptists are not interested in becoming ‘Reformed Baptists.’ Many brethren understand the cry of, "Reform the Church" as, "Eliminate the pastor, deacons, and congregational system and replace it with a Presbyterian view of eldership with everything but a Presbytery." Granted, some churches are quite comfortable with an elder-run church, but many others are not. Many see this great emphasis on ‘church reformation’ as going far past the original expressed intention of the Founders’ movement.

Barcellos’s book should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind concerning the Founders’ present attitude to Reformed Baptist theology. Barcellos, the author of the book, is a Reformed Baptist pastor. The back cover of the book carries an extremely harsh criticism of NCT from another Reformed Baptist pastor, Samuel Waldron, the principal of the Reformed Baptist School of Theology in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This was a satellite church of Trinity Church in New Jersey where Al Martin is the pastor. Waldron is quite explicit that NCT is the "greatest danger to historic, Reformed Christianity today . . ." He claims that Barcellos’s book "mounts a devastating counterattack" to NCT. The position and attitude espoused by In Defense of the Decalogue leaves no middle ground, nor is there any place for serious dialogue. NCT, in any form, is not to be tolerated.

The second concern of some sovereign-grace men in the SBC is the strict conformity to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Historically, Baptists have written creeds and confessions but they were never a ‘confessional’ church in the same sense as the Presbyterians. The Founders have taken a Presbyterian attitude toward the 1689 Confession. Barcellos has a lengthy section dealing with the Sabbath as set forth in the 1689 Confession. He tries to prove what nearly every writer, including most Sabbatarians, that John Calvin did not hold the view expressed in the Philadelphia Confession of Faith. He fails to mention that in the annual circular letter to all the churches, the Philadelphia Association rejected the Confession’s Sabbath-view and declared that the Sabbath was ceremonial and not moral. (See, Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association [Otisville, MI: Baptist Book Trust], 333-339.] in the article starting on page 9.

The leadership of the Founders has every right to publish what they believe. They have every duty to God and his church to publish what they believe is of major importance. However, if In Defense of the Decalogue represents what they truly feel is of major importance, they may see another Sovereign Grace movement in the SBC that accepts NCT as a legitimate option and is willing to openly discuss the issues. They will discover that many Calvinistic Southern Baptist pastors and churches are not interested in becoming Reformed Baptists.

i. Hereafter NCT.

ii. See our book, Tablets of Stone, 2nd ed. (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, forthcoming).

iii. At one time I would have said, "The Decalogue is, in and of itself, the Old Covenant." I no longer believe that. This will be explained in a later article. b