It comes as no shock to those who have been following trends in the church and our culture to hear that young people—especially Millennials—are leaving the church in great numbers. The number of secularized young people in our culture grows every year. Barna reports that “more than two-thirds of skeptics have attended Christian churches in the past—most for an extended period of time.” So the majority of Millennials—of whom over a third are under thirty—were formerly churched. What happened?
Well, there are many different issues that have contributed to this exodus, but, according to research conducted by America’s Research Group for my book Already Gone, one major issue is a lack of apologetics teaching. Millennials have not been taught to defend their faith against the secular attacks of our day, and the scoffing and arguments of the secular world have drawn them away.
But it goes deeper than that. Though there are more Bibles, study aids, churches, Christian bookstores, television and radio programs, and schools than any other era in history, our young people are incredibly biblically illiterate. They don’t know what the Bible teaches or that the Bible is the grand narrative pointing to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Commenting on this, Albert Mohler points to research which shows that “many Christians cannot identify two or three of the disciples” and that “according to 82 percent of Americans, ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better—by one percent.” (Tip: It’s not in the Bible!)
Confused About the Old Testament
As I’ve spoken across America and other parts of the Western world, read research and atheist writings, and answered questions, I’ve noticed a common stumbling block that comes up continually. This generation of biblically illiterate young people does not understand the purpose and place of the Old Testament. They’ve never been taught how to properly understand and apply the first thirty-nine books of the Bible, especially the ones dealing with the Mosaic covenant and law. Because they lack a proper understanding, many Millennials will accuse the church of being hypocritical for what they perceive as following some laws and not others.
Because they lack a proper understanding, many Millennials will accuse the church of being hypocritical for what they perceive as following some laws and not others.
We hear accusations such as, “So you think homosexuality is wrong, but does that mean we should kill gay people? (Leviticus 20:13)” and “Why do you wear clothes made from two different kinds of fabric since Leviticus 19:19 says not to?” These young people don’t understand the role of the OT because, to them, Christians seem to pick and choose which laws they want to obey. When pastors use Old Testament terminology such as “come to the altar,” “anointing with oil,” or even “the Ten Commandments,” they reinforce in these Millennials’ minds that Old Testament laws should still apply but that Christians can simply ignore the ones they don’t like.
Know Your Audience
Now there’s nothing wrong with using Old Testament terminology to communicate truth. After all, the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of what was to come in Jesus Christ and is a vital part of and foundation for our theology. Indeed New Testament authors not only quoted from the Old Testament and referenced its history, but also frequently pointed their Jewish readers back to Old Testament themes by using words and motifs from the former writings:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present yourself as living sacrifices. (Romans 12:1; see Psalm 50:13–14)
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God. (Hebrews 4:14; see Leviticus 21:10–15)
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:8; see Psalm 24:4)
What the New Testament writers understood was the importance of knowing your audience. If a writer was penning a letter or a gospel to a largely Gentile audience that didn’t have much knowledge of Jewish customs or the Old Testament, he would avoid using Old Testament terms and motifs or would explain them carefully. If he was writing to a largely Jewish audience, he could easily use references to the temple, sacrifices, priests, or Jewish customs and feasts because his audience would have the foundational knowledge to understand what the writer was communicating.
Two Different Sermons
In the book of Acts, we read two very different sermons, one by Peter and one by Paul. After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter stands up and delivers a powerful sermon to a group of primarily Jewish people (Acts 2:14–40). This sermon is full of Old Testament quotations and themes but, because the audience is Jewish and therefore has an Old Testament background, they understand the message and about three thousand people believe (verse 41). In Acts 17, Paul is addressing a group of Greek thinkers at the Areopagus in Athens. He preaches a very different sermon from Peter. His is not full of Old Testament quotations and motifs because his Gentile audience lacks a foundation in the Old Testament. He understood his audience and tailored his message for a pagan audience.
In a sense, the West used to be a “Jewish” audience. In days gone by, even many unbelievers knew biblical history, believed in a Creator God, and largely believed the Bible had at least some authority. If a pastor referenced something from the Old Testament or used a clichéd phrase with Old Testament connotations, the audience understood what was meant. This is not so anymore. Even many of the Millennial generation who have grown up in the church do not know the Old Testament except perhaps a few scattered accounts such as “Daniel in the Lions Den” or “David and Goliath.” Essentially the audience is no longer “Jewish” but is “Gentile” in their knowledge and thinking.
Purpose of the Old Testament
So how do we effectively minister to a Gentile audience? Well, first we need to help our audience understand the purpose and place of the Old Testament, particularly the Old Testament law. The Old Testament provides the history that the New Testament is based on. It points out our sinfulness, hopelessness, and desperate need for a Savior.
The Old Testament provides the history that the New Testament is based on.
In Genesis we learn that God created a perfect world, but Adam and Eve chose not to obey God’s command and marred the world by their sin. Their children likewise chose disobedience, as did their children after them. Eventually the world became so wicked that God judged it with a global Flood. Only righteous Noah and his family survived. But, just a few generations later, mankind rebelled against God again. Eventually God chose a covenant people, Israel, for Himself and gave them His law. They failed to live by it time and time again. This pattern of failing to keep God’s law repeats itself throughout the whole Old Testament. The history of mankind and the nation of Israel clearly show that we cannot keep God’s commands and laws on our own.
With this backdrop, the New Testament teaching of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes sense. Salvation is by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8), in Christ alone (Acts 4:12), because sinful human beings have fallen short of God’s law (Romans 3:23) and can never keep it. So Christ kept it for us (Matthew 5:17). What we could never do on our own, Christ did for us because it’s impossible for us to earn our own salvation (Ephesians 2:9). Throughout the Bible we see the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation that culminates in the person and work of Christ. It’s about Jesus from beginning to end!
But What About the Mosaic Law?
The Mosaic Law—the law that was given to the Israelites under the Old Covenant—does the same thing as the history of the Old Testament. It highlights our inability to keep God’s commands. The law served as a “tutor” to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24) by showcasing our sinfulness (Romans 3:19) and showing us what sin was (7:7). The Law was also designed to keep Israel completely separate and distinct from her pagan neighbors (Leviticus 20:26). Some laws which seem strange to us—such as not mixing fabrics or types of crops—were designed to emphasize the holiness of God (Leviticus 19:2) and the need for Israel to keep herself separate from her neighbors (something she consistently did not do).
The sacrifice of animals and the priesthood, which were so integral to the Old Covenant, were types and shadows of Christ who was to come (the author of Hebrews lays this out beautifully in his letter). Now that Jesus has come, these types have been completely and utterly fulfilled. We are no longer under this Old Covenant (Romans 6:14). Jesus, through His death, burial, and resurrection, has made the first covenant obsolete (Hebrews 8:13) and has brought us into the New Covenant (Luke 22:20) foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:31). We are no longer bound by the Old Covenant—it has been utterly fulfilled and nailed to the Cross.
So why don’t Christians advocate stoning homosexuals and ban clothing with more than one fiber? Simply because we aren’t under the Mosaic Law, the Old Covenant, anymore. This doesn’t mean the Mosaic Law holds no value for us. The principles of the Law still offer guidance for believers and many have been carried over (Romans 13:9) and are now part of “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (8:2).The Mosaic Law certainly has great value for New Covenant believers (15:4; 1 Corinthians 10:11) but it is no longer binding to us because we are under a different covenant (Hebrews 8:6–7).
Does This Mean God’s Laws Change?
Now some people have argued that if God’s laws can change throughout history, then the Bible cannot be relied upon as an absolute foundation for morality. After all, if putting homosexuals to death was the right thing to do in Old Testament times, but isn’t now, doesn’t that show morality changes with time?
The point is that we don’t get to decide what is moral—God does, and we must submit to Him and His law.
The point is that we don’t get to decide what is moral—God does, and we must submit to Him and His law. His revelation to us is the only way we can know what is moral. You see, morality is grounded in the character of God, and God does not change (Hebrews 13:8). But this doesn’t mean rules or punishments can’t change. Originally man was created to be vegetarian and was commanded to eat plants (Genesis 1:29). But following the Flood, God made a new covenant with Noah, allowing man now to eat all meat (Genesis 9:3). Under the Mosaic Law, Israel was only permitted to eat clean meats (Leviticus 11:47); but under the New Covenant, this was again changed (Acts 10:9–16). Since there won’t be any death in heaven, we know that we will be vegetarian once again in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:4). Did God change? Not at all. But God’s rules to us can change under various covenants.
A Stumbling Block
The Old Testament, especially the Mosaic Law, seems to be a big stumbling block to Millennials because they aren’t receiving the instruction fundamental to understanding the redemptive history of the Old Testament and how it undergirds the person and work of Jesus. Therefore Christian leaders, pastors, teachers, and parents need to be careful that they’re teaching others how they should view the Old Testament and the Law as Christians under the New Covenant. Don’t avoid using the Old Testament—it forms the basis for our theology—but make sure your audience properly understands how to view it so they can grow in the knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18) and in godliness.
This item was written with the assistance of AiG’s research team.