January 22, 2021

High Culture, Low Lifes and Judgement In The Household of God: Answering That Tattoo/Piercing Question

Because I work with students, many of them not Christians, but mostly with some Christian background, I get a lot of questions about certain topics. I could probably post a “Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions From My Students” and you would be surprised at what is not on that list. Understanding that I am campus minister, frequent preacher and Bible teacher, the questions are usually related to what my students have heard from preachers or family members regarding subjects they are interested in. I’m supposed to confirm that Brother Billy Bob or Grandma were right or wrong. It’s a big responsibility, because….well…there’s not much way to avoid making someone angry with the kinds of questions students ask me.

“Is interracial dating wrong?” I get this a lot because a fair amount of parents disapprove of it and send their daughters to boarding school to avoid it. Trouble is, we’ve got more interracial couples than any school our size I know of. I know some of our older employees and mountain people struggle with this, but we’ve always done the right thing in saying nothing. When I answer this question–“The Bible doesn’t have anything to say about skin color as a factor in relationships”–I probably run the risk of some redneck dad coming to straighten me out, but so far, I’ve survived.

“If you commit suicide do you go to hell?” A lot of my students know someone who has taken his or her own life. This idea–based on the Roman Catholic notion of final absolution and last rites, I suppose–fascinates students who are sure it’s in the Bible somewhere. When I tell them that no one goes to hell for taking his own life but because he is a sinner, they rarely get what I mean. When I say that Christ forgives suicide, they are aghast.

“When the anti-Christ comes…..(fill in the blank from here with any of a dozen questions.) Students are full of Left Behind and all the malarkey they’ve collected from pastors and youth ministers who’ve shoved those books at them. I generally refuse to answer any questions about the anti-Christ until the student looks up all the verses in the New Testament that refer to the anti-Christ. If they return from that adventure, I give them my Young Person’s Guide To The Book of Revelation.

None of these, however, is the #1 question on my all-time hit list. The top question I get from my students is…

“Is there anything wrong with getting pierced or tattooed?”

I’ve actually used this question to my advantage. Early on in my Bible Survey class, we look at the only verse in the Bible that mentions tattoos, Leviticus 19:28 (“You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the LORD”) as an example of how to rightly interpret the Bible.

We locate this verse in a book, learn all we can about the various contexts, study the words, get a sense of what is going on at the time the verse occurs, then we venture some idea of what the verse says and what the Bible teaches on the subject.

As my regular readers can appreciate, I use this as an opportunity to show that the “magic book” and “grocery store” methods of reading the Bible are insufficient. The question becomes, “How is all of this about Christ?” There’s a question that needs to get asked a lot more than any question about tattoos.

That’s still the most important question. How is a “rule” about tattoos or piercings about Christ? Is the Christian life a set of rules and expectations, or is it loyalty to Christ? Is it all about how to not be “rebellious” and “immature,” or is it about being conformed to God as he is revealed in the incarnation of Jesus? When a Christian evaluates a cultural practice, what does he/she look at? What is God doing in laying down a rule about tattoos in Leviticus? What do we do with it now, especially since there are so many rules in Levitical law that we ignore?

Blogger Phil Johnson recently addressed the issue of tattoos and piercings in a post where he responded to a letter-writer challenging his views on piercings. Johnson makes many excellent points. He is a fine thinker and an excellent writer. His guidance is pastoral and practical. The letter-writer was using an evangelistic justification for piercings, and Phil pointed out the problems with that approach.

As you have described it above, body modification and combat boots are a significant and deliberate part, if not the very centerpiece, of your evangelistic strategy. You seem to imagine that if you try hard enough to fit into the punk culture, you might actually win people by convincing them that Jesus would fit nicely into their lifestyle, too.

But wouldn’t you yourself actually agree that there is “somewhere” a limit to how far Christians can legitimately go in conforming to worldly culture? Surely you do not imagine that the apostle Paul’s words about becoming all things to all men is a prescription for adopting every vulgar fashion of a philistine culture. Do you?

Can we agree, for example, that it wouldn’t really be good or necessary to get a sex-change operation in order to reach the transgendered community? OK, you might dismiss that as something inherently sinful and wrong for that reason. Well, how about pulling a few teeth and adopting the trashy patois and tasteless lifestyle of Jerry Springer’s guest list in order to have a more effective outreach to the underbelly of the cable-TV community? How serious are you about your strategy of accommodation and conformity?

And why is it mainly the lowbrow and fringe aspects of Western youth culture that this argument is invariably applied to? Why are so few Christian young persons keen to give up video games and take up chess in order to reach the geeks in the chess club? or give up heavy metal and learn the cello in order to have a ministry to the students who play in the orchestra?

Phil is exactly correct. Paul certainly knew what he was doing when he “became” anything and he didn’t pursue that as a “blank check” approach. Reaching a subculture requires some common ground and some pragmatic conformity, but attempts to “make Jesus cool” by total immersion are usually misplaced and ineffective.

Later, however, Johnson says,

The most effective way to minister to any culture, and this goes for every culture, from highbrow society to white middle-class suburbia to the urban street gang, is to challenge and confront the culture instead of conforming to it. “Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean'” (2 Corinthians 6:17)…Yes, I know Jesus was a friend of sinners, and His enemies accused Him, wrongly, of participating in their excesses. The truth is that He became their friend without adopting their values. That’s the example we should strive to follow, not the example of worldly culture itself.

It wouldn’t be hard to amen this as well, but I’m not sure I can. What Phil Johnson is describing- the confrontation of culture- is exactly right….IF by that we mean the culture is confronted with Christ and the Gospel, and not simply another culture.

The standard fundamentalist response to “low” culture has not been “Christ over culture” or “Christ transforming culture,” but Christ confronting culture. What arrives on the front lines, however, is often a fully enculturated version of “Christian” culture that is just as much part of the fallen human cultural phenomenon as piercings, tattoos and combat boots. Seeing our version of alternative Christian culture with the same eyes we see other cultures- especially those we condemn- has proven difficult.

All we need to do is look for a moment at Rick Warren’s Hawaiian shirts. That’s culture, and it’s no different from a teenager’s shirt with a favorite band, at least as far as its fashion value. (If the kid’s shirt has a message, that is another consideration.) Visit TBN and look at the hairstyles on everyone from Benny Hinn to Laverne Tripp to Jan Crouch. How is this different from the hairstyles you would see on kids with piercings and tattoos? (It’s, frankly, considerably weirder.)

Gospel quartets? If we turn the sound off and just look at the uniforms, the movements, the hairstyles, the motions….could we put the Beatles or Mxpx on parallel screens and see any “Christian” difference in the culture? Dress codes at Christian schools? Acceptable behavior during Pentecostal worship? Christian culture is everywhere, and seen by everyone, except those who swim in its waters.

In the comment thread on Phil’s article, the first commenter has his personal picture on the comment. He’s a young pastor. He also has gelled and spiked hair. I see gelled and spiked hair all over evangelicalism these days. Of course, back in the 80’s, gelled and spiked hair was the domain of punk rockers. What was once a symbol of rebellion now shows up on the head of conservative evangelical pastors…without anyone thinking “skater!”

My point is that we have to be “culture savvy,” not strictly confrontational. We must be culturally aware in all our environments. I can’t talk to my young people about their piercings as if my wife doesn’t have earrings. I can’t talk about his combat boots if I’m not aware of my own “suit and tie” subculture.

When I was growing up, my fundamentalist Baptist church was steeped in its own culture, and they preached against “hippy” culture all the time. But their hair, clothes, music and customs were no different, strictly speaking, than much of the hippy culture they critiqued. They had accepted and endowed their culture with the mantle of “Christian,” and the culture of young people with the label of “rebellious.” With the advent of the “Jesus movement,” Christianity easily adapted to much of that youth culture, even while it critiqued other aspects of it, like smoking weed and premarital sex. The rebellion of the 70’s became the old guy on his motorcycle going to a Calvary Chapel across the street. With his own TBN program, of course.

The admonition that our encounter with culture is summarized as “Be ye separate” reminds me of one of the passages I use to help my students understand what is happening in Leviticus 19 with rules against tattoos and commands to not cut your side locks.

Leviticus 18:1-4 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the LORD your God.

From the beginning, the situation was not so much about confronting culture as it was about becoming God’s people. God was creating his own people, and preparing them to be the people of the Messiah. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, God is about the creation of a Christ-centered counter-culture in the church. That counter-culture is not marked by outward signs any longer.

Romans 2:28-29 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Ironically, the word “Jew” here can simply be replaced with the idea of “Christian” today, as we believe God has made a new people in Christ, and the believing, faithful, old covenant community is part of that people as well.

I do not believe God cares any more about a butterfly tattoo on an ankle or a pierced nose than he cares about Jan Crouch’s hair or the music styles heard at a Gaither homecoming. Both are culture. Neither are sinful. Neither commend us to God. Are there legitimate questions of “high” and “low” culture? Yes, but we must be careful to not identify Christ with culture, whether high or low. That one cultural expression might reflect some objective value–like beauty–is not guranteed simply because I like it. I enjoy high church organ music and find hours of African drumming unnerving. Does God really choose one over the other? Conservative evangelicals would do well to not trust their own preferences so much, and to subject everything they do to the values of the Kingdom of God, where many things are upside down from our viewpoint.

Finally, on the subject of Jesus, I truly want to commend Phil Johnson for bringing Jesus up at all in this kind of discussion. It’s a rarity in evangelicalism these days. It is discouraging how Jesus is omitted from almost all evangelical debates about anything. In an examination of faithful living in a particular culture, Jesus matters more than any exegesis of Leviticus!

Phil is right that Jesus was wrongly accused if he was accused of using prostitutes for sex or of being drunk. But Jesus did participate in “low life” culture, at least as it was defined by the dominant Pharisaic Judaism of the time. Everything about Jesus was “low life.” His town. His region. His friends. Their jobs. Jesus’ didn’t use prostitutes, but he allowed them to follow him and to touch him. This was horrendously scandalous and would have been labelled “rebellious” and “purposely provocative” by those concerned about a good witness. The Pharisees would have said much of what fundamentalists say today: You don’t need to have followers from among the dirty, filthy sinners to be a reforming rabbi. You don’t need to touch lepers to show compassion. Send them to the established authorities. You don’t need to go into the houses of those people to show God is merciful. You don’t need to frequent those parties. You don’t need to hang out with Samaritans.

Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he made Matthew a disciple and accepted the lavish worship of a sinful woman. He knew exactly what he was doing in not washing his hands, refusing to fast, breaking traditions and associating with the politically and religious fringe.

Jesus broke laws that defined “high, decent, Christian” culture all the time. He broke food laws, sabbath laws, laws of association. He had his own version of the holiness code that would have sent the fundamentalists of his day scrambling for all their best rhetoric to condemn him as being needlessly, immaturely disrespectful of things that made up a good witness.

I only mention this to say that Jesus was “culture savvy” and purposely confronted the RELIGIOUS CULTURE of his day for their blindness to their own meaningless cultural acrustations to the truth of God. Tithing your mint and cumin was a good witness. Avoiding lepers was a good witness. If some of our Christian brothers and sisters provoke us the same way, let’s be careful we understand what is really happening. Are they attempting to “convert by being cool?” Then by all means, tell them what Doug Wilson does: the rebel soul is a geezer. Then let’s remember that Jesus is a rebel to any aspects of culture that turn us away from the truth of God and true human experience. Making sure we aren’t blind to our own cultural trappings is crucial in making sure we don’t present Jesus as simply a white, suburban, American, Republican, evangelical version of what we think “good people” ought to look like.

How do I answer the question of tattoos and piercings? It is a complex question. It has to do with all kinds of issues over which Christians will disagree. I tell our kids under 18 that they should submit to their parents on this one. I tell anyone over 18 to look closely at what Jesus did and didn’t do, and to not rush into a decision that they will later regret. I harshly critique the idea that such things are “evangelistic.” God isn’t mocked or manipulated by fashion. But he isn’t manipulated by Gospel music either. Or by Reformed worship. Or by Warren’s books. God isn’t obligated to any of our cultures. He came as Jesus Christ for us and for our salvation. How we live on earth is about loyalty to Christ. It’s a life devoted to Jesus as Lord, serving others in love. That isn’t a tattoo and it’s not cool. It’s a life created by the Spirit and formed by the Word. Whatever our culture, let’s put it under the constant judgement of the final Word…Jesus Christ.


  1. “God isn’t obligated to any of our cultures.”

    Print it, frame it, ship it express to the folks at Bartlett’s.

    Good stuff, Michael.

  2. I’ve never been tattooed or pierced, simply because I’m not aesthetically interested in it. It really has nothing to do with what Scripture says.

    That said…

    I find it confounding that you have so many people willing to fling Leviticus 19.28 into everyone’s faces about piercing, yet skip over the other parts of that chapter. How about v19, on garments made of two different materials — anyone else own a 50-50 cotton-polyester shirt? How about v27 and goatees? How about v32 and standing up when old people enter the room — does ANYONE do that anymore?

    The sad fact is that everyone picks and chooses which verses to follow depending on how relatively offensive they are to the culture. If everyone in the culture does it, the reasoning is this:

    “Whatever God’s reason for issuing that commandment is irrelevant; it’s a CULTURAL issue. God only meant that command for the HEBREWS. But for us more enlightened Gentiles, we can ignore it so long as we stick to the Ten Commandments and the verses prohibiting anything I personally disapprove of (like maybe liquor, fornication, and homosexuality).”

    I hardly want to make a case for legalism, but my attitude about the commandments is that it’s probably better to follow them than not. Of course they don’t save. Of course we don’t make brownie points with God by keeping them; He won’t love us any less. But if the commandments are an expression of God’s desires, and we want to please God… why are so many of us (including, admittedly, me) so casually disregarding them?

  3. But redemption in Jesus Christ will produce an incarnated culture, which has specifics. We’re not talking about God’s obligation to us, but ours to God, in what we do/don’t do with our bodies/lives, etc.

    IMonk says, “Don’t confront with THAT because THAT’s not Christian, either.” When Johnson was talking about confronting with Christ all along, I thought. A little frustrating and nitpicky, if you ask me. Somebody help me see it better if I’m missing something.

    Of course, redemption works an internal culture first, of motive and loyalty to Jesus in the heart. What flows out of that matters less than the motive, but it also matters. Mark 7:14-23 applies, I’d say. And James 1:22-25.

    Doug Wilson’s got more on this at his blog again…

  4. I largely agree with Phil.

    When he says “Be ye separate,” I am simply pointing out that we exist in a cultural expression of our values (Christian as we understand them) and that is under the critique of Christ as well.

    I am not attempting to start a fight with Johnson in any way.

  5. Excellent, excellent essay! Thank you for sharing your insights.

  6. Chris Stiles says

    I think Michael had this right actually.

    “When Johnson was talking about confronting with Christ all along, I thought.”

    That is entirely correct. However, it is very very easy to conflate Christ with our Christian culture and as far as I can see that is what Michael was saying.

  7. Awesome Post!! Thanks Michael,you got me thinking again and that’s what I love about’ya!!

  8. Excellent essay once again, Monk. And an issue we agree on for once! 😉 hehe (just kidding)

    steve 🙂

  9. You might take a look at Steve Schlissel’s article on this:


  10. Good article Michael. I thought it was very well balanced.

    Now, to comment on a comment :

    “But if the commandments are an expression of God’s desires, and we want to please God… why are so many of us (including, admittedly, me) so casually disregarding them?”

    Perhaps because we are under the New Covenant and the Old has no authority over us? This sounds like a “just to be safe” kind of argument which is really hard to stop once you get going.

  11. I liked the essay. Although it would be considered cultural according to what you have written, one day I want to write for youth “If You Want to Be Different.” Included in it would be to avoid tattoos and piercings, to dress modestly, to buy a vehicle more for usefulness than for status (and to not modify it for street racing or blasting music), and to do or not do many of the things “different” youth do. But in there somewhere probably will be this warning: Do not try too hard to be different. You will live to regret it. When I was younger, I tried too hard to be different, and although I never abused drugs or alcohol, and I never tattooed or pierced myself, I am still living with the results of many poor decisions. Now that I am older and wiser (or simply less ignorant of what happens when one makes an obviously poor decision), I know I am different. God made me that way. So I need not do anything outrageous in order to seem different from other people. All I need to do is act like I act, and if a scene needs to be made, I can eschew a modicum of common sense to convince friend, acquaintance, and stranger how different I think and can act from them.

    That said, Christian culture. Ha, ha! Good one. Yes, I see it in churches and on/in religious programming, but I rarely see it on the street beyond a fish here and there on a car. By that, I mean obvious Christian culture. I see few people wearing Christian T-shirts. WWJD? He might not wear WWJD bracelets, it seems, since I see few of those, either. I meet Christians at work, but I cannot tell them apart from anyone else. When I had my Bible open on the counter, one attendee of a megachurch looked oddly at me when I said I read it because I am a believer. She said she was a believer, but she did not read her Bible on a regular basis. Another churchgoing customer snapped at me in such a way when I asked the name of his church that clearly he never wanted to talk about anything spiritual. So…in my opinion, “Christian culture” is indistinguishable from worldly culture because even professing believers partake of so much of it. Without my Bible out, few would know I am much different from them since I frown and scowl so much at a job I hate.

  12. Wow, iMonk. AMEN!

    btw, I’ve always wondered what the imapct would have been if we’d depicted Jesus as He was – an observant Jew? Would peyos (the long curly side locks you see mostly on Hassids today) be part of ‘evangelist hair’?

  13. There are many other things to consider as well. Would you cause someone ‘weak in faith’ to stumble?
    If you are under someone’s authority such as parents, as I assume many of your students would be, what is their command? It’s not a sin to eat a cookie, but if Dad says, ‘No,’ it is.
    Check your motivation. If it is to be cool, or different, or your own individualism, or to fit in more than your love for Christ Jesus, look out.

    Great post and excellent issue!

  14. Tattoos and piercings are all about identifying with a cultural aspect and here in California they are the norm not the exception, most kids I know do it to be like their friends, not as a witness. I usually express to them that Christ is about transending culture not conforming, of course the beauty of christianity is that it works well in any culture or subculture. Of course sometimes I think these things are moot, because as iMonk said we are all conformed to some sort of culture.

  15. Great post. Tangentially, I want to point out that the idea that suicide is a mortal sin is not based on the idea that a suicide is missing out on last rites, but on the sixth commandment. A suicide might be in a situation or state of mind that diminishes his or her culpability (and therefore might not be damned), but objectively it’s still a mortal sin.

  16. Not a thread on suicide.

  17. brian:

    The “that was the old covenant, this is the new” is too Marcionist for my comfort. Especially since (a) Jesus isn’t the nullification of the old covenant, but the fulfillment of it; (b) the concept of covenant includes the idea that it CAN’T be nullified, regardless of whether either party doesn’t abide by it anymore; and (c) as Gentiles grafted into the covenant, Christians have to deal with it. And we do; we teach kids the Ten Commandments and everything.

    Like I said, I recognize the commandments don’t save, and never did. That doesn’t mean we disregard them entirely, or blow them off because they’re “old.” God used to take them seriously enough to include death penalties for violating some of them — even gathering sticks on Saturday. Nowadays, God gives us grace; but shall we continue to sin so that grace may abound?

  18. “…even gathering sticks on Saturday.”

    The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath – Jesus healed on the Sabbath to teach us that. He was the fulfillment of the Sabbath.

    “(b) the concept of covenant includes the idea that it CAN’T be nullified, regardless of whether either party doesn’t abide by it anymore;”

    Hebrews 8:13
    By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

    Zechariah 11:10
    Then I took my staff called Favor and broke it, revoking the covenant I had made with all the nations.

  19. This was a well timed article for me. Lately I’ve really been toying with the idea of getting a cross tattooed on my shoulder with something like “Sola Dei Gloria” or “now I live for the glory of God” tattooed around it.

    I guess my motivation for doing it would be so that my physical body bears some physical mark of my desire to follow Christ all of my days. A constant reminder, a mission, and a public proclamation all in one.

  20. Several points:
    I think looking at the heart and the motivation for the action is important. I would have to ask the young person the reason they want a tattoo. Is it to fill their need for peer acceptance and as a means of forming their identity based on the culture of their peers? If so, they are looking in the wrong place for identity. Although the tattoo itself might not be unbiblical per se…. Basing our identity on anything or anyone other that Christ obviously is.

    Secondly, I think it’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit (God Himself) dwells in the physical body of the believer. If I truly understand the concept that my body is a dwelling place for God almighty Himself, I have to ask myself the question, “How am I to maintain, clothe, embellish, and use His most Holy dwelling place in a way that glorifies Him?” Again, taking a Scriptural stand against piercings probably could not be supported. But, again, I think it’s important to look at God’s intentions as to the use of our physical bodies. Again.. the clear answer is that our bodies are intended to glory Him. Our bodies are to be offered as a Holy and living sacrifice on His altar.

    So I think a person has to search their hearts when considering these issues. It’s not a matter of a simple “yes” or “no”. There isn’t a simple legalistic answer. Just as there was no simple legalistic answer to the questions presented to Paul about eating meat offered to idols or to questions of circumcision. These questions cannot be answered without looking at your heart, God’s heart, and how God intends on using each individual for His glory. The answer won’t always be the same.

    My husband and I had to deal with these issues with our own teenage sons. We taught the concepts I outlined above and then gave them full freedom to do whatever they wanted with their outward appearance for except piercings and tattoos, simply because of the permanence of the alterations. We felt like they were actions that could be difficult or impossible to reverse later if they chose to change courses. (We also forbade the public display of underwear while in our presence!)

    A few of the results: One of my sons shaped his hair into 3″ spikes using a different, wild color everyday. Even to church. (Yes, I was judged by other parents for allowing this!) For Christmas one year, I actually bought him the latest, greatest spiker gel in a variety of metallic colors. That was the day he quit coloring and spiking his hair!

    My oldest son had his ears pierced in several places within a week of leaving home for college. He was shocked when neither my husband nor I reacted with judgment. (I actually didn’t even notice at first… he had to get up in my face and very obtrusively display his ears to me!) He asked my opinion and I repeated my previously stated reservations about it. I made sure he was doing what he needed to do to prevent infection. I told him that the inside was more important to me than the outside and identified what I had observed in him as strengths in his character and his relationship with God. Then I never mentioned it again. He took the earrings out after six months and I haven’t seen them since. (He’s a sophomore now.)

    This has turned into a ramble… not unusual for me… I could go on, but it’s time to stop.
    One more thought: They’ll know we are Christians by our love…. not by our hairstyle or the number of our tattoos and piercings.
    In Him,

  21. Ellen:

    Of course the Sabbath was made for man. The Law was made for man. Yet executing the man for gathering sticks on Saturday was God’s idea; see Numbers 15.32-36. Maybe the man was deliberately flouting God’s law; maybe his attitude was bad; maybe his example would cause others to inflict work on others on that day. I don’t claim to know God’s reasons for doing what He did. Neither should we claim that Jesus’s violation of human traditions — NOT God’s laws — about the Sabbath means that we can therefore violate God’s laws.

    Hebrews 8 quotes Jeremiah 31 — where God writes His law on our hearts, and for this reason there is no need for the first covenant because the people won’t violate it. You might notice that this hasn’t yet happened yet. So it’s a little premature to presume that the old covenant has passed away yet.

    Zechariah 11.10 — “parar” is better translated “broke” than “revoke,” especially considering the context of Zechariah breaking his staff. Note that verb’s other uses in Scripture; they all have a sense of breaking rather than canceling.

    Bear in mind that if covenants COULD be cancelled, what’s to stop God from revoking the New Covenant?

  22. KWL

    “Like I said, I recognize the commandments don’t save, and never did. That doesn’t mean we disregard them entirely, or blow them off because they’re “old.” God used to take them seriously enough to include death penalties for violating some of them — even gathering sticks on Saturday. Nowadays, God gives us grace; but shall we continue to sin so that grace may abound?”

    If you believe the OT commandments still have authority over you, then you should not disregard them at all. If they do not have authority over you, then it’s not an issue of “blowing them off” because there is no obligation to keep them in the first place.

    Of course we should not sin so that grace should abound. The question is what are you sinning against. Do you make sure not to gather sticks on Saturday?

    “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” Eph 2:14-16

  23. “Neither should we claim that Jesus’s violation of human traditions — NOT God’s laws — about the Sabbath means that we can therefore violate God’s laws.”

    What then do you make of Mark 7:19 and Acts 10:9-16, where Jesus and the Father specifically revoke the food laws of the Old Covenant? It’s not just a matter of Jesus flouting Pharisaical tradition – there is a paradigm shift regarding the Mosaic Law as a whole.

    “Hebrews 8 quotes Jeremiah 31 — where God writes His law on our hearts, and for this reason there is no need for the first covenant because the people won’t violate it. You might notice that this hasn’t yet happened yet. So it’s a little premature to presume that the old covenant has passed away yet.”

    We still sin. Does that mean our being indwelled by the Holy Spirit hasn’t happened yet? We still die. Does that mean the Resurrection hasn’t happened yet? The fulfillment of these things is present, yet incomplete. The important thing is, Christ has come, Christ has died, and Christ has risen. That was all that was required to fulfill and abrogate the Old Covenant.

    Also, regarding the Old Covenant, Heb 7:12 says ‘For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.’ If Jesus is our High Priest, we are not in the Old Covenant. As D. A. Carson says about Hebrews 7 and 8, you’ve got to put that in your doctrinal system’s pipe and smoke it.

    “Bear in mind that if covenants COULD be cancelled, what’s to stop God from revoking the New Covenant?”

    Simple. The Old Covenant was in place only until Christ came (Gal. 3:24). It was *never meant* to be eternal (Hebrews 8:6-7). The only way God could revoke the New Covenant would be to revoke the coming of Christ. THAT ain’t gonna happen.

  24. Hypothetically speaking, even IF it were possible for God to revoke the New Covenant (I’m actually finding it hard to believe we’re even proposing that hypothetical!), look at what He did when going from the Old to the New. Hebrews is very plain in stating that the New is a BETTER covenant. We lost nothing in the change from Old to New in terms of our relationship with God. But we gained an awful lot.

    If, again very hypothetically, God were to revoke the New Covenant, or replace it with a NewER covenant, we can safely assume from what has been revealed of God’s character and His working already in history that it would be for an even better covenant still.

    Somehow, the original poster of this question seemed to imply that God might pull the rug out from under us. We live under the New Covenant because that’s what God has given us, just as Israel lived under the Old Covenant when that was all they had been given. No sense in looking back now, and no sense in worrying about what might happen to this covenant in the future. (Although I happen to think Scripture already tells us the future of this covenant, and it will not be revoked, removed, overturned, or in any other way taken away from us.)

    steve 🙂

  25. Someone on the Doug Wilson thread just made the very good point that it all comes down to the ideas in the C. S. Lewis essay “The Inner Ring”, which is in… oh, I think it’s in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and Other Essays”. The point being that where we do something to conform and to make people like us – be that “evangelistically” or just because – we’re on very shaky ground, whereas if something genuinely is a mode of self-expression then go to it.

    That’s very badly put, by me, of course, but it’s a thought. I wonder if the essay’s on that t’Internet anywhere?

  26. Steve (and others):

    The Old Covenant will pass away only because it isn’t needed any more, not because God ditched it. Having God’s words in our hearts (cf. Hebrews 8) means we won’t NEED them in the Bible. And while we’re on our way there, we’re not there yet. I don’t think we’ll be there until the End, when Jesus comes back. Same with the New Covenant. Will we need grace any more, once there’s no longer any sin? No. “…The old order of things has passed away…” (Rev 21.4) and at that point the Law will truly be written in our hearts. That is definitely something better.

    Doug (and others):

    What I make of the proof-texts I’m shown always have to do with their context. I know a lot of folks are fond of this idea that the Old Testament has been nullified by the New because “we’re under grace and truth” instead of “under law.” Yet read John 1.17 again. We’re under BOTH. Why would God need to grant us grace unless we’d violated the Law? If the Law is no longer under effect, there’s no need for grace. Why forgive the violation of something that no longer counts?

    Now to the verses you bring up.

    Mark 7.19: “Thus He declared all foods clean.” The context has to do with eating with defiled hands (7.2-5). This is not a law found in the OT; it’s from the Mishnah tractate Yadayim. The idea is that food becomes unclean if you don’t wash first — not because of hygiene but because “a man’s home is his Temple” and “a man’s food is his sacrifice,” and since the priests wash before sacrifice, people should wash before eating. Thus the Pharisees accuse Jesus’s disciples of violating the traditions — not the Law (7.5) and Jesus nullifies the tradition by saying it’s not what goes into a person that defiles (7.14-23). Thus Jesus declared all food — regardless of hand-washing — clean. There is never anything in the context that refers to non-kosher food. It isn’t even ABOUT that. And why, logically — if Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law (Matthew 5.17) would we automatically assume that Jesus was nullifying the Scriptures rather than a tradition?

    Acts 10.9-16. Now read verse 17: “…Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision…” If the vision meant — as it does at face value — that God has abolished the kosher laws, then Peter wouldn’t have been wondering about it, would he? And in fact he realizes (10.27) that it meant “God has shown me that I should not call any MAN impure or unclean.” After all, what God has called clean, you don’t call unclean. The vision, like all of God’s visions, was meant to grab Peter’s attention — and like all of God’s visions, wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

    If you want to argue against eating kosher food, you’d have a better chance with Acts 15.19-29, where James decides to not overburden Gentiles with the Law’s requirements before they become Christians — but James does add “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (15.21) implying that eventually the Gentiles will learn better.

    The hard fact is that we don’t WANT to follow the commandments because we perceive them as too hard, and we don’t recognize the joy and the freedom that the writer of Psalm 119 found in them. The Pharisees sucked all the joy out of them, and as a result we perceive them to be what the Pharisees turned them into… and abandon them, and the revelation of God to be found in them, because we like the Pharisees confuse them with tradition. Plus, now we have our OWN tradition, of ignoring them and proof-texting the New Testament to support that behavior.

    If your conscience has no problem with it, fine. We’re free in Christ. But when you quote verses, please read them in context.

  27. KWL – I see that we are probabally at an impasse. Thanks for the cordial discussion and I won’t take up any more of iMonk’s bandwidth discussing something which wasn’t even the point of his post to begin with.

  28. I agree that this looks like an impasse, but I would make the point that if someone still holds the OT as normative for the Christian life, they’re going to come out with a lot less “room for maneuver” in cultural issues – and I heartily disagree with their assessment of the relation between the Testaments.

  29. “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22).

    “As an earring of gold, and an ornament of fine gold, so is a wise reprover upon an obedient ear” (Proverbs 25:12).

  30. kelty broadstone says

    Great article. I agree. We must as Phil says, confront a pagan culture. We must as well confront every pathetic subcultural version of Christ as well. You’ve mentioned your distaste for so-called christian bookstores. Me too. And I realize after this article it is because in one gigantic place I can find all kinds of contradictory versions of Christ.

    Grace and Peace,

  31. the last guy to tattoo me DID use the session as an opportunity to witness to me, so i have to say i am disappointed to see such consensus on the question of whether or not tattoos can be used for “evangelism.” of course they can. ask jason kelly at http://www.bornagainskin.net/ (the one who inked me most recently).

    not that it’s all about evangelism, because it isn’t, anymore than purchasing a home with a 30-year mortgage, or going on vacation, or wearing a tie, or watching a football game, or choosing paper instead of plastic. some of us get tattoos because we enjoy them. we want them. we like them a great deal. and the most shocking thing of all: there’s nothing wrong with that.

    : )

  32. I’ve read many of the comments here, but not all of them in their entirety. There’s a scriture that comes to my mind, that I’m surprised no one else used. Paul says our body is the temple of God. Levital law aside, the reason I personally have never been tatooed or pierced myself is so I can present myself a holy living sacrifice. I wouldn’t write on the walls of my church sanctuary with spray paint, nor throw rocks through the windows. Our bodies are the living temple of God, and we are to care for them as such. I am crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20). We are bought with a price, and our lives are no longer our own. Now admittedly, these statements and scriptures are true in the life of the believer, and might not matter much to an unbeliever; but then again, the Levitical law didn’t apply to any but God’s people in the old testament.

  33. Michael —

    You almost had me until you said that Jesus was “in” the culture of the prostitutes and tax-collectors. He was among them; he ministered to them. He was not a pimp or an extortionist. He didn’t skim tax receipts to have cred with Zacchaeus.

    Now: does failing to be an extortionist or a pimp make one “out of touch” with the culture in question? No: it makes one obedient to God.

    In that, let me say that you started making a great point about what we are identifying with. For example, when you started to say that Lev 18’s admonition was about Christ-centered counter-culture, that exactly right. But when you apply that precept and come up with, “but God doesn’t care how we present ourselves to the cultures we are confronting,” you have pretty much denied your first good point.

    God wanted the Jews to present themselves in a certain way to the fallen cultures around them in order to prepare the way for the Messiah, amen? But to do that, did God tell them, “you go ahead and try to fit in with the Hitites and the Jebusites because I’m working out my redemptive purposes and you can’t really screw up my plan,” or did he tell them “You shall walk in my ways, for I am the LORD your God”?

    Let’s be clear: you’re right the God didn’t call them to Gospel Quartets or Armani suits (and he didn’t call us to those things, either, [halleluia]). The Lord called them to live in a way that confronts the “otherness” of human culture with the holiness of God — the dividing line of the law.

    In that, does tattoo evangelism make any sense at all? Let’s imagine that somebody tattoos the 5 solas on this bicep — or perhaps the key doctrines of TULIP. Does that make any sense in the context that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures? It can’t.

    What underlies the idea that we should use tattoos for evangelism or get a prim version of Johnny Rotten’s hairstyle to “speak to” a generation is the idea of “how much can I get away with and still be a Christian”.

    My answer to that question is: “you cannot get away with anything. If you are trying to figure out what you can do without breaking the Law you are already (or still) under the law and Christ is of no value to you.” If I am inside the Gospel, I am saved from the law and in that rebellion against the law is pointless and hopeless.

    That’s off the cuff — I’ll revise and extend those comments on my own blog eventually.

  34. >He was not a pimp or an extortionist. He didn’t skim tax receipts to have cred with Zacchaeus.

    Thanks for straightening me out on that one. I’ve been laboring for years under the illusion that Jesus was a pimp.

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