Opinions on faith and life

The Law

2002-01-01

This document deals with the question of whether the Old Testament (OT) law, also referred to as the Law of Moses or the Levitical system, must be observed by Christians. It is presumed that the Law does not save anyone from sin but merely makes us aware of it (Romans 3:20).

So the focus here will be on whether these ordinances apply to Christians, and whether there is any difference in how it may apply to Jews who become Christians.

First let’s look at the strictest view: that all the Mosaic law applies to Christians. If that is true, then we must not only obey the Ten Commandments (10Cs) but also observe the restrictions on work and travel on the Sabbath (sundown Friday through sundown Saturday), the ceremonial washings, the animal sacrifices, and everything else in the Levitical system.

The other extreme would be that not only are we free from the Mosaic law, but from all moral law because Jesus’ sacrifice declared us sinless in God’s sight. Therefore we are free to lie, cheat, steal, and whatever else we want, because “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Between these two extremes is the view held by the majority of those who believe we must observe the Mosaic law. This view proposes that although some laws were made obsolete by Christ’s sacrifice, others still apply. The criterion is that a law still applies unless it is expressly abolished in the New Testament (NT). Yet I would propose just the opposite: that a law does not apply unless it is expressly reinstated in the NT. For convenience in the following discussion, I will refer to these two views as Law and Grace.

In general, it is not legal for two contracts to be in effect for a particular situation, at the same time and for the same parties. Only if one party to a contract dies or the parties agree to end that contract can another one replace it. In ending the old contract, there is no need to declare each and every detail contained therein to be ended, but merely to end the entire contract. No part of the old contract can still be considered binding just because it was not expressly stated as being ended, since the details of the contract existed as a group and not as independent entities.

This is true of the Bible, and is evident in the very terms Old Testament and New Testament. Jesus said as much in his illustration of the wineskins (Matthew 9:17). There is no mixing of old and new; the new replaces the old. Law and Grace are two completely different ’contracts’ or systems, and as such cannot coexist or overlap. Throughout the NT they are always shown in opposition, not tandem. The attempt to mix them is the root of much confusion and misapplication of Scripture.

As explained in detail in the book of Hebrews, the Law cannot be separated from the priesthood (see Hebrews 7:12ff). Therefore, if the priestly system of the old law is abolished then so also is the law itself. So since Jesus is the new High Priest of the Melchisedec order which replaced the Levitical order, then no part of the old system can still apply to us who have accepted Jesus as our Savior. We are dead to that law (Romans 7:1-6) and are therefore released from it, just as any other contract would be declared null and void if one party died. (That “the law” in this passage does not mean “sin” is shown in verse 5, which contrasts law and sin.)

Another reason to believe that we are not under any part of the Mosaic law is that there are no penalties for breaking them reinstated in the NT. If, for example, we must still rest on the Sabbath, what is the punishment for those who violate this command? Why does the NT not say what to do with such a person? By the reasoning of the Law view, this command must be obeyed because it was never expressly nullified in the NT, yet if it is indeed a law there must be a specified penalty.

So we’re not under Law— Now what?

No one can read the NT and claim that we are now free from every moral law. In fact, Jesus gave us a new law (John 13:34): to love one another. And since love does no harm to its neighbor (Romans 13:10) it is the fulfillment of the law. (Fulfillment of a law is the normal, natural way to end it, as opposed to death or agreed termination. So whether the OT law was broken, or one party died, or it was fulfilled, the end result is the same: the contract is no longer in effect.) This is, in fact, the NT reinstatement of moral law for Christians. Not the “written code” of ordinances, but the law of the inner heart, the law of love for God.

Paul made it abundantly clear in his epistles that Christian behavior must come from the heart, not the letter. Our motivation is love, not law. The new law of love would never violate the nature of God, so for that reason we see in it many echoes of the old law. For example, we do not steal, not because it was a part of the 10Cs, but because love does not steal.

But Paul also made abundantly clear (see esp. Romans 14) that love goes beyond the clear and obvious. We must be considerate of others to the point where we give up some of our rights in order to avoid offending those with a more delicate conscience. This is what Jesus was talking about when he told his disciples that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), who were notorious for keeping the letter of the law to the extreme. As zealous as they were for the Law, they would never do what was not expressly required, because they were only concerned about the letter and not the spirit.

We are told in 1 Peter 2:12 that our behavior should be of such a high standard that we cannot be justly accused of doing wrong. People could see through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, so we should not think that people would not see through us if we do not have higher standards than the world’s. The NT is filled with such exhortations for moral living.

Yet we must also not make the mistake of turning the law of love back into a set of written rules. A careful examination of these exhortations to live rightly will reveal a need for SELF-judgment, not the all-too-typical judgment of other believers. The church has given itself a bad reputation for legalism over the centuries because of the failure to balance Grace and the law of love. We try to compel others to live according to our conscience, our rules, our level of spiritual maturity (or lack thereof!), instead of leaving room for the Spirit to do his work.

Yes, the mature are to teach and admonish the immature, but all too often the immature are busy criticizing each other. Instead of encouraging others to walk closer to the Lord, we smack them on the hand for breaking our pet rules. Or, as is becoming increasingly common, we go to the other extreme and never show any concern for unloving behavior or spiritual immaturity. Surely there is an ideal middle ground here, but few are willing to discipline themselves to find it.

The Law and Jewish Christians

There are some things in the OT that God terms “everlasting”. For example, in Genesis 9:16 God establishes the rainbow as representing the “everlasting covenant” between God and “all flesh” that he would never again flood the earth. In Genesis 17:8 God promises Abram that the land of Canaan would be an “everlasting possession” for his descendents.

But in Genesis 17:13 circumcision is called an “everlasting covenant”, and in Exodus 40:15 we see that the Levitical priesthood would be an “everlasting priesthood”. Should Jews still practice circumcision even after becoming Christians? And what about the assertion in Hebrews 7 that the Levitical priesthood was replaced by the Melchisedec priesthood?

As related earlier, the new believer is dead to the law. Since the death of a party to a contract nullifies the contract as it applies to that party, it is no longer in effect for the dead party.The permanence of the old law applies to those still under it. As Paul lamented to the Colossians in Colossians 2:20-21, “If you have died with Christ to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you submit to them as though you lived in the world? ’Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’” And in Galatians 2:20-21, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside God’s grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing!”

Another point is that one cannot serve two masters. The Law was like a guardian or master over people until they reached the time of the reality of Christ (Galatians 3:23-29). When the guardianship is over it is no longer in control. One cannot be both enslaved and free at the same time! Paul makes mention of the fact that Christians are not to enslave themselves, so to choose to be a slave to the law when Christ has declared you free is against the teachings of the NT.

The Bible tells us that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). There can never be a division or class distinction in Christianity. We are one.

Note on Matthew 5:17-18 and similar passages

In an article by Glenn Miller of Christian ThinkTank, a very strong argument is made for the case that Jesus wasn’t referring to the ordinances of the Mosaic Law at all, but to the fulfillment of all the OT prophecies of the Messiah. His paraphrase of this passage is as follows:
“Do not think that I have come to dismantle the superstructure of promises and predictions recorded in the writings of Moses and the Prophets— leaving them unfulfilled. On the contrary, I have come to fulfill every single prophecy therein. In fact, let me repeat this for emphasis: No matter how long it takes - even to the end of the universe - no prediction in the Old Testament, great or small, will fail to occur. Period.”
Miller points out that Jesus had to meet the demands of every detail of the ordinances in order to qualify as the “spotless Lamb”, but that his statement here focused on the fact that he would not leave anyone guessing about whether he was the Messiah or not by virtue of having met even the most minute details of all Messianic prophecies. In other words, Jesus did not come to perpetuate the ordinances, but to fulfill the prophecies.

2 Comments

Words of a Fether » Blog Archive » Hebrew Roots

[...] wrote earlier about why we Christians are not under the Law (article) so there is no need to repeat that. But we should also remember that it is utterly impossible for [...]

Paula Fether

A (much later) additional point:

For Gentiles, it cannot be overemphasized that we were never under the Mosaic law. We were never in a covenant relationship with God before salvation by faith in Christ. We do not inherit Judaism when we are saved.