Freedom from the Law: Examining the Applicability of the Old Testament Law for Contemporary Christians

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Introduction

Church leaders have long sought to define the relationship between the Old Testament Law and the gospel while seeking to determine the applicability of Old Testament laws for Christian believers. Unfortunately, a consensus among modern theologians remains unattainable, producing a spectrum of views on the subject. Contention primarily arises over obedience to “customary laws,” principally the requirement for Christians to observe the Sabbath. While brevity excludes a thorough examination of the subject, this essay will laconically detail the relationship between the law and the Christian believer, arguing (1) the Mosaic Law cannot be divided and categorized (as some have suggested), and (2) adherence to the Mosaic Law is not an obligation for Christians. This paper further maintains that while not obligatory mandates for the Christian, the Old Testament Law is relevant to the Christian worldview—especially concerning morality and ethics.

 

It is Unreasonable to Divide the Mosaic Law into Categories

While addressing the relationship between Old Testament laws and the Christian, some theologians propose dividing the Mosaic Law into distinct categories. A popular proposal is for three categories: (1) Moral Laws, (2) Ceremonial Laws, (3) Civil Laws.1 Proponents of this position assert that Christ fulfilled the ceremonial and civil laws, requiring Christians to obey only the moral laws outlined in the Old Testament. This position is problematic for two primary reasons. First, while one may classify each of the laws after-the-fact, there is no categorical distinction made in the Old Testament. Even the Ten Commandments (cf. Exod. 20:1-17) show an intermingling of moral laws (you shall not murder) and ceremonial laws (remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy).2

Second, the New Testament suggests continuity within the law (cf. Gal. 5:3; James 2:10; Matt. 5:18), seemingly excluding the possibility of division. Addressing this issue, theologian Douglas J. Moo concludes,

in general, it is notoriously difficult to know from the Old Testament itself which commandments should be placed in the category of ‘moral’ and therefore eternally binding in the form in which they were first given. Jews in Jesus’ and Paul’s day certainly did not divide up the law into categories; on the contrary, there was a strong insistence that the law was a unity and could not be obeyed in parts.3

In light of these considerations, it is unreasonable to divide the Mosaic Law into categories, allowing the abrogation of some sections, and maintaining the validity and obligatory nature of others. Before meaningful discussion can progress, proponents suggesting Christians must conform to “moral laws,” while neglecting certain “ceremonial laws” (i.e., the Sabbath, but not sacrificial offerings), must address these concerns and provide a Scriptural basis for the division and categorization of the Mosaic Law.

 

Adherence to the Mosaic Law is not an Obligation for Christians

Establishing that there is no basis for arbitrary division and categorization of the Mosaic Law, it makes sense that either Christians are obligated to obey the whole law, or they are not required to observe any of the law. This section will argue that Jesus fulfills the entire Mosaic Law (cf. Matt. 5:17), thereby annulling it as an obligatory mandate, although Scriptural doctrines and examples remain valuable for the spiritual development of contemporary Christians.

Jesus’ life and death provide complete fulfillment of the Mosaic Law. Throughout the New Testament accounts, Jesus accomplishes the moral and legal demands of the law (cf. Matt. 3:15; 1 Pet. 1:18–19, 2:22; 1 John 3:5; 2 Cor. 5:21), satisfies the penalty of the law (cf. Rom. 6:23, 4:25; Eph. 1:7), fulfills predictive prophecy, and brings about full revelation (cf. Jn. 14:9; Heb. 1:1-3). Theologian and biblical scholar Adam Clarke remarks,

In a word, Christ completed the Law: First, in itself, it was only the shadow, the typical representation of good things to come; and he added to it that which was necessary to make it perfect, HIS OWN SACRIFICE, without which it could neither satisfy God nor sanctify men. Secondly, He completed it in himself, by submitting to its types with an exact obedience, and verifying them by his death upon the cross. Thirdly, He completes the Law, and the sayings of his Prophets, in his members, by giving them grace to love the Lord with all their hearts, soul, mind, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves; for this is all the Law and the Prophets.4

Throughout his letters, Paul affirms this point implicitly and explicitly acknowledges Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. For example, in Romans 10:4 he writes, “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus proclaims His relation to the Mosaic Law. In defending Himself against allegations that He advocated rescindment of the law, Jesus affirms the antithesis, stating that He is not in opposition with the Old Testament Law. Charles Spurgeon explains, “To show that he never meant to abrogate the law, our Lord Jesus has embodied all its commands in his own life. In his own person there was a nature, which was perfectly conformed to the law of God; and as was his nature such was his life.”5 In this passage, it becomes evident that Jesus possesses authority apart from the law (cf. Luke 4:32; Matt. 7:29), but not of a contradictory nature.

Therefore, it makes sense that Jesus’ commands to His followers would not resemble a stark contrast from the Old Testament Law, but rather would accentuate fundamental truths, while remaining consistent with the original spirit of the law. Dr. Moo explains,

Jesus rejects any notion that his claim to dictate God’s will to his followers involves a radical departure from the law or from its intentions. Rather, he is claiming that his teaching brings the eschatological fullness of God’s will to which the Mosaic Law looked forward. Jesus ‘fulfills’ the law not by explaining it or by extending it, but by proclaiming the standards of kingdom righteousness that were anticipated in the law.6

Matthew 5:21-48 exemplifies this point, as Jesus uses the Old Testament Law as a basis for His commands.

However, many people object to this interpretation, postulating that Jesus merely introduces a more profound understanding of the law. This argument cannot provide an accurate description, as not all of Jesus’ commands are rooted in the Old Testament. In Matthew 5:43-45a, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” While the command to “love your neighbor,” can be traced to Leviticus 19:18, there is no command in the Mosaic Law to “hate your enemy.” It is more plausible that this was a popular saying within the culture or perhaps a teaching propagated by religious leaders. Therefore, it does not follow that Jesus is merely expounding upon Old Testament regulations, and providing a more profound interpretation. Instead, in issuing commands to His followers, Jesus uses the Mosaic Law and prominent ethical traditions as a model to demonstrate the continuity of fundamental principles.

Additionally, the apostles’ teaching and actions reinforce the principle that Jesus’ fulfillment of the Mosaic Law eliminates its requirements for Christian believers, as evidenced by their treatment of early Gentile converts. In Acts 15, legalistic philosophies began producing contention, as Judaizers began insisting that Gentiles must become circumcised and follow the law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:1, 15:5). Peter emphatically rejected this assertion (cf. Acts 15:6-11), receiving support from Paul, Barnabas, and Simon (Acts 15:12-18). The apostles and church elders record their decision in a letter to Gentile believers, which states, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.”7 In this response, the apostles and church elders demonstrate the Mosaic Law is no longer a direct regulatory requirement.

In fact, the apostle Paul indicates a great deal of latitude with regard to Christian behavior, instructing believers “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”8 This principle appears consistent with Dr. Moo’s assertion that, “…[the] ‘law’ does not consist of legal prescriptions and ordinance, but of the teaching and example of Jesus and the apostles, the central demand of love, and the guiding influence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.”9

Finally, the Mosaic Law appears void in the specific application of Sabbath observance. Scripture indicates the early church began meeting on Sunday, referred to as the first day of the week (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), rather than observing the Sabbath on Saturday. Controversy regarding Sabbath observance likely arose among legalistic believers in the early church. Paul appears to address this issue in Romans 14:5-6, writing, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.”10

Some people may contend this passage does not specifically address the Sabbath; however, Paul provides clarification in Colossians 2:16-17, writing, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” This statement obviously shows Sabbath observances are no longer a requirement for Christian believers, thereby suggesting the Mosaic Law—as a whole—does not provide the primary source of guidance for Christian behavior. Many of the Reformers acknowledged this point, as “neither Luther nor Calvin held that the fourth commandment requires Christians to rest on Sunday, but both held that, as a matter of convenience and order, a weekly day of rest for worship was needed. The individual Christian must rest and worship on the day prescribed by human authority (in practice, Sunday); he is at liberty only to exceed this requirement.”11

While this is not an exhaustive examination of the Mosaic Law or its applicability to the Christian believer, it demonstrates the principle that Jesus fulfilled the law in its entirety. As such, the Mosaic Law is not an obligatory requirement for the Christian, nor does it provide an exemplar of Christian behavior. Therefore, the teaching and example of Jesus (and the Apostles) provide the primary means of guidance for Christian behavior, while allowing significant liberty for the sanctification work of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

 

The Mosaic Law is Fruitful for Study

Denying the obligatory nature of the Mosaic Law, does not preclude its study as a beneficial endeavor for the Christian. In order to demonstrate this point, one must first examine the original purpose of the Mosaic Law. Old Testament scholars generally accept that the intent of the Mosaic Law is not for attaining eternal life.12 This notion is evident throughout the New Testament, with a clear depiction in Galatians 2:21, where the apostle Paul writes, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Theologian Wayne G. Strickland comments,

God never intended his law to provide spiritual redemption for his people. Not only does the New Testament specify that Old Testament saints were saved by faith rather than works (e.g., Rom. 4:3), but the few Old Testament passages that comment on the way of salvation confirm that obedience to the Mosaic stipulations is not the requirement for redemption…As one studies the Mosaic law, it becomes increasingly clear that its purpose was not to save, for it contains no clear message of salvation or redemption.13

Rather, the law demonstrates God’s gracious and distinctive relationship with Israel (cf. Ex. 19:5; Deut. 7:7-8), revealing attributes of God’s nature (cf. Ps. 18:30; Deut. 32:4), while demanding His followers conform in character (cf. Lev. 11:45), thereby expressing the impossibility of sinful man conforming to the moral standards of an infinite and perfect God (cf. Rom. 3:23). Theologian Douglas J. Moo explains, “In seeing the impossibility of ever achieving by works the holiness that God demands, the pious Israelite would, as God intended, flee in faith to the mercy of God, wherein can be found the only means of righteousness actually available to sinful humanity.”14

The apostle Paul affirms this notion, explaining, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly, no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, ‘The person who does these things will live by them.’”15 Moreover, Paul asserts the purpose of the law is to make us aware of our sin (cf. Rom. 3:20; Rom. 7:7-8, 13; Heb. 10:3), thus illuminating the need for a savior (cf. Rom. 7:24-25).

Regrettably, humanity’s rebellious spirit—and apparent predisposition toward legalism—provide motivation for attempting to adhere to the law rather than seek God’s mercy. (In fact, these very considerations may provide the underlying basis for the discussion at hand.) In any event, it is clear the Mosaic Law is not intended to bring about salvation, but rather condemnation (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6-9), outlining the standard of God’s righteousness and exhibiting the inability of man to conform.

Martin Luther emphatically maintained a distinction between the Old Testament law and the New Testament believer, and is credited for saying, “We do not read Moses because he concerns us, because we have to obey him; but because he agrees with the law of nature, and has expressed this law better than the heathen ever could. In this way, the ten commandments are a mirror of our life, in which we see our defects.”16 This denotes the benefit of freely studying the Old Testament law. Since the Christian does not view the Mosaic Law as a means of salvation, nor obligatory requirements, the law provides details of God’s redemptive plan in human history, reveals attributes of God, communicates wisdom (cf. Deut. 4:6-8), and can serve as an example for ethical standards (cf. Ps. 18:30).

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, while one can reasonably assert the Mosaic Law contains different kinds of laws (i.e., moral, ceremonial, and civil), there is no basis to attest the law is categorically divisible, with Christ’s redemptive works abrogating two thirds. Therefore, either the Christian is obligated to obey the whole law, or he/she is not required to observe any of the law. Scripture clearly conveys the principle that the Christian is not under the law, specifically refusing to require Gentile converts obey Old Testament regulations. As such, adherence to the Mosaic Law, and specifically observance of the Sabbath, is not an obligation for Christians. However, studying the Mosaic Law can prove extremely fruitful for the Christian believer, revealing the attributes of God, while simultaneously providing wisdom and ethical guidance.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 189.
  2. All Scriptural references are from the New International Version (NIV) unless noted otherwise.
  3. Douglas J. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 337.
  4. Adam Clarke, “Commentary on Matthew Chapter Five, Verse 17,” in The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Authorized Version, With a Commentary and Critical Notes (New York: Daniel Hitt and Abraham Paul, 1818), Google E-book Edition, Matt. 5:17.
  5. Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Perpetuity of the Law of God,” in The Complete Works of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume 28: Sermons 1637-1697 (Delaware: Delmarva Publications, 2013), Kindle Edition, Sermon No. 1660.
  6. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” 352.
  7. Acts 15:28-29.
  8. Phil. 2:12b-13.
  9. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” 343.
  10. Paul further reiterates this point in Gal. 4:10-11.
  11. Richard J. Bauckham, “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. D.A. Carson, 311-341 (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 317.
  12. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” 324.
  13. Wayne G. Strickland, “The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 232-233.
  14. Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” 327.
  15. Galatians 3:10-12.
  16. Quoted in Robert Cox, Sabbath Laws and Sabbath Duties: Considered in Relation to Their Natural and Scriptural Grounds, and to the Principles of Religious Liberty (London: Maclachlan and Stewart, 1853), 502.

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