The Law and the Christian
One of the most contentious, hotly-debated, and notoriously difficult theological issues there is has to do with the relationship of the Old Testament law to New Testament believers. It is part of the even bigger discussion about law and grace and how they relate to each other.
Are we under the law today or not? If so, what law? What laws? All of them? Some of them? Who decides? And this is not just about individual Christian ethics, but also extends to discussions about the relationship between church and state. And the New Testament itself seems to give us some conflicting answers on all this.
Even Jesus for example seemed to offer differing views on these matters. Often he was accused of downplaying and even violating the law (eg., plucking grain on the Sabbath – Mark 2:23-28). Yet at times Jesus could say things like: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
And the thoughts of the Apostle Paul on the law and how it relates to us is also a major part of this discussion. He too seems to offer differing perspectives at different times and places. On the one hand he has a very positive view of the law: he sees the law as something good and necessary (see for example such verses as Rom. 7:12; 9:4; and Eph. 6:1-2).
But on the other hand he seems to have a rather negative view of the law: at times he argues that we are no longer under the law, that we no longer need it, etc. (see eg., Rom. 5:20; Gal. 4:1-10; and Eph. 2:15). And sometimes it gets even trickier, with seemingly conflicting views contained even in a single verse.
One obvious example of this is 1 Cor. 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” Paul is downplaying circumcision – which was a clear OT command – yet he goes on to stress the importance of keeping God’s commands!
So just how should we understand all this? Entire libraries have been penned on these complex issues, so here I can only introduce the topic, and point out some recommended reading. Those with their pet peeves on this who may want to go to war over it are advised to just take a breather. Here I am not so much saying what the “correct” view is – I am simply looking at the various options.
Concerning OT law, there happen to be some 600 different laws recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures – some narrow it down to 613 laws to be precise. The issue is how many and how much of all those laws given to ancient Israel are normative or binding for Christians – or anyone else – today.
The issues certainly are quite complex. But for the sake of brevity, let me just outline how all this has been approached over the millennia. The simple truth is, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Testaments. The tricky bit is to determine what continues and what does not. That is where the disagreements arise.
At the risk of oversimplifying things, there have been three main options Christians have taken on these issues. One is that there is no continuation. Most dispensationalists take this view, at least to some extent. Another position is basically full continuation. Most theonomists take this view, at least to some extent.
Perhaps the main position held by most believers over the centuries is partial continuation. Some things continue while other things do not. But that is where the discussion especially arises: just what carries over? One popular option – not without its criticism, but still a worthwhile option – is the long-standing division of the law into three main parts: the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law.
The first, especially as exemplified by the Ten Commandments, is said to still be binding today. However, the ceremonial laws obviously no longer carry over, since we have no temple, etc, and many see Christ as fulfilling those laws in his life, work, death and resurrection.
And the civil laws of ancient Israel – and the penalties attached to them – are also said to no longer be binding on modern secular nations. Few believers today for example argue that the laws about stoning rebellious children still apply, or that the death penalty should be meted out for adulterers, etc.
Each of these three positions have been argued for and against at length, and it is NOT my intent here to get into that massive debate. I merely have presented a very quick overview of how Christians have tended to look at these difficult matters. But what I do want to offer here are some helpful books – reflecting a range of perspectives – on these sorts of issues.
So let me offer some recommended titles on these various matters: first 21 generic titles, and then 17 volumes looking specifically at the Ten Commandments.
Barrs, Jerram, Delighting in the Law of the Lord. Crossway, 2013.
Das, A. Andrew, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant. Baker, 2002.
Feinberg, John, ed., Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments. Crossway, 1988.
Fuller, Daniel, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum – The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Eerdmans, 1980.
Gane, Roy, Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application. Baker, 2017.
Jones, David, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. B&H, 2013.
Jones, Mark, Antinomianism. P&R, 2013.
Kevan, Ernest, The Grace of Law. Soli Deo Gloria, 1964, 1993.
Kevan, Ernest, Moral Law. P&R, 1991.
Kruse, Colin, Paul, the Law, and Justification. Hendrickson, 1997.
Lalleman, Hetty, Celebrating the Law? Rethinking Old Testament Ethics. Paternoster, 2004.
Meyer, Jason, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology. B&H, 2009.
Reisinger, Ernest, The Law and the Gospel. P&R, 1997.
Rosner, Brian, Paul and the Law. Apollos, 2013.
Ross, Philip, From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. Mentor, 2010.
Schreiner, Thomas, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. Kregel, 2010.
Schreiner, Thomas, The Law and Its Fulfilment: A Pauline Theology of Law. Baker, 1998.
Strickland, Wayne, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel. Zondervan, 1993, 1996.
Thielman, Frank, The Law and the New Testament: The Question of Continuity. Crossroad, 1999.
Thielman, Frank, Paul & the Law. IVP, 1995.
Todd, James, Sinai and the Saints: Reading Old Covenant Laws for the New Covenant Community. IVP, 2017
The Ten Commandments
Braaten, Carl and Christopher Seitz, eds., I am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments. Eerdmans, 2005.
Clowney, Edmund, How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments. P&R, 2007.
Crenshaw, Curtis, Not Ten Suggestions. Footstool Pub., 2010.
Davidman, Joy, Smoke on the Mountain. Hodder & Stoughton, 1955.
Douma, Jochem, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life. P&R, 1996.
Horton, Michael, The Law of Perfect Freedom. Moody, 2004.
Hughes, R. Kent, The Disciplines of Grace. Crossway, 1993.
Kennedy, D. James, Why the Ten Commandments Matter. FaithWords, 2006.
Klinghoffer, David, Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril. Doubleday, 2007.
Miller, Patrick, The Ten Commandments. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009
Mohler, Albert, Words from the Fire: Hearing the Voice of God in the 10 Commandments. Moody, 2009.
Morgan, G. Campbell, The Ten Commandments. Baker, 1901, 1974.
Packer, J.I., Keeping the Ten Commandments. Crossway, 2008.
Rooker, Mark, The Ten Commandments. B&H, 2010.
Ryken, Philip Graham, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis. P&R, 2010.
Vines, Jerry, Basic Bible Sermons on the Ten Commandments. Broadman, 1992.
Watson, Thomas, The Ten Commandments. Banner of Truth, 1692, 1986.
If I were forced to name a few must-read titles, perhaps Jones and Rosner in the general section, and Packer and Ryken on the Ten Commandments.
Happy reading and happy study.
10 Replies to “The Law and the Christian”
This is why Christianity is called the “Apostles’ Doctrine.” (Acts 2:42) All the important bits have been reiterated in the New Testament for us dumb gentiles.
1Ti 1:5 But the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart, and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned,
1Ti 1:6 from which some, having swerved, have turned aside to foolish talking,
1Ti 1:7 desiring to be teachers of the law, neither understanding what they say nor that which they affirm.
1Ti 1:8 But we know that the law is good if a man uses it lawfully,
1Ti 1:9 knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous one, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
1Ti 1:10 for fornicators, for homosexuals, for slave-traders, for liars, for perjurers, and anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine,
1Ti 1:11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.
Romans 13:10 Love does no harm to a neighbour therefore love is the fulfillment of the law
Galatians 5:6 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything but faith working through love
Galatians 6:2 Bear another’s burdens so fulfill the law of Christ
1 John 3:23 This is his commandment that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another as He gave us commandment.
Thanks Michael and Greg. Yes those are five more important passages out of hundreds that must be carefully addressed and thought through as we try to get a sound grip on this rather complex issue. I mentioned some other key verses in my article. All the relevant biblical data must be raised and considered as we seek to understand these matters.
As I keep saying, theology matters, and we must seek the biblical balance. If one extreme is to make every theological issue so complex and involved that no believer can finally ever know anything, the other extreme is to oversimplify things and pretend there are no difficulties whatsoever. If that were the case we would not have had 2000 years of sustained and intense debate and discussion on this and a hundred other vital biblical issues. Even Peter admitted that some of the things Paul wrote were hard to understand. If Peter had this problem, we likely will as well in various ways and with various issues! But I seek to explain that in more detail elsewhere, eg:
But thanks for adding more grist for the mill!
I would add to your list, Chris Wright,
An eye for an eye – the place of old testament ethics today
Old Testament ethics for the people of God
who introduced and thought through this topic before anyone else thought it to be on the radar.
Thanks Lennard. Yes I quite like Wright, and those two books are excellent. An Eye for an Eye is the UK version of the American Living as the People of God (1983). That volume, along with Walking in the Ways of the Lord (1991) both morphed into the larger, newer, revised edition, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (2004).
But they both start going a bit broader than the particular debate I raised here so that is why I did not run with them. If I included other good books that also go broader, I would have had to add another 50-100 titles at least. But thanks for the recommendations. I have pulled my copies off the shelves and will revisit them. But other folks were certainly thinking and writing about all this before Wright.
Hello Bill, enjoy reading your site regularly, with the often very poignant topics you raise. I like the way you approached this subject, as you are right that there is a lot more to it than initially meets the eye for a lot of believers, but at the same time, the whole subject is often majorly overcomplicated too. I think the whole onslaught on moral values we’re witnessing currently has been a bit of a wake up call to sincere believers that you can’t ignore the Old Testament, and the specific moral judgements we find there. After all, it is the same God we worship, isn’t it? Assuming none of us adhere to the teachings of Marcion in the second century, of course… So, also assuming He is consistent (the same yesterday today, and forever, no shadow of turning, etc.) and bearing in mind, as you rightly mentioned, Christ on several occasions specifically taught that He was not doing away with the law, one would be left, were it not for our beloved brother Paul’s writings, with no real question about whether the law remained, or not, but rather, the very easily resolved questions of “what do we have left after 70/135AD with no temple, no priesthood and no Theocratic State?” As you alluded to, if the Lamb of God, who is also our high priest after the order of Melchizedek, embodied the entire sacrificial/Levitical system, and is now our covering (not excuse for!) sin, then that leaves us with the rest of the law (the definition of right and wrong, as opposed to the penalty/price for doing what’s wrong). Then, having no state to run by these laws, but rather trying to personally live according to God’s judgements on right and wrong in our current pagan secular nations, we are not in the enforcing position to mete out Godly justice any more in this world, so rules pertaining to administrators of a Godly Theocratic State are unlikely to directly apply in our lifetimes. They are, however very useful in understanding the “sin value” God puts on each contravention of His eternal standards of right and wrong. By approaching this question with the assumption that all God’s principles obviously stay the same, but we don’t have to worry about 613 of them, but rather only the ones that are left when we subtract the ones that were only for priests, (only applies to Christ), only for judges/government officials in a Theocratic kingdom (we seek a heavenly country), only apply to masters/slaves, men/women, etc., etc., as the case may be, each of us are only left with a fairly small handful of obligations. Reading Paul’s writings (which, yes, are hard to understand and are easily twisted – we were warned) becomes much clearer with the thought in mind that he is simply trying to convey an urgent message to his audience: The whole way you have grown up thinking is about to radically change with the destruction of your temple, your city, and the banishment from your nation, but it’s alright, because God has already preempted this a few decades earlier with a perfect substitute…
Paul’s apparent contradictions about the law, that you mentioned, quickly become obvious references to different parts of the law he is referring to on each occasion (including of course the extra-biblical Pharisaic traditions he grew up hearing at the feet of Gamaliel, much of which would later form the Talmud).
Just my ten cents worth on this vital topic… (albeit a bit of a long winded over-simplification in itself…)
Many thanks for raising this topic, and please keep up the good work, we all appreciate it…
Thanks for that Joshua.
Thanks Bill for another balanced article. This is a crucial topic central to our understanding of the Gospel. Return to the Law leads to legalism, the Hebrew Roots movement, back to Yahweh movement and ultimately return to Judaism. (One of my cousins took this route and eventually became a Jew). Rejection of the Law leads to humanism, libertarianism, and the whole Liberal realm of pro-abortion, pro-homosexuality, feminism etc (Some of my friends have taken this route). It does show how important it is to understand the New Testament teaching on the Law.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but from Acts 15:19-29, non-Jewish/Gentile Christians are not required to follow the whole OT laws but there are still some bare minimum requirements to follow: abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
One approach is to view OT law through the filter of the NT law, of which there are hundreds, viz. be self controlled, rid yourself of envy, be thankful, let the peace of God rule, clothe yourself with kindness, consider others better than yourself, etc, etc. If there’s an OT law that matches, then apply it.