How should Christians view the Law?

imagesOne of my favorite television shows was the West Wing. Though the show comes from a liberal perspective, I found it articulate, intelligent, and generally fair to the opposite perspective—conservatives. In an early episode, President Bartlet castigates a radio talk show host regarding her perspective on the Old Testament Law in an episode entitled “Midterms.” Hank Hanegraff responded to the scene here. I raise the issue because President Bartlet, a Catholic in the show, quoted Old Testament Law to show how it is not practiced or relevant in today’s world. This scene is illustrative of a larger issue facing Christians today—“What is the role of the Law?”

Some Christians approach the Old Testament Law as something that we should still abide by as a means of obeying Christ. You can read and review some of the arguments of what might be termed the Hebrew Roots movement here. Other Christians completely reject the Old Testament Law and only practice their faith by the teachings of the New Testament.

Various theological positions have addressed this issue from different vantage points. Dispensationalists view Jews and Christians in the Old and New Testaments through a very specific theological framework—or dispensation. God spoke to the Old Testament Jews through the Law. God speaks now to Christians through Grace. Thus the Old Testament Law is no longer valid or necessary today. Covenant Theology pushes back against the theological structures pressed onto Scripture by dispensationalists. Instead of Christians and Israel having significant and distinct purposes with relation to God, Covenant Theology would hold that Christians are now God’s covenant people as Israel was and so the Law has value for Christians today. Some in this camp have adopted a threefold division of the Law—moral, civil, ceremonial—in order to articulate application of the Law in Christian life today. In essence, Christians are responsible to obey the moral law while the ceremonial law was fulfilled completely in Christ and now unwarranted. The civil law was intended for Israel to operate underneath its theocratic government and is no longer valid because we do not exist in a theocracy. This approach is artificial however because Scripture itself does not categorize laws this way. A further approach is taken by theonomists or Christian reconstructionists who hold that we are to live consistently within the Mosaic law (all facets as much as possible) and attempt to institute the Old Testament civil laws into contemporary settings.

One thing we must keep in mind is the original purpose of the Law—a purpose that is strikingly consistent through both the Old and New Testaments. The Law reveals the holiness of God (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:15-16); the Law shows us our sin and points out our need for Jesus (Galatians 3:24); the Law is a guide for Christian living (Romans 8:3-4; Matthew 22:34-40); Jesus fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17); the Law provides principles for modern jurisprudence (1 Timothy 1:9-10). In neither testament was the Law intended to bring salvation. The Decalogue (10 Commandments) were given as an outward expression of obedience signifying God’s covenant with Israel that he had already established when he rescued them from Egypt. Thus, the Law was the expression of living out the covenant relationship Israel already had with God. According to George Ladd, “In the intertestamental period a fundamental change occurred in the role of the Law in the life of the people. The importance of the Law overshadows the concept of covenant and becomes the condition of membership in God’s people.”[1] This view of the Law as a means to membership in God’s family was the expression of the Law addressed by Paul in the book of Galatians as well as the reason for the Jewish council in Acts 15. Correctly understood, the Law can only be a means to salvation if lived out perfectly. Since only Jesus Christ has lived the law with perfection (fulfilled it according to Matthew 5:17), no one can secure their place in God’s kingdom by their obedience to the Law. Our salvation (membership into God’s kingdom) can only come by grace through faith in Jesus who has fulfilled the Law on our behalf. As I understand the Scriptures (and I believe I side with Paul here referencing Abraham in Romans 4), salvation has always and only been by grace through faith—not by the works of the law.

As a result, the Christian cannot view the Law as a means to salvation—one of the key points declared by the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. In fact, anything akin to viewing the Law as a means to salvation is heretical and anti-gospel according to Paul in Galatians. It is true that Paul expressed his Christian faith through obedience to Jewish law on certain occasions (Acts 21:17-26; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Paul was a Jewish believer so his allegiance to the Law was not surprising as the expression of his obedience to Christ. For the Gentiles however, the early church stipulated that they should “abstain from things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:20-21).

So what is the Christian to do with the Old Testament Law? Are we to adopt a Jewish perspective on the Law and seek to obey it as close to the letter as possible? Are we to reject it because we believe it has been fulfilled and all we need is Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament? I believe that a balanced approach is warranted. In fact, if we are to remain biblical, we must advocate a high view of the Law because it expresses God’s holy nature. Rooker argued,

Moreover, and perhaps more devastating, neglect of the Law has resulted in a lack of reverence for the God, who is the author of the Law. The laws of the Old Testament are not arbitrary, but the Law is a revelation of the character of God. Through the Law we come to better understand his holiness or moral perfection. His character is the implied basis for the entire revelation of the Law.[2]

Rooker’s point is vital to our understanding of God and Scripture as a whole. Because the Law reflects God’s holy character, it is foundational to our entire view of salvation history. Salvation belongs to a holy God. Salvation comes from a holy God. Salvation is purely grace because we have offended the very holiness of God in our sin. Jesus’ death on the cross was utterly brutal and intensely meaningful because on the cross Jesus atoned for our sin against holy God. Little about the New Testament and Jesus’ atoning death for our sin makes sense unless we understand it in light of the Law and our offense against God’s holiness. Thankfully, we can know that the Law has been fulfilled perfectly, and as believers we enjoy the glorious privilege of double substitution—Jesus took our place on the cross and we take his place as the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Understanding the Law in light of Jesus’ fulfillment and atoning death sheds light on the purpose of the Law. Does it help us in understanding the place of the Law in the life of the believer today? I believe it does. In fact, I believe it is the key. There is no other means by which we come to God, by which we please God, by which we receive God’s favor than by Jesus Christ. In this sense (the sense that Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s Law), we stand before God justified and righteous in light of the Law (Romans 3:21-26). There is no amount of law-keeping we could do to further earn God’s favor. We already have it in Jesus. Obedience post-salvation is exactly what obedience to the Law in Exodus 20 was supposed to be—a reflection of the covenant we have with God. God secured the covenant by rescuing us through his Son Jesus. We now obey God because we’ve been made his workmanship (Ephesians 2:10). In that sense, we should obey the Law of Christ—keep his commands (Matthew 5-7; 28:19-20; John 15:1-17; along with many other examples in the New Testament). Of course, Jesus’ teachings were founded upon the morality and principles of the Old Testament Law. I guess if you wanted to, you could attempt to keep the Old Testament Law in principle as much as possible and seek to live underneath the structure of the Torah as an expression of your Christian faith. It appears that some of the early believers did so—after all they were Jewish Christians. However, as we must clearly note, the early church leaders did not dictate to Gentile believers that they should live according to the Mosaic Law in order to express their Christian faith.

Are we required to live according to the Old Testament Law? I believe we should value highly the Law recognizing that it reflects God’s holiness. I believe we should interpret the Law in light of Christ’s fulfillment of it on the cross. I believe we should seek to apply its principles and morality in our daily living. But let me offer this warning. Imposing obedience to the Mosaic Law in contemporary life on oneself or others can easily become legalism. We must be careful that in our zeal for biblical obedience, we do not become modern day Pharisees and by extension add law to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That would not be the gospel at all.

[1] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 541.

[2] M. F. Rooker, Leviticus Vol. 3A (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 76.

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