Are Christians Under the Law of the Old Testament?

The Bible warns against both lawlessness and legalism. Some people focus on the scriptures stating that “the law is abolished”. Others emphasize verses such as “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” and Christ’s warning against breaking one of the least of these commandments (MATTHEW 5:17,19). “But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully.” (1 TIMOTHY 1:8). What is the law’s lawful use in the life of a Christian? More specifically, are Christians ‘under the law’ in that obedience to the Old Testament laws is required for salvation? Which use of the law pleases God?

What Is the Law?

When the term “law” is used in the bible, it may refer to different parts of scripture or different aspects and functions of God’s law.

  • The law of Moses

Usually, “law” refers to the laws that Moses received at Sinai (including the Ten Commandments). 

“Did not Moses give you the law…?” (JOHN 7:19)

 “For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law…” (HEBREWS 9:19)

“He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy” (HEBREWS 10:28).

“For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (JOHN 1:17).

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, … ye pay tithe of mint … and have omitted the weightier matters of the law (MATTHEW 23:23)

Of the 197 occurrences of “law” (“nomos” in Greek) in the New Testament, in most cases it refers to the law of Moses.

  • The law before Moses

Clearly there was a law already before Moses.

“Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws” (GENESIS 26:5).

While details of the laws that Abraham obeyed may have been different to the Mosaic law, the same Hebrew words are used for both: charge (mishmereth), commandments (mitsvah), statutes (chuqquah), laws (tora). Compare this with for example 1 KINGS 2:3:

“And keep the charge (mishmereth) of the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes (chuqqah), and his commandments (mitsvah), and his judgments, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law (tora) of Moses” (1 KINGS 2:3).

While the law was not written down yet, the concepts of the law were known to everybody. Joseph knew for example that adultery was a sin (GENESIS 39:1-9). God punished Sodom and Gomorrah for sins of homosexuality and debauchery (GENESIS 18:20). Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean animals (GENESIS 7:2). The punishment for murder was death (GENESIS 9:6). In short, people knew what was sinful. They also knew that sin demanded a price: “without shedding of blood is no remission” (HEBREWS 9:22). Therefore, Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable to God than Cain’s.

We can conclude that, although the whole codex of law was not written down yet and may have been slightly different than Moses’ law, the concepts of the law were known and the same principles applied, in particular that restitution for sin required the shedding of blood (of an animal).

  • The Old Testament

“Law” (“nomos”) can in the New Testament be understood to refer to the whole Old Testament. For example, Jesus quoted PSALM 82:6 when He replied to the Jews, “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” (JOHN 10:34). Paul quotes Isaiah in 1 CORINTHIANS 14:21, “In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and of other lips will I speak unto this people”.

As the law strictly only refers to the first five books of the Bible (Hebrew “Torah”), often the term “the law and the prophets” is applied to clarify that the whole of the Old Testament is meant:

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (MATTHEW 7:12).

“For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (MATTHEW 11:13).

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets(MATTHEW 22:40).

  • More references of the term “law”

The word “law” takes on more meanings depending on the context it is used in. Look at the following list:

  • Law of the Lord (LUKE 2:23; LUKE 2:24; LUKE 2:39)
  • Law of the fathers (ACTS 22:3)
  • Law of the Jews (ACTS 25:8)
  • Law of works (ROMANS 3:27)
  • Law of faith (ROMANS 3:27)
  • Law of the husband (ROMANS 7:2)
  • Law of God (ROMANS 7:22,25; ROMANS 8:7)
  • Law of my mind (ROMANS 7:23)
  • Law of sin (ROMANS 7:25; ROMANS 8:2)
  • Law of the Spirit of life (ROMANS 8:2)
  • Law of righteousness (ROMANS 9:31)
  • Law of Christ (GALATIANS 6:2; 1 CORINTHIANS 9:21)
  • Law of commandments (EPHESIANS 2:15)
  • Law of a carnal commandment (HEBREWS 7:16)
  • Law of liberty (JAMES 1:25; JAMES 2:12)
  • Law of love (ROMANS 13:8,10)

In the book of Acts, the “law of the fathers” and “law of the Jews” refers to a mixture between God’s commandments and man-made traditions.

In Romans 3, the “law of works” (the attempt to achieve righteousness by adhering to the Old Testament law and the traditions of the Pharisees) is contrasted with the “law of faith” (the complete reliance on Jesus Christ).

In Romans 7, Paul speaks about the ‘law of sin’, meaning the dominance of sin in a person without the Holy Spirit.

“I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present within me.” (ROMANS 7:21)

“But I see another law in my members… bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” (ROMANS 7:23)

Romans chapter 8 goes on to introduce the “law of the Spirit of life” which refers to the dominance and power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. 

In conclusion, we can see that the term “law” signifies a system of laws and regulations, in particular those given by God through Moses. As we shall see in the following, a person who trusts in being justified by this Old Testament law or any other system of conduct and rules, trusts in justification by own works - a futile effort in the light of Christ’s teaching.

The purpose of the Old Testament law

The law defines good and evil, the consequences of transgression and the terms of forgiveness if sin is committed. The commandments as such, however, do not have the power to change or renew a person. The law merely exposes sin: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (ROMANS 3:20). For the person seeking God, the law amplifies sin, shows its enslaving power and deceitfulness and causes it to appear ‘exceeding sinful’: “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.  Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” (ROMANS 7:12,13). In fact, the law brings “death” to all struggles and efforts to achieve holiness in one’s own strength. “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.  And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me.” (ROMANS 7:9-11). Like a schoolmaster – constantly pointing out the transgression and man’s inability to reach God’s standard - the law leads to Christ: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (GALATIANS 3:24). It is not designed to give anybody a different legal status before God, but needs to work in a person prior to conversion: “The law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient” (1 TIMOTHY 1:9).

In bringing man to the end of his own achievements, the law remains perfect, defining righteousness. It converts the soul towards Jesus Christ, the only One Who can make man righteous. “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.” (PSALM 19:7) (“Testimony” by the way means specifically the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses; hence the ark of the covenant also being called “ark of the testimony”).

Nobody can be justified by the works of the law

The problem with mankind is that, try as hard as we may, we are not good: “There is none righteous, no, not one.” (ROMANS 3:10). We can compare it with climbing up a mountain. Those who stay at the bottom may think that those closer to the top have made great accomplishments, and perceive them as “good”. But the problem will always be what we compare ourselves with. Even the person who reaches the top of the mountain will never reach the sun. Compared to God’s standard we will always fall short.

The Israelites tried hard to fulfil the law, but: “Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.” (ROMANS 9:31)

Paul, who was “taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers” (ACTS 22:3) and had not offended at all “against the law of the Jews” (ACTS 25:8), realised: “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight...” (ROMANS 3:20)

The Pharisees and many Jews were “zealous of the law” (ACTS 21:20), yet “not according to knowledge”, as they didn’t submit themselves to God’s righteousness (ROMANS 10:2,3).

Justification by faith

The following verses make abundantly clear that ‘justification’ – being made righteous and ‘just’ before God, is not achieved by our own human efforts, but by Christ’s completed work, taken hold of in faith:

“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (ROMANS 5:1,2)

“And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (ACTS 13:39)

“Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (ROMANS 5:9)

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (GALATIANS 2:16)

“Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (GALATIANS 5:4)

“For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” (ROMANS 5:17-21)

The conclusion:

“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (ROMANS 3:28)

“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” (GALATIANS 2:16)

A person justified by faith in Jesus Christ must not go back ‘under the law’ for the purpose of justfication

Even after some of the Pharisees had become Christians, they still tried to enforce stipulations from the law of Moses on themselves and others. They claimed there was no salvation without the Gentile believers being circumcised and “that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (ACTS 15:1,5). This caused so much confusion that a council of the apostles had to take place to decide on the matter. They confronted the believing Pharisees:

“Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (ACTS 15:10)

The apostles’ decision was that none of the Old Testament laws should be imposed upon the new converts, except a few “necessary things” seeing that many Christians in these churches were converted out of a culture of wide-spread pagan idol worship:

“But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.  For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day…..  Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment.” (ACTS 15:20-21,24)

Any attempt to enter into the legal framework of the Old Testament - with the aim to achieve or secure salvation - is condemned in scripture:

“Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” (GALATIANS 5:4)

In many aspects the Old Testament, having foreshadowed Christ, now steps into the background to make room for the work of Jesus Christ. The following scriptures show how the ‘ministration of death’, the ‘bondage of the law’, the ‘handwriting of the ordinances’ including all the legal ‘traditions of men’, are no longer in operation in the life of the Christian, and it would be a fatal mistake to turn away from Christ and attempt to establish righteousness out of your own efforts by adhering to the Old Testament or any other laws:

2 CORINTHIANS 3:6-15   The “ministration of condemnation” is “done away”.
GALATIANS 4:21-31  We are not “children of the bondwoman” (the bondwoman stands for the  covenant from Mount Sinai – we are not under the bondage of the law).
EPHESIANS 2:15  “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances, for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;”
COLOSSIANS 2:14,17  

“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us”

 
HEBREWS 7:12,18-19    The law (concerning the priesthood of the Old Testament) is disannulled.
HEBREWS 8:6-13 “In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.”
HEBREWS 10:9    “He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.”

It is important to note that many people believe the above quotes to refer to certain parts of the Old Testament law only – but not to the moral law as such. In other words, while the priestly law, the ceremonies and rituals, the covenant stipulations such as circumcision, the human traditions and the man-made enmitiy between circumcised Israelites and Gentiles – are indeed abolished, the moral code of what God has defined as good and evil still remains. The following section takes a brief look at the law of God in the New Testament.

The law of Jesus Christ

In fulfilling the Old Testament scriptures, Jesus did in no wise destroy or remove the law. The commandments of God pertaining to a righteous life and to the sanctification which follows justification, are still the same. In what Jesus taught, the law of God was vindicated, explained and correctly applied – in order to present “a righteousness exceeding that of the Pharisees".

The Gospels show how Jesus pronounced judgment on those who “sat in Moses’ seat” for corrupting, abusing, changing and misrepresenting God’s law. His preaching was radical in that the law was applied – as originally intended – to the heart. The following table shows a few details:

Old Testament

Now – Law of Jesus Christ

Sabbath day

Enter into God's rest and live in God's rest, pray without ceasing

Idols made of wood and stone

Destroy the idols of your heart

Tithing

Be prepared to "sell all, give it to the poor and follow Jesus Christ"

Oaths

Don't swear at all, and woe if you break your 'yea or nay'

Murder

Anger without cause is equally as sinful

Adultery

Looking after a woman, lusting after her

Circumcision

The circumcision of the heart (much more painful)

Coveting your neighbour’s possessions

Any selfish lust is condemned

Not giving 'false witness'

Deceitfulness a deadly sin (Ananias and Sapphira)

Feast of thanksgiving

In everything give thanks

Tabernacle or temple

Christians as the body of Christ are the temple of God

Cleanliness laws

Purify your heart

Bring a matter before a judge

Reconcile, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give an extra coat

Sacrifice animals

Present your body a living sacrifice, holy

Love your neighbour

Also: love your enemy and: 'a new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you'!

The list shows but a few expamples and can easily be continued. Consider: there are 1,050 New Testament commandments, most of which point to our hearts rather than towards any outward religiosity. The New Testament commandments fulfil (bring to perfection) what God's will is for our life and for our 'inner man'. Jesus Christ 'fulfilled the law of Moses' on every level, to the extent that He sacrificed Himself and left us a perfect replacement for the law that Moses gave to hard-hearted people who did not yet have the Holy Spirit living in them.

The New Testament is full of warnings against the 'workers of iniquity', those who neglect the ongoing transformation that needs to happen in our hearts according to the law of Christ, who falsely believe they are 'under grace', do well in their outward religious works (attending meetings, giving offerings etc) and live as if there was no law to obey. The law of Christ is the ultimate law and goes much deeper than outward conformance and religion – it is concerned with the transformation of our hearts. We can only conform to it by our obedience to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

“But now we are delivered from the law...that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” (ROMANS 7:6)

All of this can only be fulfilled by “Christ in us”, our determination to yield to Him, cry out to Him, seek Him in prayer. The New Testament standard requires us to live in the faith that we are indeed “dead unto sin” and raised to a “newness of life”, and to “mortify the deeds of the body by the Spirit”.

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (ROMANS 8:2).

 “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (GALATIANS 6:2).

“But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein… this man shall be blessed in his deed” (JAMES 1:25).

Through the Holy Spirit in operation and us yielding to God’s grace (by which He provides the power necessary to live righteously), the commandments of God will be given their real purpose. Jesus Christ and the apostles taught very clearly that the law is summarised by the chief commandments of loving God and your neighbour:

“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.  For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (ROMANS 13:8-10)

“For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (GALATIANS 5:13-14)

“Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned:” (1 TIMOTHY 1:5)

In contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament is a covenant in which God fills the believer with His empowering Spirt and inscribes His laws into people’s hearts:

“Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.” (HEBREWS 10:9-10,16-17)

The main focus of the new covenant in Christ is “the new creature”, a complete renewal of a person’s heart through the power of the Holy Spirit:

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 CORINTHIANS 5:17)

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.” (GALATIANS 6:15)

Practical consequences – how is the law relevant today?

The Old Testament provides a vital basis for the work of Christ and for the New Testament as a whole. The law provides:

a revelation of God’s character (JOHN 17:3)
a warning of God’s certain judgment, written for our admonition (1 CORINTHIANS 10:11)
a source of knowledge and inner conviction (PSALM 19:7)
an understanding of God’s national and governmental laws (economics, taxation, employment, family, criminal code, civil law, property rights, jurisprudence, foreign affairs, immigration etc etc)
the essence of life, health and wisdom (PROVERBS 4:20-22)

Simply put, the law (in the sense of the whole Old Testament) is like a skeleton which serves as a foundation for understanding the New Testament, and in particular Christ’s work. The entire Bible points to Jesus Christ and it is essential for Christians to read and understand both the Old and the New Testaments (see for example DEUTERONOMY 18:18; EXODUS 12:5; 1 PETER 1:19).

Having God’s laws put into our hearts and minds affords a fantastic opportunity to serve God, but at the same time the danger of a subtle descent into the flesh under the guise of “Christian liberty”. Many of the Biblical passages describing freedom from the law are followed by strict warnings that this freedom is not to be misused “for an occasion to the flesh” (GALATIANS 5:13).

The law, as one part of God’s inspired Word, is an integral guidepost to help us discern what is the work of the Holy Spirit and what is a substitute. All of God’s Word is profitable for “doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness”, to keep us on the narrow path to eternal life (2 TIMOTHY 3:16).

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” (ROMANS 15:4)

“Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (1 CORINTHIANS 10:6,11).

This is why neither one jot nor tittle can be removed from the law until all be fulfilled, just as no word may be removed from “the book of this prophecy” (see MATTHEW 5:18; REVELATION 22:19).

These principles are seen in action throughout the New Testament. Paul uses the law to prove some points of contention, for example in 1 CORINTHIANS 9:9 he quotes Deuteronomy in order to show that an assembly has the duty to care for its pastors. “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn…” He quotes Genesis as proof for women’s duty to be obedient: “… but they (the women) are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” (1 COR 14:34). And he instructs children to “Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise)” (EPHESIANS 6:2).

Conclusion

Should a Christian read and learn from the law? Yes, by all means, it defines the practical righteous way to live. Should a Christian abide by the principles of the law? Yes, by all means, provided you gain a thorough understanding of how Christ read and lived the law and required it of the church. Should a Christian preach the law? Yes, by all means, the law is God’s instrument to bring sinners under conviction – and it prepares the way for salvation. Should a Christian know and teach the governmental apects of the law? Yes, it is the foundation of Christ’s rule in the 1000 year reign of Christ. Should a Christian judge himself with the law? By all means, in the sense of self-examination rather than self-condemnation.

However, if we come to the question whether or not a Christian should try to enter into the Mosaic covenant and keep every stipulation of the law as closely as possible with the aim in mind to please God, thinking that the harder he tries to obey the law, the more he will be accepted by God – the answer is a very clear NO. You are then likely to live under condemnation, to lose faith in God’s promises and to become judgmental towards others.

Both ‘justification’ (being justified in God’s sight) and ‘sanctification’ (overcoming sin) are not matters of our effort to comply with the law. They are matters of FAITH in what Christ has done, in how we are identified with Christ and in how the Holy Spirit is at work in us – and this faith, trust, reliance, yielding, serving, walking after and following towards the Holy Spirit is the only way to experience the fruit of a Godly, justified and sanctified life – a Godly life defined in the law, but not supplied by the law.

“That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (ROMANS 8:4).

“But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.” (GALATIANS 5:18)

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.” (HEBREWS 8:10; HEBREWS 10:16)

This faith, this ‘being led of the Spirit’, this standing in the grace (provision and power) of God, is the opposite of the damnable attitude of those who “turn the grace of our God into lasciviousness” and become “lawless”:

“For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” (JUDE 4)

In summary, the Mosaic law is ‘abolished’ as a way to achieve salvation (a salvation by rigid obedience which no man can achieve). However, the law is not abolished in that it remains the basis for the teaching of the New Testament, God’s mighty tool to convict sinners and bring us to the saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Teaching Dept., January 2013