The Christian And The Law

There are few things more confusing to the average Christian than the question of how he or she should relate to the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, Jesus said:

“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 ESV)

Obviously Jesus was “pro law”, in some sense. He did not come to abolish the law or the prophets, he came to fulfill them. Thus, whatever attitude a Christian is to have toward the law it cannot be one of disdain or neglect. There must be respect and there ought to be some manner of conformity.

But on the other hand, the Apostle Paul said:

“by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20 ESV)

According to Paul, the law is not a path to salvation, rather the law serves only to deepen our awareness and understanding of sin. Paul’s goes even further when he says:

“Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4 ESV)

The Christian is thus, in some sense dead to the law. Whatever relationship we once had to the law is now cancelled and we have a similar relationship to Christ. If the law was once our Master, now, according to Paul, having died to the law, Jesus is our Master.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
(Romans 10:4 ESV)

So the law can’t save us, the law is not our master and the law has come to an end, in some sense, for all of us who have been saved by grace, through faith in Christ.

And yet.

The law continues to play in our lives as believers. Paul says:

“The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12 ESV)

Paul appeals to the law in order to establish order in the churches.

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? (1 Corinthians 9:9 ESV)

So how do we put all this together?

It isn’t as simple as “the law is good” or “the law is bad”; it sounds more like the function of the law has changed significantly as we move from the Old to the New Testament. Understanding how the law works; what it does and what it cannot do; how it helps and what its limitations are, is one of the most important challenges facing the New Testament believer in every generation. Getting it wrong in either direction can have devastating consequences.

In order to achieve some clarity on this issue it may be helpful to think through some traditional Christian categories. Protestant preachers and theologians have often spoken about the “Three Uses Of The Law” and the “Three Types Of Laws”. Working through those designations should provide the Christian with a reliable framework for further thought and application.

The Three Uses Of The Law:

Christians in the Reformed Protestant tradition tend to have some exposure to these particular terms and categories. However, whether you are familiar with the language or not any Bible reading Christian ought to be able to agree with the concepts being expressed as they can all be found in variety of passages within the New Testament.

1. The first use of the law is to restrain evil

Human beings have a broken moral compass. We desire things we should not. We pursue things we should not. Therefore, the law was instituted to function as a sort of fence. Fences aren’t perfect. They can be climbed, they can be cut down, they can be circumvented. But they do tend to slow people down and that is one of the main reasons given in the Bible for the law. The Apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:9-11:

“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:9–11 ESV)

According to the Apostle the law was laid down to restrain those who would strike their fathers and mothers, who would murder their neighbours, who would engage in sexual immorality and who would seek to profit from human misery. The law was given to restrain that sort of behaviour – thanks be to God!

2. The second use of the law is show us our guilt and lead us to faith in Christ

The law sets an impossibly high standard. It looks to us at first like a ladder we might climb into heaven, but whenever we try we exhaust ourselves and fall flat on our faces. That’s good. Because only when we admit our hopeless situation are we in a position to put our faith in the person and work of Christ. You can see Jesus using the law in this fashion in his own evangelistic encounters within the Gospels. When the Rich Young Ruler came up to Jesus, he said:

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” (Luke 18:18–20 ESV)

Here we see Jesus using the law to bring this young man to a place of humility. As the story continues we see a young man who is grossly over estimating his personal righteousness, so Jesus ratchets up the pressure even further before the man finally understands that he cannot work his way into heaven. Jesus used the law to position him for grace and salvation.

On the flip side of that we have the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, told by Jesus in the same chapter to form an obvious contrast.

“The tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” (Luke 18:13–14 ESV)

Thus, according to Jesus, it is the man who knows that he is a sinner who positions himself to receive mercy – that is the work of the law! The law is a mirror. It shows us our sin and it intends to humble us and to show us our need of a Savior.

3. The third use of the law is to teach us God’s Will and Way

The law is an excellent teacher. John Calvin said:

“The ceremonial law of the Jews was a tutelage by which the Lord was pleased to exercise, as it were, the childhood of that people, until the fulness of the time should come when he was fully to manifest his wisdom to the world, and exhibit the reality of those things which were then adumbrated by figures, (Gal. 3:24; 4:4).”⁠1

Calvin is referring there specifically to the ceremonial law but the entire law functions as a tutelage – it shows us a way of life that corresponds to God’s essential character and nature. It shows us how to be humans as humans were intended to be. J. Alec Motyer says here:

“The law of God is the way of life he sets before those whom he has saved, and they engage in that way of life as a response of love and gratitude to God their Redeemer.⁠”2

The law doesn’t save us – Motyer says that the law sets before those ‘whom he has saved’ a way of life as a response of love. The law is useful as a teacher to saved people. That same pattern and assumption can be viewed in the giving of the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me …” (Exodus 20:2–3 ESV)

God saved them apart from the law – and prior to giving them the law. He gave the law to the people he had already saved. The importance of understanding that order simply cannot be overestimated.

The law is good – but the law doesn’t save. It was never meant to save. It was meant to restrain evil, it was meant to position people for salvation and it was meant to teach saved people how to live in love before the Lord and with one another – thanks be to God!

The Three Types Of Law:

Christians in the Protestant tradition often speak of three types of law: the ceremonial law, the civil law and the moral law. In certain traditions this language has entered into the creeds and confessions and therefore tends to be treated as self evident and eternally binding, whereas in other traditions it is treated merely as observationally useful. It should be noted that moral and ceremonial laws are often presented side by side, but by paying attention to the wider context, it is possible to distinguish one sort from the other. The prohibition of sex during a woman’s time of menstruation provides a useful case study. Leviticus 18:16-20 says:

“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are relatives; it is depravity. 18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive. 19 “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her.” (Leviticus 18:16–20 ESV)

In this paragraph a man is forbidden to have sex with near relatives and he is forbidden to take two sisters as rival wives, then in verse 19 he is forbidden to have sex with his wife during the time of her monthly menstrual cycle, then in verse 20 he is forbidden to have sex with a married neighbour. Here, moral and ceremonial concerns appear intertwined. Does that negate the value of these observational categories?

A closer look would suggest that it doesn’t.

The main concern of Leviticus 18 is to discuss prohibited forms of sexuality – not to explain the difference between moral law and ceremonial law. Most forms of prohibited sexuality are prohibited on moral grounds but some – such as sex during menstruation – are prohibited on ceremonial grounds, grounds that were discussed at length in Leviticus 15. In that chapter the ceremonial issue was identified and a process for purification detailed, after which, normal sexual relations could be resumed. No such process was described for adultery, or homosexuality or incest. Those are not treated as ceremonial defilements – they are treated as egregious sins.

Thus, while it can be confusing to see ceremonial law and moral law presented side by side, it does seem possible to distinguish one from the other by appeal to the wider context. Thus the fact that ceremonial and moral law often appear in close proximity does not undermine the general utility of these categories.

1. The ceremonial law

There are a variety of laws in the Old Testament having to do with the function of the Old Testament cultus. There are laws governing the ordination of the High Priest, laws specifying the construction of the tabernacle, laws governing the sacrifice of lambs and bulls on the altar; all of these laws are understood as fulfilled in Christ. When John the Baptist pointed at Jesus and said “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV) he was marking the transition from anticipation to fulfillment. We don’t sacrifice lambs in church anymore because Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We don’t need a tabernacle or a temple anymore because Jesus is our Place of Meeting, we don’t ordain High Priests anymore, because Jesus is our Great High Priest who ever lives before the Father to make intercession for us – thanks be to God!

We keep the ceremonial law today by worshipping and trusting in the person of Jesus Christ – praise the Lord!

2. The civil law

The second type of law we observe may be fairly categorized as civil law. In the Old Testament the church and the nation were one and the same. Thus there are laws in the Old Testament that address a variety of concerns related to civil life – what to do if you find a cow wandering in your field, what to do if you want to borrow money – there are even building codes in the Old Testament:

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8 ESV)

Obviously these laws will not transfer over directly into a modern day society, but the principles embedded in them may be extracted and applied afresh in the interests of equity and charity. John Calvin recommended this approach. He said:

“Therefore, as ceremonies might be abrogated without at all interfering with piety, so also, when these judicial arrangements are removed, the duties and precepts of charity can still remain perpetual.⁠”5

We can still maintain the righteous impulse and the charitable principles behind these various laws, while framing and applying them in ways appropriate to our own time and culture. We may not need parapets anymore – after all, in those days, people made little roof top patios so that they had a place to enjoy the cool evening breezes after a hot Middle Eastern day – I don’t have a patio on my roof and if I did it would obstruct the snow that accumulates up there 4 months out of the year. That law, woodenly applied in my context, could cause my house to collapse! And yet, the principle contained therein is easily identified and freshly applied in new situations. The basic idea here is that safety measures are an act of neighbourly kindness. Therefore, keep your dog on a leash, put a cap on your well and put a fence around your pool.

The civil law points us in the direction of a kind and compassionate society. The Apostle Paul extracts principles from the Old Testament law and applies them to the order and society of the church. In 1 Corinthians 9 he says:

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not speak certainly for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. (1 Corinthians 9:9–10 ESV)

The original law cited by Paul was given in an agricultural context, but Paul claims that the ultimate application of the principle is not to oxen in Israel but to Gospel ministers in the church. They have a right to share in the product generated by their labours. If the church increases so should the maintenance of the pastor. This is a principle of basic fairness in any civilized society.

We demonstrate our respect for the Old Testament civil law when we work hard to create a fair, equitable and just society for all people – thanks be to God!

3. The moral law

Most orthodox theologians and Bible commentators would agree that whatever was displeasing to God in the Old Testament remains displeasing to God in the New. Gordon Wenham for example writes in his commentary on Leviticus:

“Adultery, incest, homosexuality and the like are just as sinful under the New Covenant as they were under the Old.”⁠6

Indeed, if anything, it often appears as if the moral standard in the New Testament is significantly higher. The commandment about adultery for example, is clarified and narrowed by Jesus in Matthew 5. Many other moral commands are repeated and applied without explanation or apology in New Testament congregations. The command about incest is applied by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 to the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. The command about homosexuality is repeated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. Therefore it can be confidently asserted that the morality of the New Testament does not differ in any discernible way from the morality of the Old Testament.

However, there is some disagreement in terms of why exactly this is. Presbyterians, for example, who include the three fold classification system in their creeds and confessions, tend to say that the ceremonial law and the civil law have been abrogated but the moral law remains intact. The Westminster Confession of Faith says here:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation.”⁠7

Other Christians in the Protestant tradition get to the same bottom line by a different route. Many, following Luther, rather than Calvin, would prefer to say that the entire Mosaic Law Code has been abrogated. It expired along with the nation of Israel. It was a specific covenant made with a specific people and if we are in Christ then we are not under the law – of any sort. We are not subject to the Mosaic Law – in any of its categories or parts. The law was preparatory and provisional. Referring to the Mosaic Law, Luther said:

“It is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel.”⁠8

Baptist theologian Thomas Schreiner takes the same view. In response to the question of whether the Old Testament law has expired, he wrote:

“If by the Old Testament law we mean the laws in the covenant established with Moses, then the answer is ‘yes’, since Paul clearly teaches that Christians are no longer under the law covenant instituted under Moses.”⁠9

By this understanding all the laws in the Old Testament have expired. They were all part of a covenant that has expired. But that isn’t to say that the moral norms for covenant people have been altered. The moral principles that were encoded in the Mosaic Law were clearly in existence before the Mosaic Law.

Ask yourself a simple question: was it sinful for Cain to murder his brother Abel?

Of course it was!

But why was it? The Mosaic Law had not been written. The 10 Commandments had not been given. So why was it sinful?

And the answer is that murder does not accord with God’s character. Nor does it accord with God’s intention for human life. Thus, the moral law in the Mosaic Covenant is best understood as a specific manifestation of the eternal law of God.

This may seem like a fine distinction, but theologians such as Thomas Schreiner argue that there is value in making it.

“To say that the “moral” elements of the law continue to be authoritative blunts the truth that the entire Mosaic covenant is no longer in force for believers.”⁠10

It does appear more accurate to say that the Mosaic Law as a whole has expired. After all, the Apostle Paul said:

“Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 ESV)

Thus, the Mosaic Law is no longer our Master in any sense. Christ is our Master and we are under his Law of Love. Our new Master, and our new law, is not leading us in a new direction, however. Rather, as Paul said:

“love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10 ESV)

Thus, whether following the rationale of Calvin or Luther, all Bible believing Christians ought to end up at the same end destination: they ought to find themselves following the pathway of the law in the direction of love of God and love of neighbour. However, the Lutheran understanding, with respect to process, does appear to better align with the teaching of Scripture. It is better to say that we are being led down that path by the Spirit of Christ, as the Apostle Paul said in Galatians 5:

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (Galatians 5:18 ESV)

The Spirit uses the law to instruct us, but it is the Spirit himself who should be acknowledged as our Guide and Teacher.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14 ESV)

As the Holy Spirit leads us toward love of God and love of neighbour, using the law to instruct and illustrate, we are helped to become again, the people we were created and intended to be – thanks be to God!

Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3315.
2 Alec Motyer, The Message of Exodus, ed. J. A. Motyer, The Bible Speaks Today. Accordance electronic ed. (Nottingham: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 213.
3 Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible And Homosexual Practice, 113.
4 Thomas Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians And Biblical Law, 89-90.
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3315.
6 Gordon Wenham, 280-281.
7 The Westminster Confession of Faith (19:3-5)
8 Martin Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” in Luther’s Works, Volume 35, Word and Sacrament, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (general editor) and E. Theodore Bachman (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 164.
9 Schreiner, 67.
10 Schreiner, 90.
11 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), paragraph 3314.
12 The Westminster Confession, Chapter XIX, paragraphs III and IV as cited in Creeds Of The Churches, Edited by John H. Leith, Third Edition (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 214.
13 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 281.
14 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus in The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), 281.

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