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Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Keeping the Law

You've heard it before, I'm sure. "You Christians are such hypocrites. You go on and on about how evil homosexuals are or some other pet sexual immorality, but you ignore the rest of the Old Testament laws. You just pick and choose what you'll follow." You know it's true. That is, it is an extremely tiny number of Christians today who consider it a sin to eat shellfish or pork.

Valid question

It is a mistake to ignore the question. It is valid. Here's why. It is not the skeptic who 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. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matt 5:17-18) (And, oh, by the way, all is not yet accomplished.) That was Jesus. Jesus did come to fulfill the Law and did indeed do that by living a sinless life and taking on the entire sacrificial aspect of the Law Himself. But if Jesus is to be believed, we must necessarily answer why it is that we don't, for instance, concern ourselves with dietary laws (e.g., Lev 11:1-47), mixed cloth (Lev 19:19), or things that are "unclean" (Lev 10:10). It is a valid question that shouldn't simply be dismissed. "Because my pastor said so" won't work here.

We are not under the Law

Keeping the Law was never a means to salvation. While it is true that the one who keeps the whole Law will go to heaven, only One has ever done this. But the one who keeps the Law doesn't need salvation. It is only Lawbreakers that need salvation. So here's the problem. No amount of "doing good" will satisfy the demands of justice for the sin that occurs in any given life. If you spent 100 years on this planet and only had one year of sin, you'd still have one year of sin to give account for. The standard, on the other hand, is perfection (Matt 5:48) James says, "Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it." (James 2:10) (Note: James says in the previous verse that the sin of "partiality" is sufficient to classify you as a transgressor.) Paul wrote "All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.'" (Gal 3:10) That's the option. Do it all perfectly or be cursed.

So what was the purpose of the Law? Paul wrote:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal 3:23-26)
The original intent of the Law was to be a guardian. It told God's people what God expected of them. It still does today. But "now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." It's not as if the guardian is no longer useful; it's that it is no longer the means by which we are kept. That is accomplished by being "in Christ Jesus".

We are not, then, under the Law. Scripture says, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." (Gal 5:18) The Law is no longer our guardian. It remains our instructor in the sense that it teaches us what God thinks, but it is not a means of attaining heaven (via perfect submission) or salvation. That is, Christians sin. We don't arrive at salvation by becoming sinless. The Law didn't work that way before and doesn't now. Never will. In that sense we are not under the Law.

The New Covenant

The term, "the Old Testament", is a reference to "the Old Covenant". We are under "the New Testament" -- the New Covenant. Jesus said so (Luke 22:20). It is not the same covenant that God had with Israel. Some of that covenant included matters of theocracy, rules required of a nation literally governed by God. Many of their commands were oriented around the notion of being separated from other peoples (Lev 20:26). These would be their Civil laws which included things like clothing and food laws. Another part of the Law was the sacrificial system. This system was intended to be a forerunner of the Sacrifice, Christ. Theologians refer to this part as the Ceremonial laws. And, of course, there was an entire set of ethics offered, the Moral laws. Things like the Decalogue (10 Commandments) would fall in these categories. The Civil laws, then, would not apply to those outside of the covenant between Israel and God and would not apply after the New Covenant, the replacement of the old. The Ceremonial laws were not removed as much as they were fulfilled in Christ and, as such, are still in effect in a "new and improved" condition. That leaves the Moral laws which would still be binding.

So, how do we know which are Civil and which are Moral? Well, we look to the New Covenant for that. We know, for instance, that God commanded some things in the Old Covenant that God later removed. He told Peter, "What God has made clean, do not call common." (Acts 10:15) (Mark claims that Jesus "declared all foods clean." (Mark 7:19)) The Apostles understood that circumcision (for instance) was part of the Old Covenant and no longer required it of Gentile believers (Rom 2:28) and intentionally removed a long list of Civil laws not required by God for those outside of that covenant (Acts 15:19-20). When we have specific retractions from God and His Word, we can say that these civil laws are no longer in effect for those outside of civil Israel.


The Law does not go away. It's purpose, however, has shifted. In the Old Testament times it was intended to guard God's people. In the New Testament it tells God's people what God thinks. In neither case did keeping the Law save anyone. (Remember, those who kept the Law perfectly required no salvation.) (Remember, only One ever did that.) The Law, as part of covenants between God and His people, consists of parts dedicated to civil Israel as a theocracy (no longer in place), ceremonial (sacrificial) laws now replaced (not eliminated) by Christ's perfect sacrifice, and moral values from God. We are directed to keep God's moral values, not as an issue of salvation, but as an act of gratitude on the part of saved people wishing to please our Savior.


Alec said...

Hi Stan,

This is a confusing and sometimes contentious issue for Christians. My suspicion is that non-Christians who bring this up are doing it as a "red herring" to shift the subject away from something else that they do not care to discuss.


Stan said...

Very good point, and you are, I'm sure, correct. The aim in their argument is not, "I think you might be mistaken in your thinking and perhaps we can straighten this out" but "You're biblical morality is stepping on my lust and I want to push you away."

Bob said...

The beauty of the new covenant is that we are free to love God, because He first loved us.
To the critic, the underlying question is , do you love God?. i agree with Alec, the question is just a red herring. if we truly love God then it follows that we would desire to obey Him.
in addition; we now have the Spirit within us that Helps us in our walk. thank you Jesus..