Mending a Fractured View of Law in the Bible

It is no secret how heated political discourse has become in our country over the years. Issues such as immigration, abortion, and social justice. Both sides are not hesitant to point to the Bible in one way or another to ague their case either. When it comes to immigration and social justice, often the Old Testament is used and more specially, aspects of the Mosaic Law. When this is done, it is easily noted that verses are either being taken out of context or verses which may counter another political position are ignored. Further, critics of traditional Christianity will argue that the God of the Old Testament with the Mosaic Law was cruel and Christians are actually hypocrites for ignoring much of it. Finally, some Christians today can rightly be called out for trying to apply specifics of the Mosaic Law inconsistently. Christians who supported New World Slavery did exactly that.

One reason we can struggle to make sense of the Old Testament law is we can approach the Bible with a bias that the Old and New Testaments are two different “stories.” Critics of Christianity will also use this fractured view to scorn believers as hypocrites. The fact that the New Testament writers seem to offer contradictory statements in their views of Old Testament law only adds to the confusion. This fractured view hinders our understanding of how to apply the Mosaic Law today and if we are free from it or not. I argue that the authority of the Mosaic Law is no longer binding to the believer as its authority was confined to the nation of Israel before Christ and it is the Law of Christ, a larger principled view of the law, which continues.

The Covenants

A proper understanding of the application of the Mosaic Law for the Christian today begins with understanding the most significant relationship; how God has related to man throughout history. One uniqueness of Christianity is the personal relationship God establishes with his creation. God makes promises with His creation through covenants, and “Our grasp of the character of the two covenants will have a wide-ranging impact on our grasp of the content of revelation given under those covenants.”[1] Further, understanding the overall message of the Bible is a must to begin to unpack specific content within it and understanding the place and role of God’s covenants help to do that. We start with understanding the covenants because “the whole course of biblical history and biblical theology is covered by God’s covenants.”[2]

The Abrahamic Covenant found in Genesis promised to make Abraham “into a great nation,” his “name great,” and most prophetically, “all people on earth will be blessed by you.”[3] This is the beginning of God’s plan of salvation as he promised a land and line of descendants to Abraham. Albert Baylis, chairman of the theology department at Multnomah Biblical Seminary, elaborates that this covenant “is the spring from which the rest of God’s plan of redemption flows” and the “foundation for the rest of the covenants.”[4] As told in Exodus, God initiated the Sinaitic Covenant upon delivering his chosen people out of Egypt. This brings forth the Mosaic Law (detailed in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) to form the nation promised to Abraham.

Last is the New Covenant established under the life, death, and resurrection of Christ revealed in the New Testament. Jeremiah 31:31 declared that God would “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Under the New Covenant, unlike the Sinaitic Covenant, God’s people are no longer a unified group and are scattered among all the nations. And Paul explains to us in Romans 11:11-31 that through Christ, Gentiles can be made part of the house of Israel and share in God’s promises. Further, God declares that this new covenant will not be like the one made with their fathers when He delivered them out of Egypt and which they broke by way of not following the Mosaic Law.[5] This new covenant will be marked by God as He will put the law “within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”[6] The New Covenant would be accompanied by the giving of the Holy Spirit as told in Ezekiel 36:26. The Old Testament prophets spoke clearly that a new, better, and an eternal covenant was to come.

Purpose of the Mosaic Law

Understanding the purpose of the Mosaic Law and its place among the covenants, and therefore in the history of God’s plan of salvation, helps to reveal its application today under the New Covenant. What then did the Mosaic Law do? Dr. Bruce Watike describes three things which must be present to form a nation: a common land, common people, and a constitution.[7] Delivered out of Egypt, the chosen people of God were brought to a new land and now had been given the Mosaic Law which became their “constitution and national legislation.”[8] Exodus 19:5-6 describes the uniqueness of the people of Israel to which this law had been given, with God telling His people “you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” This promise was not said or prophesied of any other population in any other country or time. The Mosaic Law signified to the unique people of Israel their unique role in God’s history. It was their supervision of life for people living directly under God’s theocratic order.

God gave the law to Israel, and Israel only, after He delivered them out of Egypt and redeemed them. Consequently, the law did not redeem but was given to an already redeemed people. Theologian Douglas J. Moo notes that “Old Testament scholars generally agree that God did not give Israel the law so that the people could attain eternal life by it.”[9] However, the law was more than just a constitution in the context of its timing and audience.[10] It revealed the character of God as stated in Leviticus 11:45, “therefore be holy, because I am holy.” It also supervised the people of Israel, a natural function of being their civil law. The law also revealed sin as any deviation from the law, and therefore God’s character. In an essay about the blessings and curses God gives Israel in Deuteronomy, Timothy Keller offers this summary of the Mosaic Law and its purpose: “I will be your God and you will be my people. This is how I want you to live. Here are the stipulations of the covenant.”[11] Finally, Moo argues that the Mosaic Law was Covenant Law and its duration only extended as long as the covenant itself. Therefore, the Mosaic Law was not intended to be permanent.[12]

Fulfillment of the Law in Christ

With a context of the Mosaic Law in place, along with its purpose and its unique relationship to the nation of Israel temporally, how should we view it under the New Covenant? It is unavoidable upon reading the New Testament to see a tension between the continuity and discontinuity in how Jesus, Paul, and others viewed the Mosaic Law and its place in the life of believers. For example,  Jesus said regarding the law “I have not come to abolish them [the Law and the Prophets].”[13] Then, on the contrary, Paul later declares “Christ is the end of the law.”[14] There cannot be a complete discontinuity of the law because there are New Testament passages which speak of its importance. But, it is also evident in other passages that New Covenant believers are free from the law. I believe Moo’s Modified-Lutheran view that Christ has fulfilled the Mosaic Law is the best explanation that resolves these seeming contradictory passages. Moo’s approach gives the believer a holistic view of God’s program of salvation (one program, administered differently at times) and therefore, a proper understanding of how a believer today should relate to the Mosaic Law.

Moo’s salvation-historical approach examines the issue through a Christological lens. That is, Christ is at the center of salvation history and all that happened before and after His death and resurrection filters through Him. In particular, a key passage is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus began by declaring he has not come to “to abolish the Law or Prophets” but “to fulfill them.” He continued to offer various antithesis’, using the same language structure between the commands of the Mosaic Law and His declarations over them. For example, He says “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[15] Moo notes that while no single interpretive method applies, what emerges is that Jesus’ use of “But I say” establishes “a radical insistence on what he says as binding on his followers.”[16] While Jesus began by offering some continuity of the law through declaring He had not abolished it, He moved to establish Himself as fulfilling the Law and the authority through which to view it.

Subsequently, in Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus responds to a question from a Pharisee lawyer who asked Him “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Jesus declared that loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind is first, and second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus then adds “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Moo explains “It is the law as fulfilled by Jesus that must be done, not the law in its original form.” This “Law of Christ,” which Paul says he is subject to in 1 Corinthians 9:21, is now the authority that believers are bound to, and it is a law of principles as opposed to commands under the Mosaic Law.

It is clear that beyond the specific rules of the Mosaic Law exists deeper, more important principles. Jesus fulfills the particular rules (Moses was speaking of Jesus[17]) while exposing the universal laws that apply to all. It is the authority of the Mosaic Law to rule over a believer in the New Covenant which has been discontinued, and authority now lays within the Law of Christ, which continues God’s eternal law. We do find in the New Testament some of the commands of the Mosaic Law repeated. Such as in Romans 13:9 where four of the Ten Commandments are listed. But the context is that love “has fulfilled the law,” and Paul is not instructing believers to obey the commandments under the authority of the Mosaic Law, but by loving your neighbor under the authority of Christ. If we find a command in both the Mosaic Law and the New Testament, we follow it under the authority of Christ, not Moses.

We can now present two case studies to examine if Moo’s explanation of continuity and discontinuity is resolved under the authority of Christ regarding two important aspects of the Mosaic Law: circumcision and the Sabbath. First, consider the context of Paul’s arguments found in the book of Galatians. Paul’s arguments are directly relatable for how believers are to apply the law today. Here he gives us an example of how this principle works for believers; a discontinuity of authority of the Mosaic Law and yet following God’s law under the Law of Christ. Paul was compelled to write to the Galatians as the church there was teaching the necessity of circumcision for a believer’s justification. Paul argues “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” and that subjecting oneself to circumcision, one aspect of the law, you are then “obligated to keep the whole law.”[18]

Believers were subjecting themselves to the authority of the Mosaic Law while still trying to submit themselves to Christ. Paul throws down the gauntlet here when applying the Mosaic Law; believers cannot pick and choose parts of the Mosaic Law to add to the work of Christ. Two masters, the Mosaic Law and Christ, cannot be served. The authority of the Mosaic Law has been discontinued because in “Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything.”[19] However, Paul speaks to the continuity of God’s eternal law, through faith in Christ, which is now “…fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[20] In the context of Paul being the chief missionary to the Gentiles, what stronger statement could be made against any continuing authority of the Mosaic Law?

Second, if we recall the establishment of the Sinaitic Covenant, God gave His people the Sabbath as a sign of keeping this covenant. Also, it was revealed as the fourth commandment, a cornerstone of the Mosaic Law. However, in the New Testament, we see the same theme of discontinuity and fulfillment in Christ. As Paul had addressed the issue of circumcision with the Galatians and their subjection to the authority of the law above Christ, He addresses a similar issue with the Colossian Christians. Paul reminds the church to let “no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” He puts such things in their proper place as they “are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”[21] Also consider that, as in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus establishes Himself as the authority over the law, He does the same over the Sabbath. Specifically, in Matthew 12:7-8, Jesus first cites Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” and declares “For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” New Testament scholar A.T. Lincoln, in his essay for the book From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, notes “As Lord of the Sabbath He is the law’s true interpreter in terms of mercy rather than legalism.”[22] As the Sabbath day in the Old Testament centered on a literal rest, Jesus reinterprets this as resting in Him for salvation. A.T. Lincoln continues to make the convincing case that believers today, not being under the direct authority of the Mosaic Law, have no obligation to keep the Sabbath as a literal day of rest. Instead, believers worship on the Lord’s Day traditionally on the first day of the week, associated with Christ’s resurrection.[23] Similar to how the Law of Christ is a new law, not just a transference of the Mosaic Law, so is the Lord’s Day in that is not just a continuation of the Sabbath. It is a new day of worship motivated by the Holy Spirit and not kept as law.

A discussion of the Sabbath brings forth an issue that underpins Moo’s view while allowing those who disagree with him to advance theirs. That is, can we separate the Mosaic Law into civil, ceremonial, and moral laws to determine issues of continuity and discontinuity under the New Covenant? Moo’s reasoning that the Mosaic Law, both in the Old and New Testament, is always treated as a whole is one reason why I find his argument most convincing. Other applications of the Mosaic Law, such as both the Theonomic and Non-Theonomic Reformed views and the Evangelical view as argued for in the book Five Views of Law and Gospel, require a tripartite approach to the Mosaic Law. Generally speaking, these other views reason the continuity and discontinuity passages of the New Testament by explaining it is the civil and ceremonial laws which have been discontinued while the moral commands of the Mosaic Law continue, mostly as seen in the Ten Commandments. This creates more problems as it becomes subjective then as to which moral commands we are to follow and how.

I agree with Moo that there is little evidence of Jesus or any New Testament writer treating the Mosaic Law as three different parts; it is always dealt with as a whole. A.T. Lincoln agrees. Specifically, he concludes that Paul “treats the law of Moses as a total package and makes no distinction between moral and ceremonial elements within it.”[24] As mentioned above in Galatians 5:3, Paul’s argument was that if a believer subjects themselves to one part of the law, they would be “obligated to keep the whole law.” Further evidence is found in James, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”[25]

Critics of Moo’s appear to create a straw man that Moo is arguing some form of antinomianism. In Five Views on Law and Gospel, Greg L. Bahnsen, following the Theonomic Reformed tradition, and Walter C. Kaiser following the Evangelical view, criticize Moo’s argument because of the discontinuity of the Mosaic Law it stresses. Bahnsen claims that if we do away with the Mosaic Law, then it becomes permissible to murder, rape, and steal. Kaiser argues against Moo’s view as well stating it leaves Moo with no voice against issues such as the occult, incest, and even abortion. What these two critics are arguing is that without the authority of the Mosaic Law, we discontinue knowledge of all moral law.

These criticisms get to the heart of how the believer applies Mosaic Law under the Modified-Lutheran view. Moo never argues that God’s moral law has been discontinued. There is clearly a moral law in the New Testament, identified as the Law of Christ. Also, we do not need the Mosaic Law to know murder and rape is wrong and Paul argues the same in Romans 1:18-32. If we look again at Matthew 5, the issue is not that a moral law does not exist; it is under whose authority do we now discover it. Moo argues that the Mosaic Law is no longer that authority. Jesus, His words, and those of the New Testament writers are the authority. Believers today remain under God’s moral law which is larger than just the Mosaic Law. God’s law is eternal, existing before the revelation of the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law expressed some of God’s eternal law, but it anticipated the fulfillment of it in Christ, under whose authority it now continues.

Are we free from the law? Yes; we are free from the authority of the Mosaic Law and its specific commands as a way of justification or sanctification for the believer. No; we remain under God’s eternal moral law that is larger than just the Mosaic Law, and for believers today is the “Law of Christ” which is guided by principles of love through the teachings of Christ and the New Testament writers. The Old and New Testament are not different stories. What began, God’s plan of salvation, in the Old Testament continued in the New Testament. The Mosaic Law was one way of administering this plan for a particular people at a particular time, finding its ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

 

Resources and Further Reading

[1] Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 1.

[2] Roger T. Beckwith, “The Unity and Diversity of God’s Covenants.” Tyndale Bulletin, no. 38 (1987): 99, accessed April 20, 2017. http://www.tyndalehouse.com/TynBul/Library/TynBull_1987_38_04_Beckwith_GodsCovenant.pdf

[3] Genesis 12:2-3 (English Standard Version)

[4]Albert H. Baylis, From Creation to the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 89.

[5] See Jeremiah 31:32, Ezekiel 16:59-63 (English Standard Version)

[6] Jeremiah 31:33 (English Standard Version)

[7] Bruce Waltke, “Understanding the Old Testament: Genesis 12” (lecture, Institute of Theological Studies, August 13, 2009), MP3.

[8] Baylis, From Creation to the Cross, 122.

[9] Gundry, Stanley N. Gundry, ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1999), 324.

[10] Ibid., 335 – 341.

[11] Keller, Timothy Keller. “Life and Prosperity, Death and Destruction,” in Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth, ed. D.A. Carson and Jeff Robinson Sr. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), Kindle loc. 142.

[12] Gundry, Five Views on Law and Gospel, 344.

[13] Matthew 5:17 (English Standard Version)

[14] Romans 10:4 (English Standard Version)

[15] Matthew 27:27-28 (English Standard Version)

[16] Gundry, Five Views on Law and Gospel, 350.

[17] John 5:46 (English Standard Version)

[18] Galatians 5:3-2 (English Standard Version)

[19] Galatians 5:6 (English Standard Version)

[20] Galatians 5:14 (English Standard Version)

[21] Colossians 2:16-17 (English Standard Version)

[22] Carson, D.A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 364.

[23] Ibid., 346.

[24] Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, 370.

[25] James 2:10 (English Standard Version)

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