Should Christians Obey the Old Testament Law?

Romans 10:4 – Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Galatians 2:6 – …we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

I will never forget the first time I tried to read the whole Bible as a new Christian in college. Not knowing what to do, I simply picked up the Bible and started reading from left to right like any other book. Genesis was interesting, and then things started to bog down if I’m honest. The next four books seemed like law after law and, since I did not have any goats, I was unsure what to do with all the demands God had for folks. This is the underlying debate in Galatians once Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law.

Moses books of the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy) contain more than six hundred commands – most agree its 613 but some argue for 614. The question of whether new-covenant Christians are under the Law of Moses is incredibly complicated, with everyday implications1: May believers eat bacon? May we charge interest on loaned money? Must we practice Sabbath? Some things are commonly agreed upon.

For starters, the New Testament declares the Mosaic Law “is holy and righteous and good.”2Second, the Mosaic Law helps to show us our sin.3Third, Jesus perfectly fulfilled all of the law for us.4Fourth, justification (being declared righteous before God) is wholly apart from keeping the Mosaic Law.5Fifth, those who said believers are required to keep the whole law to be sanctified are wrong.6Sixth, the Ten Commandments express fundamentally important principles for the Christian life originally given in principle to Abraham. Seventh, not every old covenant law is binding on Christians so that, for example, we do not have to sacrifice animals and can wear clothes made of multiple kinds of fabric.

The difficulty is that we should not dismiss all the old covenant laws (e.g., stealing and murdering), and we should not retain all the old covenant laws (e.g., stoning adulterers). One proposed solution is to divide the law into three categories:

  1. Ceremonial laws, referring to the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanness, and

so on, are now fulfilled in Jesus and therefore no longer binding. Nearly all of Hebrews is about this issue for Jews who struggled with the Old Testament laws once they were saved. These laws are no longer binding on us because Jesus is our priest, temple, sacrifice, cleanser, and so on.

  1. Civil laws are those pertaining to the governing of Israel as a nation ruled by

God. Since we are no longer a theocracy, these laws, while insightful, are not directly binding on us. Romans 13:1–6 says we are to obey our pagan government because God will work through it too.

  1. Moral laws refer to commands that forbid such things as rape, theft, murder, and

so on. These laws are still binding on us even though Jesus fulfilled their requirements through his sinless life. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated by Jesus, with the only exception being the Sabbath, as that is part of the ceremonial law and now Jesus is our rest.

Thus, according to this explanation, ceremonial and civil laws are no longer binding on us, but moral laws are.

Others see the solution in this statement: the whole Mosaic Law is valid until its purpose is accomplished in Christ.7Now that Jesus’ work is complete, the Law of Moses is abolished, and we are to remain under the principles of the Abrahamic covenant. This seems to be supported by Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:16-4:7 that the law was added to God’s promise to Abraham 430 years afterward because of sin. It imprisoned the people of God until Jesus came. Paul summarizes, “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.”8Thus we are to keep the Abrahamic commands to be loyal to God (Gen. 12), trust his word even when it makes no sense (Gen. 15), keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:18-19), and look for provision in Messiah (Gen. 22). Jesus summarized this permanent righteousness in the law of Christ: love God and neighbor as guided by the Spirit.9

Perhaps a simple analogy will help clarify a complex issue since it’s the end of the school year and many of us are attending graduation celebrations. When a student is in school, they have laws of the nation that are in authority over them, in addition to graduation requirements set by the school. Once the graduation requirements are met, a person walks on a stage, is handed a diploma, stating their obligations to the school are once and for all fulfilled, and then they are free to move on with their life. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “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.”What this means for you is that Jesus got a perfect score in fulfilling every graduation requirement of God’s law. Through faith in Him, His report card becomes your report card. You are therefore freed from having to go back to earn your graduation and freed to move on with your life in the Spirit, who leads you to also honor the eternal principles of God’s Kingdom that remain in effect forever, such as no murdering or stealing.

Do you earnestly believe that you are perfectly righteous solely by faith in Jesus Christ and do not need to do anything to pay God back for your failures? 

1This is an enormously complex issue. For more in-depth study see Thomas R. Schreiner, Forty Questions on the Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010); Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment:   A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993); Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994); Frank Thielman, The Law and the New Testament: The Question of Continuity (New York: Crossroad, 1999); Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988); and Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Douglas J. Moo, et al., Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).

2Rom. 7:12; 1 Tim. 1:8.
3Gal. 3:19–25.
4Matt. 5:17–18.
5Rom. 3:21, 27–28; 4:1–5; Gal. 2:16; 3:11; 5:4; Phil. 3:9.
6Gal. 5.
7See Rom. 10:4; Col. 2:17.
8Gal. 3:24–25.
9Matt. 22:36-40; Luke 10:27; Mark 12:30-31; Rom. 8; 13:8–10; 1 Cor. 9:20–21; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8.

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