Bible: Are Old Testament laws binding on Christians today?
…Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Romans 10:4
The books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) contain more than six hundred commands. The question of whether new-covenant Christians are under the Law of Moses is incredibly complicated, with everyday implications:1 May believers eat bacon? May we charge interest on loaned money? Must we practice Sabbath? Some things are commonly agreed upon.
First, The New Testament declares the Mosaic Law “is holy and righteous and good.”2 Second, the Mosaic Law helps to show us our sin.3 Third, Jesus perfectly fulfilled all of the law for us.4 Fourth, justification (being declared righteous before God) is wholly apart from keeping the Mosaic Law.5 Fifth, those who said believers are required to keep the whole law to be sanctified are wrong.6 Sixth, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.7 Now that Jesus’ work is complete, the Law of Moses is abolished and we are 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.”8 Thus 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
What command(s) of God are you currently struggling most to obey?
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).