The Law and the People of God
We’ve called this series Old School in order to emphasize the Old Testament’s enduring relevance for God’s people today. One of the central aspects of the Old Testament is the rather extensive Law given to Israel after God delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors. The Law, with its various rules and instructions was binding on God’s people and their relationship with God was based on their adherence to it. That was God’s deal – his covenant, to use the theological word – with his people back in the day. But what about us? The New Testament clearly indicates that we are under a new covenant – a new deal – based not in God’s physical redemption of Israel from slavery, but based in God’s spiritual redemption of all humanity from sin, death and hell.
Well, since the nature of the covenant is different, our response is likewise different. Our response to this new covenant is faith, rather than adherence to the Law (cf Galatians 2, 3). In this sense, God’s people are said to now be “under grace” and not “under the Law” (Romans 6:14). This may seem to indicate that the Law is basically irrelevant and non–binding to God’s people today. However, confusion comes when we consider some of Jesus’ teachings that suggest the Law is Old School, not like bell bottoms (irrelevant), but more like Chuck Taylor’s (enduringly relevant). Consider Matthew 5:17–18:
“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. 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.”
Or, Luke 16:17:
But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.
So what do we make of all this? Is the Law at all relevant to God’s people or can we simply ignore it – maybe skip the next few Sundays – and only read the New Testament from now on? Well, as is often the case, we are not the first people to feel this tension. Fortunately, smart Jesus–loving people throughout the history of the church have sought to explain these apparent difficulties. For help on this particular question, we will lean especially on the insights of the leaders of the reformation. These great theologians who turned the church upside down back in the 16th century didn’t ignore such difficulties, but instead sought understanding by meditating on the Scriptures. We have a lot to thank them for and their insights on the Law’s role in the life of the Christian are no exception.
Having said that, the first great breakthrough on this issue actually came about 400 years before the Reformers from a Catholic theologian named Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas suggested that there were three types of laws in God’s covenant with Israel: civil, ceremonial and moral.
Civil laws are those that relate to the proper functioning of society within the nation of Israel. Israel was a theocracy, meaning God was its highest authority (much like Muslim nations in our present day who claim Allah as the state’s highest authority). As such, God gave them a code of conduct that spanned all sectors of society, including issues of land ownership, economics and crime and punishment. God’s people under the new covenant are explicitly commanded to submit to worldly authorities (cf Romans 13). We are no longer called to pursue or live in a theocracy. Therefore, the civil law is not binding on God’s people today; we are not citizens of ancient Israel.1 However, to Jesus’ point about the Law not passing away: there is much to learn from the civil law. At its core, every part of the Law is meant to reflect God’s character in the world. The law is a reflection of the Law–giver. So, for instance, in learning how the ancient Israelites were to conduct business, we can learn a lot about how God views business generally and what principles might properly be adopted in the life of the Christian businessman or woman.
The ceremonial laws delineate the ritual practices associated with the temple and Israel’s rather complex sacrificial system. Everything from the design of the temple and its various instruments to the unique roles of the priests within the temple system are included in this category of laws. The New Testament book of Hebrews, and especially the tenth chapter, plainly states that the ceremonial law was done away with in Christ. To use the language of Hebrews, the sacrificial system is no longer necessary now that Christ has come because his sacrifice was “once, for all.” Again though, just because these laws aren’t binding on us, doesn’t mean we don’t have a tremendous amount to learn from them. In fact, the entire book of Hebrews outlines how these types of laws point forward to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The ceremonial law helps us to more fully understand Christ’s substitutionary death. Reid has talked about how understanding the Old Testament allows us to see Jesus in Hi–Definition. The ceremonial law is a perfect example of that reality.2
The moral laws are those that relate to how God’s people are to treat each other interpersonally. Jesus taught that the entire Old Testament Scriptures can be summed up by two commandments: love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:40). The moral laws most directly demonstrate what that looks like in everyday life. This is where things get complex for modern–day followers of Jesus. We may not be expected to cancel debts every seven years (Deut. 15:1, civil law) or kill animals as a sign of peace (Lev 7; ceremonial law), but would any of us deny that we’re still supposed to follow the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; moral law)? This is where John Calvin – aided by a few of the other reformers – is helpful. Calvin spoke of the three uses of the moral law, which we’ll outline below3:
Pedagogical Use of the Moral Law
This is a fancy word for teaching. Paul uses a form of the word in Galatians 3:24–25 where he says the following:
4 So then, the law was our [pedagogue] until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a [pedagogue]”4
The first use of the moral law is that it teaches us something. Here’s what it teaches us: that we cannot keep the law perfectly and therefore are unrighteous and in need of a Savior. Calvin said it like this:
"[the moral law teaches us by] exhibiting the righteousness of God, — in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God, — it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, convicts, and finally condemns him.”5
Martin Luther, another leading Reformer, put it a little different saying that the Law drives us to our knees. The Law makes us aware of our sinful selves and desperate for righteousness. This is especially the case for those who would want to relate to God since the Law itself demands perfect obedience (cf. Deut 28:58; Paul reiterates this in Galatians 3:10). If we’re to relate to a holy God, we must be holy … the Law, or rather our lack of ability to keep the Law perfectly, makes us long for holiness. The holiness for which we long is solely available in Christ. As such, the Law teaches us to lean on and run to Christ.
The Moral Law Restrains Evil
The moral law also serves to hold back evil and injustice. The Old Testament’s teaching about the basic dignity of humanity and the need for justice and the protection of rights has become the foundation of Western civilization. Even if people don’t acknowledge this background, Biblical law is at the heart of how our modern world thinks about issues of right and wrong. Imagine if God had never given us instructions on how to treat people. Imagine a world without the Ten Commandments. God has indeed revealed these things and they’ve provided the basis for such universally accepted ideals as human rights.
Didactic or Normative Use of the Moral Law
Throughout the Old Testament, God foretells the coming of a new covenant between God and humanity. One essential aspect of that new covenant will be God’s people actually keeping the Law. Whereas once the people of God were characterized by obstinate disobedience, God’s new covenant people will be characterized by faithful obedience. Such passages as Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31, and Ezekiel 36 all emphasize this new feature in the history of God’s relationship with humanity. How is this accomplished? Those who put their faith in Jesus are given the Holy Spirit who transforms us from objects of God’s wrath into children of God who are being conformed to the image of His Son. In short, the Holy Spirit progressively makes us more like Jesus. To use the terms we’ve been discussing, in Christ we go from law–breakers to law–keepers. Of course, this does not suggest moral perfection. Jesus is the only human being that ever perfectly kept the Law and it’s ultimately his righteousness that saves us. However, to a degree unique in human history, those who have received the Holy Spirit under the new covenant are equipped to live as God’s holy, set apart people in the world (again, however imperfectly). The law we keep is the timeless moral law of the old covenant. Because the moral law is fundamentally rooted in the character of God it is never null and void for his people. Also, because the Law is meant to reveal the character of God both to and through his people, it is always important for the people of God to be distinct from the world by representing that truth in our lives. If anything, the transformation offered in Christ actually broadens what it means to keep the law. Having been loved fully in Christ, we are now free to extend love to others, even to our enemies. This is basically the point of the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5–7). Elsewhere in the New Testament this new approach to the law is called the “Law of Christ” (cf. 1Cor 9:21 and Gal 6:2).6 We might say it this way: though we are not saved by adherence to the Law, we are saved for good works (adherence to the Law). Consider Ephesians 2:8–10:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
In review, the Old Testament law – and more specifically the moral law – continues to function in three important ways. First, it reminds us of our own unrighteousness and drives us to the cross for forgiveness and redemption. Second, it restrains evil by revealing the justice and wisdom of God in human affairs. Finally, the moral law provides guidance for God’s new covenant people on how best to represent and glorify God before a watching world. Far from irrelevant, God’s law demands our close attention. Like a pair of Chuck’s, God’s law never goes out of style.
In Christ and for His Glory,
1. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth. This is a great book in general about how to read the Scriptures. Chapter 9—”The Law(s): Covenant Stipulations for Israel” is especially helpful on the issue discussed here.
2. Vern Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses is an outstanding resource that shows, in wonderful detail, how the ceremonial laws point to Christ. Highly recommended!
3. Michael Horton has written an excellent overview of these issues available at http://www.wscal.edu/faculty/wscwritings/09.09.php
4. Brackets are mine.
5. Calvin’s Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 7, Section 6
6. See Tom Schreiner’s article on the Commands of God in Central Themes in Biblical Theology, edited by Scott Hafemann.
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