Being good is important, right? God gave the 10 commandments as some sort of guide for how we should behave, didn’t He? Jesus said the whole Law would be fulfilled and warns those who “annul the least of these commandments” and teaches others to do so will be the least in the kingdom (Matt 5:17-19). That is a pretty strong statement about the importance of the Law. So, what does it mean to when Paul says we are no longer “under law” (e.g., Rom 6:14, Gal 4:21) or “under the law” (e.g, 1 Cor 9:20, Gal 3:23)? This seems contradictory and at least on the surface leaves one confused as to what to do with the 10 Commandments. Not surprising, this is a controversial topic within Christianity and is not just an academic exercise in theology. Rather it ultimately effects how we relate to God and grow spiritually, i.e., sanctification. Should we just behave, which would be the safe route I guess. But if we do that are we missing out on something God wants to give us: freedom (Gal 5:1)?
The role of the Law as it pertains to spiritual growth polarizes Christians. Many Christians, if not most, view the Law as a means of growth for the Christian. Sort of a continuation of what God started with Moses and Israel that will be followed for eternity. This view is most prominent, but not exclusively, in reformed theology: the view that God’s covenants build upon one another and are more or less binding from when they were given and forward into history. The other camp holds that Christ ushered in a New Covenant (NC) that replaced the Old Covenant (OC) that he had given through Moses to the nation Israel. Part of this new covenant is a break from the Law as it applied to Israel, the practical outworking of their faith. Instead, we are now to follow Christ in relationship with a focus and emphasis on following the Holy Spirit with the practical outworking being to love others. This view is most prominent, but not exclusively, in dispensational theology, the view that God has operated in different dispensations throughout history to bring about His plan for salvation. In this case the dispensation of the Law being replaced by the dispensation of grace, the former age being the time when God worked through Israel and the latter age being the time that God works through the church.
So, what does the Bible say? What should be our focus? In the book Five Views of Law and Gospel (ed. S.N. Gundry; Zondervan, 1996), five different views of the law and it’s relation to the gospel of Christ are presented covering a wide range of perspectives. Five different authors give their views:
· William VanGemeren presented “The Law is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective”
· Greg L. Bahnsen presented “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel”
· Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. presented “The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness”
· Wayne G. Strickland presented “The Inauguration of the Law of Christ with the Gospel of Christ: A Dispensational View”
· Douglas Moo presented “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View”
I have already commented on the first two views in an earlier blog which present the reformed view. Kaiser, though not a reformed theologian per se, also sides with the reformers in large part on this issue. The latter two authors take the opposing view that the Law as a means of growth or a guide was discontinued in the NC for the Christian, Strickland coming from the dispensational viewpoint and Moo, though not claiming to be a dispensationalist, presenting a similar perspective. I will draw from the last two articles and the interaction and debate between the authors in response to one another.
Everyone agrees with the fact that the Law is good, pronounces God’s morality, conveys God’s character, shows us what sin is, and convicts us of our sin. But is the Christian still to follow the Law today as a means of growth or not?
As I read through this book, a number of questions and issues were raised in my mind:
· How does one account for the passages that advocate discontinuity between the OC and the NC? Does it pertain to ceremonial and civil parts of the Law or the whole law? (see my earlier blog)
· What exactly is the Law? Is it just a summary or is it precisely the eternal, binding unchanging moral law of God? Is the New Commandment to love one another (John 13:34) the same as the 10 Commandments or different?
· Is the Law something that we must follow or can we just learn from it? If we don’t follow the Law or if we are not under the law, can we still apply it and if so, how?
· When I obey a moral command, am I following the law or am I trusting in God in what He says is right and trustworthy? Is there a difference?
· Where does a law-focus or law-emphasis in sanctification lead you? Can a law-focus ever not lead to legalism?
The Law as a Means of Growth View
The reformer seems to think that without the Law a Christian will not know how to behave. The focus or emphasis in their arguments, whether admitted or not, is on the need for moral living, rather than life by the Holy Spirit. For example, VanGemeren asks in response to Strickland’s discontinuous position, ‘how do you live out Micah 6:8?’:
“… O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”.
The reformed answer he says is we still need the 10 Commandments “as the revealed summary of God’s will”. In this light 1 Tim 1:8-10, to use the law “lawfully”, should be applied to our hearts (p. 287). Since we are not in our eternal state, we experience the struggle of Paul (Rom 7:21-25, p. 288). But I am to look to God’s grace and serve people in the Spirit in preparation of His coming. This is conveyed by Peter in 1 Pet 1:13-16 which confirms the relevance of the law in our daily life since Peter quotes from Lev 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7 (p. 289).
However, is it not odd that the law is not for the righteous in 1 Tim 1:8, but for the ungodly and lawless (vs 9-10)? The passage is not applied to sanctification. Is Paul’s struggle in Rom 7 because he is not trying to follow the Law hard enough or because he does not know the Law well enough? Paul probably knew and followed the Law better than any other sinful human (Phil 3:6). Or is it because he is focused on the Law and trying to do God’s morality on a performance basis, and it does not work (see Gal 3:21)? Is Peter’s emphasis on “being holy” (vs 15)? Or is it to “focus your hope completely on grace” (vs. 13), not on the Law. When we focus on grace, then we will experience something outward that sets us apart from the fallen world.
Reformers also see or desire a continuous approach or God-imposed moral unity to adhere to that extends from OT to NT. For example, Jesus’ “new commandment” is not something really something new or different, it represents the finalized form that brings greater “moral clarity” to the original Mosaic Law (Bahnsen, p. 103). Also, the NC prophecy of Jeremiah that “I will put My Law within them and on their heart I will write them” (Jer 31:31) is the Mosaic Law, according to VanGemeren, that Israel failed to follow and was rebuked for in Jer. 6:19, 9:13, 16;11 (p. 285).
However, is that how the NT describes Jer 31:31? The NT quotes Jer 31:31-34 five times:
– Luke 22:20 and 1 Cor 11:25 in reference to the Last Supper (communion) – “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”. It’s obvious that the NC came about because Jesus shed His blood for us, opening up the opportunity for relationship with intimacy established through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13).
– 2 Cor 3:6 – contrasting “the letter” presumably the law, i.e., a performance-based approach to God, with live in the Spirit through which Christ gives us life (e.g., John 4:10; 7:38; 10:10)
– Heb 8:8-12 – here Hebrews brings out the fact that Israel failed in being able to carry out the Law. Will we fare any better? Not by focusing on the Law. Rather because we will “know the Lord” intimately. We will not have need for a teacher or at least be completely dependent on one as in the OC, rather we are led directly by Christ (our High Priest – Heb 8:1). Though not explicit in the passage, I think this is of course through the HS in the context of the Body of Christ. We still learn from one another and some are gifted at disclosing God’s truth, but it’s different because we have the Spirit. The OC is obsolete (vs 13).
– Heb 10:16,17 – Here the HS testifies to us (vs 15) and he quotes Jer 31:33-34. Again signifying the NC was because our sins were dealt with through Christ and now we have confidence to boldly enter into intimate relationship with Him (vs 19ff).
Where is there any hint that this is the same as the 10 Commandments? Again, it’s certainly not that the 10 Commandments are bad or useless, but they are not the focus in the Christian life!
The Law as a Means of Growth, Discontinued
Though Strickland and Moo had much to say on the role of the Law throughout history, I found two arguments, one from each, most compelling as to the role, or rather lack thereof, of the Law in the believers life.
Strickland’s section on “Arguments for Discontinuity” (pp. 262-275) brought out the strong emphasis in the NT that the OT role of the Law in the believer’s life was discontinued for the NT believer. Many passages make this point clear. Strickland emphasizes these (some of which I’ve already used above):
· Heb 8:8-9,13 – quoting Jer 31 the author explicitly states that the OC was abrogated
· Rom 6:14-15 – Paul presents a contrast between being under law and under grace (see below in Moo’s study of “under law”)
· Rom 10:4 – “Christ is the end of the law”, i.e., law-based righteousness is now replaced with righteousness that comes from Christ so that the law is no longer necessary for this purpose
· 2 Cor 3:3, 6-18 – though not explicitly arguing about the Law, Paul clearly contrasts that written in stone with that which is now written on our hearts
· Phil 3:7-9 – Paul contrasts two different types of righteousness: either from adherence to the Mosaic Law or by faith. Paul’s old way, the way of the OC, was replaced by the new way in Christ through a relationship with Him because of what He has done for me.
Moo’s approach was to follow the role of the Law in Salvation-History much of which was very enlightening. The one thing I will bring out here was the very emphatic reference of Paul to Christians no longer being “under law” or “under the law”. Paul uses these phrases eleven times: Rom 6:14,15; 1 Cor 9:20 (4 times); Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, 21; and 5:18. Moo goes through all of them and clearly shows that the context of each passage views the “law” as the Mosaic Law. Reformers have to dance around this and make a big deal that the definite article wasn’t used (e.g., in Rom 6:14 – Bahnsen, p. 106). However, in all the other passages the “the” is used with the exception of Gal 4:21. In my earlier blog I make reference to the lack of importance of the definite article from Moo’s comments on Bahnsen’s article. The other thing reformers try to do is say that the reference to the law really is a reference not to the 10 Commandments but to misuse of the 10 Commandments by the Judaizers. But again, that is not what Paul is referring to when he quotes from the Law in the context of those passages (see the earlier blog on this point as well). The fact is “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal 5:21).
Has the Law continued into the church as a focus for Christian living or was it abrogated with the New Covenant? I think it pretty obvious that role has been abrogated. What then of the Law? Is it still useful? Of course, it is the Word of God! Like all Scripture (2 Tim 3:16) it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness”. We do learn much of God’s morality and character from the Law and it plays an important role in God’s dealing with Israel and shows us clearly of our sin and need for God. It seems to me that there is either some kind of fear that if we don’t emphasize the Law we will circle the drain morally or we are not giving glory to God as we should. But “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). And that is the focus, the commandment that Christ has now given us (John 13:34, 15:12,17), which can only come about from having our hearts turned inside out from a self-serving, self-seeking approach to a Spirit led dependence-on-God approach (i.e., the flesh – see Rom 6 through 8).
For example, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). I can go about on my own and make that happen for the most part, at least so far I have. But have I? Christ of course enlightens us to the heart attitude to show us that is what God sees.
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. – Matt 5:22
Now I’m in trouble. I’m in need of either some help or I deserve hell, because I have done that… many times. In fact, I still do. And that is the real dilemma, we still do sin and we still experience “death”. Like Paul says:
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. – Gal 3:21
The “life” that Christ gives can only come from a focus on Him and His provision through an empowering relationship of the Spirit. What a waste to focus on “morality” when morality can only be obtained when my heart gets changed.
So what do I do with a commandment to not murder or covet or commit adultery? Should I ignore them? No, but we should recognize that “just doing it” or even concentrating on it doesn’t work and typically leads to more and more guilt and sin. We need to go to the Lord and recognize our sin nature and apply who we are in Christ, dependence in Him and His power – and then step out in faith and live (love – e.g., Gal 5:13ff or Phil 3:12ff). This will bring glory to God.
 Even Kaiser, who is critical of the Reform view for replacing Israel with the church is critical of the dispensationalist for replacing the character of God as found in the Law with the character of Christ. “Love will never tell us what we are to do in order to live and behave as God wants us to” (p. 303). Bahnsen’s article is almost focused on the importance of being and preserving the morality of God in our lives and our government.
 One point that I am critical of Moo on and which actually caught me by surprise was his view that Romans 7 refers to Paul as a non-Christian. All of the other authors were also critical of him on this as well.