In the King James Version, 1 John 3:4 defines sin as “the transgression of the law.” John was referring to the law of God, but how do we define the law of God for Christians today? We know it can’t be all of the laws of the Old Testament, because the New Testament shows that the sacrificial system has ended.
But what about other Old Testament laws? Are they as binding on Christians today as they were for Israelites before the coming of Jesus Christ? Which Old Testament laws does God command Christians to obey today?
A similar question troubled the early New Testament church, and even required a council of apostles and elders to address the issue. The conclusion of that council, with the writings of the apostle Paul and other New Testament authors, help us understand what God’s law is for Christians today.
The New Testament controversy
A controversy that troubled the early New Testament church was whether God required Gentile Christians to be circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses. The basic message of Paul to the Gentiles was that their salvation was a gift that came through faith in Jesus Christ, and that they were complete in him. Paul placed no demands on his converts that they be either circumcised or required to perform other Old Testament laws in order to be saved.
However, the position of some Jewish Christians was that “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Without the authorization of the apostles (verse 24), they had spread this disturbing message to certain Gentile congregations.1
This teaching implied that faith in Christ was not enough for salvation. These “Judaizers” wanted to combine the gospel of Christ with the observance of the Law of Moses. Their error was not that they substituted something for Christ’s work, but that they tried to add something to it. For them, salvation was not by faith alone: It was by faith in Christ and obedience to the law.
Paul strongly resisted the idea that the Law of Moses was a requirement either to get salvation or to maintain it. He fought a running battle with these “Judaizers,” whom he regarded as “false brothers” who had infiltrated the Gentile churches (Galatians 2:4). He wrote his epistle to the Galatian church to counter their teaching, which he labeled a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
Paul and the covenants
It is instructive to analyze how Paul responded to the heresy of the Judaizers in his letter to the Galatians. Although the focus of the Judaizers’ message appears to have been on ritualistic parts of the Mosaic Law (particularly circumcision), one doubts they would have been content with Gentiles observing these laws only. Paul seems to anticipate this view in Galatians 5:3, where he makes the point that, in order to be consistent, those who submit to circumcision are “obligated to obey the whole law.” The Mosaic covenant was a complete unit — submission to its laws could not be selective.
In countering the Galatian heresy, Paul did not limit himself to addressing only the ritualistic part of the Law of Moses. His strategy in his letter was to show that the entire old covenant (that is, the Mosaic covenant) had ended and has been replaced by a new covenant (Galatians 4:24–26). Christians now live under that new covenant and are not obligated to live according to the requirements of the old covenant. They are justified through faith in Jesus Christ, and justification does not require additional works of the law.2
Paul saw the new covenant as the fulfillment of the covenant God made to Abraham. This covenant, based on Abraham’s faith and God’s promise, was not set aside by the Mosaic “law” that came 430 years later (Galatians 3:17). Since the Mosaic covenant was added later, it could not disannul the promises made to Abraham.3
In Galatians 3:19, Paul asks what purpose the law served. He explains that it was “added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred [Jesus Christ] had come.” What Paul means by “added because of transgressions” is not clear, but it may mean something like “to make wrongdoing a legal offence” (New English Bible) — that is, to explain more clearly what behaviors were wrong.
Paul goes on to explain the purpose of the old covenant law. It was to serve as a custodian or schoolmaster for the children of Israel “until faith should be revealed” (verse 23). In other words, the old covenant law was designed to keep them in the knowledge of God until Christ came, after which faith in Christ would prevail (verse 24). Paul concludes: “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (verse 25).
Paul saw the new covenant as a present reality for Christians, not a future hope.4 In Galatians 4 he figuratively contrasted the old and new covenants to illustrate where Christians’ citizenship lies. The old covenant was represented by Hagar, who stands for Mount Sinai, which in turn corresponded to the city of Jerusalem (verse 25), then the center of Judaism.
The new covenant, on the other hand, was represented by the free woman (by implication, Sarah — see verse 22), who corresponds to “Jerusalem that is above.” She “is free, and she is our mother” (verse 26). Paul concluded that as Christians, “We are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (verse 31). In other words, Christians are the freeborn children of the new covenant, not slaves of the old covenant.
Then in chapters 5 and 6, Paul explains the implications in one’s behavior of living under the new covenant.
The Jerusalem Council
Despite his vigorous efforts, Paul was not able by himself to stamp out the Judaizers’ heresy.5 He therefore went to Jerusalem to have the church leaders settle the issue. This conference is recorded in Acts 15. After considerable discussion, Peter addressed the council. He explained how God gave uncircumcised Gentiles the Holy Spirit, thus revealing to Peter that God had accepted these people (verse 8). God “made no distinction between us [Jews] and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (verse 9). After rebuking the Judaizers for testing God by putting a yoke on the Gentile believers, Peter announced: “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (verse 11).
James agreed with Peter’s conclusion, declaring that no salvation requirements should be placed on the Gentiles, besides their faith in Jesus Christ. However, James saw the need to ask Gentile converts to “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (verse 20). The reason given for this ruling was because “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (verse 21). Gentile Christians following these stipulations would not offend the sensibilities of those Jews living in the Gentile world who heard the law of Moses preached each week in their synagogues.
These stipulations appear to have been minimum rules for Gentile Christians, the observance of which would facilitate good relations with both non-Christian and Christian Jews. At least as far as the dietary restrictions may have been concerned, the need for these minimum standards was because of cultural differences. Jewish culture was based on the laws of the Mosaic covenant, while Gentile culture derived from paganism. Some aspects of Gentile culture were particularly offensive to Jews. Thus, Jews considered Gentiles “unclean” and avoided interactions with them as much as possible.
To overcome this stumbling block for Jews, the church asked Gentiles to avoid eating meat that had idolatrous associations, blood, and meat that had not been properly drained of blood. Because these dietary rules would facilitate good relations with the Jewish community and fellowship with Jewish believers, and were not given as requirements for salvation, Paul had no
objection to asking Gentile Christians to observe them.
Despite the conclusions of this apostolic council, questions and controversies about the law of God for Christians continued to disturb the early church. Paul therefore continued to address the subject in letters he subsequently wrote to various churches and ministers.
The new way of the Spirit
With this historical perspective from the early New Testament church in mind, we can now examine different views about the law of God for Christians.
If God has already made his new covenant with Christians, what effect does this have on their relationship to Old Testament law? Some might assume that it means a Christian must now fulfill the law not only according to the letter, but also according to its full spirit and intent.
Thus, the demands of the law are intensified and are even more rigorous for a Christian.
This view assumes that much of the law of the old covenant is simply transferred into the new covenant, with the additional benefit of the Holy Spirit. Such a view is flawed, as can be seen in the example of circumcision. If God expects Christians to fulfill both the letter and spirit of the law, then all males must be physically and spiritually circumcised. The early New Testament church decisively rejected this conclusion at the Council of Jerusalem.
This position sees everything in terms of laws to be obeyed, with Jesus Christ providing the perfect example of obedience and the Holy Spirit providing the power to obey the laws. It inevitably leads to legalism because it focuses on law rather than on Christ.
The opposite of this view is that Christians are under “grace,” and therefore all law is abolished. However, this leads to antinomianism (Romans 3:8), which Paul strongly rejected. Rather, he upheld the law (Romans 3:31) and made it clear that being under grace was not permission to sin (Romans 6:15–23).
The alternative to these extremes is that under the terms of the new covenant, a Christian’s relationship to Old Testament law is transformed rather than intensified or abolished. This is brought out in Romans 6 and 7. Paul explains that Christians “are not under law, but under grace” (6:14) and that they “died to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4). He writes,
By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (7:6)
This is elaborated in 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul contrasts the administrations of the old and new covenants:
He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (verse 6)
So under the new covenant Christians serve in a “new way” — the way of the Spirit. The “old way” of the written code has been superseded. It has ended because the old covenant was a temporary system designed to act as a guardian for the nation Israel until the Messiah came. Humanity’s relationship to God is no longer regulated by a written law code on tables of stone or in a book, as it was for ancient Israel. It is now based on faith in Jesus Christ (verses 22–24). “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (verse 25).
In what way is our relationship to old covenant law transformed through faith in Jesus Christ?
“Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). The Greek word telos, translated as “end,” can mean 1) termination,” “cessation,” or 2) “goal,” “culmination,” “fulfillment.” In this verse, it is best understood in the latter sense, that Christ is the fulfillment of the law. He brought the law to completion by perfectly obeying its demands and by fulfilling its types and prophecies. Through his life and death, Jesus fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law, thereby freeing Christians from the condemnation of the law.
A major purpose of God’s law is to lead humans to Christ by convicting them of sin. But because believers are justified by Christ’s righteousness, the law has no legal claim over them. After explaining in Romans 7 the accusatory nature of the law, and that rescue is through Jesus Christ, Paul writes,
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1–2)
As its fulfillment, Jesus Christ transcends the law. This is what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:17-19: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus’ teaching does not abolish the Law or the Prophets, but brings them to
their intended climax.
In terms of the new covenant, the law no longer exists in the form of a written code apart from Jesus. God’s law, in its spirit and intent, exists in Christ alone. He is greater than the law. The law kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6). Fulfilling the law is through trusting him rather than obeying an external written code.
Our spiritual connection with God is based on a personal relationship with Christ, not on obedience to an impersonal list of rules. Living faith can be to Jesus Christ only, because salvation is through him.
The Law of Christ
In 1 Corinthians 9:20–21 Paul explains his approach in preaching the gospel, and in doing so he revealed which law he obeyed:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.
Paul describes himself as not being under the law. From the context it is obvious he means Mosaic Law, the law of the old covenant. But this does not mean he saw himself as without law. Paul was not free from God’s law — he was now under “Christ’s law.” It is important to appreciate this distinction. The Mosaic Law was God’s law for the nation of Israel under the old covenant. The “law of Christ” is God’s law for Christians in the New Testament era. The two are not the same.
Serving in the new way of the Spirit rather than the old way of the written code is what Paul describes as fulfilling “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). In Galatians he used the term in the context of bearing each other’s burdens. Yet the thought behind the phrase encompasses all that Paul wrote concerning living in Christ. Fulfilling the law of Christ is the way of holiness, as opposed to legalism or antinomianism. According to Raymond T. Stamm,
This law of Christ is not a law in the legal sense of the word, but the life principle of all who take up his cross of creative suffering. (The Interpreter’s Bible [Abingdon, 1953], vol. 10, 574)
Paul used the phrase “law of Christ” after writing about living “by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 25) as opposed to living “under law” (verse 18). Because the Galatian members were so enamored with law, Paul used the word law in a way they had not anticipated. They were not under Mosaic Law, but they were under the law of Christ, which required them to bear each other’s burdens.
In arguing against the position that Christians are no longer under the law, the Judaizers would claim that this would lead to antinomianism. Paul’s response to this reasoning is summarized by John Montgomery Boice:
Finally, the opponents of Paul charged that the Gospel he preached led to loose living. By stressing the law, Judaism had stressed morality. Jews looked down on Gentile sin and excesses. But what would happen if the law should be taken away? Clearly, lawlessness and immorality would increase, the legalizers argued.
Paul replies that this is not true (chapters 5, 6). It is not true because Christianity does not lead the believer away from the law into nothingness. It leads him to Jesus Christ, who, in the person of the Holy Spirit, comes to dwell within him and furnishes him with the new nature that alone is capable of doing what God desires. The change is internal. So it is from within rather than without that the Holy Spirit produces the fruit that is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). Life in the Spirit is free from and above the kind of religion that would result in either legalism or license. It is true freedom — a freedom to serve God fully, unencumbered by the shackles of sin or
regulations. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan, 1976], vol. 10, 411)
Oscar Fisher Blackwelder comments:
All this, said Paul, is fulfilling the law of Christ. Law? After the struggle he had gone through to get the law properly placed in his thinking and in his own life, after getting the Galatians free from their entanglement with the law — why on earth did Paul turn again to that word? Was it to give the Galatians a totally new conception of law? Here law undoubtedly means for him the way of Christ, the principles on which the Christian life operates, the act itself of love, of putting into daily living all that he had written about burden-bearing and about the restoration of those who trespass. (The Interpreter’s Bible [Abingdon, 1953], vol. 10, 579)
Equating the law of Christ with the way of Christ hearkens back to Jesus’ parting words to the disciples before his death. Jesus said to them:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34–35)
Jesus was expanding the injunction in Leviticus 19:18, which Paul quoted in Galatians 5:14, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Christians show they are disciples of Jesus Christ by loving one another as he loves them. The Gospels record how Jesus loved. He was not particularly concerned with the externalities of religious observance, but he was concerned with “the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23) and “the love of God” (Luke 11:42). He ministered to people in their suffering, he showed them the love of God through kindness, compassion and mercy, and he forgave their sins. They would fulfill the law of Christ by following the example and teachings of Jesus that he gave for the church.
F.F. Bruce identifies features of the law of Christ in Romans 12 and 13, showing how Paul reiterates major teachings of Jesus. He links them with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Mutual love, sympathy and esteem within the believing brotherhood are to be expected, but this section [Romans 12:9–21] enjoins love and forgiveness towards those outside the brotherhood, not least towards its enemies and persecutors. (Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans, 1991], 110)
Paul’s conclusion concerning law is found in Romans 13:8–10:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
For Paul, a Christian’s obligation was to love, and everything else was secondary. Regarding circumcision, for example, Paul wrote:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)
The Judaizers who wanted Gentiles to be circumcised and come under the Law of Moses were not motivated by love. Paul saw this, and called them alse brothers (Galatians 2:4). They wanted to bring the Gentiles into a form of religious bondage under their control (Galatians 4:17; 6:13). Because their motivations were not right, they violated the law of Christ.
Fulfilling the law of Christ is people-oriented rather than task-oriented. It focuses on relationships, not works of law. The law of Christ cannot be imposed according to an externalized written code, because it is written in the heart of the Christian. A written code cannot encompass the law of Christ, because it would need to encompass Christ, which is impossible. Christ’s law is an internal principle and way of godly living that produces “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23).
Under the old covenant, the Israelites lived according to the Law of Moses. Under the new covenant, Christians are to live according to the law of Christ. The difference is love generated by the Holy Spirit. It is possible to fulfill outwardly the Law of Moses without love in your heart. It is impossible to fulfill the law of Christ unless there is love in your heart.
Legalism versus the Spirit
The result of attempting to relate to God through obedience to Old Testament law, or even to a “New Testament” set of rules, is to descend into legalism. Christianity becomes regulations. The gospel is reduced to a law system.
Just as old covenant Israelites knew what their obligations were by reading the law, so Christian legalists can look to their set of rules, whatever they may be, to know what they should do. The rules vary according to the religious tradition of the legalists. For some, it would be Sabbath and
Holy Day observance, scrupulously setting aside tithes and avoiding “unclean meat.” These behaviors are not wrong, but it is wrong to observe them in a legalistic manner, as the Pharisees did.
In other churches, the rules can include strict Sunday observance, no drinking of alcohol, no dancing or going to movies, vegetarianism, rejecting blood transfusions to save life, etc. Decisions are easier in this black-and-white approach, and it results in generally good behavior. But it omits the weightier matters of the law that require spiritual discernment and sometimes difficult decisions as to which principle is most important.
Legalistic rules also become the measuring stick by which behavior (both one’s own and that of others’) is judged as acceptable or deviant. Christians think that God is on their side, if only they follow the rules and perform their religious duties. The problem with this approach is that the legalists’ faith is in their rules, and not in Christ to lead and teach them by his Spirit to understand the spiritual intent of the law. Often without realizing it, legalists rest in their own works instead of the redemptive work of Christ.
Christians today can choose to live according to Mosaic Law, just as Jewish Christians did in the first century. However, their law-keeping will not cause God to give them his Spirit and work miracles in their lives (Galatians 3:5). Nor will it lead them into a deeper understanding of spiritual truths, compared to those who live according to the law of Christ. The opposite may even be true, because the more that Christians rely on law to direct them, the less they rely on the Spirit. It seems that it is impossible to rely on law and the Spirit simultaneously — it’s either one or the other.
This is the point Paul makes in Galatians 3:1–5. The Galatians had received the Spirit through believing in Christ, not through human observance of the law. Paul asks, “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (verse 3).
Can adherence to the Law of Moses work contrary to the law of Christ? Yes, it can. Consider the New Testament example of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3–11). The Law of Moses called for the death penalty by stoning (verse 5), but Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he demonstrated kindness, mercy and forgiveness. This was an example of the law of Christ in
action. God has replaced the administration of death by the “more glorious” administration of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:9) — old rules are set aside so that more important principles can prevail — in this case, mercy.
Another example is found in Matthew 12:1–8. In response to the Pharisees’ accusations that Jesus’ disciples were breaking the Sabbath by picking heads of grain, Jesus referred to the incident when David ate the consecrated bread from the tabernacle of God, something that was lawful for Levites only. However, because David was hungry and there was nothing else to eat, God did not regard his eating of the bread as sinful. David’s actions were not lawful according to the Law of Moses, but because of the circumstances, he was blameless. Mercy is more important than strict obedience, which, in that case, could have imperiled human life (see verse 7).6 The lesson is that compassion is a better guide to godly behavior than blind adherence to
Legalism continues to exist today in many denominational traditions — wherever Christians define and limit their dealings with others according to the rules of a written law code.
There is no doubt that Christian legalists are sincere in their emphasis on rules, though their thoughts and actions may be contrary to the law of Christ. Legalists are deceived in their belief that the letter of the law is most important to God and that God is more concerned with obedience to rules and regulations than with expressing the love of Christ in relationships. For legalists, law takes precedence over people. Legalists dishonor God’s name when they make the genuine needs of people secondary to the letter of the law.
Christians are called to live a holy life in obedience to Christ. They are to live by every word of God as it applies to them. The law system applying to Christians is not the law of the Old Testament, but the law of Christ. It is not a written code that one defines by rules and regulations. It is the application of God’s living law of love that affects every area of our lives.
This does not mean that Christians discard Old Testament law as if it has no relevance to them today. There is much relevance because it expresses the will of God for a particular people during a particular age. The principles underlying many Mosaic laws are valid for Christians today. As D.J. Moo observes:
Jesus never attacks the Law and, indeed, asserts its enduring validity. But it is only as taken up into Jesus’ teaching, and thus fulfilled, that the Law retains its validity. The Law comes to those living on this side of the cross only through the filter of its fulfillment in Christ the Lord. (“Law,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels [InterVarsity Press, 1992], 450) Often the application of the law of Christ coincides with laws and principles in the Old Testament. Sometimes it does not. But whenever there is a conflict between them, the law of Christ prevails because it more fully expresses the will of God.
1 Why circumcision was so important to Jews is explained by Unger:
Circumcision became the external token of the covenant between God and his people. It secured to the one subjected to it all the rights of the covenant, participation in all its material and spiritual benefits; while, on the other hand, he was bound to fulfill all the covenant obligations. (Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary [Moody, 1974], 207)
2 Paul also makes this point in Ephesians 2. After explaining that salvation is not by works but is a gift through faith in Jesus Christ (verses 8-9), Paul goes on to show that the Gentiles who were excluded from citizenship in Israel and from the covenants of promise (verse 12) have now been brought near through the blood of Christ (verse 13), thereby “abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations,” which had been a dividing barrier between Jew and Gentile (verse 15). Consequently, Gentiles “are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (verse 19).
3 F.F. Bruce writes,
The gospel was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, which antedated the law by centuries. Abraham, whose faith in God was counted to him for righteousness, was the prototype of all who are justified by faith. The [Mosaic] law was a parenthetical dispensation, introduced to serve a temporary purpose, but was rendered obsolete by the coming of Christ, the true offspring of Abraham, in whom the promises and their fulfillment were embodied” (F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free [Eerdmans, 1977], 182; emphasis ours).
4 One view is that God is making, not has made, his new covenant with Christians, and that Christians live under the terms of the new covenant. However, the typology of the old covenant argues against this view. God made the Mosaic covenant with Israelites at Sinai shortly after they came out of Egypt, even though many of the covenantal promises were not fulfilled for 40 or more years. God was not making his covenant with them during the decades in the wilderness — it had already been made and sealed in blood at Sinai (Exodus 24:8). Likewise, God has already made his new covenant with Christians, even though they have not received the fulfillment of all its promises. The covenant requires faith precisely because the promises are not yet fulfilled, but the promises have been given and the covenant has been made.
The agreement and relationship has been established. God makes his new covenant with individuals when they repent of their sins and are forgiven through their faith in the blood of Christ. He then seals them with the down payment of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of their eternal reward (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:13–14).
5 Commentators differ as to when Paul wrote Galatians. According to the North Galatian Theory, Galatians was written between A.D. 53 and 57. An alternative view is that Galatians was written to the Christians living in the southern area of the Roman province of Galatia, in 48-49. If this second view is correct, then the epistle was probably written before the apostolic council discussed the issue. This would seem to explain why in Galatians Paul did not refer to the decision of the council.
6 It is sometimes argued that Jesus was showing that human need takes precedence over obedience to the law. However, this idea misses the purpose of biblical law. According to D.J. Moo:
Jesus is not claiming that one can break the Sabbath command when human needs dictate, but that the Sabbath command itself must be so understood as to include this basic purpose in its promulgation. The Sabbath is truly obeyed only when its intention to aid human beings is recognized and factored into one’s behavior. This is why, rather than being a violation of the Law, Jesus’ Sabbath-Day healing of a woman was a true fulfillment of that law (“it was necessary” [edei] that she be healed on the Sabbath: Lk 13:16).
For Jesus, then, love for God and for others, being basic to God’s intention in giving the Law, must always be considered in interpreting the meaning of that Law. (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels [InterVarsity Press], 1992, 453)
Author: John Curry