The way we understand the law of Moses in the Christian life is a perennial topic. The current dust-up with Andy Stanley’s view that the Old Testament is not relevant for Christan faith has complicated this. While Stanley has made statements that proclaim the Christian’s freedom from the Mosaic Law, a position that is demonstrable from the New Testament, he has confused the issue with his views on the Old Testament itself. In their critiques of Stanley, several writers have picked up on this theme and countered with the traditional Reformed view that the law remains a standard for believers. Doesn’t Paul cite several commandments in Romans 13 when writing to these Christians? Doesn’t he refer to the 5th commandment when writing to the Ephesians? He does indeed, but one can’t look to these passages alone to arrive at a coherent view of the Mosaic Law in the New Testament. And a careful examination of just these two examples will show that Paul doesn’t make an explicit appeal to obey the law. Rather, he cites the law as consistent with his own teaching, but it is apostolic instruction, not Mosaic statute that remains authoritative for the Christian.
In 1 Corinthian 9, Paul cites the law of Moses to make a point that those who serve in the gospel ministry have a right to make their living by it, to be supported in their work. But Paul chooses an odd passage to illustrate this.
For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” This is a quotation from Deuteronomy 25:4, and there are a few observations we can make from Paul’s use of this. First, the idea that there is a division in the law between moral, civil, and ceremonial is not sustainable from the biblical evidence. Paul only speaks of “law,” he never has these other categories for it. While it’s popular to say we’re released from the civil and ceremonial law, and the moral law remains, nothing Paul says indicates this. He says simply, “We are released from the law.” (Rom. 7:4) Second, he is using the law here as wisdom, as instruction, and applying it in a way that is not legal, but rather typological. The apostle asks the question “Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake?” He answers it by saying “It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?” (1 Cor 9:10-12)
The other place where Paul quotes this 1 Tim 5:18, and the context is similar. Paul affirms that those who have given themselves to the work of the gospel should be supported. The ones who labor in preaching and teaching are worthy of double honor. We honor them with respect, but the double honor is to pay them as well.
In his excellent work Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, Brian S. Rosner points out that this is one of the things the apostle Paul does with the law, he reappropriates it as wisdom and prophecy, but for Christians, it is no longer a binding covenant. This is important as we consider how the Old Testament relates to the New. It is not necessary to jettison the entire Hebrew Bible (as Andy Stanley trends toward) in order to say that the Mosaic Covenant—all of it— is gone. Keeping the law is not how Christians relate to God. Nevertheless, the Old Testament contains the law and has instruction for us that it did not for the original audience. In each case where the Mosaic law is cited in the New Testament, there is this sense of using the law as wisdom, of reappropriating it in a way the nation of Israel did not, and could not. They were bound to obey it in its plain sense. Christians are not. For those who insist that Christian’s are obligated to keep the law, even if they limit this only to the Decalogue, the question is, what happens when we break it? Is there the punishment that attended the law in the Old Testament? No, because we are free from condemnation. Indeed we are free because we are free from the law as a whole. A treatment of the Mosaic law that says Christians must keep the Ten Commandments, but admits there is no consequence for breaking them, is not really law. And this is where all points on the spectrum should agree, we don’t actually keep the law because there is no punishment with the inevitable breaking of the law. We use the law in other ways, we reappropriate it in other ways. We use it for guidance, for wisdom, but in the age where we walk by the Spirit, we are not under law. A fuller exposition of this is found in my book, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.