1. The Law was given to Jews, and not to Gentiles.
The law was given at Sinai, after the people were redeemed from Egypt. The Ten Commandments form the “treaty document” between God and Israel. (Gentry/Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 327-28.) The psalmist wrote “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules.” (Psalm 147:19-20) Following the giving of the Decalogue, God spoke many more laws to the nation, but these were still given to Jacob’s seed—Israel. After condemning all Gentiles for their disobedience to God, Paul wrote in Rom 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” In short, God spoke his laws to Israel.
2. The Law is a unit that Scripture doesn’t divide.
While it may be helpful to think of various laws by the area of life in Israel they regulated, dividing the law into various categories with the goal of determining what does and doesn’t apply any longer is not sustainable from Scripture. It’s common to say that the civil and ceremonial parts are gone, and the moral law remains, but there are many commandments that deal with moral issues, but are outside of the Ten Commandments. Paul quoted Deuteronomy 27:26 to the Galatians: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Throughout the Old Testament, God repeatedly told the people to be careful to do all that he commanded. Choosing to obey some, but not all was not a choice for Israel. When we come to the New Testament. Paul only knows a single category called “the law.” He never speaks of divisions that remain, while others have been annulled.
3. The purpose of the law is to reveal sin, rather than to bring life or righteousness.
In his indictment of both Jew and Gentile in Romans, Paul arrives at this: “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) Whatever purpose the law had in Israel to govern the people, the law didn’t precede the promise to Abraham. “Scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal 3:22) In Galatians especially, Paul speaks of the law as an imprisoning force, taking advantage of the weakness of our flesh. Indeed, the law not only reveals sin, but in some sense exacerbates it: “while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members.” (Rom. 7:5)
4. Obligation to the law remained until Jesus fulfilled it. He did this at Calvary.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill. Though some point to these verses as evidence that an obligation to the law remains, Jesus is in fact setting the end point of the law’s jurisdiction at the cross. There he absorbed the curse of the law fully and completely. Since there remains no more curse, there remains nothing of the law that commands believers. The law belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, and Paul contrasts this with the New Covenant in Christ, in 2 Cor. 3. He speaks of the law as “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all.” This is clear only if we understand that covenant has ended. If we think Matt 5 is teaching we still have to keep the law, ask this: What part of the law do you think Jesus did not fulfill?
5. Christians are not obligated to keep the Law—even the Ten Commandments.
Paul used the illustration of marriage with the Romans, and when a spouse dies, the marriage has ended. “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.” (Rom 7:4) Dying with Christ, by faith, means that any obligation to the law is severed. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive.” (Rom 7:6) If Paul meant to exempt the Ten Commandments from this, he wasn’t very careful, as he used the Tenth Commandment as the example of a law that aroused sin and killed him. (Rom.7:7-8) Prior to this, Paul strongly implies that to be under the law is to be under the dominion of sin. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)
6. Although the Law’s covenantal object is Israel, its spiritual object is those in Adam.
Understanding what Scripture has said about the law as given to the Jews, there is an aspect of the law that is directed toward those in Adam. Gentile hearts are no different from Jewish ones, and the law’s commandments will do to all what it did to Paul: arouse sin. But Paul makes clear that those who trust in Jesus are transferred from darkness to light and under the headship of Christ. He acted representatively for us at Calvary, even as Adam acted representatively in Eden. Experiencing death with Christ means we are raised with Him, (Rom 6:7, & Col. 3:1-3) and thus we now live where the law cannot reach nor condemn. Paul also speaks about adoption in Galatians, and as Thomas Schreiner says, “it is more likely that the “we” who receive adoption in Galatians 4:5 refers to both Jews and Gentiles. Otherwise, Paul would be undercutting one of the central themes of Galatians—both Jews and Gentiles are adopted as sons.” (Schreiner, 40 Questions on the Law, 79)
7. Saying Christians are free from the Law is not saying Christians are free to disobey God.
In the several places where Paul pronounces our freedom from the law, he follows these with explanations of how believers serve God. Why have believers died to the law? “so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Rom. 7:4) Being free from law enables us to bear fruit to him. Paul wrote to the Galatians that if they walk by the Spirit, they will not gratify the desires of the flesh, (5:16) and that walking by the Spirit means they are not under law. (5:18) While some teach that the Holy Spirit now enables believers to keep the law, nothing in the New Testament supports this. Indeed, Paul always joins law to flesh, and always pits the flesh against the Spirit. Notably, the apostle Paul never once corrected sin in the various congregations by telling believers they needed to keep the law.
8. Christians fulfill the Law, but they don’t keep the Law.
While it may seem like hair-splitting, or an artificial distinction, a careful reading of the New Testament bears out a difference between keeping the law, and fulfilling the law. Christians are never called upon to keep it, but they are told to fulfill it—through love. After quoting several of the Ten Commandments in Romans 13, Paul doesn’t say, “So make sure you keep these.” Rather, he says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10) He repeats this to the Galatians, saying, “through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14) Finally, Paul says that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” who walk by the Spirit (Rom 8:4) I suggest that the overarching requirement of the law is holiness, and it is that which is fulfilled in believers, but not by the law.
9. The believer’s pattern is not the Law, but the Lord Jesus.
The law commanded love for neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and even love for the stranger (Deut. 10:19) but never love for one’s enemies. We only learn of this when Jesus comes and demonstrates it ultimately at Calvary. Based on this, he gives his disciples a “new commandment” that they love one another as he has loved us. In the various commands that the apostles give toward Christian maturity, these are portrayed Christ-likeness. “Imitate me even as I imitate Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1) Imitate God as beloved children. (Eph. 5:1) Victory over sin and the flesh is by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 13:14) As new creatures in Christ, we are to have the mind of Christ, who demonstrated the humility of a servant. None of this comes to believers through the Law.
10. Serving God in the way of the Spirit takes us beyond where the Law ever could.
The law is certainly not contrary to what God now calls believers to, but neither does it go as far as we are called to go. Recall that the love and humility of service that Jesus showed is what Paul gives Christians as the mark and the goal. The law doesn’t articulate this humility the way apostolic instruction does. Paul doesn’t teach believers no longer need the law because the law was bad, but because of the change that the coming of the Holy Spirit brings. It is the fruit of the Spirit, not the works of the law, that we pursue. Recalling that if we walk as having put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we need not worry about whether or not we are doing the law.
5 Objections to Saying Believers are Free from the Law of Moses
1. Doesn’t Paul quote several of the Ten Commandments in the New Testament? Why would he do this if we don’t have to obey them?
Paul does indeed quote several commands of the Ten, but a careful look at how he does so reveals his use. In Romans 13, he never tells them to keep any, but to walk in love. In Ephesians 5, he starts not with the Fifth commandment, but with his own word, “children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” and then uses the Fifth to illustrate the principle that the law is not inconsistent with Christian holiness. He also quotes from Deuteronomy, “You shall not muzzle the ox as it treads out the grain” and applies it to the financial support of pastors. What Paul is doing is applying the law, using it as wisdom, even as he does not put believers under it. For a full treatment of this see Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God.
2. Isn’t this Antinomianism?
The word antinomianism is, by most accounts, one that was coined by Luther. He battled opponents who were rather free in their interpretation of what God requires of believers. What is usually meant by this charge is that saying we are free from the law is saying we are free to sin. (See #7 above) Paul himself was apparently the target of this charge, or something close to it. “why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” (Rom 3:8) One of the great weaknesses in the charge of “antinomianism” is that it in fact weakens God’s law, robs it of the ability of what Paul says it does—killed him. (“I through the law, died to the law.”) Those who say believers must keep the Ten Commandments also say that when they break one, there is no condemnation, no consequence. This is not treating the law as Scripture treats it, but rather remaking it as the Ten Suggestions.
3. By faith (and through the Spirit) believers are enabled to keep the Law—Paul says so.
Romans 3:31 is a verse that many point to as demonstrating that by faith a believer will keep the law. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” I suggest, though, that Paul is not talking about commandments here. He earlier said that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (righteousness by faith) At end of the chapter, he is answering the objection that the justification by faith he has just shown in ch. 3 now means that the Pentateuch—the Law—and God’s history with the patriarchs has now been set aside. Paul will show in Romans 4 how Abraham and David both demonstrate justification by faith. The righteousness Paul argues for in Romans was there in the Old Testament, and in this way, Paul and his doctrine uphold the Law.
4. Paul said he was under the law of Christ. This shows he obeyed the Ten Commandments.
In 1 Cor. 9, Paul’s purpose is evangelistic, to win some to Christ, and he speaks there of three groups. The Jews, Gentiles, and “those under law.” This last group is not the Jews themselves, to whom the law was given, else it would make no sense to speak of them separately. It is instead “God-fearing” Gentiles; those who were attracted to the monotheistic faith of the Israelites, and who themselves began to follow the law. Cornelius in Acts 10 is an example. Paul is here saying that his freedom allowed him to do whatever the situation required in service to the gospel, but that he is not under the Mosaic law, rather he is “under the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is not the Old Covenant law. It is that principle of self-giving that Jesus showed at Calvary, and which every believer is called to emulate.
5. The Law reveals God’s Mind and Character. We can’t go wrong by keeping God’s Law.
It is common in Reformed theology to view the law as the highest revelation of God’s will and as a transcript of the divine character. (This was Calvin’s view, among others) but it rests more on a desire to reconcile apparent contradictions between the Testaments than on the revelation in Scripture. There is no contradiction if we recognize what Paul said about the temporal nature of the law. It belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, and that with the coming of Christ, the law no longer rules. (Gal. 3:15-29) Hebrews 1 says that “in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son.” It isn’t the law that is the highest revelation of God’s will and character, it is Jesus. As one born under the law, a Jew, Jesus kept the law, but he did so much beyond that. It wasn’t the law that compelled him to go to the cross, it was love. The continual exhortation in the New Testament is “the truth is in Jesus” and that Christ is the wisdom of God. We are called to look at him, to follow him, to delight in him. As Paul says in Rom 10:4, Christ is the end of the law.