Questions about how Christians relate to the Law are a theological expanse that seems only to keep growing. In interacting with other Christians, there are some shared assumptions, but when speaking with Jews, these assumptions don’t necessarily work. When answering questions from Jewish interlocutors, I can only speak about the New Testament perspective on the law. I admit that part of this is due to my own ignorance about the fullness of the Jewish tradition with respect to the Torah. I have gleaned bits and pieces here and there about the law being eternal, how Abraham was righteous because he kept it (even before its formal presentation at Sinai) but my knowledge on the Jewish viewpoint is incomplete.
But a question came to me about the apostle Paul, and if he, as a Jew was Torah observant, why aren’t Christians Torah observant today? I offer several points in answer.
The Law’s place in biblical history
In the following, I am using the word law to refer to the commandments given by God, rather than the 5 books of Moses, (as it sometime designates.) After his Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) and Paul’s conversion, he had a radical re-evaluation of the law’s purpose and meaning. Paul affirmed that the law was introduced at Sinai following the deliverance from Egypt, and the Ten Words are in some sense the “constitution” of Israel as a nation. This is a key to understanding much of what Paul says about the law, because a claim that the law spans all ages of biblical history contradicts this affirmation. At Sinai, Israel entered into a covenant, whose terms would govern how they lived in the land. This, too, is important. The law was given for their life in the land. That is clarified at several points.
“I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.” (Deut. 5:31)
“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it.” (Deut. 6:1)
“For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:47)
The law was also given to a particular people, namely, to Jacob’s seed alone. “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.” (Ps 147:19-20) Paul also makes this clear in the Roman epistle when he says that Gentiles do not have the law. (Rom 2:14)
In the church, however, ethnic distinctions are not a factor in how we relate to God. This doesn’t mean that such distinctions are obliterated (There is still a future for ethnic Israel) but it means that our worship and service isn’t defined by this. Jew and Gentile are on an equal footing before God, because of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The Law pointed forward to Christ
The law had a prophetic function in pointing forward to the one true sacrifice that would ultimately take away sin and guilt. As the writer to the Hebrews stresses, “But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb 10:3-4) All of the sacrifices specified in the Levitical cultus were (because continually repeated) proclaiming they were not sufficient to fully cleanse from sin and guilt, and pointing forward to the one who is sufficient. For this reason, John the Baptist proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And Paul says “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” But the shadow is not the substance, again as Hebrews says “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?” (Heb 10:1-2)
The Law can obscure the exclusivity of salvation through Christ
One of the most important reasons Paul stood against imposing Torah observance on Christians was the temptation that it can be seen as the way to please God, and in the worst-case scenario, it is seen as how we are counted righteous in his sight. This is the substance of the Galatian epistle. Paul’s opponents seemed to present the law as an addition to faith in Christ. It’s good to have faith in Jesus, but now that you do, it is also important that you keep the law. Paul strenuously opposed this idea, because he was the law and faith in an either/or dichotomy. Either we are justified and declared righteous in God’s sight by faith in Christ, or it is through the law. But the suggestion that both of these can coexist alongside one another—this Paul utterly rejects. The law was the guardian, the schoolmaster until Christ came. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” Gal 3:25 Adoption into God’s family means sonship, no longer are we minors awaiting the inheritance, and the inheritance comes only through faith. Adding the law to the Christian life is a statement that Christ is somehow insufficient, that there is still a need for something else, but this is directly against all of Paul’s teaching on the sufficiency of Christ’s death and resurrection, and our union with Him. “The law is not of faith.” (Gal 3:12)
The Law as a guide
“But, surely, if Paul calls the law good and holy, he can’t oppose it?” A careful reading of Paul’s letters finds this principle: Christians fulfill the law, even as they don’t keep the law. The distinction may seem artificial, but it’s evidenced by Paul’s statements. He says love is the fulfillment of the law, that is, if we love as Christ loved us (which is the new commandment he spoke in John’s gospel) we need not worry about keeping the law. The law’s intent is fulfilled. But the reverse isn’t true. If we keep the law, we don’t arrive at the kind of love we are called to practice. Indeed, the law said to love our neighbor as ourselves, but it never said to love our neighbor as Christ loved us. There is also a huge body of teaching on headship that is bound up in the question of law. That is, Christians experience a “realm transfer” when they are born again. They are no longer under the headship of Adam, but now under the headship of Christ. The law commands those who are under the headship of Adam. Paul says believers have died to the law, so that they might live to another, and bear fruit for God. He also says that sin shall not have dominion over us, because we are not under law, but under grace. (Rom 6:14) What Paul is getting at here is that if there is a remaining purpose to the law at this point in salvation history, it is to reveal sin. But in revealing sin, it can never heal sin. Because of our sinful nature, the law actually becomes a weapon in the hand of sin to exacerbate sin. Paul says he didn’t know what coveting was, until the law told him not to do it. And then? Then he coveted all the more!
Christians are those who, because we live under the headship of Christ, do not observe Torah. But, this lack of observance isn’t because we think the law is bad, but because it belongs to a prior covenant, and we have a higher standard in the love Jesus displayed. We recognize much of the law pointed forward to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, but we also recognize that the shadow can never equal the substance. We do observe it in seeing the purpose assigned to it in salvation history, and its prophetic fulfillment.
None of this means we diminish the Hebrew Scriptures or the promises for the people of Israel that they contain. While some Christians insist the church has replaced Israel, I am not among them. I affirm along with Paul that the gospel is a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and that God has not completely set aside his covenant people.
I’ve probably written more blog posts on the topic of the law than any other, which can be found here.