Rethinking the Third Use of the Law

Is Commandment Without Consequence Still Law? 

How Christians should regard the Mosaic law is still a point of contention among believers of various traditions. One of the rare points of agreement between Reformed believers and those on the Arminian side is the Third Use of the Law. Indeed, both Wesley and Calvin affirmed very similar positions on this. They both believed the law to be a guide and standard for believers in their Christian lives.  But because it is more associated with Reformed doctrine, Calvin’s explanation is a good place to start.

The third and principal use of the law, which pertains more closely to the proper use of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns. Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. In this way the saints must press on: for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work. Even for a spiritual man not yet free of the weight of the flesh the law remains a constant sting that will not let him stand still.[1]

Calvin speaks of the law finding its proper use among Christians, but the Westminster Confession is even more explicit.

  1. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation.
  2. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly.[2]

Here we have the language of binding, of obligation. Later Reformed thinkers affirm this, as Anthony Hoekema writes:

“The Christian life, we conclude, must be a law-formed life. Though believers must not try to keep God’s law as a means of earning their salvation, they are nevertheless enjoined to do their best to keep this law as a means of showing their thankfulness to God for the salvation they have received as a gift of grace. For believers, law-keeping is an expression of Christian love and the way to Christian freedom; it is equivalent to walking by the Spirit.”[3]

One more example will show how Reformed theologians cast the believer’s relationship to the Mosaic law as one of obligation.  Arthur W. Pink writes,

“So far from the Law being abolished by the coming of Christ into this world, He Himself emphatically stated, ‘Think not that I came to destroy the Law and the Prophets (the enforcers thereof): I am come not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled’ (Matt 5:17, 18). True, the Christian is not under the Law as a Covenant of Works or as a ministration of condemnation, but he is under it as a rule of life and a means of sanctification.”[4]

The Third Use of the Law appears to be one where New Covenant believers are obligated to obey the law—and at the same time suffer no consequence for disobeying it. I am not aware of any church that would institute discipline against a member who covets what he does not have, for example. The point is this: the Third Use as presented by Reformed orthodoxy rests on a category of law that is unknown to Scripture: An authoritative statute which believers are bound to obey, but which carries no consequences for any breaking of it. We may term this a suggestion, or a guideline, but we cannot call it law. For law, devoid of any penalty for the law-breaker, is no more law. I am not suggesting we need to enforce consequences for law-breaking. Rather, I am affirming the consequence is gone because the Old Covenant is gone—and thus any obligation to the commandments is also gone.

Paul affirmed the law’s ability to kill him, and indeed because it had done so, this is why he proclaimed that he (and all who trust in Jesus) are released from the law. (Rom. 7:4)

In truth Reformed believers do not regard the law as law in practice. Rather, they regard it, as Brian Rosner has written, as wisdom. In his excellent book, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, Rosner shows how one of the things Paul does is to reappropriate the Mosaic law for these uses—wisdom and prophecy. Paul no longer regards it as a law covenant, as an obligation that binds Christians. Does it provide moral guidance? Indeed, it does, but it no longer commands because its curse is gone. These two belong together, as Mark Seifrid has noted, “When Paul speaks of ‘the law’ he has in view the commands given at Sinai, which cannot be detached from their authority to condemn without ceasing to be ‘law.’”[5] The law is certainly not inconsistent with the apostolic imperatives, but it does not go as far. The believer in Christ has in fact a far higher standard than the law, the Lord Jesus himself.

The problem is that although this wisdom use is in truth how Reformed adherents of the Third Use live with respect to the law, in their teaching they continue to insist that believers are obligated to the law.

I have written extensively about what I believe to be the true apostolic teaching on the law, but it is common that when one proclaims freedom from the law, the label “antinomian” is not long in coming, as if one had asked “No law, so sin all I want?” But it is the wrong question to ask. Being free from the law means freedom to bear fruit for God, by the Spirit. The Christian life will paradoxically fulfill the righteous requirement of the law by not focusing on the law. It is not, as Hoekema claims, a law-formed life. It is a Spirit-led life. The two are not the same. Nor is it, as Pink said, a life that adheres strictly to every jot and tittle of the law. It is evident that no one actually lives this way.

Third Use adherents are, I believe, in an untenable position of saying Christians are obligated to the law, but admitting the law retains no condemnation. They live in the way I describe—not fearing the law, and implicitly recognizing the law as a lower standard than Jesus himself and the imperatives of the New Testament. They are free from sin’s mastery not because they are listening to the law, but because as Paul says, “sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”

But for the poor souls who have scruples about their failures, they are spiritually mugged by this teaching, and too many do not know the freedom that is theirs in Christ. When they are told that they must obey the law entirely and exactly, and the inevitable failure comes, what are they to think? Indeed many do think that God loves them less, that they are not very good Christians, and they are spiritual misfits.  Teaching obligation when there really is none is putting a yoke of slavery on believers—something Paul warns against in Galatians.

My hope is that Third Use adherents would recognize that, in truth, they live like they are free. I do believe their lives reflect the intent of New Testament teaching, rather than an obligation to the legal code of Sinai. Having recognized that, my plea is they would bring their doctrine in accordance with their lives.

I develop this and many other topics concerning the law in If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, trans. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2.7.12

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19:5–6

[3] Anthony A. Hoekema, “The Reformed Perspective.” In Five Views on Sanctification, Stanley N. Gundry, ed., 59–90. Counterpoints. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 88.

[4] Arthur W Pink, The Ten Commandments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 9.

[5] Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. New Studies in Biblical Theology. (Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 126.

Sanctification: What is it?

Error seems to travel in pairs, and when we come to the topic of sanctification, this is also the case. One error says that we must do more in order to be more. The Roman Catholic teaching on justification suffers from this misunderstanding. That is, as I perform more good, I become more justified. Justification is poured into me, little by little throughout my life, provided I keep doing. There are Protestant variations on this theme, but they still reduce to the same erroneous view: I improve my standing before God by what I do. This is not the gospel. Our standing is in Christ and rests completely on what he has done in his death and resurrection. There is no improving on that, but there surely is the possibility of marring it with my own wrong ideas about earning God’s favor. The essence of this error is to confuse justification with sanctification.

The other error is to say that because my position in Christ is secure and it is all based on his work, my living means nothing, counts for nothing, and it does not matter whether or not I am pursuing the things that belong to discipleship. This too is false. Sanctification is the process of being made holy, more like Christ in our whole being. Others may include additional facets in the definition, but it is surely not less than this. There is also an aspect of sanctification that views it as complete and already accomplished. Indeed, both of these things are found in the New Testament. As part of our salvation, Christ has become to us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30) Paul began this same epistle by addressing it “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:1) It is what they (and any who trust in Christ) are. We are sanctified, set apart as Christ’s, seen by God as holy in Christ because we are in Him. The word “saint” is not an aspiration for Christians, but a description of what we are. It is simply a synonym for “Christian.”

But there is more to it than this. While the New Testament does indeed speak of the Christian as sanctified, as positionally holy in Christ, it also speaks of us as being transformed, being made holy, being sanctified throughout the period of our discipleship. Heb. 10:14 captures these two aspects in a single verse: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. We are becoming what we already are.
Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians, saying “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” 1 Thess. 4:3. Why would speak of God’s will for them if it was already done? The fact that Paul has some action in view is clear by what he next says, “that you abstain from sexual immorality.” He’s keen that they avoid something unholy. Likewise, Paul wrote to Timothy to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” He wrote to the Ephesians to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.” (Eph. 4:22-24) All of these are exhortations to sanctification, to become holier, and to be more like Christ. The fact that Paul writes we are both positionally sanctified in Christ, but are to pursue sanctification does not create a conflict.

How can something be complete and finished, and yet still in process? A person can proof-text their way to a skewed view of sanctification—as many have done—to say that “You see, it’s all done by God when we were saved and there’s nothing you can do to influence your sanctification. If you strive after sanctification, you’ve lapsed into works-based salvation, thinking you can improve on the work of God. Doesn’t Paul say as much? “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor. 6:11. There it is, you were sanctified, past tense.

It’s just here that some get into trouble when they try to pit one against the other. The position I have in Christ, viewed by the Father as having his righteousness, is unalterable, unassailable. It is all of grace and all of his work. But it is likewise true that Christians are told to pursue holiness, to make our condition more closely match our position. This is not undertaken in our strength, nor does it bring any merit to us. It doesn’t make God love us more, nor love us less when we fail. But it is an important part of our discipleship, of our following Jesus. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they were to be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Eph 5:1) In fact, the 5th chapter of Ephesians is all about the Christian walk, how we conduct ourselves in the world before unbelievers, and his admonition is to not be partakers in what the world does. A shorthand may be “be sanctified.”

If pursuing sanctification doesn’t make God love us more, nor does it improve our position in Christ, what then does it accomplish?
It makes us fruitful for God, it presents a testimony to the world of God’s power to transform sinners, and it adorns the doctrine of God our Savior. Not only so, but it increases our joy in God and loosens the affections we have for this world.

For those who dispute this, who say that we are as sanctified as we will ever be, that no growth in holiness is possible, or that it is, in fact, a misguided pursuit, there is a term for this: “Over-realized eschatology.” As one blogger has defined it, “An ‘over-realized eschatology’ is when someone expects that the eschatological hope of Christianity is already here and now.” I will one day be free of sinful desires—but I am not yet. I will one day have a body that is not subject to decay and the effects of the fall—but I do not yet. I will one day have a spiritual state that is at one with my spiritual standing—but I do not yet.

All of these things speak to the already/not yet duality that is part of the Christian life. If sanctification in practice is not a bit different than sanctification in position, then many New Testament passages make no sense. The plethora of exhortations and admonitions to become more Christlike, the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit, to name a couple. In addition, if there is no difference, then it would render the idea of church discipline to be unnecessary and inconsistent. One can say that church discipline is the judgment of a local church that a Christian’s condition is grossly inconsistent with their position. They claim to be in Christ, but their behavior is bringing dishonor to His name. If we are as sanctified as we possibly can be, then disciplining such a person is moot.

Like most doctrines, sanctification cannot be demonstrated by a single verse. It requires the entirety of Holy Scripture to show what it is and to make sense of it. When we do consider all of God’s revelation, it’s clear that we are both sanctified, and being sanctified. It is who we are, but also who we are told to become.

The Law and Its Fulfillment in Matthew 5

Does Jesus bind his followers to keep the law?


The question of the applicability of the Mosaic law in all its forms to the Christian life is a perennial one. Discussions never get very far before someone will quote Matthew 5:17-18 as a proof for the continuing authority of the law for us. But they do so without considering where this would lead. The passage reads:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

This is usually put forth with a certain finality. “See? That settles it! Jesus said the law remains.”
But think through the assumptions behind such a claim, as well as the implications of it. One of these assumptions is that Christians do not keep the so-called civil or ceremonial law. The sacrificial system that Israel was under is gone, as are the various laws governing their lives. We can eat shellfish or eel if we want to, even though Leviticus 11:10-11 says this:

“But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses.”

Don’t these laws represent iotas and dots, the smallest parts of the law? Don’t they form part of the “all” Jesus spoke of? If you set them aside, aren’t you doing exactly what Jesus said NOT to do? So those who insist what Jesus says here in Matthew 5 is that we must continue to keep the law scrupulously must admit that they aren’t doing it, that they have in fact done the very thing Jesus said they must not.

Secondly, consider the verbs here: abolish and fulfill. Abolish means to destroy, to remove, and to fulfill is to complete, to bring to an end. This informs what Jesus himself did with the law. He fulfilled it in all that he did, not transgressing it. People sometimes speak of this as the precept side of the law—what it commands. But more importantly, he fulfilled the penalty side of the law—his death absorbed and emptied the curse of the law. In speaking of the death of Jesus, Paul quoted Deuteronomy 21:23 to the Galatians. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Paul also notes in Ephesians 2:14-15, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Jesus, through his death, abolished the requirement of law for those who trust in him.

This is where I ask a question of those citing Matthew 5:17-18 as a proof that Christians must still keep the Ten Commandments. What part of the law did Jesus not fulfill? What part did he leave undone that we are yet bound to do? The implication that there remains anything of the law for us to complete or do is to suggest that Jesus left something undone in his death on the cross. I am sure those quoting these verses don’t mean that, but only because they haven’t thought through the implications of what they are saying.

If we were to go on to Matthew 5:19, it introduces a great difficulty for those insisting on an obligation to the law for Christians.
“Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

In the category of those who relax the least of these commandments, we have to put the apostle Peter. When the question arose of whether Gentiles must obey the law of Moses, he asked in the midst of the Jerusalem assembly, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Acts 15:10. The Jerusalem assembly goes on to rule that Gentiles who come to faith in Christ do not need to keep the law of Moses.

Paul, too, falls into this category, for he wrote to Timothy of those whose consciences are seared and who “require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving.” 1 Tim. 4:2 In other words, you can eat shellfish, despite what Leviticus 11 says!

How, then, can we make sense of this? Are Peter and Paul disobedient disciples of Jesus in what they teach? Recall that Jesus said “until all is accomplished.” The important thing to keep in mind in what Matthew records is we are moving from Old Covenant to New. What God had given to the nation of Israel at Sinai governed life among his covenant people at that time, but in the New Covenant, it does not. Paul makes this explicit in 2 Cor 3, saying

“Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.” 2 Cor 3:7-11.

In other words, because all is accomplished in the death of Christ, all is fulfilled, we are free from any of the law’s demands. Paul contrasts the law—which he calls the ministry of death—with the ministry of the Spirit. He says it is being brought to an end, and indeed in Romans 10:4 says that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe.
Seeing these truths in no way undermines the law. It recognizes that the death of Jesus fulfills the law in every possible way. Having fulfilled it, he brought any obligation to an end. This means we are free to serve him in the new way of the Spirit and free from the mastery of sin.

I develop this and many other topics concerning the law in If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.


Is a Threefold Division of Law Valid?

Making sense of the Mosaic Law in the current age is not an easy task. While there are many opinions, one that is more common across several different traditions is to treat the law in a threefold way. That is, the commands of the Old Testament are grouped together into moral, civil, and ceremonial. One can see that the law prohibiting the eating of shellfish or fish lacking scales (Lev 11:10) is a ceremonial law, as are the regulations governing the sacrificial offerings in the first six chapters of Leviticus. One could say that the cities of refuge, outlined in Numbers 35 deal with civil matters, for they stipulate a matter of administering justice in Israel.

When it comes to moral law, it becomes more difficult. Are the laws governing various aspects of life in the holiness code of Leviticus 18-22 not moral?

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:13-14)

Why was Israel prohibited from doing these things? Because they were wrong, immoral. Can we make such a clean division between moral, civil, and ceremonial as most people assume? Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum observe the following:

It is common to categorize and classify the laws as (a) moral, (b) civil, and (c) ceremonial, but this classification is foreign to the material and imposed upon it from the outside rather than arising from the material and being clearly marked by the literary structure of the text. In fact, the ceremonial, civil, and moral laws are all mixed together, not only in the Judgments or ordinances but in the Ten Words as well (the Sabbath may be properly classified as ceremonial).”[1]

While it’s possible to assign the Mosaic laws to various aspects of life in Israel, this becomes quite problematic when the three categories are used as a foundation for the Mosaic law in the lives of believers today. In other words, we can catalog the laws according to these divisions, but we cannot use those divisions to say that two out three are gone, but the third remains, and Christians are obligated to obey these laws.

This is important because when it comes to moral law, the Ten Commandments are for many, the shorthand for this. However, we’ve seen this to be incorrect on a couple of points. Moral laws certainly exist outside of the Ten, and even within them, the Fourth Commandment is regarded as ceremonial by almost everyone. Even if it’s not, it’s treated with such flexibility and looseness that those who say they are keeping it are in fact not doing so. (The Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday and if you’ve ever tidied up the house on Saturday, you’ve broken the Sabbath.)

An objection one often hears is that “Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament.” Indeed, they are, but the question is how they are. Consider Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul’s citing of the commandments is almost parenthetical here. His true interest is in promoting love among these believers. Love, he says, is the fulfillment of the law. But note what is not here. He does not say “You must keep these commandments.” They are not inconsistent with his own teaching, but love goes beyond this. I could keep the law, but yet still not love. Paul most commonly uses the commandments as illustrations, as wisdom, but he never says believers must obey the Ten Commandments.

Paul also quotes the fifth commandment to the Ephesian church: “‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’” It is important to note that this citation comes after his own command to these believers: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph 6:1). In other words, Paul does not begin with the Mosaic commandment, but rather with his own apostolic instruction to the church. He quotes the fifth commandment to demonstrate that his own application is consistent with what the Decalogue requires, but goes beyond it.

Everywhere in the New Testament, the law is treated as a unit, and indivisible. Paul speaks only of law, not of moral, ceremonial, or civil. And indeed when he makes his most definitive statements about believers released from obligation to law, he draws his examples from those very portions styled “the moral law.” In Romans 7, Paul quotes the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet,” and goes on to say, “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”

Is Paul speaking of something civil or ceremonial? Clearly not. The Tenth Commandment is part of the “moral law,” yet just a few verses before this Paul has said “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.” (Rom. 7:4) We can only conclude that when Paul says we have died to the law, he means all of it, including the Ten Commandments. Christian holiness is measured on a different axis from the Mosaic Law. It is conformity to Christ, walking by the Spirit, and indeed, being free from the dominion of sin because we are not under the law. (Rom 6:14) For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.

[1] Gentry, Peter John, and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), p. 384.

Is it for Oxen that God is Concerned? Using the Law Wisely

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.

A Canon within the Canon? Making sense of the Law in the New Testament

Proof texting has some value in certain situations, but if we want a comprehensive treatment of a doctrine throughout Scripture, it requires something more. If we limit the evidence on a doctrine to one book, one part of Scripture, or one writer, we will not have the whole story. The Red Letter Christians exemplify this, essentially saying that what Jesus said is more important than what one reads elsewhere in Scripture. Even if not overtly identifying as Red Letter Christians, others display this same thinking, particularly in dealing with the law.

It is common to focus on the Sermon on the Mount as the apex of Jesus’ teaching. Indeed, there is much ethical teaching here. But one also finds things that are situational, Jewish, and what belongs to the Old Covenant.

How do we deal with what Jesus said about the Mosaic Law? Are we bound to it, or not? Looking at the Sermon, one finds statements such as “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt. 5:17-18)

This seems decisive. Jesus is telling his hearers that he did not come to abolish, to tear down, but to fulfill. The law is permanent. He goes on to say “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5:19-20)

We are bound the keep the law, and our adherence to it is the measure of our righteousness. This seems to remove any doubt.

Or does it?

Looking only at the Sermon on the Mount will give us a truncated view of how the entire New Testament treats the law. One must consider not only what Matthew and the other evangelists record, but also what the apostles said. Some object to this as an invitation to confusion. R. Scott Jarrett, pastor of Denver Reformed Church observes this:

“We are to see the doctrine and theology established through the teachings of Christ as the standard which all the Christian writers of the New Testament are conforming to—and not the other way around. In other words, it is the principle of Christ before the other Christian teachers of the New Testament.”

This view is problematic, however. One can see how it is of a piece with the Red Letter view of inspiration and canonicity. But the Holy Spirit inspired Paul, as much as he did the four evangelists. This pits one part of the canon against another, suggesting that all of apostolic teaching should be read through the lens of what Jesus said—as if his words are the tie-breaker.

The distinction to the canon this introduces is unsustainable. It is the canon within the canon view; some books are more inspired than others. To adhere to this is to say that the Holy Spirit inspired the gospel writers differently or more so than he did than the writers of the New Testament epistles. This is to invite confusion in the interpretation of Scripture.

When we come to questions of the law and the Ten Commandments, one cannot arrive at a coherent position without the apostle Paul and all he wrote on the topic. There are ways to interpret Matthew light of Romans and Galatians, but choosing the Sermon on the Mount (or other parables) as the definitive way to treat the Mosaic law brings great difficulties.

To give one example, Paul writes in Romans 7:4, “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, 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.” A couple verses later we writes, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”

One solution some have offered is to say that Paul is only speaking about the condemnation of the law that we are free from, but that the obligation still remains. C.E.B. Cranfield writes “The life promised for the man who is righteous by faith is, in the third place, described as a life characterized by freedom from the law, that is, from the law in the limited sense of the-law-as-condemning, or the law’s condemnation (cf. 8:1).”[1]

But the law’s condemnation cannot be separated from commandment without the law ceasing to be law. Moreover, Paul assigns the law’s ability to kill to the commandment. “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.” (Rom 7:8-9) As Mark Seifrid notes, “When Paul speaks of ‘the law’ he has in view the commands given at Sinai, which cannot be detached from their authority to condemn without ceasing to be ‘law.’”[2]

Those who affirm we are still bound to the Ten Commandments must contend with Paul’s clear statements of release from them. Some may say the reverse is true: Those who affirm freedom from obligation must deal with Jesus’ statements about not relaxing any of the commandments. The key is in seeing that fulfillment (which Jesus promised in himself) brings a changed relationship to the law. Obligation remained “until all is fulfilled.” But, that fulfillment has come in the person and work of Jesus.

Of all the ways one may answer questions about the Old Covenant law, we need gospel and epistle, Jesus and Paul. We need to consider everything the Holy Spirit has inspired.

[1] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. ICC 32a. 6th ed. (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 331.

[2] Mark A. Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification.  (Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 126.



Is the Law Our Tutor?

One of the common assumptions about the law of Moses is that it is our tutor or schoolmaster. That is, the law leads us to Christ. For this reason, it remains useful to us. In Galatians 3, Paul explains the temporary nature of the law, and contrasts it with the promise to Abraham. The promise given to Abraham was by faith, and came prior to the law, by 430 years. But the natural question in the minds of the Galatians may be, “Why then the law?” If the law is inferior to promise and is temporary, why did God give it? Paul answers, “the law was our guardian until Christ came.” The word rendered guardian here in the ESV is translated as schoolmaster in the KJV. No doubt this translation led some to believe that the law was a teacher, one who in fact led us to Christ. But that translation is deficient, and masks something of Paul’s meaning. The word is paidagogos, (pedagogue.) In the ancient world, the pedagogue was one who had charge of the underage heir, and the responsibility to keep them out of trouble. But the pedagogue was not a kind teacher.

“These pedagogues had the bad image of being rude, rough, and good for no other business . . . the figure of the pedagogue is looked upon as a hard but necessary instrument in bringing a person to achieve and realize virtue.”[1] “Their name, consequently, had a stigma attached to it.”[2] If the law performs a function of training, or of leading one to Christ, why would Paul speak negatively about it, using the words “imprisoned” and “captive”? Louis Martyn likewise doubts Paul’s intention to present the law as our teacher. The law “is not a pedagogical guide, but an imprisoning warden,” he says, in that “six of the ten times Paul refers to humans being ‘under the power of’ the paidagogos, he identifies that enslaving power as the Law.”[3] Moreover, if the law had such a teaching function, Paul would not have considered it limited to a certain time in history. Das puts it this way: “If the pedagogue were fulfilling a positive educational function in leading people to Christ, it would be unclear why Paul would consider the pedagogy to have ended with Christ’s coming.”[4]

Paul says that the law was added because of transgressions. Does this mean it helps to control sin? Such a view is inconsistent with Paul’s other pronouncement on the purpose of law. In Romans 5:20, he is even more explicit. “the law came in to increase the trespass.” Given what the apostle says in both Romans and Galatians, we cannot say that the law is our tutor to lead us to Christ. While Paul always says the law is good, he also says that we are not. Our flesh never responds positively to it. The images of imprisonment and captivity that Paul uses in Galatians 3 reinforce the fact that the law was temporary in purpose, and only until Christ came. The law was not contrary to God’s purpose, but neither is it necessary now that Christ and faith in him have come. What the law teaches is the knowledge of sin. To walk worthily in Christ, the law is not our teacher. The spirit-enabled believer walks by faith, and as Paul has said at the earlier in the chapter, “The law is not of faith.”For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.


[1] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1979), 177.

[2] Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1953), 146.

[3] J. Louis Martyn Galatians (New York, Doubleday, 1997), 363.

[4] A. Andrew Das, Galatians (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 375.

How Faith Upholds the Law

In the early chapters of Romans, Paul the prosecutor has summarily indicted all of mankind; Jew and Gentile, as guilty before God. Part of his case has been a dismantling of the Mosaic Law as having any part in providing humanity with a right standing before God. The law cannot do this for at least two reasons. First, no one keeps the law. “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10) Second, the law reveals sin, it does not overcome it. “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (3:20) It is not all bad news, however. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” (3:21)
Given this setting aside of the law of God, some of Paul’s readers, particularly Jewish ones, were apt to ask whether Paul has set aside the patriarchs themselves, and the history of God’s dealing with them. Was all of that for naught?
Paul anticipates the argument with his question at the end of the chapter. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” But he quickly answers, “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (3:31)
From this verse, some have taken the apostle to mean that Christian living by faith is moral living, that is, that it conforms with and indeed upholds God’s law. Christian living is not in conflict with the law of God, but this is not at all what Paul here claims. Law can be used in more than one sense, and to restrict it to the moral law, or the Ten Commandments, or any statute of the Old Covenant is to overly constrain the meaning. The law can mean the Pentateuch. “…everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
It can also mean the commandments that comprise the entire body of statutes given to Israel. “…the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law.” (Luke 2:27) Finally, it may be restricted to the Ten Commandments. Paul affirms, “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.” Clearly, the apostle is not talking about the entire Pentateuch, but only the last of the Ten Commandments, which he refers to as “the law.”
In what sense, then, does Paul use the word law here at the end of Romans? If he means it as the commandments of God, those statutes given to the nation of Israel, then perhaps it is true that faith “upholds the law.” But Paul does not use the word in this meaning. Rather, it is clear from the following chapter that the apostle means the broadest sense of law possible—the law and the prophets. Paul is making no commentary on holy living by believers here. He is instead showing that the history of God’s dealings with the patriarchs does, in fact, demonstrate justification by faith, the thing he insists on in this epistle. He begins with Abraham.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. (4:1-3)
Abraham was justified by faith, entirely apart from works, and his circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (4:11) The law upholds faith because it shows our father Abraham was justified by this very principlePaul goes on to David.
“David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered” (4:6-7)
He, too, attributes righteousness to faith, apart from works. If we look previously in chapter 3:21, we can see a hint of this. In the first half of the verse, law is in lowercase. This denotes the use of the word as synonymous with the commandment and adherence to statutes. Paul has said that God imputes to us his righteousness apart from such law-keeping. But the second half has the word Law in uppercase, and with the additional phrase “and the Prophets.” The editorial decisions of the English Standard Version thus show these different senses of the word law. In short, verses 21 and 31 are in full agreement, showing that the Old Testament contained justification by faith, and is no novelty with Paul. Paul has not undercut the witness of the patriarchs in the law, he has upheld it.
Christian living is not lawless living, but Romans 3:31 is not the place to look for such doctrine. Paul will show in many other places how the Christian fulfills the law, even without striving to keep it. For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.