What Did the Jerusalem Council Decide?

Putting Christians under the law was wrong then, as it is now.

Acts 15 contains the account of the first council of the church, in Jerusalem. The topic was the law, and whether Gentile converts to faith in Jesus need to adhere to the Mosaic law. Despite the clear verdict of the council, there are still those who say that the Christian must keep the law. But just as it was wrong then, so is it wrong now.

The background to the council was that Paul and Barnabas had been in Syrian Antioch, preaching and teaching the gospel. Their work was not unnoticed.“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’” At 15:1. Here we have an addition to the gospel, faith in Christ, plus the law of Moses. Circumcision came to be emblematic of law-keeping, even though it was given to Abraham. Paul was quite familiar with the law, and Barnabas was a Levite, so no doubt, he too was well-acquainted with the law. But they did not agree with these men teaching circumcision and adherence to the law as a requirement for Christians. “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.” Acts 15:2. The matter had to be settled, and so Paul, Barnabas, and several others were dispatched to Jerusalem to ask the apostles and elders of the church there.

When the matter came before the council, “some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.’” Acts 15:5. Ethnically, these believers were Jews, and perhaps the weight of tradition, and of their life-long adherence to the law made them say that of course any who come to Jesus must obey the law he gave to the Israel. But the reply of the council was not along those lines. Peter, who was the first to speak the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10, arose and said
“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, 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? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11.

Peter says a few very important things. First, God made no distinction between us (Jews) and them, (the Gentiles), cleansing their hearts by faith. Indeed, one can see the argument the Pharisees were making as a similar one: no distinction between us and them. We keep the law, they, too need to keep the law. But Peter says the law has nothing to do with the salvation that believing Jews enjoy. It is not through the doing of the law, but through faith in Jesus that their hearts were cleansed. Just so the Gentiles, and God clearly demonstrated it by giving to them the Holy Spirit. Cornelius and all who were with him spoke in tongues as evidence of that.

Second, Peter asks why the Pharisees want to put God to test, by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we (Jews) have been able to bear. The Jews were given the law, a privileged position, but they could not keep it. No one can. Peter’s question is a rhetorical one, for the answer is, quite plainly, it would be wrong to put this obligation on the Gentiles since they cannot keep it.

I sometimes hear an objection that these Pharisees were trying to add the law for justification to the gospel; they were not addressing Christian living, walking in holiness at all. And for this, the law is still useful, still remains as something we should pursue and keep. But that won’t square with the text, nor with the rest of the New Testament teaching on the law. These Gentiles were already believers, they had already trusted in Jesus. The question was, having come to faith in Christ, must they now keep the law as a token of their discipleship? Peter and the Council answer in a resounding “no.” As James concludes his address, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” Acts 15:19.

The instructions that the council provides to the Gentiles aren’t stipulations of the Mosaic law per say, rather they fit more as Romans 14 issues. The Gentile believers should abstain from things that would offend Jewish believers. The four items the letter identifies fit into this category. But they certainly can’t be seen as law, or even as a summary of the law, because there is so much that is missing. One can make an argument that the Sabbath command is among the most important in all the law. “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations.” Ex. 31:13. Yet we find not one word about the Sabbath in the letter from the council. Not one word about ensuring that they at least keep the “moral law,” the Ten Commandments.

Whatever we may say about the place of the law in the New Testament (and there is much to say) one thing we cannot say is that believers in Jesus have any obligation to keep the law belonging to the Covenant with Israel at Sinai. Our discipleship in Jesus is not measured by laws that belong to the covenant with Moses, but by the example of Jesus—an example that went so far beyond the demands of the law, to love. But not love your neighbor as yourself, for that, also, is too low of a standard. Rather, it is to love one another as the Lord Jesus has loved us. Only when we contemplate this are we getting at the heart of what Christian discipleship entails.

A Gospel Contrary: The Danger of Grace Plus Law

If we say we are not saved by keeping the law, but once saved, we must obey it, we have fallen from grace.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of his most polemical, perhaps the most forceful of any. One of the prime things Paul aims to do is dispel the idea that Christians retain any obligation to the law of Moses. In the first chapter, Paul expresses his astonishment at the desertion of the Galatian believers, not just from the message he preached to them, but from God himself. These are the stark terms he uses to summarize the problem. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ. The gospel of salvation by Christ alone, apart from any deeds of the law, is the gospel Paul received by revelation of God himself, and which he preached.
Paul’s opponents are largely assumed, because reading Galatians is a bit like hearing one side of a phone conversation. We have to infer what the other person said. But the agitators (as they are usually called) come through at various points by the way Paul answers.

By works of the law, no one will be justified. (2:16)
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. 2:21.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 3:10.

These are a few statements he makes, demonstrating that his gospel is one of faith in Jesus, wholly apart from the law.

Most evangelicals agree with this, and affirm justification before God is by grace, through faith. The law plays no part in our justification. But even as they agree, some also want to bring the law back in as a way of demonstrating our justification, or as a response of love and thankfulness to God for saving us. Paul will have none of this. Indeed, it sounds reasonable to say that I want to demonstrate my love to God, and how better than by obeying his will in every way, and surely, the law summarizes his will?

These things rest on a priori assumptions, however. Paul elsewhere in the epistle shows that love, not law, is the mark of our obedience to God, and our right response. If I love, I fulfill the law (note, not keep, but fulfill) but if all I do is keep the law, I do not arrive at the place where the gospel delivers me: The new command to love others as Jesus Himself loved us. That is nowhere in the law.
In chapter 6, he even engages in a bit of word play by the phrase “the law of Christ.”
Ronald Fung notes that Paul “speaks of ‘the law of Christ’ polemically, if not almost playfully, as an antithesis to ‘the law of Moses.’ It is as though he said to his converts: if you must observe the law (as the agitators say), do so, only make sure that
the law you observe is not Moses’ law, but the law of Christ.”[1] Rather than commandments associated with the Old Covenant, the law of Christ is instead a principle of self-sacrifice, of loving others as Jesus loved us. This was most clearly demonstrated at the cross.

Secondly, it isn’t stated in Scripture that the law (specifically the “moral law”—the Ten Commandments) represent God’s will for his people today.( If you think I’m saying Christians are thus free to sin as they wish, I invite you to read my other posts on this topic.) In Galatians 3, Paul will contrast Law and Promise, and show that the promise preceded law, and that the law does not nullify promise. The law was added, says Paul, as a temporary thing, with the specific purpose of imprisoning everything under sin, until Christ came. To say that once justified, we now keep the law as a way of showing love to God, is to make Paul say that once the fulfillment of the promise has arrived, we are still under the pedagogue. Yet Paul says the opposite: “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” 3:24-26. Is Paul saying that once the promise has arrived, the pedagogue still commands believers? By no means. We are no longer under a guardian.

Later in the epistle Paul again makes clear that two covenants cannot coexist at the same time, that is, be in force, any more than both Isaac and Ishmael could both be considered firstborn sons of Abraham. Paul asks of those who want to insist on an obligation to the law, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” 4:21
Here would have been an opportunity for Paul to ensure his hearers understood him properly. That is, if he meant to say that justification is apart from the law, but the law remains their guide for holy living, their standard, he could have said so. But he does not. He says Abraham had two sons, one born of the slave woman (Hagar) and one born of the free woman (Sarah) He explains the two women as two covenants. Any Jew would likely have expected Paul to liken the glorious giving of the law at Sinai with Sarah, but shockingly, he likens the Mosaic Covenant to Hagar! “One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery” 4:24

Does Paul mean to say that the law (Sinai) can coexist with the the promise? Can the son of the slave woman inherit with the son of the free? “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” 4:29 Here is one of the several places where Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit, and he aligns the law with the flesh. His language here is of contradiction. The flesh persecutes the one born according to the Spirit. They do not happily coexist. Indeed, nowhere in the epistle does he say we, by the Spirit, by faith, are now empowered to keep the law. In 3:12 he has said the law is not of faith. In 3:3, has asks, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” In other words, you believe you are justified by faith, apart from the law, and do you now think to bring the law back into the Christian life? In 5:1 Paul says “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What is this yoke of slavery if not an obligation to the law?

How does this amount to a “gospel contrary?” It is such a gospel—a distortion as Paul calls it in 1:7—to say that we are justified apart from the law, but that we are obligated to do the things of the law once saved. No equivocation can blunt the force of this. If there is obligation to the law, there is condemnation by the law. It is a backdoor re-introduction of the law in the Christian life, and Paul is adamant: A little leaven leavens the whole lump. We can’t say we are saved by faith, but must live our Christian lives according to the law. That, says Paul, is to fall from grace. It is a gospel contrary to what he preached, to what was revealed to him.
Some believers have had their spiritual lives so formed by law, by an ethos of obligation, that they can’t think of another way. But Paul says “the grace of God training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Titus 2:12) Grace, not law, is the guide for believers in this age. And it is an entirely sufficient guide. The gospel of grace teaches as all we need to live in manner worthy of the Lord.

 

[1] Ronal Y.K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians. NICNT. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988), 277-278.

Salvation History and the Christian’s Understanding of the Law

Salvation history is the unfolding of God’s plan. It is an unfolding not because God is somehow making it up as he goes, but because in his divine counsel, he chooses to reveal aspects of it in time. As one example, Paul is explicit about such an unfolding regarding the church, when he says to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:4-6) Gentile blessing was surely promised in the Old Testament, but that it would come through such a thing as the church, Jew and Gentile in one body, was not.

Similarly, it is a foundational aspect in Paul’s teaching about the Mosaic law that salvation history is progressive. In Romans 6-7, Paul links the seminal events in the believer’s personal salvation history (our death with Christ, our burial with him, our resurrection with him) to our relationship to the law. Having died with Christ, we died to any obligation to the law. Paul writes “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.” (Rom. 7:4)

A survey of some of the other epistles shows this same progress: The law had to do with the Mosaic covenant, and with Israel. It has not to do with the new Covenant and the body of Christ by way of obligation In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul designates the law (specifically the 10 Commandments) as belonging to the Old Covenant, and calls it a ministry of death and condemnation. He says its glory cannot be compared with that of the New Covenant. As an obligation, it belongs to past salvation history.

In Galatians, Paul says the law was our pedagogue until Christ came, and until faith came. Some have said that this pedagogical function still prevails, that is, that the law still teaches us how we are to live before God. But Paul’s language is clear: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Gal 3:25. The arrival of the promised seed of Abraham, Christ, means that our adoption as sons of God frees us from the enslaving and captivating power of the law. For, although the law is holy, righteous, and good, Paul says that “before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” Gal 3:23.

But the law is holy, and righteous and good!

Misunderstanding this progress of salvation history has led to inconsistent conclusions, but in fairness, we must consider and explain some of Paul’s other statements about the law that seem to imply something positive and enduring. Paul writes that the law is “holy, righteous, and good.” (Rom 7:12) How can something good be temporary, or done away with, especially if it represents God’s will? Paul answers this question by saying that when combined with our flesh, the law, though good, produces a fatal outcome: sin and death. Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment caused sin to revive, and, says Paul, “I died.” The law actually aroused sin in him!

As to whether the Mosaic law represents an eternal will of God for his redeemed people in this age, Paul has answered that also in 2 Cor 3. It does not. It is a ministry of death and condemnation. If something better has come, it certainly makes sense that the old has become obsolete.

Are we released from the curse, but not the commandment?

Others claim it is only from the curse of the law we are delivered, not the commandment. To be under the law, says Paul, is to be under a curse. (Gal 3:10) Such a division of commandment from curse is never contemplated in Scripture. If the commandment is stripped of any consequence for the law-breaker, then it ceases to be law. It may be the Ten Suggestions, but it is not law. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say it was fear of the curse that aroused sin him, he says it was that the commandment that awakened sin within him and killed him (Rom. 7:9) Paul never qualifies his pronouncements. He says we have died to the law, been released from it, and “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Gal 2:19) Indeed, the way of living a life pleasing to God is to recognize we are dead to the law.

The unequivocal nature of these statements also precludes any understanding that says Paul only wished to clear up a legalistic understanding of the law. That is, that he was keen to insist no one can be justified by the law, but he never intended to dismiss the law as a rule of life, or as a way for believers to walk in a way that pleases God. Where Paul does cite the law, it is in support of his own apostolic instruction. In Romans 13:9-10, Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments “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.” Rom 13:9-10. What’s as notable as including these is also what is missing. That is, he never says, “Keep these commandments.” He cites them as supporting evidence for his own teaching (and that of Jesus) that love is the chief thing, the fulfillment of the law. Love, and you needn’t worry about whether you’re “keeping the law.”

Does the Holy Spirit empower Christians to keep the law?

The final aspect of what salvation history implies is that with the coming of the Spirit, believers have all they need to live in a manner pleasing to God. That is, we serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the letter. Being free from the law is in fact the way of bearing fruit for God. Far from providing help in overcoming sin, the law, (because of our sinful flesh) actually exacerbates the problem. Paul says in Romans 6:14 that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The corollary to this is that if we are under law—or obligation to law—we are still under the mastery of sin!

“Oh, but the Holy Spirit in fact empowers believers to keep the law.” I have heard this claim, but it is foreign to the apostolic teaching on the Mosaic law. It is again an attempt to reintroduce the law as a rule for those under the headship of Christ when Paul says it appeals only to those in Adam. When Paul says the law aroused sin in him, does he refer to the new man in Christ, or to the old man in Adam? “If you walk by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Gal. 5:18) Earlier in Galatians Paul has made a couple of statements that preclude this view. In chapter 3, he has contrasted law with faith—that which characterizes the Christian life. They were justified by faith, apart from the law.

Paul asks, incredulously, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2-3) Faith brought them the Holy Spirit, brought them into God’s family. Having coming into God’s family, would they now be perfected by the flesh? What could “by the flesh” refer to here except taking up the law? A few verses later, Paul again sets forth a contrast between faith and the law. “But the law is not of faith.” (!) If we, by faith, are to keep the law, why does Paul never say so? Why does he instead contrast the law with the Spirit? The answer is that in the progress of salvation history, we who are under the headship of Christ do not need the law to walk rightly, to please God.

While the law is holy, righteous, & good, when combined with our flesh (not holy!) the combination is always a fatal one. We are set free from the law to bear fruit for God, to walk by the Spirt. We are free from sin’s mastery because we are not under law (Rom 6:14)

A partial deliverance from the law (for justification) while insisting we are obligated to it for sanctification and holiness does what Paul warned the Galatians of. It is to begin by the Spirit, but strives to be perfected by the flesh. Gal 3:3. I can offer no better advice than the apostle himself: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

 

The Opposite of Lawlessness is not Lawfulness, but Righteousness

The question of the law of Moses and what place it has in the Christian life is a perennial one. There is often as much to unlearn around such questions as there is to learn. When words such as lawlessness are in view, this is especially true. I leave aside the more specific uses of the word, such as “the man of lawlessness” and “the mystery of lawlessness.” These are more eschatological in scope. I want to focus on lawlessness as a synonym for sin, and the practice of sinning. Paul states in Romans 6:19, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” If we were to replace the word lawlessness with sin, would the meaning of this verse change? I submit it would not. Paul has earlier shown that sin does not need law as a foil. That is, “sin was in the world before the law was given.” (Rom 5:13) There was not a specific command not to kill when Cain murdered Abel, yet he was still guilty of sin. Thus when Paul refers to lawlessness in Romans 6, he isn’t playing it off of lawfulness. Indeed, a truth we see is that lawfulness is never presented as the path of Christian discipleship. Keeping the law is neither possible nor does it get to the heart of holiness we are called to.

I have often seen people quote 1 John in this regard, to demonstrate a continuing obligation to the law, at least to the “moral law.”
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2:3-5)
But it’s too facile to say that every time one sees the word “commandment” it means the Mosaic law or the Ten Commandments. Jesus spoke of a new commandment, one that was not part of the Mosaic law. The command to love one another as he has loved us was radically new! The following verses in John 2 indicate this is what John has in view. “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (v. 5-6) To imitate Jesus, to walk as he walked, to love as he loved goes far beyond anything in the law. It is not inconsistent with the law, it just goes much further.

Nothing in the law required Jesus to lay down his life, much less for those who were his enemies. His death fulfilled the law by taking the place of the sinner, by absorbing the curse of the law. In him, we also died to the law. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19-20) Paul confirms that we are free, not to live according the law, but unto God.

There are many assumptions bound up with this—what I earlier referred to as what we sometimes need to unlearn. Among these are the idea that the law represents the highest expression of God’s will for man. It does not. The revelation of God in Christ does. As a Jew, Jesus walked according to the Mosaic law, but he did so much more than this. He loved us in a fashion the law never required. Measuring our conformity to Christ by looking to the law will leave us falling short of what he calls us to.

What, then, is the opposite of lawlessness? It is righteousness. Turning again to Romans 6, Paul has said that believers have “been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (v. 18.) A few verses earlier he has shown that if we are to be free from the dominion of sin, from its mastery, we must be free from the law. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (v. 14)
Many will answer that of course we cannot be justified by law, and it is this that Paul is speaking of. But this is untrue. The remainder of chapter 6 indicates he addresses living the Christian life—sanctification—not our entrance into that life through justification. “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (v. 15) Nowhere in the New Testament can we find a use for the law that says “You are not under it for justification, but you are obligated to keep it as part of your sanctification.”

Righteousness describes not only who Christians are, but what we do. We are made righteous in Christ. Positionally, it is who we are in him. “And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” 1 Cor. 1:30. We pursue righteousness, are trained in righteousness, and Paul never says any of this comes by the law, even the law as a guide or rule of life. We are delivered from the law in order that we might bear fruit for God (Rom 7:4) In 1 Tim 1:8, Paul says that the law is not made for the just, for the righteous. Where is Paul’s embrace of the “third use of the law?” It is absent. That Paul (and we) should glean wisdom from the law, from the Old Covenant, is plain. He is not setting aside God’s revelation. I again stress that the opposite of this is not lawlessness. Paul wrote to Titus that the rule, the guide for Christians, is grace. “For the grace of God has appeared, teaching us to deny ungodliness.” We have all the instruction we need through grace. We have Jesus himself. The truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:21) and what does this truth teach us?

“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, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-24)

This teaching does not rely on the law to instruct us. It relies on the person of Christ.

We need to go beyond a binary mindset of thinking that if lawlessness means sin, then lawfulness must mean holiness or righteousness. It is more nuanced than this, and indeed, the guide for our righteousness isn’t the law, it’s the Lord Jesus himself.

The Law as “Wisdom” or the “Third Use”—What’s the Difference?

When one reads the New Testament, and in particular Paul’s epistles, one can’t help see how the law of Moses is a prominent theme in the apostle’s thought. How he treats it is of great importance to how Christians should regard it. First, one has to say that for Paul, “the Law” is specifically those commandments given at Sinai, and following. The holiness code of Leviticus 18-22 is also part of the law, and an overarching truth for Paul is summarized in Rom. 3:19: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law.” In other words, Paul refers to the Jewish nation. To them alone were the laws of the Mosaic covenant given. Paul earlier in Romans spoke of Gentiles who “do not have the law.” (Rom. 2:14). It is true that Gentiles sometimes act according to what the law requires, but Paul is careful to point out that they do this not because of Scriptural revelation, but by nature or conscience, “even though they do not have the law.”

How then does Paul regard this law with respect to Christians? For everyone within the Protestant category, all would say that justification comes by faith apart from doing any of the law. But some retain a use for the law as a guide to know how to live, what God requires of us, how to please God. This, in brief, is the “Third Use of the law.” John Calvin expounded this quite clearly, and later confessional standards took it up as well. Calvin said, “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.”[1] He continued, “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.”[2]

Against this view is another that sees the Law less as a standard we must adhere to, and more as wisdom and prophecy that informs and complements the specific instructions of the apostle’s themselves. Brian Rosner of Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College in Australia ably expounds this in his book Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God. Rosner notes among other things how Paul repudiates the law as a covenant in any way binding upon believers.

“Unlike Jews, believers in Christ are not under the law, nor are they in the law or from the law. They are not imprisoned and guarded under the law, nor are they subject to the law as to a disciplinarian. Those who are under the law are under a curse and under sin. Even though the law promises life to those who keep it, it is evident that no one keeps the law. Consequently, no one receives life through the law. The law used as law is for the lawless. Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances.”[3]

He notes that any covenantal aspect of the law is for Jews only. A covenant is a binding treaty, and thus comes with obligation. Indeed, one can scarcely read the Pentateuch without seeing God’s repeated warnings to be careful to keep the entirety of the law.“You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.” (Deut 7:11) Such an obligation does not belong to Christians now, because we are not under the Mosaic covenant, nor part of Jacob’s seed.

The other point Rosner makes is that although we are not under the law as a covenant, this does not mean there is no value in it at all. It is in “wisdom and prophecy” where the value comes to believers. This sometimes comes in surprising applications. Paul, for example, cites the commandment to not muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain (Deut. 25:4) as a reason why ministers of the gospel who labor full time in the Word should be paid for this work—a rather unexpected application of this law, to be sure.

Even in the sections where Paul seems to directly cite the commandments, such as Romans 13:9-10, which contains commandments 6,7,8, and 10, Paul doesn’t in fact say “You must keep these commandments.” Rosner notes

“Paul’s point is that loving one’s neighbour is the goal of keeping the law. But keeping the laws (even those of the Decalogue, such as laws against adultery, murder, stealing and coveting) does not mean that one will love one’s neighbour. But if one loves one’s neighbour, one will do more than just keep the law, fulfilling what Paul takes to be its real intent.”[4]

What Rosner outlines is where I believe the Third Use digresses. That is, Calvin had assigned to the law abilities that Paul explicitly rejects, namely, the ability to call forth obedience in the believer. (“The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass, to arouse it to work.”) Paul says instead that the law arouses sin (Rom 7:5), and was given to increase the trespass. (Rom 5:20) But, doesn’t Calvin qualify his counsel to say that the law “finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”? Indeed, Calvin does, but is this what Paul teaches? Paul has set the Spirt and the law in opposition to one another, not because the law is bad, but because it belongs to a prior covenant, to a different people, and to those not under the headship of Christ. Paul told the Galatians that the law is not of faith. No such thing as a faith-enabled keeping of the law is anywhere in Paul’s teaching.

To the extent that the Third Use of the law presents Christians obeying or keeping the law through the enablement of the Holy Spirit, it strays from the apostolic use of the law. Paul’s avowal that we have died to the law in order to live to another rules this out. Indeed, in Galatians 5:18 he notes “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” To follow the Spirit’s leading and guidance in our lives does not lead us to “keep the law” —though indeed we fulfill the law’s intent of loving one another. To distinguish between keeping and fulfilling is in essence the difference between the Third Use and the Law as wisdom.

If advocates of the Third Use agree that Paul repudiates any obligation to the law for Christians, that he instead uses it as wisdom, but a kind of lowest common denominator of what we are called to, that would be a different matter. Indeed, the law’s commandments are not in conflict with the holiness God now calls us to, but they in fact don’t go far enough. As Rosner pointed out, just “keeping” them does not mean I love.  I have most often encountered a view that presents the law (and only the Ten Commandments) as not only a required standard for Christians, but indeed, a revelation of God’s mind and will for Christians. That does not accord with the multiple ways Paul presents the law in his epistles. The topic is a complex issue, to be sure. For further discussion, please see my book, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life. (Wipf and Stock, 2018).

 

[1] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.12.

[2] Calvin, loc. Cit.

[3] Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2013), 221.

[4] Rosner, 193.

All Commandments Are Not Equal: Salvation History has Consequences

I have engaged people in discussions about the Mosaic law in the Christian life on many occasions. One direction the discussion can go is that someone quotes back the writings of John, the beloved disciple. Jesus told the disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). God has given his people commandments, and if we love him, if we follow him, we will keep these commandments. John’s first epistle is also a place many point to. “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2:4-5) But, which commandments? When we encounter the word, does it always mean the commands of the Mosaic Covenant, or always encompass every commandment we find in Scripture? It is rare to meet a Christian who insists we need to keep every commandment God has spoken. They don’t insist we need to appear 3 times a year in Jerusalem to celebrate the set feasts of the Lord. There is now no temple, no tabernacle, but those were ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant. Similarly, nearly everyone sets aside the dietary laws found throughout the law, although these are certainly among the commandments given by God.
Not every commandment applies, then. The reasons for this are sound, too. They were commandments given to the nation of Israel alone, not to Christians, and they belong to the Old Covenant. Where most people draw the line is the Ten Commandments, insisting that these are the ones we’re still on the hook for.
But when Jesus speaks to the disciples, prior to what he says in chapter 14, he has told them this:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
Here, then, is what is truly new with Jesus. The commandments of the Old Covenant included loving one’s neighbor, even loving the stranger, but not loving one’s enemies. And we, because of our sin and rebellion against God, are his enemies. Had anyone loved as Jesus loved, even to the giving of one’s life for an enemy? No one.

It is thus inadequate to look at the Johannine language and insist that what Jesus was talking about was that we keep the Ten Commandments. For they, too, belong to the Old Covenant, the covenant with Israel. As good and right and holy as the Ten are, they are not the new commandment, and they don’t go as far as Jesus calls us to go in giving us His commandments. One can indeed proof-text one’s way to a position that keeping God’s commandments is keeping the Ten Commandments, but it isn’t a very cogent position to take. For example, some will cite this:
“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” 1 John 3:21.

God has given use his commandments, and it’s pretty plain we need to keep them.

But read on:

“And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” 1 John 3:22.

It is not the Decalogue or the Sabbath or other commands of the Old Covenant that John puts before believers, but we are again back to the gospel command that we both believe in the name—the authority—of Jesus, and we love one another.
All commands are not equal.This is nothing other than the progress of salvation history; that what prevailed in the Old Covenant no longer prevails in the New. That is, we as New Covenant believers are not called upon to live by and under the commands of the Old Covenant. The new citizenship we have in Christ, our heavenly citizenship, means that we have a higher calling. A calling not inconsistent with the holiness called for under the Old Covenant, but one in fact that exceeds it.

10 Things About the Law of Moses (and 5 Answers to Objections)

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.

What Does it Mean to Keep the Sabbath?

Among the Ten Commandments, none has been treated with more flexibility than the Fourth.

 

One encounters a whole range of views on the Sabbath command, and what people believe their obligation is toward it.  Since it is one of the Ten Commandments, it makes a good test case whether those who insist Christians must keep the Ten are actually doing so. The first question is, what is the Sabbath Day? Many point to the roots of the Sabbath in creation itself.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Gen 2:1-3

But while God did this, he did not issue any command to Adam to rest on the day. The text of Genesis says only that God rested. Many traditions have dealt with Sunday—the Lord’s Day— as a substitute for the Sabbath. We keep the Sabbath or honor it by gathering for corporate worship on Sunday, and by refraining from some activities they do on the other days of the week. The Westminster Confession affirms this:

This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (WCF 21.8)

But this is based on some assumptions of history and culture, and not on Scripture. The prior section of the Confession reads,

[God] has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

The Scriptural proof offered that Sunday is now the Sabbath are the verses that record Christians gathering for worship on the first day of the week. But none of these verses identify this day with the Sabbath. In fact, we learn from Acts 20 that the believers were meeting in the evening, very likely because Sunday was a work day for them. They certainly were not resting on the day. I agree with those who protest that Sunday is not the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is Saturday; always has been, always will be. But it is also not necessary to keep the Sabbath day as God commanded Israel because we in Christ are not Israel.

Returning to the Old Testament, it wasn’t until later than Eden that there is a command that Israel should rest on the day. When this command comes, it comes with specificity for the seed of Jacob alone—Israel.  The Sabbath receives its fullest explanation in Exodus 31.

And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31:12-17)

The Sabbath day in Israel was a day of rest. No work was to be performed on the day at all.  It was not a day of worship, or of going to the Tabernacle of the synagogue (there were no synagogues until the Babylonian Captivity) but only of rest. Those who say that Saturday is the proper day of gathering for worship face the hurdle that this is absent from the text of Scripture. It is, ironically, a tradition. I say ironically because some accuse those who worship on Sunday of giving in to the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church or of Constantine, but this is incorrect. We gather on Sundays because the Lord Jesus rose on that day, and the early church began to do so. (It’s not my purpose here to argue for Sunday worship, so I won’t expand upon that.) But we can say that Saturday was not a day of worship for Israel.

Note also that the day is called a sign specifically between God and the children of Israel. Gentiles were never commanded to keep the Sabbath because they were not part of the covenant God made with Israel.  Some have also noted that even if one holds to some form of natural law; that things such as murder, theft, and lying are universally and naturally known by all men to be wrong, one cannot say the same thing for the Sabbath command. Who knows in their conscience that resting on Saturday is a morally right thing to do, or that working on Saturday is wrong? For this reason, even those who believe the Ten Commandments are an abiding standard for Christians today often categorize the Sabbath command as ceremonial, and not part of the moral law.  Michael Horton writes, “To suggest that the fourth commandment, then, is part of the ceremonial, rather than the moral, law is to say that it is no longer binding for Christians.”[1] He avers that the fourth commandment is unique among the Ten, including the fact that it cannot be credibly claimed that it is stamped on the human conscience, as the others are, and that it is nowhere repeated: “We search in vain to find one single New Testament commandment concerning the Sabbath.”[2]

How did Israel treat the Sabbath? In Numbers 15, the people find a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and he is kept in ward until God tells Moses what to do with him. He is to be stoned by the whole congregation. Sabbath-breaking was thus a capital crime in Israel. For those who insist on keeping the Sabbath today, is it a capital crime not to do so? If not, why? Where was this changed? The point is that those who claim they are keeping the Sabbath aren’t actually doing so. They have modified the commands that accompany it, but with such modification, they aren’t actually keeping the day as God commanded.

Like much of the law, the Sabbath pointed forward to Christ. The Sabbath in the New Testament is no longer a day, but a person. We as believers find our rest in Christ. Recognizing that our rest—our Sabbath—is found in the Lord Jesus is the closest thing the New Testament has to describe how believers now “keep” the Sabbath. This isn’t to suggest that a rhythm of rest is a bad idea, but it is to say that believers have freedom from the law, and are not required to “Keep the Sabbath.” Paul writes that “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.” Rom 14:5-6, and “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Col. 2:16-17.  If you have a conviction to rest on Saturdays, (or Sundays) by all means do so, but don’t do so because God commanded Israel to do it.

[1] Michael Scott Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chicago, Moody Press, 1993), 124.

[2] Ibid., 126.

Fulfilling the Law or Keeping It—What’s the Difference?

No single verse of Scripture gives a complete picture of the Christian’s relationship to the law. One has to read the whole of the New Testament to come up with a coherent picture of how the law of Moses may (or may not) relate to the believer in Christ. But without question, the apostle Paul has more to say about the law than any other writer, and one of the things he’s careful to say is that Christian’s do not keep the law of Moses. Many will raise an objection at this point, and say “Of course he did! Look at what he said to the Romans, to the Ephesians!” The first of these passages is 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.”

Look carefully at what he says here. Is there any injunction to “keep the law”? Is there any order that believers must keep the commandments? Rather, he stresses fulfillment of the law, and that the means of doing so is by love. These few commands that Paul cites from the Decalogue are not incongruous with what believers are called to be and to do, but Paul never measures our maturity in Christ or our conformity to Jesus by the Mosaic law. Earlier in the epistle, Paul wrote: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Rom 8:3-4.  Here, too, it is the law fulfilled not kept that Paul speaks of. As he consistently does, Paul links the law with the flesh (and the weakness of it.) The righteous requirement of the law is holiness, and holiness is fulfilled in the believer when we walk by the Spirit, in conformity to Christ, never by striving to keep the law.

Think for a moment of the carnival game one sometimes sees called “high striker.” You swing a large mallet and hit a plunger. If you whack it hard enough, you ring the bell at the top of the tower. If hitting the bell is 100, then you go past 80 on your way up. This is similar to the law. The commands of Decalogue are not inconsistent or at odds with what believers strive after, but they don’t go far enough.

When saying that Christian holiness is not measured by the Mosaic law, I sometimes hear an objection that Christ kept the whole law, and that if we are to imitate Christ, we, too, will keep the law. This is a single-faceted, and indeed a shallow view of what the Lord accomplished in his earthly life and in his death. Jesus did far more than keep the law, and he called believers to go beyond it as well. Whereas the law said “love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you”—a decidedly higher standard. To insist that since Jesus kept the Mosaic law we should too also discounts the repeated statements in the New Testament that we can’t keep the law.

The other passage, in Ephesians 6, also seems to say we should keep the law. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘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.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Eph 6:1-4

Note that Paul starts not with the 5th commandment, but with his own apostolic instruction: Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. He then cites the 5th commandment as an example of what I previously noted: The law is not incongruous with Christian holiness, but it’s not the full extent of it, (though most people end the citation there.) Paul goes on to provide instruction (and an imperative) to fathers. Was a prohibition on inciting anger in children part of the Mosaic law? It was not, but Paul has moved on from law to love. Consistent with what he said in Romans 13, too. A hallmark of Paul’s doctrine is that he does not believe Christians need the law to walk as they should. His own apostolic, and Spirit-inspired commands are sufficient. Brian S. Rosner summarizes this well:

“Paul never says, as he does of Jews, that believers in Christ rely on the law, boast about the law, know God’s will through the law, are educated in the law, have light, knowledge and truth because of the law, do, observe, keep the law, on occasion transgress the law, or possess the law as letter or a written code, as a book, as decrees, or as commandments.”[1]

To be free from obligation to the Mosaic law is not to say that Christians have no standard, or do not pursue Christlikeness. On the contrary, they have all they need in the gospel and the teaching of the Lord’s chosen apostles. But these things are not the same as the law of Moses.

Is this an artificial distinction? Is it just word games to say that Paul emphasizes fulfilling the law, but not keeping it? It is not. Think of the carnival game example again. If I hit with enough force to get up to 70, I don’t make it to 100. If I strive but to keep the law, I will not love. If I love, I will fulfill the law. Stated differently, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” But Scripture never says “Keeping the law is the fulfilling of love.”

[1] Brian S. Rosner,  Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2013), 221

A Fool’s Errand: Law-keeping and Christlikeness

Michael F. Bird of Ridley College in Australia recently quipped that Galatians should be printed in all capital letters since he’s fairly sure that Paul screamed the words of the letter to the poor sot who acted as his scribe. Bird’s remark is humorous because, as with most zingers, it contains a fair bit of truth. In no other letter is Paul’s tone quite as strident and severe, as he anathemizes those who preach a different gospel than what he delivered to these believers.

In the 3rd chapter, he calls the Galatians foolish in two spots. The second of these comes at 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  One of the prime messages of the epistle is that justification through the keeping of the law is not possible—that this is not the gospel. It is, in fact, antithetical to the gospel. But the other point is equally important. Just as the law is not part of our justification, neither is it part of our sanctification, of our growth in holiness. On this second point, all Christians do not agree. Some insist on a division; that justification is entirely apart from the law, but that the law is part of our walk, our growth in Christian maturity. Paul’s assessment of this is, this is foolish.

It’s important to see what Paul joins together, what he equates, and what he contrasts. In 3:2, he wrote, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” He contrasts law with faith, and Spirit with flesh. To contrast faith with the law, and the Spirit with the flesh is, for some readers of Scripture, confusing, or presents a conflict. They resolve this conflict by the division I noted above; justification apart from the law, sanctification through a Spirit-enabled, or grace-assisted keeping of the law. Robert McQuilken writes, “What was true of Moses is true of every believer today. By the grace of God he is enabled through supernatural power to keep the law of God—but never perfectly. Because he is not under law, he is therefore not under condemnation.”[1]

But where in the New Testament does any apostle teach that we are supernaturally yet imperfectly enabled to keep God’s law? Indeed, Paul teaches that law-keeping, if undertaken, must be pursued with exactness, completeness and without compromise. In Gal. 3:10 Paul has repeated Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” In other words, keeping the law imperfectly is not an option. Keeping it imperfectly means you are a law-breaker, and cursed. This puts a person in a position unknown to the New Testament: under a curse and a Christian. Christians are those who are free from any curse. Paul has said this in the following verses: “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”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Gal. 3:13-14.

The promised Spirit comes through faith not through law, and the apostle has also said in the prior verse: “But the law is not of faith” (!) A grace-enabled keeping of the law, as McQuilken suggests, is not in Paul’s doctrine.

Someone may object that Paul is specifically focused on justification in these verses, rather than living the Christian life. But this division is artificial and an a priori assumption. Nowhere in Paul’s teaching is the law presented as incompatible for entering into the Christian life, (justification) but completely useful for continuing in the Christian life (sanctification.) Such, says Paul, would be beginning by the Spirit, but seeking to be completed by the flesh; by law-keeping. In the remainder of the letter, Paul reinforces these contrasts of Faith/Law and Spirit/Flesh.

Consider what he writes later in chapter 3, where he presents the law as temporary, that it did not precede the promises, and indeed, now that the promise has come, and we believe the promise of the gospel, the law is not a factor in our walk with the Lord.  “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” 3:25. Andrew Wakefield rightly asks, “If Christians can and should keep the law once they are enabled by the Spirit, why is Paul so concerned if the Galatians—who are already believers, who have already received the Spirit (Gal. 3:2-5)—take up the law?”[2]

In chapter 5, Paul writes “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (5:16.) In other words, victory over the flesh does not require law at all. Rather, as we walk by the Spirit, we will not carry out what is contrary to God’s will. He is yet more explicit in verse 18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Is there a qualifier here? Is Paul suggesting that the Galatians know he only speaks of justification, and not of sanctification? Is there a suggestion that the way to conformity to Christ, to a Spirit-led walk in any way relies on the law? None at all.

If there is anywhere he speaks of both justification and sanctification, it may be in 5:25. “If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk.” (ASV) In other words, since you began your Christian life by the Spirit, continue to live your Christian life by the Spirit. This brings us back to the thought Paul expressed in 3:3. To bring in the law after we have come to know Christ is to seek completion, maturity by the flesh. It would be equally foolish to think that freedom from the law means that Christians do not pursue conformity to Christ. Though some may try to present this as “antinomianism,” this is a mischaracterization. I direct readers to several other posts on our growth into Christlikeness.

Does this make Paul sound harsh, that he would call someone a fool? He has said yet harsher things in the epistle, but this is just as important. Seeking Christlikeness by pursuing the law is, apostolically speaking, foolish.

[1] Robert Crawford McQuilkin,  God’s Law and God’s Grace (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1958), 47

[2] Andrew Hollis Wakefield, Where to Live: The Hermeneutical Significance of Paul’s Citations from Scripture in Galatians 3:1–14. (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2003), 201.