Old Testament Law and New Testament Gospel
When considering the relationship between the Old Testament Mosaic Law and the New Testament Christian, there are a wide span of views. The primary difference in these views is whether or not the Mosaic Law applies to the believer at all. Some say that the law of Moses’ application to today’s believer has passed, while others say it still applies. Both sets of Christians follow Christ, and both seek faithfulness to the Word of God. However, to be fully faithful to scripture, we must agree with Paul that the reign of the Mosaic law has passed and a new law, the law of Christ, has been inaugurated.
Background – What All Agree On
Modern proponents of all views generally agree that the keeping of the Mosaic law to gain righteousness was not God’s plan of salvation for Israel. Even in the Old Testament, righteousness was imputed based upon faith in God and his promises. The law was designed for those with active faith expressed in keeping the Mosaic law as seen in Micah 6:6-8.
Does this mean that the law has no use? No, Micah, like James in the New Testament, is simply reacting to a works without love teaching. Works must be married to love and faith. William A. VanGemeren, an opponent in this discussion, describes the shared view this way, “The internalization of the law is both a motivation by the Spirit of God and a wholehearted expression of love for God.”1
Wayne G. Strickland, who holds that the Mosaic law is abrogated for New Testament believers, agrees, noting that Paul in Romans 4:2-3 – quoting Moses in Genesis 15:6 – explicitly divides faith and works for Abraham. While Abraham was before the Mosaic covenant, it is clear that for the Old Testament saints, as for New Testament saints, justification is by faith (Rom. 5:1) but expressed through the fruit of works (James 1:22-25, cf. Matt. 7:18-23, 1 John 3:8-9). So then, we are on good grounds to see that whether Old Testament or New, Mosaic law or law of Christ, the saint is justified by faith, the law is good for growing in righteousness and sanctification, and works grow from and express the justification we have received.
A Unified Law
Within the opponents’ view that the Mosaic law’s rule endures through the post-Christ era, there are several perspectives about how much of the content of the law has application to the believer. Most opponents divide that law into three separate aspects: moral, civil, and ceremonial. Some argue that both the moral and civil aspects of the Mosaic law continue to apply to today’s believers, while others claim that only the Moral law continues to apply. Virtually all, however, disregard the ceremonial law as inapplicable to believers in Christ. Instead of the New Covenant completely removing the Mosaic law, on this view aspects have been abrogated and others – argued to be based on the eternal moral law of God, and therefore eternal themselves – continue in force.
But the Bible nowhere states that the Mosaic law is divided, the law was not written in a divided state, and the law was not viewed as divided by any Jew through Jesus and Paul’s day. The idea that the law contains such hard moral, civil, and ceremonial divisions is a modern product. Douglas Moo asserts, contra VanGemeren, “This distinction [between moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects to the law]…is nowhere clearly stated in the Bible…Jewish theology refused to allow a ‘picking and choosing’ among the commandments of the law.”2 If Paul was not in a context to see a divided law and we see no such clear theology in the Old or New Testaments, then we should not make such a distinction ourselves.
A good test case for the divisions of the law is that of the Ten Commandments. Most opponents who divide the Mosaic law will use the Ten Commandments as the center of the moral law, which they claim endures to this day. VanGemeren says, “The Decalogue (’Ten Commandments’)…are the summary of the moral law and form the basic constitution of Israel.”3 Moo responds, writing, “I am not denying that the Mosaic law, especially the Ten Commandments, contains principles and requirements that reflect God’s eternal moral will. My point, rather is that the Mosaic law is not identical with this eternal moral law.”4 I heartily agree, and believe that the 4th commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,”5 is proof that the moral teachings of the Mosaic law and God’s eternal moral will are not identical.
The stakes are high on this discussion. If breaking the Sabbath is to break the eternal moral law of God, many Christians ought to be put to death.6 But if the Sabbath, the fourth commandment, is not a moral law, then the Ten Commandments cannot be the center of the Mosaic moral law and the opponents’ triadic divisions begin to break down. So, does the Sabbath remain in force today?
First, the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, equivalent to our modern Saturday. If the Ten Commandments are the heart of the moral law, many Christians are breaking the heart of the moral law weekly when we worship on Sunday and do work on Saturday. While most defenders of the opponents’ system move the Sabbath to the first day of the week and loosen its restrictions on work, as A.T. Lincoln says, “By what right do they tamper with [in their estimation] an eternally valid moral law?”7
Second, how does one argue that a seventh day Sabbath or even a one-day-rest-in-seven is an eternal moral law? Rather, A.T. Lincoln notes, “Even if the Sabbath were a creation ordinance, it’s function was not so much to enable the first man and woman to reflect a facet of the moral character of God as to be symbolic of the Creator’s intention for the history of His creation…this function of the Sabbath was fulfilled in the salvation that Christ brought; the creation ordinance, then, passes with the inauguration of the new creation.”8 Third, it is worth noting that although it certainly does not exhaustively reveal God’s moral norms, the letter from the Jerusalem council addressed to Gentile believers embroiled in the circumcision controversy does not require Sabbath-keeping.9
Fourth, Jesus expresses his lordship over the Sabbath (Mark 2:27-28), and therefore expresses a right to alter or re-interpret the Sabbath in light of the new covenant based on his coming and future sacrifice. But Jesus never clearly gives a new teaching on the Sabbath, so should it not remain in force? Lincoln answers in the negative, “The hidden and transitional aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry account for the fact that no definite break with the Mosaic Sabbath is clearly set out in His teaching or actions and mean also that Jesus’ Sabbath practices…do not necessarily provide any norms for the new order.”10 Because Jesus lived under the law, not every statement and action of his during his life is typical of the way New Testament believers relate to the law. Fifth, Paul and the New Testament church held that Sabbath observance was no longer necessary (Col. 2:16-17). Lincoln concludes that Paul tolerated Sabbath observance but saw its practice as for those who were still babies in the faith.11
Instead, it is best to see the Sabbath as a core part – as seen by its placement within the ten commandments – of the Mosaic law, typifying God’s eternal rest. Like many other aspects of the law, it was fulfilled in Christ. The Ten Commandments then, are not designed as eternal moral law, but instead, as A.T. Lincoln says, “a particular expression of the will of God for His people for a certain period of their history…the historical prologue of Exodus 20:2 immediately sets the Decalogue within the context of the history of salvation and God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt.”12 Therefore, we can conclude that seventh day Sabbath observance, a core part of the Ten Commandments, has passed, breaking apart the supposed heart of the moral aspect of the Mosaic law.
The Law of Christ
The law of Christ is the replacement for the Mosaic law under which believers after Christ live. The eternal moral law of God informs and is expressed in the law of Christ, just as it was in the Mosaic law. Each set the moral and daily living law for the believer under their respective covenant. But those laws are not equivalent with the eternal moral law of God. Moo writes, “The ‘law’ under which Christians live (the law of Christ) is continuous with the Mosaic law in that God’s eternal moral norms, which never change, are clearly expressed in both…Our source for determining God’s eternal moral law is Christ and the apostles, not the Mosaic law or even the Ten Commandments.”13 We will now examine some statements on the law of Jesus and his Apostles.
Jesus and the Law
One interesting note bearing on this discussion is that Jesus kept and spoke the Mosaic law at times as one under that law because he was under that law. Before his death, he lived as a Jewish man under the Old Covenant.14 He sometimes spoke with authority about the Mosaic law and the future law to come15, he sometimes subverted Pharisaic expectations of the Mosaic law, but he never broke the Mosaic law during his earthly life. With that caveat in place, let us examine some of Jesus’ other statements about the law reported by the Gospels.
This is one of the most controversial passages in the Bible; how do we interpret it? The first point to note is that this passage, however it is interpreted for the present age under Christ, points to the temporal nature of the Mosaic law. For Jesus notes that it will not pass away “until all is accomplished,” which must mean at the latest that the Mosaic law is not in force for believers after the general resurrection and judgment, when the new heavens and new earth are created.16
Moo argues that Jesus’ language of “fulfilling” the Old Testament law and Prophets in Matthew is a “pointing forward” of the entire Old Testament to Jesus.17 According to Moo, “Jesus ‘fulfills’ the law not by explaining it or by extending it, but by proclaiming the standards of kingdom righteousness that were anticipated in the law.”18 What about v. 18-19? Given what we have learned about the unity of the Mosaic law19, it cannot mean that the law continues in the same way it previously did, or we would be under all of the Mosaic law, ceremonial aspects included. Instead, Moo argues that Jesus is talking of the “continued…authority of the law…and even if his followers are no longer bound by the commandments of the law, they are still to read and profit from it.”20 It is Jesus’ commands that must be taught and performed.21
In this section of Jesus’ discourse, he gives six “You have heard…” statements followed by six “But I say to you…” statements. In each of these he gives an Old Testament law of some sort, then twists that law to look not only at outward behavior, but at the heart as well. The refrain, “But I say to you…” indicates that Jesus is giving us the basis of a New Testament law, a part of the law of Christ.22
Moo notes that in these six passages Jesus sometimes deepens the law, sometimes expounds the law, and certainly goes beyond the requirements of the Old Testament law, but what is important to note “is Jesus’ radical insistence on what he says as binding on his followers.”23 In these passages, we see that Jesus, while living under the law, sees his teaching as authoritative beyond the Mosaic law. Matthew 7:29 notes that Jesus taught “as one who had authority, and not as one of their scribes” who merely expounded the Mosaic law for the people.
The New Covenant contains the law of Christ, as the Old Covenant did the Mosaic law. Moo argues that this law is a new law based upon love as its guiding principle. Jesus tells us that the Mosaic law was imperfect (Matt. 19:8), and given that he will give us a new heart, expects his followers to perform his commands based on that new heart. His new law, centered on love, contains reflections, especially morally, of the old law because both reflect God’s eternal moral ethic. However, Jesus abrogates some commands of the old law such as prohibitions on food, and we see a refocusing and strengthening of moral commands. Because the Mosaic law is an undivided unity, we should see the law of Christ as a new law for reborn believers and not merely a “repetition nor an expansion of the law.”24
The Apostles and the Law
Beyond the Gospels, the Apostles continued to wrestle with the implications of the New Covenant. One example of this was in their struggles with “the circumcision party.”25 This party sought to show that the New Testament believers had to continue holding the strictures of the Mosaic law. Paul was not impressed,26 and it was agreed that circumcision is abrogated. Indeed, the Apostles went further, teaching that the Mosaic law was abrogated and superseded by a new law of a better covenant.
Opponents holding the triadic position claim that the Apostolic statements about the Mosiac law refer to and opposed “works righteousness.” According to them, this position elevated “works” above “grace” and since as we have noted27 the Old Testament saints were saved by grace through faith,28 Paul was not arguing about whether the law – or some aspect of it – is still in effect for New Testament believers.29 Therefore, whenever the Apostles discuss abrogation of the Mosaic law, it only refers to the ceremonial aspect, and not the Mosaic law as a whole.30 We will briefly examine some critical texts below to determine if this was all that Paul meant, or if he went further:
Romans 10:4 claims “Christ is the end (telos) of the law”31, 13:10 claims “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Galatians 3:19-24 is crucial, noting that the law was a temporary guardian until Christ came, implying that it was time-bound. In 5:2-6, Paul speaks to those of the circumcision party, telling them that if they accept circumcision, “[they] are obligated to keep the whole law.” Furthermore, if one seeks justification by the law, they have lost grace through faith in Christ. 5:14 notes that the whole law is fulfilled in one commandment, to love a neighbor as oneself.32
James 2:8-13 notes that if someone keeps almost the whole law but sins even once, the law is broken. He implores the believer in Christ to “speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” This is particularly noteworthy for the reference to a second law. Paul does the same in Galatians 6:2, noting that by bearing each others’ burdens we fulfill “the law of Christ.” Moo notes the critical distinction between “doing” and “fulfilling”; the Old Testament believers “did” the law, but according to Paul, only the New Testament believer can “fulfill” the law.33 Romans 6:15 claims that we are “not under law, but under grace.”
In Galatians 4:4-5 Paul notes that Jesus came born “under the law” to redeem “those who were under the law.” Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 Paul claims to not be “under the law” while also “not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ.” The distinctions between these three laws is of vital importance. Paul claims to not be “under the law,” here he means the Mosaic law. Yet he is “not outside the law of God,” that is, he is still obligated to do good in accordance with God’s moral character. Finally, he claims to be “under the law of Christ,” a reference paralleled in his letter to the Galatians as well as by James as the “law of liberty.” Paul is saying that he is held to a new law which was ushered in with the inauguration of a new covenant.
This brief survey of New Testament scripture34 points to something profound. When we were redeemed by Christ, we are no longer under the Mosaic law. We are now under the law of Christ, which has a focal point of love. The moral foundation is the same, but this is a wholly new law.
So much more can — and should — be noted in this discussion. Due to space constraints, this paper is unable to give a full treatment of the opponents’ position and therefore seeks to provide an introduction to the position held by the author. While the opponents’ position holds that the law is triadic, the law is in fact a unity. While the opponents hold that the Ten Commandments are the heart of the moral aspect of the Mosaic law and that law remains in force for New Testament believers, in fact the Ten Commandments are not merely moral laws as shown by the abrogation of the Sabbath commandment, and the Apostles made clear that the New Testament believer holds to a new law alone. While the moral aspects of the New Testament law originate from the same eternal foundation as the Mosaic law – the character of God – it is a different law for a different covenant.
William A. VanGemeren, “The Law is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 33. ↩
Douglas Moo, “Response to William A. VanGemeren,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 85. Brackets mine. ↩
VanGemeren, 29. Parenthesis original. ↩
Moo, 84. ↩
Exodus 20:8 ↩
Exodus 31:14 ↩
A.T. Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. D.A. Carson, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 355. Brackets mine ↩
Lincoln, 347-348. Emphasis original. ↩
Acts 15:23-29. Lincoln, 350. ↩
Lincoln, 364. ↩
Ibid., 368. ↩
Ibid., 356. ↩
Moo, 89. Parenthesis mine. ↩
Galatians 4:4 ↩
Mark 7:19 ↩
cf. Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, 2 Peter 3:13, Rev. 21:1 ↩
Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View”, Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 351. ↩
Moo, 352. ↩
See above, “A Unified Law.” ↩
Moo, 353. ↩
Ibid., 348-349. ↩
Ibid., 350. Emphasis original. ↩
e.g. Acts 11:2-18 ↩
e.g. Titus 1:10-11 ↩
“Background,” above. ↩
Gal. 3:8-9 ↩
Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel”, Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 94-95. ↩
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Law as God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness”, Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 197. ↩
Parenthesis are my addition. “Telos” is the Greek translated as “end” in many translations, but further implies a “goal” or “culmination.” See Moo, 358. ↩
cf. John 13:34 ↩
Moo, 359-360. ↩
There is much more to reference in Romans and Hebrews as well as across scripture. ↩