Christians and the Law



          What relationship exist between Christians and the Old Covenant (the Law)? Are Christians under the Law? Are we still to follow any of the commands expressed within it? One’s answer to these questions will shape how he views the Old Testament and lives his life. I must say upfront that the topic the Law and its relationship to Christians is a deep and vast one. We will but scratch the surface of the discussion here. Nevertheless, I believe a brief discussion is nevertheless edifying and important. We will look at the giving of the Law in redemptive-history, the purpose of the Law, the Law’s fulfillment in Christ, whether Christians are under the Law, and the spirit of the Law in the New Covenant.

          If you ask contemporary Christians how people were “saved” in Old Testament times, what do you think you would hear? Anecdotally speaking, many people connect salvation in the Old Testament to keeping the Law. Perhaps they wouldn’t directly say law-keeping saves, but the description given may imply that sort of relationship. Most references to “the Law” in the New Testament refer to the entire Old Covenant, and it is important to realize that the Old Covenant was given in response to an act of deliverance. It was not given as a means to earn deliverance. After God delivered the Israelites from Egypt in the Exodus, he eventually brings them to Mt. Sinai where the Mosaic Covenant (Old Covenant) is given. It contains many commands describing how God wants his people to live, and they also serve to show God’s heart on various societal issues. A significant portion of the Law is concerned with the sacrificial system – involving priests, sacrifices, and the Tabernacle. The sacrificial system was a means by which God allowed the mediation of Israel's covenantal relationship with him. No where in the Old Covenant are the Israelites told to follow the Law in order to earn deliverance. Rather, they were told to obey these commands given to them because they had already been delivered. The beginning of the Ten Commandments highlights this order of events.

“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.’” – Exodus 20:1-3

This order or relationship is the same for Christians under the New Covenant. We don’t obey God’s commands in the New Covenant era because we are trying to earn salvation; rather, we obey because we have already been delivered.

          For what purpose was the Old Covenant given? What did it serve to accomplish? Large portions of the New Testament address this question, but a comprehensive assessment of all such passages exceeds the ambition of this post. We will limit ourselves to a few representative verses and associated considerations. Romans and Hebrews provide excellent commentary on the purpose of the Old Covenant.

“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” – Romans 3:20-21

“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” – Romans 5:20

“What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” – Romans 7:7

“For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.” – Hebrews 10:1

Key purposes of the Old Covenant, as highlighted in the verses above, were that it served to increase knowledge and awareness of sin and point forward to something (someone) greater. It was never given to achieve lasting justification before God. Other, perhaps more tangible, purposes often described for the Law include bridling sin, providing civil restraint, and giving insight to appropriate living.

          Jesus and the apostles’ commentary on the Old Covenant affirm that it was pointing to and fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant was the shadow; Jesus’ person, work, and established New Covenant are the substance.

“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – Romans 5:20-21

“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. 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.” – Romans 8:3-4

“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 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” – Galatians 3:23-25

The righteousness required by the Law was never kept by any person, until Jesus came and perfectly kept the law. Jesus fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law in his own life. Through his penal substitutionary death, he paid the price sin required and imputed his righteousness to those who would come to him by grace through faith. The Law was our “guardian” until the coming of Christ. Now that justification by grace through faith in Christ has arrived, we are “no longer under a guardian”.

          Are Christian under the Law? Are we to obey the Old Covenant regulations? In light of the Bible verses highlighting the Law’s fulfillment in Jesus, the apparent answer is “no”. Nevertheless, the Bible does address this question more directly. To give the short answer first: according to Scripture, we are not under the Law because it has been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant he established. Let us look at Scripture addressing this topic.

“Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” – Romans 6:13-14

“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.” – Romans 7:4

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” – Romans 10:4

“For [Jesus] 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, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” – Ephesians 2:14-15

“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the [Old Covenant] obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” – Hebrews 8:13

Christians are “not under the law but under grace”. We have “died to the law” and belong to Jesus. With regards to achieving righteousness, Jesus is the “end of the law” for Christians. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, he abolished “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances”. In light of the New Covenant, the Old Covenant is obsolete. At one point in Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t follow certain Old Covenant customs like the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees did. Jesus’ response is insightful.

"He also told them a parable: 'No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, "The old is good."'" – Luke 5:36-39

At a basic level, Jesus makes clear that the Old Covenant cannot be mixed with the New Covenant.  

          As Scripture testifies, Christians are not under the Old Covenant. In addition to the prior quoted verses, early church history in Acts also provides a paradigmatic example. After the gospel spread to the Gentiles and they became Christians, the issue of the Old Covenant law creeped up. Some Jewish Christians were debating whether or not to tell these new gentile Christians to keep Old Covenant laws. The Apostles were involved in this discussion and concluded as follows:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you [gentile Christians] no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.” – Acts 15:28-29

The conclusion of the Jerusalem council was that the gentile Christians did not have to keep the Law. Instead, they provided them with four considerations. The first three of these considerations were likely given with regard to the consciences of Jewish Christians near them. This thought is affirmed by Scripture elsewhere explicitly abrogating Old Testament food laws (Acts 10:9-16, Mark 7:18-19). At this moment in church history, when the Early Church was deciding if these gentile Christians were under the Law, the answer was an emphatic no.

          A final, though incidental, consideration for this topic is who was party to the Old Covenant? This argument isn’t a hill I would die on, but I still believe it is helpful. We don’t have space to dive into types and aspects of ancient, near-eastern covenants. However, it suffices to say that covenants were made between parties. Similar to how contracts are made between parties in modern times. Christians are party to the New Covenant because we are in Christ, through whose blood the New Covenant was established. However, the overwhelming majority of Christians have no connection to the human party of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was made between God and the Israelites he delivered in the Exodus. It was then renewed between God and the descendants of the initial Exodus generation, and their descendants after them. Unless one has Israelite ancestry, he has no connection to the human party of the Old Covenant. Therefore, he isn’t bound to it as a party to the covenant would be.

          Though Christians aren’t under the Law, the spirit of the Law lives on in the New Covenant. This is evident as Jesus summed up the Law in the commands of love for God and love for neighbor. These commands were then affirmed in the New Covenant era.

“And [Jesus] said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” – Matthew 22:37-40

“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.” – Romans 13:8-10

The parts of the Old Covenant still in effect in the New Covenant are those parts which were reaffirmed, and often elevated, in the New Covenant (ex. Matthew 5:21-30). If an Old Covenant command is not affirmed in the New Covenant, then it belongs to the Old Covenant, which Scripture makes clear Christians are not under. The Ten Commandments were all explicitly or implicitly reaffirmed in the New Covenant (I would recommend “How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments” by Edmund Clowney). Ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant law were fulfilled in Jesus. We don’t celebrate the Passover because Jesus was our Passover sacrifice. We don’t sacrifice animals because Jesus was the final and ultimate sacrifice for our sins. The civil aspects of the Law regarding national Israel obviously aren’t in effect as the Church is not a national entity. However, I would argue we can see God’s heart for various societal issues in the civil laws given to Israel.

          One final thought: what do we make of Jesus statement about the Old Covenant not being abolished but fulfilled?

“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.” – Matthew 5:17-18

This statement was made before the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus did, in fact, not abolish the law but fulfilled it in living a perfectly righteous life. He was the only one to perfectly keep the Law, and then he died a penal substitutionary death for his people. The Law wasn’t abolished, ignored, or swept away. Rather, Jesus kept it, fulfilled it in his death and resurrection, and then established the New Covenant through his blood.

          We come back to the question asked in the beginning. Are Christians under the Old Covenant, under the Law? According to Scripture, we are not. The shadow of the Old Covenant gave way to the substance that is the person and work of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant established through his blood. We are not under the Law, but under grace. As Jesus said, old wine cannot be put in new wineskins. Nevertheless, the Old Covenant is still insightful for Christians. Its ceremonial aspects drive us to Jesus; its civil aspects show us God’s heart; and its key moral aspects were reaffirmed and often elevated in the New Covenant. The spirit of the Old Covenant lives on in the New through the great love commands. The fulfillment of the Law in the person and work of Jesus Christ reaffirms the reality that Christ must be preached from all Scripture.