One of the foundations of the gospel is that we are saved by grace through faith, not through works of the Law or any other efforts of our own (Ephesians 2:8-10). We can do nothing to earn our salvation; all we can do is receive what Christ has done for us by placing our trust completely in Him. This is referred to in the New Testament as the “New Covenant” (Hebrews 8:7-13).
Since we are saved by grace, it’s natural to ask, “So what about all the commands of the Old Covenant that we find in the Old Testament? Does God expect us to follow them or not? If not, then what is the purpose of the Law?” This paper summarizes how we answer these questions. But before addressing these questions, it’s helpful to clarify a couple things.
First, what is a covenant? A covenant is simply an agreement between two parties. In ancient times, covenants were often made between the king and his subjects. The king provided such things as peace and protection, and in return, his subjects promised to serve him by paying taxes, tribute and the like. In the Bible, we see that God actually initiated several covenants with his people. Sometimes the covenant was unconditional, such as God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-9). Other times, God’s blessings were contingent upon continued faithfulness and obedience by his people, such as thecovenant God made with his people through Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24). This covenant is sometimes referred to as the Mosaic covenant or Sinaiatic covenant, but in this paper, we’ll refer to it simply as the Old Covenant. For examples of conditions associated with the Old Covenant, see Exodus 19:5-6, 20:5-6,12; 23:22-33, and Deuteronomy 11:13-17.
Second, what do we mean by “the Law?” The Law is the collection of commandments that form the terms and conditions of the Old Covenant. Sometimes referred to as the Law of Moses, these commands were later expanded, reiterated, and reaffirmed throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
WHAT WE BELIEVE
We do not believe we are obligated to keep the Law in the same way that God’s people were expected to under the Old Covenant. Here’s why:
1. God did not intend his people to live under the Old Covenant forever.
The prophet Jeremiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, foresaw a day when God would initiate a new covenant with his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This future covenant would not be like the old one. Instead of writing his commands on tablets of stone, God would write his commands on the hearts of his people. Instead of having a system of priests to serve as intermediaries between God and his people, they would all be able to have a direct relationship with him.
The Apostle Paul described how believers should live in response to being justified by faith.With respect to the Law, he says we are “not under the Law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Further, we have been “put to death in relation to the law” (Romans 7:4), and in so doing we have been “released from the Law” (Romans 7:6). Paul made it clear the Old Covenant was “fading away”, but the New Covenant “endures” (2 Corinthians 3:11). Paul also said the Law was “our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:24-25).
Likewise, the author of Hebrews made it clear the Old Covenant was temporary. Much of the Old Covenant was a foreshadowing of the person and work of Jesus Christ. After his death and resurrection, the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system, which in so many ways pointed towards Christ, had come to an end (Hebrews 10:1-18).
2. The New Covenant is fundamentally different than the Old Covenant.
Under the Old Covenant, God’s terms were something like this: If you obey my commands, then you will enjoy blessings such as numerous descendants, long life, and enjoyment of the land that I promised you. But if you disobey, then there will be curses, misery, and destruction; and if you persist in disobedience, I will remove you from the Promised Land. Of course, people were still justified (made right with God) by faith, but the Law was the means by which God’s people responded to and related to God (Romans 4:1-3; Hebrews 11:1).
Under the New Covenant, God’s terms are something like this: If you believe (trust) that you stand hopelessly condemned as a sinner, and that only my Son’s death on the cross can cover your sins, then I will forgive all your sins (past, present and future) and consider you to have the perfect righteousness of my Son. Further, I will put my Spirit in you so that you can live by a new type of law. With my Spirit in you and through my Word, I will show you how to live in a way that pleases me. Doing so will bring joy, peace, and rewards, both in this life and in the life to come.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul described his role as a minister of the New Covenant. In so doing, he made several statements about the New Covenant that help us see how it is different than the Old.
- First, Paul said the New Covenant is “not of the letter, but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). The Old Covenant was based on a written code. In contrast, the New Covenant is based on the Spirit, who lives inside us as believers. He makes a similar point in Romans 7:6, saying that we are to “serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old letter of the law”.
- Second, Paul said “the letter kills, but the Spirit produces life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Similarly, in Romans, Paul said that “because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2). Ultimately, trying to live by a written code will drain you spiritually; it will suck the life out of your walk with Christ because inevitably, the focus moves from the Law Giver to the Law itself.
- Finally, Paul compared the glory associated with each of the covenants. The Old Covenant, even though it was a “ministry of death,” did have a significant degree of glory, so much so that Moses’ face actually glowed after receiving it. In contrast, the “ministry of the Spirit” under the New Covenant has “even more glory”; it even “surpasses” it. In fact, the New Covenant so far exceeds the old, that the Old Covenant by comparison now has no glory at all (2 Corinthians 3:7-10).
So, it’s clear the differences between the Old and New Covenants go much deeper than just the medium on which the words were written (tablets of stone vs. the human heart). The two covenants have different terms, different effects, different degrees of glor, and ultimately result in a different way of relating to and serving God.
3. The New Testament makes it clear that certain aspects of the Law are no longer binding on us.
- Under the Law, certain foods were forbidden for God’s people (Leviticus 11), but Jesus declared all foods to be clean (Mark 7:17-23).
- In Acts 10:9-16, Peter was commanded by God in a vision to eat things that were previously considered unclean under the Law.
- In Acts 15, when a dispute arose in the early church as to whether Gentile believers must be circumcised (the symbol of the Old Covenant), the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church held a council. After much deliberation and debate, they made it clear that circumcision was not a requirement, either for salvation or fellowship. Besides abstaining from some practices that were particularly abhorrent to their Jewish brothers, the council laid upon the Gentiles “no greater burden” (Acts 15:28).
- In Romans 14, Paul made it clear that believers should not pass judgment on one another on matters of opinion or personal conscience. These debatable matters included the dietary restrictions and feast days which were prescribed by the Law. Clearly, if these were still binding on all believers, Paul would not have said, “Do not tear down God’s work because of food. Everything is clean, but it is wrong for a man to cause stumbling by what he eats.” (Romans 14:20)
- In Galatians, circumcision and observance of the food laws were again the issue. Yet Paul made a point of noting that Titus, who ministered among the Gentiles, was not compelled to be circumcised, because doing so would have confused the gospel (Galatians 2:3-5). Paul called out Peter as a hypocrite because he had succumbed to the pressure of the Judiazers to observe the food laws, and as a result, he no longer ate with his Gentile brothers (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul also said that “both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). All of these actions would be unthinkable if in fact believers were still obligated to follow the Law.
- In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explained how he made use of both his rights and liberties to maximize the advancement of the gospel. Even though to the Jews he became like the Jews, he was careful to say that he was “not under the Law” (1 Corinthians 9:20). Later in this letter, in the context of whether to eat with unbelievers, Paul instructed the Corinthians to “eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:27). No doubt their unbelieving friends did not follow the food laws, so if Christians were still obligated to follow these laws, Paul’s advice was nothing less than an invitation to sin.
4. The Law is still useful and relevant for us today, even though we may apply it differently.
The entire Bible, including the Law, is inspired by God and is “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Paul said the Law is “holy…just and good” (Romans 7:12), provided “one uses it legitimately” (1 Timothy 1:8). In the light of the New Testament, we see how the Law should be properly used:
First, it reveals our sinful condition. Paul said the Law “came along to multiply the trespass” (Romans 5:20) and it was “added because of transgressions” (Galatians 3:19). Further, we would not even have known what sin was without the law (Romans 7:7). The Law is like a magnifying glass, that when held up to our sinful natures, reveals just how sinful we really are.
Second, by revealing our hopelessness as sinners who stand condemned before a holy God, the Law drives us to Christ. In the presence of the Law, our sinful nature will manifest itself, causing us to do the very things we don’t want to do, and preventing us from doing the things that we know we should do. It was this sense of desperation that caused Paul to cry out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord !” (Romans 7:24-25).
Third, even though we are not bound to follow the letter of the Law, we can draw general principles from these commands that teach us about the nature of God and his relationship with his people. Speaking of the entire Old Testament, Paul said, “For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures” (Romans 15:4).
As believers in Christ, we have been freed from the requirements of the Law, yet we are not free to sin. Instead, in Christ, we are subject to a new and better kind of Law, which is referred to as the “Spirit’s law of life” (Romans 8:2) and “Christ’s law” (1 Corinthians 9:21). Ultimately, love is the fulfillment of Law (Romans 13:10). With the Spirit within us, guiding us to understand and apply the teaching of all the Scriptures, we can live in a way that pleases God apart from the letter of the Law.