What is a Christian's Relationship to Mosaic Law?
The question of the Mosaic Law and its relationship to the New Testament Christian is one that has been debated from the earliest days of the church. It was just such a question that brought the Apostles together for the first council of the church in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. Subsequently the issue continued to surface in response to both Jewish factions of the early church and heretical teachings and sects such as the Ebionites. Eventually, as the gap between the church and the Jewish community at large began to widen, those who insisted on observance of the Mosaic Law broke away from the church and became known as “Judaizers”. Today this same spirit of Judaizing exists in the form of the Hebrew Roots Movement; a movement that demands observance of the Mosaic Law by disciples of Christ in precisely the same manner as Orthodox Jews. Thus they expect disciples to be circumcised, to keep kosher, to wear tzitzit (fringe), to observe all of the traditional holy days of Judaism, and essentially to live an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum we have Christians leaders who teach that we have no connection to the Mosaic Law whatsoever, and that we are not under the law, but under grace, and that the law was done away with. This Antinomian approach is, like its polar opposite (Judaizing), antithetical to the teachings of Sacred Scripture on the issue. Paul tells us in his first epistle to Timothy that the law is good if we use it lawfully. As Dr. Allan Brown points out in his unpublished paper Not Under Law, But Under Grace:
“The apostle Paul, the man who wrote the phrase, “not under the law, but under grace,” rejects such an interpretation of his words. He wrote to Timothy and said, “We know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully” (1 Tim.1:8). In other words, the Law of God—the Old Testament—has continuing relevance in this New Testament dispensation if it is used properly. Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 3:16‐17 supports this claim. Writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit long after the New Covenant was inaugurated, Paul asserts that the Old Testament is still profitable for “doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness.” This means there is a proper use and application of the Old Testament for Christians today.”
Jesus Himself clearly held the Law in high regard. He rejected the notion that the Law was in some way done away with by His mission.
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill them.- Matthew 5:17
Dr. Allan Brown writes:
“As Christ honored the principles of the Law, so are His followers to honor the principles of the Law. Thus, when Jesus speaks of His purpose “to fulfill the Law,” He is emphasizing the continuing validity of the Old Testament for His people.
This same principle is echoed in Paul's epistle to the Romans, wherein he writes:
“For Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.”
- Romans 10:4
Paul is not stating that the Law is done away with, but that Christ is the goal of the Law. That is, He is the example of the person the Law intends us to be. As Dr. Allan Brown explains:
“The term “end” (telos) in this context does not mean “end, termination, cessation,” but rather the goal toward which the Law is directing us. Christ is the end of the law in the sense of being the “goal” of the Law for righteousness.”
Christ made it very clear that the Law has not been done away with in the gospel when he said:
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”- Matthew 5:18
Clearly heaven and earth have not passed away (which may be a reference to the end of days), and so the Law remains in effect.
The Purpose and Function of the Law
The purpose of the Law is basically twofold. First, it reveals the heart of God. It informs us of what He thinks. Second, it reveals how to live a proper human life. It functions on eight basic levels. Dr. Allan Brown explains that the Law:
Imparts wisdom to us so we can know the truth and please God.
Psalms 119:98- Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they [are] ever with me.
Psalms 119:142-Thy righteousness [is] an everlasting righteousness, and thy law [is] the truth.
Deuteronomy 4:6- Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
The Law reveals Christ.
Luke 24:44- And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
Galatians3:24-Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
It teaches us how to be saved by faith and does not teach salvation by the works of the Law.
Psalms 19:7- The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
Romans 7:10- And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death Galatians 3:24- Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
Galatians 3:21- Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.
Romans 9:31‐32:- But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. 32. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.
Romans 3:28-Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
It encourages faith in God and obedience to His commands.
Joshua 1:7‐8- Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all he law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it [to] the right-hand or [to] the left, that thou mayest prosper whithersoever thou goest.
This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.
2 Kings 21:8-Neither will I make the feet of Israel move any more out of the land which I gave their fathers; only if they will observe to do according to all that I have commanded them, and according to all the law that my servant Moses commanded them.
It teaches us how to love God by fearing Him and keeping His commandments.
Deuteronomy 10:12- And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, (13) To keep the commandments of the LORD, and his statutes, which I command thee this day for thy good?
Deuteronomy 11:1- Therefore thou shalt love the LORD thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, alway.
Deuteronomy 11:13- And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul,
It teaches us how to be blessed and happy.
Psalms 1:2- But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.
Psalms 40:8- I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.
Psalms 119:1- Blessed [are] the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD.
It reveals the sinfulness of sin and helps restrain man's sinful tendencies.
Romans 3:20- For by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Romans 5:20- Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound.
Romans 7:7- What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
Galatians 3:19- Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.
I Timothy 1:9- Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
It brings a sense of guilt and condemnation to those who willfully violate God's law.
Romans 3:19- Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Galatians 3:10- For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed [is] every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
Galatians 3:13- Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed [is] every one that hangeth on a tree:
Clearly then the Mosaic Law fulfills a very specific purpose in the lives of Christians.
Having established this we must now confront the issue of observance of the Law. How does a Christian do so?
Universal Principles and Specific Applications
In order to understand how the Mosaic Law applies to the Christian life one must have a grasp on the so-called “UP-SA” method. UP-SA stands for “Universal Principles-Specific Applications”.
Universal Principles-These are truths found in the Mosaic Law that are based on God's eternal and unchanging character, and thus are applicable at all places and at all times.
Specific Applications- This is an application of these Universal Truths specific to time, place and circumstance.
Greg L. Bahnsen, a theonomist, recognizes a similar method. He writes in his book By This Standard:
“Likewise, there were cultural details mentioned in many of God’s laws so as to illustrate the moral principle which He required (for example, the distinction between accidental manslaughter and malicious murder was illustrated in terms of a flying axhead). What is of permanent moral authority is the Principle illustrated, and not the cultural detail used to illustrate it. Thus, we ought not to read the case laws of the Old Testament as binding us to the literal wording utilized..”
“In addition to localized imperatives and cultural details of expression, we would note that certain administrative laws of Old Testament society are not normative for today (for example, the type or form of government, the method of tax collecting, the location of the capitol). These aspects of Old Testament life were not prescribed by standing law, and they do not bind us today.”
The Christian is not required to observe the parts of the Mosaic Law that are specific to the Israelites, given for a specific time, place or circumstance- that is, the Specific Applications. The Christian is, however, responsible for the observance of the Universal Principles underlying these applications, since, as mentioned, they flow from God's eternal and unchanging character. This is at the heart of Jesus' answer regarding the greatest commandment. And it is by the Christian's observance of these two commandments, in a relationship with Christ and seeking to meet His example of a proper human life with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that we embody the heart of the Mosaic Law.
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the House of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:”- Hebrews 8:10
It is indeed true that we are saved by grace through faith, but this in no way renders the Mosaic Law obsolete.
“Do we then make void the Law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.”
- Romans 3:31
This is not a pick and choose method for understanding the Law and must be guided by biblical thinking. Dr. Allan Brown shares a word of caution.
“Each verse in the Old Testament reflects either a universal principle or is a specific application of a universal principle. When you encounter a verse that seems to have no relevance to you because you live in a different country with a different culture and different worship practices, do not ignore or dismiss the verse. Ask yourself, "Is this verse teaching a universal principle or is it a specific application of a universal principle.
“And he 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 foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”- Matthew 22:37-39
The Law not only demonstrates how to love God and our neighbor but provides a continual witness as to what these commandments look like when properly carried out. It is a guide to understanding what it means to be “set-apart” unto God as His possession, set-apart from all that is sinful and all that is common.
Bahnsen, writing of this aspect of the Law in the Christian's life, states:
“Hebrews 12:14 exhorts us to “follow after . . . the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord,” indicating that those who are acceptable to God must be “set apart” (sanctified) unto Him and “separated” from the sinful pollution of the world. This entails cleansing from defilement (2 Cor. 7:1), leading a spotless life (2 Peter 3:14) – language reminiscent of the purity and sacrificial laws of the Old Testament. Second Timothy 2:19 summarizes the New Testament theme of separation from the world: “Let every one that names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness .“ How is this to be done? What is the nature of such separation from unrighteousness and defilement? By what standard does the New Testament Christian separate himself from ‘the world”? James instructs us that the word of God — which for James surely included the Old Testament scriptures of his day – is the key to this ethical separation:”
Indeed the Apostle James wrote:
“Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself, and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”- James 1: 21-25
The Mosaic Law then is a revelation of God's heart, and when properly used shows us our true spiritual state, and encourages us to repentance, to act on all the light we possess, provides us with greater light, and urges us to be doers of God's Word and not simply hearers. It is not antinomianism to recognize these facts of Sacred Scripture.