Application of the Mosaic Law to the Life of the Christian

Introduction

One of the age-old challenges for the Church is to assess the applicability of Mosaic Law to the believer. Understanding the resolution to this conundrum is key to settling such issues as Sabbath observance (or lack thereof), the disappearance of the sacrificial system, and even whether or not getting a tattoo is permissible. Unfortunately, as Wayne Strickland observes in his Preface to Five Views on Law and Gospel, “there is no consensus of understanding of the relationship between Law and Gospel.”[1] But why is this the case? Is not the Bible that we Christians regard as inerrant and “God-breathed” clear on this point? As is the circumstance with many things in the life of the believer, this perceived issue of Mosaic Law applicability was very clearly resolved by the Biblical authors in the early days of the Church, but it has since been over-complicated by many well-thought and well-intended believers. This essay will demonstrate that Christians are not now—nor have we ever been—subject to the Mosaic Law, either in whole or in part. Rather, through the Holy Spirit the Law of Moses provides direction to the Christ-redeemed on how to live righteously, and we should (and are positively instructed to) look to it for guidance.

Jesus and the Mosaic Law

To begin our investigation into the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law, let us look at perhaps the most difficult Scripture for the believer to reconcile on this topic: Matthew 5:18-19. In this passage, Jesus says the following:

“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. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”[2]

Taken by itself, this is indeed a most difficult text! In it Jesus very clearly demonstrates that His purpose is not to abolish the Law, but fulfill it. In fact, for all intents and purposes, the Law is to exist in its entirety until the end of time.

Much analysis has been conducted on these words of Jesus. For example, Bahnsen defends the Mosaic Law as still applicable, largely based on the Matthew 5:18-19 passage.[3]  While he rightfully observes that the Law has not been repealed, he goes on to claim that “We should presume that Old Testament standing laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament, unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation.”[4] In this case, “standing law” is defined as “policy directives applicable over time to classes of individuals,” i.e., moral law. This assessment leaves room for the Mosaic Law to be changed by “further revelation.” Unfortunately for his analysis, this idea still goes against the principle that “not an iota, not a dot” can be displaced from the Law because it gives preference to only parts of the command, i.e., those deemed “moral.” On another side of the debate, Moo—who agrees with the contention of this essay that the believer is not under the Law—claims that “It is the law as fulfilled by Jesus that must be done, not the law in its original form,”[5] (emphasis his). However, this is a somewhat ambiguous answer to the question of Mosaic Law applicability because the “all” that is to be accomplished includes the passing away of heaven and earth, which exist to this day. Jesus fulfilled the Law through his perfect adherence to it. And while Jesus did fulfill the predictions of the Prophets—particularly Isaiah—He still has not accomplished everything in the history of creation, and heaven and earth still exist. Surely there is a more suitable approach to this passage. In fact, Willem VanGemeren is correct in his assertion that “Clearly, Jesus did not abrogate the law!” while then falling short in his claim that “he called for a more radical observance.”[6] Since we have established that the Law has not been repealed, the question we must answer, then, is for whom is the Mosaic Law applicable? The next section will show that Paul tells us it is not the Christ-redeemed who are under Law. The conclusion then becomes this: Mosaic Law is still applicable to unregenerate humankind in general.

Romans 7: Our Release from the Mosaic Law

The first key we will discuss regarding the born-again believer’s relationship with Mosaic Law is given by Paul in Romans Chapter 7, beginning with Verse 1: “Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?”[7] He continues in verse 4: “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.”[8] Paul comes to his final conclusion in verse 6: “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”[9] This passage does not tell us that Jesus has somehow abrogated—or revoked—the Mosaic Law from mankind, thereby releasing it from adherence to its every word. Rather, as seen in the previous section, Jesus fulfilled the Law through his perfect life and fulfilled the Prophets through His death and resurrection. It is the reality that Christians—covered by the blood of Jesus Christ—have died to sin and the Law that we are no longer bound to it. Conversely, those who have not been buried with Christ are still, in fact, yoked to the words of the Mosaic Law. One might ask the point of God holding the unredeemed to the Law since the Law cannot save them. God is both just and gracious—those who do not accept the grace of Christ will be judged based on their adherence to His Law. In contrast, those of us who have been saved by Christ will be judged based on His blameless adherence to the perfect Law of God. However, even though the believer is not under the jurisdiction of the Law or subject to its commands, could it still benefit our lives as Christians?

Is the Mosaic Law of Value to the Redeemed?

Lest we fall into the trap of believing the Mosaic Law is completely useless to the redeemed, we would do well to review what the Apostle Paul wrote in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”[10] Although it does not contradict the concept of the believer being dead to the Law as revealed in Romans 7, this passage lays to rest the idea that the Law has no bearing on the Christian. In fact, we are to study it during our lifelong process of Spirit-led sanctification in order to fully know the will of Yahweh. In light of this, we must ask ourselves the following question: What lessons can we learn from a study of the Mosaic Law, and how can we use it to instruct our lives?

To begin, we look to the Savior for guidance, because He sets the standard for what is important to us as believers. Matthew Chapter 22 provides a clear and concise summary of the Law as seen through the eyes of Jesus:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 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 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.[11]

Jesus identifies two commandments that summarize the entire Mosaic Law, as well as the words of the prophets: (1) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and (2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The message is clear: the Law is summarized in terms of love for God and love for humankind. As Lincoln states,

Instead the believer walks by the Spirit, and though no longer under the law, he or she in fact finds that the requirements of the law are fulfilled through the Spirit in his or her life (Rom. 8:4) The Spirit produces love and love turns out to be the fulfilling of the law (cf. Gal. 5:14).[12]

Not only is Christ the fulfillment of the Law for the believer, but the believer himself is characterized by Spirit-produced love for both God and fellow man. We can see how God intends this love to be played out by looking to those Mosaic Law commands that demonstrate love.

Nowhere is this concept of Law summarized as love clearer than in the Decalogue, i.e., the Ten Commandments.  These directives—taken from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—are briefly paraphrased as follows.

  1. You shall have no other gods but Yahweh.
  2. You shall not bow down to idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of Yahweh in vain.
  4. You shall observe the Sabbath by resting from all work on the last day of the week.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

How do the two most important commands as summarized by Jesus connect to the Ten Commandments? One will notice that the first three are associated with our relationship with God Himself. Specifically, if we love God with all our hearts, we will worship only Him, we will not make any idols, and we will not take His name in vain. The final six very clearly direct our relationships with fellow humans, such as not murdering one another, not stealing, and not coveting each other’s goods and relationships. It is evident that the Ten Commandments are simultaneously relational and moral in nature. As believers in Christ, we find a treasure trove of examples in the Law of how to treat one another and the LORD.

Ok, we skipped the Fourth Commandment. So what about adherence to the Sabbath? Since –in accordance with Romans 7—we are very clearly not under the Mosaic Law, then we are not subject to the Sabbath. This is supported by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16. However, we must remember that the purpose of this section is simply to demonstrate that the Law is still of value for the believer. In other words, what wisdom can we glean from the Fourth Commandment that we can apply to our lives as the redeemed of Christ? Let us first look to the original command recorded in the book of Exodus:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”[13]

Deuteronomy restates the command and adds background information:

“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.[14]

A couple key points stick out of the original commands. First of all, the Israelites were instructed to observe the Sabbath to emulate the Creator in his work: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” Secondly, God commanded Israel to obey the Sabbath for health, i.e., “that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.” Jesus further highlights why the day of rest was instituted in Matthew 2: “’The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’”[15] The logical conclusion regarding the matter of the Sabbath agrees with that of Lincoln:

“God’s concern for the whole person and for all His creatures being able to have regular rest from their work surely instructs us that although the literal Sabbath day of rest has been abrogated[16] and has not been transferred to Sunday, we should share this concern for regular periods of rest both for ourselves and for others in our society.[17]

As Christians, we are wise to honor the spirit of the Sabbath through regular rest for ourselves as well as allowing regular rest for others when it is in our power.

Let us revisit the point of this section, i.e., the Law is to serve as guidance for the Christian. In summary, we find that the Law—through the eyes of Christ—is defined as love for God and love for fellow man.  We as believers will do well to study the Law to better understand how to show love for Him and each other.

Can Salvation Come by the Law?

As shown through earlier discussion, Romans 7 positively establishes that the believer is no longer bound to the Mosaic Law. In a related discussion, the question often gets raised as to whether or not the Law can theoretically save someone by their keeping it perfectly. Moo claims that “the New Testament teaches that the law of Moses does hold out an inherent promise of life for those who do it.”[18] He continues by saying that although Jesus does not teach salvation in this way, “there is no reason on this account to think that Jesus does not view the promise as at least theoretically valid.”[19] But since when does unrealizable theory make for valid theology? Even if perfect adherence to the Law could impart life, by our very nature as sinners we could not attain such through our actions. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 8:3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”[20] Again, in Galatians 3:21 Paul writes: “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”[21] Therefore, since the inspired Word of God has demonstrated that it is impossible to be saved through the Law due to our sinful nature, there is no point in expending further time and effort on this topic.

Conclusions

In conclusion, we have done what we have set out to do—establish that the Law is not binding on the redeemed in Christ. We have also demonstrated the following:

  • The law has not been revoked; rather, it still wields power over those who have not been redeemed by Jesus Christ.
  • The law is, in fact, profitable for the practicing Christian. In the law we find guidelines for how to treat the LORD as well as each other.
  • The law never had the power to bring salvation to God’s people, even if for no other reason than man is inherently sinful and is wholly unable to fulfill every command.

As believers in Christ we will do well to study the law for guidance and wisdom, but not allow ourselves to be overcome by a false duty to adhere to every precept. 

Works Cited

Bahnsen, G. L, Kaiser, W. C., Moo, D. J., Strickland, W. G., and VanGemeren, W. A. Five Views on Law and Gospel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Carson, D. A. 1999. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day. Eugene: Wipf and Stock.

Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Crossway.

[1] Wayne Strickland, Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 9.

[2] Matthew 5:18-19.

[3] Greg Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Reformed Approach to Law and Gospel,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 114.

[4] Bahnsen, 142.

[5] Douglas Moo, “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 353.

[6] Willem VanGemeren, “The Law is the Perfection of Righteousness in Jesus Christ: A Reformed Perspective,” Five Views on Law and Gospel, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 38.

[7] Romans 7:1.

[8] Romans 7:4.

[9] Romans 7:6.

[10] 2 timothy 3:16-17.

[11] Matthew 22:35-40.

[12] Andrew Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, (Eugene, Wipf and Stock), 370.

[13] Exodus 20:8-11.

[14] Deuteronomy 5:12-15.

[15] Matthew 2:27.

[16] We agree not that the Fourth Commandment has been repealed; rather, that it does not apply to the redeemed in accordance with Romans 7.

[17] Lincoln, 404.

[18] Moo, 324.

[19] Moo, 325.

[20] Romans 8:3.

[21] Galatians 3:21.

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