Understanding the role of God’s law in our lives today can be a challenge. Questions like: “Wasn’t the Law only for Jews?” “Do Christians even need the Law since we are in a New Testament time?” “How can non-Christians be responsible to keep the Ten Commandments?”
The notion that the Law of Moses has any place in the life of a Christian has been readily dismissed nowadays as being “Old Covenant” – not binding in any way on a Christian today. As a matter of fact, some pastors have actually asserted that the early church worked hard to distance itself from the Old Testament but that the Reformation (16th century) unwittingly raised it back to life. Is that true? There are even others pushing the idea that the Old Testament effectively serves as an anchor in the progress of reaching the world with the Gospel. Still others say that the Law given through Moses on Sinai is confusing, indefensible, and irrelevant. Could THAT be true? Clearly, how you view the role of the God’s Law for people today is a big deal.
There are three ways that the Law of the Old Testament was viewed by the New Testament writers. The first was as an external restraint, the second was to reveal sin and, third, as a guide for inspiration and worship within the life of the Christian.
The First Use of the Law
The Law given to Moses at Sinai serves as a reflection of the character of God. Certainly, standards such as “do not kill” were around before the Mosaic Law. But these standards were new in the sense that they were now both specific and authoritative – coming from God Himself. Prior to the giving of the Law to the Jewish people, the conscience served as an unwritten law on the hearts of all people (see Romans 2:14-16). However, there was no way to connect a specific standard to God directly until that moment in time in which the Law was given from God to Moses. A person could have pointed out the rationale as to why it is wrong to murder, but it was now clear that murder was wrong because God says it is wrong. Today, this standard is ubiquitous among all cultures in our world. It is easy to see the ethic of God’s Law now embedded within governmental laws throughout the world. Everywhere you turn there is an expression of Divine design, a hint of orderly structure in civil law. The ethic revealed in the Law of God was designed to regulate society as well as to provide external punishments for people who refuse to follow these standards. It is this truth that caused the Apostle Paul to commend Christians in how they respond to the governing authority of the Roman Empire:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.Romans 13:1-7
Given the global impact of Christianity, we now have a discernible Judeo-Christian ethic that has been incorporated into societal standards for which civil laws are generally founded. The role of this first use of the Law (both intrinsic via the conscience and then codified in the Mosaic Covenant) is merely a type of imprint on humanity and is limited to only external behavior. For example, Bill is pulled over by a police officer for driving 45 M.P.H. in a 25 M.P.H. school zone. Bill receives a large fine due to his disregard for the law, a law designed to protect the life of kids as they travel to and around the school. Given the value of human life, the concentration of young children, along with the loading and unloading of both parents vehicles and buses, Bill put others in danger. Bill did not follow the rule and now the penalty is designed to make him aware that the law must be obeyed.
An important distinction should be noted that certain commandments, such as the tenth commandment – “do not not covet” (Exodus 20:17) are not represented in the “first use” of the Law since coveting is an inward attitude and not a visible behavior. Therefore, the first use of the law relates exclusively to outward behavior even if being sourced from the conscience of a person.
The Second Use of the Law
The second use of the law is internal and designed to reveal that humans do not act as we should. In other words, the second use of the Law is intended to reveal that we are law-breakers. For example Bill believes he is a good person. Bill also vaguely assumes that there is a God, and that he is righteous enough to stand before Him one day. However, Bill reads the ninth commandment, “Do not lie,” (Exodus 20:16) and is struck by how often he has lied and who he has lied to. The truth of God’s Law applied to Bill’s life reveals to him that he is unrighteousness. It also uncovers how little Bill really cares for God – the One whose command Bill is violating. This leads Bill to question whether or not he is truly “good.” The standard of the Law when applied to the life of Bill, leads him realize that he is not as good as he once thought. The Law exposed the heart of Bill. This would be an example of the second use of the Law, the Law’s relationship to the non-Christian in revealing his or her sin.
Paul speaks of this “second use” when he writes:
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”I Timothy 1:8-11
Notice how Paul urges the Timothy to apply the Law in people to reveal their spiritual condition? Like an X-Ray machine reveals the unseen qualities of a bone, so too the Law reveals the condition of the heart before a Holy God. In other words, the application of the Law takes aim directly at our identity as it relates to God, a sinner in need of being saved from sin! In the “second use” of the Law, we see it serves as the primary tool in which the Holy Spirit reveals that we have all sinned, we have committed cosmic treason against our Maker.
Additionally, did you see who Paul is writing to – Timothy and the other “New Testament” Christians in the church at Ephesus. How could it be that any pastor could possibly even suggest that the Law has no place in reaching the world with the Gospel? The Law was intentionally designed for this purpose! The Law is meant to activate the conscience through the work of the Holy spirit in bringing conviction for sin. Is the Old Testament Law bad for the advancement of the Gospel? The Apostle Paul didn’t think so.
The Third Use of the Law
The third use of the law in the New Testament is aimed at those who have trusted in Christ as payment for their sin.
In this category, God’s Law in the Old Testament serves as a type of guide. The Law does this through serving as a continual reminder of God’s character expressed in the Law (Old Testament) as well as the all-satisfying atoning work of Christ in fulfilling the Law on our behalf (New Testament). When reminded of God’s character in the Law and then Jesus gracious provision to pay for our violating the Law, the believer is aroused to greater obedience that flows from a grateful heart. The obedience of the disciple does not become the basis for his or her salvation but a response to/for their salvation. The believer is motivated (through the third use of the Law) to live a Gospel-fueled life because their sin has been forgiven. We can see new Testament writers use this third law in a variety of ways. For example, Paul tells children to obey their parents (the fifth commandment) “in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1-2). When discussing the role of the Holy Spirit in the believers life in obeying the whole law, Paul cites Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul uses the guidance of Proverbs 25:21-22 to recommend a course of action for interacting with an enemy. In each example, Paul teaching is rooted in the Old Testament Law – the thing we now desire to obey given Christ’s gracious provision of salvation expressed in the New Testament. We don’t want to obey the Law to earn anything, we want to obey the Law because we want to be “imitators [lit. “mimics”] of God” (Ephesians 5:1).
Let’s apply how the “third use” of the law works in the life of Bill. Bill is now a Christian and is planning on doing his taxes in the afternoon. During Bill’s devotions he reads the 9th Commandment – “Do not lie” and meditates on its many implications to his life. Bill then realizes the implications for his taxes. Bill was not planning on cutting corners to begin with and now he asks the Holy Spirit to help him to be honest and for the Lord to use that honesty in completing his taxes with integrity. Bill does this out of gratitude for what Christ has done for him on the cross and the freedom he now has to enjoy Christ more than he loves his money. The work of Christ on Bill’s behalf has created a priority in his life to live for Christ, from which he is regularly reminded of through the third use of the Law.
Those who want to do away with the Law in its entirety are unwittingly severing a key joy-inducing mechanism that makes much of the good news Jesus provides. To relegate the Law in merely being applicably to the Old Testament Covenant, not only betrays the three uses of the Law by New Testament writers, but this view actually abandons the very character of God revealed in the Law as well as the various (yet underdeveloped) pictures of Christ within the sacrificial system as well as the prophetic writings.
It is abundantly clear that the writers of the New Testament had no intention of distancing themselves from the Old Testament. Consider that within the New Testament there are over 295 separate references to the Old Testament. These references occupy some 352 verses of the New Testament, or more than 4.4 per cent. Therefore, one verse in 22.5 per cent of the New Testament is a quotation. As a matter of fact, New Testament scholar Roger Nicole wrote:
“If we limit ourselves to the specific quotations and direct allusions which form the basis of our previous reckoning, we shall note that 278 different Old Testament verses are cited in the New Testament: 94 from the Pentateuch, 99 from the Prophets, and 85 from the Writings. Out of the 22 books in the Hebrew reckoning of the Canon only six (Judges-Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles) are not explicitly referred to.”
Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl. F.H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), pp. 137,151
How could it be that New Testament writers were “unhitching” themselves from the Old Testament when they rely on it for teaching in New Testament churches? Within the first few minutes of reading the New Testament, we see Jesus teaching when the Law will have no more effect:
“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 5:18).
The idea that the Law has no bearing on the life of a disciple today is simply wrong. As a matter of fact, the Pharisees believed Jesus had abandoned the Law and the Prophets given His many healings on the Sabbath. While they were wrong in their understanding of the Sabbath, Jesus’ reply not only embraces the Law, but concentrates the Law into the “love God/love others” formula from which all the “do’s and don’ts” find meaning.
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.Matthew 23:34-40
How can pastors in the church today dismiss the Law as being “Old Testament” when Jesus endorsed it?
Don’t be like the foolish disciples on the Road to Emmaus:
And he [Jesus] said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.Luke 24:25-27, emphasis mine.
Misinformed pastors make the mistake of either confusing the third use of the Law as if we are “under” the Law today (relating to our justification) or dismissing the Law as if it doesn’t relate to us at all. Both positions are equally wrong and incredibly damaging, infringing on our very understanding of who God is and what Jesus has accomplished.
While there will always be new and uninformed Christians who still need to grow in understanding how the Law and the entire Old Testament relate to the life of the disciple today, there is no excuse for an misinformed pastor to teach that the Old Testament has no value today given the clarity of the New Testament as well as the treasured value that the Old Testament played in the life of the early church. It is not merely that we want the entire message of the Old Testament, but that we need it to be healthy, fully-formed disciples of Jesus today.