Old Testament Laws & Christians – What do we obey?

Posted: October 31, 2012 in Christians & Culture, Old Testament, Politics

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In a 2006 speech at a “Call to Renewal” event, senator and soon-to-be President Barack Obama explained to the crowds the difficulty of using the Bible to effect policy. He said, “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?”[1] Although many Christians are uncomfortable at the suggestion of abolishing the influence of the Bible from public policy, they realize the difficulty in understanding how many of these obscure passages of the Mosaic Law relate to followers of Christ today. Many of the laws and regulations written in the first five books of the Bible appear antiquated and odd, yet some are strikingly relevant and obviously true today. Since God inspired the books of the Law, they are obviously important, but how do they apply to us? How are we to determine what is applicable and what is not? Is there even a purpose in reading it?

The Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God, and it is the Christian’s responsibility to understand the Bible as the writers and God himself intended – this includes the Mosaic Law. As with any other portion of Scripture, one must not take a single verse or chapter in isolation, but understand each portion in light of the whole. A framework must be in place from which to interpret the Law. I want to demonstrate that the New Covenant believer is no longer under the Law of Moses but under the Law of Christ; yet, the Mosaic Law still serves the purpose of exposing the character of God and aiding the believer as he pursues a Spirit-guided life of holiness. I must admit that numerous views abound on this topic, but I am convinced this view creates a theological framework that best makes sense of all the Scriptural data.

The Purpose of the Mosaic Law

Before attempting to understand the current application of the Mosaic Law, if any, we must first understand its original purpose. The Mosaic Law, given to the chosen people of God upon their salvation by God from the Egyptians, had a three-fold purpose: (1) to reveal the character of God thereby instructing the people in how they should live, (2) to supervise Israel and point them to Christ, and (3) to imprison Israel and all people under sin.[1]

Revealing the Character of God

The Mosaic Law was a gracious revelation of the character of God to the chosen people of Israel. The Law was never given to save (Gal. 2:16, 3:11), but was given to a people who had been saved from the bondage of their oppressor. At the calling of Abraham, God established a unilateral covenant to raise up a nation that would be his nation – a nation that would be a blessing to the world (Gen. 12:2-3). God birthed this nation, grew them, preserved them, and delivered them from their enemy. It was at this point that God made another covenant with this people, the Mosaic covenant. This bi-lateral covenant spelled out the details of how his people must conduct themselves and relate to him, including blessing for obedience and curses for disobedience. These laws, rules, and regulations were given to reveal the character of God to his chosen people. If God establishes a people for himself and these people are to enter into relationship with him, they must be like him in his moral nature. Leviticus 11:45 says, “I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”[2]

The law serves this very purpose: it reveals the moral qualities of God to the people by showing what he expects from them. As Douglas Moo states, “God’s character is the implied basis for the entire law; in different ways, its various commandments and prohibitions spell out implications of his character for his people Israel.”[3] Each of God’s laws, regardless of their application, revealed something of his character. The many different laws exhibited this in numerous ways. For instance, the ninth commandment about lying shows that God values truth. The dietary and customary laws reveal God’s desire for his people to remain distinct from the pagan nations – a revelation of the God’s holiness. Yet other laws, such as the sacrificial system, show the seriousness of sin and the requirement for blood atonement. In all these various rules and laws, God is revealing his character and his perfect purposes.

Supervising Israel & Pointing to Christ

Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”[4] This is the second primary function of the law – supervising Israel, acting as a tutor until the time of Christ. To fully grasp this concept, one must first realize the entire Bible is a narrative of the history of God bringing about his program of salvation to a lost and perishing people. Before the Mosaic covenant was given, man had fallen into sin, become estranged from God, and God had promised to bring about salvation to the world through the seed of Abraham. But how was this salvation and restoration to God supposed to happen? Why do they need to be restored? What does God require? Here enters the Mosaic covenant and law. For the next one thousand years, God would teach Israel what he is like (his holy character), what is required by him to redeem man (a perfect sacrifice for sin), and who would fulfill this salvation mission (Jesus). From Moses until Christ, God was preparing Israel for the day of salvation. This is why Paul, upon the death and resurrection of Jesus, says in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”

Imprisoning Israel and All People Under Sin

An error often made by many well-meaning Christians is assuming we are sinners because we break God’s law. In fact, the opposite is true; we break God’s laws and sin because we are sinners from birth. The giving of the Mosaic Law showed the sinful condition that already existed in the heart of Israel, and hence all men. Romans 3:20b says, “…through the law we become conscious of sin.” Paul reiterates this thought a few chapters later when he states, “…for before the law was given, sin was in the world.” The giving of the law – the revelation of God’s character and purposes for his people – not only revealed the sinful state of their hearts, but also increased the sins committed. Romans 5:20 says, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” By showing the sinfulness of man and increasing the sins committed, the law placed all men under condemnation so that “every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.”[5] The law confirmed and justified God’s righteous condemnation toward man’s rebellion by exposing the true heart of man – hostility toward the character and will of God. As Moo states, “…Israel’s experience with the law [is] paradigmatic of the experience of all people with God’s “law” in its various forms.”[6]

The Mosaic Law and the Christian

As a Christian living after the resurrection of Christ, how are we to understand and apply the Mosaic Law? What relevance does it have in the life of the believer? As was eluded in the previous section, the Mosaic covenant was an agreement created by God in order to establish the rules of the relationship between him and his people. This is true of any agreement created to govern the relationship between two parties. But now that Christ has come and ushered in the New Covenant of faith in him, we are no longer under the old covenant of Moses. As Paul says in Galatians 3:25, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” Christ has come and fulfilled the entire law – every part of it (Matt. 5:17). Not only did Jesus meet its every moral and sacrificial demand, but his teachings summarized and surpassed that of the law as well. He met all of these demands, releasing men from their obligation. As it says in Colossians 2:14, “…having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” Christians are no longer supervised by this old covenant but abide under a new one, a covenant of grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Heb. 8:6).

Does God Change?

At this point, many holding to a view of continuity between the Old and New Covenants will charge this view with being unorthodox regarding the unchanging character of God. For Malachi 3:6 says, “I the Lord do not change.” Willem VanGemeren argues, “…I conclude that God’s will has not changed and that the moral law (the Decalogue) is a summary of his will.”[7] If the Old Covenant, with its laws and regulations, is done away, does this jeopardize the immutability of God? Orthodox Christianity affirms that God is eternally unchanging in his character. His purposes and will were established from eternity past and shall not be changed. But this certainly does not imply that he has not purposed different means of dealing with his people according to his eternal will. He ordained the temple, but now Christ is the meeting place of God. He imposed dietary laws but later declared all foods clean. The advent of Christ certainly brought about numerous changes, yet the character and eternal will of God remained unchanged. Therefore, this charge is most certainly unwarranted.

Is the Law Divided?

Popular among many Christians as well as Covenant theologians such as VanGemeren and Greg Bahnsen, is the claim that one can divide up the Mosaic Law into three distinct categories: moral law, ceremonial law, and judicial law. VanGemeren holds that the moral law remains binding upon all believers while the ceremonial and judicial law was applicable only to the nation of Israel before the coming of Christ.[8] But where is the Biblical support for such categories. There is nothing in the Torah that indicates the Jews ever knew of any such distinction. VanGemeren himself says, “I agree that the ‘hallowed theological’ traditional distinctions in the Mosaic Law (moral, ceremonial, civil) do not derive from the law itself.”[9] Even the New Testament writers themselves never acknowledge such a distinction. They discuss why certain portions of the law are no longer relevant (e.g. the sacrificial system), but they never once imply the continuation of certain divisions of the Mosaic covenant. If the covenant were to be divided and “reapplied,” certainly we would expect an extensive discussion by Paul on the specifics, yet he is silent.

What About the Moral Aspects of the Law?

What about the “moral law” of the Mosaic covenant? Is it binding up Christians? Does it apply to Christians? To begin, one must first understand what is meant by moral law. For the Israelites, the entire law had moral implications since the entire law was to be kept. Secondly, since the entire law reveals God’s character, the entire law is moral in nature. All law, by definition, makes a distinction between a right action and a wrong one. Yet, VanGemeren suggests that the moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments and that this law represents the basic moral character that is binding upon Christians today.[10] Although the Decalogue does reveal the moral character of God as does the entirety of the law, this view has an obvious weakness, the Sabbath. If the Decalogue is binding up Christians as God’s eternal moral law, does this imply that Christians are obligated to keep the Sabbath as a holy day of rest? If the Sabbath is not binding upon the Christian, this undermines the claim that the Decalogue is God’s eternal moral law for all people.

Two points should be made regarding the Sabbath. First, the Jewish Sabbath, as instructed in the Mosaic Law, was on Saturday, the seventh day. Yet, after the resurrection of Christ, the entire church quit observing the Sabbath and began meeting on the first day of the week to worship and honor Christ for his death and resurrection (Acts 20:7). Many have claimed that the first day of the week is the new Sabbath, but A.T. Lincoln rightly points out, “What criterion allows them to isolate the seventh day aspect, which after all is at the heart of the commandment and its rationale, as a temporary feature belonging only to the Mosaic period, while retaining the remainder of the Decalogue as normative for all ages?”[11] Secondly, Paul himself says in Colossians 2:16-17,” Therefore do not let anyone judge you…with regard to…a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that are to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” As Lincoln states, “That Paul without any qualification can relegate Sabbaths to shadows certainly indicates that he does not see them as binding and makes it extremely unlikely that he could have seen the Christian first day as a continuation of the Sabbath.”[12] Christians worship on the first day of the week because we are under a new covenant, a covenant that was inaugurated by the resurrection of our Lord on the first day of the week. Our true and final Sabbath rest is in him (Heb. 4:9-10).

Conclusion – What To Do As A Christian

Does the Mosaic Law have any application for the believer? Does the stance taken here imply that the Christian is without law as some would charge? As eluded, the Mosaic Law is applicable to the believer insofar as it reveals the character of God and helps him/her conform his life to that holy character. But this law is not binding upon Christians as it was upon the Israelites. We may obey many of the moral commands of the Mosaic Law, but our obedience is not in virtue of their being in the Mosaic Law proper, but because the laws are a reflection of God’s unchanging character. These moral laws would show up in any law given by God to any people, at any time, and at any place. God’s character has never changed, therefore his moral demands have never changed, but the nature of progressive revelation allows for changes in the application of God’s demands (e.g. Sabbath, sacrificial system, dietary laws, etc.). One may look at the Mosaic covenant, just as one may look at any other portion of God’s working in history, for a greater understanding of the character and moral demands of God. But as Christians, we are not under this old legislation, but under a New Covenant – a covenant that places even greater demands upon the follower of God. Jesus summed up these demands well when he said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself.”[13]

Jordan Tong


[1] Douglas Moo, “A Modified Lutheran View,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 324

[2] All Scripture verses are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

[3] Douglas Moo, Law and Gospel, 355

[4] Galatians 3:24

[5] Romans 3:19

[6] Douglas Moo, Law and Gospel, 341

[7] Willem VanGemeren, “The Non-Theonomic Reformed View” in Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 378

[8] Ibid., 53

[9] Ibid., 379

[10] Ibid., 53

[11] A.T. Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999), 355

[12] Ibid., 368

[13] Mark 10:30-31


[1] The speech transcript was copied form the “beliefnet” website: http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/11/obamas-historic-call-to-renewa.html

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