By Shane Kastler
Many people are taught from an early age to live their life by the Ten Commandments. As children we learn of how God delivered them on tablets of stone to Moses as they met on Mt. Sinai. The Ten Commandments served as a synopsis of the more expansive “Law of Moses” as it’s come to be called. In actuality the Mosaic Law contained over 600 commandments to be followed meticulously. They governed everything from what you could eat to what you could wear; and the Law gave strict decrees as to how lawbreakers were to be punished. Adultery was a capital offense (Lev. 20:10); so was a kid sassing his parents (Deut. 21:18-21) – and both of these types of offenders were to be executed. So is this the same standard Christians live by today? Do we live by a portion of this standard? And if not, why not?
The first fact we must understand is that the Law of Moses was not given to “the world.” Nor to Gentiles, but rather to the children of Israel. (see Romans 3:1-2) In other words it was given to a nation; an ethnic people that existed thousands of years ago. But secondly (and perhaps more importantly) a major part of the New Covenant initiated by Jesus Christ included the “fulfillment” of the Law. (see Matthew 5:17) The New Testament teaches that for Christians the Law of Moses is not binding, nor is it their rule of life. In all honesty, the Law of Moses was never intended to be permanent anyway. It was a temporary epoch in the course of redemptive history. In a sense it was a branch underneath the covenant to Abraham; as Paul articulates in the book of Galatians: “The Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” (Galatians 2:18-19)
Here Paul clearly states that the Law came 430 years after the promise was made to Abraham. And the Law would remain in effect “until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” In other words, the Law was temporary. That “seed” spoken of is Jesus Christ. (Gal. 3:16) Therefore the Law was in effect until Jesus came and fulfilled it. (Matt. 5:17) “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5)
The Law of Moses was not a mistake; but it was temporary. The original promise made to Abraham was that “All the nations of the world shall be blessed through you.” (see Genesis 18:18) This finds its fulfillment in Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ. And in a beautiful description of this fulfillment we read in the last book of the Bible that there are those redeemed (blessed) from “every tongue, tribe, people, and nation.” (Revelation 5:9) It’s truly glorious to behold that God makes a promise to Abraham in the first book of the Bible, fulfills it through Christ as recorded in the gospels, and then speaks of it from an eternal perspective, in the last book of the Bible. God’s glorious plan of redemption is worked out to perfect fulfillment from beginning to end. The Law of Moses exists, not as a permanent judicial code, but as a temporary aspect of God’s perfect plan. Not as the highest expression of God’s standard, but as the synopsis of his “Law” given to Israel under the Old Covenant.
Paul is likewise adamant that justification and righteousness cannot be attained through the Law, but only through Christ: “For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:18-21 NASB)
When Paul writes of “rebuilding” that which had been destroyed he is speaking of the Law. So what he’s saying is that if he were to submit again to the Mosaic Law it would not save or sanctify him, it would only condemn him as a sinner before God. Indeed this was always the intent of the Law anyway. Again, Paul writes: “But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” (Galatians 3:23-25 NASB)
The tutor (or schoolmaster, or guardian) is the Law and its purpose was to show the children of Israel their sin thus driving them to the Savior. But now that “faith” in Christ has come the Jews are no longer under a tutor. They are no longer under the Law. If that is true of Jews, how much more is it true for Gentile believers who never had the Law imparted to them to begin with?
Anyone who has worked on a farm knows that a cattle prod can be a very effective tool for getting a cow to go where you want it to go. By poking, prodding, and whacking the hind end of the cow you can coerce it into the pen. Then from the pen you use the prod to drive him into the chute. Once the cow is secured in the chute, you put the prod away and move on to the next task. The prod was a temporary tool that has fulfilled its purpose. Imagine a cowhand who continued to beat the cow with a prod after it was locked into the chute. We would be aghast at such cruelty. But this is exactly what the Judaizers of Paul’s day were doing to Christians. They were using the prod of the Law to continue to inflict its demands upon Christians, even though the Law’s role as a tool had been completed. Christians today do the same thing when they use the Law as their ultimate code of conduct. They continue to prod the cow, which is already secured in the chute. But the cattle prod of the Law is to be set aside once its job is over.
But what about the Ten Commandments? Is the commandment against adultery and murder, for example, still in effect or is it not? By all means, Christians believe that adultery and murder are still sins before God. But based on the Mosaic code, we might simply ban these two practices from our life and feel that we are living righteously. Yet according to Jesus, that’s not good enough. He elevates both of these commands from the realm of action to the realm of thought. Jesus said if you even think about committing adultery you are guilty because you’ve done it in your heart. And he expanded murder to also include “hatred” of your brother. (see Matt. 5:21-30)
Let me give another example that might be helpful. I am married and have three children. The law in China is that a couple can only have one child. What would I say if someone accused me of breaking the law for having too many kids? What if someone accused me of being in violation of Chinese Law? Regardless of whether or not that law is moral; my primary argument would be: “I don’t live in China and I’m not a resident of China, therefore China’s laws do not apply to me as an American.” The rightness or wrongness of the law is a moot point. It’s simply not a code that I live under since I’m not Chinese. But what if I commit murder instead? Would I go to jail because China also has a law against murder? Of course not. Even though this law is good and righteous, it doesn’t change the fact that Chinese law doesn’t apply to me. I would go to jail because American law also forbids murder. And as an American I live under the jurisdiction of American law. Murder is ultimately a sin because God says that it is. It was a sin before the Law of Moses, (when Cain murdered Abel in Genesis 4); and it’s a sin after the Law of Moses has been fulfilled. Ultimately then, it’s not a sin because it breaks the Mosaic Law, it’s a sin because it breaks God’s Law.
To some this may seem like “splitting hairs” to say murder is ultimately a sin because Jesus (rather than Moses) says that it is. After all, the Law of Moses also came from God. But the Mosaic code of conduct doesn’t apply to New Covenant believers. And if you bind yourself under one Mosaic Law, you are bound under them all. Paul takes one commandment (circumcision) and tells the Galatians that if they submit to it in legalistic fashion, they are obligated to keep the entire Law. “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Galatians 5:3-6) Paul was so adamant about this that he said if they sought justification though the Law it might suggest they weren’t truly converted.
Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding regarding the Ten Commandments as they apply today, can be found in the use of the phrase “Moral Law.” Since Jesus said he had “fulfilled the Law” and Paul was adamant that we are not “under the Law” – no one can argue that the full Mosaic code is in effect. Some then argue that while the civil, ceremonial, and dietary aspects of the Mosaic Law are fulfilled the “Moral” law is still in effect. This argument will be used by some who say we are still under the Ten Commandments, though rest of the Mosaic code is fulfilled and non-binding. The problem with this view is that the Bible nowhere divides the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial. Paul is adamant that the “whole Law” has been fulfilled. Furthermore, when looking at the Ten Commandments, one of those ten (“remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”) would be ceremonial in nature. Some might say it becomes a “moral” law because God commanded it and we must obey it. But then this would also be true of the laws that govern diet and clothing as well. This hairy issue is further complicated by the fact that the New Testament clearly states that the Sabbath is no longer in effect. “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
Christian Sabbatarians would get around this by saying that in the New Covenant, Sunday (rather than Saturday) becomes the “Christian” Sabbath based on the fact that the early church met on “the first day of the week” which they called “the Lord’s day” in honor of the resurrection. But the Bible recording a fact of when the church met; is a far cry from the Bible issuing a command to make that new day “the Sabbath.” Especially when the above passage from Colossians expressly forbids us allowing anyone to “act as our judge” in this matter since the Sabbath was a “shadow” anyway, and the “substance” was Christ. Like many things in the Old Testament the Sabbath was a shadow (or typological picture) of something that finds fulfillment in Christ, who is our true “Sabbath rest.” (see Hebrews 4:10)
In short, anytime you seek to divide the Law into moral, civil, ceremonial, dietary, etc. — you find yourself on the horns of a real dilemma. Would it not be much simpler (and Biblically accurate) to use the language and teaching of Scripture itself; seeing the Law as an entire unit, that was given to the nation of Israel, is fulfilled in the work of Christ, and is non-binding to New Covenant believers?
So if the “Law” cannot justify us, then can it sanctify us? Some of the Puritans of old used to say that Moses would drive us to Christ for salvation, then Christ would send us back to Moses for sanctification. But this very much flies in the face of what Paul repeatedly teaches in his epistles. As Christians there is a spiritual growth process (sanctification) that takes place as we “grow in Christ” not “grow in Moses.” Again, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2-5) Paul asks them, who claimed to be saved by the Spirit’s work, “are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Or as he restates it, do the miracles worked among you come “by works of the Law”? He is speaking here of a spiritual growth process; and he is adamant in his assertion that this spiritual growth takes place by the Spirit’s work, rather than works of the Law. So Paul is delving much deeper than simply initial salvation (justification), but also to the area of spiritual growth (sanctification). If Christ justified and saved you by faith; will he now sanctify you by the Law? Or to state it as the Puritans of old, “does Christ send you back to Moses to be sanctified?” The clear answer from the Scriptures is no. Our growth comes by way of the Spirit as we are conformed to the image of Christ in our conduct. This conforming to Christ is ultimately a work of the Spirit in us, with the result being that we lovingly obey the commands of Christ. (John 14:23-24) So we do not adhere to Mosaic Law to learn to be a Christian. We are made a Christian then have the desire and ability to “take up our cross and follow Jesus” (Luke 9:23-25) thus lovingly obeying him.
With all of this stated, we do have a “law” we live by. Paul wrote that he was “not without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21) and that believers should, “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) As Christians, the code of conduct we live by is given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. This is not an insult to Moses, in fact Moses would himself agree with this concept. When Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, Simon Peter (perhaps unwittingly) sought to elevate these two Old Testament saints who represented the Law and the Prophets, to Christ’s status. Peter offered to make three altars, but was soundly rebuked by the Father who said of Jesus alone: “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him.” (Mark 9:7) In other words, Moses is not your Lord. Elijah is not your Lord. Jesus is your Lord. Since we read of no argument from Moses, we can safely assume he agreed with the Father. Abraham would have also agreed, since Jesus said to the Jews, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)
The Apostle Paul told Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (1 Timothy 3:16-17) What Scripture is this primarily speaking of? The Old Testament, which was the Scriptures Paul primarily, had at the time of his writing. So the Law of Moses is profitable for study by New Covenant believers; but just because all Scripture is “profitable” doesn’t mean it all “applies” in the same way. We can learn a lot by studying God’s dealings with Old Testament Israel. We can see the “weight of sin” and we can study the holiness of God. We can (and should) praise Him that Christ came and fulfilled all righteousness for us and that we are credited with this righteousness through Him. (2 Cor. 5:21) We can read of the Old Testament sacrificial system and marvel at the amazing amount of bloodshed and pain that sin brings. Then marvel even greater that all of those animal sacrifices paid for nothing, but rather symbolically pointed ahead to the true “Lamb of God” who would pay for the sins of his people with his own precious blood. The Old Testament as a whole, and the Law of Moses as a portion of the whole, can teach us much. But we dare not seek to be bound under this Law that was temporary in nature; and not meant to be heaped upon us anyway. Paul rejoiced in the freedom he had in Christ. Not a freedom to sin; but rather a freedom from sin. Not a freedom to live a “lawless” life but rather the freedom to live by the “law of Christ.” The Ten Commandments cannot be said to be the greatest “moral” law that we live by. For our Lord Jesus is greater than Moses; and the teaching of Christ and His apostles govern the conduct of those who rather than being born into the Old Covenant by way of their bloodline; have been “born again” into the New Covenant by way of the Spirit. A covenant that, according to Hebrews is a new and better covenant (Hebrews 7:22) which is based on “better promises” (Hebrews 8:6)
The Old Covenant revealed sin. The New Covenant pays for sin. The Old Covenant was based on inferior promises (as a part of God’s plan); the New Covenant is based on better promises (as a part of God’s plan). The Old Covenant is described as a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7); the New Covenant is a ministry of life. The Old Covenant is now done away with and “vanishing” (Hebrews 8:13); the New Covenant is inaugurated and in full effect. (Matthew 26:26-28) And as Christians we rejoice that we are not under the curse of the Old Covenant; but rather we are free because “Christ became a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13) and fulfilled the Law to perfection. Christ is our Lord and Lawgiver; and he leads us and governs our conduct. But rather than being handed a list of 600 commands, he “writes his law upon our heart” (Jeremiah 31:33) and grants the Holy Spirit to indwell us and guide us. To convict us and to comfort us. As Christians we see the New Testament as containing the highest and most glorious instruction regarding conduct befitting those who are “in Christ.” Our ultimate code of conduct does not emit from Mount Sinai, but rather from “The Sermon on the Mount.” As Christians we are “free from the Law”; not so we can live a life of rampant sin; but rather by God’s grace through Christ we might walk in “newness of life.”
This article was originally published in Kastler’s website, “The Narrow Road”: Blogs by Shane Kastler, July 13, 2013, https://shanekastler.typepad.com/pastor_shanes_blog/2013/06/free-from-the-law-how-christians-relate-to-the-law-of-moses.html.