This is the fourth part of my essay on the Christian law.
Although it is never stated in the New Testament that the law is required for salvation, the law is nonetheless portrayed, in several cases, as important and relevant, rather than obsolete.
The author of Hebrews comes closest to supporting the old law by including the quote from Jeremiah given earlier in this essay:
But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.
For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. […] I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.” (Hebrews 8:6-10.)
(As mentioned in my discussion of the prophets, we cannot be completely sure that Jeremiah is referring to the Mosaic law, even though it seems like a reasonable inference to make.)
In one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he quotes part of the law in support of the point he is trying to make:
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”[Deuteronomy 25:4] Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
The law about muzzling oxen is a metaphor “written for us”, says Paul.
In Acts, followers of Paul tell him that false reports are circulating about his attitude to Jews. In particular, the reports claim that Paul is encouraging Jews to “turn away from Moses” (Acts 21:21). Paul’s followers are clearly concerned by what they see as false reporting. They invite him to take part in a traditional purification rite so that the people can see that these reports are false. Then, his followers (including James) say:
…everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. (Acts 21:24-25.)
It seems important to Paul’s followers to let everyone know that he follows the law. Interestingly, the above scripture also indicates that Paul’s followers are encouraging gentiles to observe some parts of the law. Indeed, a few chapters earlier in Acts, we see James saying almost exactly the same thing (Acts 15:19-21).
We must remember, though, what Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. (1 Corinthians 9:19-21.)
Paul is admitting to the rather unscrupulous strategy of adopting whatever cultural practices the people around him take part in, in order to curry favor and win converts. We cannot conclude, then, that the purification rite reported in Acts was conducted out of genuine respect for the law.
Nonetheless, we see Paul supporting the law again later in Acts, during his trial before a local governor (Felix). After denying the charges against him, Paul says
However, I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. (Acts 24:14-15.)
Then, in Romans, Paul supports the law once again, saying
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) (Romans 2:12-15.)
Obedience to the law, then, will be regarded as righteous in God’s sight.
Later in the same chapter, Paul berates the Jews for failing to keep the laws they teach. He says
You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? (Romans 2:23.)
So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. (Romans 2:26-27.)
In the next chapter of Romans, Paul states that the faith of the new covenant does not nullify the law:
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:29-31.)
Still later in Romans, Paul uses Jesus’ argument that the command to love one another fulfills the law:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10.)
James makes a similar argument, but goes further, advising Christians to keep the “whole law”:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:8-11.)
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul discusses the covenant of circumcision. As already noted, he suggests that the introduction of the Mosaic law did not replace this early promise. Rather, the law was given because of the transgressions of the people. He then says:
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. (Galatians 3:21-22.)
Here we see that while Paul does not command Christians to follow the law, he does regard the law as consistent with the “promises of God”. This highlights an important point: nowhere in the Bible is the old law deemed immoral. Consider Paul’s words from Romans 7. First, he claims that the old law is no longer binding:
But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6)
But then he makes it clear that the law still has worth:
What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12.)
Thus, while the law is no longer binding, it nonetheless remains holy. Paul says much the same thing in his letter to Timothy:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17.)
In other words, the law is still a useful guideline for living, even if it is not strictly necessary for salvation.
The next part of this essay.
The previous part of this essay.
The introduction to this essay.