The apostolic law keepers

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.


5 Responses to The apostolic law keepers

  1. RuediG says:

    Not sure how you get “Hebrews comes closest to supporting the old law”, considering that it states “if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant…”? And then goes on to state that the problem was that the old law was external to people, rather than in their minds on hearts.
    As for the commandments from Acts to the Gentiles, the cultural issue was not so much that Gentiles needed to keep the jewish law (which Paul is adamant – no, they don’t!) as to keep them separate from the gentile pagan practices and the desire not to have separate wings of one church – a jewish wing, and a gentile wing.
    Much of your discussion has to do with the “moral law”, which obviously is still in force – no murder, no adultery, etc. But in all, “love” covers it. So yes, in that sense, the law is still valid, and does provide a useful (and, as love, an obligatory) guideline for those who want to live their lives in line with what Jesus taught.

  2. kpharri says:

    Thanks for the comments Ruedi.

    “Not sure how you get “Hebrews comes closest to supporting the old law”, considering that it states “if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant…”? And then goes on to state that the problem was that the old law was external to people, rather than in their minds on hearts.”

    I have tried to be careful throughout the essay to distinguish between covenants (promises) and laws, because I don’t see any good a priori reason to conflate them. So, while the old covenant (the deal God struck with his people) is widely rejected by every New Testament writer, the law that was part of this covenant is not.

    What *is* being rejected is the idea that followers of Christ are required to follow the law in order to be saved. But they can, however, still follow the law if they wish to avoid being the “least in heaven”.

    In the same fashion, the idea that the old law was external to people, rather than in their minds, is a problem with the old covenant, not with the law itself. Jeremiah sees the new covenant as a state in which the old law will be made more permanent, not destroyed.

    As before, I agree that the “love” umbrella is intended as a useful heuristic to the people, but once again, this does not involve the rejection of any specific laws, it simply provides a rule of thumb for following the spirit of the law. (Whether the entire law actually does reflect the idea of love is, I think, debatable.)

    Finally, it would be nice to think of Paul and the other apostles as referring only to those parts of the law which we, in our modern societies, think of as moral. Unfortunately, though, there seems little in the way of Biblical support for this view. As I suggested previously, the authors tend simply to talk about the “law”, without saying which pieces of it they have in mind.

    • RuediG says:

      “the authors tend simply to talk about the “law”, without saying which pieces of it they have in mind”
      Yes, and no. Yes, because they don’t come out and explain “Now see, there is a cultic law, and that’s been reframed into different rules.” (Which it has, to something like “worship in spirit and in truth, not on this or that mountain with this or that sacrifice.”
      No, because in the context the make it very clear. The use “law” as an umbrella term, but then they go on to talk about one specific type (“the blood sacrifice of bulls and goats…”), or another type (“Thou shalt not murder, …”), etc.
      It is also important to note that in the OT, the law was not exclusively thought of as a means to salvation, as opposed to the NT. Read, for example, Psalm 51: It’s all about being saved and safe because of God’s undeserved mercy toward the rightfully condemned murderer/adulterer David. Not that different from the NT… Paul just makes the connection clearer when he says that the law was unable to save us because we are unable to keep it. The law may be an outflow of God’s holiness, but that’s a standard we cannot measure up to. The law was a tutor, using its rules to guide us toward maturity, but once we were mature, the tutor had nothing left to add. So ultimately, the law shows us that God’s that it all depends and always has depended on God’s mercy/grace.
      (Incidentally, this was a major discovery for dispensationalists a few decades ago – they had had the habit of talking about an old covenant of law vs a new covenant of grace, forgetting that under either covenant, only undeserved mercy restores our relationship with God.)

  3. kpharri says:

    Thanks Ruedi. Just two quick counter-responses:

    “…in the OT, the law was not exclusively thought of as a means to salvation”

    Good point. The original covenant didn’t technically offer the people an afterlife in heaven if they followed the law. Instead, it simply offered them a prosperous, blessed existence in the holy land. However, salvation is not a big theme in the OT, probably because the concept of the afterlife is not yet fully developed. What the old covenant promised, then, was God’s blessing – his stamp of approval. That, to me, seems approximately equivalent to the NT idea of salvation.

    That said, I will revisit this issue in detail and make amendments to the essay where necessary.

    “The law was a tutor, using its rules to guide us toward maturity, but once we were mature, the tutor had nothing left to add.”

    I’m not sure this analogy holds. If we were never able to follow the law, then surely this “tutor” was not particularly successful at teaching us anything? Rather, we failed to take to its teachings, and it had to be scrapped. Reading what the Bible has to say about the old covenant, it comes across more as a miserable failure than a successful exercise in maturation.

    Perhaps what the people of Israel *did* get from it, is a realization that their behavior was nowhere near the standard required by their god. I could see such a realization leading to a more mature view of self.

    • RuediG says:

      Keith, I think your last two paragraphs summarize it: The law was not a tutor that led us to behave perfectly (or it would indeed have been a huge failure.) It was a tutor that helped us understand who God is and what his standards are, and that our behavior – past, present, and future – is nowhere near that standard.

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