The Christian law

In many of my discussions with Christians, the topic of the Mosaic law comes up. The Mosaic law contains everything from the Ten Commandments to the prohibition of clothing composed of more than one fabric, and the putting to death of adulterers and gays.

Inevitably, questions arises concerning who the Mosaic law applies to, and whether it should be considered obsolete, or even immoral. In this essay, I search the Bible for answers to these questions.

To provide a quick overview of the essay, I will first present the conclusions I reached after conducting the study. Note that when I speak about the “law”, it should be assumed that I’m referring to the Mosaic law.

1. The law was originally intended for the Israelites and, by extension, all Jews.

2. While the old covenant is tied to the law, rejection of the old covenant does not necessarily require rejection of the law.

3. The new covenant does not render the law immoral, and it may not (depending on where one looks in the Bible) render it obsolete.

4. Jesus and the Apostles do not present an entirely cohesive message regarding the law. In some places they command that it be followed, and in others they reject it.

5. Despite this lack of consistency, the pervading message seems to be the following: obedience to the law, whether by Jew or gentile, is commendable, and even leads to reward in heaven, but it is not required for salvation.

What, then, can we say about Christians who deny that the barbaric and sometimes arbitrary customs laid out in the Mosaic law apply to them? We can say that they are right in at least one sense: adherence to these laws is not required for salvation.

But is it morally good to follow the law? Just about every Biblical reference to the law is consistent with an answer in the affirmative: adherence to the law is commendable, even if it is not required for salvation.

Indeed, the only message that contradicts this conclusion is given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where he rejects small parts of the law. However, this is the same sermon in which he claims that adherence to the smallest letter of the law will be met with great reward. It is up to each Christian to resolve this contradiction for herself.

Here, then, are links to the rest of the essay, which attempts to provides Biblical support for the above conclusions.

Part 1: The prophets

Part 2: Jesus the law keeper

Part 3: Jesus the law breaker

Part 4: The apostolic law keepers

Part 5: The apostolic law breakers

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4 Responses to The Christian law

  1. RuediG says:

    Working myself through your essay as I find time… My first responses to this section:

    The “law” may be too general a way to approach the topic. Theologians distinguish between cultic, civil, and moral laws of the OT, which keeps them from making overly sweeping generalizations later.

    A second thought: “required for salvation” may not be a characteristic that is relevant to the question whether Christians should keep the law. The main undercurrent of christian moral theology is that we do what is right because we want to, not because we have to. Love, not law, is what motivates us.

    A third thought: It’s important to remember that the bible was written for the people of God, not as a generic manual for the world. (This may also address your reply about how to read the bible: Christians have thought long and hard about what is the most coherent reading closest to the bible’s intent. When they read it in a certain way, it’s not because they are prejudiced, but because they have thought about it’s stated intents, one of the major ones being that it was written for God’s people, not for everybody.)

    A fourth thought (which I’ll have to calibrate against future sections when I get to them): If we try to make the bible answer questions that it did not intend to answer, we end up with really weird stuff (like “scientific” answers in Genesis 1), centuries of disagreement (like the Calvinist/Arminian dispute about predestination/free will), or just draw a blank (such as the answer to the question what OT law contributes to modern jurisprudence.)

    • kpharri says:

      Hi Ruedi

      Thanks for your comments. Here are some initial responses
      :
      1. If the “law” is too general a way to approach the topic, this is only because the Bible itself does little to indicate any subdivisions. Theologians may have extra-biblical sources that give them clues as to subdivisions of the law intended implicitly by the Biblical authors, but these aren’t visible in the Bible itself. This means that everyday Bible-reading Christians can’t be expected to be aware of them.

      2. I agree with your assessment of motivation for moral behavior, and I don’t think it’s incompatible with my conclusions. i.e., the law is no longer a requirement for salvation, so motivation for good behavior must come from some other source.

      3. The idea that the Bible was written for the people of God is a bit confusing to me. Do you mean Jews? The NT message does not actually seem to be directed purely at Jews, though, so what extra group are you thinking about? It seems to me that “gentiles” pretty much covers anyone who is not a Jew (the Wikipedia definition backs this up, for what it’s worth). Perhaps I should ask, who is *not* included in the people of God, and why not? Finally, could you let me know which scriptures actually state that the Bible, as a whole, is intended only for God’s people, and who these people are? Certainly it’s clear that the OT is directed at Jews alone, but I see no such distinction in the NT.

      4. I agree that we can’t ask questions of the Bible that it was never intended to answer. However, most Christians tend to claim that the Bible provides, at the very least, their guide to morality. It doesn’t seem to be asking too much, then, to query the Bible regarding what this morality is, and who it is intended for. If the Bible cannot answer these simple questions, then I think all Christians should be thinking seriously about why they regard the Bible as their personal source of morality!

      • RuediG says:

        Keith,
        to point 1, the generic law: Maybe common sense is extra-biblical, but it’s sufficient to see the basic distinctions between how to offer a sacrifice to God, how to value a piece of property, and how to respect someone else’s property. And yes, everyday Bible-reading Christians are expected to be aware of them. For example, the letter to the Hebrews is not about property valuation, and the sermon on the mount is not about offering sacrifices to God. Christians should be and often are proficient with those kinds of basic distinctions.
        As for the people of God, this was “the jews” until Jesus’ time. He obliterated the distinction jew/gentile, and nowadays, the people of God are all the followers of Christ. Does the bible say that? I think the testimony to that effect is overwhelming: the prophets spoke to the people of God, the evangelists wrote for the people of God, the epistle writers wrote for christian brothers, etc. IOW, anytime the NT specifies the intended readers (which it does frequently, it talks about the followers of Christ.
        As for biblical morality for christians, I did not say that the bible is not providing that. And as such, christians can and should carry their personal morality into the secular market place of ideas, just like everyone else does. But that’s very different from faulting the bible for not providing a definitive blueprint for everybody.
        Ok, on to some other posts of yours.

  2. kpharri says:

    Thanks Ruedi

    It does seem to be the case that, overall, the Sermon on the Mount is not about making sacrifices to God. Yet Jesus does exhort his listeners to follow the law to the smallest letter, so presumably he is including everything, including sacrificial laws, in these words. Otherwise, the phrase “follow the law to the smallest letter” just doesn’t make sense.

    And I agree that the “people of God” can reasonably be interpreted as those who follow Christ. In other words, once you have decided to follow Christ, the Bible becomes your guide to moral living.

    I look forward to your other comments.

    Keith

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