How do Christians Approach the Law?

How do Christians Approach the Law?

If the ceremonial and civil/judicial laws are no longer binding, why are there so many in Scripture?  Paul makes clear that the entire Old Testament was written for our benefit (Romans 15:4).  In truth, these laws are useful to Christians because there are uses of the law other than obedience.  The Law restrains sin and promotes righteousness, brings about conviction of sin by showing us we cannot meet its requirements, and informs the way Christians are to live.[3]  This means that when we read the ceremonial and civil laws, we must see them as more than laws.  The entirety of the Law exists to teach us who God is and who we are as well as point us to Christ. 

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?

-Deuteronomy 10:12-13, ESV

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

-2 Timothy 3:14-17, ESV

Recently, I read through the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) in my morning quiet times.  This is the part of the Bible where reading plans often die.  While there are many fascinating stories throughout Genesis and the first half of Exodus, the majority of the rest of the Pentateuch lays out the Mosaic Law.  Following the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the rest of Exodus contains various laws that begin to establish the Jewish religious and civil code along with very specific instructions on how the Tabernacle and everything in it is to be made.  Leviticus then lays out the rest of the Jewish religious law.  Numbers gives the rest of the Jewish legal code amid various stories of Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. Deuteronomy retells the Law to a new generation as they prepare for their conquest of the land. If we are honest, we must admit that these laws can get a little bit tedious and not a little bit uncomfortable, leading us to all but avoid them. Even if we don’t avoid them, what do we do with them?

Of the numerous laws found in the Pentateuch, there are many that even the most devout Christians do not follow.  We eat bacon, wear blended fabrics, and lend money at interest.  We don’t observe the Passover, execute rebellious children, or sacrifice animals.  Yet we will point to parts of the Mosaic Law to argue against abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, extramarital sex, and various other topics, as I did in a previous post.  Are we arbitrarily picking and choosing which parts of the God’s Law we follow, as is so often charged against us?

The Types of Laws

Clearly, there are some Old Testament laws that we follow and others that we do not.  But we are by no means arbitrary in how we determine which laws to follow.  Many Christians use the New Testament as the standard for identifying which laws are still binding.  They hold that if an Old Testament law is repeated in the New Testament, that means that it is still binding, while the laws that are not repeated are not binding on Christians.  While it is certainly true that the laws repeated in the New Testament are still binding, we cannot immediately conclude that a law is not binding just because it is not repeated in the New Testament.  Instead, we identify which laws are still binding by which type of laws we are dealing with.  As I discussed in a previous post, there are three types of laws: moral, ceremonial, and civil/judicial. [1]

Moral laws are rooted in God’s unchanging nature and are thus binding on all people worldwide and across all of time.  All of the Ten Commandments are part of the moral law, as well as commands accompanied by statements like “I am the LORD” or that reference the prohibited activity as an abomination.  These moral laws are often not only repeated in the New Testament but actually expanded.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus extends the prohibition against murder to include hate and adultery to include lust, thus making the standard to which Christians are held even more stringent than the Mosaic Law.  This means that even some things that were allowed under the Mosaic Law are not allowed for Christians (more on that later).  Regardless, any moral law is still in effect regardless of whether it is repeated in the New Testament or not.  Therefore, prohibitions against abortion (a form of murder), homosexuality, extramarital sex, and identifying as a gender clearly inconsistent with biology are part of the moral law and therefore just as binding on Christians today as they were on Jews over three thousands of years ago.

The ceremonial laws deal with the sacrifices, festivals, rituals, and cleanliness standards of the Jewish religion.  In addition to sacrifices and festivals, the restrictions on diet and clothing material are part of the ceremonial law.  The ceremonial law pointed to Christ and was thus fulfilled completely by His life, death, and resurrection such as to make them no longer binding on Christians.  Large sections of Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians as well as almost the entirety of Galatians and Hebrews are devoted to how Christ has fulfilled the ceremonial law: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).  As discussed in the last post, Jesus explicitly did away with both the dietary laws (Mark 7:19) and the separation between Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 28:19, Acts 10:28) that were major topics in the ceremonial law.  When Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn, signifying that the separation between God and His people had been removed by Christ’s perfect atonement, therefore eliminating the need for further sacrifices.  The Temple was ultimately destroyed in 70 A.D. in large part to show that the ceremonial law had been completely fulfilled by Christ and thus replaced by Him as the mediator between God and man.

Finally, civil laws apply the moral law to the specific context of theocratic Israel, so those specific laws have not been binding since Israel ceased to be a theocratic nation, even while the moral laws that undergird them are just as binding today as they were then.  The regulations on slavery, execution of rebellious children, and prohibition of charging interest (along with most of the other laws that we find uncomfortable) are all civil laws that are not binding on Christians.  These were specific to the context of ancient Israel and must be viewed with that context in mind.  Therefore, if Christians were to come to power in any nation today (much as the Puritans did for a short time in Mid-Seventeenth Century England), it would be improper for them to use the civil laws of the Mosaic Law as the law of the land.  Instead, they would be wise to examine how the civil laws of Israel applied the moral laws to Israel’s specific context and use that to inform how they might apply the moral laws to their own context.  Therefore, Christians are selective in obeying Old Testament laws, but not arbitrarily selective.  We follow moral laws (which are still applicable to everyone), do not follow ceremonial laws (which were completely fulfilled in Christ), and use the civil laws as an example of how to apply the moral laws to our specific context.

What of Difficult Laws?

Even if they are no longer binding, some of the civil laws have a tendency to make modern Western readers quite uncomfortable.  From our modern perspective, laws allowing slavery, forced marriage, and execution of rebellious children while banning interracial marriage certainly seem cruel and oppressive. This can lead us to question why a loving God would include them in His Law.  While it is impossible to fully know God’s reasoning for including such laws in Scripture—since the secret things belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29)—there is still much that we can glean from Scripture to help us understand them.  These laws are difficult to understand, so it would be tempting to simply ignore them, but they are important to consider since these laws are often used by opponents of Christianity to make both the Bible and its divine Author seem cruel and oppressive.  This should not be surprising, as David says:

With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.  For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.

-Psalms 18:25-27, ESVnone

Peter would later say that wicked and unstable people twist such difficult passages to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).  For them, these laws are convenient evidence with which to undermine the authority of Scripture and charge God with being cruel and vindictive.  More concerning is that these laws can cause genuine Christians to doubt the goodness of God.  To address this, we must view these laws in their original context.  When we do, even people with no expertise in ancient legal codes (like me) can see that these laws are not cruel and oppressive. Let’s look briefly at a few of them:

  • Slavery: The form of slavery allowed in the Mosaic Law is very different from the form of slavery practiced in the Americas.  It was heavily regulated, temporary, and ultimately a form of welfare (Exodus 21:1-27, Leviticus 25:39-40).  In fact, the slavery practiced in the Americas would have been slave trading, which was a capital offense in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24:7).

  • Executing Rebellious Sons: While we would consider it extreme to execute a rebellious child, we must remember that the ancient Near East had a much higher regard for elders in general and parents in particular than we do (to our detriment).  The Mosaic Law regarding rebellious sons in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 actually preserved the rights and dignity of the son by requiring parents to first exhaust all other forms of discipline and that the magistrates would have the final say whether execution was appropriate.

  • Interracial Marriage:  It is clear from context that the laws seeming to prohibit interracial marriage are not against mixing ethnicities but religions (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).

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