Approximately thirty-five hundred years ago, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai and soon after, other commandments followed. These together formed what is called the Mosaic Law. It consisted of six hundred and thirteen laws (or commandments) that were both positive (“you should”) and negative (“you should not”) and are contained in the first five books of the Old Testament – also called the Torah (meaning “instruction” or “law”). These laws ranged from prohibitions against stealing, murder and sexual perversion to cleanliness (or hygienic) laws to dietary laws (which meats were not fit for human consumption) and last to priestly laws that governed the tabernacle worship and offerings. Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus Christ came in fulfillment of many prophesies in the Old Testament as a practicing Jew (abiding by the Mosaic Law). Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill the Law, but not abolish it (Matthew 5:17), but in what sense did “fulfill” mean? Paul stipulated that Christ is the end (telos) of the Law (Romans 10:4), but does this mean the Law no longer applies to Christians or something else?
In the history of the church, many have tried to answer this question. Does the entire Mosaic Law now apply to the Christian, including the moral, ceremonial and civil aspects, or does none of it apply? Or is it possible to relegate portions of the Law to the past (Israel) and only apply some subset? If so, how does one biblically support this? Is it even acceptable to break out the Mosaic Law into the distinctions of moral, ceremonial and civil (i.e. what do the writers of the Old and New Testament presume about the composition of the Law)?
The stance that one takes on this issue has relevance for the church in at least three areas. First, the essential doctrine of justification may be affected by how one approaches or answers this question. Second, there is an impact on what is considered sanctification for the believer’s life (e.g. is it appropriate to follow the Sabbath command as a follower of Christ?). Third, the solution that ones chooses will typically place you in a theological system, in fact the different views on Law and Gospel have resulted in divergent theological systems (e.g. Theonomic, Dispensational, Reformed, etc.).[i]
Although this topic warrants much more space, I will briefly examine the biblical evidence for the application of the Mosaic Law to the life of the Christian. First, I will outline the criteria that any framework chosen should conform to, which will narrow down some possible options. Next, I will address the appropriateness of breaking the Mosaic Law into three distinctions of moral, ceremonial and civil. Third, the purpose of the Mosaic Law will be investigated to shed some light on what aspects may have been particular to the nation of Israel. Fourth, I will give my opinion as to where the evidence points and then briefly address two core passages to support this view. Last, I will address one passage of Scripture that seemingly opposes my conclusion.
First, there are important criteria in approaching this problem (and subsequent solution) that will help in determining solutions that are viable. One assumption is that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. Although this may be obvious to some, if this criterion is eliminated, many more views could result that are not consistent with Scripture and deemed heretical to orthodox Christianity. A second criterion is that the solution must be consistent philosophically, i.e. the solution must be coherent. For instance, you cannot say the whole law is applicable to the Christian, yet not explain why ceremonial or civil laws are not (since they are not directly repealed in the New Testament). Or, on the flip side, you cannot say that none of the Law is applicable to the Christian, yet have no response to why bestiality is still wrong (since it is not repeated in the New Testament). Somehow passages that seem opposed to each other must be reconciled in the solution (because of these first criteria) – at the same time avoiding relativism without justification. The solution must also be consistent philosophically with God as moral Lawgiver who is intelligent, eternal and unchanging.[ii]
A third criterion is that the solution must be in harmony with the practice of the early church. Presumably, while the apostles were still alive and for the first couple generations of the church, you would expect their practices to be consistent with the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Related to this criterion is the fact that Jesus (as God) would be the ultimate source for knowledge of progressive revelation pertaining to whether certain commands had been abrogated (or if nothing had changed). Jesus as Lord takes precedence over Moses.
With these three criteria in mind, there are two lines of argument that will eliminate some possible solutions. For one, the New Testament writers specifically tell us that some of the Mosaic Law does not apply to the life of the Christian. In Acts 15, the early church contained some who wished to put the Mosaic Law (specifically circumcision) upon the new Gentile believers. In verse 10, Peter reminded the Jews that their fathers were unable to bear the “yoke” of the law, so why should they put this “yoke” upon the Gentiles. Paul also argued against circumcision in I Corinthians 7:19, when he stated, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” Peter also had a vision earlier (Acts 10) of a large sheet containing the unclean animals, and a voice told him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” Paul also confirmed this in Romans 14:1-12 and Colossians 2:16-17. In other Pauline passages, it is clear that the Christian is no longer under the law (or at least some portions of it). In I Corinthians 9:20, Paul stated that he is no longer “under the law” and in Ephesians 2:15 Paul claimed that Christ abolished the law with its commandments and regulations. It is evident that there is some discontinuity between the Mosaic Law and the life of the Christian.
Many of the approaches to the problem of Law and Gospel appeal to different categories of Mosaic Law. The typical method is to separate the laws into moral, ceremonial, and civil. The moral laws are those that are unchanging, based upon God’s character and apply to all people. These are determined by picking out the apodictic laws in form (“you shall” or “you shall not”). This would include the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial laws are changeable, foreshadow Christ (and his work) and were for Israel specifically. These include the priestly duties, such as offerings and sacrifices, ritual purity and festivals. Last, the civil laws are categorized as changeable and the outworking of the ceremonial/moral laws for Israel. These would include passages that address matters such as lending money or a cloak to another.
Although these distinctions make sense philosophically, this approach cannot be supported biblically. Both Old and New Testament writers make no distinction between the different laws – in fact they refer to the Mosaic Law as one unit, not something that can be broken apart (e.g. James 2:10). Israel itself had no option to ignore one of the categories of the law (Leviticus 26:14-15, Deuteronomy 11:1). Paul was patently clear in Galatians 5:3, that if someone wished to be circumcised, then they were obligated to the whole law with no distinction to certain categories of law. Some counter with Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees (Matthew 23:23) for neglecting more important matters of the law as evidence for these distinctions, but this only demonstrates that there is a hierarchy of objective moral truths (graded absolutism).[iii] Moreover, it would be a categorical mistake to interpret Jesus as advocating arbitrary divisions in the law.
What becomes even stickier (for the distinctions of Mosaic Law) is that the Ten Commandments are difficult to declare moral law without adjustments. For instance, the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:12) promised “that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you,” yet when Paul re-applied this commandment to the Christian reader, he universalized it to “that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Ephesians 6:2-3).[iv] An even more difficult problem with this approach is how to handle the Sabbath Commandment. There is no evidence that Jesus abrogated this commandment, and Paul refused to dogmatize one way or the other (but left this up to the individual – cf. Colossians 2:16). For those wishing to keep the fourth commandment and transfer this day instead to Sunday, I would refer the reader to the book From Sabbath To Lord’s Day for a biblical, historical and theological investigation to demonstrate that there is “no justification from the New Testament or from the early church writings for any continuity that would include the necessity of abstinence from work and of physical rest on the Lord’s Day.”[v] So unless an approach advocates Sabbatarian theology, even the Ten Commandments demonstrate discontinuity to the life of a Christian and the need to address the Mosaic Law as a unity that either applies or does not apply to the Christian directly. In other words, it is difficult to apply a subset of the Mosaic Law to the Christian.
(I will discuss a possible solution in my next blog)
[i] Wayne G. Strickland, in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), 230.
[ii] Only a few of God’s attributes, but important ones in determining a solution that is consistent with a God who does not change through time and has morality grounded in his being. Imagine a contingent being, which would allow God to change between the Old Testament and New Testament. Or imagine a god who does not have morality grounded in him (Allah) and can do whatever he likes.
[iii] For instance, if German soldiers came to your door during WWII with intentions to murder the Jews you have hidden in your house, you would be morally obligated to lie to them. This is because murder is higher than lying in an objective moral hierarchy.
[iv] Douglas J. Moo, in Five Views on Law and Gospel, 337.
[v] A.T. Lincoln, in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation, ed. D.A. Carson (Eugene, Oregon: Wiph and Stock Publishers, 1999), 394.