It has been accepted Protestant doctrine since the Reformation that the Old and New Testaments are equally inspired and authoritative for christians. And so christians almost universally believe we should obey the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Old Testament law – well the moral law, at any rate.
After all, are not the scriptures clear? Jesus said (Matthew 5:17): “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” And the Ten Commandments are sacred.
But there are serious problems with this apparently obvious view.
Problems with applying the OT Law to christians
The biggest problem is that no-one actually obeys the law, or even tries to.
- The law cannot be kept any longer because it is built around the temple, and the temple hasn’t existed for over 19 centuries.
- The distinction between the ‘moral law’ and the ‘ceremonial law’ is an unbiblical one, and cannot easily be made in practice. Both Testaments say that the law cannot be divided but must be considered as a whole – for example the Matthew passage quoted above goes on to say: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
- There are parts of what we might call the ‘moral law’ which no-one would hold to today – for example the treatment of alleged marital unfaithfulness in Numbers 5:11-28 and the death penalty for various forms of sexual promiscuity in Leviticus 20:10-16.
There is no getting around it, the common claim to abide by the Old Testament Law is a pious pretence. Is there a better understanding?
The surprising New Testament teaching
There are a number of passages in the New Testament which show that the Old Testament Law no longer applies to christians:
Jesus taught this, and acted on it:
- The word ‘testament’ can also be translated ‘covenant, and Jesus said he had come to bring a new covenant – Luke 22:20, Hebrews 8:13. This fulfilled several Old Testament prophecies of a new covenant – Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:25-28.
- Jesus said he was bringing the Law to an end – it couldn’t be watered down, but it would be ‘fulfilled’ (which means its purpose was over): “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luke 16:16-17). The ‘Law and the Prophets’ referred to the whole Old Testament, and Jesus says its time was over for those who believe the good news.
- Jesus disobeyed the law on several occasions and argued that we too shouldn’t necessarily literally follow the Old Testament teachings – e.g. on the Sabbath and respect for parents (Luke 6:1-5 and 14:26).
Paul also taught this truth quite clearly:
- In Romans 10:4 he said Jesus was “the culmination of the law” – and ‘culmination’ means ‘end’.
- He said the Law was “our guardian until Christ came”, but now “we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:23-25), a thought reinforced by Galatians 2:18-19.
- Paul says we now under “a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). And in Romans 7:6 he explains this further: “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”.
- And most amazing of all, he says in several places that even parts of the Ten Commandments no longer apply – Romans 7:6-8: “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 …. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’.”. And Colossians 2:16-17 says we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bound be any law about “a Sabbath day”, or other rules for that matter (2:20-21).
The book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit guiding the new christians in letting go of the Old Testament rules – notably Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10 & 11) and the discussion of Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15).
The writer to the Hebrews points out repeatedly that the Old Testament Law is ineffective and superseded: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect)” (Hebrews 7:18-19), “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (10:1) and Jesus “sets aside the first to establish the second” (10:9).
It is quite clear. The Old Testament Law was part of God’s covenant with the Jews, and is not applicable to those of us in the new covenant, which is a covenant of freedom, grace and the Spirit, not the letter of the law.
What about Matthew 5:17 where Jesus says nothing will pass from the law until all is fulfilled?
This passage refutes any thought that we need ‘only’ obey the ‘moral law’ – Jesus says it all stands. The question is, when was “all fulfilled”? I wonder whether he was referring to his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, when the kingdom of God began with power, and the old covenant was superseded. If so, then Jesus’ words here no longer apply to us. Certainly the parallel passage in Luke 16:16-17 makes it clear that the situation was changing, and those who knew they couldn’t obey the Law were being offered an alternative.
But won’t this mean that people will feel free to sin now?
We need to understand that God isn’t looking for people who obey him out of fear, but sons and daughters who follow him out of love. But we are not left without clear guidance, and that guidance is a higher standard than the Law:
- Jesus set higher standards for his followers than those of the Law – on hatred (Matthew 5:21-22), adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32) and treatment of enemies (5:38-48) – so we are not let off lightly!
- Jesus said if we love him we’ll obey his teachings (John 14:15).
- The Holy Spirit will guide us so we will please God (Romans 12:1-2, Colossians 1:9-10).
Doesn’t this teaching denigrate the Old Testament as the Word of God?
The Old Testament was written to the Jewish nation for a period of time before Jesus. It was God’s revelation to them. It still stands as a record of his dealings with them, but it is not the covenant we are under. We do not denigrate it by recognising that.
So where does that leave us?
Thus we are free to pray and decide ‘in the Spirit’ how we should spend the money God has entrusted to us (rather than legalistically give a tithe), how we should spend our Sundays, and other matters on which some christians still try to follow the law.
We are sons and daughters, friends and heirs, not servants (John 15:15, Ephesians 1:5). We have been given a glorious freedom in Jesus (John 8:36) and in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17). Let us not go back into slavery to rules (Galatians 5:1) nor disregard God’s grace (Romans 6:1), but allow the Spirit to guide us into a life of good character and deeds (Galatians 5:16-26). If we love him, we will want to please him out of love.