Against the Law
Much of what I write is driven by concerning patterns I observe within the Church that need to be corrected by Scripture. And these days, there seems to be a popular, yet unbiblical, trend within American evangelicalism of believing that Christians should “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament and, more specifically, from the Law of God within the Old Testament.
Some say our ethical standard comes solely from the commands of the New Testament. Some say we can toss the Law out because we are no longer “under” the Law.
The question we must always come back to in the face of such issues is this: What does the Bible say about the Christian’s relationship to the Law of God?
Is it binding and valid today? Or should we ditch the Old for the New?
The Four Uses of God’s Law
I think that this divisive issue stems from the fact that the Bible speaks of the Law in different ways. At first glance, there seem to be two, contradictory ways that the Bible speaks of God’s Law. Sometimes it’s spoken of as a blessing; sometimes it’s a curse. So, how do we solve this apparent contradiction?
The key to solving the dilemma is by surveying the ways that God’s Law is used by men in the Scriptures. The prolific Reformation theologian, John Calvin, identified the three uses of the Law which are commanded by God. But the Bible speaks of a fourth use as well. These four uses are as follows:
1. God’s Law reveals both the holiness of God (as it is the transcript of God’s own moral character), and, consequently, the sinfulness of man. Man is to use the Law to understand the sinfulness of his sin, the hopelessness of his fallen condition, and his desperate need of saving grace from God in Christ.
2. God’s Law is to be used by earthly, governing authorities as the perfect, unchanging standard for carrying out justice upon those who commit crimes. While this use does not change man’s heart, it greatly restrains evil in the world, which is a wonderful grace to humanity. The State is commanded to carry out imperfect justice now while humanity awaits the perfect and final judgment of God on the last day (Romans 13:4).
3. God’s Law reveals to us, in principle and in application, what it means to love God, please God, honor God, and to love other people as well. It is used as the light upon our path, the pattern of our sanctification. It shows us how to live. It reveals to us what it means to be holy, as God is holy.
4. God’s Law is used (unlawfully) by men as a way to obtain righteousness in the sight of God. In denying their need for God’s grace in light of sin, men attempt to offer up their obedience to God’s Law in exchange for eternal paradise. They attempt to earn their salvation by their works, such that God would owe them heaven because of their deeds.
The third and fourth uses mentioned here are our greatest concern for the purpose of this discussion. These two are in view when we consider the apparent contradiction.
The Unlawful Use of the Law
The fourth use of the Law, though clearly corrected in the Old Testament (Hab. 2:4), is addressed in the New Testament in detail. Across the New Testament Scriptures, the apostles remind Christians that they are no longer “under the Law.” We have “died to the Law” and have been “released from the Law” (Romans 7). This doctrine is summarized well by Galatians 3:10 where Paul states, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”
But is Paul telling us that we are no longer required to obey the Law of God? May it never be! “But why does he speak so negatively about the Law?” you may ask. And the answer to this entire dilemma is this: In every place where Scripture seems to speak negatively about the law, it is condemning an unlawful use of the Law (1 Timothy 1:8).
Because the Jews of that day had misinterpreted the Law and Prophets and were seeking salvation through their obedience to the Law, this unlawful use of the law was a significant, ongoing problem for the Jewish Christian converts that desperately needed correction. Hence, Paul’s main point in Galatians is that Christians have been freed from the curse of the Law because justification can only be obtained on the basis of faith!
If someone tries to be justified by their law-works, they must keep the Law perfectly. But this is impossible due to sin, so the curse of disobedience upon them will never be lifted. Only by receiving the forgiveness and righteousness of Jesus Christ through faith alone (no works added), can one be made righteous before God (Eph. 2:8-9).
Never at any point in the Old or New Testament is our requirement to obey God’s Law relaxed or removed. Jesus Himself establishes that fact in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17-20). What is abolished in salvation is the condemning curse of the Law, which rested on those who attempted to obtain salvation through obedience, rather than by faith.
The Law of Freedom
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” – 1 John 5:1-2
In summary, here are the main reasons why the Christian should not view God’s Law as a burden or a curse, but as a blessing:
1. God explicitly states in Scripture that His Law is not a burden to His children. He also explicitly states that we love God by keeping His commandments. To love God is to obey His Law (1 John 5:1-3).
2. God’s Law is one of the brightest revelations of His unique glory. His moral excellence is to be treasured and adored in our hearts and minds. The blessed man meditates on the Law of God both day and night (Psalm 1:2).
3. God’s Law gives us objective and detailed direction for how we ought to live in every circumstance, so that we are not left in darkness and confusion, like the unbelieving world (Psalm 119:105).
4. After conversion, the true believer is given a new heart and, with that, a new capacity to love, desire, understand, and apply God’s Law to his own life with ever-increasing faithfulness and joy (Ez. 36:26, Jer. 31:33). The believer is enabled to love God’s Law and no longer dread it, given that the perfect love of God has cast out all fear of punishment (1 John 4:18).
5. God’s Law provides direction for the governmental regulation of nations and is a primary restraint of evil in the world.
I hope this little article serves to improve your relationship with what James calls “the Law of freedom,” and I pray that you would be able to join the psalmist sincerely and enthusiastically in exclaiming, “Oh, how I love Your law!” (Psalm 119:97).