When we speak about the Law in Christianity, it is an extremely touchy subject. It is such because there are so many varying understandings and applications of it that one can scarcely make any comment on the subject whatsoever without offending someone. And because the responses to critiques are such, few venture to comment on it not wishing to dirty their hands in the process. Therefore, we have little in way of healthy discussion upon the Law and its implications on Christian life, and we see bits and pieces taken from the Law applied here and there in church settings without much explanation as to why some laws are valid and why others are considered annulled.
However, when we turn to the New Testament and especially in the writings of Paul, we find that the authors are not hesitant in the least to address the matter. Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, for example, is almost in full an explanation of the Law and a critique of the Galatian church’s view and practice of it. Since the New Testament writers (i.e. those who lived and wrote after the coming of Christ) are not silent on the Law, why have we become so? And even if we have not been silent, why is there a seeming disparity between our own interpretations and applications?
What follows then in not what one might consider a systematic treatment of the Law, but it is rather simple questions posed and answered. The aim is that in the end that the whole might be systematically and theologically sound, but it is more a step-by-step journey than a recapitulation of a journey completed.
What is the Law?
Even beginning with the most basic of questions, it is difficult to come to an absolute consensus on it. When it is asked, What is the Law? the definitions vary, and the lenses through which it is viewed are different. So where are we to begin?
In its simplest of forms, the Law is the instructions / commands given by God through Moses to national Israel. These commands are found in the first five books of the Bible commonly referred to as the Pentateuch. Some have equated the Law with the Pentateuch so that every time that they think Law they think Pentateuch. Here we find the first distinction that must be drawn. For when we look at the first five books of the Bible, they are not a book of Laws, but they are a book that contains laws. In fact, we find that most of the Pentateuch is narrative and that the first commands given in a corpus are not given until the twentieth chapter of the second book. Therefore it must be held that the Law are the commandments given in the book that Moses wrote (i.e. the Pentateuch) not the entire book itself. This distinction will become increasingly important as we come to think upon the author’s intent in composing the Pentateuch.
Now when the Law as found in the Pentateuch is discussed among some, it is not done apart from categorizing the laws given. In Reformed circles, these categories are most commonly labeled as moral laws, ceremonial / sacrificial laws, and civil laws. When they are given these labels, they are meant to communicate that there are laws that are universally acknowledged (the moral law, which is commonly applied to the Ten Commandments), laws that pertain to sacrifice and worship, and laws that were applied to the state of Israel only. In applying these labels, the law is dissected and applied to the church in a fashion that seems fitting to the dissector. And while there is indeed a great deal of logic behind such categories, we must admit that the Scriptures never convenience us with these labels.
Why is the Law Given in the Manner which it is Given?
This is a huge question, and its answer will only give rise to further questions that will need to be answered later. Even so, it is a question that I believe must be answered and answered with great care. Presuming that what I hold as true is true, namely that there is a certain design behind the construction of the Pentateuch and a Sovereign hand over its history, why do we encounter the Law where we do? Why does God call Abraham out of Ur to follow him and yet fails to give him the law that he gave Moses? Why do we find Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. among those who are considered to wholly and faithfully follow Yahweh and who did so apart from the Law given at Sinai? Many presume that these faithful saints had an archaic and oral version of the Law, yet we find that there is no Scriptural warrant for such a presumption. In fact, we find that the authors of the New Testament write against such a notion (cf. Rm. 4).
The implications of the Law given in such a manner are clear, and, though being so, they are huge. Simply put, the Law given to Moses four hundred years after the call of Abraham intimates that faithful worship and service to Yahweh can (if not should) exist apart from the Law, even the Ten Commandments. The apostle Paul picks up this very idea in his letter to the Roman church, saying:
For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression (Rm. 4:13-15).
In other words, the very Promise (read covenant) given to Abraham that he and his offspring would inherit the world (cf. Mt. 5:5) did not merely come apart from the Law, but it came in spite of it. Indeed, the Promise is fulfilled in those who have faith apart from the Law and not in adherence to the Law.
Indeed, the apostle picks up on this very notion in his introductory purpose statement in the book, viz. “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of [Christ’s] name among all the nations” (Rm. 1:5) not obedience to the Law. Have you have wondered why Jesus was always on the bad side of the Pharisees? Imagine those who sought the Inheritance through strict adherence to the Law dealing with a man who healed (read worked) on the Sabbath (cf. Mt. 12:9-14), was to them a glutton and a drunkard (cf. Mt. 11:19), and who declared unclean foods clean (cf. Mk. 7:19). Christ did not do all these things purposelessly, but he did so with the point of showing:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
In vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Mt. 15:8,9)
What is perhaps the greatest single example of Christ’s desire to separate law-keeping from love of and obedience to him is that of the rich, young ruler (cf. Lk. 18:18-30). The ruler came to Christ and inquired of him how he could attain eternal life (read the Promise given to Abraham and his offspring). First, Christ addresses him with the Ten Commandments (at least a portion of it), and the ruler responds that he had kept them all. Now, we are typically cynical to his response, but the later, alarmed response of the disciples should prevent us from being so. This man likely was very moral and kept the Law to best of his ability. He may very well have been like Paul who was able to say, “As to righteousness under the law, I was blameless” (Ph. 3:6). And yet, when Christ pushes him further and requires that he sell all of his possessions and give to the poor, the man is able to walk away to his destruction. Why? He had kept the Law of Moses so fully that the disciples responded in somewhat dismay, “Then who can be saved?” This man had kept the letter of the Law and yet was not able to trust Christ over his riches. He had not sought the Promise by faith, and thus he stumbled over the Stumbling Stone (cf. Rm. 9:32).
In other words, we are brought back to the apostle Paul’s declaration in Romans 4, viz. “For the Law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.” Salvation must come not only apart from the Law, but it must come in freedom from it. He writes elsewhere:
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.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:10-14).
So then we are left with further questions that shall be answered in due order.
Next: Why Then the Law?