The Law and the Christian – Part 1

(May 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 5)

A Tale From Long Ago

Once upon a time, in a remote and strange country, lived a young couple. From all outward appearances theirs was a happy marriage. The husband, whose name was Nomos (or Law), was good and righteous — and even holy (Romans 7:12). While his demands were many (613 of them according to his wife) and strict, he could never be accused of acting selfishly or sinfully. In all of his dealings he was perfect.

Nomos’s wife, on the other hand, was a different piece of work. Her sole obligation in life was to be obedient to her husband. Her life was simple and straight forward. If she would follow her husband’s demands, her life would be blessed and happy; if on the other hand she rebelled, she would be cursed and miserable (Deuteronomy 11:26ff). With such a choice, any rational person would certainly choose to obey — and that is exactly what Nomos’s wife tried to do. But try as she might she was constantly failing! She would read and memorize Nomos’s list of commands and vow before God to keep them, but still she could not. It seemed that every time she blundered Nomos would immediately walk through the door — and condemn her (rightly, I might add).

As time moved on the wife became increasingly miserable. Unable to keep Nomos’s rules, she went into a depression from which she could not recover. She was often heard crying, “Oh wretched woman that I am, who will free me from this body of death?” Since this was in the days before Prozac she seemed doomed. Divorce in her land was impossible for a woman, and besides, Nomos had done nothing wrong — the problems were completely hers, and she knew it. This of course added to her misery.

Then one day an odd thing happened (remember they lived in a remote and strange country) — the wife died. This was not the bizarre part of course, for we all die. What was extraordinary was that she came back from the dead. And by an unusual quirk of the laws of the land (remember, a strange country), one who had died and had been resurrected was no longer legally married to their spouse. The woman, having died, found that her marriage had been dissolved — she had been set free from Nomos. Immediately she entered into a new marriage relationship with Prince Immanuel (you may have heard of Him before in Bunyan’s Holy War), — the very Son of the King!

This new marriage union was totally different than the last, Immanuel was even more wonderful and perfect than Nomos. Even though His expectations for His wife exceeded those of Nomos, something was different. First of all, the blessedness of His wife’s life was no longer dependent upon her obedience. She found instead that her new husband had already blessed her in every conceivable way, and on the basis of these blessings she found her motivation for following Him (Ephesians 1:3). Second, the wife discovered that Immanuel was, in some inexplicable way, providing her with energy and strength to please Him. She no longer operated out of sheer will-power. Finally, their whole relationship was characterized by a different attitude or spirit — something called grace. While Nomos had been perfect in his demands, he was harsh. It is true that he was a fair and just man, but that was the problem. When she went over the line, justice was unrelenting. Not so with Prince Immanuel. While he was fair and just, He was also gracious and forgiving. As a result the wife described her new marriage as “a walk in the newness of life” (Romans 6:4). She was thrilled, and she should have been.

There was a problem however. Nomos was still alive, and he lived next door. He missed his wife, and refused to remarry. Everyday, sometimes several times a day, Nomos would see her working away in the back yard and he would come to the fence and plead with her to come back to him. She knew that Nomos had no legal hold on her, and that she was not obligated to obey or listen to him. Yet he had a strange pull on her. As much as she loved her new life and Immanuel, she did not always appreciate the freedom she had been given. In some ways it was easier to live with Nomos, she thought, because with him you knew exactly what to do. There was none of this decision making and freedom of choice — just check out the list and obey. Her former way of life had a certain appeal, and as time marched on her memory of the past began to fade a bit. Maybe life with Nomos was not as bad as she had remembered.

As the thrill of the “newness of life” settled into routine, she became more and more tempted to hang around the backyard fence and converse with Nomos. Day after day she would listen to his indoctrination, slowly accepting his slant on life. Before long Nomos’s arguments had become so ingrained in her that she, while still married to Immanuel, actually accepted Nomos’s instructions over her husband’s. Due to many hours of listening to Nomos’s propaganda, and due to her own rationalization, she had convinced herself that she was remaining true to Immanuel even as she became increasingly attached to Nomos. After all, she reasoned, she was not leaving Immanuel and she still loved Him. She loudly pronounced her fidelity to Him to everyone she met, even as she progressively became enveloped in Nomos’s influence.

Immanuel never divorced his wife, and to this day He has remained faithful to her. She, on the other hand, has convinced herself that she is true to her husband. Unfortunately, she no longer walks in the “newness of life” rather, she has returned to the “oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). She does not recognize her condition, however, and now with complete confidence pronounces herself married to Prince Immanuel yet under the authority of Nomos. (A fable based on Romans 7:1-4.)

What The Law Means To The Christian

Like the wife in our story, millions of believers see themselves as Christians in union with Christ yet still under the authority of the Law. Consequently, they have returned to the Law as their means of sanctification, walking in the oldness of the letter rather than in the newness of the Spirit, and believing that Romans 7:14-25 is a description of the normal Christian life (because it sure describes theirs). This is a tragic and unnecessary way for the child of God to live, as we hope to demonstrate in this paper and the ones to follow.

It might be helpful, as we approach this subject, to quickly overview the major positions found in evangelical Christianity today on the subject of the Law and the Christian. A helpful book in this regard is The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian (edited by Wayne Strickland and published by Zondervan), in which five views are discussed and analyzed in some detail. The five views overlap enough that we can fairly say that there are really three major views with several variations. It should be mentioned at the beginning that no evangelical position advocates the keeping of the Law as a means of justification — all camps are clear and firm on this. The difference of opinion arises over what part the Law plays in our sanctification, our growth toward holiness.

The Reformed View

The standard Reformed perspective is that the Law is the rule of life of the redeemed. Willem A. Vangemeren, who wrote for this position in the volume mentioned above, states, “The law is God’s instrument in transforming the Christian into a servant of the Kingdom of God” (p.45). “The law is God’s instrument of conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ. It is the school of faith by which the Holy Spirit leads us into conformity to God’s will” (p.51). “Christ appointed the law as ‘a godly and righteous rule of living’” (p.54). So it is clear that the Reformed position is that the Christian is still under the Law. What distinguishes this view from the next is their definition of the Law. The Reformed theologians have broken the Mosaic Law into three separate laws: the ceremonial law (with its sacrificial system and religious observances), civil law (laws necessary for the governing of ancient Israel in the land of Palestine) and the moral law (the Ten Commandments and other moral commandments). Now, here comes the unique part — we are no longer under the ceremonial or civil laws, according to the Reformed position, but we are still obligated to the moral law. “The ceremonial laws, civil laws, and the penal code have been abrogated, and the moral law has received further clarification in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ” p.37). So while the Christian can now ignore the ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Testament, he must keep the moral law as the means of spiritual growth. The influence of this position reaches far beyond the traditional Reformed churches, as Walter Kaiser demonstrates in his description of Bill Gothard’s seminars: “The hunger for someone to give the believing community instruction in the proper use of law is so great that one popular seminar since 1968, focusing on Proverbs (a veritable republication of the law of God in proverbial form, as can be seen from the marginal references to Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), has literally had tens of thousands of people swarming to its sessions in every major city in North America and now all over the world” (p.198).

Theonomic View

Theonomy, the doctrinal foundation of the Reconstructionist Movement, is the next major position that we would like to mention. Theonomists are Reformed in doctrine but take the Reformed position to (what I believe to be) its logical conclusion. Men such as Greg Bahnsen, who championed this position in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian, also believe that the Christian is under the Mosaic Law. The difference is that the Theonomist does not break the Law into three separate laws, but rather sees it as a unit — one law. Therefore they do not abrogate any aspect of the Law, although they lay aside certain instructions concerning circumcision, priesthood, sacrifice and the temple. They also take some of the regulations to have special cultural significance from which we can draw principles today, but we do not literally observe. For example, the instructions concerning rooftop railings (Deuteronomy 22:8) teach the principle of concern for our neighbors, but are not required today. They call this “cultural discontinuity.”

The Theomonist then believes that the Christian is still obligated to the whole Mosaic Law — all three elements. In “The Creed of Christian Reconstruction” as found in the Chalcedon Report (an official organ of the movement) it is stated, “A Christian Reconstructionist believes God’s law is found in the Bible. It has not been abolished as a standard of righteousness. . . . It cannot change any more than God can change. God’s law is used for three main purposes: First, to drive the sinner to trust in Christ alone, the only perfect law-keeper. Second, to provide a standard of obedience for the Christian, by which he may judge his progress in sanctification. And third, to maintain order in society, restraining and arresting civil evil.” This final purpose for the Law leads us to mention an important feature of Theonomy, that it is the obligation of the Christian to ultimately bring society and culture under the Old Testament Law. Bahnsen states, “We are driven to conclude that the Bible offers no justification for teaching that as a category, the ‘political’ provisions of God’s Old Testament law have been abrogated” (The Law, p.139). The Chalcedon Report explains, “A Christian Reconstructionist is a Dominionist. He takes seriously the Bible’s command to the godly to take dominion in the earth. This is the goal of the gospel and the Great Commission. . . including the state.”

The Dispensational View

The dispensationalist believes the Mosaic Law is never the operative principle for the New Testament Christian. Wayne Strickland, writing for the dispensationalist position, makes these comments: “With the inauguration of a new epoch, our relationship to law has changed. Whereas the law formerly dominated and controlled, it now has no authority over the life of the saint” (The Law, p.266). “The Mosaic law naturally ended when God suspended his program with Israel (Rom. 9-11) and inaugurated his program with the church. God’s moral law in and of itself does not change, but its specific application and structure in the Mosaic code ended with the repeated violations of the Mosaic covenant and the beginning of the church dispensation” (p.276).

Support for the Dispensational Position — The Christian Is Not Under Law

The weakness of the Reformed and Theonomic views is their inability to deal consistently with the New Testament passages that clearly teach that the Christian is no longer under the Law. Supporters of the Reformed position (as we have seen) attempt to handle these passages by arbitrarily dividing the Law into three laws and declaring the believer free from two of them. Even Bahnsen says that this view “would appear to fly directly in the face of the authoritative teaching of Christ, who said he did not come to abrogate the law, that not the slightest stroke of the commandments has passed away. . . . To this we can only reply that (the Reformed theologian) does not have the authority to dismiss a portion of God’s law on his own. That really is the end of the story for those who believe they need biblical backing for their theological conclusions” (p.66).

We believe Bahnsen to be correct in his analysis, but he does no better. He, along with most Theonomists, sees the Christian as under the whole Mosaic Law —except for certain parts such as circumcision, sacrifices and the priesthood, along with the regulations that they believe have special cultural significance but do not directly apply to us today. So, while we are under every jot and tittle of the Law (so we are told), we are free to basically ignore Leviticus 19:19, “Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” But how can we claim that we are under the Law on the basis of Matthew 5:18, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished,” and yet be free to ignore parts of that Law? In Scripture the Law is never divided into three separate laws. While it may be handy to divide the Law into three elements, Scripture itself does not make these distinctions. Instead the Law — all aspects of it — is a unit. James says, “For whoever keeps the whole Law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:15). Either we are truly obligated to keep the whole Old Testament Law or we are not? Neither the Reformed nor the Theonomic theologian can live consistently with their position.

The question is, “Is the church age Christian in any way obligated to the Mosaic Law?” In at least four places in the New Testament (Romans 6:14, 15; Galatians 5:18; I Corinthians 9:20) — the answer given specifically and firmly is, “NO!”

It is because of the New Testament teaching on the Law that the dispensationists have taken a very different view, as can be seen in the following quotes from well known dispensationists:

I learn in the law that God abhorred stealing, but it is not because I am under the law that I do not steal. All the Word of God is mine, and written for my instruction; yet for all that I am not under law, but a Christian who has died with Christ on the Cross, and am not in the flesh, to which the law applied. I have died to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7:4). —John Darby

As to the believer’s rule of life, the apostle does not say, “To me to live is the law”; but, “to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). Christ is our rule, our model, our touchstone, our all. —C.H. Mackintosh

Most of us have been reared and now live under the influence of Galatianism. Protestant theology is for the most part thoroughly Galatianized, in that neither the law or grace is given its distinct and separate place as in the counsels of God, but they are mingled together in one incoherent system. —C.I. Scofield

(These three quotes are taken from The Believer’s Rule of Life by George Zeller, which is a good booklet on this subject.)

The Word of God condemns unsparingly all attempts to put the Christian believer “under the law.” The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul gave to the church the book of Galatians for the very purpose of dealing with this heresy. Read this Epistle over and over, noting carefully the precise error with which the writer deals. It is not a total rejection of the gospel of God’s grace and a turning back to total legalism. It is rather the error of saying that the Christian life, having begun by simple faith in Christ, must thereafter continue under the law or some part of it (Galatians 3:2-3). —Alva J. McClain (Law and Grace, p.51-52) — (This is an absolutely excellent book.)

How the New Testament believer is to relate to the Law will be the subject of our next study paper.


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