The Law and the Christian – Part 2

(June/July 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 6) 

If you are like me, occasionally you are unable to fall asleep. When I lose sleep it is usually because my mind is in gear over some matter of concern. It might be family or financial issues, church problems, burdens for people, or deadlines I am facing. I have seldom lost sleep because I was mulling over theological issues — although that would be a more productive use of my time. I mean, which is more important, my understanding of God and Scripture, or how I am going to save for retirement? We know the right answer to a question like that, but as has been said, the urgent often takes precedent over the important. In this vein, how much time have you given to thinking about the place of the Mosaic Law in the life of the believer. While few Christians are lying awake at night wondering about their relationship to the Law, they probably should be — for their view of the Law has major ramifications for everyday living. We will start with an overview of the purpose of the Law.

The Purpose for the Law

If the Law cannot save us (and all sides agree to this) and it cannot sanctify us (the dispensational position that we will attempt to prove in this paper), why was it given? The Apostle Paul informs us of at least seven reasons why the Law was given:

1) To give men the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). While the Law cannot make us right before God, it can, and does reveal our sinful condition. It deepens our awareness of failure before God (Romans 7:7).

2) To produce guilt (Romans 3:19). God did not give mankind the Law in order to save us but in order to silence us. He silences us by using the Law to make us accountable to God.

3) To serve as a standard by which we are judged (Romans 4:15).

4) To increase sin (Romans 5:20). “The law by multiplying the requirements of God reveals to men the multitude of their offenses. In this sense, the law does not make men worse than they are, but rather shows more clearly how bad they are already”
(Law and Grace, McClain, p. 27).

5) To show us the terrible nature of sin (Romans 7:8-13). In this passage Paul is careful to teach that there is nothing wrong with the Law itself. The problem lies with us. We are so depraved that the holy commandments of God stimulate sin in us rather than eliminate it.

6) To restrain sin (I Timothy 1:9-10). This purpose for the Law seems to run counter to the fourth and fifth purposes above. “The answer is that the law contains two elements and two effects. The two elements are the command and the penalty, and the two effects are internal and external. The command inwardly stimulates the attitude of rebellion in men with sinful natures. On the other hand, the penalty externally restrains the outward act of rebellion” (McClain, p. 26,27).

7) To serve as a tutor (Galatians 3:24). The Law served the Old Testament people something like a guardian that would put a restraint upon God’s people until the coming of Christ. With the ascension of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Law’s role as guardian has been fulfilled. It no longer serves as a custodian and no longer serves in the capacity of leading men to Christ.

In the last Think on These Things we surveyed the major theological positions concerning the Law, then expressed our support for the dispensational approach. We would admit, however, that the dispensational perspective concerning the Law is often misunderstood at best and despised at worst. For example, A. W. Pink, in The Law and the Saint, gives the following three options to the question, “What is the relation of the Law to the Saint?” The first option is that of the legalist who believes that sinners become saints by obeying the Law. The second is the Reformed position, which is Pink’s, that the Law is a rule of life for believers. The final option is that the Law has nothing whatsoever to do with Christians today. This final option, which is that of the dispensationalist, is labeled Antinomianism — lawlessness, a repudiation of God’s governmental authority (pp. 15,16). Thus in Pink’s mind, to not accept the Law as the Christian’s rule of life is a vote for disobedience and rebellion against God.

The dispensationalist unapologetically believes that the Christian is free from the Law, as we will demonstrate below. However, it is not our position that the Christian is free to pursue a life of sin. Paul addresses this same type of question in Romans 6:1,2 where some were apparently accusing him of Antinominaism — “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it.” Paul clearly teaches that the believer is to live a life of righteousness, not on the basis of the Law, but on the basis of grace. This is the crux of the whole issue. Do we obey God because we are duty bound to do so — because we will be blessed if we obey but cursed if we do not (as those under the Law were — see Deuteronomy 28)? Or do we follow and obey our Lord out of grateful hearts for blessings already received? (Ephesians 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.”) This later position we believe to be the biblical picture, as we will seek to now argue.

The Apostle Paul’s Polemic

The Christian’s position in Christ is almost entirely revealed by Paul. Remove his thirteen epistles from the New Testament and much of the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian life will be removed with it. Without the writings of Paul we could not fully understand the doctrines of the church, justification, reconciliation, identification, and redemption. It was given to Paul to be the revealer of this dispensation of grace, the church age. So it is to Paul’s epistles that we turn, and in so doing we find several passages that specifically claim that the Christian has been set free from the Law.

  • Romans 6:14,15 “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be.” One of the important keys to victory over sin in the Christian life is the recognition that we are not under law but under grace. What does that mean? “The preposition ‘under’ (hupo) means ‘subject to the power of any person or thing, to be under the power of something, to be under the rule or sovereignty of something’” (The Believer’s Rule of Life, p. 9,10). The context of Romans 6 is that of sanctification. These two verses are dealing specifically with how the saint can be free from the dominance and dominion of sin. The key, Paul is saying, is the recognition that we are no longer under the domination of Law, but under grace.
  • Romans 7:1-4 — verse 4 reads, in part, — “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, that you might be joined to another.” The Old Testament believers were “married” to the Law in the sense that they were under the authority of the Law for living (not for salvation). All that has changed for the New Testament Christian. We have died to the authority of the Law and have been united to Christ. The Law no longer calls the shots in our lives.
  • Romans 7:6 — “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” This verse adds several thoughts to the preceding verses. While the earlier verses proclaim our death to the Law, this one clearly says that the result of that death is release from the Law. Paul’s comments are made on the backdrop of the marriage illustration in verses 1-3. As long as the husband is alive the wife is legally bound to him, but if he dies she is released from the marriage bond. Similarly, before our death with Christ we were bound to the Law, but that changed — we have been released; our relationship to the Law has dissolved. This verse also tells us why we have been released from the Law — in order to “serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.” Our release from the Law has direct influence on how we live and serve our Lord.
  • I Corinthians 5:18 — “If you are led by the Spirit you are not under the Law.” When Paul speaks of being led by the Spirit he does not have in mind some mystical leading of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Rather, Paul is using the concept as a description of the Christian life (i.e. how it is that Christians live). In Romans 8:14 he clearly says, “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” As sons of God we are not under the dominion of the Law.
  • I Corinthians 9:20 — “And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law.” As Paul described his passion to win the lost he declared that when among Jews he was willing to abide by the Law (and presumably Jewish customs) in order to win Jews for Christ. But he emphatically proclaims that he, himself, was not under the Law. To some Paul seems to contradict himself in the next verse: “To those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law.” Has Paul now placed himself, and us, back under the Law? Not at all, rather while we are no longer under the Mosaic code we are obligated to what is called here “the law of Christ.” We will discuss the law of Christ later, but for now it is clear from this passage that Paul denies being under the Jewish Law.

While Paul informs us that the Law is holy and righteous and good (Romans 7:12), virtually everything taught in the New Testament about the effects of the Law on our lives is negative. Additionally, there exists no statement in the New Testament that even infers that the Christian grows in godliness as he keeps the Law. Here is a sampling of other passages that weigh in on the issue:

  • Ephesians 2:14,15 — “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.”

McClain writes, “This ‘dividing wall’ did not merely separate one kind of sinner (Jews) from another kind of sinner (Gentiles). It was rather a barrier which separated all sinners, both Jew and Gentile, from a holy God. That is why the ‘Law of commandments’ had to be abolished in order to ‘reconcile both (Jew and Gentile) into God in one body’” (verse 16).

  • Colossians 2:14 — Paul speaks here of the antagonism of the Law against us, “Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The Law, rather than drawing us to God, alienates us from Him. It was therefore necessary for Christ to remove the Law so that its claims can no longer separate us from Him.
  • II Corinthians 3:7 — Paul refers to the Law as, “the ministry of death.” Ryrie comments on this in his study Bible, “Since the law showed man his sinfulness and gave him no power to break out of it, it ministered death.”
  • Romans 4:14-15 — Rather than life and righteousness the Law was designed to “bring about wrath.”
  • Galatians 3:23-25 — “But before (the) faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.” Paul affirms that at one time — before “the faith,” or this dispensation, there was a people who were under the Law. “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” A tutor was not a teacher in the New Testament times, but a guardian or custodian. The “pedagogue” was usually a slave employed by wealthy Greeks and Romans to have responsibility for one of the children of the family. He had charge of the child from about age six to sixteen and was responsible for watching over his behavior wherever he went, and for escorting him to and from school. He served as a guardian and disciplinarian more than a teacher. It should be noted that the words “to lead us” as found in NASB and KJV (“to bring us” in NIV) are not found in the Greek text. The Law pointed to Christ (verse 23) but it does not lead us to Christ, rather it served as a guardian until Christ came. What has happened now that Christ has come? Verse 25 tells us, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” The Law served as the custodian, the supervisor of the Old Testament people, but now, in this church age, it no longer serves in that capacity.

Putting all of these passages together (along with many others: Romans 3:21-23; 4:5; 5:13; 10:4; II Corinthians 3:3,6-18; Galatians 2:19; 3:1-5; 4:8-11; 5:1,3,18; Philippians 3:1-11; Hebrews 7:11-28; 8:4-6,13; 9:8; 10:1-18; James 2:8-10), we discover the wonderful truth that we have been set free from the Law!! The Mosaic Law did not exist before the Exodus (Exodus 20) and it has no authority over the church today. It was strictly a code, a standard of conduct, given to Israel alone. The church age has rendered the Law inoperative. “With the inauguration of a new epoch, our relationship to the law has changed. Whereas the law formerly dominated and controlled, it now has no authority over the life of the saint” (The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian; Strickland, p. 266).

The Life of the Christian

The fear of many is that if we do not keep the Christian under the Law we have given him both a license to sin and a cause for confusion. It is because, we are told, we no longer hold the Law over their heads that Christians today are so rebellious and do not seem to know right from wrong. We believe these accusations to be both unfair and untrue; however, they do lead us to ask the question, “If the Law is not the rule of life for the believer, what is?” Or put another way, what should govern the life and conduct of the child of God in this dispensation?

In the limited space that we have left, let me generalize by saying that the focus of the New Testament Christian should be on Christ, love, and grace rather than upon law. The writers of the New Testament had ample time to call the believer to obedience to the Law, had they so desired; yet no such commandment is given. Instead the focal point is Christ. Here are some samplings of New Testament teachings: For me to live is Christ(Philippians 1:21). I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me (Galatians 2:20). That their hearts may be encouraged having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:2,3). If then you have been raised upwith Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. . . . When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1,4). Even in a passage that calls us to keep the commandments, the emphasis is not on the commandments but on a relationship with Christ. For example I John says, “And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. . . .” By this we know that we are in Him (2:3-5). The Law said obey and you will be blessed, the New Testament says that our obedience is a sign of knowing Christ. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him(I John 4:9). The thrust of the Christian life is knowing Christ — That I may knowHim(Philippians 3:10) — not law.

“What then is the Christian life all about? The Christian life is simply knowing a Person, loving Him, seeking to please Him, walking with Him, honoring Him, obeying Him, thanking Him, rejoicing in Him, delighting in Him, trusting in Him, growing in Him, talking to Him, talking to others about Him, abiding in Him, learning of Him, learning from Him, sitting at His feet and enjoying His presence. Note the emphasis on Him (on a PERSON)” (The Believer’s Rule of Life, by George Zeller). Thus the Christian life is a love relationship with the person of Christ, not a legal relationship.

A word should be said however about what the New Testament calls the law of Christ. Quoting Wayne Strickland, “This law of Christ is discussed by both Paul (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14; 6:2; I Corinthians 9:21) and by James (James 1:25; 2:8,12). It is no mere rephrasing of the Mosaic Law, for it consists not of a concrete corpus of demands, but rather of basic principles, for each believer is promised permanent indwelling by the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit ministers in the life of the New Testament believer on behalf of Jesus Christ, there is no need for any lengthy, detailed, codified, external means of restraint as in the Mosaic law” (The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian, p. 277). Alva J. McClain summarizes this subject well in his Law and Grace, “What is this ‘law of Christ?’” In seeking an answer it should be noted that nearly all the commentators who deal with the question at all find a reference to our Lord’s words: A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another (John 15:12). John undoubtedly refers to this same thing when he writes: And this is His commandment, that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as He gave us commandment (I John 3:23). Love for one’s neighbor was nothing new, for it was the second great commandment of the Law of Moses. What was absolutely new was this obligation of loving others as Christ loved us. This then, is the ‘law of Christ’; not the Decalogue, nor even the Sermon on the Mount, but the law of love according to a new and divine measure, namely, that we should love one another as Christ loved us” (pp. 75, 76).