The Law, Then and Now: What About Grace? by John B. Metzger

For over two decades, John Metzger has been involved in Jewish Ministries and is well qualified to tackle the controversial role of the Mosaic Law in the church age.  In short, he views the Old Testament Law as no longer operative, having been replaced by the Law of Christ.  Actually, I think the title of the book should have included the Law of Christ (or Messiah, as he consistently terms it for His Jewish audience), for it is truly Metzger’s focus rather than grace, per se. Metzger presents the direction of the book on page 10:

With that setting in mind, we will proceed to study the participants, purpose, and provisions of the law so that we can understand what the law was to accomplish; why, when, and how it would end; and how it is not part of the Christian life today – though readers should note that I am not suggesting that Christians have free rein because of the abolition of the Law of Moses. I will also be presenting the Law of Messiah that we are living under today (a fact that most Christians do not understand).  First, though, we must understand the Law of Moses.

Breaking this statement down, The Law, Then and Now first seeks to demonstrate that while the Mosaic Law is holy and good it was inadequate to save or give life.  It is an instrument of death, bringing condemnation upon all who cannot keep it. In addition, the Old Testament Law is no longer operational.  Two factors which challenge Metzger’s pronouncement receive much attention (p. 7).  Many, for example, have divided the law into three units, the civil, ceremonial and moral, and then declared the civil and ceremonial obsolete while the moral still in play as an important role in the life of the believer (see Timothy George p. 175). Metzger rightly claims that this three-fold division, while handy, is artificial and the Law is always spoken of as a unit in Scripture (p. 15).  To break any of the laws, whether civil, ceremonial, or moral, is to break the Law of God.  Secondly, in Judaism, the Law of Moses was divided into 12 families of commandments, which were further subdivided into twelve families of affirmative and twelve of negative commands (pp. 15-16).  Both attempts are human efforts to systematize the Law, but neither is found in Scripture. The second factor overlaps the first, which sees the Ten Commandments as still valid today, but the other 603 commandments as not.  This view suffers the same fate as the first one in that Scripture simply does not teach such a division.  For those who insist that the Christian is under the whole Mosaic Law, Metzger has some bad news: 355 commandments (58%) of the Law cannot be kept today (pp. 80-81), and many other laws are ignored by even the most law-focused Christian or Jew (pp. 18-20).  When in force, the Law had nine purposes (pp. 35-47) but it was limited to the Jewish world in its scope of time and in its effect on sin (p. 49, cf pp. 170-171).

Metzger’s biblical argument is: “The status of the Mosaic Law today is that it is rendered inoperative; it has ceased to be an active covenant” (p. 60).  On the other hand, the believer is not without law, for they are under the Law of Christ (Messiah): “The law of Christ encompasses the whole of Jesus’ teaching in person, while He was on earth, and through His apostles and prophets following His ascension (Acts 1:1, 2)” (p. 179).

The author devotes large sections to each of the three New Testament texts which specifically mention the Law of Christ: Galatians 6:2 (pp. 135-185), 2 Corinthians 9:21 (pp. 187-201), and Romans 8:2 (pp. 203-231).  Metzger contrasts the Law of Christ and the Mosaic Law, demonstrating real differences (pp. 88-89, 243-245) and clearly outlining its purpose (pp. 247-250).  In summary, the purpose of the Law of Christ is the glory of God; its power rests in the Holy Spirit; its principle is love (cf pp. 272-275) and its pattern is Christ (p. 185).  Then, in great detail, the author breaks the Law of Christ into 23 categories (pp. 289-327). In the Appendix, he lists all 627 imperatives found in 497 verses in the New Testament which he sees as composing the Law of Christ (pp. 345-387).  While I cannot agree with Metzger’s statement that the Law of Christ has gone unrecognized for 20 centuries (p. 288), since many dispensationalists, and others, have taught it for years, still this is the most comprehensive treatment on the subject I have encountered. The Law of Christ needs more attention in the teaching ministry of the church and The Law, Then and Now can help lead the way.

There are a few matters in which even those who accept Metzger’s thesis might disagree:

  • Metzger often references Messianic Judaism. As a matter of fact, the book could be seen as specifically addressing this group. He is favorable toward the practices of cultural Judaism, especially for Jewish believers (pp. 47, 133-134, 257-262).  For example, the author believes that, “Gentiles are not obligated to practice the Feast of Passover because the ultimate Lamb of God has already been sacrificed.” But for Jewish people today, the feast is optional (p. 268).  I fail to understand why the sacrifice of the Lamb does not apply to Jews for the same reason it applies to Gentiles, and it seems to me that the Epistle to the Hebrews warns of returning to Jewish practices this side of the cross.  Additionally, the Passover cannot be practiced today as it was under Law.  Its manner or celebration today is not taken from Scripture but a modified version invented by Judaism.
  • Metzger claims to be in the Free Grace movement, and accepts the idea of the carnal believer as one of three categories of Christians. I fear this tangent, which I fail to see as necessary for what the author is trying to prove, will sidetrack or marginalize some from his central and important theme (pp. 86, 123-125, 198-199, 218-226, 230).
  • The author so connects the New Covenant with the Law of Christ as to see them as inseparable (pp. 73-80, 104, 233, 251-258). However, the belief that Christians are now under the New Covenant faces the same challenge as those who claim the Law has three divisions, yet we are only obligated to keep the moral Law today. The challenge is that neither is specifically stated in Scripture. Just as no biblical text offers a three-fold aspect to the Mosaic Law, so no text claims that the church is under the New Covenant.  Metzger repeatedly, and correctly, confirms that the New Covenant was given to Israel and Judah.  He then applies the spiritual aspects of the Covenant to the church, leaving land and physical promises to the kingdom age.  But nowhere in Scripture is such a view expressed, although Metzger and many others, believe it is inferred. It seems to this reviewer that the New Covenant, like the Law, is a unit, and dividing either up should be only on the basis of specific revelation from Scripture.  To be sure, Metzger’s view is dominant in theological circles, but I struggle to see the proof. At issue, for Metzger’s central argument, is whether the Law of Christ is contingent upon the New Covenant. Could it not be the case that the Law of Christ is church age-specific, while the New Covenant is kingdom age-specific? Is a connection between the two necessary? Metzger believes there is, and the reader will have to determine if he has proven his case.

On a more positive note, there are a number of insights I found valuable:

  • That the Old Testament Sabbath was not a day of worship, and that the Jews only had three days of prescribed public worship per year, is well worth pondering (pp. 38-39, 56-57, 276-277).
  • The possibility that the Law written on believers’s hearts under the New Covenant is not the Mosaic Law, but is the Law of Christ, is interesting and attractive as well as making good sense (pp. 67-81).
  • His distinction between the age of grace and law is well stated (p. 140).
  • That Messianic congregations are churches and not synagogues. Those who reject this are going too far in their Jewish form of Christianity (p. 160).
  • Sections on circumcision (pp. 53-54, 167) and Sabbath observance (pp. 54-58) are well done.

While I struggle with a few issues, as addressed above, the overall thesis of the book is excellent and much needed.  Metzger has drawn our attention to an often ignored, and yet vital, subject of the Law then and now.  I highly recommend a careful reading of this work.

The Law, Then and Now: What About Grace? by John B. Metzger (Larkspur, Colorado: Grace Acres Press, 2019), 411 pp. + xvii, paper $24.95

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel

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