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On the Law of God
— The Mosaic Law in light of the Gospel of Christ

 

With the arrival of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, His substitutionary atonement on the Cross for our sins, and the institutionalization of the New Covenant of Grace, there has been a creation of tension between the understanding of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, between post-exilic rabbinic Judaism and the maturing Christianity. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the conflict over Law and Grace, with the Apostle Paul in Galatians and Romans showing forth the mature Christian doctrine of Justification by Faith alone. Rabbinic Judaism however teaches salvation by faith in God plus keeping of the Mosaic Law (Gal. 3:3-6), and this spillover into the Jewish Christian community with many Jewish converts bringing their rabbinic Judaist traditions with them, strict Law-observance and all, into their faith in Christ. While such is understandable for new Jewish converts, it seems that many of the professing Christian Jews remain in this stage of infancy and steadfastly refuse to grow up but instead filter everything with their rabbinic Judaist glasses, which caused the Jewish Church of Jerusalem later (after the departure and deaths of the Apostles and other key leaders) to apostatize into the Ebionite heresy as they return back to Judaism in all but the claim of Jesus to be a Jewish prophet[1].

Although it has been two thousand years since the conflict first started, the tension and conflict between Law and Grace is still raging in the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, seen most visibly in the split between Protestant Evangelical Christianity and Roman Catholicism. The stakes cannot be higher, for the very Gospel itself and the salvation of souls is at stake in this battle. At the Reformation, Luther recovered for all Christians the truth of Salvation by faith alone, as it is written "The Just shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:17b), and "For it is by grace we have been saved, through faith, and this not of yourself. It is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). We are therefore seen to be saved by God's grace alone through faith alone, apart from any works we can and have done.

This said, how should we interpret the existence of the Law which featured so prominently in the Old Testament, being given by the greatest OT prophet, Moses? Dispensationalism decides to give to Israel the mode of the Law, while bestowing the mode of Grace for the Church[2], and thus apparently solving the problem. Judaists decide that Christians ought to obey the Law also[3], though they would probably modify it a bit. New Covenantal Theology decides to use the superiority of the New Covenant to abrogate the Law, so to speak[4]. Covenantal Theology splits the Law into three parts: the Moral, Ceremonial and Civil, and then abrogate the Civil, render the Ceremonial fulfilled, and leaving the Moral for Christians[5]. Which system therefore is correct in its handling of the Law in light of the whole of Scripture? It is my contention that a modified version of Covenantal Theology's handling of the Law does justice to the entirety of Scripture[6]. Having shown this view from the Scriptures, I would like to go on to focus more on the Law in relation to rabbinic Judaism and the Gospel here.

The system of Covenant Theology splits the Law into three parts: the Moral, Ceremonial and the Civil. As it can be easily seen, such a splitting and nomenclature is theological, not biblical; you wouldn't find these terms in the Bible. Yet, theologically, they are an inferences from Scripture, just like the doctrine of the Trinity, though that is deductive instead of inferential[7]. The Moral law, or aspect of the Law, is made up of those laws dealing with moral or ethical issues. The Ceremonial law is made up of those laws which deal with the tabernacle and the worship of God. The Civil law is made up of those peculiar laws which govern ancient Israel society which is clearly limited to their times (ie about marrying female slaves). These three aspects or categories are not clearly demarcated in the Law but are instead dispersed out, with some laws possibly having more than one aspect in it. Nevertheless, the splitting of the Law into these three aspects is made so as to harmonize and explain the many and various apparent contradictions in the New Testament whereby the Law is commended in certain places, condemned in others, while various sundry laws (as seen in the Sermon of the Mount in Mt. 5-7, and the condemnation of homosexuality and sexual perversion in Rom. 1:24-32) are placed forth for Christians.

The Civil law is stated as being abrogated due to its highly specificity for its time and thus they cannot function in the new environment of a nation-blind Church. This is obvious as we can see in the example of marrying a female slave, which is obviously not practical in our modern world where slavery is illegal and outlawed. The Ceremonial Law being fulfilled and thus made obsolete for us is proven by the entire book of Hebrews whereby the entire focus on the Mosaic rites and rituals, and sacrifices there indicate that the Ceremonial aspects of the Law are being discussed and abrogated in this epistle. So that seems to leave the Moral Law unscathed, or does it?

With regards to rabbinic Judaism, it has been said that the Jews consider the Law as a whole, and do not split the Law into three aspects. This is most definitely correct, but this does not invalidate the differentiation within the Law. It must here be noted that the Law when seen through the eyes of Covenantal Theology takes on a new significance, in a manner different from the Jewish understanding of the Law. Covenantal Theology sees the Law as being of its original intent the guidelines for people living in Covenantal relation with God and the Law is thus interpreted accordingly. In other words, the interpretation of rabbinic Judaism as the Law being about salvation or, to put it in a more nuance manner, about abiding in salvation through Covenantal faithfulness, was rejected as being in error. In this, the words of Paul holds true: that rabbinic Judaism (along with other types of Legalism) is of the letter, and "the letter kills but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6b) or as it is written "we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom. 7:6b). Therefore, what we contend here is that rabbinic Judaism has interpreted the Law wrongly, whereas we who have received the fullness of the revelation of God in the unveiling of the New Covenant can interpret the Law as it should be interpreted.

In this way therefore, the seeming contradictions between the affirmation of the Law and the seeming belittling of the Law found within the New Testament can be reconciled, as well as presenting the Old and New Testaments as a united whole. The Law by its own nature is always affirmed as being good, righteous and holy, while it is seemingly belittled when it is abused to do what it was never meant to do: to work out righteousness. Rather, as James says (of which his epistle seems to be the most works-oriented), the Law is described as a mirror to show people their true condition (James 1:22-25) and thus we can come to know the wickedness of sin (Rom. 7:7-12), therefore fulfilling its purpose of leading us to God and His salvation by grace alone in Christ alone. As it is written, the Law is our guardian/ schoolmaster/ tutor until Christ came with the Gospel (Gal. 3:24), and therefore the Law in its soteriological sense only prepares people for the Gospel, never to be used unto their salvation; in the same way as you don't use a mirror to clean your face but to show the areas to wash.

New Covenantal Theology here talks about the Christian not being under the Mosaic Law but instead under the Law of Christ[8], as stated by Paul in Rom. 7:25, 8:2, 1 Cor. 9:21 and Gal. 6:2. They rightly note the contrast made by Paul between the "Old Law" or the "law of sin and death" and the "law of the Spirit of life" or the "law of Christ" and therefore infer that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law (as it being the "law of sin and death") but under the Law of Christ. Rightly understood however, these verses do not support their inferences. Certainly, the Pauline emphasis in seemingly denigrating the Law must be seen in his aim to remove the Law as being the means of salvation in any possible way, because salvation is by faith alone. Since the Moral Law rightly exposited shows forth the character of God which manifest the principles upon which Christians are supposed to base their lives upon, the Law of Christ stated here must therefore be equated to the Moral Law aspect found within the Mosaic Law since it is also based upon the same principle[9]. And therefore, to put it simply, the Law of Christ is the New Covenantal and true understanding of the Moral Law as found within the Pentateuch, and the Moral Law properly understood is the exposition of the Law of Christ mentioned by Paul.

In conclusion in the light of the Gospel, therefore, the Mosaic Law is done away with as regards to the area of salvation. However, as a rule for God's Covenant people, the Moral aspect within the Law is applicable for us Christians, being an exposition so to speak of the Law of Christ governing us for our sanctification. Amen.


References:

[1] See The Church History of Eusebius, NPNF2-01 Bk. III, Chapter XXVII: The heresy of the Ebionites (available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.viii.xxvii.html). Footnotes 824 states:

The Ebionites were not originally heretics. Their characteristic was the more or less strict insistence upon the observance of the Jewish law; a matter of cultus, therefore, not of theology, separated them from Gentile Christians. Among the early Jewish Christians existed all shades of opinion, in regard to the relation of the law and the Gospel, from the freest recognition of the uncircumcised Gentile Christian to the bitterest insistence upon the necessity for salvation of full observance of the Jewish law by Gentile as well as by Jewish Christians. With the latter Paul himself had to contend, and as time went on, and Christianity spread more and more among the Gentiles, the breach only became wider. In the time of Justin there were two opposite tendencies among such Christians as still observed the Jewish law: some wished to impose it upon all Christians; others confined it to themselves. Upon the latter Justin looks with charity; but the former he condemns as schismatics (see Dial. c. Trypho. 47). For Justin the distinguishing mark of such schismatics is not a doctrinal heresy, but an anti-Christian principle of life. But the natural result of these Judaizing tendencies and of the involved hostility to the apostle of the Gentiles was the ever more tenacious clinging to the Jewish idea of the Messiah; and as the Church, in its strife with Gnosticism, laid an ever-increasing stress upon Christology, the difference in this respect between itself and these Jewish Christians became ever more apparent until finally left far behind by the Church in its rapid development, they were looked upon as heretics. And so in Irenæus (I. 26. 2) we find a definite heretical sect called Ebionites, whose Christology is like that of Cerinthus and Carpocrates, who reject the apostle Paul, use the Gospel of Matthew only, and still cling to the observance of the Jewish law; but the distinction which Justin draws between the milder and stricter class is no longer drawn: all are classed together in the ranks of heretics, because of their heretical Christology (cf. ibid. III. 21. 1; IV. 33. 4; V. 1. 3). In Tertullian and Hippolytus their deviation from the orthodox Christology is still more clearly emphasized, and their relation to the Jewish law drops still further into the background (cf. Hippolytus, Phil. VII. 22; X. 18; and Tertullian, De Carne Christi, 14, 18, &c.). So Origen is acquainted with the Ebionites as an heretical sect, but, with a more exact knowledge of them than was possessed by Irenæus who lived far away from their chief centre, he distinguishes two classes; but the distinction is made upon Christological lines, and is very different from that drawn by Justin. This distinction of Origen’s between those Ebionites who accepted and those who denied the supernatural birth of Christ is drawn also by Eusebius (see below, §3). Epiphanius (Hær. XXIX. sqq.) is the first to make two distinct heretical sects—the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. It has been the custom of historians to carry this distinction back into apostolic times, and to trace down to the time of Epiphanius the continuous existence of a milder party—the Nazarenes—and of a stricter party—the Ebionites; but this distinction Nitzsch (Dogmengesch. p. 37 sqq.) has shown to be entirely groundless. The division which Epiphanius makes is different from that of Justin, as well as from that of Origen and Eusebius; in fact, it is doubtful if he himself had any clear knowledge of a distinction, his reports are so contradictory. The Ebionites known to him were most pronounced heretics; but he had heard of others who were said to be less heretical, and the conclusion that they formed another sect was most natural. Jerome’s use of the two words is fluctuating; but it is clear enough that they were not looked upon by him as two distinct sects. The word “Nazarenes” was, in fact, in the beginning a general name given to the Christians of Palestine by the Jews (cf. Acts xxiv. 5), and as such synonymous with “Ebionites.” Upon the later syncretistic Ebionism, see Bk. VI. chap. 38, note 1. Upon the general subject of Ebionism, see especially Nitzsch, ibid., and Harnack, Dogmengeschichte, I. p. 226 sqq.

There, it can be seen that the Ebionites came from the Jerusalem Church which had apostatized as they cave in under Jewish pressure, plus the fact that the Church there refuses to mature into the fullness of the Christian faith (especially with regards to Christology it seems) but continue to identify Christianity as a Jewish faith, failing to differentiate between the true Abrahamic and Mosaic Judaism as compared to the distorted rabbinic Judaism of their time.

[2] Michael Williams, This World is not my Home: The origins and development of Dispensationalism (Mentor Imprint, Christian Focus Publications, Ross-shire, Scotland, UK, 2003), p. 90

[3] This can be seen in groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists for example.

[4] For example, in the New Covenantal Confession of Faith, it is written:

Article 9: God's Covenants

The Old Covenant
The Old Covenant is also called the Mosaic Covenant or the First Covenant. This was a legal agreement between God and the nation of Israel that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This covenant was not a gracious covenant. Although the Lord had a gracious purpose in giving this covenant, the covenant itself was a legal covenant that demanded perfect obedience. The failure to obey would result in the curse of God. This covenant was used to prepare the way for the Messiah. Israel, as a whole, was not a believing people. The Old Covenant caused the Israelites to sin all the more. It was never the means of anyone’s salvation. The Old Covenant functions as a physical picture of many spiritual truths that can be used to teach believers today. The Ten Commandments are the essence of the Mosaic Law or Mosaic Covenant. The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost brought to a close the Old Covenant era. 2 Corinthians 3, Hebrews 7-10, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Exodus 20:1-21, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 27-28, Hebrews 3:7-19, Romans 5:20, Romans 9:1-5, Galatians 3-4, Colossians 2:16-23, Acts 2

Article 20: The Law of God

The Mosaic Law
This is the body of law that was given by the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai for the nation of Israel. The Ten Commandments are the essence of the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law was binding on the Israelites during the period of time from the giving of the law at Mount Sinai to the ushering in of the New Covenant Era at Pentecost. (Exodus 19, 20, Exodus 34:27-28, Deuteronomy 4:12-14, Deuteronomy 9:7-10, Galatians 3:15-25, Hebrews 7:11-19, Hebrews 8:7-13, Galatians 4:21-31, Acts 2:1-21)

(New Covenantal Confession of Faith)

Thus, it can be seen that in NCT (New Covenantal Theology), the Mosaic Law is discontinued when the New Covenant of grace has been instituted.

[5] The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

II. This law, after his Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty toward God, and the other six our duty to man.

III. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel, as a Church under age, ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties. All which ceremonial laws are now abrogated under the New Testament.

IV. To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other, now, further than the general equity thereof may require.

V. The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator who gave it. Neither doth Christ in the gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen, this obligation.

(WCF, Chapter XIX: Of the Law of God)

[6] For the eternal and transcendent purpose of the Law according to the Scriptures, which is Covenantal Theology's view of the Law in general also, see here.

[7] Deductive arguments can be judged according to the rules of logic to be sound or not, and therefore the truth found therein can be ascertain to be 100% true. Inferences however cannot be conclusively proven true, only that they are better or the best approximation of the truth since there are based upon theories which are proposed to harmonize various aspects of the truth, especially when those aspects of the truth at different places appear contradictory.

[8] For example, see What is New Covenantal Theology? at http://ids.org/?page_id=12.

[9] We are told to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16), and are called to be like Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), thus showing that the entire idea of the Law of Christ is to make us like unto Him.