Are we under the Law, or under Grace?
Is the New Testament Christian bound to the Law as written in the Old Testament, or are we freed from the strictures of the Law?
The Law of the Old Testament is divided into three categories- Civil Law, Ceremonial Law and Moral Law. Civil Laws are like those found in Deuteronomy 24:10-13. These laws governed the day-to-day life of the Israelite. Ceremonial Laws are like those found in Leviticus 1:1-9. These laws governed the worship of the Israelites toward God and revealed how to atone for sin. Moral Laws are like those found in Exodus 20:1-17. These laws showed how to live holy lives, pleasing to God. We will examine each type in order, determining if any applies to New Testament Christians.
Deuteronomy 24:10-13, our example of a Civil Law, instructs the Israelite how to properly handle collateral when lending to another person. The lender is warned to not enter the borrower’s home, but allow the borrower to bring his pledge (collateral) out to the lender. Furthermore, the lender is advised that if the borrower is poor, the lender may not “sleep with” the pledge- or keep the pledge overnight. For the poor man, his pledge was often a personal article of clothing. Rather than retaining the pledge, the lender should return the pledge to the borrower for the night so he may sleep in his own clothes.
Even Jesus did not deal with civil law, except where He could apply a heavenly principle to the situation. In Matthew 5:41, Jesus referenced the Roman law of forced service, where a conquered person could be compelled, under the law, to carry a Roman citizen’s burden for the distance of one mile. Jesus used that civil law as an opportunity to demonstrate how the Godly person can show love to the person most disliked by voluntarily doing more than is required by law.
However, within the Civil Law we can find principles which serve as foundations for our modern civil codes. In the law cited from Deuteronomy, we can find a principle against invasion of privacy, and a principle against unjust seizure of property. God understood man’s need for his own space, and limited access to another person’s privacy or belongings. These principles are found in many civil law codes in the modern world.
The Deuteronomic laws were given to Israel about 3200 years ago. Clearly, we live in a different culture with different rules and procedures regarding borrowing and lending. We are not expected to follow the Civil Laws that governed Israel’s day-to-day situations regarding lending, nor are we expected to follow other Civil Laws from the Israelite code. We are expected to follow the laws of our own land, which often follow principles from early law codes.
Leviticus 1:1-9, our example of a Ceremonial Law, governs the use of a bullock (male cow) as an offering of atonement for the individual. According to the New Testament, this type of law need not be observed. Hebrews 10 shows clearly the contrast between the Old Testament ceremonies necessary for atonement, versus the ‘once-for-all’ sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10) of Jesus to open the way to God the Father and atone for the sins of all mankind. Hebrews 10:11-14 teaches that although numerous sacrifices were offered, day after day, they were unable to remove sin. In contrast, Jesus “offered one sacrifice for sin for all time” (12). This sacrifice was able to perfect “for all time those who are being sanctified” (14). Furthermore, the event in Matthew 27:51, the veil of the temple being torn in two, graphically demonstrates that we no longer need the Ceremonial Law to enter God the Father’s presence in the Holy of Holies.
The Ceremonial Laws teach us what is required for atonement and forgiveness- the offering up of life. Before Jesus, this offering up had to happen repeatedly, day after day after day. Since Jesus’ atonement, we are no longer required to make those daily offerings. We are not required to follow Old Testament Ceremonial Law.
Exodus 20:1-17, the Ten Commandments and our example of Moral Law, is often the subject of debate. Are we required to follow the Ten Commandments, since we are not under the Law, but under Grace?
The Moral Law was given for several specific reasons. According to Romans 3:20, the Law was necessary to teach us what sin is. Without this knowledge, there can be no understanding of our need for a Savior; we would have no idea how unholy we truly are. Without the foundation of the Law to prove we are sinners, there can be no cause for Jesus to come and die to provide propitiation, atonement and salvation. This is further developed by Paul in Romans 5:18-21. There was a necessity for sin to be seen, known, and understood for what it was. This allowed for the full application of grace through Jesus, resulting in eternal life.
The Moral Law was also given to be our code of holiness. Without it, we would have no idea what God requires to gain entrance into His holy presence once again. For many generations, the Ceremonial Law stood in place of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, demonstrating man’s inability to meet the requirements of the Moral Law. Jesus’ sinless life fulfilled the requirements of the Moral Law. Jesus Himself said, in Matthew 5:17, that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law. He further stated that not one small part of the Law would be left out until all is accomplished.
Hebrews 8 supports this. The writer quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34, further connecting the Old and New Testaments. The New Covenant mentioned in Jeremiah, and quoted in Hebrews, states that God will write the Law on people’s hearts and in their minds, rather than writing the law on tablets of stone. Rather than doing away with the Law, God is making it more personal.
In Luke 18:18-23, we find the story of the ruler who inquired of Jesus how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus lists five of the Ten Commandments. This is another indication that He is not removing the Old Testament Moral Law.
The Moral Law is still our code of holiness. The Ten Commandments still tell us how to conduct our lives when dealing with both God and man. In that sense, we are still under the Moral Law.
Several questions must now be answered. What did Jesus mean in Matthew 22:37-40? What is meant in Romans 6:14-15?
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus answers a question from the Pharisees regarding the greatest commandment. He says in verse 37 that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. This answer almost exactly quotes Deuteronomy 6:5. (The difference between the two verses is “might” in Deuteronomy and “mind” in Matthew.) Jesus quickly followed up by quoting Leviticus 19:18, stating in verse 39 that the second commandment was to love your neighbor as yourself.
What many people now miss is verse 40. Jesus said, ”On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Jesus did not say that these two commandments abolished the Law and the Prophets. By quoting the Old Testament, Jesus was validating its applicability to mankind. If you look carefully, you will see that the two commandments Jesus gives in Matthew succinctly summarize the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. Commandments one through four teach us how to love God, while commandments five through ten teach us how to love our neighbors.
What, then, is meant in Romans 6:14-15? In what manner are we not “under the law”? Paul’s law discussion in Romans deals with the Moral Law, as found in the Old Testament. Paul develops the necessity of the law and the bondage the law represents to man. In Romans 6, Paul brings his discussion of the law to its high point- we are dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus. We are not subject to the futility of striving to meet the requirements of the Law on our own. Rather, we are freed by Jesus’ sacrifice to live holy lives through Jesus. We are under the Grace of the cross.
Furthermore, we are no longer subject to the penalties of the Moral Law in the Old Testament. Because of God’s grace, He has chosen not to remember our sins against us. Hebrews 10:17- “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Where once the Law required death for infractions, we now have eternal life through Jesus.
The New Testament Christian is certainly “under the Law” in the sense that we require a code of holiness to teach us how to live a life pleasing to God. The New Testament Christian is freed from the Law because we are no longer in bondage to pleasing the Law on our own. Rather, we have the Grace of God working on our behalf through Jesus, enabling us to meet the strict requirements of the Law, thereby gaining access to God the Father in the most holy place.