Are Christians under the Old Testament Law of Moses? Are we under all of it, none of it or part of it (the Ten Commandments)? Many believers either disagree on this issue, agree but express what they mean differently, or are just totally confused on the subject. Tom Schreiner’s book, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, helpfully walks us through the teaching of Scripture on this important topic. We will draw some main ideas from his book as we look to the Bible for help.
The Law of Moses was Intended to be Temporary
First, we see that the Law of Moses was part of God’s covenant with the political and physical nation of Israel, not the church. The Law, summarized in the great Ten Commandments, showed Israel how to love God and neighbor as their worship response to his gracious rescue from Egypt. But the New Testament teaches that the Law of Moses (like the entire Old Testament Scriptures) looked ahead to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44-45; John 5:39, 46). The Law was intended by God to reveal sin and create longing for the salvation of God, which would come in Christ (Rom 3:20; Gal 3:19). When Christ came this purpose was fulfilled in him, and the shadows of the Law faded away as Christ, the Substance to which they pointed, became the focus.
Consider these Scriptures:
- 2 Corinthians 3:6-7, 14-15. In this passage Paul makes a distinction between the old covenant in Moses and the new covenant in Christ. He also makes a point of comparison between the temporary nature of the law of Moses and the fading glory of Moses’ face when it was given. Paul even includes the Ten Commandments (“carved in letters on stone”) as part of the old covenant ministry that has faded and passed away with the coming of Christ and the new covenant ministry in him.
- Galatians 3:19, 23-25; 4:1-7. Here Paul also speaks of the Law of Moses in temporary terms. He says the law was added “until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (3:19). He adds that before faith came we were imprisoned under the law “until the coming faith would be revealed” (v23). The law was our guardian “until Christ came…But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (24-25). Paul continues this terminology in his example in chapter four (“he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father”). The continued use of the word “until” highlights the fact that the Law of Moses was temporary. It was in force until Christ came.
- Romans 6:14; 10:4; 7:6. Paul says that “we are not under law but under grace,” and that “Christ is the end (telos – “goal”) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” In a comparison with marriage, Paul writes that “we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (7:6).
- Hebrews 7:11-12, 18-19; 8:7-13. The writer of Hebrews says that there has been a change in priesthood (from the Levites under the old covenant to Christ in the new, who is priest in the order of Melchizedek), and thus “a change in the law” (7:12). The law was weak and useless to make perfect, and God has given “a better hope” (7:18-19). He later speaks of the new covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, and concludes, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (8:13). Commenting on this passage, Peter O’Brien writes, “According to Hebrews, God established the first covenant, and he has replaced it with a new one. …To call it a new covenant does not simply mean to describe it in a fresh way… Rather, the language points to a new act of God to which Scripture bears witness. …For Hebrews the old covenant was near its end as soon as the oracle was spoken. It had passed its ‘use by’ date, its demise was a foregone conclusion” (The Letter to the Hebrews, p302-3).
The conclusion from these passages is that the Law of Moses was intended to be temporary. The law pointed to Christ and served to highlight sin in order to produce hope in the salvation only God can provide. Now that Christ has come and has instituted a new covenant, the old covenant is no longer in effect for the people of God.
Is Part of the Law of Moses Still in Effect?
For centuries many believers have divided the Law of Moses into three parts: the moral commands, the ceremonial commands pertaining to Israel’s worship and life as a people set-apart to God (food and purity regulations, the priesthood, festivals, etc), and the civil commands involving the government of the nation. The common assertion is that the ceremonial and civil laws no longer apply to the people of God in Christ, but the moral laws do. This would mean that the Ten Commandments are to be strictly obeyed by the church (the church being in that sense ‘under’ the moral law), while much of the other laws are no longer in force.
This could be a useful and helpful way of thinking about the law and the Christian if not pressed to far. After all, the New Testament does quote or allude to several of the Ten Commandments when instructing believers. But there are a few problems with this understanding. First, the New Testament nowhere speaks of the law as being under these three headings. We are never given a clear statement that the moral laws of the old covenant still apply to the church, while the civil and ceremonial do not. Secondly, there seems to be some overlap between the three sections of the law! It is quite difficult trying to break down all of the laws of the old covenant into these three categories. Some of the ceremonial laws have a moral aspect to them; the same for the civil laws. Who decides which old covenant laws still apply to the church and which do not? Finally, as we have seen in the Scriptures above, the New Testament seems to speak of the old covenant Law of Moses as one cohesive unit. All of the laws rise or fall together. We are either in the old covenant or the new; under law or under grace. The Law of Moses has faded (2 Cor 3), is obsolete (Heb 8) and has vanished away. We have died to the law to become married to another (Rom 7) – Christ!
It is also helpful to understand that the two different covenants were between two different peoples. The old covenant was between God and the physical nation of Israel, through Moses the mediator, entered into by the blood of animal sacrifices. The new covenant is exactly that – new. It is between God and the multi-ethnic, spiritual nation of the church of Jesus Christ, through Jesus the Mediator, entered into by the blood of Christ himself. Israel rejected their Messiah and received judgment (Mat 21:43). Peter can now refer to the church as the “holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9-10) using the same language God used of Israel in Exodus 19! The old covenant is gone, and the new covenant people of God are one “new man” created from the two; a multi-ethnic, spiritual church:
- There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Galatians 3:28-29
- For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace. Ephesians 2:14-15
The old covenant is gone in all its parts, as God has made a new covenant through Christ’s blood with a new people, the multi-ethnic church.
The Law is Fulfilled in Christ
Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mat 5:17). He fulfills the law in the sense that it pointed to him and finds its truest meaning in him. Jesus has also kept the law for us, perfectly obeying the Father. Through Christ we who are lawbreakers are forgiven of our trespasses because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. And his righteousness is given to us who believe, so that we are counted not guilty and perfect in the sight of God on the basis of Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). All of the civil, ceremonial and even moral laws looked ahead to Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ was so monumental that it has fulfilled the intentions of the law, accomplished the purpose of the law and changed forever the way the laws are applied by his people. Let’s look at a few examples:
- Circumcision. In the new covenant the people of God do not have to practice circumcision (Rom 4:9-12; Gal 2:3-5; 5:2-4). Rather, circumcision is fulfilled in Christ, as he was cut off for us at the cross. Now we who are in Christ are circumcised in heart through faith in Jesus (Rom 2:29; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11-12).
- Passover. The New Testament makes clear that in Christ we are not required to observe the festival days of national Israel (Rom 14:5-6; Gal 4:10; Col 2:16-17). Rather, Christ is our Passover lamb, and through faith in him we keep the festival in its true fullness (1 Cor 5:7-8).
- Sacrifices. There are no animal sacrifices for God’s people in the new covenant (Heb 8:5; 10:1). Jesus is our sacrifice, who was offered to God for us at the cross once for all (Rom 3:25-26; Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 9:11-14, 24-26)!
- Priesthood. In the same way, we no longer have priests over us besides Christ. He is our High Priest (Heb 9:11-12).
- Temple. There is no holy building in the new covenant for the people of God. Jesus himself is the temple (John 2:21). And because we are united with him, believers are a temple where God’s glory and presence resides (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21).
- Food and Purity Regulations. These are all done away with in the new covenant (Rom 14:14, 20; Gal 2:11-14; Col 2:16-17, 20-23). In the new covenant we learn that it is only false teachers who forbid “foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:3-5).
- Sabbath. Some are surprised to learn that Paul can specifically mention the Sabbath in Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16-17 as merely a shadow that points to the Substance, Christ. Hebrews 3:12-4:13 teaches us that in the new covenant Christ is our Sabbath rest! So those who come to God through faith in Jesus, ceasing their efforts to earn their own righteousness through works, have entered God’s rest and are keeping the Sabbath in its fullest, truest sense!
Christ is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses! His coming has changed things forever! Christ is therefore the filter through which all commands must pass in order that we might see how they apply to us in light of his Person and work. Some commands in the old covenant will change very little or not at all in the new covenant, because of the unchanging character of God. For example, the Ten Commandments instruct us to honor our parents. Though the Law of Moses has faded away and a new covenant has taken its place, believers in the new covenant are still instructed to honor our parents (Eph 6:1-3). The command has not changed, but it is given to us not on the basis and authority of the old covenant, but of the new.
But some commands from the old covenant change drastically when filtered through Christ into the new covenant. For example, Paul quotes a command from the law (Deuteronomy 17:7), which required Israel to kill those who break the covenant as a way of purging Israel. But Paul, understanding how that covenant filters through Jesus, uses this as an instruction to the church at Corinth to exercise church discipline on an unrepentant member (1 Cor 5:13)! Because Christ has fulfilled the law, and his people in the new covenant are not the physical nation of Israel, but the spiritual and multi-ethnic community of the church, the purging of God’s people looks quite different! Removing sinners from the old covenant community through death has become removing sinners from the new covenant community through church discipline. The teaching of Jesus must guide us in our interpretation.
We Are Under the Law of Christ
Though God’s people in the new covenant are not under the Law of Moses, it is important to understand that we are not free to sin (antinomianism). The New Testament speaks of the “Law of Christ:” “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Paul said that he was not under the law, but that he was indeed under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:20-21). Christ’s law is love for God and neighbor (Gal 5:14 in the context of 6:2; the “royal law” in James 2:8). Love for God and neighbor was also the purpose of the Law of Moses, which is why many of the commands in the old and new covenants are similar.
But this love is not disconnected from ethics. Romans 13:8-10 makes clear that our love of neighbor is expressed through moral behavior that does no harm to neighbor. This is, again, why we are not surprised to find some of the Ten Commandments being quoted in the New Testament. But they are not quoted because we are under the law, but because God’s character does not change. God gives us moral commands in the new covenant which guide our love of God and neighbor as we walk in the Holy Spirit.
It is also important to remember that the law is not bad! It is the holy word of God, which reveals God’s character and heart to us. Even when the coming of Christ changes the way the people of God apply his word, his word is never wrong; the law was not a ‘mistake.’ The law only brought death and condemnation (2 Cor 3:6-7), but it was not the fault of the law! It was our fault; sinners cannot keep the law. And that was always the point. So when we speak of the law as having faded away, or as being obsolete; when we say that God’s people are no longer under the law, we are not speaking negatively of the law but only using the words of the New Testament. Paul asks, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Rom 3:31). In other words, when we speak of Christ fulfilling the law and setting us free from the old covenant obligations, we are only saying that the law fulfilled its purpose. Its goal has been met in Jesus! The Law of Moses looked ahead and bore witness to the new covenant salvation in Jesus (Rom 3:21). Jesus has come, and we are free!
May believers in Christ rejoice that we are not burdened by a crushing, old covenant law, but rescued by Christ from our sins, and empowered to obey him through his precious Spirit! May we not have a ‘bad taste in our mouth’ concerning the law, or rip the Old Testament from our Bibles, but rather see Christ on every page! He is the Substance of the shadows. Hallelujah!
Look at Part 1 in this series for more about the Christian and Old Testament Law.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- ESV Study Bible notes. ©2008 Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
- 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law; Thomas R. Schreiner, ©2010, Kregel Publications; Grand Rapids, MI.
- The Letter To The Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, by Peter T. O’Brien. © 2010. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, MI.