The Use of the OT Law for NT Believers

The Use of the OT Law for NT Believers1

Many Christians are confused about the use of the OT Law. Do we follow it or not? Is it still in force or not? What parts of it should we follow? If we are not following it, of what value is it?

This lesson is designed to explore what the OT Law is and how it currently applies to NT believers.


Meaning of the word “law”

Part of the confusion on this issue stems from the multiple uses of the word “law” in the NT. Some of the uses of the term:

    1. God’s general moral will expressed throughout the Bible (OT and NT); divine commands in the widest sense (Rom 7:25). The moral principles of the Ten Commandments did not begin with Sinai; they are as eternal and immutable as the very holy character of God Himself (1 Pet 1:16).2

    1. The OT Mosaic code (including or especially the 10 Commandments): the set of rules and regulations that God gave Moses for Israel. (Rom 2:14a; 2:17; 3:21, 28; 7:12; Gal 4:21, 5:3)

    2. The “law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2) refers to Jesus’ teaching or NT truth in general.

    3. Scripture in general (especially the OT). Thus: “the law” (Matt 5:18; 12:5; Lk 2:27; 10:26; 16:17; Rom 3:19); “the law and the prophets” (Matt 5:17); “the law of the Lord” (Lk 2:23, 24, 39); “the law of Moses” (Lk 2:22; cf. also Acts 28:23); “Moses and the prophets” (Lk 24:27). The threefold formula “Moses and the prophets and the psalms” also occurs (Lk 24:44).

    4. A rule, principle, or force (Rom 2:14b, 7:2, 21, 23, 8:2)

    5. Various forms of human laws, those prescribed by man through human government or custom (Luke 20:22; Acts 19:38).

    6. Law in general (Rom 3:27 and possibly Rom 5:13b).

NT teaching about the OT Law

  1. The Law extended “until John” the Baptist (Mt 11:13); after that comes the gospel of Christ.

  2. Christ did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Mt 5:17). It is impossible that any part of the Law would disappear (Mt 5:18-19). Jesus expected his audience to keep the Law.

It’s important to remember that Jesus lived and ministered under the Law. The end of the Law came with the death of Christ, the torn veil symbolizing the ending of the Levitical system (Mk 15:38; Heb 6:19, 9:3, 10:20). Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law set the stage for the church age.

    1. The Law can be summarized by these two commands: Love God and love your neighbor (Mt 22:34-40). Paul states that love fulfills the Law (Rom 13:10).

    2. Christians are not under the OT Law. NT authors, especially Paul, states this truth in no uncertain terms and in various ways:

Ac 15:10, 19 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? … Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God…

Ro 6:14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

Ro 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Ro 7:1-6 Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.

(Note: the entire book of Galatians is a response to the idea that we are saved through the keeping of the Law.)

Ga 3:10-13 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”)…

Ga 3:24-25 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

Ga 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.

Eph 2:15 having abolished [to destroy, do away with; to render idle, inactivate, inoperative: to deprive of force, influence, power; to cause to cease, put an end to, do away with, annul; to pass away, be done away] in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.

Col 2:14 having wiped out [to eliminate, cancel, erase, blot out3] the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

      1. What does it mean to be “under” the Law? It means to be subject to its rules and regulations, to be accountable to it, to be liable to its penalties, and to be bound to obey it.

      2. The Israelites were “under” the Law in the sense that it applied directly to them; God expected them to apply it and obey it. He blessed obedience and punished disobedience.

      3. At the Jerusalem council (read Acts 15:5-11, 19-21, 29), the disciples specifically rejected the idea that Gentile believers need to observe the OT Law.

      4. Some Jews, like Paul (1 Cor 9:19-23) determined to observe the rituals of the OT Law, at least occasionally, simply to be non-offensive to those they were trying to reach. At other times, Paul exercised his freedom from those same rituals and restrictions (see Gal 2:11-21).

      5. The Law of Moses is a unit, an indivisible, all-or-nothing proposition. The Bible never makes a distinction between parts of the Law. People typically recognize the different civil, ceremonial and moral aspects of the Law, but these categories do not stand individually; they are parts of the whole. You can’t just pick and choose the parts that you like and ignore the rest. This is precisely Paul’s point in Galatians 5:3-4—if you agree to be circumcised, you are agreeing to obey the whole Law, which means that you are rejecting salvation by faith in Christ.

Breakdown of the OT Law:

Ceremonial: deals with sacrifices, rituals, purifications, and other religious things fulfilled in Christ.

Civil: rules dealing with the government regulations, the Theocracy; governed national Israel.

Moral: deals with timeless moral principles like the 10 Commandments.

Quote: “God did away with the Mosaic Law completely, both the [civil,] ceremonial and the moral parts. He terminated it as a code and has replaced it with a new code, “the Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Some commandments in the Law of Christ are the same as those in the Law of Moses (e.g., nine of the Ten Commandments, excluding the command to observe the Sabbath day).”4

Christians are under the law of Christ

Ro 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.

1Co 9:21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law;

Ga 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

What is the law of Christ? It’s the set of regulations and commitments taught by Jesus and expanded by the NT authors. It’s the Christian rule of life. In contrast to the Mosaic code, which emphasized rituals and works, the law of Christ emphasizes grace and love (cf. John 1:17, 13:34; 1 Jn 2:3-6). We serve “in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:6). The law of Christ covers all areas of the believer’s life just as the Mosaic code did for the OT believer.

Interpreting the OT Law

While we should not import NT ideas into the OT in our interpretation, we do consider NT teaching when considering application of OT principles. Our application of the OT should be read thru NT lenses. What principles still apply in NT times? What parts has Christ fulfilled or accomplished? What parts are mere shadows and symbols?

Values of the OT Law

  1. The Law is “holy and good” (Rom 7:12), one of God’s gifts to Israel (Rom 9:4).

  2. The Law provided a standard of righteousness (Deut 4:8; Psalm 19:7-9). The Law revealed the righteousness, holiness, and goodness of God (Deut 4:8; Lev 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7; Rom 7:12-14).

  3. The Law entered “that the offense might abound” (Rom 5:20; cf. 7:8-13; 1 Cor 15:56b), and in order to “confine” men under Law and sin, with no prospect of escape until Christ should come (Gal 3:22f.). The Law produces the startling realization of sin which does not save (Rom 3:20; 7:7); but it calls forth a cry for help in one’s lost condition (Rom 7:24), a cry which can be answered effectively only by Jesus Christ (Rom 7:25).5

Ro 3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.

Ro 7:13 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful.

1Ti 1:9 knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,…

Note: In an evangelistic appeal, one must emphasize the sinner’s sinfulness. A comparison of the person’s lifestyle to the requirements of the 10 Commandments and to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount is often helpful in revealing the sinner’s total depravity.

Luther: The Law must be laid upon those that are to be justified, that they may be shut up in the prison thereof, until the righteousness of faith comes—that, when they are cast down and humbled by the Law, they should fly to Christ. The Law humbles them, not to their destruction, but to their salvation. For God woundeth that He may heal again. He killeth that he may quicken again.?6

    1. Perhaps the most significant purpose of the Law is to lead men to Christ. The Law is a ???????????, “schoolmaster, tutor, custodian” (Gal 3:24-25). The ??????????? was usually a slave whose duty it was to take the pupil to school and supervise his conduct generally. The OT Law served this purpose—it held authority until the coming of Christ. Paul states clearly that after faith comes, “we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal 3:25).

    2. 2 Tim 3:16 All of the OT is still revelation, still profitable material, still contains doctrine and instruction in righteousness.

    3. 1Co 10:11 Now all these things happened unto them for examples: and they are written for our admonition.

Good quote: It is possible to conclude that since it is unnecessary to keep the Law to be saved, it is unnecessary to pay attention to the Law for any reason. However, Paul was not urging his converts to burn their Old Testaments. The Law has values, as he previously pointed out, … Under grace we are free to fulfill the Law by loving one another. [Cf. Ro 13:10.] For the Christian the Mosaic Law has revelatory value (2 Tim 3:16–17) even though it does not have regulatory value, controlling our behavior.7

Weaknesses of the Law

  1. The Law cannot save. Salvation was never based on obedience to the Law, but on God’s grace and man’s faith in God’s promises (Rom 4:1-3). There is no truth to the assertion that under the OT system, people were saved by works (Gal 2:16).

  2. The fundamental weakness of the Law is that its only answer to sin is to forbid it and condemn it. Law cannot overcome sin, because it depends on the cooperation of the flesh (i.e., autonomous human nature), which is weak (Rom 8:3), incapable of obedience.

  3. What the Law demands can be gained only by the Spirit on the basis of the work of Christ (Rom 8:4). The Law is essentially a letter that kills; the life of the new covenant is the Spirit who makes alive (Rom 7:6; 2 Cor 3:6).

  4. The book of Hebrews demonstrates that the old covenant of the Mosaic Law was only temporary and has been replaced by the coming of Christ whose ministry is based on (1) a better priesthood, one after the order of Melchizedek which is superior to Aaron’s, and (2) a better covenant with better promises (see Heb 7-10). The old covenant was only a shadow of heavenly things, and if it had been able to make men perfect before God there would have been no occasion for a second or new covenant (see Heb 7:11-12; 8:1-13).8

Heb 7:19 For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God.

Why not place yourself under the Law?

Many today advocate observing some of the rules and regulations from the OT. They assert that Christians should observe OT moral stipulations whenever possible. Examples: dietary regulations, clothing guidelines, infant circumcision, observation of the Saturday Sabbath, various sexual restrictions.

What is true of those seeking to place themselves under the OT Law?

    1. They are violating the proper use of the Law (read 1 Tim 1:9).

    2. They ignore the fact that the Law demands entire obedience (Gal 3:10, quoting Deut 27:26). It’s illegitimate to pick and choose those aspects of it that seem “applicable.”

    3. Paul says that if one has been delivered from the Law through faith in Christ, to deliberately place oneself under its control results in “falling from grace” (Gal 5:4). In other words, to go back to the Law amounts to a rejection of Christ.

    4. To go back to the Law as a way of life puts one under the control of the flesh; it nullifies true spirituality by faith in the Holy Spirit and defeats the believer. It results domination by the sin nature or the flesh (Gal 5:1-5; Col 2:14f).9

Is the Christian without law (i.e., lawless, antinomian)? No.

Gal 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

Heb 1:9 [Christ] loved righteousness and hated lawlessness…

1Jo 3:4 Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness.

Discussion questions:

  1. Some people preach that the keeping of the OT Law is a moral and spiritual obligation for the Christian. They say that keeping the Law of Moses is necessary for sanctification, i.e., for living a holy life that is pleasing to the Lord. Although we are not saved by the Law, once we have been justified by faith, then the Mosaic Law becomes our rule of life. In other words, the OT moral Law still applies. Is this what the Bible teaches? No, we are not under any part of the OT Law—civil, ceremonial or moral. The OT Law is an all-or-nothing deal. Read Acts 15:10 and Gal. 5:1. Warning about Bill Gothard—major proponent of this error.

  2. Jesus said (Mt 5:18f) that not even the smallest part of the Law would pass away until all is fulfilled. Doesn’t that mean that the Law must still be in force? No, because Jesus fulfilled the Law. Mt 5:17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Ro 10:4 For Christ is the end (telov) of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

  3. Why not just cut the OT out of our Bibles if we are not under the Law? The OT still has revelatory value, just not regulatory value. It’s profitable (2 Tim 3:16) and gives us many examples to follow or to shun (1 Cor 10:11).

  4. How do we know what parts or principles from the OT we can apply? Generally, by how they correspond to NT principles.

  5. If the OT is not the Christian’s rule of life, what is? The NT, the Law of Christ, grace. “The believer is now to live in the liberty and power of God’s grace by the Spirit, not the rule of Law. This new liberty must never be used as an occasion to indulge the flesh or sinful appetites (Gal 5:13) nor does it mean the Christian has no moral Law or imperatives on his life, but simply that he or she is to live righteously by a new source of life.”10

  6. Why don’t we keep the Saturday Sabbath? 1) We are not under the OT Law; 2) There is no particular virtue in recognizing one day over another (Col 2:16); 3) Saturday Sabbath keeping is a command not repeated in the NT. However, observing a day of rest is biblical. Observing the Lord’s Day (Sunday) as a day dedicated to worship is proper. A “soft” or “modified” form of Sabbath observance allows other activities on the Lord’s Day that focus one’s attention on God or on the good things God provides. Various forms of recreation, if pursued with a thoughtful attitude, need not be prohibited on Sunday afternoons.

  7. Does the Bible teach the necessity of circumcision? 1Co 7:19 “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God [is what matters].” Galatians 5:6 “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” Circumcision is no longer binding on Christians today. It may or may not be a good idea for health reasons, but the practice has no spiritual value.

1For a very good discussion of this issue, consult Alva McClain’s brief volume Law and Grace (BMH Books). This lesson updated April 08.

2J. Hampton Keathley III , “The Mosaic Law: Its Function and Purpose in the New Testament” www.Bible.net

3Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament) (electronic ed.) (GGK1981). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

4Tom Constable. (2003; 2003). Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Ga 5:1). Galaxie Software.

5NIDNTT

6Quoted in R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001), 95.

7Constable.

8Keathley

9Keathley

10Keathley

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