How do Christianity and Old Covenant law go together? Of course there are thousands of pages in loads of books given to this topic. But for the ordinary believer, what do we do with the law? Does it apply? Does it not? Do parts apply and parts not?
I have been pondering those points for a bit, and so it was interesting to read the following from Paul in my daily reading:
Ephesians 2:13-16 – 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 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, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
Contextually, Paul has been showing the Ephesians the glory of their salvation. In 2:1-10, Paul showed them the glory of being saved by grace alone through faith alone. He showed them that our faith is a gift given to us by God which moves us from death to life and prepares us, after we are saved, to live for his glory.
Then, in the section beginning with 2:11, Paul shows that the Ephesians, gentiles by birth, have not only been saved but have also been brought into the singular people of God. Before, during Old Covenant times, there were two groupings in the world: Jew and gentile—circumcised and uncircumcised. But now, in Christ, God has made a massive change. No longer are gentiles required to enter the Old Covenant Judaism in order to find the grace of God. Now, God has broken down that dividing wall between Jew and gentile to make a single group, a single family, the people of God.
In that creation of the New Covenant people, it is interesting to see that Paul says in 2:15 that God did all this by “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Something has been abolished, done away with, from the old system. Something that divided Jew and gentile is now gone. Something has changed to enact a greater, better covenant.
What do we know for sure about this abolishing? For sure, we know that New Covenant believers are no longer required to follow any form of the law that is often labeled ceremonial. We do not sacrifice animals any longer. We do not burn a particular incense in a temple any longer. We do not burn a grain offering any longer. We do not keep particular religious festivals by requirement any longer. All of that part of the law was a dim shadow that pointed toward the perfect righteousness and sacrificial work of Christ. Jesus fulfilled it all.
There are also Old Covenant laws relating to Israel as a nation. There were rules that God gave which simply set the Israelite apart from the rest of the world, identifying him or her as a unique individual who claimed a place in the nation. This was clear in dietary laws, in dress code, in circumcision, in farming practices, and in other such things. These, most would agree, were unique to Israel as a nation-state, and are not required today. Add to those laws the ones that focus on the national civil law code of Israel. Laws about what to do if my ox kills yours, about railings on my roof, about punishment for theft, or about property inheritance within clans are not laws that most would say Christians ought to keep. Christ is our king, fulfilling all nationalistic requirements, and we are now under his rule.
But then there are the parts of the law that are moral. Those laws reveal to us the character of God and his desires for human behavior. Such laws include God’s proclamations about marriage, sexuality, violence, kindness, family, parenting, etc. Are those laws abolished too? It really depends on what you understand when you say abolished. If you believe that even the moral law is something that we keep in order to be saved, then you should consider the law abolished. God will not save any person or call them his own because of their keeping of any moral law, even the ones we still champion today. So, in one sense, even the moral law is abolished. Christ fulfilled it on our behalf just as he fulfilled the ceremonial law.
Of course, that last paragraph would be horrifying to me if taken out of context. This is because, though the moral law is not a requirement we must meet for salvation, we learn in the moral commands of the Old Testament and those in the New Testament the kinds of behaviors and values that honor the Lord. And though all laws are fulfilled by Christ on behalf of those he died to save, we do not then rightly choose to behave in opposition to the standards God gave us in those commands. This, by the way, is something Paul repeatedly argued for in his writings. He would proclaim us free from law, and then he would challenge us not to sin just because we are under grace. The moral law is fulfilled by Christ on our behalf, and now we live to please the lord based on what he has revealed is pleasing to him in all of his word. We follow God’s revealed morality, not out of legal duty, but out of loving delight in the glory of our Lord.
Let’s look at a simple example. God forbade murder in the Old Testament law. But I just said the law is abolished. Does that mean I can now murder? No way. Setting aside the fact that the prohibition against murder is affirmed in the New Testament, the Old Testament showed us that murder is in itself an attack on the Lord himself. To willfully murder a human being who is an image of God is to attack the God of that image. Murder attacks God. So, even if there were no law code in place at all, Christians would (or should) understand that murder is morally wrong because of the truths and values that the Lord has revealed all through his word.
So, is the law abolished? Yes and no. Yes, the law is abolished if you are thinking of it as a set of rules we follow to be defined as the people of God. Christ fulfilled all law in that way. Yes, the law is abolished if you are thinking about laws that would make us look like Old Testament Israel. Christ fulfilled all of those. The law is abolished if you are thinking even of moral commandments as ways to earn the favor of the Lord, because Christ fulfilled those and earned the only earned favor anyone will ever earn. But do we then live in lawlessness? Of course we do not. WE live according to the word of God, because the word of God reveals to us the commands of God and the ways of God for those who have been brought into his family. So, we still value life, protect marriage, live graciously with each other, show compassion, avoid immorality, and battle sin, not out of law, but because battling sin is part of what those people do who have been changed by God and who desire to be sanctified, to look more and more like Jesus each day of our lives.