Chris Badenhorst is a retired civil engineering technician who still works part time on one of South Africa’s oil refineries in the city of Durban on the east coast. He is married with three step-children and one grandchild. His wife is also a former Adventist who shares his enthusiasm for the gospel of God’s free grace. Although they are not members of a particular denomination, they attend a local Baptist church for worship and fellowship.
By Chris Badenhorst
Copyright 2007 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Glendale, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised August 2, 2007. Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
What is the role of the Law in the Christian life? Are the Ten Commandments still binding on believers in Jesus Christ? Is the Decalogue still the supreme rule of life for Christians? This is an issue that lies close to the heart of Christian ethics and should therefore be carefully considered in the light of the New Testament. We say the New Testament as this must always be the Christian's final authority. God's revelation in the Old Testament was progressive and therefore veiled whereas in the New Testament it is full and complete, that is, unveiled. So the Old Testament contains the lesser light whereas the New Testament contains the greater light. To be sure, the Old Testament is also God's Word, but it is NOT His full and final Word. This is found in the New Testament (Rom. 15:19; Eph. 3:4, 5; Col. 1:6) - that which is declared to us through Jesus and His apostles under the New Covenant (John 1:1, 18; Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:1-3). This contains the full counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Therefore the New Testament must always be our final authority. In view of this we must always interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament and not the other way around.
Its Protestant Tradition
In orthodox Protestant teaching the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments constitute the eternal Law of God. Large parts of Protestant catechisms are therefore devoted to expositions of the Ten Commandments. This has a two-fold purpose in mind:
1) In order to bring conviction of sin in preparation for the preaching of the Gospel and justification through faith in Christ. That is, the law must first be preached to induce guilt before Christ and the Gospel are introduced. This preparatory function of the law is called the second (or pedagogical) use of the law. The principal proof-texts to support this use of the law are Galatians 3:24 ("So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.") and Romans 7:7 ("Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet'").
2) The second use of the law leads logically and inevitably to the doctrine of the third use of the law. In this the law is presented as the Christian's rule of life in sanctification after he has been justified by faith in Christ. The Puritans were masters in teaching that the Decalogue first brings conviction of sin and then points the sinner to Christ for justification (the second use of the law). Then Christ points him back to the Decalogue for direction in Christian living (the third use of the law). Thus did the second use of the law lead logically and inevitably to the third use of the law in their theology. In their exposition of "the third use of the law" the Puritans described in great detail the duties of the Christian life. They defined sanctification in terms of the true keeping of the Ten Commandments.
Thus does classical Protestant theology begin with the Decalogue (second use) and end with the Decalogue (third use). (The first use of the law is said to be its function of restraining sin in society). It also teaches that when God handed down the Ten Commandments He handed down ethical propositions that are binding on all people for all time. Thus have the Ten Commandments been traditionally regarded as God's eternal law which He has given to all men for all time as a perfect and complete rule of life.
When Paul's epistles are consulted we see a startling difference between his teaching about the law and that of the Reformers. Paul's entire argument in Romans and Galatians is against the necessity of keeping the law! Paul not only opposed the teaching of keeping the law as a method of salvation; he particularly opposed those Jewish Christians (Judaizers) who urged Gentile Christians to come under the jurisdiction of the Jewish Torah as a rule of life. So, the Judaizers in Galatia taught something very similar to the Protestant idea of the third use of the law. The Protestant teaching of the third use of the law is therefore nearer to Paul's opponents than to Paul himself!
In Protestantism and some other denominations a distinction is made between what is called ‘the Law of God' and ‘the Law of Moses' - the former referring to the Ten Commandments and the latter to the so-called ‘ceremonial law,' that is, the laws concerning ordinances, offerings, feast days, the dietary laws, civil laws and the laws pertaining to the tabernacle and the priesthood. But this distinction is cosmetic because the Scriptures do not make such a distinction between the Law of God and the Law of Moses. For example:
a) In Nehemiah we read, "…the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel…They read from the Book of the Law of God…to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God…" (Nehemiah 8:1, 8; 10:29). According to Nehemiah the ‘Book of the Law of Moses' is the same as the ‘Book of the Law of God'. In other words, the law given to Israel by God is the same as the law given by Moses because God gave His law to Israel through Moses.
b) Luke 2:24 says, "…and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeon's.'" Where does the Bible speak of the offering mentioned in this verse? In Leviticus 12:8 - that part of the Old Testament that Protestantism calls ‘the law of Moses'. Yet Luke declares that this offering is commanded "in the law of the Lord." Clearly, the law of Moses and the law of the Lord are one and the same. (Cf. Mark 7:9, 10; John 7:19).
c) In Leviticus 19 God again confirms His Law to Israel through Moses. The Ten Commandments are repeated in principle: 1st commandment (v. 32); 2nd (v. 4); 3rd (v. 12); 4th (v. 30); 5th (v. 3); 6th (v. 17); 7th (v. 29); 8th (v. 13); 9th (v. 11); 10th (v. 35). Mingled amongst these are commandments about sacrifices (v. 5); harvest (v. 9); clothing (v. 19); priests (v. 22); first-fruits (v. 23); spirit mediums (v. 31); Gentiles (v. 34), etc. Therefore, the distinction made between the Law of God (moral) and the Law of Moses (ceremonial) is superficial and not substantiated by the Scriptures. "The law" embraces "the whole law" (Gal. 3:10; 5:3), i.e. the Torah.
It is quite clear from these examples that the "Law of Moses" and "the Law of the Lord" are used interchangeably in the Scriptures. The Decalogue is an integral part of the legal code or Torah given to Israel. This constituted God's will for them under the Old covenant. According to Jewish scholars the Torah contained 613 commandments pertaining to civil, dietary, sacrificial, and moral issues. These commandments constitute a unit referred to in the Scriptures as "the law of Moses" (Neh. 8:1; Mal. 4:4; Acts 15:5) or just "Moses" (Mark 7:10), "the law of the Lord" (Neh. 9:3; Luke 2:22-24), "the written code" (Rom. 2:27, 29; 7:6), "the written code, with its regulations" (Col. 2:14), and "the law with its commandments and regulations" (Eph. 2:15).
But the most common designation for the law of Moses is simply "the law" – called the Torah in the Old Testament (Neh. 8:9, 13, 14) and the nomos in the New Testament (Luke 2:22-27). When the New Testament writers speak of the law, they invariably speak of the Torah, i.e. the law of Moses. Therefore, to make a distinction between the Law of Moses and the Law of God for our own convenience and to prove our point is man-made and artificial.
The Three Stages of the Law
In his letter to the Galatian believers Paul says three things about the law: "What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgression until the Seed…had come" (Gal. 3:19). In this statement of Paul the law had a beginning, it had a purpose and it had an end:
1. The beginning of the law. Paul says it was added – added of course to something that was in existence already at the time, namely the promise God had given to Abraham 430 years before (Gal. 3:16, 17). That promise was founded on Christ (Gal. 3:16). Therefore, according to Paul, the starting point of true biblical thinking is not the law but Jesus Christ and God's purpose of grace in him, which preceded the law (Gal. 3:17). But the Judaizers in Galatia made the law the starting point of their theological thinking. Orthodox Protestantism has done the same.
Therefore did Karl Barth challenge classical Lutheranism for beginning with the law rather than the Gospel and classical Calvinism for beginning with predestination rather than Jesus Christ. So, whether it be the Jewish faith or the Christian faith, the true starting point of biblical thinking is not a theological system based on an abstract legal code or an abstract concept of election and predestination. No, it is the story of God's grace - the Gospel concerning Jesus! "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Col. 1:17). God therefore gave the law to Israel only 430 years after He had given the Gospel to Abraham (Gal. 3:17)! This was the true starting point of the law, which includes the Decalogue.
2. The purpose of the law. Paul says, "It was added because of transgressions." It has been stated that without the Law Israel would have degenerated into a pagan state and lost the hope of Christ's coming as was promised to Abraham. The law was therefore necessary to help Israel nurture and keep alive the hope of the coming Messiah. The law did this basically in two ways:
a) Its stern, unbending moral requirements served as a constant reminder of the hideous nature of sin – rebellion against God, His authority and will. This kept God's people sensitive to their need of redemption.
b) Its ceremonial aspect foreshadowed that needed redemption. For example, the Passover not only commemorated Israel's redemption from Egypt, but it pointed forward to the real redemption by the blood of Christ. Every offering at the tabernacle was but a "shadow of good things to come" (Heb. 10:1) - the one great offering of the blood of Christ (Heb. 10: 10-14).
So, the promise of Christ was given to Abraham. The Law (or Old Covenant) was given 430 years later to help Israel keep the hope of Christ's coming alive. The Law was not the fulfilment of the promise in that it added nothing to the promise (Gal. 3:17); it was but a temporary shadow that pointed forward to its realization and fulfilment.
3. The end of the law. The law not only had a beginning and a specific purpose, it also had an end:
a) Concerning this end Paul says, "It was added…until the Seed…had come" (Gal. 3:19). Its purpose and function was therefore but temporal from the time it was added till the Seed had come. Now Paul also tells us what he means by the Seed: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds', meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed', meaning one person, who is Christ" (Gal. 3:16). According to Paul the seed is Christ. We may therefore substitute the word "Christ" for "the seed" and read, "The law was added…until Christ…had come" (Gal. 3:19). So, when Christ finally came, the dispensation of the Law (Moses, or the Old Covenant) had fulfilled its function in history. Thus could Paul say that "Christ is the end of the law…" (Rom. 10:4).
b) The end of the Law can also be seen by the fact that the Decalogue belongs to the Old Covenant. This is plainly stated in Deuteronomy 4:13: "He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets." The question that needs to now be asked is whether the Old Covenant is still in force or not? If not, then neither is the Decalogue that constituted the heart of the Old Covenant (Exo. 34:28; cf. Deut. 4:13) with the Sabbath as its seal (Exo. 34:16, 17). In 2 Corinthians 3:5-14 we find the express mention of the Ten Commandments in connection with the abrogation of the Old Covenant. Throughout this passage, Paul depicts a clear-cut contrast between the Old and New Covenants. He clearly states that the Old Covenant, "the ministry that brought death", was that "which was engraved in letters on stone," i.e. the Ten Commandments. He then declares that this "was fading away" because "in Christ is it taken away."
c) The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews also confirms that the Law has come to an end. He states: "For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law" (Heb. 7:12). The law (or Torah) was an integral part of the Old Covenant that God made with the nation Israel at Sinai. This included the Decalogue that was placed inside the ark of the (Old) Covenant. Thus, when the Old Covenant priesthood was changed (annulled), being superseded by the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ (Heb. 7:15-17), this of necessity would change (annul) everything belonging to it, including the entire Old Covenant law system. So, with the abrogation of the Old Covenant is the annulment of the Old Covenant priesthood and with the annulment of the Old Covenant priesthood is the annulment of the Old Covenant law system (the Torah) including the Decalogue.
d) The end of the law is further confirmed by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) that was convened to decide the relationship of Gentile Christians to the law. The apostles there recognized the leading of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28a) and unanimously decided that Gentile Christians need not be circumcised and keep the law. It decided that only four items from the law (three ‘ceremonial' and one ‘moral') would be imposed upon the Gentiles (who were never under the law) in the interest of a peaceful co-existence between them and Jewish Christians who wanted to retain their culture and continue under the law as a way of life (Acts 15:20). So the purpose of this decision was purely pragmatic while Jewish and Gentile believers worshipped together. Gentile Christians were not burdened with anything else from the law (Acts 15:28, 29). In view of this we must not therefore isolate circumcision in this context as if that was the sole problem at the time as some have done.
Under The New Covenant
So, what are the terms of the New Covenant for Christians if not the Decalogue? What constitutes the will of God in the New Covenant so we may know what God requires of us? Where do we as New Covenant believers go to find out what God's will is for our lives? Are we justified in bringing the Old Covenant Decalogue over into the New Covenant making that the basis of our Christian conduct? Are we justified in bringing Moses over into the New Covenant and making him the instructor of God's New Covenant people? In the light of the above the answer to these questions must be a definite ‘No' because the New Testament not only teaches us that Moses and the Torah have come to an end but that Christ and "the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2) have replaced them. On the mount of transfiguration God Himself declared from heaven that Jesus was the One to supersede Moses. He said, "This is my Son…listen to him" (Luke 9:35)
Yet, as we have seen, Puritan-Reformed theology and some other denominations teach that the Ten Commandments are still the rule of life for the New Covenant believer. They say that Christ structures our faith but Moses structures our ethics. Thus do they go to Christ for grace but return to Moses for ethics. This understanding is clearly written in their creeds. But we have also seen that the Ten Commandments are the law of Moses or "the words of the (Mosaic) covenant" (Exod. 34:28; cf. Deut. 4:13) and as such belong to the old redemptive history that proceeded from the Exodus.
On the other hand, the law of Christ belongs to the new redemptive history that proceeds from Calvary. The New Testament does not therefore send the Spirit filled believer back to Moses to learn his duty. Nowhere is he exhorted to study the Torah as his rule of life. On the contrary, he is shown how God's redemptive act in Christ is to determine the way he is to conduct himself in all human relationships. This is clearly seen in Paul's epistles. In these he firstly reminds the believers of God's saving grace in Christ. Then, in the light of the Gospel, he exhorts them to holy living by means of specific commands.
God's will versus Law
There can be no doubt that under the New Covenant a fundamental transformation has taken place in regards to the question of ethics. If anyone is in Christ, "the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul gives clear evidence of this in that when he deals with the question of norms for the Christian life, he very seldom refers to the law, and then only in a secondary way (1 Cor. 9:7-12; 14:21, 34). In the ethical chapters of the letter to the Romans (chaps. 12 ff.), the term "law" does not occur except once (13:8-10), and there Paul substitutes for it the command to love as its New Covenant equivalent.
Neither is there any mention of the law in Paul's letters to the Thessalonians or in 2 Corinthians. Instead, he speaks in his admonitions to the believers of "the will of God" (1 Thes. 4:3; 5:18; 2 Cor. 8:5). In these passages he seems to make it a point to avoid using the term "law." Thus in Romans 12:2, he sums up the whole body of Christian ethics as a matter of "testing and proving what the will of God is" (cf. Col. 1:9). Synonymous with the will of God is the notion of what is "acceptable to God" or "pleasing to God" (Rom. 12:1; Col. 3:20).
In Ephesians the law appears only as "the law with its commandments and regulations" which Christ has abolished (2:15). Elsewhere in the epistle we find references, not to the law but to "the will of God" (5:17; 6:6). In the book of Hebrews, similarly, the term "law" is used only to refer to the Old Covenant law system. As for Christians, they are to do "the will of God" (10:36; 13:21).
So, in practically all the passages thus far that deal with the question of norms for the Christian life, the term "law" is avoided. The implications of this are clear: a distinction is being made between God's New Covenant "will" on the one hand, and the Old Covenant "law" on the other.
Commandments versus Law
As regards this matter of Christian ethics the apostle John is even more consistent and terminologically explicit. In his Gospel the term "law" always signifies the Law of Moses known as the Jewish Torah. On the other hand, God's will (or Christ's will) for the believers is invariably designated by the term "commandment," never by "law." John teaches that the Law of Moses points to Christ (Jn 1:45) and that it is superseded by Christ as the final and supreme revelation of the will of God (Jn. 1:1-18). For this reason the supreme rule of life to the Christian community is NOT the Old Covenant Law (or Torah) but the Word that comes directly from God to his Son in the commandments of Jesus (see especially John 10:18; 13:34 and repeatedly in chapters 14 and 15).
As stated above, the apostle John always refers to the Law as the Law of the Jews. On the lips of Jesus the Law invariably becomes your Law, their Law, i.e. the Law of the Jews (Jn. 8:17; 10:34; 15:25). John puts similar words in the mouth of Pilate (Jn 18:31), of Nicodemus (Jn 7:51) and of the Jews themselves (Jn 19:7). In this way does John associate the law with the Jews and the Jews only - and correctly so because the Scriptures are clear that it was given only to the Jews (Deut. 4:13; 5:2, 3).
Therefore, John never uses the law as a rule of life for the Christian community, because Christ, to whom the Law pointed (Jn 1:45), has come. He has superseded the Law as the ultimate revelation of God's will (Jn 1:1-18). To now consider the law as the ultimate revelation of the will of God for us as Christians means to have misunderstood the function of the law or never to have understood it at all.
There is no question that Christians are obligated to do the will of God, not as revealed in the law, but as revealed in the person of Christ. He is indeed the Word of God incarnate. In the words of Jesus the will of God, which Christians are obligated to do, is not "the law" but the "command" or "the commandments" that come to us through Jesus. We see this clearly in the following statements of Jesus: "A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (Jn. 13:34). "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (Jn. 14:15). "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me" (Jn. 14:21). "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love" (Jn. 15:10). "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you" (Jn. 15:12). "You are my friends if you do what I command" (Jn. 15:14). Thus, the commandment of Jesus that his disciples keep is NOT the Law of Moses; it is the command to love one another as he has loved them.
We also see this in the relationship between Jesus and his Father. Jesus states: "For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life" (Jn. 12:49, 50). "But the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me" (Jn.14:31). "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love" (Jn. 15:10). Thus, the commandment of the Father that Jesus kept is NOT the Law of Moses; it is the divine command that Jesus lived by. This governed the divine mission of his life.
Likewise in John's epistles, the term "law" is entirely lacking. The same is true in the book of Revelation where the term "law" does not occur at all. Christians are designated as "those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Rev. 12:17). John does speak, just once, of "keeping the law," but here he is referring to the Jews: "Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law" (Jn. 7:19). The phrase "keeping the law" is never used by John with reference to New Covenant believers.
We see then that John makes a strict terminological and theological distinction between law and commandment. The law was given by Moses (Jn 7:19) or by God through Moses (Jn 1:17), and it was given only to the Jews. But now God gives – both to his Son and through him – the commandments that constitute his will for New Covenant believers. John therefore avoids using the term "law" for the will of God that comes to us through Jesus Christ because of its tendency to become impersonal and legalistic.
Such a connotation cannot do justice to the goal of supreme love to God and impartial love to each other which Jesus set forth as the centre of God's will for His children. For this reason John uses the word "command" or "commandment" instead because the believer lives in a faith union with Christ who kept his Father's commandments and because the believer keeps Christ's commandments by reflecting that same kind of sacrificial love in relation to others. But because Christians are still saddled with the sinful nature in this life, the divine command to love needs divine guidance. This guidance is found in all the concrete exhortations (commands) given us by the apostles in their epistles.
In view of the above, it is of fundamental importance that a theological distinction be drawn between "law" and "commandment" in terms of Christian ethics. We see in John's Gospel and epistles as well as his Revelation a consistent pattern, namely, the fact that the "law", as Paul delineates it in contrast to the Gospel concerning Jesus Christ, does NOT constitute the ultimate revelation of God's will for his New Covenant people. Rather, the law must be seen as a limited and temporary form of God's will given to His Old covenant people Israel through Moses – a form that has been replaced by Christ and "the law (commandments) of Christ" (Gal. 6:2) under the New Covenant. This distinction between "law" and "commandments" as regards God's will is therefore of fundamental importance for a proper understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Covenants and God's dealings with his people in each of these dispensations.