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  • Don Walker

The Law in the New Testament



One Scottish divine long ago observed: "He who can bring together the real connection between the law and the gospel, will be a good theologian." Paul told Timothy to take special care in making distinctions and handling the "word of truth" (II Tim. 2:15). This is always applicable, but comes into particular focus as we examine the issue of the law in the New Testament. A loss of the proper distinction between law and gospel results in antinomianism and a "freedom to sin" attitude on one hand, or moralism and a "salvation by works" on the other. Likewise, law applied when the gospel is called for is the theological equivalent of prescribing high blood pressure medication when the patient has low blood pressure.

Before we go much further in our study it is important that we eliminate the misconception that God saved people in the Old Testament by the Law, and now under the New Covenant people are saved by grace. This is simply not true. No one was ever saved by the keeping of the law. In fact, the law was never meant to save anyone. Old Testament Israel was not "under law" regarding salvation. God had chosen Israel by grace, not according to performance. Israel did not choose God, God chose Israel. God chose them solely on the basis of His grace. Those who have created a theology that has the Old and New Covenants in adversarial relationship with each other have failed to recognize the fact that all covenants since the fall of Adam have been covenants of grace. It is only after this error is cleared out of the way that we can have a true discussion of this matter.

The law was given that men would know what God declared to be sin. It is God’s standard for righteousness (Rom. 7:7-12). Paul tells us that the law also has the purpose of convicting men of their guilt and revealing their need for a Savior. In Galatians 3:24 we are told: "Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith." Augustine stated it this way, "The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace." In addition, the law has the purpose of restraining evil (I Tim. 1:9). The law, in and of itself, lacks the power to change human hearts. But it can serve as a deterrent to evildoers.

Jesus clearly stated, in the Sermon on the Mount, that He did not come to abolish the law, but rather to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-19). Unfortunately, some of Jesus’ modern day followers are deceived into believing that He did abolish the law. In fact, the Sermon on the Mount is God Himself (in the Person of Christ) restating and reapplying the Law of God to his disciples. I do take note of the fact that in the Old Testament God descended onto a mountain and delivered the Ten Commandments to Israel, through Moses. In the New Testament, God (in the Person of Christ) ascended onto a mountain and delivered the "renewed" version of the Ten Commandments to "spiritual" Israel, which is the Church. In reality, the Law of God is not only not abolished, but rather strengthened in the New Testament. Jesus extends the commandment against murder to include thoughts of hatred towards one’s brother (Matt. 5:21-22). Likewise, He extends the sin of adultery beyond the act to include thoughts of lust (Matt. 5:27-28). Christ not only affirms the validity of the Old Testament commandments it elevates them to include the thoughts and intents of the heart.

I believe that John Wesley stated it quite well when he wrote: "We lay hold of this gospel, of these glad tidings, it is done unto us according to our faith and the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us through faith which is in Christ Jesus. The moral law contained in the Ten Commandments and enforced by the prophets, Christ did not take away. It was not the design of His coming to revoke any part of this. This is a law, which never can be broken, which stands fast as a faithful witness in heaven. The moral stands on an entirely different foundation from the ceremonial or ritual law, which was only designed for temporary restraint upon a stiff-necked or disobedient people: whereas this was from the beginning of the world being written not on the tables of stone, but on the hearts of all men."

Paul insisted that his message regarding justification by faith did not overthrow the law, but upheld it (Rom. 3:31). He taught that through justification by faith the requirement of the law was fulfilled by those walking in God’s Spirit (Rom. 8:4). Even Paul’s statement about Christ being the "end of the law" is specifically interpreted by him as meaning the end of the law as a means of being justified before God (Rom. 10:4). Paul’s assertion is that the Ten Commandments will continue to stand also for the believer, observing, however, that their intention can be fulfilled only by agape love which loves one’s neighbor as oneself (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14). If this is the case, then the way of love is inextricably tied to the revelation of God’s Law. This seems to have escaped the notice of most Christians today. I am afraid that we have wandered from a Biblical definition of love into a worldly, humanistic, sentimental concept of "love." Love for God and love for one’s neighbor must be measured by God’s law: "If you love Me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).

The law and the gospel, properly understood and applied bring together true morality and true spirituality. Romans 8:3-4 tells us: "For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." When one is in Christ (the fulfiller of the law), having received the Holy Spirit, the law is internalized. This heart change is what both Jeremiah and Ezekiel foresaw (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:25-27). It is Christ, who is the Grace of God (Titus 2:11), that enables us by the indwelling of His Spirit to keep the law.

Allow me to summarize with these concluding thoughts:

Christ’s life is the moral standard by which all men everywhere shall be judged (Acts 10:42). The scepter of righteousness and of justice has been placed in His hand (Ps. 45:6).

1) We need to see Him as the LAW-GIVER.

2) We need to see Him as the LAW-INTERPRETER.

3) He is the LAW-KEEPER.

4) He also PAID THE PENALTY for the broken law.

5) He gives us the POWER TO KEEP His law.

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