The themes of law and grace are central to Christianity. Sorting them out gets to the very heart of the gospel message. Yet, many people inside and outside of the Christian community are unclear on what laws Christians must follow, what laws are no longer applicable, and why.
Perhaps, more importantly: is that even a question we should be asking? Someone recently posted the following question to a group to which I belong on social media:
I get the message of we are not under the law but under grace. But if we live through Christ we will follow the law. How do we know what law to follow? Does this go as far back as to not mix fabrics?
Obviously everyone says we’re no longer under the law, but ”faith without works is dead” so I am confused.
How do we know which laws to follow?
Human tendency is to want a list of rules to follow so we can check them off. The rich young ruler demonstrates that human tendency when he came to Jesus one day and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16)
We also have a tendency to want to quantify rules, and to simplify them to make them easier to follow. Perhaps, that that is what motivated the Pharisees one day to ask Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36)
Or we go the other direction: we add rules on top of rules on top of rules to make sure that we don’t miss anything. The Pharisees demonstrated this approach in how they handled the commandment to observe the Sabbath. The created a list of “work” that was forbidden including, among other things: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, selecting, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking bread; twelve similar activities related to the preparation of clothing, from shearing sheep to sewing; and seven activities related to preparing the carcass of a deer for food or leather. (See What are some Sabbath Observance rules that the Pharisees made?)
Moses started with ten commandments. By the time the books attributed to Moses were completed, there were 613 commandments!
The Torah (the Five Books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy) focused on laws. That focus carries through the entire Old Testament. Though the observance of those laws can be seen more in the breach, than in the observance thereof!
The same focus continued into the New Testament. We see it in the question asked by the rich young ruler and the Pharisees’ questions to Jesus. We see it in the tension that threatened to divide the early church between Paul and Peter over whether believing Jews must follow the Law and what laws believing Gentiles must follow.
This is the tension between the Law and the Gospel. If we understand only one thing about the Gospel message, the relationship of the Law to the Gospel might be the most important thing! I have written about it often, including How the Moorings of the Gospel Were Secured.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t restate everything here. You can click in the links in the last two paragraphs to get an overview from the articles linked there. Understanding what Jesus meant when he said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, is key.
If you are not a Christian, or you are a Christian, but you are not sure you understand these things, please do not just gloss over them. The tension between the Law and the Gospel and how they relate to each other is the key to everything.
It was the focus of almost all of Paul’s writings. It is the major theme in Romans. Take some time now to wrestle with it. Don’t stop until it makes sense to you!
Hopefully, the rest of my thoughts in this piece will help.
We can easily miss the forest for the trees – whether we are focusing on 613 laws, 10 commandments, or just two summary statements of the Law and the Prophets (by Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40). We need to take a step back every so often and look at the big picture. Sometimes, the devil really is in the details, and the details get in the way of seeing that big picture.
From the 30,000 foot level, we need to locate a few markers, starting with God’s relationship He established with Abraham. Abraham listened to God, and He trusted God. Abraham lived his life in simple, humble obedience to the revelation God gave him, and God counted Abraham’s trusting response as “righteousness”.
God attributed righteousness to Abraham simply for the trust and faith Abraham was willing to put in God. God was looking for someone to trust Him and respond to Him, and He found that man in Abraham.
The orders God gave to Abraham are almost embarrassingly simple. God initially told Abraham to leave his country, his family, and his father’s house and go to a land God would show him. (Gen. 12:1). That was it!
The rest of the revelation was in the form of a promise. God told Abraham, if you go, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3) One command and five promises is the entire revelation from God to Abraham.
Abraham trusted God, and he went. It wasn’t very complicated.
Decades later, Abraham was still waiting for God to deliver on the promises. He never forgot the promises, but he tired of the waiting. Because he never stopped holding onto the promises, Abraham asked God for assurance in his old age. His faithful persistence to ask for assurance set the stage for a covenant with God.
You can read about that covenant in the story of the blood path. It will provide you insight into what God is doing with and through Abraham. It sets the stage for another, perhaps more famous, “command” by God to Abraham: Go sacrifice your only son, Isaac!
This “command” by God is, perhaps, more misunderstood than anything in the Bible. What was God doing here? Did God really tell Abraham to do that? Understanding what is going on in this story is a key to understanding who God is and how he relates to us. (See The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Introduction, and the subsequent articles)
Abraham, of course, didn’t go through with the command. He didn’t do it!. Sure Abraham had faith. If he didn’t have the faith to act on God’s prompting, we wouldn’t have a story to remember all these years! The key point of the story isn’t what Abraham did, however, but what God did!
To understand it more fully, read about the blood path covenant linked above. Then read the introduction to the story linked after it. Then read The Story of Abraham and Isaac Revisited: Here I Am!
I am trying to cover so much ground! But, it really isn’t that complicated. You don’t have to read all these things to get it. Once you see the threads, they stand out. You don’t have to see all the threads to understand, but it helps. Seeing the whole tapestry in all of its splendor, however, is truly wonderous!
Over four hundred years after Abraham, Moses comes into the picture and introduces the covenant of the Law. Note that God already made a covenant with Abraham and with all his descendants centuries before He gave the Law to Moses.
The covenant of the Law doesn’t negate what came first: the covenant He made with Abraham. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is based on that premise. You can pick up the thread in Romans 4 and follow it through. I encourage you to do that!
It isn’t Paul, though, to credit for highlighting the threads of the Gospel in Scripture (the Old Testament). The arc of scripture after Abraham takes us from Moses and the Law to the Prophets and Spirit of the law. The shift in emphasis is critical.
Paul is merely picking up that shift in the Scriptures that he knows so well. He traces the threads out for us in his letters.
If we spend any time in the Prophets, we see that God is more interested in justice, kindness and humility than observances of the law. (Micah 6:6-8) Israel’s fixation on legal observances, especially to the exclusion of things that really matter, gets so extreme that God says he hates those observances (Amos 5:21-23) and longs for justice to “roll down like waters”. (Amos 5:24)
Jesus criticized the Pharisees for the same attitude the Prophets criticized: following the Law down to the minutia of tithing spices, while neglecting the “weightier matters such as justice, mercy, faith, and the love of God”. (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42)
We learn in seeing this shift that God is not introducing anything new. He is emphasizing a reality that lies at the heart and soul of the Law. God is attempting to reveal the substance that lies underneath and behind and above the Law. As Paul says, the Law is only a shadow, not the realities themselves. (Colossians 2:17)
God speaks through the prophet, Jeremiah of a “new covenant”. If we understand that God had a plan from the beginning, however, we understand that there is nothing new about it, except that it was new to the people. God spoke through Jeremiah to say:
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.”
Jesus summarized the Law and Prophets in two phrases: love God with all you have in you, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-40) Jesus also points us beyond the law to the Spirit of the law: “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) In doing that, he is harkening back to the prophet, Jeremiah’s words.
This “new” way is both simpler and harder than following the law. For examples, Jesus said that it’s not enough simply to refrain from murder; being angry with someone is the same as killing them in your heart. (Matt. 5:21-22) It’s not enough simply to refrain from committing adultery; lusting in your heart for someone is the save thing. (Matt. 5:27-28)
It seems obvious that God desires us to internalize the law and to understand the reality to which the law was intended to point, which is the character of God, who is love. By summing up the law as loving God and loving our neighbors, Jesus is essentially saying, “If we don’t add up the law and get love, we don’t understand it.”
We should not be so focused on the law, like the Pharisees, that we fail to see the realities behind it. Jesus taught has how to view the Law and the Prophets: lessons in loving God and loving our neighbors. It isn’t about the strict observance, but the Spirit behind it.
The law is simple. The reality to which the law points is more complex. But, it’s also so simple at the same time that a child can understand it. We all know what it means to treat someone the way we want to be treated. Of course, it isn’t so easy to do, but the difficulty is not with the understanding. The difficulty is in doing it.
It also isn’t simply about doing some things and not doing other things. From God’s interaction with Abraham, to Moses, to the Prophets and Jesus, God is revealing Himself to people and inviting people to connect with Him. Thus, we read in Revelation, Jesus saying through John:
“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”Revelation 3:20
This is, ultimately, what God desires. He desires relationship. He desires us to trust Him simply, as Abraham did. He desires us to hear His voice and to respond to it. He desires for us to love Him, and for us to know His love.
If anyone does not know God to be love, that has not encountered God. Seek Him. He desires to be sought. He stands at your door and knocks. He is waiting for you to let go of the things that prevent you from inviting Him into you.
It’s not about following laws; it’s about following Jesus, who was God in the flesh, stripped of His glory. It’s about desiring God. Righteousness isn’t something we do; it’s something God attributes to us for trusting him. It isn’t something we do for God; it’s something we receive from Him.
When we truly connect with God in this way, the fruit is in our hearts, and it translates into our actions. The Law becomes something written on our hearts. We are prompted to love people because we love God, and God loves us. We are prompted not be angry with people or desire to murder and not to lust or desire to commit adultery because God is in us. We know these things not because “it’s the law”, but because we know God and His character.
Of course, we still have this treasure (the Holy Spirit in us) in earthly vessels. Our innate sin nature is rooted deeply within us. Thus, Paul says,
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”
But we no longer embrace sin. Our inner being delights in God’s law. (Romans 7:22) We are no longer content to let sin have its way in us. We grieve with the Holy Spirit when we give into it.
We understand that becoming like God is a process. When we confess our sins, God is “faithful and just to forgive us”. (1 John 1:9) We are convicted of our sins, but we no longer feel condemned. (Romans 8:1) We are in the process of being freed from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:3)
I could go on and on, but you shouldn’t take it from me. Read the Scriptures yourself. There is no shortcut to knowing these things. We learn through “doing”, through drawing close to God and allowing Him to draw near to us, through seeking, listening, and relating to God. It’s a journey in this life; the destination awaits us.