If you were asked to describe the law of God, would you use the word gracious or legalism? Here are 3 misconceptions about the Law of God.
What is the Law of God?
There are many different ways that people describe the law of God in the Bible. For some, the law of God is the entirety of the Old Testament. Others say it is the entire 600+ commandments found in the Torah.
While these are fair ways to describe the law in a broad sense, we could actually boil it down to the Ten Commandments, and even further to the summary of the Ten Commandments: Love for God and Love for neighbor.
But although it matters how we would describe the law, I doubt anyone can do this without also speaking about the purpose of the law of God. Obviously at this point, denominations and theological traditions differ sharply. This makes the question much more complicated to answer, regardless of how down far we can boil our definition.
Here are the 3 Misconceptions About the Law of God
Misconception 1: The Law of God is the Opposite of Grace
Before we jump to New Testament qualifications of the law, it is helpful to take an honest account of the what the Old Testament says. That is, how does the Old Testament tell us to think and identify the function of the law? Quite simply, when the law was given to Israel by God, it was not presented as a form of legalism, but of blessing and gift.
We might say more specifically, the giving of the law was gracious.
You see, it was a gracious thing for God to instruct the Israelites after He rescued them out of Egypt. It turns out that this is exactly the way God intended His people to think about the law when He gives the preface to the Ten Commandments:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 20:2, ESV)
God qualifies the giving of the law as a matter of grace and love, literally in response to their salvation out of Egypt and their gift of the Promised Land. The Law of God was surrounded by grace on every side (rescue and residence). Regardless of what we might say about the law changing when the New Testament comes along, the honest appraisal of how God originally presented it to Israel was gracious through and through.
The New Testament's Description of the Law
You might agree with me so far about the description of the law according to the Old Testament, but insist on a simple rebuttal: The New Testament changes the rules.
The Law According to John
The law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17, ESV)
That verse is a stumbling block for many people. If you already have a dichotomy between law and grace in your mind, it's very easy to read verse 17 and assume that the point John is making is one of contrast- an antithesis between the law and grace. But I think if you read it in its full context (verses 14-17), the point is not contrast but fulfillment.
John describes the building of intensity from shadow (Moses) to fullness (Christ), from type to substance. Notice that Jesus, in this context is described in terms of revealing, fulfillment, completeness; and his grace and truth is the completion of something that had to have already existed. The grace and truth of Jesus described by John had to be in operation beforehand, otherwise fulfillment make no sense.
The Law According to Paul
We are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14, ESV).
At first glance, Paul seems to paint as much a picture of contrast between law and grace as John did. If people can move from law to grace, doesn't that make grace antithetical to law because you have to be under one or the other.?
Not necessarily, and certainly not in the context in that passage. The dominion spoken of here by Paul is not really describing the battle between the word law versus grace, but of being spiritually dead versus spiritually alive; spiritually dead people are under the law and practice sin as a result, while spiritually alive people are under grace and practice righteousness as a result.
This is a fascinating argument by Paul because not only does it not put the law and grace against each other, but it connects grace and obedience together, which actually strengthens the relevance of the law when grace is present.
Grace is necessary to obedience, and the law is a necessary standard of obedience. It is not as if people can (or ever could) keep the law without the grace of God in the Old Testament or the New Testament, we have this grace, but it doesn't matter if we keep any laws at all. True obedience to the law was always will always be by God's grace.
Misconception 2: People Were Saved in the Old Testament by the Law
Once during Sunday school at presbyterian church my wife and I used to attend, the pastor asked the question: "How were people saved in the Old Testament? Someone who had been at the church for a while answered: "By keeping the law."
The pastor was surprised, not at the answer given, but because of who gave the answer. That's not because Christianity is a matter of pop quiz performance, but because someone who has sat under the gospel and has navigating their Bibles for years should come away with a basic yet vital notion of salvation. There's only ever been one way of salvation- through Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ is the savior of the world, not only for those who were lucky enough to be born after he came or alive when he was here, but as John said, the fulfillment of the promise of God, so that everybody who was alive before the coming of Christ, we're hoping and trusting in the one who was to come the savior, the Messiah, the one who would fulfill this salvific promise of God.
This is really Paul's argument too. I spoke of Paul's argument in Roman 6, but if you were to read the summary of the book of Romans, Paul demonstrates that the gospel was promised beforehand (Romans 1:1-6).
This gospel of Jesus is not a new thing, and that's really a way of saying that this whole idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, not a contrast to how things were done in the Old Testament.
The other book of the Bible that really makes this case is the book of Galatians, Just as in Romans, Paul's angle in Galatians is constantly dispelling the myth that this salvation, this grace of Christ is foreign to the Old Testament. People were saved by Christ in the Old Testament and they're saved by Christ in the New Testament.
It's so important for us to understand this, and it really has implications for how we understand the law as a whole. So in short, reading the entirety of Romans and Galatians will get you on the right track for a survey of how the law intersects with the gospel in the most biblically faithful way.
Misconception 3: The Law is Irrelevant for Christians Today
If salvation and the law are not antithetical, then it stands to reason that grace and the law are not antithetical. And if that is also the case, then this means that the law is not irrelevant for Christians.
But we must be careful here. The Bible does not teach that because we're saved, obedience is the name of the game now, as if to say: grace to get our foot in the door, and obedience (law) to keep us inside. We need to dispel this kind of performance based version of Christianity- and yet we must be careful here too.
That is admittedly not how we want to categorize things, nor is it how the Bible categorizes things either. Nevertheless, the Bible does make a case for holiness. The Bible does make a case for a kind of obedience that is not antithetical to the law or the gospel in any sense. Think about it: what does Jesus say about his disciples? What does Jesus say about those who say that they love him?
If you love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15, ESV).
Peter says we are to be holy as he is. Holy God gives that command back in the old Testament. If you've been with me for our Teaching Thursdays, you know, that we're about to finish the book of first Peter, We've been working our way verse by verse through that book. And early on, we came across Peter's use of holiness commanded in the Old Testament and applied it to Christians that we are to be holy as He is holy.
Commandments still exist in the New Testament. I hope you understand that. Here's why that is so important because I have heard it argued (either by learned behavior or assumed theology) that the New Testament is all about love, not about obedience. Obviously, we've just seen that Jesus Himself qualifies our love by our obedience, but that doesn't stop countless professing Christians from downplaying the importance of obedience.
Nevertheless, so many churches today, especially in the non-denominational churches that surfaced in the early 21st century, really gravitated towards this banner:
Love God, Love People
And this banner was used as if it was a new discovery of the simplicity of Christianity. Now, the problem with that is a huge misunderstanding of what Jesus says in Matthew 22 in response to the question: What's the greatest commandment?
Jesus answer is so interesting because he says the greatest commandment is love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
He's not asked, "What's the greatest commandment. And then what would you say comes in at a close second?" Rather, He says, and the second is like (corresponds) unto it: to love your neighbor as yourself. quotes from the old Testament. But then He takes it even further by saying, "On these hang all the law and the prophets".
We shouldn't be surprised at this, but it is the most theologically profound answers he could have given because in one way, His answer is: Yes.
In another way, his answer is: the entire old Testament.
But thirdly and probably most important, His answer is a summary of the 10 commandments- the first 4 dealing with our love for God, and the second 6 dealing with our love for neighbor.
If we say the law is irrelevant, we have to throw away any kind of commandment given to us in the New Testament, including what Jesus says about the summary of the law here. But if we agree with Jesus, then the law still applies. Grace, as the operating principle in the Christian life means that we're not talking about a kind of self-discipline, performance driven Christianity that insists on law-keeping or bare morality.
Rather, we're talking about grace, the grace of God helping us along the way to fulfill these things. That makes a huge difference in the way we understand the law of God in the Christian life and why it doesn't distort into legalism.
Learn More About How to Relate the Law of God...
A while back, we spent 12 episodes on Teaching Thursdays talking about the difference between two schools of Bible interpretation: Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. That class is a great example of interpretive issues in the Bible that cross over into how we understand the law of God functioning in the Christian life.
If you want to learn more about the Law of God and the other issues that connect to it, check out my teaching series: