WHAT IS AND WHAT AIN’T: PART ONE
New Covenant versus Old Covenant law
(What Is The law Of The New Covenant?)
The keeping of law and its relationship to salvation and pleasing God has been a contentious topic in Christianity from the beginning. It was a major concern in the first century Church as seen in the letters of Paul and the book of Acts. It has continued to be an issue in the Church over the past 2000 years often dividing fellowships, families and friends. In this essay we will look at the dynamics of this issue and determine what is and what ain’t.
To the Roman church Paul said, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:14). Paul follows up this statement by saying, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:15). Apostle John identifies sin as the breaking of law (1 John 3:4). So if we are not to sin there must be law that we are obligated to obey. So what does Paul mean in saying we are not under law but under grace while at the same time saying we are not to sin which scripture shows is the breaking of law?
THE HISTORY OF LAW:
Law is defined in several ways. A common definition is that law is a rule of conduct recognized as necessary for responsible human behavior. This is often referred to as moral law. Prohibition against murder and theft is an example of moral law. We have physical law that governs the physical universe. The law of gravity is an example of such law. We have religious law which often consists of worship regulations and procedures for expiating sin.
The Biblical scriptures reveal that there has always been law. Physical law became established at creation of the universe. Moral law was established at creation of man and the breaking of moral law was considered sin from the start. We see from the beginning that murder was considered sinful behavior when Cain killed Abel. When Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph he said, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" Adultery was considered sin. Sodom and Gomorrah are described as having committed grievous sin. God brought the flood in Noah’s day because of sin. From the beginning we see sin used as the designation for behaving contrary to established rules of conduct.
Religious regulations also appear to have been established from early on. We see sacrifices being offered to God by Cain, Able, Noah and Abraham. Jacob is told to get rid of foreign gods. Circumcision was established with Abraham. Abraham is seen giving a certain percentage of the spoils of military victory to the priest Melchizedek. It is evident that a combination of moral, religious and civil law was extant from early on as seen in this statement about Abraham:
Genesis 26:5: Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.
At the time of the exodus of Israel from Egypt, we see a rather complicated mixture of moral, civil and religious law established within the context of a Covenant relationship between God and Israel. At the heart of this Covenant system was a grouping of ten laws which were called the Ten Commandments.
Exodus 34:27-28: Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." __And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant--the Ten Commandments.
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.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, Moses was given many additional categories of law governing interpersonal relations, dietary practices and hygiene, farming practices and disease control to name just a few. Worship regulations included a demanding sacrificial system, the keeping of the Sabbath, various festivals, new moon observances and a complicated system of ceremonial washings. Circumcision, along with keeping of the weekly Sabbath, became signs of separation between Israel and the nations around them. A Priesthood was established to facilitate strict protocols for carrying out the worship requirements of the covenant and enforce the covenant in general.
It’s apparent that many of the laws that made up this Covenant between God and Israel were extant prior to its establishment. We see moral law in operation from the time of Adam and Eve. We see sacrifices to God established as worship protocol from the beginning. In Deuteronomy 11:1 the Israelites are told to love the Lord their God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands. This is the same sequence of regulations as found in Genesis 26:5 regarding Abraham. It is evident the covenant with Israel was a mixture of existing laws and new regulations established just for Israel.
A good example of moral law included in the Covenant with Israel and in operation from the beginning of human existence is seen in Leviticus 18. Here we find numerous regulations pertaining to proper sexual conduct. Leviticus 18 teaches that it was the violation of these laws that defiled the Gentile nations surrounding Israel. This clearly shows that these laws had application to all peoples and where not laws for Israel only. The scriptures do not show the nations becoming defiled because they didn’t keep the Sabbath, Holy Days, food laws or fail to wear tassels on their garments. Leviticus 18 records the nations were defiled because of sexual misconduct. Verse 24: "Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. This shows a much wider applicability of these laws. These were not some new laws that were being introduced to Israel as part of the Covenant.
Breaking these laws regarding sexual relations could not have defiled the nations surrounding Israel unless they applied to those nations. It is apparent God was simply reconfirming these sexual conduct laws by including them in the Covenant He was making with Israel so they would not repeat the sins that defiled the Gentile nations.
Even though Israel agreed to obey the requirements of this Covenant between them and God, they were never able to do so in any consistent manner. After the death of Solomon, Israel split into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. Both Kingdoms continued to miserably fail to keep the Covenant. Israel was eventually invaded by the Assyrians and its people were dispersed among various nations. Judah was invaded by Babylon and taken captive. After 70 years the captives in Babylon were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. This temple was greatly remodeled during the reign of Herod the Great who made it into the magnificent structure that stood when Christ was born in the Judean town of Bethlehem.
By the time of Christ, the religious leadership of Israel had split into various parties and had added many additional regulations to the Covenant law. Old Testament scripture shows that God had divorced Himself from Israel because of her transgressions of the Covenant. Scripture also shows that a New Covenant was to be inaugurated with the coming of the Messiah. This New Covenant would be a spiritual Covenant in so much as Gods law would be written in the heart and not on tablets of stone. The implication is that Gods law would become a natural expression of righteous behavior and not just a mechanical reaction to a written code. God’s law would become part of ones very conscience. Our behavior would be motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of others and not just the avoidance of penalty for failing to keep law.
BACK TO PAUL:
This brings us back to Paul’s statement about us not being under law but under grace and yet being obligated to avoid sin which is the breaking of law. What law are we not under and what law must we obey in order to avoid sin? What law is it that is written in the heart under the New Covenant?
When Paul speaks of law in his various writings, it is evident that at times he is speaking of law in general and at other times he is referring to the Old Covenant as a specific body of law. It is clear that regardless of how Paul references law, he maintains that keeping law is not what justifies us with God. This was a major departure from what was commonly believed by both Israel and the Gentiles. Israel believed that a relationship with God was dependent upon their obedience to the Old Covenant law. Gentile converts to Judaism believed the same. Gentiles in general believed that what they did in relation to their various deities was critical to a right standing with such deities.
What Paul was introducing was a new way of relating to God. This was a huge change of paradigm and the shift to this new paradigm did not come easy. While the Christ event facilitated establishment of a New Covenant, the Old Covenant didn’t just suddenly cease to be. Adherence to this system of law continued another 40 years until A.D. 70 when the temple and priesthood were destroyed during the Roman/Jewish war. This effectively ended the means to facilitate the Old Covenant. It was this 40 year continuation of allegiance to the Old Covenant that created most of the friction and controversy we find recorded in Acts and the letters written by Paul and other of the New Testament writers.
The letter to the Hebrew Christians is all about the covenantal transition that was taking place in the first century. It is evident from what is said in this letter that the Old Covenant was still being adhered too but was also in the process of passing away. In addressing covenantal change the writer said this:
Hebrews 8:13: By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.
Paul spent much of his time trying to convince his contemporaries the old system was no longer applicable and that a new system was being established that involved a different approach to God. The Old Covenant provided for blessings and a relationship with God based on Israel’s obedience to the Covenant. Israel failed miserably in keeping their part of the agreement. Paul showed this failure was not the fault of the Old Covenant law but resulted from mans inability to keep it. Paul shows God established a new system where we can have a relationship with Him based not on what we do but on what Christ did. This relationship would involve forgiveness of sin (grace) and the indwelling of God’s spirit to facilitate expression of love which would fulfill the law. When Christ died, the veil in the temple was torn from top to bottom signifying the end of the need for the Old Covenant system as the pathway to a relationship with God.
When Paul speaks of not being under law he is speaking of not being under law as a means of establishing a relationship with God. That approach was tried with Israel and it didn’t work. Paul was teaching a new approach. Paul taught we can establish a relationship with God not by what we do but by what Christ did. Paul makes it very clear; however, that this change in how we relate to God does not do away with our obligation to obey law.
The question that must be answered is what law are we obligated to obey? Law has been around since Adam and Eve. The Old Covenant contained a specific configuration of moral, civil and religious law which if adhered to would facilitate a harmonious relationship with God. The New Covenant facilitates a relationship with God based on Christ’s atonement for sin but also speaks of God’s laws being written in our hearts. What law is being written in our hearts? How does it differ from the law given to Israel?
It is generally recognized that religious regulations involving animal sacrifices, extant under the Old Covenant and going back as far as Abel, were fulfilled in Christ. The shedding of the blood of animals prefigured the shedding of the blood of Christ in payment of the death penalty for sin. Therefore, animal sacrifices are no longer required by God.
Animal sacrifices, however, were only a part of the myriad of laws that made up the Old Covenant system. There were specific regulations governing sexual conduct, disease control, dietary behavior, personal injuries, property rights, treatment of slaves, farming practices and personal hygiene. All this was in addition to the great body of law governing priestly duties, worship requirements and general moral conduct.
The law given by God to Moses became referred to as the Law of Moses. As Jews and Gentiles accepted Christ as the promised Messiah, much controversy arose as to what place the Law of Moses had in the developing Christian community. Many Jewish converts to Christ continued to believe the Law of Moses still applied and should be enforced, not only within the Jewish Christian community but among the Gentile Christians as well. For Jewish Christians, Christ was seen as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecies but not as an end to the Law of Moses. Christianity was viewed as an extension of Judaism.
Circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses became an immediate issue. Acts 15:5 records, “Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses." Circumcision, as a religious rite, initiated one into the community of Israel and placed one under the Law of Moses. Circumcision obligated one to keep the Law of Moses. The two went hand in hand. Paul told the Galatians; “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:30). The context of Galatians 5 shows Paul is referring to the Old Covenant law.
Some feel that only circumcision, as a requirement of the Law of Moses, is at issue in Acts 15 and not the Law of Moses itself. Paul’s statement to the Galatians shows this is not the case. You will find throughout the writings of Paul, frequent association between circumcision and obligation to keep the Law of Moses. The one equates with the other. The great fuss being made by the Jewish community over these matters shows it involved a great deal more than the issue of circumcision alone. In Acts 21 we find circumcision and Jewish customs clearly associated. Paul is accused of turning the Jews from circumcision and Jewish customs.
Acts 21:20-22: You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. Verse 23-25: There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.
This passage is very instructive. By context, the customs are shown to pertain to the Mosaic Law. It is both circumcision and other Mosaic regulations that Paul is accused of teaching against. This shows Jewish Christians who had accepted Christ as Messiah continued to believe the Law of Moses was still in force for them. By contrast, it is pointed out that Gentiles were asked to refrain from certain behaviors that history shows related to pagan worship. Circumcision and keeping Mosaic regulations for Jews is contrasted with what the Gentiles were being asked to do. This relates back to the Jerusalem conference were the ruling was made that Gentile Christians were not required to be circumcised. This also meant they were not required to keep the Law of Moses. This will become very obvious as we proceed with this essay.
As already mentioned, under the New Covenant, circumcision is to be of the heart where God’s law is made part of the conscience of man. The Law of Moses was a grouping of regulations external to the heart of man that required obedience but did not necessarily instill heart felt obedience. The Law of Moses was a covenant between God and Israel. This covenant was never between God and Gentiles. Much of the Old Covenant contained regulations designed to show separation between Israel and the Gentiles nations. It was a separatist system designed to facilitate a relationship with God based on keeping the Mosaic Law. Only circumcised Israelites and Gentiles who joined themselves to Israel by becoming circumcised could participate in this system.
With the advent of Christ, the way to a relationship with God became available to all of mankind and there no longer was a need for such separatist regulations. On the other hand, moral regulations were always applicable to man whether Israelite or Gentile and were incorporated into the Old Covenant as part of that Covenants governance. When the Old Covenant was abrogated this didn’t terminate moral law. The moral law continues obligatory for Jews and Gentiles under the New Covenant. As Christians, however, these moral obligations for both Gentiles and Israelites were to become not just a superficial response to law but a living expression of the law fulfilled through love.
In other words, if we truly have love (outgoing concern) for our neighbor we will automatically fulfill the intent of the law by not stealing, lying, murdering or doing anything else that would harm our neighbor. This is reflected in what Paul said in regard to law.
Romans 13:9-10: The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
It is interesting to note that in the phrase “fulfillment of the law” the word “the” is not in the Greek. Paul is simply saying that love fulfills law.
Paul cites several commandments that are found in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Some look upon the Ten Commandments as eternal, immutable laws of God. Nowhere does scripture say this. God is sovereign. In His sovereignty He creates law. He is not subject to it. God is above the law He creates. The law He created against stealing and coveting doesn’t apply to God. God can’t steal or covet anything, He owns everything. As creator of Law, God can change it, modify it, eliminate it or do anything He wants with it. It is readily apparent that God has eliminated certain law that He once had created. Our challenge is to look into the scriptures and determine what modifications God has made regarding the laws He has created and respond accordingly.
The Ten Commandments were a particular configuration of law that formed the core of the Old Covenant. There is nothing inherently eternal or immutable about this particular configuration. The Sabbath was included in this configuration because it identified Israel as set apart from the Gentile world. With the establishment of the New Covenant, Israel is no longer a special people to be distinguished from the rest of the world. This distinction came to an end when reconciliation with God became available to all mankind through the sacrifice of Christ.
The Sabbath was actually established before Sinai as evidenced in Exodus 16 and may have its underpinnings in the creation account (Genesis 2:2-3). For an in depth essay on the Sabbath issue go to Which Day is the Christian Sabbath. Sacrifices were also established near creation as seen in the Cain/Able incident. Circumcision began with Abraham. Circumcision and the Sabbath became identifying signs to show separation between Israel and Gentiles nations (Exodus 31:13-17). These separatist regulations were fulfilled in Christ and did not carry over to the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant there is no such separation. Paul makes it clear that the wall of separation between Israel and Gentiles was removed by the death and resurrection of Christ. This was a primary objective God had in facilitating the Christ event. In addressing the matter of separation between Gentiles and Israelites, Paul said this:
Ephesians 2:14-16: For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
What law with its commandments and regulations did Christ abolish? What commandments and regulations is Paul talking about? Paul makes it clear that it was commandments and regulations that were a barrier and a dividing wall of hostility between Israelites and Gentiles. Was the moral law a barrier and dividing wall of hostility? Moral law was in operation in the Gentile world as it was in Israel. It wasn’t moral law that created a dividing wall between Israel and the rest of mankind. It was religious law. It was the separatist laws of the Old Covenant that created a barrier and dividing wall. It was these laws that were abolished.
Circumcision, animal sacrifices, the Sabbath, holy days, dietary laws and a host of other regulations separated Israel from the rest of mankind and in essence separated the rest of mankind from God. Some of these laws existed before Sinai and were included in the Old Covenant and others were established at the time the Covenant was made.
The main point is this: Regardless of when these laws of separation were established, God did away with them through the Christ event. God changed the ground rules relative to establishing a relationship with Him. Paul makes this clear in what he wrote to the Colossian Church.
Colossians 2: 11-17: In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
These Colossian Christians like many of the Christian converts, whether Jew or Gentile, were being pressured to keep the Mosaic regulations. They were being judged for not keeping the Mosaic regulations Paul identifies. Paul makes it clear that this code was canceled and dietary laws, festivals, New Moon celebrations and the Sabbath Day were all shadows of things to come and what was to come had now come in the person of Jesus Christ. This is a very straightforward passage of scripture that clearly shows it is the separatist laws of the Old Covenant that are done away.
In Colossians 2:20-23, Paul questions why the Colossian’s were submitting to “basic principles” of the world such as not handling, tasting or touching certain things. Paul points out Christ died to free them from such restrictions. The Mosaic Law, as given at Sinai, was full of such regulations. Over the centuries additional regulations were added which made separation between Israelites and Gentiles even more pronounced. It was this entire body of separatist law that was done away through the Christ event.
With the Christ event God changed the manner in which He deals with mankind. He abolished law that led to separation and made relationship with Him available to everyone. He abolished works of law as a basis for establishing righteousness. He changed the way moral law is administered. Under the New Covenant, God writes the moral law in our hearts and not on tablets of stone. God’s law becomes a natural expression of righteous behavior and not just a mechanical reaction to a written code. Our behavior becomes motivated by genuine concern for the welfare of others and not just the avoidance of penalty for failing to keep a written code.
The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts in the matrix of God’s law being written in our hearts. It is this written law in our hearts expressed in love based behavioral modifications that results in a reconciled, harmonious and forgiving relationship with both God and man.