WHAT IS AND WHAT AIN’T: PART TWO
New Covenant versus Old Covenant law
(What Is The law Of The New Covenant?)
THE CORNELIUS EVENT:
The Cornelius event is very instructive as to the question of what laws are applicable under the New Covenant and what laws are not. In Acts 10 we have the account of the Gentile Cornelius, the Roman centurion who became a Christian. Cornelius was a Gentile Roman centurion. He would have had charge of 100 soldiers. He would be on duty 24/7. He would be responsible for maintaining peace and enforcing the laws of the Roman Empire. Those laws would include moral codes of conduct. On the other hand, Cornelius, being an uncircumcised Gentile Roman Centurion, would not have been keeping the Sabbath. As an uncircumcised Gentile he would not have been allowed to associate with Jews in the synagogue. Cornelius would not have been keeping holy days, dietary restrictions or the various other laws that separated Israelites from Gentiles. Yet Cornelius and his family are identified as fearing God and practicing works of righteousness.
Acts 10:1-2: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.
We see in the account of Peters visit to the home of Cornelius God confirming the acceptance of Cornelius by bestowing the gift of tongues on this Gentile and his family.
Acts 10: 34-35: Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him (KJV). Verse 44-45; “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.
Why were the circumcised believers astonished that God had accepted this Gentile and his family? They were astonished because they knew these Gentiles were uncircumcised. These Gentiles were not converts to Judaism. They knew this Gentile family didn’t keep the Mosaic regulations. They knew this Roman centurion did not keep the Sabbath, holy days, dietary laws, do sacrifices or perform any of the other regulations they believed made only Israel eligible to have a relationship with God. Yet here they see God confirming that these uncircumcised Gentiles were being accepted by God.
After his conversion to Christianity, was Cornelius required to be circumcised, start keeping the Sabbath, holy days, new moons, dietary restrictions, and the host of other Mosaic regulations in order to maintain his new found relationship with God? No he was not. At the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15, Peters experience with Cornelius is referenced when he says;
Acts 15:7-11: Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.
What yoke was it that Israel was unable to bear? The yoke they were unable to bear was trying to establish and maintain a relationship with God by works of the law. This included circumcision, and all regulations that separated Israel from Gentiles. The Gentile Cornelius was clearly keeping the moral code as he is described as doing works of righteousness. Obedience to the moral code has been defined as works of righteousness since creation. On the other hand, as a Gentile, Cornelius works of righteousness would not have included being circumcised and the keeping of the ritualistic, ceremonial and separatist regulations of the Mosaic Law.
In not requiring Gentiles to be placed under the yoke the Israelites were unable to bear, Peter is not referring to the moral law. Obeying the moral law was a requirement irrespective of covenants. It applied to all mankind from creation. It was included in the Old Covenant but not inclusive to the Old Covenant. Peter was not suggesting that Gentiles no longer had to keep moral law. Peter was saying that Gentiles should not be required to observe the ritualistic, ceremonial and separatist regulations of the Mosaic Law in order to be accepted by God. This was the yoke that Israel was unable to bear.
Some may point out that keeping these regulations are also works of righteousness since God required them. God did require them under the Old Covenant system. While that system was extant, these regulations were considered works of righteousness. It is quite evident, however, that this system was being set aside. In carefully reviewing the New Testament documents, you will not find these regulations included in the New Covenant. What you do find is repeated emphasis on the moral law as expressed through love.
Some will argue the scriptures show first century Christians keeping the Sabbath, holy days dietary regulations, etc. This is very true. As stated earlier in this essay, Jewish converts to Christianity did not suddenly stop keeping the Mosaic Law. First century Jewish converts to Christianity were not converts as we generally understand that word. They did not leave Judaism for Christianity. They simply added Christ to the Mosaic system. These Jewish Christians also believed the Gentile Christians should adhere to the Mosaic system.
It was this mindset that created such a challenge for Peter and his associates. Peter would not have had reservations about going to the house of Cornelius if this Gentile was a convert to Judaism and was keeping the Mosaic Law. God showed Peter through the vision of clean and unclean meats recorded in Acts 10 that Gentiles were being welcomed into fellowship with God outside of being required to keep ritualistic, ceremonial and separatist regulations.
Another instructive event showing the covenantal transition that was taking place is found in the altercation between Paul and Peter as recorded in Galatians 2. Peter apparently had been eating with Gentiles but when some Jewish associates showed up, Peter withdrew himself because He feared what they might say. Paul rebuked Peter for being two faced and pointed out that Gentiles were not compelled to live as Jews. How did Jews live? They lived by a variety of Mosaic regulations which included dietary laws which Gentiles did not observe. The moral law is not at issue here. What were at issue were separatist laws that Christ had done away with through His death and resurrection.
Peter apparently had come to understood this and was living like a Gentile as Paul pointed out. Peter simple became squeamish when his Jewish friends showed up who hadn’t yet come to understand the full significance of the Christ event relative to the Old Covenant.
THE NEW COVENANT:
The regulations creating separation were being abolished with the establishment of the New Covenant. Faith in Christ as signified by baptism became the identifying sign of a servant of God. The New Covenant opened up a faith based relationship with God and abolished the separatist, ritualistic/ceremonial protocol that had previously identified such relationship. In speaking of the Old Covenant law, Paul says this to the Galatians:
Galatians 3:25-29: Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
When Paul speaks of no longer being under the supervision of the law, he is not implying moral law is no longer in operation. Note what Paul says in verse 19 of this chapter.
Galatians 3:19: What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.
Paul is referring to various Mosaic regulations being added to the existing moral law because of transgression of existing moral law. Israelites, as was true of all mankind, were sinning by failing to practice the law of love. God separated them from the rest of mankind and added to the moral law a system of regulations that if kept would constantly focus them on righteous behavior. Paul makes it clear that such additions were only until the promised seed had come. What were these additions? These additions were the religious regulations designed to keep Israel in a relationship with God and separate from other nations. Once Christ came, the need for these additions ended. Paul is showing that access to God is now available to everyone. Such access is no longer dependent on observance of the Mosaic Covenant. Such access to God is no longer based on works of law period, moral or religious. Paul shows that law keeping, whether it is ritual, ceremonial or moral, does not justify us with God. It is not what we do but what Christ did that reconciles us to God and maintains that reconciliation. Paul made this very clear when he said the following:
Romans 3:20: Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Here again the word “the” is not in the Greek. Paul is simply saying that by deeds of law no man is justified, any law.
Why then does Paul say to these same Roman Christians “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13). Is Paul talking out of two sides of his month? In verse 21 and 22 of this chapter you find the law Paul is referring to is the moral code. He specifically refers to stealing, adultery and sacrilege, which is disrespect. Paul shows moral behavior operational for Gentiles as part of their conscience whereas the Jews had moral behavior spelled out in the written code of the Mosaic regulations. Moral behavior is thus seen as required and expected on the part of all mankind in order to be pleasing to God. Paul is not saying that moral behavior is what justifies man before God but that those who behave in a moral way will be justified. They will have their sins forgiven and be reconciled to God. God expects us to live by the law of love.
God requires us to love each other and fulfill the moral law. By loving each other we also love God because we are responsive to His will. We love God by respecting His sovereignty. Man has always had difficulty keeping moral law and respecting God’s sovereignty. Man was so remiss in moral behavior that God decided to destroy everyone except Noah and his family. The history of the world is a history of broken moral law. God choose Israel to be a light to the rest of the human race. He made a covenant with them that included moral law which had been extant since creation. He included a complete package of civil and religious regulations that if kept would have made Israel the darlings of the world. Israel failed miserably and God terminated the covenant.
Through Christ, God established a New Covenant that rescues man from the consequences of sin. This covenant was facilitated through the death and resurrection of Christ. Acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice reconciles one to God and begins the process of having God’s law established in ones heart enabling love to be the overriding dynamic in all relationships.
The laws being written in our hearts are those same moral laws governing relationships that have been extant since creation. All of life is about relationship. Our relationship with God is governed by a total respect for God’s sovereignty. Our relationship with each is governed by loving our neighbor as ourselves, which Paul clearly says fulfills the law. James said the same thing:
James 2:8: If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right.
James 1:22-25: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man, who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.
James refers to loving our neighbor as ourselves as the “royal law found in the Scripture.” In Romans 13, we saw Paul identify several of the moral tenants of the Ten Commandments as being fulfilled in the one rule that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The royal law is thus identified as the law that governs human conduct. This law is and always has been applicable to all of humanity. This law was included in the Old Covenant. This law is the foundation of the New Covenant. This law of love is our mirror. It provides guidelines for our behavior. It provides parameters and boundaries within which we are to live. James calls it the “perfect law that gives freedom.”
Apostle Paul also writes about freedom. Paul says that in Christ, we are free from a yoke of slavery which he defines as being circumcised and therefore under obligation to keep the whole law.
Galatians 5: 1-3: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.
The context clearly shows it is the Law of Moses that is at issue here. Paul was dealing with the problem of Jews trying to convince Gentile converts to Christ that they must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to appear righteous before God. Paul explains it is through faith in Christ that righteousness is obtained and not by observing the Mosaic Law.
Galatians 5:4-6: You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians clearly shows how exasperated he was with these Gentile coverts for yielding to the pressure of the Judaizers in their attempts to have the Gentile Christians embrace the Mosaic regulations. In chapter 4:3-5, Paul writes, “we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Here we see Paul associating what he calls basic principles of the world with being redeemed from being under law. What law is Paul addressing here?
In Galatians 4: 9-10, Paul asks them why they are turning back to observing days, months and seasons. In Galatians 5:1-3 he exhorts them not to turn back to the yoke of circumcision which would obligate them to obey the whole law. Paul’s reference to days, months, seasons and circumcision shows it was the separatist regulations of the Old Covenant law that was the concern. Paul is strongly admonishing these Galatians not to turn back to what had been eliminated by the Christ event. The entire context of Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians pertains to his concerns about these Gentile converts being pressured into keeping Mosaic regulations that no longer were necessary.
Paul tells the Galatians it is only through faith in Christ and not by works of the Mosaic Law that righteousness is attained. Paul is telling the Galatians that keeping the Mosaic Law will not justify them. Only faith in Christ can justify us before God. Paul makes it clear, however, that faith in Christ equates with having love for one another. This love is expressed by how we behave toward one another. Faith in Christ is defined as the expression of love. As already seen, love is defined by behaving according to the moral law.
In Galatians 5:11, Paul writes; “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.” Paul was being persecuted because he was preaching that circumcision was no longer necessary. In preaching that circumcision was no longer necessary, Paul was saying that adherence to the Old Covenant was no longer necessary.
The Jews, including many Jewish converts to Christianity, continued to believe adherence to the Mosaic regulations was necessary to facilitate a righteous standing before God. Paul was being persecuted because by preaching against circumcision he was preaching against the need to observe the Mosaic regulations. And yet as strong as Paul is in his teaching that keeping the Old Covenant law is not the pathway to a righteous standing before God, he is equally as strong in teaching that we must keep the moral law.
Galatians 5:13-14: You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself.
What is Paul saying we are free from? The context of Galatians 5 is about freedom from attempting to establish our own righteousness by observing the Old Covenant regulations. The moral law was part of those regulations. Yet the moral law is clearly seen as continuing to be in force, not as a vehicle for being justified but as an expression of our faith in Christ. The Old Covenant of works as the pathway to a righteous standing before God was being abolished and replaced by the New Covenant where righteousness is established by placing faith in Christ and having the law written in our hearts. In Romans 8 Paul defines the law written in our hearts as the law of the Spirit. In verse 16 of Galatians 5, Paul says; “live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” Paul lists some of the desires of the sinful nature:
Galatians 5:19-21: The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul taught that if we live by the Spirit which is the same as living by the law of love, we will not commit the acts of the sinful nature. In verse 18 Paul says; if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. How can that be? If we are expected to live by the law of love, are we not under that law? What is Paul talking about?
If we carefully study the writings of Paul we find that throughout his ministry he is dealing with one central issue. By what mechanism do we become righteous before God? Under the Old Covenant men sought to establish righteousness before God by works of the law. Those works included both the moral code established since creation and religious regulations, many of which were established just for the nation of Israel. This approach failed miserably because of mans sinful nature. Christ came to change the system. His sacrifice pays the penalty of our sin and his righteousness is applied to us enabling reconciliation with God. Paul can rightly say that if we are led by the Spirit we are not under law because law has no claim over us. Law only has a claim if we violate it. By being in Christ, however, violation of law is covered by His sacrifice as long as we remain committed to Christ.
Being committed to Christ means being committed to the law of love. What law is that? It clearly is not the separatist religious law contained in the Old Covenant. This is made plain in the account of Cornelius and his family, the conclusions reached at the Jerusalem conference and the plain instruction given to the Colossian Christians regarding Sabbaths, festivals, new moons, etc. This is made plain in Paul teaching the Ephesians that the laws of separation have been abolished.
It should be clear it is the moral code, in existence since creation, that is in view when the royal law spoken of by James is discussed. Paul has the moral law in view when he instructs the Galatian Christians as to what kind of behavior they are to avoid. We see Christ recite some of the moral law when asked what must be done to obtain eternal life.
Matthew 19:16-19: Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" If you want to enter life, obey the commandments." "Which ones?" the man inquired. Jesus replied, "`Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and `love your neighbor as yourself.'
Was Christ saying that keeping the moral law would earn one eternal life? No He wasn’t. Christ was saying the same thing Paul said to the Romans; “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13). Was Paul saying that by keeping the law we can earn justification before God? No he wasn’t. Paul was saying the same thing apostle James said.
James 2:14-17: What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Remember what Paul said to the Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” This is the key to our whole discussion. Paul is talking about faith in Christ. He is talking about that faith being expressed through love. We have seen from Christ, Paul and James that love involves keeping the moral law. The works James is talking about is the expressing of moral law in our behavior by loving our neighbor as ourselves
Behaving according to the royal law of love will not save us. It is faith in Christ and what he did that saves us. But faith must be expressed through practicing the law of love.
We began our discussion by asking the question “WHAT IS AND WHAT AIN’T.” In other words, WHAT LAW IS GONE? WHAT LAW REMAINS? We also asked what Paul meant by 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? Let us revisit this passage and go a little deeper into it.
Romans 6:14-18: For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Being under law places one under its control. As humans, we all break law. Law demands a penalty for disobedience to its requirements. It is powerless to provide release from such penalty. We become a slave to law in so much that we can’t get released from its penalty. Law holds us hostage. Christ has provided release from the control of law by meeting its demands of penalty. We are therefore no longer slaves to law because it no longer has a claim over us. The claim has been met by Christ.
In Christ we are under grace which provides for continual protection from the penalty of spiritual death for breaking law. This continuous protection proceeds from God in response to what Christ did. This continuous protection presupposes our having faith in Christ expressed through love. We become slaves to the law of love which is the same as saying we become slaves to righteousness. This righteousness is not defined by the practice of religious regulations sometimes referred to as legalism, but by expressing the fundamental moral laws of human conduct extant since creation.
Our slavery to the law of love doesn’t earn us life. Christ did that by what He accomplished on the cross. Our slavery to righteousness is our expression of faith in Christ. It tells Christ we love him, want to obey Him and appreciate what He has done for us. It tells Christ we have made the choice to have the law of love written in our hearts to have it become part of our very conscience.
Some feel that any required obedience to law is legalism and therefore runs contrary to grace as the basis for establishing a relationship with God. Let’s define what legalism is and what it is not. Requiring obedience to law as a means of establishing a righteous standing before God is legalism. We can’t earn a righteous standing before God based on our obedience. Only the sacrifice of Christ can establish us as righteous before God. Christ earned a righteous standing before God by living a sinless life and it is His righteousness that enables us to have a relationship with God.
Is it legalistic to be required to obey moral law? It can be if we are obeying law to maintain a righteous standing before God. God doesn’t require us to keep the moral law or any other law as a means of establishing or maintaining righteousness with him. That was tried with Israel and it didn’t work. It must be understood, however, that God does require and expect us to honor the righteous status bestowed upon us through what Christ did. We do this by obeying the law of love. This is how we express faith in God. Keeping the law of love is not legalism. We don’t keep law to earn a righteous standing before God. We keep law as a response to what God has done for us. It is a demonstration and expression of faith in God.
This expression of faith, however, does not include keeping laws that have been done away by God. The Old Covenant separatist regulations have been done away. This expression of faith does not include regulations and prohibitions added by man which become looked upon as being required to please God. We find such added regulations and prohibitions in fundamentalist Christian fellowships and even in many mainstream Christian churches. All such requirements constitute legalism because they are not required by God and yet are believed to be required by God in order to be pleasing to Him.
We began our discussion by asking “What is and what ain’t.” What law is gone and what law remains. The law that ain’t is all law that prohibited Israelites and Gentiles from having a relationship with each other and prohibited Gentiles from having a relationship with God. Also gone is all law that was never authorized by God in the first place. This would be all legalistic regulations Christians come up with which have no bearing on fellowship with God and tend to block fellowship with each other. The law that remains is the moral law extant from creation. This is the law that facilitates reconciliation. This is the law that facilitates forgiveness and mercy. This is the law that honors and sustains respect for the sovereignty of God. This is the law that defines our faith in God. This is the law that is.