The Gospel and the Law

The Gospel and the Law

In discussions of so-called “same sex marriage,” Christians are frequently accused of hypocrisy for taking the passages in the Law of Moses dealing with homosexual behavior literally but ignoring for example those concerning eating shellfish or wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fiber. 

The accusation might bear some weight if the decision about which provisions of the Law to accept were arbitrary. But it isn’t; it is made on the basis of centuries of study, analysis, and reflection by theologians on the Law and its relationship to the Gospel. Understanding why Christians see some laws as binding but not others is important not only for issues such as homosexuality but also for developing a deeper appreciation for the Law and its importance for the Christian life.

Theologians recognize three aspects of the Mosaic Law: 

  • The moral law, embodied principally in the Ten Commandments, is a reflection of the character of God himself. It expresses eternal and unchanging principles of right and wrong and is the foundation for the other two aspects of the law. 
  • The civil law is, as its name suggests, the law code for the nation of Israel. This code expressed how the moral law was to be applied in a particular historical and cultural situation. Since the New Covenant is not limited to one nation, the civil law is no longer in effect, though since it is based on the moral law we can learn a great deal from it both for our personal lives and for principles of good government.
  • The ceremonial law dealt with issues of holiness before God, including ritual purity, sacrifices, forgiveness of sin, holidays and festivals, etc. With the New Covenant, the ceremonial law no longer applies to us, and so we no longer need sacrifices for forgiveness of sins nor external actions to produce ritual purity. These are all provided for us in Christ. Thus the ceremonial law is no longer binding on us either.

When one takes these different aspects of the Law into account, the reasoning behind why some parts of the Law remain binding while others do not is clear: it is based on an analysis of what the different laws were intended to accomplish.

But the distinction between the different aspects of the Law are also important for understanding the New Testament’s teaching on the Law. To understand why, we need to look at each aspect of the Law in more detail.

The Moral Law

The moral law is the backbone of the entire law, and it is the only part of the Mosaic Law that remains binding on us. As expressed in the Ten Commandments, it is the one part of the Law that is quite literally carved in stone.

Jesus had a great deal to say about the Law, though his teaching is often misunderstood. Christians often focus on Jesus’ words about all food being clean and the specific rules for celebrating the Sabbath (both aspects of the ceremonial law), and then jump to the conclusion that Jesus released us from the obligation to obey the Law. They find this view confirmed by their reading of Paul that we are freed from the Law by faith in Christ.

A more complete reading of the Gospels (and a more careful reading of Paul) calls into question this understanding of the relationship of Law and Gospel. Looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ introductory comments about the Law are quite strong:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20)”

He then proceeds to explain the deeper meaning of the commandments, focusing on the commandments against murder (Matt. 5:21-26), adultery (vss. 27-32), and inappropriate oaths (vss. 33-37), and the need to love your enemies (vss. 38-47). In each case, he raises the stakes considerably beyond even what the Pharisees—the most ardent observers of the Law—recognized by making obedience a matter of the heart, not just external actions. In other words, the tenth commandment against coveting applies to all of the other commandments as well.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage focuses on the moral law: the sixth, seventh, and third commandments, and the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, which together with loving God summarizes the entire law. In other words, Jesus may have changed aspects of the ceremonial law elsewhere in his ministry, but he never revoked the moral law. Instead, he emphasized the importance of the moral law and corrected misunderstandings and misapplications of it.

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