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The Christian use of the Old Testament Law

By Brian H. Edwards


      Writing to a young man on the subject of the Law of God, John Newton may have slightly overstated his case when he remarked that, 'Ignorance of the nature and design of the Law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes.' But perhaps he was not too far from the truth.

      From the Christian Reconstructionist - who writes Law books based on the Old Testament for the guidance of governments today and in preparation for their expected post-millennial age - to the charismatic dispensationalist and new covenant theologians, many modern evangelicals believe that the Old Testament Law should have no influence over Christians. Michael Eaton in A Theology of Encouragement, assures us that the Law has no claim whatsoever upon the Christian and although we can 'derive wisdom from it' - though he doesn't define what wisdom - we cannot apply it to the modern society or to the life of the Christian. In fact he goes further and suggests that only when we have wholly dispensed with the Law of God can we possibly find full assurance of salvation.

      Whether all this is a reaction to the cold harshness of legalism, or whether betrays the subliminal influence of the existential philosophy of our age I don't know. But whatever the reason, so-called 'new covenant theology' that denies any value of the Old Testament Law for the life of the Christian, is becoming increasingly popular.

      Some of you may know that I have written on this subject in a little depth both in my commentary on the Ten Commandments for today   and also in Grace -- amazing grace. I don't think I can add anything today to what I have already written, but as there is no reason why you should have read me, you have little choice but to hear me!

      Let me begin with a broad conclusion. In the history of the church, the Law has been seen by Christians to have three uses: first to convict sinners of sin, secondly to keep the unruly in check, and thirdly to guide Christians in the path of holiness - this last one is what is known as 'the third use of the Law'.

      But above these three uses there are two others that I believe are far more important: The Law reveals to the world what a holy, wise and gracious God we worship (Deuteronomy 4:6-8), and it is also our tutor to guard us and lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). The Greek word paidagogos that Paul uses here in Galatians carried the meaning of tutor in the first century, because the 'child minder' was often the educator as well.

      These two are in fact the chief purposes of the Law of God. Above the cruel and licentious values surrounding the world's idols, the God of Israel towered as a Creator of supreme purity and righteousness -- and one who expected the same from his people.

      When we have set aside two opposite positions in the whole debate about the value of the Law for the Christian - those who take the view that it has no value at all (antinomian), and those who write Law books based upon the Old Testament Law (Christian Reconstruction) - the gap between the rest should be fairly small. After all, if the Law has any value at all we must learn how best to use it.

      Whatever arguments are levelled against the value of the Law of God, we must take into account such NT statements as:

      'Do we, then, overthrow the Law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the Law' (Romans 3:31)

      'The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good' (Romans 7:12)

      'Whatever was written in the former days was written for our instruction' (Romans 15:4)

      'Keeping God's commands is what counts' (1 Corinthians 7:19)

      'But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it Lawfully' (1 Timothy 1:8)

      'All Scripture... is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correcting, and for training in righteousness' (2 Timothy 3:16)

      Verses like these hardly support the conclusion that Old Testament Law has nothing whatsoever to do with the Christian.

      Seven reasons for the value of the Law of God

      First: The Law was not for Israel alone.

      John Reisinger Tablets of Stone, speaks for many when he claims that the Ten Commandments are central to the covenant with Israel, and when that covenant was superseded by Christ, the Decalogue fell with it.

      But whilst the Law was a mark of God's special relationship with Israel, and was given to them as a great privilege and not revealed to the nations in general, yet Israel was intended to be an example to the nations.

      Their possession and practice of the Law was meant to say to the surrounding tribes: this is how holy the only true God is and how holy his people live, and therefore this is how God expects all nations to live. By revealing the Law to Israel, God was not suggesting that the nations could please themselves; and if he was, why then did he punish them for their immoral life-style? In fact, by what measure was their life-style immoral if God's Law was not their standard? Paul's argument in Ro. is that without the Law he would not clearly know about sin.

      In Deuteronomy 4:5-8 God underlined the evangelistic value of the Law by reminding his people that they were to be a witness to the nations who, learning of the Laws of Israel, may conclude: 'What great nation... has a god so near to it as the LORD our God... And that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this Law?'

      This was one significant reason why God was so angry with David for his double sin of murder and adultery: 'You made the enemies of the LORD show contempt' (2 Samuel 12:14). At the point of his scandalous sin, David and Israel were no longer an example to the nations.

      To suggest that the Law in general and the Ten Commandments in particular are part of the covenant with Israel and therefore have no binding authority of relevance once the new covenant was established in Christ, is to overlook one vital conclusion that must follow: If no one other than the Jews in the Old Testament were under an obligation to the Law, in what sense did Christ die to redeem us from the curse of the Law (Galatians 3:13)? - I know I am now treading on the Justification issue of Wright and co, but that is another subject! - How can Christ be said to have died to purchase our freedom from the consequences of breaking a Law that we were not expected to keep in the first place?

      Let me put this another way: Christ has redeemed his people not from an obligation to the Law, but from the condemnation of the Law.

      So, my first point is that the Law was not only for Israel, they were intended to be a model of holy living to the Gentiles.

      Second: Christ's claim that he had come to 'fulfil the Law' means that he came to keep it, perfectly.

      The little word 'fulfil' in the Sermon on the Mount, is surrounded by three significant statements of our Lord. In Matthew 5:17 he claims, 'I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets', in the following verse he declares, 'until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished', and in verse 19 our Lord warns, 'Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.'

      It is unwise to suggest, as some do, that the phrase, 'these commandments' refers to the teaching of Christ that is to follow, since the whole context is the enduring Old Testament Law, and verse 19 is an application of verse 18. In other words he is saying, 'the Law lasts, and if you break it you will be least'. Besides, only in John 14:15,21 and 15:10 do we have a record of our Lord referring to his own teaching as 'commandments'; that word is normally reserved for the Old Testament Law (for example Matthew 19:17 and 22:40).

      Jesus had not come to get rid of the Law, but to 'fulfil' it. But what did that mean? The same word 'fulfil' is found in the account of our Lord's baptism in Matthew 3:15 when he responded to John the Baptist: 'It is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.' By this he did not mean that he would do away with righteousness, but that he must do everything to discharge his obligation to it; he must do everything expected of him. Back in Matthew 5, the same word means to carry out and accomplish everything expected in the Law.

      John Newton once wrote, 'It is an abuse both of Law and gospel, to pretend that its accomplishment by Christ released believers from an obligation to it as a rule.' He added that Christ is the 'transcript of the Law'. Surely this is what John meant by 'the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ' (John 1:17). There can be no doubt that there was both grace and truth in the Law, but John means that grace and truth were personified in Christ.

      Thus, we interpret and apply the Law through the filter of the Christ and the apostles.

      Third: The Law is summed up by the simple command to love, but that does not imply that we no longer need the Law.

      'All we need is love. Love is all we need.' That is the gospel according to the Beetles! It is 60s flower power theology.

      In Romans 13:8-10 Paul lists four commandments and concludes that all the others may be summed up in this way: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' Here in Ro.13 Paul used the very word 'fulfil' that is used by our Lord at his baptism and in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17. As we have seen, it implies no more or less than fully carrying out rather than destroying. In fact the word is interesting because it means what it says: to condense something into a summary. That is exactly what the Law of love is - it is a summary of the whole Law - not a replacement for it. The life of Jesus Christ was a perfect summary of obedience to the Law -- not a replacement of it.

      Similarly in Galatians 5:14 Paul claims that the entire Law is summarized in a single command: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' And that, remember is not a NT precept substituting love for OT Law because Paul is quoting from Lev 19:18.

      Besides, by suggesting that the commandments can be summed up in this one rule that we should love our neighbour as ourselves, Paul cannot mean that all commandments without exception are summed up in this way. Whilst most of the Old Testament Laws might be summed up in the delightfully simple phrase that we should love our neighbour, Paul knew his Old Testament sufficiently well to realise that at least the first three of the Ten Commandments related primarily to our love of God. Paul is being selective.

      However, a summary does not dispense with the details; it encloses them by a simple statement.

      Let me illustrate: I may describe a collection of moulded steel, cast iron, electrical wiring, leather upholstery, reinforced glass, plastic, and an assortment of nuts, bolts and screws. But I summarise all this by telling you that I have just bought a motor car. That simple word 'car' does not destroy the detail, it merely summarises it.

      When our Lord was asked which one is the greatest commandment in the Law, he replied by offering a short summary: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets' (Matthew 22:37-40). He made it quite clear that the summary did not dispense with the detail.

      This is apparent by the word that is translated 'depend'. It is used of   leaves that hang from a tree or a door that is hung on its hinges. In this sense the emphasis is upon connection or dependence, hence some translations actually use the word 'hang'. All the Law and the prophets hang upon the Law of love for their full and proper expression. But love no more means that we can do without Law than the existence of trees means we can do without leaves or hinges means that we can do without a door.

      You will sometimes be told that Christ left his disciples a new command that they should love one another (John 13:34). But he didn't!   So, what was new in the command that Christ gave? 'Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.' That is radically new and uniquely Christian. There was nothing like this in the Old Testament Law where the standard given was that we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Now, however, the standard is to love as Christ loved us. Here Christ expounds and applies the Law. But you will notice that he uses the Law as his foundation and then builds on it. This is what he meant by 'fulfilling' the Law. The Law told us what and even how, but our Lord pitches the how even higher.

      Quite simply we need the Law to guide and control our definition of love, because love alone is too subjective. Let me be very practical:

       - Two young people love each other, so they decide to sleep together. Is this right? How do we know?   Love does not tell us, but the Law does.

       - A man loves a woman and so he leaves his wife and family to go with her. Is this right?   How do we know? Love does not decide, but the Law does.

       - A man is cruel to his wife so her brother kills the brutal husband to protect his sister whom he loves. Is this right? Love does not tell us, but the Law does.

       - Two men, or two women, enjoy intimate sexual relationships because they love each other. Is that right?   Again, love does not tell us, but the Law does.

       - A poor man steals to buy his children Christmas presents because he loves them. Is that right? Love may say it is, but it is the Law that teaches us otherwise.

       - A woman lies to protect her friend whom she loves. Is that right? Only the Law can tell us.

      These moral issues are not answered by love alone. They are not even answered by love and a Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit; if they were, all Christians would agree on all the examples I have given above, and as a pastor I would never have to remind disobedient Christians that their course of action is contrary to the perfect design of God.

      Here is the key: our moral decisions must be motivated by love monitored by Law. The Law restrains love from its excesses whilst love releases Law from its harshness. It was the Law of love that meant Christ could discharge the woman who was taken in adultery from the legal penalty of death. But love did not make her adultery right; the Law condemned her and rightly so. This is a beautiful example of love and Law in action: 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more' (John 8:11). It is the grace of Law when it keeps love in check.

      Fourth: The Christian is no longer under Law but under grace

      One of the most misquoted verses in the New Testament on this subject is Romans 6:14 where Paul states, 'You are not under Law but under grace'. What exactly did he mean? He surely cannot be dismissing the value of Law altogether since, as we saw earlier, Paul writes highly of the value of the Law, and when he encourages Timothy that, 'All Scripture is ... profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness' (2 Timothy 3:16-17), I doubt whether he meant all Scripture except the Law.

      Michael Eaton (A Ministry of Encouragement) concludes that as we walk by the Spirit we may fulfil the Law 'accidentally', but that it has nothing to say to the Christian in his daily walk with God. Reminiscent of the RC doctrine of 'invincible ignorance'!

      It is clear from the context of Romans 6:14 that far from denying the value of the Law, Paul is establishing a higher motivation in our life, 'For sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under Law but under grace'. The Law is no longer our master and it no longer condemns us. Christ is our master and his death releases us from all the condemning judgement of the Law. More than this, his Spirit enables us to understand the value of the Law and delight in applying it to our lives. The Law alone could never empower my obedience, but the Holy Spirit enables me to be obedient.

      In a highly significant phrase in verse 17, Paul recognises that whilst we were once slaves of sin, in Christ we have now become obedient, 'from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed'. We are now 'slaves of righteousness' (verse 18). In his detailed and careful argument in Romans 7 and 8 about the Law, Paul makes clear that the Law standing on its own can only increase my sin and condemn me for it; it can neither give me life nor the power to overcome sin. However, once I am set free from the power and condemnation of the Law by the Spirit of life in Christ, that which once was my enemy can become my friend.

      We are not saved by obedience to the Law, but we are saved for obedience to the Law.

      This is surely what Augustus Toplady meant in his hymn: 'The terrors of Law and of God with me can have nothing to do; my Saviour's obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.' More importantly, it is what Paul meant here in Romans 6:14. Knowing that the power of the Law to condemn me to the anger of a holy God has been for ever broken, gives me such joy in justifying grace. The Law can never separate me from the love of God, for Christ is my Master and he alone has 'dominion' - lordship, rule, authority - over my life. That is the meaning of being under grace and not under Law. Nothing more, but nothing less either.

      Fifth: it follows that the Law on stone is now written in our hearts

      A frequently quoted promise from the Old Testament is Jeremiah 31:33. All are agreed that this refers to the new era of the Spirit after Pentecost:

      '"This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days", declares the LORD: "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."'

      The question is, precisely what does this refer to?   Since Jeremiah refers to 'my Law' six times and on every occasion it can only refer to the Law of God (see 6:19; 9:13; 16:11; 26:4; 31:33; 44:10), it must be the Old Testament Law that God writes on our hearts under the new covenant. But what does this mean? Are we to assume that none of the Old Testament saints ever kept the Law of God joyfully, willingly, and wholeheartedly?

      Such a conclusion would be hard to square with the psalmist's expressions of love for God's word in Psalm 119 where on ten occasions he declares his 'delight' in the Law, on seven he declares how he 'loves' God's Law, and further comments how he has stored it in his heart (v 11), kept it with his 'whole heart' (vs 34,69), and 'longs for it' (vs 20,40).

      Surely the distinction is this: under the old covenant every member of Israel belonged to the people of the promise though not all lived by faith and therefore many obeyed the Law grudgingly, but under the new covenant every member will be a true believer serving God and his Law with a glad heart. David in Psalm 119 enjoyed the Law in his heart under New Covenant blessing; in just the same way that he enjoyed New Covenant forgiveness after his terrible disobedience.

      Sixth: The New Testament often refers to the relevance of the Law in the life of the Christian

      Here are three texts, among others:

      In 1 Corinthians 10:6-10 Paul provides us with four cameos of the disobedience of Israel in the wilderness which illustrate four of the Ten Commandments.   Commandments 1,2,7,10 are clearly in focus here and Paul concludes, 'these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction' (v 11).

      More significantly is the fact that in Romans 13:9, Paul lists four of the Ten Commandments, embraces the rest by the statement: 'and any other commandment', and then summarises them by quoting, not from the teaching of Jesus, but directly from Leviticus 19:18.   He offers not a word of hesitation or warning on the use of Old Testament Law. As one writer comments, 'Paul appears to have no problem quoting from the Decalogue and leaving it at that.'

      A third passage is 1 Timothy 1:5-11, which is an often overlooked but significant passage in this whole debate. Here Paul states that the Law is good and is to be used - provided it is used 'Lawfully'. Therefore there must be a right and a wrong way to use the Law of God, and in vs 6-7 he refers to those who teach the Law in the wrong way.

      He then indicates the correct use of the Law: it is not needed for those who already obey its dictates (the just or righteous of v 9, and compare with Matthew 9:13 and Philippians 3:6) but it is for those who do not, whether Christian or non Christian. In other words, the Law is a clear marker for righteous living; it has little to say to the righteous man - until he steps out of line. To underline this, Paul provides Timothy with a sin-list that follows the order of   the Ten Commandments precisely (vs 9-10) and he concludes that these - and anything else that contradicts the Law - is 'contrary to sound doctrine'.

      In other words, adherence to the Law is part of   what Paul calls 'sound doctrine'.

      Seventh: The Old Testament Law is not too low a standard.

      We are told that the Law is not sufficiently Christian in outlook. That is arguable, since Paul claimed that the Law is 'holy, righteous, good and spiritual' (Romans 7:12, 14).

      God did not reveal a low standard to his chosen people. We can hardly claim that the God who commanded Israel 'to be holy as I am holy' was prepared to settle for obedience to a low standard. Was his Law adequate by which to measure that holiness? And if not, has the word 'holiness' radically changed its meaning from the old covenant to the new?

      In his book Tablets of Stone, John Reisinger claims that our Lord deliberately replaced the Old Testament Law by his own in Matthew 5:27-28: 'You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.' Reisinger believes that Jesus is saying that the seventh Commandment is not an adequate standard.

      But that is not what our Lord means at all.   The introduction 'you have heard it said' is generally accepted as his way of referring, not to the Old Testament - which he normally introduces by 'it is written' - but to the teaching of the Pharisees. Thus our Lord is instructing his disciples that whilst the Pharisees limited the seventh Commandment to the act of physical adultery, there was much more intended by the Commandment than that. This is clear from the fact that the Tenth Commandment, for example, is all about the mind. Coveting is not how you act but how you think.

      But stay with the seventh Commandment. Proverbs 6:25 'do not desire her beauty in your heart', 6:27 'Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?' and 7:25 'Let not your heart turn aside to her ways', explicitly refer to the inward lusting after a forbidden woman. And David in Ps.50 'Create in me a clean heart, O God.' This is all about the mind.

      In other words, Jesus was teaching his disciples, as he often did, how to correctly understand Old Testament Law -- but the principles for this interpretation were already there in the OT.

      Many talk of the 'discontinuity' of the two covenants and by that mean that there is a decided break between the old and new. I am no so sure. In fact I would never use the word 'discontinuity'. far better is to think of the 'progressive revelation'. In other words, there is a very clear onward progression from the old to the new. Among other things, the personification of Law in the life of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit enabling the believer to keep the Law, and the new motivation we have to obey it.

      We should never forget that according to Paul, the fact that Timothy had been brought up on the Old Testament Scriptures (which must include the Law) was in itself sufficient to make him 'wise for salvation', and that all Scripture is God-breathed and 'is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work' (1 Timothy 3:15-17). That hardly sounds like a low standard of revelation!

      So, how should we use the OT Law?

      The good citizen always loves good Laws; it is only the Law-breaker who hates them. In a similar way to David, the psalmist Asaph could think of nothing more wonderful in this life as a preparation for the next, than the guidance of God in his word leading him to God himself: 'You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you' (Psalm 73:24-25).

      The more I understand the whole Law of God the more I will know the meaning of loving God and loving my neighbour. Explaining this to his young reader, John Newton claimed that the Christian who uses the Law in this way 'acquires an habitual, spiritual taste of what is right or wrong.' That is precisely the purpose of the grace of Law.

      Illustration: When we are learning to play the piano, one of the most important points is to look carefully where we place our fingers on the keyboard. Similarly we have to pay attention to the notes on the sheet music in front of us; we must observe carefully whether a note is above, on or below the line and whether the note is black or white and whether it has a tail or not - it all makes a lot of difference. At first this is painfully slow and tedious. We make many mistakes and the concentration is enormous.

      I compare this to the way the Israelites used the Old Testament Law. It was detailed and laborious and often it must have proved tedious and irritating - but it was all vitally necessary.

      In the course of time and with practice, it is possible to play accurately by obeying every rule of music - but the result may still be flat, insensitive and dead; it is without life or soul. That is like the legalism of a wrong use of Old Testament Law.

      However, the concert pianist no longer focuses on those basic rules - she uses them and they are still essential if she is to play well - but now she concentrates on bringing life and soul into her music. Far from ignoring or destroying the rules she learnt in grade one, she now wants to give them greater value. She applies them in such a way as to express thought and feeling in order to make the music come alive and touch the soul - and she does so with hardly any conscious awareness of those basic Laws. But if she makes a mistake, or is ever tempted to defy the rules of music, they are always there to bring her back into line.

      That is just how the New Testament Christian applies the Law.

      How did Paul use it?

      Surprisingly!

      In case we should ever doubt the value of the Law in the life of the Christian, Paul left us examples of how it should be wisely and properly used. Recall his use of the Old Testament when he encouraged the young churches to support financially those working in gospel ministry. He looked to the Old Testament Law for support, and focused on Deuteronomy 25:4, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.'   

      Paul's reasoning in 1 Corinthians 9:8-11 (and 1 Tim.5) is that this passage in the Old Testament Law is not only or even primarily about our concern for the welfare of animals - though it is concerned for that - but it has a much wider application. This is a perfect example of a Christian application of Old Testament Law. The whole New Testament ethic is an exposition of Old Testament Law.

      When one writer criticises the 'expositions of the Decalogue (that) move from crime to "deeper applications"', he may have forgotten that this is precisely what Paul is doing here and exactly what our Lord did in his Sermon on the Mount.

      I do not for one moment overlook those few parts of the Law where we find it hard to understand exactly what their application is for us today. But when applied through the filter of the life and ministry of Christ and the life and ministry of the apostles, the Old Testament Law is full of instruction. Here are just a handful of examples among many.

      Leviticus 11. Within the record of 'clean' and 'unclean' animals is the instruction that if a housewife discovered that a lizard had fallen into her kneading bowl, she must break the bowl and destroy any food that was left in it (vs 33-34). That may seem a harsh response when she could more easily have washed out the bowl. However, the severity of the Law would soon help her to realise that it would be far more sensible never to leave food overnight in an uncovered bowl, and that it would be wiser for her to turn all unused kitchenware upside down. I doubt whether too many bowls were broken in Israelite homes - mothers would train their daughters better than that.

      Is this frivolous? Not when you consider the millions that have died in history - and are still dying across the world today - from dysentery simply because basic rules of hygiene like this are neglected. Similarly, some of the extravagant washing listed in the Law would doubtless have been intended to eradicate the ubiquitous human louse - an insect which causes typhus resulting in more deaths than any other insect-borne disease with the exception of the malarial mosquito.

      Deuteronomy 22 is an Old Testament chapter that deals with lost property, neighbourliness, transvestism, ecology, health and safety, agriculture and horticulture, marriage relationships, adultery, and rape -- is there nothing for the Christian or the modern world to learn in a passage like this? In any discussion on the wise use of the earth's resources, can the Christian learn nothing from the simple check on egg-collecting found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7?

      If our Victorian forefathers at the time of the Industrial revolution had paid attention to the principles enshrined in Deuteronomy 22:8 about parapets on a flat roof, then thousands of little children, who were operating unguarded machinery, would not have been so brutally maimed and killed.

      If a man starves his working horse, is that wrong? A horse is hardly my neighbour!! So where do I turn? Deut 25 the Ox grinding corn, or Prov.12:10 'A righteous man is kind to his animals.'   Is this merely advice or an obligation?

      This is precisely why Jesus told the Pharisees that they should not neglect tithing but should look for the 'weightier matters of the Law' (Matthew 23:23). Nothing in the Law is irrelevant for the Christian and everything - spiritually understood - is of value.

      Our principles of OT hermeneutics demand that we take seriously the relevance of the OT Law. After all if, we are constantly told, the Jews considered the whole of their Hebrew Scriptures as 'the Law', then what are we to do with the 'Prophets' and the 'Writings'? Have they no more relevance either?

      The grace of Law

      Both Law and love are the grace of God. We are never to talk of 'grace or Law', as if they are opposites - Paul tells us that the Law is not 'contrary to the promises of God' (Galatians 3:21). Nor should we talk of 'grace and Law', as if they are compatible differences. We will never find those two phrases in the New Testament. But we can speak of 'the grace of Law'. Law was God's grace to define and confine sin, and it still is because it still does.

      Keeping in step with the Spirit is never to be divorced from keeping in step with his Law.

      Looking for a bridge between some of the Old Testament Laws and the life of the Christian, Richard Lovelace in Dynamics of Spiritual Life, suggests that,

      'The constant acts of choice they had to make between clean and unclean items was a kind of game preparation for the serious business of discriminating between the holy and unholy which is part of a walk in the Holy Spirit.'

      If that is so, then this is all part of the grace of Law. It is the grace of God that instructed his ancient people Israel - and us through them - just how vital it is that our values of life should be very different from those of the world around us. And if we consider some of the rules are a little too fussy, perhaps God is saying to us: 'Think about it. The Christian conscience should be touch-sensitive to sin.'

      When Christians 'talk down' the Law of God, they do a serious disservice to the God of all grace who gave his rules to us in the first place.

      They equally do a great disservice to a world living in a moral maze with only the sin-branded conscience of society to guide it.

      For that matter, they do a great disservice also to a generation of young Christians struggling to learn just how they can claim that there are in existence standards stamped with God's authority. It is of little help for them to be told that the revelation of the Law in the Old Testament is irrelevant for the twenty-first century, or even that though the world needs some of it, Christians need none of it.

      Wisdom will teach them that the one true God has given us his rules for perfect living, and that Christ by his life and teaching, and by his death and resurrection, has added a plus factor to those rules - not to replace them, but to renew them with life and love.

      Law restrains love from its abuses whilst love releases Law from its harshness. Love is the how that interprets and applies the what of Law.

       - This is why King Alfred the Great, who became the first king to unite much of England under his rule,   placed the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the Law book for his subjects and showed how they should be understood: 'by the love and compassion of the Lord Christ.'

       - The puritan Thomas Watson once wrote, 'They who will not have the Law to rule them shall have the Law to judge them.'

       - Or, as a wise old Methodist preacher once commented, 'We either keep the Ten Commandments or we illustrate them.'

       - Better still, listen to David in the Old Testament: 'I find my delight in your commandments, which I love' (Psalm 119:47). It is remarkably sad that King David could declare: 'Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your Law' (Psalm 119:18), whilst many Christians three thousand years later can find nothing wonderful in them at all.

      What is so wonderful about the Law of God?

       - The Law shows us how holy God is - though more clearly does the life of Christ.

       - The Law shows us the horror of sin - though more clearly does the cross of Christ.

       - The Law warns of judgment for disobedience - though more clearly does the agony of Christ at Calvary.

       - The Law points to forgiveness and reconciliation with God - though more clearly does our Saviour's death and resurrection.

       - The Law is holy, righteous and good - but a thousand times more holy, righteous and good is Christ. The grace of Law always points away to Christ who died, not to bring an end to Law but to the penalty of broken Law and to the weakness of the Law that cannot help us to keep it.

      For the Christian, the Law can never condemn. It has lost its power to cast any Christian into hell because Christ nailed all its demands to the cross (Colossians 2:14). I can now delight in the Law because Christ has died to set me free to enjoy the grace of Law.

      (c) Brian Edwards 2007

      This is the substance of a talk given to the Westminster Fellowship of ministers in London on Monday 5 February 2007. For   further reading of Brian's position see his The Ten Commandments for Today and Grace -- amazing grace. Both Day One publications.

Back to Brian H. Edwards index.

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