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Should Christians Obey the Old Testament?

The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ

ABSTRACT: Paul views the law of Moses as a body of commandments given to Israel for a limited time and for a particular purpose. With the coming of Christ and the inauguration of a new phase in salvation history, the era when the Torah governed God’s people has come to an end. Christians, therefore, while profitably studying and learning from the Mosaic law, are no longer “under” it — obliged to follow it as a rule for their lives. Rather, we are under the law of Christ.

The apostle Paul views Christian conformity to the will of God in all matters of life as arising from, and stimulated by, the believer’s new life in Christ.1 It is the Spirit working within believers and among them to renew minds that characterizes Paul’s new-covenant morality. However, while the minds of believers are, indeed, being renewed, that process is an ongoing one. In Romans 12:2, Paul speaks not of the “renewed mind” but of the “renewing of the mind.” This focus on process rather than finished work is suggested in Ephesians 4:23 also, where renewing the mind is a command issued to believers. Paul is quite aware, in other words, that Christian transformation will not be complete until the “not yet” of the parousia. Because believers are acting out their roles in this particular stage of the salvation-historical drama, the renewing of their minds requires specific guidance.

We badly misunderstand Paul’s vision for the Christian moral life if we do not give primary place to the Spirit’s work of transformation. Indeed, if we lived in a time when the new realm had completely ousted the old, we would have no need of external guidance: our perfectly renewed minds would infallibly guide us to think, say, and do just what would most please God in every situation. And Paul makes clear that believers should be constantly seeking to remold their very way of thinking so that it is oriented by the Spirit to the things of God. But we are not there yet. Our imperfectly renewed minds therefore require external guidance: hence the quite specific and clear commands that Paul sprinkles throughout his letters. It is as if he is saying in these texts, “If you think this behavior is what your renewed mind commends, you are wrong.”

Paul is clear, then: “keeping God’s commands” (1 Corinthians 7:19b)2 has a role to play in Christian moral formation. Where, however, are these commands found? One obvious answer is that we find them in the teaching of Jesus. Another source for New Testament commands would seem clear: the Old Testament law. However, there is considerable debate about the role of the law of Moses in Paul’s ethical teaching. One influential theological stream, covenant theology, distinguishes between the law as a “covenant of works” and the law in its regulatory significance, arguing that believers are freed from the former but are still obliged to the latter.3 Many Pauline scholars advocate this general approach, claiming that Paul views the “moral” law of the torah as authoritative for believers (the moral law often being summarized by the Decalogue). Others, however, argue that Paul no longer views the torah as having direct, binding authority over believers. We live in a new covenant; old-covenant law no longer applies directly to us.

With some qualification, which I will introduce later, I think this latter view best represents the New Testament position on this matter. The argument for the view I am advocating can be simply summarized. Paul views the law of Moses as a body of commandments given to Israel for a limited time and for a particular purpose. With the coming of Christ and the inauguration of a new phase in salvation history, the era when the torah governed God’s people has come to an end. Believers, therefore, while they profitably read and learn from the law, are no longer “under” it — obliged to follow it as a rule for their lives.

Culmination of the Law

Of course, many New Testament texts would need to be considered to fully validate this view; and I deal with these other passages elsewhere.4 Paul’s response to the agitators in Galatia focuses especially on what he views as their failure to grasp the significance of the salvation-historical shift that has occurred. For them, it is business as usual: Messiah has come, but torah still governs the people of God, and those who want to be included within that people, whether Jew or Gentile, must conform to it. In response, Paul argues that the torah entered into salvation history at a particular time (“430 years” after the promise [Galatians 3:17]; see “added” in v. 19) and, especially importantly, was intended to rule God’s people only until “the seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Galatians 3:19). The torah functioned to “guard” Israel during that earlier time; but “now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:25). The purpose of the law expressed in this language of “guardian” (Gk. paidagōgos) is indicated in a variation of this formula that Paul uses several times: “under the law” (Galatians 3:23; 4:4, 5, 21; 5:18; Romans 6:14, 15; 1 Corinthians 9:20 [four occurrences]). Paul’s “under” in these kinds of contexts generally denotes “under the power of.” To be “under the law,” then, is to be under the authority of the law.5 It refers to one basic aspect of what it meant to be the old-covenant people of God, governed by the law that God graciously gave his people.

Romans 7:4 makes a similar point: believers have been “put to death with respect to the law.” As the parallel with death to sin in Romans 6 makes clear, being “put to death with respect to the law” means to be released from its binding authority (see Romans 6:6). Paul’s famous statement about the law in Romans 10:4 should also be interpreted in the context of this salvation-historical scheme. When Paul claims that “Christ is the end of the law,” he is not saying simply that Christ “ends” the law. Rather, the word translated “end” (telos) is best translated “climax” or “culmination.” Paul is reminding his readers that Christ is what the law was pointing toward all along: he is, as it were, the finish line of the race Israel had been running. Now that the finish line has been reached, the race is over: the law is no longer the “guardian” of God’s people.6 Thus Paul asserts that the coming of Christ, like the finish line in a race, marks the intended outcome or culmination of the law, the race that Israel had been running.

These texts suggest that Paul views the torah as old-covenant law, and, as such, no longer a source of direct moral guidance for the new-covenant people of God. Of course, his many appeals to the Old Testament make clear that the Old Testament, as a whole, remains a source of authority for God’s new-realm people. The question here is in what sense the torah of Moses is authoritative for the church. By relegating the torah to a past stage of salvation history, Paul implies that it does not have a determinative role in guiding new-realm conduct.

Alternative Views

In arguing for this view, I acknowledge the many serious arguments that fine scholars who hold a different view than I do have advanced. I need briefly to explain why I don’t think they overturn the general approach I outline above. One line of argument can, I think, be quickly dismissed. In order to void the force of many of Paul’s negative claims about the law, some scholars argue that nomos in these texts refers not to the law as God gave it but the law as abused by people in a legalistic manner.7 Paul, of course, does confront legalism in places, but there is no basis to think he refers to it by means of the simple word nomos. As context makes clear, Paul’s references to nomos are references to the law as it is enshrined in Scripture (see, e.g., Galatians 3:17). And Heikki Räisänen makes the pertinent point: “It is hard to understand why a method as drastic as the death both of Christ and of the Christians would have been necessary to get rid of a mere misunderstanding about the law. A new revelation about its true meaning would have sufficed.”8

Another response is to argue that Paul’s teaching about the law’s end refers to only parts of the law, to specific functions of the law, or to the law viewed in a certain way. It has been, for instance, popular in Christian history to divide the law into three parts: civil, ceremonial, and moral. The former two parts of the law lose their direct authority over God’s people with the coming of Christ; but the “moral law” (often confined to the Decalogue) remains in force. However, while it can be helpful to categorize the many specific commandments and prohibitions in the torah, no neat division into the traditional categories of moral, ceremonial, and civil is possible. More importantly, there is no evidence that Jews in Paul’s day or New Testament authors assumed such categories. Indeed, two New Testament texts imply that early Christians viewed the law as a single entity (Galatians 5:3; James 2:10). This makes it very difficult to think that any particular occurrence of “law” (without clear contextual clues) would be intended to mean “ceremonial law” or “moral law.”

As we noted above, a distinction between the law as direction for life and the law as pronouncing condemnation on those who disobey it is also popular as a way of dismissing the view I have argued. However, again, I am unconvinced that there is adequate lexical or contextual evidence to show that Paul uses “law” as such to refer to such a distinct function of the law. Recently, many scholars have identified two different perspectives on the law in Paul by focusing on texts in which Paul refers to contrasting “laws” (Romans 3:27; 7:22–23; 8:2; 9:31–32). On this view, “the law of sin and death,” for instance, in Romans 8:2 refers to the law as an instrument of sin that leads to death, whereas “the law of the Spirit who gives life” in that same verse refers to that same law as it functions in the hands of the new-covenant Spirit. However, the contrast in laws in these texts is probably between the torah, on the one hand, and new-covenant law or authority on the other.

Another line of argument that raises questions about the view described above is based on passages in Paul that affirm the continuing importance of the law. In Romans 3:31, Paul claims that his emphasis on faith does not “nullify the law”; rather, he “upholds the law.” The question, of course, is in what sense Paul upholds the law. John Murray thinks Paul upholds the law by reinstating it as a moral guide for believers.9 Most interpreters, however, think Paul anticipates the argument following in chapter 4: by highlighting faith, Paul upholds that same emphasis in Genesis 15:6. However, it might be more likely that Paul anticipates a point even further ahead in Romans. Paul’s teaching of faith upholds the law because faith joins us to Christ, who has himself perfectly upheld the law in our place. This, I argue, is what Paul means in Romans 8:4 when he claims that the “just requirement of the law is fulfilled in us.” The language here of “fulfill” brings into our purview two other texts in which Paul affirms that love “fulfills the law” (Romans 13:8–10; Galatians 5:14). Some interpreters argue that “fulfill” (plēroō) in these texts is a rough synonym for other words that Paul uses to speak about “doing” the law. This text may then teach that Christians are to “do” the law by obeying the love command (the law is “reduced” to this one command)10 or to keep the law truly by making love preeminent in their broader “doing” of the law.11 But the distinctive theological significance of this verb in the New Testament suggests that it is referring not simply to obedience to the law, but to an eschatological completion of the law. Christians bring the whole law to its conclusive and intended “end” by loving others. The whole law aims at “doing good” to others, and if one loves truly and consistently, all that the law is aiming at is also accomplished.

Bound to Christ

Finally, I tackle the two passages in which the New Testament directly refers to a “law of Christ”:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:19–22)

Both texts refer to “law” (nomos) in relationship to Christ. In Galatians, we find the simple genitive construction ho nomos tou Christou, “the law of Christ,” while in 1 Corinthians 9 we have the adjective ennomos qualified by Christou: “in-lawed to Christ.” In Galatians 6:2, two major directions of interpretation can be identified. First, some argue that, as in Galatians consistently to this point, “law” must refer to the law of Moses, which, Paul is here claiming, is fulfilled by, or interpreted by, or focused on, Christ.12 On this reading, Paul could be indicating that the law of Moses, seen in light of Christ, has continuing authority over believers. But a second option may be the more likely interpretation: that Paul refers to a law distinct from that of Moses, a law that is taught by, or has relation to, Christ. In light of 5:14, this “law” might be the love command, which Jesus, of course, put forward as one of the “great commandments.” However, while not excluding the love command, I think it more likely that Paul uses “law of Christ” as a rhetorical counterpart to the law of Moses to describe broadly the moral implications of being bound to Christ. The teaching of Christ and the apostles would be included, but also included would be, for instance, the implications of Christ’s example for his followers (see, e.g., Philippians 2:5), the various ways God’s Spirit induces certain values and forms of behavior in Christ followers (e.g., Galatians 5:16–25), and the working out of the renewed mind.13

The probability that Galatians 6:2 refers to “Christian law” is enhanced when we look at 1 Corinthians 9:19–22. Here Paul breaks the broad entity “law of God” into two parts: the law that was valid for Jews and which Paul is no longer “under,” and the law of Christ, to which Paul is obligated. As in Galatians 6:2, “law of Christ” is best seen as a contrast to the law of Moses, a neat way of referring to the moral constraints of the new covenant that Paul and other believers are obliged to obey. They now encounter the “law of God” (the big category) not as the law (of Moses) but “the law of Christ.”

Finally, I want to add an important nuance to the view I have been arguing in this section. Paul, I have been maintaining, claims that the torah, the law of Moses, as old-covenant law, is not an immediate, authoritative source for Christian conduct. However, our final view of this matter must do justice to passages where Paul does seem to cite the Old Testament law as normative for Christian conduct (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:8–10; and esp. Ephesians 6:2–3). I don’t think these texts overturn the case I have made for my view. But they are, in a sense, the tip of the iceberg, revealing that Paul in many ways continues to integrate Old Testament law into his moral teaching. Paul seems to assume with his readers a shared sense of basic right and wrong, what it means to “do good” (e.g., Romans 2:7) versus doing “evil” (e.g., Romans 2:8; for both, see Romans 12:9). These shared moral norms probably reflect natural law, a moral compass that God has built into the world he has made and manifested in the conscience (Romans 2:14–15). But these moral norms undoubtedly reflect Paul’s deep familiarity with the Old Testament law. Brian Rosner has highlighted the many ways Paul assumes the teaching of the law in his own teaching, and comes to a conclusion that I find quite compelling: while not imposing the law as an authoritative norm, Paul reappropriates the law as “wisdom,” integrating its essential core into his own teaching.14

  1. A revised version of this essay appears in my forthcoming The Theology of Paul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020). 

  2. All Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version. 

  3. See, e.g., John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London, 1645), 15; Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (1645; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1964), 28. 

  4. See my chapter “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses: A Modified Lutheran View,” in The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 319–76. 

  5. A number of scholars argue, in contrast, that the phrase refers to being under the curse or condemnation of the law. See, e.g., Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 77–81. 

  6. See Douglas J. Moo, A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, NICNT, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 654–60 for further argument. Romans 10:4 is, on this view, making a point very similar to what Jesus is claiming when he refers to his “fulfilling” the law in Matthew 5:17 (for Matt. 5:17, see my “Jesus and the Authority of the Mosaic Law,” JSNT 20 [1984]: 3–49). 

  7. E.g., Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel/Law: Contrast or Continuum? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980). In response, see Douglas J. Moo, “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law’ and Legalism in Paul,” WTJ 45 (1983): 73–100. 

  8. Heikki Räisänen, Paul and the Law, WUNT 2/29 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), 46. 

  9. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 124–26. 

  10. E.g., Räisänen, Paul and the Law, 26–28. 

  11. E.g., Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment, 38, 110. 

  12. See esp. Andrew Chester, Messiah and Exaltation: Jewish Messianic and Visionary Traditions and New Testament Christology, WUNT 2/207 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 537–601. He also provides a thorough overview of the options. 

  13. For more details on this point, see Douglas J. Moo, Galatians, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 376–78. 

  14. Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God, NSBT 31 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013).