The Christian Life Is About Following Jesus, Not the Law: Does Reformed Ethics Get This?

In the era that Christians describe as that of the Old Testament, faithful Jews came to know God in two primary ways. First, they meditated on the great works that God had done for the Hebrew people throughout their history, including most obviously the Exodus. As Psalm 111:2 exclaims, for example,

Great are the works of the LORD! Studied by all who delight in them.

Second, faithful Jews studied the law of God, with all of its precepts regarding worship and political life, mercy, justice and the demands of piety. As Psalm 119:97 declares, a psalm focused almost entirely on the law,

O how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.

After the coming of Jesus Christians still meditate on God’s works and on the law, of course, but for us knowing God takes somewhat of a different focus. For we know God not primarily through the law, or through what he did for the Hebrew people, but through the one who fulfilled both the law and the prophets, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ works are now our works, and define who we are. And we do not follow the old written code that kills, but the Spirit of Christ, who gives life (Romans 7:6; Cf. 2 Corinthians 3:6).

Unfortunately, the catechisms of the Reformation sometimes obscure this point because of their emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the primary teaching tool for righteous living according to God’s moral law. But the New Testament comes at the matter from a slightly different direction. Sit down and read your New Testament cover to cover and you will notice a consistent redirecting of Christians from the law to the one who fulfilled and satisfied it, not just with reference to justification and the forgiveness of sins, but with reference to sanctification and good works. To put it simply, the typical approach of Christian scripture when describing the Christian life is not to call believers to obey the law, but to urge them to “put on the new man,” to conform to the image of Christ by following him.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the classic example of this approach, of course. After showing that believers are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14), Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… But put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:8, 14).

A more subtle, and therefore less appreciated, example of this approach is the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There, after declaring that he constantly offers prayers of thanksgiving for the faith, hope, and love that he sees in the Colossian church, he declares that he also prays that they might grow in the knowledge of God by “walking in a manner worthy of the Lord” (Colossians 1:10). How are they to imitate Jesus in this way? By being “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9).

The million dollar question, of course, is how Christians are to attain this knowledge of God’s will, this wisdom and understanding. And so often Christians instinctively assume that the source is simply the law. As I recently heard one Presbyterian pastor put it, the Christian life can be summed up in one word: law-keeping.

But this is misguided, and it is certainly not the point of Colossians 1. As Paul points out only a few sentences later, in Colossians 2:3, it is Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” The Christian life consists in putting on the “new man” and so being “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator” (3:10), who, of course, is Jesus (1:15-20). That’s why Christians are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (3:1), rather than those things that are on earth, including the law with all its shadows.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (2:16-17)

The great theme of Colossians is that because in Jesus “all things exist” (1:17), Christians are to find their identity and way of life in him and nowhere else. “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (2:6). That’s why Paul emphasizes the meaning of his ministry in just these words: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (1:28).

We grow in the knowledge of God’s will, walking in a manner worthy of the Lord, in short, by focusing on Jesus.

It is the failure to emphasize this following of Jesus as the form and model of the Christian life, I worry, that is the greatest weakness of standard Reformed ethics. Look at a typical syllabus for a Reformed Christian ethics course, or a typical Reformed catechism, and the emphasis will fall almost entirely on the Ten Commandments. To be sure, Reformed theology has always been clear that we observe only the moral law as it is found in the Old Testament, not the law in general. And there is no contradiction between the moral law that is found in the Ten Commandments and the way of Jesus. All scripture is profitable for correction and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), including the Old Testament law. There is a third use of the law. But that doesn’t give us the right to ignore the model and approach laid out for us in the New Testament, as if the fulfillment of the shadow in Christ meant that the shadow was somehow clearer than Christ himself (which is how many Reformed teachers seem to think, at least in practice).

Focusing too much on the Ten Commandments, or on other parts of the Old Testament law, has its costs. It was designed as a tutor or guardian for children, as Paul says in Galatians 3, and it is therefore insufficient for we who are “no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:26). The law described the way of God’s righteousness in shadows, emphasizing outward rules, prohibitions, and practices, all the while tolerating a significant degree of immaturity and “hardness of heart” (Matthew 19:8). But in Jesus we have the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the one who embodied perfect love, justice, mercy, and truth. Because he alone has already taken the path we are called to follow, as the firstborn of many brothers, we can be confident that it is only when we take up our cross and follow him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we too fulfill the law.

No, the Christian life cannot be summed up in terms of law-keeping. We are called Christians because our life is summed up, as the early Christians described it, as “the way” of Jesus Christ.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 23, 2013, in Christian Life, Law and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Christian Life Is About Following Jesus, Not the Law: Does Reformed Ethics Get This?.

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