Why People Don’t Like It When We Talk About the Law the Way the New Testament Does

Almost inevitably when I write or speak about the law I experience the same curious response from at least someone. How can you say Christians are not under the law? How can you say that the law has been made obsolete, or abolished, because of the enactment of a better covenant? How can you say that the law is a burden that believers should not be required to bear? How can you say that when it comes to the Christian life the New Testament points its readers not to the law, but to putting on Jesus, the new man, and conforming to his image? Doesn’t all of this fly in the face of the third use of the law, of our confessions and catechisms, and of the weight our tradition has always placed on the Ten Commandments?

What is striking about this response, of course, is that all of the language my hearer or reader finds most objectionable (including the language identified above) is drawn directly from Scripture. Indeed, I determined some years ago to work as hard as I could to make sure that my preaching and ethics conforms as closely as possible not simply to the theological truths taught in Scripture, but to the language and emphasis of Scripture. And what I discovered when I did this is that the New Testament, including especially the writings of Paul, John, and Hebrews, almost uniformly talk about the law in a different way than is typical for Reformed Christians. Some of my readers and hearers find my language about the law baffling, therefore, because they don’t realize I’m not talking about the moral law.

When Reformed Christians speak of “the law” short hand, they usually mean the  moral law. When Paul, on the other hand, uses the phrase “the law” short hand, he usually means the Mosaic Covenant or the Mosaic Law in general. When Christians talk about the law they usually emphasize its binding force on Christians. When Paul talks about the law he usually emphasizes the fact that it is no longer binding on Christians because they have died to it.

The fact is, it is anachronistic to read into Paul or other scriptural writings the threefold distinction between the moral, ceremonial, and judicial law. This threefold distinction is helpful theologically, but we need to recognize that it was developed by later theologians like Thomas Aquinas as a systematic category (not an exegetical category) to explain how it can be that Christians are no longer “under the law”, and yet that we are still called to obey the eternal moral principles to which it testifies. This does not, as the vast majority of biblical scholars recognize, give us the right to read this distinction into the texts of scripture. There is no evidence that Paul had a distinction between the ceremonial and moral law in his mind when he wrote his letters.

Yet we Reformed Christians read our systematic theological distinctions into the text all the time. Let me give an example.

In Ephesians 2:14-16 Paul writes of Jesus:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

In my most recent article, this is precisely the emphasis I was trying to get at. The New Testament does not call Christians to follow the law, but to follow the new man, Jesus. In Ephesians this is particularly important because Paul’s point is that the law functioned to underline enmity or hostility between Israel and the nations. If Israel obeyed the law, it would be distinct from the nations and would be blessed with military and economic power over them. If Israel disobeyed the law, it would become like the nations, and eventually be conquered and exploited by them. For faithful Israelites, then, the law was vital to preserve their identity as God’s people against the temptations of a world under the domination of Satan. The law was like a massive fortress that segregated the people of God from the world. (Interestingly, the same pastor whom I heard proclaim from the pulpit that the Christian life can be summed up in terms of law-keeping claimed when preaching on this passage that the gospel is not about racial reconciliation. Yes, there is a connection.)

For Christians, as Paul makes clear, the situation has changed. In order that the gospel might go out to all nations, Christ in his body abolished the law. In his resurrection from the dead he became the new man, the new humanity, fit for the kingdom of God. Those who seek reconciliation from God no longer need to bind themselves to the law that underlined such hostility, but now must hold fast to Christ, conforming themselves to his image. In short, missions, evangelism, and the international unity of the church are all grounded in the assumption that the foundation of the church is Jesus, not the law. The Law came through Moses, as John says, but grace and truth come through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). If Christians are to communicate to the world the grace and truth of the gospel, rather than the law that kills and divides, they need to conform their lives and communities to the beloved Son whom God sent into the world because he loved it so much (John 3:16). We need to get out of our fortress and take up our cross.

Yet Reformed believers often miss this point because they assume that when Paul refers to the “law of commandments and ordinances” he simply means the “ceremonial law.” But there is zero evidence in the text to support this assumption, and it goes against everything that we know about how Paul ordinarily uses the term law (For example, Reformed believers are usually adamant that in Galatians Paul is not limiting the word law to the ceremonial law, as Roman Catholics often claim). To be sure, Paul is not saying that Jesus abolished God’s moral law. He is not talking about the moral law at all. He is talking about the Mosaic Law, or the Mosaic Covenant. That covenant or law can be and has been abolished, without the moral law changing one iota.

Similarly, when in Romans 6:14 Paul says to Christians that “you are not under law but under grace” he is making a covenantal statement directly in line with the prophecy of Jeremiah 31. You are no longer under the Mosaic Covenant, the covenant of Sinai, he is saying; you are now under the new covenant of grace.

None of this, then, has any bearing on whether or not Christians ought to obey God’s moral law. We always ought to do so, which is why Paul says that those who love their neighbors will not kill, steal, commit adultery, etc. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is whether or not believers remain bound to the law as a covenant. The Ten Commandments are in play not because most (though not all!) of what they include happens to be part of the moral law, but because in scripture the Ten Commandments serve as short hand, or as representative, of the Mosaic Covenant as a whole. The Ten Commandments are the “words of the covenant” that has been made obsolete (Exodus 34:28; Hebrews 8).

Emphasizing the Ten Commandments too much not only leads Christians to think of the Christian life through a legal paradigm, rather than through the paradigm of conformity to Jesus (a major problem in itself, insofar as it communicates that the Christian life is about judgment rather than grace), but it can also give the impression that believers are bound by the Mosaic Law in general. That many are under this impression is evidenced by arguments Christians have over theonomy, Christendom, the sabbath, tithing, or the Torah’s prohibitions of things like tattoos.

John Calvin would not have agreed with everything I write here, but he certainly agreed that when Paul uses the word ‘law’ he refers to its legal force as a binding covenant that kills. Calvin distinguished between the “narrow” law, which he identified with Sinai and with the works principle of “do this and you shall live,” and the “broad” law, which he identified with the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The former, he suggested, is the ordinary use of Paul, while the latter is the ordinary use of the Old Testament in places like Psalm 119. Calvin also distinguished (sharply in practice; less so in rhetoric) between the moral law and the Ten Commandments, as evidenced by his rejection of the principle that Christians are bound to view one day in seven as a holy sabbath day. But I’ll take up Calvin’s views of the law in a future post.


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 26, 2013, in Calvin, Christian Life, Law and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why People Don’t Like It When We Talk About the Law the Way the New Testament Does.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: