The Christian Life is About Following Christ Not the Law: 12 Clarifying Propositions

When I first decided that I was going to pursue ethics as my vocation, some years ago, I at the same time made an equally important decision about the kind of ethicist I wanted to be: a biblical ethicist. By that adjective ‘biblical’ I did not simply mean that I wanted to come to ethical conclusions that were consistent with scripture. I meant that I wanted to ‘do ethics’ the way scripture itself does ethics. Specifically, I wanted my approach to the Christian life to be the same approach that is found in the New Testament. In short, I believed that Christian ethics is fundamentally about reflection on what it means to “put on Jesus Christ.”

One of the first obstacles I discovered, however, was the tradition in Protestant ethics of emphasizing the Ten Commandments as the framework or model for the Christian life. In some, Presbyterian circles this tradition was expanded so as to emphasize the Mosaic Law in general, including all of its judicial and political regulations. It is important to stress that, for the most part, my difficulty was not with the moral truths affirmed or denied, nor with the fact that those moral truths were traced to the Ten Commandments or the Old Testament. Indeed, having been raised under the Heidelberg Catechism, I was always taught to interpret and follow the Ten Commandments in light of Christ. And I wholeheartedly affirm this teaching.

My difficulty, rather, was that it quickly became apparent to me that the emphasis on the Ten Commandments is not the approach of the New Testament to the Christian life; indeed, it was obscuring it. It became clear to me that the New Testament does not identify the Ten Commandments or “the law” as the primary framework for pleasing God or conforming to his moral law. Rather, it identifies Jesus Christ, whom we are to “put on” and to whose image we are to be “conformed,” as the only perfect model of God’s moral will (or moral law). Every single New Testament writing (with only the apparent exception of James), I realized, seeks to shift our focus away from “the law” and towards Christ. If I want to follow the New Testament’s own approach to ethics, this is what I have to do as well.

This approach does not, it needs to be emphasized, separate Christ from his law. As the New Testament clearly teaches, Jesus is the one who fulfilled the law, and those who follow him and conform to his image thereby fulfill the law as well. Nor does it minimize the usefulness of the law, or of the Old Testament, for Christian ethics. All scripture is profitable for correction and instruction. The law was always intended to point us to Jesus Christ. But that does not mean that by focusing on the law, or by emphasizing it as the framework for the Christian life, we thereby emphasize Christ. By analogy, the entire Hebrew sacrificial system pointed forward to Christ, but that doesn’t mean that by observing the Hebrew sacrificial system we appropriately demonstrate our faith in Christ. Rather, we best learn from the law by doing what the law itself does – looking to Jesus Christ. There is an arrow between the law and Christ, not an equals sign.

It might seem surprising to some that this argument turns out to be fraught with controversy in certain Reformed circles. The main reason for this controversy, I believe, is that we tend to approach ethics through the lens of our systematic theology and tradition, rather than through the lens of the New Testament. Systematic theology and tradition are both very good things, of course, even necessary. But they become dangerous if they in any way replace scripture itself in regulating our Christian mind. In this case, the classic medieval distinction of the Mosaic Law into the three parts of moral, judicial (or civil), and ceremonial is useful insofar as it clarifies for us that the moral truth – or the righteousness – of the Mosaic Law is binding on all times and places. It has become problematic insofar as it confuses believers into thinking that scripture itself uses this distinction, such that it should control our exegesis of specific passages, or that specific passages can be neatly categorized into one or another of these types of law. It has also become problematic insofar as many Christians have come to view any imperative or command in scripture as “the law”, failing to realize that this is not how scripture itself uses the word ‘law.’

Given the fact that for many people these are novel arguments, and that for others these arguments intuitively evoke a negative response, I want to clarify my basic argument through twelve propositions. At that point, all I can do is to point you, my readers, to scripture itself. Does the New Testament usually characterize the Christian life, and the Christian’s relation to the law, as I describe it here? If it does not, then you should reject my arguments. If it does, regardless of how any particular systematic theology approaches Christian ethics, my arguments are biblical. So look to the scriptures and see whether or not these things are true.

Here are my propositions.

1) The category of ‘moral law’ is an extra-biblical category that should play a role in our reflection but should not be brought to bear inappropriately on the primary work of scriptural exegesis. To quote New Testament scholar Doug Moo, “As has often been pointed out, the threefold distinction of moral, ceremonial, and civil law as separate categories with varying degrees of applicability is simply unknown in the Judaism of the first century, and there is little evidence that Jesus or Paul introduced such a distinction.” For more on this see Moo’s excellent article, “‘Law,’ ‘Works of the Law,’ and Legalism in Paul,” Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 73-100 [85]).

2) When scripture uses the word ‘law’ it ordinarily refers to the law given at Sinai, that is, the Mosaic Law, representative of the of the whole Mosaic Covenant as a unit, encompassing all three categories of what later theologians called the moral, ceremonial, and civil law. (Sometimes, of course, it also refers to Old Testament scripture in general. But the former is the default meaning.)

3) Scripture decisively, explicitly, and repeatedly identifies the Ten Commandments as the Sinai (or Mosaic) covenant itself. The Ten Commandments were the “tablets of stone” placed in the ark of the covenant. Exodus 34:28 declares of Moses on Mt. Sinai, “And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is a fundamental claim in my argument. See Exodus 34:1-4, 27-30; Deuteronomy 4:11-13; Deuteronomy 9:9-15; Deuteronomy 10:1-5. Cf. 1 Kings 8:9; 2 Chronicles 5:10; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Exodus 24:12.

4) Scripture never identifies the Ten Commandments in this way with the timeless, eternal moral law of God, despite the substantial degree of overlap between the two.

5) The New Testament writers decisively, explicitly, and repeatedly direct our attention from “the law” to Jesus, whether as the true fulfillment and interpreter of the law (Matthew); as the one who, in contrast to Moses as the giver of the law, brings grace and truth and directs his followers to “my commandments” (John); as the one who has made a new and “better” covenant and thereby rendered the old one “obsolete” (Hebrews); as the one who has fulfilled and abolished the law, creating in himself the new man (Paul).

6) The New Testament writers decisively, explicitly, and consistently describe the Christian life, including what we would call obedience to the moral law, in terms of obedience to Jesus, following Jesus, putting on Jesus, conforming to Jesus, walking in Jesus, walking worthy of Jesus, or living in the Spirit (of Jesus). The New Testament almost never summarizes Christian obedience (including to the moral law) or sanctification primarily in terms of obedience or conformity to the law.

7) Paul and Hebrews both explicitly identify the Ten Commandments, “the tablets of stone,” with the old covenant or ministry that was temporary. See Hebrews 9:4, especially in context of Hebrews 8:6-9:15. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 explicitly identifies the Ten Commandments, in the context of Moses’ coming down from the mountain and his face shining, as the old covenant, the ministry of death, condemnation, and of the letter that kills, in contrast to the new covenant, which he describes as the ministry of righteousness and of the Spirit that gives life. As if to remind us that he is talking about sanctification, not simply justification, Paul concludes that it is through this new covenant that we are “being transformed into the same image [of Christ].”

8) Paul often explicitly identifies “the law” as that which came at a specific point in time, that is, at Sinai. It came “430 years” after Abraham as a guardian for the people of God (Galatians 3:17, 24). The Gentiles did “not have” the law, the “written code” (Romans 2:14-15, 27-29) because it was not given until the time of Moses (Romans 5:13-14, 20).

9) In the same contexts as in Proposition 8, he interprets the same law as that which Christians are not under, because they are now in Christ. We are no longer under a guardian but have put on Christ (Galatians 3:25-27). We are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14).

10) We are not under law, not only with reference to justification, but with reference to our Christian service, or sanctification. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:18). “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).

11) The law is good, righteous, and holy (Romans 7), but it is bad news for sinners, to whom it brings death. Yet by following Christ and walking according to the Spirit believers fulfill the righteousness of the law (Romans 8:4) because love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10). The best way to honor the goodness and righteousness of the law is therefore by putting on Christ and conforming to his image. The law is still useful for Christian instruction (2 Timothy 3:16), but only as interpreted through the paradigm of walking in Christ (i.e., Ephesians 6:1-3). The law, as such (i.e., as a covenantal document), is only used “lawfully” and “in accordance with the glorious gospel” if it is used for the ungodly and the wicked (1 Timothy 1:5-11).

12) The word ‘law’ in the New Testament almost exclusively refers to the old covenant, to that which believers were once “under,” and almost never to the framework, model, or mindset of the Christian life. Of the very few times where the word ‘law’ is used with reference to the Christian life of sanctification, even in James, it is almost invariably qualified by a reference to liberty, or to Christ, indicating that it is not “the law,” as such, that is in view. If you don’t trust me on this, run a word search on the word ‘law’ in the New Testament. It’s startling how rarely it appears in contexts of the Christian life or sanctification, or what we would call obedience to the moral law. The most obvious explanation of this emphasis is 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, where Paul says he is “not under the law,” though he often becomes like one under the law to win over Jews, but that he is “under the law of Christ” (Cf. Galatians 6:2).

This article has gotten long enough, but it is the basis for a fuller article I’m working on that I will release at some point in the future. I’d also like to say more about why this matters so much. For now, I hope it is enough to show that if the New Testament so explicitly, decisively, and consistently redirects our focus from the law to Christ, it must be for very good reasons. I also want to offer the suggestion, built on what I’ve said above, that the reason why the New Testament does not emphasize the Ten Commandments as the paradigm for the Christian life is that it views the Ten Commandments primarily as a covenantal document, expressive of the Sinai Covenant, in contrast to the new covenant. Covenantal paradigms are hugely important in Scripture. It’s all about how you view your relationship to God and what your life is all about.

I want to close with this reminder. That I personally hold to these views is entirely irrelevant. But if I am right about the emphasis of the New Testament, then we are wrong to identify the Ten Commandments as the primary or best expression of the moral law, let alone as the framework for the obedient Christian life. In contrast, we should (following the cue of Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 33, as one pastor pointed out to me) identify the best expression of the moral law as Christ himself. The framework for the Christian life is therefore putting on the new man Jesus an conforming to his image (See especially Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17, both of which set the framework for those letters’ household codes).

All I can ask of you, then, is to pull out your Bibles, read through the books and letters of the New Testament (ideally in one sitting for each) and see if these things are true. Does the New Testament, in fact, emphasize the law as the primary paradigm and framework for the Christian life, or does it emphasize Jesus? Keep in mind, what we’re talking about is the particular law of scripture, not the moral law. Is it indeed wrong, as some of my critics insist, to emphasize Christ over and above the law?(Note: This article follows three previous articles on this topic, here, here, and here.)


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on August 1, 2013, in Christian Life, Law and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Christian Life is About Following Christ Not the Law: 12 Clarifying Propositions.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: