What’s the Difference Between Jesus and the Law?
During the past few weeks I’ve written several articles arguing that the Christian life is about following Jesus Christ rather than about following the law. As I carefully explained, my point was not that Christians have no obligation to follow God’s moral law, including as that moral law is revealed in the Ten Commandments. We do. Rather, I was speaking of the law in its covenantal sense (i.e., the Sinai Covenant), as the New Testament usually does. My main point was that the New Testament presents the Christian life within the covenantal framework of putting on Christ (i.e., the new covenant) rather than the covenantal framework of the law.
Some of my readers were confused by this point. Are not the Ten Commandments the summary of the very moral law of God? Do they not represent God’s timeless moral will for all people in all places? And as long as we interpret them through the lens of Christ and the New Testament, is it not entirely appropriate to present them as a norm for Christian living?
I agree with these objections in their conclusion. As I declared several times in the articles, the law remains profitable for Christians for correction and instruction (the third use of the law). I wholeheartedly affirm, for instance, the interpretation of the Ten Commandments found in the Heidelberg Catechism.
But the problem I have with this argument is its assumption that the Ten Commandments are somehow a timeless document of ethical instruction. It seems to assume that scripture’s ethical instruction can be removed from its covenantal context, or even that the Christian life is fundamentally about fidelity to any timeless moral standard. To be sure, Christian obedience never falls below God’s moral law. But is that all that it is?
The reality is that scripture always presents the life of the faithful as a covenantal life, and its instruction to the faithful always comes in covenantal form. What’s more, if there is any document in scripture that is the very form and essence of a covenantal document, it is the Ten Commandments, often referred to in the Torah as “the covenant” itself. Scripture generally presents the Ten Commandments not as a summary of God’s timeless moral will but as the representative document of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The Ten Commandments, therefore, like the rest of the law, emphasize Israel’s having been called out as separate from the nations, faced with God’s promised blessings for obedience and threatened curses for disobedience.
And while there can be no doubt that the perfect fulfillment of the covenant required wholehearted love for God and love for one’s neighbor, it is equally clear that the Ten Commandments themselves largely take the expression of negative prohibitions. The law is framed as a document for children, as Paul writes in Galatians, filled with types and shadows. Its perfect righteousness is highlighted by its emphasis on judgment (both on the Canaanites and on unfaithful Israel). Its perfect love is obscured, as Jesus declares, by concessions to “your hardness of heart,” even though “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19).
The beautiful prediction of the prophets was that although Israel flagrantly and consistently broke this covenant from the very beginning (Moses threw down and broke the tablets even before they could be presented to the people), God would make a new covenant with his people. This covenant would not be like the one he made with the people when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. Rather, he would take his law and write it on their hearts, enabling them to serve as his faithful people by granting them his Holy Spirit and forgiving their sins. It was through this new covenant that the law would no longer serve as a dividing wall of hostilities, separating Israel from the nations; rather, all nations would come streaming to Zion to receive instruction from Zion’s King, the Messiah.
As the New Testament writings make quite clear, it is Jesus who fulfilled these prophecies, establishing a new and better covenant in the process. Many statements in the writings of John, Luke, Paul, and Hebrews declare that the Christian life is shaped within the covenantal framework of following Jesus rather than the law. The understandable objection of the Jews and the Judaizers was that the law was central to God’s relation to his people; that it could not be abandoned without abandoning Israel’s very identity. The response of the apostles was that Jesus is the new Israel, the one who fulfilled the law, and that by holding fast to him by faith and being united to him through the Holy Spirit Christians are grafted into Israel and fulfill the law in the only way that they possibly could.
The New Testament’s instruction about the nature of the Christian life therefore takes a quite different form from that of the law and the Ten Commandments. In terms of God’s timeless moral will there is continuity, of course, but that is only a small part of what the Christian life is all about.
- If the law communicated God’s character through inscriptions written on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of God himself, in the form of a living, breathing, acting, speaking human being.
- If the law emphasized Israel’s identity as having been called out from the nations to be different, Jesus called his followers to go into all nations, baptizing and making disciples, always being willing and ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them.
- If the law established Israel as a nation called to wage war against its pagan neighbors, as the expression of the judgment of God, Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to suffer rather than inflict vengeance on others.
- If the law tolerated a certain degree of mistreatment of captives, slaves, or wives, because of the hardness of human hearts, Jesus, both in example and in word, called his disciples to serve one another, recognizing that greatness takes the form of humility and self-sacrifice.
- If the law stipulated capital punishment for thirty odd cases of impiety and injustice, including adultery, Jesus, the messianic king himself, refused to decree death on a woman caught in adultery, taking instead the curse of the law on himself, and calling her to go and sin no more.
- If the law warned that suffering was a sign of God’s judgment for disobedience, and promised that obedience would be rewarded with earthly prosperity and peace, Jesus declared that suffering was the sign of God’s blessing for being identified with him, and promised that it would be a means of our being conformed to his image.
I could go on and on, of course. And yet the point that needs to be emphasized is that although not one of these changes amounts to an alteration of God’s timeless moral law, the nature and experience and mission of being one of God’s people has changed radically. Our calling is not merely to conform to God’s moral law. Our calling is to hold fast to Jesus Christ as the express image of God, and in our lives of service, self-sacrifice, and obedience, faithfully to witness to him as the only hope of the world that God so loves. As we do so we together become his body, drawn from all nations, proclaiming peace and reconciliation even to the worst of sinners who seek salvation.
And it makes a difference, as Chris Gordon helpfully explains, whether or not we conceive of our Christian lives and our churches as testimonies first and foremost of the law, or as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Does this mean we forget the history of Israel, forget the teaching of the law and the prophets, or forget the Ten Commandments? Of course not! How else would we understand just how rigorous is God’s righteousness and how tragic is our sin? How else would we understand just who Christ is and what he has done? We neglect the teaching of the law at our peril.
And yet, Jesus Christ remains our focus, for justification, sanctification, and glorification. We dare not turn back to the law as the covenantal framework for our lives, let alone as the summary of all that is required of us. The law takes its place as that which pointed to and prepared us for Jesus, and we should use it accordingly. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ…. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 1:17; 14:6).