Should Christians “obey the law”?
My series of posts on the law during the past few weeks (starting here) have sparked some healthy and welcome discussion in various places. I’ve already addressed some of the questions that arise regarding the third use of the law, Jesus’ teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and the use of the Ten Commandments in Christian worship. Here I want to address a fourth follow-up question. Here’s how one questioner put it:
It would seem to me problematic, however, to say that Christians are not bound in any sense to obey the law – for instance, breaking the commandments against murder or theft would clearly be a sin for a Christian. So, while the focus of the Christian life is not obedience to the law, surely obedience to the law is a necessary part of the Christian life. Thus, my question is whether it is appropriate to speak of Christians being bound by, or obeying the law in any sense?
It’s an excellent question, one made all the more difficult to answer by declarations like this from the Apostle Paul:
Or do you not know, brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … 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 7:1, 6)
Let me start by saying that the primary object of our obedience is God, not the law. Run a word search on the word ‘obey’ in the New Testament and you will find this to be the case. Still, it is also the case that we are to obey God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15), and the Apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2-3)
The question is, does the New Testament equate God’s commandments with the law? James comes the closest to doing so when he writes that a person who commits adultery or murder becomes a “transgressor of the law,” and he says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10-11). At first glance this seems to run directly contrary to the way Paul consistently talks about the law. For instance, in Galatians Paul uses precisely the same point to emphasize that Christians are not under the law. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4).
Did James support the Judaizers? Did he somehow renege on his support for the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), over which he presided, that the Gentiles were not bound to observe the whole law? That is highly doubtful, and in fact, James’s argument in his letter suggests greater nuance than at first meets the eye. For James does not typically refer to the law without qualification. Rather, as he puts it in James 2:12, Christians are to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”
It’s hard to know exactly what James means to accomplish by adding the phrase “of liberty,” because he does not explain his use of the term. But it seems likely that either 1) he uses the term to remind us that we are not in fact under the law nor bound by all of its decrees, but only by some of them (i.e., the Ten Commandments), or 2) he is using the phrase to remind us that we are subject to the law in a non-covenantal way, a free way, along the lines of what the Reformed tradition has traditionally meant by the third use of the law. I think the latter is more likely.
So where does this leave us? It suggests that when Christians read the law we come to it in a spirit of liberty – of freedom from the law – but nevertheless with a heavy dose of respect, since the law remains profitable for correction, rebuke, instruction, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, we still learn from it something about God’s will, what Christian theology has traditionally called God’s “moral law.” And given that we are called to obey God’s will, we are called to obey his will wherever it is revealed, including in that law as it is rightly interpreted through Christ. That’s what it would mean to speak rightly of obeying God’s law, and that’s why we can say that when we murder, or commit adultery, we transgress the law. The point is not that we are now under the law once again, but that we have transgressed against its teaching regarding the will of God.
Is this how the New Testament ordinarily speaks? No, and that should give us great caution. I believe there is tremendous value in using the language the New Testament tends to use and approaching ethics the way the New Testament tends to approach ethics. Still, as long as we understand what we are saying, there is no reason why we could not speak this way. My chief concern is that we often do not understand what we are saying, and that even when we do, our hearers do not.
There is, then, a right way to incorporate the Ten Commandments into our preaching according to the third use of the law, which is why I, for instance, will be preaching this Sunday on the sixth commandment, You shall not murder, through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. Christ came to fulfill the law and it is the moral substance of the law as fulfilled in Christ that God is writing on our hearts by his Spirit (Hebrews 8:10). David Murray captures this way of approaching the Ten Commandments in his recent blog post on the Ten Pleasures. Christians come to the law in a spirit of liberty, delighting to obey God’s will as revealed there, and as interpreted in light of Christ. That’s how we fulfill the law.