You are on page 1of 3

The Relationship Between the New Testament Church and the Old Testament Law

by Jason A. Clark
28 April 1999

The Holy Bible. It remains the most popular book of all time, greatly surpassing both
ancient classics of literature and the best-selling novels of today. Millions of believers
throughout the ages have subscribed to the teachings contained within the pages of the
sacred scriptures. Even the most secular of readers frequently turns to the Holy Bible in
search of wisdom and moral instruction. Two of the world’s three great faiths—Judaism
and Christianity—name the Hebrew Scriptures as their principal religious texts. Within
Christianity alone there exists thousands of individual denominations. Though all read
the same Bible, it is understood in at least as many different ways. In such a climate as
this, the potential for error and misinterpretation abound. The focus of this paper is an
area that has generated considerable controversy among those who hold differing
viewpoints: what is the significance of the Law of Moses in relation to the New
Testament church?
To the Christian, the Bible is commonly divided into two sections called the Old and
New Testaments. The Old Testament contains the accounts of man’s relationship to God
from creation until the time of Christ. The vast majority of the Old Testament details the
history and prophecies that pertain to God’s chosen nation of Israel. The New Testament,
then, describes the advent of Israel’s Messiah and the establishment of the church of
Jesus Christ.
Much confusion concerning the Scriptures can arise when one does not carefully
examine the context of the passage in view. A promise or command that had been given
to one individual or group cannot be applied indiscriminately to any other(s). For
instance, Abraham was commanded to slay his promised son, Isaac, but God does not
demand the same of the modern Bible reader. While this is admittedly an extreme
example, most misinterpretations and misapplications of the word of God stem from the
neglect of this very hermeneutic. This error is also manifested by the eagerness of some
to require the Christian church to adhere to part or all of the Mosaic Law. The law was
given to a specific people—Israel—and any attempt to foist it upon the church is done
through a misunderstanding of the function of the law.
The matter is further confused by the various uses of the word “law” in the Scriptures.
It cannot be assumed to refer exclusively to the Law of Moses, writes Erickson:
In John 10:34, when Jesus refers to the law, he actually quotes from Psalm 82:6. In John
15:25, he refers to a clause found in Psalm 35:19 as “what is written in their Law.” …
Moreover, Paul refers to a number of different types of passages as “law”: Isaiah 28:11-
12 (1 Cor. 14:21); Psalms and Isaiah (Rom. 3:19); and even Genesis 16:15 and 21:9,
which are narrative passages (Gal. 4:21-22). … It appears that “law” and “prophecy”
were often used to designate the whole Hebrew Scriptures.1

Segraves continues:
In the New Testament the Greek nomos (“law”) is used in reference also to the law of
faith (Romans 3:27), the law of the mind and the law of sin (Romans 7:23), and the law
of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2). The use of the phrase “sin is the transgression of the
law” in I John 3:4 should be understood as “sin is lawlessness.” This is the broadest
possible use of the word “law.” That is, sin is “defection from any of God’s standards.”
1
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983), 236.
As with any other word, then, we must seek the definition of the word “law” from its
context. It does not always refer to the Ten Commandments or even to the Torah
(Pentateuch).2

The notion that the New Testament church is obligated to keep the commandments
of the Law of Moses was the cause for the first church council at Jerusalem:
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are
circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when
Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that
Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles
and elders, about this question. ... But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose
up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of
Moses.” Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter [Acts 15:1-
2,5-6].

Peter responded to those who would command the Gentiles to keep the law by asking,
“Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples
which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). The leaders of the
church then drafted a letter which read, in part, “We have heard that some who went out
from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, ‘You must be
circumcised and keep the law’-- to whom we gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:24).
If circumcision and keeping the law were expected of the church, this would have been
an opportune time to proclaim it. Instead, the church decreed that the Gentiles were
under no obligation to the Mosaic Law.
The contention that the observation of the Law of Moses is essential for one’s
salvation is one of the earliest heresies to have threatened the church. The apostle Paul
wrote his first epistle to combat this pernicious teaching. In his letter to the churches of
Galatia he marvels
that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a
different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to
pervert the gospel of Christ [1:6-7].
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed
is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law,
to do them.” But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the
just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live
by them.” Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us
(for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham
might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the
Spirit through faith [3:10-14].
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law
given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But
the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be
given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law,
kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to
bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no
longer under a tutor [3:21-25].
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn
again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?
[4:9].
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be
entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become

2
Daniel L. Segraves, Systematic Theology Two (Stockton: Christian Life College, 1999), 62-63.
circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who
becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become
estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace
[5:1-4].

For generations the people of Israel were responsible to obey the commands of the law
of Moses; however, with the coming of Jesus the Messiah they were loosed from their
obligations to it, for the law was now to be written on their hearts. (See Hebrews 10:6-
13.) In fact, the Bible reveals that the requirements of the law were taken out of the way
and nailed to the cross of Christ (Colossians 2:14). The apostle John elucidated this
distinction between old and new covenants when he wrote, “For the law was given
through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans “that a man is justified by faith apart from the
deeds of the law… for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 3:28; 6:14). By
“under the law” Paul meant under the obligation to keep its commands. He used the
scenario of marriage and divorce to further illustrate the termination of the law:
Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has
dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by
the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from
the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she
will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she
is no adulteress, though she has married another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also
have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to
another-- to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For
when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at
work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the
law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the
Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter (Romans 7:1-6).

The New Testament also describes the Law of Moses as “weak through the flesh”
(Romans 8:3), “the ministry of death … the ministry of condemnation” (II Corinthians
3:7,9), an inferior, faulty covenant (Hebrews 8:1), “obsolete and growing old,” and
“ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).
The New Testament is clear in its presentation of the law as a temporary covenant
made by God with the nation of Israel. Its commandments are no longer binding upon
God’s people, who are expected to walk by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ for
salvation from sin. Since the law was intended to be viewed as a single entity, any
attempt to impose even one of its commandments upon the church is not only misguided,
but, according to Paul, anathema. As he warned the early church, “As we have said
before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you
have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).

Bibliography

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983.

Segraves, Daniel L. Systematic Theology Two. Stockton: Christian Life College, 1999.