What Should We Think of the Law of Moses?
The Law of Moses’s place in Christian worship and theology has divided Christendom since the beginning. The way we (ab)use the Law often shows that we have no idea what to do with it. For example, practically no one argues from the Law on both sexuality and immigration; progressives and conservatives commonly cite one set of laws while completely ignoring the other. Is the Law binding or isn’t it? Can we or can’t we apply in modern law?
Christian answers to these questions run the gamut. The circumcision party of the Jerusalem church taught that Gentile Christians had to keep the Law if they wanted to please Christ (Gal 2.11-14; Acts 15.1). Marcion the heretic taught that an evil demiurge authored the Old Testament and that Christians would do well to ignore it. Some traditions hold that the Law still binds Christians except where the New Testament says it does not (e.g., Paul explicitly rejects the dietary laws). Others hold that the Law is generally not binding except where the New Testament says that it is (e.g., one can find the entire Decalogue repeated in the New Testament).
I don’t intend to present any sort of consensus position within this small space. I can’t pretend to have the matter figured out. Instead, I will consider what the Scriptures say about the Law and draw a few tentative conclusions from them.
On the one hand, the Scriptures extol the Law of Moses. Paul tells Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3.14-16). Though we rarely hear in our churches that the Law of Moses can make one “wise for salvation” or “complete,” we do sing Psalm 19, confessing that “the Law of the Lord is perfect” and that “the fear of the Lord” (a parallelism for the Law) “is pure, enduring forever.” We should also consider that the early Church preached Christ exclusively from the Hebrew Scriptures (Law, Prophets, and Writings).
On the other hand, the inspired writers take pains to show that Jesus has superseded the Law (Heb 9.11-14). If the Law is superseded, then it must have been insufficient in some way. Paul and the Hebrew writer both argue that the sacrifices of the Law did not forgive sins or justify men before God (Heb 10.1-4; Gal 3.10-12); Paul goes so far as to argue that the Law multiplied sins (Rom 7.7-12).
To make matters more complex, we must also remember that God created the Law of Moses to furnish the nation of Israel with a law code. The Law is more than a religious text; it is God’s statecraft and jurisprudence for an earthly kingdom in the Ancient Near East. Some of the laws are bound by Israel’s specific needs as a nation, and many of the laws fit the context of the Ancient Near East; many are eternal or teach eternal principles. Where do we draw the lines?
Considering the wide variety of things that the Scriptures say about the Law and the complexities of separating out the transitory laws from the eternal ones, I think we can cut each other a break when we disagree on the Law’s nature and role. If the New Testament’s seemingly mixed opinion of the Law confuses or worries us a little, we should take comfort that these positions are largely present within the same authors and even the same works. In the same letter where Paul writes that the Law cannot justify men before God, Paul also writes that the standard for faithful living comes from the Law: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5.14). The inspired writers were aware of the tension, and they embraced it. If they could, so can we.
So what do we do with the Law of Moses? The most important thing is to read it. Nowhere does the New Testament license us to ignore the Law of Moses. The Hebrew writer argues the supremacy of Jesus from the Law; there’s no understanding His sacrifice without first understanding the Law.
What do we expect to get out of the Law when we read it? I hope to answer that question more fully in the future, but we can start with what Paul says about it. He calls it “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” We may briefly and without nuance rephrase it this way: the Law condemns one’s sin (reproof), turns him away from it (correction), and teaches him right behavior (training in righteousness).
If you’ve not spent time in the Law recently, I encourage you to do so. Lord willing, our future discussions in this space will help you understand what you read. Pray as you read; “knock, and it shall be opened.”