The Place of the Law
by Guy Waters
“New and improved!” Advertisers emblazon this slogan upon countless products on the shelves of your local grocery store. If you are convinced the product is better, they reason, you will probably want to buy it. After all, who wants the “old and inferior”?
On the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper. Holding the cup before His disciples, Jesus said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). By His death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated the new covenant. This new covenant, both Paul and the writer to the Hebrews tell us, replaces the old Mosaic covenant. Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3 is a running comparison and contrast between these two covenants. His goal is to show that the new covenant surpasses the old covenant. Yes, the old covenant had “glory,” but the new covenant has “even more glory” (vv. 7–8). Hebrews puts it pointedly: The “first covenant” was hardly “faultless.” It is “obsolete and growing old and ready to vanish away” (8:7, 13). How can we say this? Because, in Christ, we now have a “second” and “better” covenant (vv. 6–7).
So, is Madison Avenue as sure a guide to covenant theology as it is to toothpaste and soft drinks? Not quite. It is certainly true that the old covenant has fulfilled God’s purposes for it in redemptive history. It has reached the “sell by” date that God stamped on it at its beginning (see Gal. 3:19–25). That is why the New Testament writers univocally and vehemently insist that certain staples of the old order are no longer binding on the new covenant people of God. Circumcision, animal sacrifices, and the Jewish calendar of feasts and festivals are all part of those “shadows” that have fled away in light of the appearing of their “substance,” that is, the crucified and risen Christ (Col. 2:16–17).
At the same time, the Apostles have no difficulty pointing the church to certain Mosaic commands that continue to obligate it. Addressing children in the church at Ephesus, Paul can quote the fifth commandment verbatim (Eph. 6:2–3). To the church in Rome, Paul writes that “the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Rom. 13:9).
What are we to make of the Apostles’ approach to the Mosaic law? Some have unjustly accused the New Testament writers of inconsistency on this point. These accusations should not distract us from the genuine difficulties that lie before us in the New Testament. Evangelicals have disagreed among themselves as to what role, if any, the Mosaic law plays in the lives of new covenant believers. Some see very little continuity between old and new. Others see quite a bit. Where can we find answers?
A good place to begin is the teaching of Jesus. Jesus famously said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). In light of what Jesus says about the doing of good works in verse 16, Herman Ridderbos notes, Jesus eschews the “charge that His aim is to abolish the demands made in the Law and the Prophets, that is, to declare them no longer valid.” Positively, Ridderbos continues, Jesus has come “to ensure that [the law] receives the full obedience that is its due, to bring fully to light its true and deepest meaning.” Jesus then says, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (5:18). The phrase “until all is accomplished,” Ridderbos notes again, signals “that not every item of the law will have an unchanging significance until the end of time.” The old covenant law, in other words, will undergo significant transformation in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What follows in the Sermon on the Mount helps us to see what keeping the law, so transformed, looks like for kingdom disciples. Jesus dwells on the moral core of the Mosaic law—murder and anger (5:21–26); adultery, lust, and divorce (5:27–32); the truthfulness of our speech (5:33–37); vengefulness (5:38–42); and the love of one’s enemies (5:43–48). Jesus is not replacing, much less correcting, the Mosaic law. He is probing the depths of its spiritual character and showing that kingdom obedience consists in following the moral demands that we find in the Mosaic law. The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 6 and Romans 13, is simply following the lead of his Master.
But what about the rest of the Mosaic law? The New Testament points to two broad categories of laws in the Mosaic covenant that have found fulfillment in Jesus Christ and, therefore, no longer bind believers under the new covenant as they did Israel. The first category has been called “ceremonial.” Ceremonial laws are those Mosaic laws pertaining to Israel’s worship of God and her ritual holiness as a people set apart to God. Jesus Himself laid the groundwork for abrogating the dietary laws of the old covenant (see Mark 7:19). God taught Peter that same lesson not too long after Pentecost (see Acts 10:1–11:18). As Paul notes, the food laws were part of a broader swath of legislation designed to prepare the Israel of old for the coming Messiah (Col. 2:16–17). Now that Christ has come, these laws have seen their purpose fulfilled. They have been set aside as a body of law.
The second category of laws in the Mosaic covenant that no longer bind believers under the new covenant as they did old covenant believers has been called “civil” or “judicial.” These laws regulated the life of Israel as a commonwealth, a body politic. One of their purposes was to set apart Israel, as a nation, from the nations around her. But, Paul argues, all that formerly divided Jew and non-Jew has been abolished in Christ. Christ has “create[d] in himself one new man in place of the two” (Eph. 2:15). These judicial laws no longer bind us as they formerly bound Israel under the Mosaic covenant.
To say that the ceremonial and civil laws no longer bind believers as they once bound Israel does not mean that they are without value to us. Both sets of laws enshrine important moral principles that continue to instruct believers today. Thus, Paul can appeal to the old covenant Feast of Unleavened Bread in 1 Corinthians 5 as a picture of the holiness that God calls new covenant believers to pursue (see 1 Cor. 5:7b– 8). A little later in 1 Corinthians, Paul cites the law “you shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (1 Cor. 9:9, see. Deut. 25:4). This law enshrines the abiding principle, Paul argues, that the worker is worthy of his wages. Its importance to new covenant believers is not what it tells us about animal husbandry but what it tells us about ministerial support.
Why, then, does the moral law carry over into the new covenant and not the ceremonial and civil laws? One reason is that, unlike the ceremonial and civil laws, the moral law predates the Mosaic covenant. The moral law, in fact, goes back to the creation. It is the standard to which God holds all human beings in all times and in all places. After indicting Gentiles in Romans 1:18–32 for what amounts to transgressions of the moral law, Paul goes on to underscore sinners’ moral accountability before God. Gentiles “by nature” may sometimes “do what the law requires” (Rom. 2:14). When they do this, they “show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (2:15). Humans may not like or properly keep the moral law, but they know it and they know that God holds them accountable to it.
There is another, and perhaps deeper, reason why the moral law carries over into the new covenant. It reflects the very character of our God and Savior. Therefore, the moral law is, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “a perfect rule of righteousness” (19.2). For those who have been justified by grace and adopted into God’s family as His sons, the moral law shows us how to be like our heavenly Father. It provides a template of what we will be on the day when we will be fully conformed to the image of Christ (1 John 3:1–2; see Col 3:10; Eph 4:24).
Our old covenant brothers saw Christ as their Savior, but only in shadows. We see Him in daylight. With our eyes set on Christ, we new covenant believers gladly make the words of the old covenant psalmist our own: “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps. 119:97).