Despite the way certain circles misread Paul, the apostle is not against the concept of law itself, for he often delivers commandments to the church (Rom. 13; Gal. 6:2; 1 Tim. 5:1–2). This commandment-giving may seem inconsistent, as he forbids Christians to obligate themselves to at least some Old Testament laws (see Col. 2:16–22). It is easy to understand why he condemns the “worship of angels,” for the Bible uniformly condemns false religion (Ex. 20:1–6; 1 John 5:21). But it is harder to see why he argues against practices that were acceptable under the old covenant.
One answer to this problem is that making certain old covenant statutes obligatory shows confusion about the era in which we live. We see without doubt that some laws were temporary and thus not essential to God-glorifying, ethical living. Circumcision, for example, cannot be obligatory indefinitely, as Abraham and other saints were acceptable to God prior to the institution of the practice (Gen. 1–17). This category of laws also includes the food and festival laws, which were obligatory only under the Mosaic covenant. Other laws, such as the prohibition against murder, are forever in force; Cain was condemned long before the fifth commandment was revealed (Gen. 4:1–16; Ex. 20:13). Jewish believers in particular are free to choose for themselves whether to follow these temporary statutes of the old Mosaic code, but to put them on others is to miss what Christ has done in bringing the new age. He has rendered obsolete all that is not in God’s eternal moral law (Gal. 4:1–5:1).
Furthermore, making the temporary parts of the old covenant law obligatory shows an utter failure to understand the place of law in dealing with sin. Though God’s law is “holy and righteous and good,” rules in themselves give life to sin, not death (Rom. 7:7–25). If even the eternal commandments of God are powerless in themselves to stop sin, what hope is there that the temporary, external regulations of Moses can stop the indulgence of the flesh? Paul’s answer in Colossians 2:23 is plain. Sinners who follow laws scrupulously may look holy, but appearances can be deceiving. God’s law can be kept for the sake of sanctification in the power of the Spirit if we obey Him out of gratitude for the salvation accomplished in Christ alone. But if we look unto law thinking it will put our sin nature to flight, we will fail.
God’s law is good, but in itself cannot put the flesh to death because the problem is not simply that we do not obey the Lord but that we do not want to obey Him apart from the grace He shows us in Christ Jesus. But even once we have been redeemed, merely keeping the commands does not advance us in holiness if we do not have an inward desire to please the Lord. May we continually ask God to grant us this desire.