I remember this topic well from my years in Bible College, made more profound because the religious affiliation of the college did indeed teach and live under certain portions of the Mosaic law. We were studying and trying to answer the question; Are we still under the Old Testament Law? Are we under the whole law? Are we under only certain portions of the Law? And if so, which portions apply to New Testament, Gentile Believers?
Each and every conversation would rapidly makes its way back to the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:17 where Our Lord said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, I have come to fulfill them.” Christ made it clear that the Law was not done away with, but as we study we’ll find out that Christ satisfied the demands and requirements of the Law.
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”John 1:17
I believe the primary reasons this question is still in circulation today (and why so many are confused by it) is due to the doctrines of Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a method of dividing the Bible in to periods of time which in and of itself is rather innocent. For those of us who went through a Bible College or Seminary that happened to use Dispensationalism in their curriculum, we will remember the core dispensations; Innocence, Conscience, Government, Promise, Law, Grace, and Millennial Kingdom.
This subject becomes even more in-depth (i.e., confusing) when other doctrines such as Preterist theology is taken in to account, whose view of Biblical history is that it is complete and that we are in the final Millennial Kingdom age. The majority of Christendom today would say we are in the dispensation of Grace, otherwise known as the Church age. This too fractures in to what is known as partial-Preterists.
When John Nelson Darby ratified the precepts of Dispensationalism it created more questions (my opinion) than it answered. When it comes to the Old Testament Law, this led to dividing the Old Testament Law into what is called the Ceremonial, Civil/Judicial, and Moral Law. This distinction was created (again, in my opinion) because there was a problem with the Bible’s clear teaching that the Gentile Church was no longer ‘under the law’ to any degree. (Romans 6:15)
However, as we read the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and even in to the Book of Acts there seems to be cross-over of Old Testament obedience and New Testament freedom. The problem is that as we read the Gospels, it is important to note that the audience and narrative is indeed still Old Testament. Until the resurrection and glorification of Christ, the new Covenant does not begin.
For instance, and this is likely to be repeated, Paul teaches in Galatians 5 that if a man “accepts circumcision” in obedience to the Mosaic Law, he is severed from Christ. While Christ’s ministry was in the Old Testament, he came to call people to Spiritual Law, not ritual law. (Galatians 5:2-4)
Indeed, true to Paul’s form, he rhetorically asked why the Galatian Church would turn back to the “weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9) which was that ritual, Mosaic law. By Colossians 2, Paul is identifying again such human precepts as “elementary spirits of the world” (Colossians 2:20-23) which he declares them (the Law, asceticism, regulations) to be of “no value in stopping the indulgences of the flesh.” The Spirit is what brings Life, Faith is what brings purification and Christ is who brought Grace.
Does the Bible Divide the Law?
While Scripture does not outright teach Dispensationalism this does not necessarily mean the divisions of church/Biblical history do not help us to understand particular portions of Biblical History. For instance, the age of Innocence began with the creation narrative of Genesis 1 and ended with the fall of mankind by Genesis 3. We can see that after Eve and then Adam partook of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, their innocence (ignorance) ended and their intellect, or consciousness was opened up to both good and evil, forever ending innocence.
However, Scripture makes no such distinction of Dispensationalism and certainly no such distinctions with the Mosaic Law. Any attempts to divide the law for the purpose of defining which portions of the Old Testament Law that New Testament believers must follow is in violation of Scripture itself. The short answer to the question “Does the Bible Divide the Law?” is a resounding no.
As already referenced above, the Apostle Paul spent much effort in his ministry combatting this very issue of Law vs. Grace because the Pharisee believes that the absence of the Law is a freedom to sin. But this is not the case and the Pharisee in our human nature fails to see the spiritual/heart side of the purpose of Grace.
The first full-blown New Testament narrative of this battle is found in Acts 15. Paul takes Barnabas and travels to Jerusalem to make sure that his teaching was not in error and that he was not wasting efforts. Here we see a critical text in answering the question, Are we still under the Old Testament Law?
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 15:1). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
What was revealed in Acts 15 was that indeed Paul’s teachings of Grace, not Law, to the Gentile church was correct according to the Church Counsel. We also see and highlight as a critical point in understanding the book of Acts, is that the Jerusalem Counsel also rejected the notion that Gentile believers were to bound by any portion of the Mosaic Law, while not declaring to Jewish believers to abstain from the Law. Thus, if there was a division of the Mosaic Law (Moral, Civil/Judicial, Ceremonial) and Gentile believers were to be beholden to any portion of it, this would have been the perfect opportunity for it to be defined.
In verse 5, the text reads that some believers were arguing, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” After much debate and by verse 19 the conclusion was that the Gentiles were not to be burdened so. In fact, the only recommendations from the Church to believers was a universal call to abstain from pagan rituals which included idolatry, sexual immorality, eating blood and the meat of animals that had been strangled.
In Acts 15:22-29 the Jerusalem Counsel penned a letter to the Gentile churches and dispatched them, which should have forever sealed this debate;
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 15:28–29). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
What is Christian Freedom?
The knee-jerk reaction of the human Pharisaical mind is to argue that this supposed ‘freedom’ is simply an opportunity to sin and that this ‘freedom’ can’t be true or in alignment with Scripture. This however is a false argument. Paul was dealing with this argument over 1900 years ago which was highlighted in Galatians 5 and Romans 6;
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ga 5:13–14). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Freedom from the Old Testament Law was by no means freedom to sin against God’s Holy commandments! Paul again expressed this in Romans 6:15 wherein he said, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By No Means! (or, God Forbid!)”
It is important to understand that while we are not under the ‘law’ of the Old Covenant, we are still under the Law of Christ. In fact, Paul ends his treatise on Christian Freedom by saying “Bear on another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) And rightly so, chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is titled in most Bibles, the Way of Love. Here, Paul states that we can do a lot of things in the flesh, or seemingly, even in the Spirit (tongues, prophecy, etc.), but without love, we really haven’t accomplished anything!
So Christian Freedom is not an invitation to violate the Holiness of God or to pervert freedom into blind apostasy! (This is known as hyper-grace) It is however, a beautiful work of Grace! The Law was referred to as a burden and that those under the law were slaves. Peter called the Law a yoke in Acts 15:10 that not even their Jewish fathers could bear the weight of. And by the time the Traditions of the Fathers was fully formulated, known as the Mishna and the Talmud, the law had become so bloated that it was literally impossible not to break it.
As the Gospel of John emphasizes in Chapter 1 verse 16-17;
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jn 1:16–17). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Christian Freedom is the realization of God’s grace! It is knowing that all the penalties and demands of the Law were nailed to the Cross. (Colossians 2:14) It is knowing that we are saved not by our own obedience to works of the Law, but by the blood of Jesus Christ! (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:16) Christian Freedom is knowing that God cleanses your heart in Faith, through the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8-9) and not by ritual animal sacrifice, ritual purification and other works of the law.
What Old Testament Laws Are Commonly Enforced on Christians?
This is an interesting question to try to answer. The list is very long so answering it wholly is almost impossible. Furthermore, some well meaning teachers make the mistake of dividing the Law into parts and then teach that only certain portions of the law carry over in to Grace. Thus, they can confuse the topic and say “See, we aren’t under the Law (well, not the whole law…)”.
Of course, I think by now even in this small study we’ve seen that we are not under the law (any law). (Romans 6:15) So why do some try to teach we are still under certain aspects of the law? That’s also a large question. The best advice I can give is to search the motivation of why individual teachers cross that line. For many it is for the well-intended purpose of protecting the flock of God. However, others have been known to do it for control and influence, power and wealth.
#1 – Tithing
There are abundant studies on this topic. In fact I wrote one called Is Tithing for New Testament Christians. Scripture is abundantly clear that you reap what you sow in charity. (2 Corinthians 9:6) That giving from the heart (not compulsory, law bound giving) pleases God (2 Corinthians 9:7) and by all early-Christian writing accounts, giving was a main-stay of the Christian life.
One argument is to use the example of Abraham tithing to Melchizadek as a proof text that tithing pre-dated the Law. That is to say that it is not part of the Law and thus, still applicable. This argument has quite a few holes in it but the simple argument is that Tithing in it’s law-bound fashion is non-existent in the New Testament scriptures. (When Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in Luke 11:42 and Matthew 23:23, he was speaking in and to an Old Covenant audience and he was also rebuking them, not instructing them.)
Tithing was of the Law as it’s instructions are found as commandments by Moses in the Pentateuch. Most importantly, Tithing was specifically to the Priesthood in lieu of them having inherited means of self-income or self-production. The worse case scenario is ministers and teachers using Malachi 3 (specifically verses 7-9) as a proof text that you must pay them tithes or suffer the wraith of God.
This is again following bad hermeneutics as Malachi is a prophetic book written specifically to the nation of Israel (Malachi 1:1) and solely to the Priesthood. (Malachi 2:1) By the time we enter chapter 3 we are in a prophetic conversation to the restored covenant with Israel post church era. (You can ready my article about the book of Malachi here.)
#2 – Dress, Appearance, or Dietary Laws
This one is just too large to cover in a paragraph or two but suffice it to say that all of the laws in the Pentateuch regarding dress, appearances, and dietary laws do not apply to New Testament Christians. Paul even references much of this in Colossians 2:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Col 2:20–23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Some of the most common one may hear in Christian circles regarding these regulations would be things such as alcohol and smoking, or even tattoos. It would be wise to consider some things from the practical level of whether or not they are good, healthy and profitable practices. However, that is not equal to the regulations of Old Testament Law or a valid reason to carry the Law in to our Christian Freedom.
For instance in Deuteronomy 14 we see a handful of laws about restrictions on what foods we may or may not eat. In today’s society many of those animals are still not eaten simply due to health concerns, so portions of the law have practical sense. However, eating those animals does not make us un-pure or sinners before God.
This same chapter in the Pentateuch gives the description of the Celebratory Tithe in which the offeror was instructed to consume his own offering, including the drinking of Wine and Strong Drink (most likely beer) in their worship to God. It is interesting that teachers of the Tithe never seem to teach this portion of the law…
then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household.16). (Dt 14:25–26). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
And while the Bible is relatively ‘quiet’ when it comes to dress and apparel, some groups, mainly starting back in the era of the Puritans and proceeding Wesleyan sects have made quite a major issue out of a minor appeal in Scripture.
One of the laws, also found in Deuteronomy 22 was the prohibition of cross-dressing. And while we can still, as modern-day Christians see a very practical value and strong case for this teaching, we once again must face the music: we are not under the Law. When any group attempts to use the following passage to enforce strict dress codes (such as no pants or shorts on women) they are using Old Testament Law to enforce their own opinions and adding to Scripture, which was expressly forbidden.
A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD your God.The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Dt 22:5). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
I’m keenly aware that the word ‘abomination’ is in this passage which some take to mean it is an eternal law. But this simply is not the case. There are quite a few (117 in the ESV) places in Scripture where things were called an abomination. We would have to consider shell fish and many other dietary laws still sin if we try to use the reference of abomination. In fact, not keeping the Sabbath day of rest on Saturday was an abomination. Yet Christianity (aside from a few sects and the 7th Day Adventists) has abandoned that practice, replaced by a ‘spiritual’ sabbath in the Holy Spirit.
As already said, there are practical wisdoms to be gained from the Old Testament Law. It is still however, improper and poor Biblical hermeneutics to claim that a) the Law is split in to three categories (Moral, Ceremonial and Civil/Judicial) and b) to exercise such laws over the New Testament church as binding, both for salvation and sanctification.
We know that our Christian Freedom from the Law is not a call to fulfill the desires of the Flesh! And more importantly, we know that the Spirit of the Law, the Law of Christ, took the place of the Old Covenant. (While the Old Testament Law was a burden, the yoke of Christ is easy!) That means that more than just observing a list of rituals, ceremonies and regulations, we should carefully and prayerfully consider everything we do.
Does what we do show that we are loving our neighbor? Does it express the love of God to those around us? Is it attractive to those on the fence to faith or does it turn them away? Does it bring value to your life? Does it help you nurture your children and family?
We are not under the Old Testament Law – but we are under the Law of Christ!