The Law is Not of Faith
by Jon Zens
But the Law is not of faith. Rather, “The one having done these things will live by them.”
– Galatians 3:12
The first ten years of my life in Christ, I was in a tradition that saw the Ten Commandments as the believer’s rule of life, and emphasized Sunday Sabbath-keeping. I began to question some of the basic tenets of this theological system when I read several articles by Arkansas preacher E.W. Johnson.
Then two years later, Norbert Ward gave a study on 1 Corinthians 9 in the assembly that met in his home. The Lord used his presentation to open my eyes to more of Christ. Norbert pointed out that Paul in being all things to all people identified three categories of people: (1) the Jews were hupo nomos, under law; (2) the Gentiles were anomos, without law; and (3) believers were ennomos Christou, in-law to Christ.
This in turn helped me see what was going on in Galatians 6:2, “bear one another’s burdens and so fully fulfill [anaplereo] the law of Christ.” The “law of Christ” is the New Commandment, loving others as He loved us on the cross (John 13:34). The false teachers were putting the Law on believers which was a burden no one could bear (Acts 15:10; Matt, 23:4), which was unfulfillable, and which brought curse with it. Paul, with implicit contrast, encourages the believers to bear – not the Law — but others’ burdens, which then in fact fully fulfills Christ’s law of cross-love.
LAW WAS THE ISSUE IN GALATIANS
There are voices advocating that Paul did not have Torah observance in mind in Galatians. They suggest that the Galatian believers were going back to pagan observances from their past, and that Torah observance was actually Paul’s position. They pretty much have to come up with a notion like this, because on the surface Galatians is an embarrassment to their ideas, and destroys a pillar of their Torah-centered beliefs. There are many reasons why denying that the Torah is in view in Galatians is untenable, but here are three.
First, Paul’s concerns for the Galatians center on issues rooted in the Law. In Galatians 2, Paul refused to let Titus be circumcised because “because some false brethren had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves” (2:4). Elsewhere, Paul said, “circumcision is nothing . . .” (1 Cor. 7:19). But to these false teachers circumcision was everything. They were basically saying that Gentile believers had to live like Jews.
Secondly, Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the Law, or by believing what you heard?” (3:2) The problem at hand was not them going back to pagan rituals.
Thirdly, Paul pointed out that the Law was a covenantal unit. If a person put himself under one part, he became obligated to do all of it (5:3). There was no room for picking and choosing what parts you wanted to keep. Further, once you put yourself under the Law, you incurred a curse for not doing everything in the book of the Law 24/7 (3:10, 5:5). All of this, and much more, has nothing to do with the Galatians reverting to pagan practices.
In Ephesians 2, Paul taught us that the Law was a barrier between Jew and Gentile. As long as the Old Covenant was in effect, Jew and Gentile had to be kept apart with a vengeance. But by the cross Jesus made the two one New Humanity by “destroying the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the Law with its commandments and regulations.” Jesus was born “under” the Law and He honored it and fulfilled it (Matt. 5:17). In fulfilling it, He took it away, removed it as a barrier, and put into effect the New Covenant in which Jew and Gentile believers were on equal footing in the New Humanity, His body, the ekklesia. If the Law still stands, then it continues as a dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Clearly, however, Ephesians 2:14-15, tells us that the whole covenantal unit was nailed to Jesus’ cross.
Colossians 2:13-15 also has a similar teaching to what was stated in Ephesians 2. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ, He forgave us all our sins, have canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; He took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” The Law as a unit – including the Ten Commandments – was nailed to the cross. As Paul put it in Romans 7:6, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the Law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” Given the comprehensiveness of Paul’s language in both Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2, one has to do Olympic gymnastics to suggest that the Ten Commandments were not included in the “written code.”
2 CORINTHIANS 3
More is specifically unfolded about the “written code” in 2 Corinthians 3. Paul told the Corinthians, “you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” It is clear in this passage that the Ten Commandments are in view – “not on tablets of stone” (v. 3), “engraved in letters on stone” (v. 7). Paul showed that what was on stone “killed,” “brought death” and “condemnation.” Bur the clincher comes when Paul unequivocally asserts that the written code was “done away.” Some translations do no justice to the strength of the verb katargeoby rendering it as “fading away” or “passing away.” The verb argeo, strengthened by the prefix kata-, means to “abolish,” “destroy,” to make completely inoperative. Remember, this is saying that the temporary glory of the Law was abolished and removed in order for the lasting, life-giving glory of the New Covenant to take its place. “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ He has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” [in 70 A.D.]. “He has enabled us to be servants of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (v. 6). Those pushing Torah-observance on believers are flying in the face of Paul’s New Covenant realities. The “written code” was abolished as echoed in Ephesians 2 and Colossians 2 in order for a better covenant to be in force.
THE NEW EXODUS
Since the Law has been nailed to Jesus’ cross, does this mean we are left in a moral vacuum? Absolutely not! The Ten Commands were given after the Lord’s mighty deliverance in a Red Sea exodus out of Egypt – “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The old exodus out of Egypt was a shadow of a New Exodus that would happen when Jesus died on the cross (Luke 9:31). Just as the 613 commands flowed out of the Red Sea exodus, so one New Command flowed out of the Golgotha exodus – “A new command I give you: Love one another as I have loved you in giving My life on the cursed tree” (John 13:34; 15:12-13). Out of one sweeping command flow all of His other commands – “If you love Me, keep my commands.”
The old covenant life of Israel was rooted in God’s act of exodus out of Egypt. The life in Christ of the New Humanity flows out of the Exodus He accomplished in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). The voice from the Shekinah cloud proclaimed, “This is My Beloved Son, listen to Him” (Luke 9:35). Jesus’ simple, but deeply profound words to those who would come to Him were “follow Me.” If we just had these words from Him to follow, we would all be very occupied until He returns in glory: “bear one another’s burdens and so fully fulfill the Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).There are 58 “one another’s” in the New Testament. We can pursue these until the cows come home, and know that we are in line with His heart.
HEBREWS 7 & 8
A verb used in Hebrews 7 and 8 shows decisively that the New Covenant is our spring board, not the old covenant. The verb nomotheteo means “in place as binding,” hence, legally in force. In Hebrews 7:11 we are told that the Law was put into legal effect on the basis of the Levitical priesthood. In 8:6 we are informed that “the covenant of which He is mediator is superior to the old one, and is put into effect as binding on better promises.” All that is associated with the old covenant is fulfilled and no longer in force. The new and living way of Jesus is now the benchmark and plumb line. The old covenant had a beginning and an ending: “the Law was put in charge until Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the Law” (Gal. 3:24-25). “The Law was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Gal. 3:19).
“MOSES WROTE ABOUT ME”
If the Law-covenant is fulfilled, abolished and removed by Christ as a barrier, then what do we do with the Old Testament? The New Testament does not comment on every verse in the OT, but it does cite it some 450 times, and patterns can be identified. The NT views the OT, not as a law-book, but as focused on Jesus Christ. The Lord Himself noted that “Moses wrote of Me” (John 5:46). He told the Jewish religious leaders, “you search the Scriptures because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life” (John 5:39-40). To the couple on the road to Emmaus Jesus said, “’How foolish you are, and how slow of heart that you do not believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27). Later, with the disciples, Jesus affirmed, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). Over and over, when Paul was speaking in Synagogues, “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3).
If you are reading the Old Testament to find out that you shouldn’t boil a kid goat in it’s mother’s milk, you are wide of the mark. When the Ethiopian Eunuch asked for help in understanding Isaiah’s words, Philip “began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Martin Kuske’s book title is appropriate: The Old Testament as the Book of Christ: An Appraisal of Bonhoeffer’s Interpretation. Paul reminded Timothy that from infancy he was taught the OT Scriptures, “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). If Moses himself were with us now, he would plead with us not to focus on 613 laws, but on the Prophet he wrote about who would be sent by the Lord with words that must be heard (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Acts 3:22-23; Acts 7:37).
We must grasp the truth that the old covenant is over and terminated, but the Old Testament remains as a Christ-centered body of literature. As Meredith Kline put it so well:
The words of the New Testament which the enthroned Christ has spoken through His inspired ministers of the New Covenant are His architectural directives for the holy task of constructing this new covenant home . . . . The Old and New Testaments . . . will be seen as two separate and distinct architectural models for the house of God in two quite separate and distinct stages in history . . . . This is to say that the Old Testament is not the canon of the Christian church . . . . The form of government appointed in the old covenant is not community polity for the church of the new covenant . . . . In these terms, the Old Testament, though possessing the general authority of all the Scriptures, does not possess for the church the more specific authority of canonicity. Under the new covenant the Old Testament is not the current canon (Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, Eerdmans, 1972, pp. 85, 99, 102; emphasis mine).
WHAT ABOUT THE SABBATH?
One common question people have is that nine of the ten commandments are cited in the New Testament, why isn’t the Sabbath mentioned as an obligation? In the New Covenant we can only keep the Sabbath by ceasing from our own works and trusting in Christ (Heb. 4). The Sabbath is not about a day anymore, but about a Person. Colossians 2:16-17 makes it clear that the Sabbath is not a norm of judgment in Christ because it is a shadow/type and the reality has come in Jesus. Once the fulfillment has arrived you don’t continue the shadow. Will we embrace Paul’s New Covenant perspective on the Sabbath, or go on focusing on non-realities?
In Romans 14:5, Paul noted that “one person considers one day above another, but another person views every day the same.” If the Sabbath (which is Saturday; some people see Sunday now as the Sabbath) is obligatory for all, how could Paul allow for people to view every day the same? The answer is because in Christ there is no mandatory Sabbath-day keeping. Only by believing in Christ, and ceasing from our own works, do we find Sabbath-rest (Matt. 11:28-29).
Under the old covenant, the priests violated the Sabbath-day rest by doing their Temple work, yet they were held guiltless. How could people violate any of the other nine commands and come away blameless?
Those who opt for Torah observance seem to miss a little phrase in Romans 3:25 of vital importance. Paul pointed out that the strength of sin was the law, and then announced, “But now without Law a righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed to by the Law and the prophets.” The Old Testament told of future Gospel days, but Gospel righteousness came “without Law.” One person makes sense when they suggest that this means “God has provided a way for sinful men to be made right in His sight and that way is without keeping the requirements of the Law.” That is a hard pill for Law-people to swallow.
Obviously, the food laws were at the heart of Israel’s daily living. The “clean/unclean” distinction was etched in their hearts. It was one of the main issues that separated them from the Gentiles.But with the coming of Jesus all of this was to change. Jesus taught that it was not what went into a person’s stomach that made him/her “unclean,” but what evil things came out of human hearts were defiling (Mark 7:18-19). “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (7:19). When Peter ended up in a tanner’s home, the vision he saw had all kinds of food on a sheet. He was told to “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter protested, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Then he was told, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
The ultimate point was more about people (Gentiles) than food. But this vision signified the end of the clean/unclean distinction. In Romans 14:14 Paul declared, “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that nothing is unclean in itself.” Paul informed Timothy about false teachers who would “forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4). Like circumcision, unclean food to the Jews was a huge matter. But things changed radically with the new wineskins Jesus ushered in.
Many Bible teachers, preachers and church leaders have brought old covenant Tithing into the visible church. Often, the curse in Malachi 3:9 is used from the pulpit with vengeance. It is probably safe to say that multitudes of church leaders would be shaking in their boots if Tithing disappeared from their religious apparatus. Most churches depend on the assumption of Tithing members to meet their budgets.
Most people are not aware that not all in Israel were required to tithe. Preachers don’t tell folks that. But in the New Covenant scriptures Tithing is never given as a duty to the saints. God’s people are to be generous and giving, but Tithing is never the benchmark. The widow Jesus highlighted did not tithe; she put her whole Social Security check in the pot. Jesus did not mention Tithing when He said to give and keep giving, and it would be given to you in overflowing ways (Luke 6:38). Right after Pentecost, believers parted with their goods to help the needy, and the Lord’s power was present. Not a word about Tithing. “As the Lord has prospered you,” “each according to his ability,” and “the Lord loves a cheerful giver” are used to describe the grace-giving in the New Testament. Tithing is retrogressive and borrowed from the old order.
Many people believe that if you don’t have the Law as a moral guide, bad behavior is just around the corner. It is hard for them to side with Paul when he said, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under Law” (Gal. 5:19). But Paul’s position was crystal clear, grace is our teacher, not law. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ . . .” (Titus 2:11-13). When the Lord came in the flesh, it was immediately noted, “Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
~ Jon Zens is the author of many books, including This Is My Beloved Son, Hear Him: The Foundation of New Covenant Ethics & Ecclesiology – SearchingTogether.org.