The Christian and the Law of God

Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England

The aim of this paper is to clarify the teaching of Scripture on the subject of the law of God, and in particular to explain the relationship of Christian believers living in the New Testament era of grace to that law, having in mind the divergent views of some past and present expositors of Scripture on this subject.

1. The Various Meanings of the word 'law' in Scripture

i. A general principle, Romans 2. 12-13.
ii. A force or influence impelling to action, Romans 7. 21, 23.
iii. The Mosaic Law, the most frequent meaning in both Testaments.
iv. The Pentateuch, as being the part of Scripture which contains the Mosaic Law, Luke 24. 44.

It is thus evident that the precise meaning of the word must be deduced from its various contexts. Our immediate concern is with the Mosaic Law, but we shall find that the Christian believer today must also take account of the first two meanings in some contexts, principally in the letter of Paul to the Romans.

2. The Law of Moses

The Law of God was given to the nation of Israel through the mediating hand of Moses at Mount Sinai soon after the Exodus. It was not until after that event that Israel, God's recently redeemed people, agreed to enter into this conditional covenant with their Saviour God, according to Exodus 19 and 24. Prior to the commencement of this conditional covenant their relationship with the Lord had been governed solely by the previous unconditional covenant promises to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, regarding the land of Canaan and worldwide blessing through Abraham's seed, Christ, the Messiah.

The Mosaic Law made Israel's blessing dependent upon their own obedience to its various dictates. These comprised various sections: first, moral, in the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, of Exodus 20, and many other moral statutes and ordinances; secondly, ceremonial, in the laws of sacrifices, priesthood, and the tabernacle system of worship. These parts comprised the one whole Law of God for His people Israel, so that transgression of even just one part of it consituted a breach of the Law of God as a whole, as James 2. 10 states quite clearly.

The Mosaic Law made individual salvation dependent entirely upon the principle of good works, as opposed to the promises of grace previously given. However, the New Testament letters of Paul make it perfectly clear that the reason why God gave Israel His law was not to redeem all, but to give all sin the character of transgression, and to provide a basis upon which God could convict men of sin and declare the whole world, as represented in His earthly people Israel, guilty before Him and deserving nothing but condemnation. Thus viewed, it prepared for the first coming of Christ in grace to redeem His people from the curse pronounced upon disobedience to God's law, since by the law came the knowledge of sin and man's utter inability to be saved from it on the principle of works.

The age of law was strictly limited in its duration from the Exodus until the incarnation of Christ, and formed a kind of parenthesis in God's dealings with His people Israel. For the apostle Paul in Galatians 3 clearly states that the Mosaic Law could not disannul the promises of grace made to the patriarchs 430 years previously. Thus the Mosaic Law merely prepared the way for the advent of Christ and the age of salvation by grace through faith alone.

3. Christ and the Mosaic Law

The Mosaic Law revealed the absolutely holy and righteous character of Israel's Lord, but not His love or grace as the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ alone revealed the latter, whilst not neglecting to reveal the former also. In fact, in His Sermon on the Mount Christ added to the requirements of the Mosaic Law His own requirements as the King of Israel by insisting not only on outward rectitude of conduct, but also on inward purity of thought and motive. The standard which he set for all who were to become citizens in His kingdom on earth was nothing less than the standard of His own sinless perfection as the Son of Man.

In His earthly life Christ fulfilled both the letter and the spirit of the Mosaic Law to His God and Father's entire satisfaction. But it was not His obedience in His perfect earthly life that availed for our salvation, since that only further convicts and condemns the sinner. Rather, it was His vicarious bearing of the curse of the broken law on the cross of Calvary that made our redemption from the curse of sin possible on the principle of faith in Christ alone, Galatians 3. 13. God can now justify the ungodly on that basis and no other. Paul in Romans 10.4 clearly states that Christ is the fulfilment and end of the law for righteousness to every believer, since the righteousness of God in Christ is reckoned to him through faith alone.

Therefore, as far as the present gospel of the grace of God is concerned, the Mosaic Law simply prepares us to receive it by convicting us of our innate sinfulness. Christ alone by His vicarious sacrifice for sin on Calvary can save us by His blood, not His perfect life, on the basis of grace, not law, and through faith, not works.

4. The Christian and the Mosaic Law

The main point at issue in the consideration of the Christian believer's relationship to the Mosaic Law is whether or not he is under its dictates as his present rule of life. It is clear that he is not under them as the way of salvation, but not all Bible teachers and expositors are unanimous on this further question. We must therefore examine it carefully on the basis of that part of Scripture which most clearly presents truth relevant to the age of grace in which we live, namely, the New Testament letters of Paul and others written to the early local churches or individual Christian believers.

Here we find that there are several separate passages which all indicate that the Christian believer is not under the Mosaic Law at all, but under the gracious rule of Christ.

First, in Romans 6. 14 the apostle Paul says distinctly that "ye are not under the law, but under grace", but denies that this gives a Christian believer licence to sin. Rather, this is presented as the necessary ground for the destruction of the rule of sin in a believer's life.

Secondly, in Romans 7. 4 Paul further states that positionally believers have "become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another", that is, to the Person of the risen Christ by faith-union with Him.

Thirdly, in 1 Corinthians 9. 20-21 Paul distinguishes between those who are "under the law", the Jews, those who are "without law", the Gentiles, and Christians who are "not without law to God", but "under the law to Christ", or, more accurately, 'inlawed to Christ', that is, under His gracious rule.

Fourthly, in Galatians 5. 18 Paul asserts that "if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law". Thus every Christian believer since Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit formed the Church and came to indwell every believer, is free from the bondage of the Mosaic Law to fulfil, not the dictates of the flesh, the old sinful nature which remains in us until the Rapture of the Church, but the gracious inner leadings of the Holy Spirit Himself.

Finally, the whole tenor of the letter to the Hebrews is to the effect that Christian believers should recognize that the law was only "a shadow of good things to come", prefiguring Christ and His one sacrifice for sins for ever, and should now move on into the spiritual realities of the then newly-formed Christian era of grace.

We thus conclude that the Christian today is not in any way under the Mosaic Law as the rule of his life, but rather under the rule of the risen Christ by His indwelling Spirit. This fact not only means that he still has no licence to sin, but also both sets a higher standard of conduct, the Person of Christ Himself, and gives to him the inner desire and the enabling power to live a holy life.

5. The Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus

The heading of this final section, a quotation from Romans 8. 2, is the key to an understanding of the whole subject of the Christian's relationship to the Law of God and the source of continuous victory over sin in this present life. It also indicates that the word 'law' in Scripture sometimes refers not to the Mosaic Law, but to a controlling principle. For in the context of Romans 7-8 three separate 'laws' are mentioned, namely, "the law of sin and death", "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus", and "the law of God", that is, the Mosaic Law.

The argument of the passage is to the effect that the law of God provokes in a believer the manifestation of the law of sin and death, which is the flesh, the old nature, but cannot deliver him from it. But now in the age of God's grace in Christ and the Spirit of God indwelling the believer this third law comes into operation to enable him to gain by faith deliverance from the lusts of the flesh. He must needs know and reckon on the basis of the fact of his death with Christ, then yield to the positive leadings of the indwelling Spirit. Romans 8. 4 declares that the righteous requirement of the law of God will be fulfilled in the daily lives of all believers who "walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit".

This expulsive power of the believer's new affection and relationship to Christ is differently approached in Galatians 5. 16-18, where Paul exhorts, "Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh", explaining in the following verse that the flesh in the believer is prevented from doing the evil that otherwise it would by the inward power of the Holy Spirit. Neither the Mosaic Law, nor the Law of the Kingdom could give the believer this power necessary to conquer sin in his life, but God's gracious Holy Spirit can, if only He is allowed to fill and control the believer continually. Only He can enable him to live a fully Christlike life, because He is the Spirit of Christ manifesting the features of Christ within the yielded believer.

6. Conclusion

It is therefore clear that, although the Christian believer today is not under the Mosaic Law as a rule of life, he is enabled to live by the much higher teachings of grace in Christ as long as he is yielded to and controlled by the indwelling Spirit of His Lord and Saviour. For the Holy Spirit alone can overcome our old desires and create within us the desire to live a full, holy life.

Furthermore, we are warned not to attempt to live a Christlike life in our own strength, trying to follow the dictates of the now past economy of the Mosaic Law by sheer self-effort. Rather, we are exhorted to yield constantly to the leadings of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who desires to reproduce His ninefold fruit within our lives, against which, says Scripture, "there is no law".

Thus viewed, our consideration of the Christian's relationship to the Law of God can be seen to be not merely an academic question of no practical consequence, but rather to be vital to a right understanding of the whole matter of living a consistent Christian life.