Friday, January 25, 2008

10 on the Law

One of THE single most important theological and pastoral issues is the relationship between Christian living and the law.

Here's ten words giving some of my reasons why I reject an absolute antithesis between law and gospel and some sort of summary of how I think we should relate to the OT law.

1. The law was never intended as a system of meriting salvation. In fact, the sacrificial system and priesthood at the centre of the law were about grace, forgiveness, propitiation.

2. One way of summarising the gospel is 'Jesus Christ is Lord.' This means immediately that the concept of 'law' (i.e. commands you really must obey) is included within the gospel itself. I can't say I believe that Jesus is Lord and then totally willfully persistently ignore everything the Lord wants me to do. It just doesn't make sense.

3. Then, add to 2. the fact that obedience to Jesus Christ is often described using commands from the Old Testament law (yes, modified and transformed by the salvation-history context)...

4. ...then add to 2. and 3. the fact that the Christian's love-response to Jesus Christ is described as fulfilling the law...

5. ....then add to 2., 3. and 4. the fact that Christ himself thought he was fulfilling the law in his life and in his teaching....

6. ...and what do you get? I think you get the idea that the Christian is, although not under the law (i.e. we don't live under the Mosaic administration of the covenant, we are not living between Sinai and the cross, but between the cross and eternity), under Christ, but, that being under Christ means being under someone whose commands are the fulfillment of the law.

7. In other words Christians should relate to the Mosaic law in the same basic way that we relate to all of the Old Testament - through Christ. The law comes to us, not in exactly the same way it did to the Israelites as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, but transformed, renewed, changed, by the fact that the law has found its climax in the life and work and revelation of Jesus Christ the Lord. The law is for us because it speaks of Christ, by showing us our need of him by exposing sin, by helping us fill out the content of what obedience to Christ looks like, etc. The law is there to instruct and train us in righteous living.

8. Point 7. will look quite different depending (in part) on the law in question. The way I approach the food laws of Leviticus will look quite different to the way I approach 'do not murder' but in neither case can I write off the law as irrelevant to Christian living, nor can I simply lift the law straight out of the Old Testament without reflection on the fact that Christ has brought things to a climax.

9. 'Spirit vs. law' is ultimately a non-starter too, since the Spirit writes the law on our hearts.

10. Were the writers of psalm 19 and psalm 119 simply off their heads, or were they the worst sort of pharisaical legalists? Or could it be that for the living-by-grace Christian the law is a great friend since it communicates the wise requirements of our loving and holy King?


thebluefish said...

Thanks for picking it up. I take the point about there being command in the gospel, I'm not yet convinced that 'the law' is given to us to keep, and I can't escape the way that Galatians 3 puts it as a temporary measure for Israel until Christ.

One thing I'm 100% with you on, One of THE single most important theological and pastoral issues is the relationship between Christian living and the law. Amen to that.

Pete said...

Thanks Dave. Your thoughts (and especially the hours you've spent in Galatians) are always going to be helpful for this sort of discussion.

Would you feel any different if the believer's 'keeping' of the law was put something like this:

a. Christians are obliged to obey the Lord Jesus Christ.

b. The OT law (interpreted in the light of all that Christ achieved) helps to inform the content of those obligations.

The thing I want to protect is the relevance of the Old Testament for christian living.

I think the term 'law' is used across the New Testament in a variety of ways.

Doesn't Galatians 3 rather prove some of the point of what I'm saying in this post? The law is not opposed to the promises. It was never intended to be used for attaining salvation or righteousness the way the Judaisers were using it.

Yes, we are no longer under the supervision of the law, but under Christ. But what is the relationship between the content of the commands Christ has for us and the content of the commands we read about in the law?

If we take another aspect of the law - the sacrificial system - we see clearly that the relationship between them and Christ is shadow-fulfillment. Christ replaces the sacrifices of the law, but by doing par excellence what the sacrifices was always intended to do. Christ does away with the old priesthood, but by being THE priest. There is considerable continuity of task between the old and the new covenant in this regard.

I think this shadow-fulfillment paradigm applies across the board with the law. So, the obligations placed on us under Christ are a fulfillment of that placed on Israel under Moses. In some places this has altered them more obviously than in others. It still means I must go to the old testament law to be helped to understand the obligations I am under as Christian, but I must interpret them carefully in the light of all the Christ is and has done.

Unless we do away with the category of 'obligation' (antinomianism?), or we adopt some system that smells a little bit like dispensationalism and pit the old against the new as different systems of salvation, or we just think that God changed his mind about what he was getting at under the old, I struggle to see any other options for how we think about the law.

Anonymous said...

Pete, many thanks for your post.

I'd love to pick your brains on this issue over the coffee break at college some time that you're free. My main questions from what you've written would be as follows:

1. Paul does seem to contrast the work of the Spirit and the written code in Romans 7:4-6, 2 Corinthians 3:6 and Galatians 5:18. I agree that "Spirit vs law" is an unhelpful way of expressing this, but isn't Paul doing more than just contrasting external obedience to a set of commands and internally motivated obedience to the same set of commands?

2. I think all real evangelicals would say that all Scripture, including OT law, is God-breathed and useful for teaching etc. I guess the question becomes how in practice do you see the relationship between the content of Christ's commands and the content of the OT law working out? e.g. is the Christian today obliged to tithe / keep a Sabbath day? Why (not)?

3. What books can you recommend on this? I've read a few on the subject but am still fairly confused!


John Miller

Pete said...

John, sure, let's chat one coffee break.

On your specific questions, brief and immediate thoughts would be

1. I'm not sure he's contrasting external internal as much as effectiveness. The law, written on tablets of stone, was unable to empower the obedience it demanded. Contrast that with the Spirit, who writes the law on the heart. The law brought death to Israel in her history, through her inability to obey it, through the way 'sin seized the opportunity' afforded by the law to bring condemnation. So I think it's probably to do with that kind of idea - the role of the law as worked out in salvation history. I think Jer 31 is behind any law-Spirit contrast Paul makes, which ultimately makes for the fulfilling of the law.

2. That's the million dollar question isn't it? And of course it's impossible to give a simple answer that will 'work' for every law in every situation. It takes hard work, hermeneutics, prayer, humility, obedience to work out how the law applies. It's actually quite like the issue of 'how does Hosea apply to Christians?' as far as I can see, and I suspect the same basic hermeneutics is in place (we read and apply through fulfilment in Christ).

So, for myself, tithing? yes, at the very least. Sabbath? I need to think some more, but I'm increasingly dissatisfied with the 'we fulfill that by trusting Jesus' kind of line, I think it's more complex than that. I believe sunday is the Lord's day/resurrection day and is pretty special as a result, but does that mean everything about the OT sabbath is carried across, well, for me the Jury's still out. It would seem odd to me though that God would think a weekly sabbath is such a good idea in creation and OT redemption, and then not really be bothered about it post-Christ.

3. Not really read that many books at all I have to say. Vern Poythress has written one called 'shadow of Christ in the law of Moses' which looks pretty good. I found David Field's lecture in ethics very very helpful here, crystallising stuff I'd sort of gathered together from various places.

Anyway, would be really glad to chat with open bible at some time. I'm still putting things together myself so I need the help of brothers and sisters.