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Dear Theophilus: On Christians and the Law

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By Luke Hoselton
Faculty, College of Theology

Why do Christians tend to practice some laws from the Bible (e.g., thou shalt not kill), but they ignore rules like “You shall not cut off the hair on your temples”?

Sincerely,

Theophilus

Dear Theophilus,

There are a couple of things we must set in place as we seek to discover what on-going significance the Mosaic Law has for the Christian. First we need to gain an understanding of the purpose of the law.

From an Old Testament perspective, the law was given as part of the covenantal relationship between God and his people Israel. It was given in part to distinguish Israel as a people set apart unto God from the surrounding nations. Through the law, God graciously instructs his people what he demands of them, how they are to live in their on-going life with him and how they are to mirror ethically the nature of God through purity and the practice of justice. Moreover, by the law God graciously outlines how Israel can continue to enjoy God’s blessing and protection from their enemies. This helps us see why the Psalmist could declare, “I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:47-48).

However, as Israel continued to fail to keep the law and thereby continued to fail to demonstrate covenant faithfulness to God, the prophets declared the coming of another covenant. For example, God announced this New Covenant through Jeremiah saying, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33 [see vv. 31-34]). Similarly, God declared through his prophet Ezekiel that “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27 [22-32]).

The manifold hints of this New Covenant in the ministry of Jesus (Luke 3:16; 5:33-39; 22:14-23; 24:49) find their culmination in the arrival of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-41. This text represents a foundational turning of the page from the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant era of God’s dealing with humanity – and indeed, Acts 2:39 emphasizes that this covenant is not merely for Israel, but is “for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Because of this, Paul could declare himself a minister of the New Covenant (“not of the letter but of the Spirit”) even to Gentiles upon whose hearts God had written with the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:1-6).

Seeing now that Christians live in relationship with God under the New Covenant through Christ, we are in better position to answer the question posed above, because the answer relates to Christ. Christ came not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17-18). That is, through his obedient life and the sacrifice of his death, Christ accomplished what the law required and satisfied its demands, redeeming (by faith) all who would stand under the shadow of its judgment (including Gentiles) (Romans 2:12-16, 10:4; Galatians 3:10-14). In light of this, the key in determining how or whether a law still applies to a Christian is to discover how it has been fulfilled in Christ.

For example, some aspects of the Mosaic Law, such as animal sacrifice, have been entirely fulfilled and need no ongoing observance (Hebrews 9:12). Other laws, meanwhile, remain valid ethical imperatives for Christians, such as the command to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:34-40). Indeed such ethical parameters act as the “law of Christ” that are fulfilled in the Christian’s ongoing and obedient dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:14-6:2; Romans 8:1-11).

Therefore, even with this guiding principle in place – that we consider the OT laws in light of Christ – this is an issue where careful study and interpretation are required on a case by case basis. Thankfully, we live in an age in which there are numerous helpful resources available to the Bible student.

Have a question you want answered by Dear Theophilus writers? Send your questions to cotblog@gcu.edu with “Dear Theophilus” in the subject line. You can learn more about GCU’s College of Theology by visiting our website or clicking the Request More Information button.

About Luke Hoselton
Faculty, College of Theology

 Dr. Hoselton teaches Christian worldview and biblical studies in the College of Theology at GCU. Hailing originally from Nebraska, he makes his home in Arizona with his wife Stephanie and their two children, and enjoys great books and movies, the English Premier League and exploring new places. Academically, his education has focused in biblical studies (BS, MA, PhD), and his primary research interests revolve around biblical theology and theological perspectives on Christian formation and human flourishing.

Read more about Luke Hoselton