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Christians and Law
Christians and Law looks at what the Bible says about the relationship of Christians to ritual law, social law and moral law.


Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2008

A. The ritual or ceremonial laws

The ritual or ceremonial laws given to the Jews were prophetic and anticipatory of Jesus Christ. They are the shadows, of which he is the reality (Colossians 2:16 -17). The Christian has no obligation to keep these laws; they are made redundant by the coming of Christ. Their sole significance to the Christian is that they enrich our understanding of the role and work of Jesus Christ and the salvation which he gives us. The New Testament writers consistently tell their readers not to allow themselves to be brought into bondage to these laws (as in Galatians 5:1-12).

B. Social laws

There are some Old Testament laws which we might call 'social laws', which regulated the daily lives of the people. When we look at these we find many that we might classify as ‘medical’ or ‘hygiene’ laws. Most of these also bear some relation to the ritual and ceremonial laws, speaking of ritual ‘uncleanness’, so that even these social hygiene laws were inseparably linked with the religion of Israel. In this application of hygiene laws to ritual uncleanness (which barred a person from worship) these laws fit into the same role as [1] above: they enrich our understanding of our own sinfulness and of the great thing that Jesus has done in saving us, but are not binding on us (see Acts 10). Leaving aside this ritual significance of the hygiene laws, on a purely practical level they teach us basic principles for healthy living in community, and are therefore to be applied as principles to the varying physical conditions of our lives.

C. Moral laws

We can define moral laws in various ways:

5. All the concepts of what is good written on the consciences of people all over the world

4. All Biblical commands telling us how to relate to God our neighbour

3. The Ten Commandments given in Exodus 20

2. The two great commands

1. Jesus Christ.

It is these moral laws that are applicable to the day to day lives of Christians in our pursuit of practical holiness. The lower the number in this list the more precise, the more clearly defined, and the more all-embracing these definitions of moral law are.

[Before we look at this use of the law, let us remember what the Gospel has already established: that ‘no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe ...’ Romans 3:20 -22.]

1. Jesus Christ

Why list ‘Jesus Christ’ as a ‘moral law’?

[1] because he said ‘follow me’ (Matthew 4:19 ; Luke 9:59 ; John 8:12 ).

[2] because he said ‘Love each other as I have loved you.’ (John 15:12).

[3] because he prayed that the same unity he shared with the Father, may be experienced between believers, and between believers and the Godhead (John 17).

[4] because believers are saved to glorify God, and Jesus Christ glorified God perfectly (John 1:14 ; 17:1-5; Matthew 5:16 ; 1Corinthians 10:31 ).

[5] because Jesus Christ, the one true man, lived a life in perfect and total submission to the law of God: by looking at him we see what it really means to obey the law of God. He in his living and dying defines what obeying God’s law is. He, by his life and death, defines what love is.

If our understanding and our repentance were perfect we would need to look no further than Jesus Christ to have all we need for instruction in practical holiness.

2. The two great commands (Luke 10:27 ):

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.

Love your neighbour as yourselves.

The big question here is ‘what does it mean to love?’ for it is very easy to read these commands and think that we have done what they ask, when all that we have done is to fulfil our concept of loving. The second question here is ‘how do we know if we are loving God with all our .....?’

These commands

[1] point us to Jesus Christ, who fulfilled both perfectly and totally, and thus defined their meaning for us, in that he defined ‘love’ perfectly and absolutely, and

[2] point us to the Ten Commandments and every other moral command in the Scriptures, which, on the one hand, by stirring up our sinful rebellious hearts, show us the extent to which we are falling short of these commands, and on the other, identify what loving God and our neighbour means in specific circumstances.

3. The Ten Commandments, which are a precise summary statement of 4. All the Biblical commands telling us how to relate to God and our neighbour.

What significance do all of these moral laws in the Old and New Testament have for the Christian in pursuit of practical holiness?

[1] God expects us to obey them. Jesus obeyed them, submitted to them, upheld them.

[2] Breaking any of these laws is never okay: it was because of the breaking of these laws that Jesus suffered the wrath of God against sin; it is because of the breaking of these laws that unbelievers are presently cut off from God, and will spend eternity in hell. (Colossians 3:6-7)

[3] Breaking any of these laws is never okay, and is contrary to our faith in Jesus Christ, because our faith in Christ includes the acknowledgement that it was such breaking of the law on our part that put him on the cross, and we also, in Christ our substitute, were crucified, dead and buried, because we broke these very laws. To think that it is okay to sin is to make a mockery of what God was doing in the death of Jesus Christ. (Romans 6). Paul considered it incongruous for those who have, in Christ their substitute paid the death penalty for sin, to ever again think that sin (breaking God’s law) is okay. Anyone who does so has not even begun to understand what it was that happened on the cross.

[4] The response to the Gospel the Bible calls for is faith and repentance. Both of these are a reversal of the original rebellion in Genesis 3: Adam chose to reject the right of God to be his God, he refused to submit to God’s command. Christian faith and repentance brings a person back under the authority of God: no more does a Christian person assume the right to rule his own life: he says to Jesus Christ: ‘you are my Lord’ (Romans 10:9). Thus the Christian is a person who, by his act of faith and repentance, has placed himself once more under God and God’s command. To suppose that there is such a creature as a Christian who lives a live of rejection of the authority of God and God’s command, is to suppose an impossibility. It is this that James and 1 John emphasise; it is this that Jesus himself stressed (John 8:31 ; 14:15 , 23).

[5] The fact that Jesus paid the legal penalty for the breaking of God’s laws, does mean they are revoked. In fact Jesus said that they would never be revoked. His death removes us from ever having to bear the penalty, guilt and condemnation of the law; but it never removes us from our obligation to God to keep his law. His law is holy, and just and good (Romans 7:12 ). It still reflects his character, it still directs our paths, it is still all that Psalm 119 says of it. To love God is to also love his law; to love God is to delight to do his will.(Psalm 112:1; 1:2; 40:8). To claim to love God, then ignore or disobey his law, is to claim falsely (1 John).

[6] Many people think that becoming a Christian is just a matter of ‘getting saved’, and that is the purpose and end of it. This man-centred understanding of salvation is probably a large contributing factor to the lax attitude many Christians have to God’s law. In the beginning God created us ‘in his image’: reflections of his nature, character and glory (Isaiah 43:7). The entry of sin causes us to fall short of that glory (Romans 3:23 ); as sinners we no longer image, or glorify God. But Jesus came and did it (John 1:14 ; 17:1-5).

Those who are Christians stand once again in a face to face relation to God (in Christ), and as we look at the Lord, the Holy Spirit within us is transforming us into that same image, from one degree of glory to another (2Corinthians 3:18). As Paul states in Colossians 1:27 ‘Christ in you’ is ‘the hope of glory’. In Ephesians 2:10 we read that we were ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works’, Matthew 5:16 says that ‘men will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven’, and 1 Peter 2:9 tells us that God has made us his own special people ‘that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light’ then he exhorts us to ‘live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.’

All of that means that we are not the terminal point of God’s saving action: our lives, like Christ’s, are to be God-centred, God-honouring, God-glorifying. The moral laws written in the Scripture facilitate this God-glorifying living for which he saved us.

[7] Thus we find that the law points out what behaviour is appropriate for people who belong to God and what behaviour is inappropriate for people who belong to God. And we find exhortations like:

Romans 12:1 There, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’

Ephesians 4:1: I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received

Ephesians 4:17: So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking ...

1John 3:1-3: ... everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

Colossians 3:7-8: you used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these ...’


Romans 6:12: therefore (since we died with Christ) do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God ... and the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.’

Thus the moral law, although it can never again condemn us to God’s judgement and condemnation, instructs us in the kind of behaviour which will glorify God and is fitting for those who have been set apart by God as his own special possessions, at the same time instructing us about the kind of behaviour which is not fitting and totally out of place in God’s people.

If we are truly born again of the Spirit of God, if we are truly believers in the full Biblical sense, then our desire (though still failing and imperfect), will, like Jesus Christ, be to bring glory to God our Father, delighting to do his will because we love him. If our hearts do not have such a desire then a number of significant questions have to be faced:

[1] Do we really know God?

[2] Do we really love God?

[3] Have we really repented?

[4] Do we have what the Bible calls faith in God?

  • For we cannot say we love God, and at the same time hate his commands.
  • We cannot say we know God, and at the same time thinks his commands irrelevant.
  • We cannot say we have repented, and at the same time set out on a lifestyle of doing our own thing.
  • We cannot say we have faith in God, and think he doesn’t mean what he says when he tells us how to live.

Trust is the act in which a man may rely on the faithfulness of Another: that his promises hold, and that what he demands he demands of necessity.’ Barth: Dogmatics in Outline.