Is Old Testament Law Bad?
“Oh, how I love Your law!”Psalm 119:97, NKJV
Today’s thoughts focus on the law. Unfortunately, there have been centuries of theological bias and bad teachings that disparage Old Testament law. The scholarly works of E.P. Sanders and James Dunn view the law as a positive expression of God’s grace. While Judaism never considered the law a means to merit salvation, neither does it—unlike some believers—ridicule the law as being a legalistic and oppressive entity in opposition to grace.
Christians who try to salvage the law from this negative purview tend to pit its moral and ceremonial parts against one another. Dissecting the law into sharp distinctions to rehabilitate enduring principles, however, is an inadequate way to relate to the law. Although we are under no obligation to keep many of the ritual stipulations today because there is no longer a sanctuary or temple, this does not mean we should denigrate ceremonial law by supporting a simplistic divide between moral and ritual law. The two must go together, and in Jesus, they are intrinsically connected.
It is useful, however, to see distinctions and categories within the law, provided we are handling God’s word accurately (2 Timothy 2:15). If we reject some books of the Bible, such as Leviticus, because sacrifices are no longer needed, then why should we accept today what Leviticus says, for example, about sexual behavior? Reading the Old Testament calls for maturity—a willingness to recognize which laws apply and how they fit into multiple categories. However, to heavily divide the law to label some parts bad or inferior is, in effect, to put down Jesus Himself.
Jesus clearly told us that He did not come to annul or undermine Old Testament law (Matthew 5:17). The law was not a mistake. The God of grace is seen in its texts from beginning to end. The ideals it contains are much bigger than the rules we try to keep. Paul says that the entire law is summed in a single command: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14, NKJV). Jesus confirms that supreme love for God and loving our neighbors as ourselves constitute the ideal center of law (Mathew 22:37–40). Though we are not bound by flint knives for ritual or ethnic identity, we are not free from loving obedience to God’s commandments.
Without the written law, we would not know the definition of God’s love, and we would just fill in the blanks with things we care about. Adhering to time-bound and socially dependent laws for an ancient nation may no longer be a responsibility, but we are still commanded to love God and one another (Romans 13:10). Loving God and your neighbor as yourself remains the core ideal for both ritual and moral law (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18, 34). The entire law is summed in Christ’s command to love, but not negated by it. His perfect love—a love that encompasses the whole law, both the ritual and moral codes—compels us to live as He did. The law remains as a timeless and enduring principle precisely because God is eternal and His love endures forever.
Christians today should not view God’s law as having been abolished or destroyed. God did not “nail” His law to the cross, as many contend today. If He did, He certainly would have double-crossed Himself by throwing away what is “holy, just and good” (Romans 7:12). What was abolished is the “record of debt,” which stood against us and condemned us (Colossians 2:13–14, ESV). Another way of saying this is that Jesus “nailed” to the cross the curses of the law—our sin that places us in adversarial relationship to the law—which resulted in death and condemnation, where before there was life and blessing (Geneses 3:16; Leviticus 26:14–46; Deuteronomy 28:48,49; 29:27; Galatians 3:13).
It was not only our indebtedness to God’s law but also our misunderstanding of it as an arbitrary demand that was nailed to the cross along with Jesus, who became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). The negative history of the law that had become “a witness against them” was annulled (Deuteronomy 31:26, KJV). The ordinances and rituals that God appointed had become a means of misrepresentation. Indeed, the cross has directly affected the law, which has become completely renewed and rehabilitated in the person of Jesus. To totally conform to God’s law by the Spirit means to become Christ-like. What a wonderful thing that is! This is why Paul could say, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of the life of Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1–2, NKJV).
The Old Testament law was meant to lead us to something better in Jesus, but not to be replaced. New dynamics are in play because Jesus’ revelation of God has directly affected the law. Now that the law is centered in Jesus, we are no longer under the law as our “schoolmaster” (Galatians 3:24, KJV). Once a child grows and learns socially desirable behavior, he no longer needs a custodian. In his maturity and wisdom, he does not recklessly abandon everything that was taught to him and start misbehaving. Rather, he maintains the proper manners shown to him in childhood but now has better reasons to do so. In the same way, the law has ongoing value and importance because of the faithfulness of Jesus. This is our continuing obligation.
This brings me back to my main point. The law should not be viewed as a negative process that threatens punishment but as a pedagogical one that creates positive instruction. We need to see the law from the side of mercy—compassionate and caring instructions coming from a gracious Heavenly Father, fulfilled by Jesus, and renewed in us by the agency of His Spirit. There should be no diminishing or neglect of the written law. That law is now found in a person, a human being who “magnified the law and made it honorable” (Isaiah 42:21, KJV).
Only when we see the law from this life-affirming perspective can we righty understand our relationship to it on this side of the cross. In this manner, our attitude toward God’s law will remain the same as that of the Psalmist, though our relationship with it differs due to the beautiful revelation of God’s character in Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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