Law in the New Covenant
by Charles S. Meek
The New Testament teaches that we are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:14; etc.) Does this mean that moral law—theft, murder, adultery, etc.—no longer apply? Of course not, so how are we to understand this? By reasonable inference, we can see that there were three TYPES of law in the Old Testament: (1) CEREMONIAL law, which included the eating and drinking laws, as well as the sacrificial system and circumcision, (2) CIVIL laws (remember that the Hebrews were under a theocracy), and (3) MORAL laws. Most of the time when Paul and the other writers spoke of the LAW being abolished, they were speaking of the Levitical ceremonial laws. The New Testament repealed the laws under the Levitical code, but MORAL law remains in effect.
• Here are examples of the repeal of the eating and drinking laws: Mark 7:19; Acts 10:12-15; Romans 14:17; Colossians 2:11-16. In Hebrews 9-10, the writer (probably Paul) explains that the essence of The Law was the sacrificial system. These things together constitute the CEREMONIAL law. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was the replacement for the system of temple sacrifices for sin. Any doubt about the sacrificial laws being valid was removed in AD 70 with the destruction of the temple, and along with it the sacrificial system ended forever. Jesus became the “temple” per John 2:19 and Revelation 21:22. No longer could anyone say that they were saved by temple sacrifices. Jesus is the only way.
• An example of the Jewish CIVIL law also being repealed is John 8:1-11—the woman caught in adultery. Jesus prevented the standard Jewish penalty of stoning to death from being carried out. He affirmed the existence and nature of the sin (“Go and sin no more”), but changed the penalty for the sin. Another example is 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 13, where Paul does not demand the death penalty for incest. (Note: This is why Christians do not call for the death penalty for homosexuality and other sexual sins.)
• The distinction between moral law and Old Testament civil or ceremonial law is standard Christian theology. A biblical example of this separation is found in 1 Corinthians 7:19 where Paul makes a distinction between rules of circumcision and moral law (also Hebrews 7:11-19, 26-28; 10:3-10). An internet search will reveal that this distinction is common in Christian theology. But even without calling on theologians to make the distinction, there is an obvious difference between theft or murder—and circumcision or temple rituals—so obvious in fact that the New Testament writers did not have to explain it in detail and merely assumed it. The distinction among different types of laws is standard even in Jewish thought. See this article: 613 Commandments.
Jesus simplified the Law. Instead of some 613 legalistic Jewish commandments, Jesus reduced the Law to the Golden Rule. He said, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) This, of course, reflects but simplifies the Ten Commandments.
• Yet, the New Testament actually STRENGTHENED MORAL LAW. Jesus expanded the sin of adultery to include lust (Matthew 5:27-28). In Matthew 5:21-22 and 1 John 3:15 we see that the sin of murder actually includes hatred! And Jesus placed conditions of his love, saying, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). Indeed, at least 9 of the 10 commandments were re-affirmed as valid in the New Testament. (Some argue that the Sabbath Day commandment is no longer valid because Christ has become our Sabbath rest. Do a Google search for “Ten Commandments valid in the New Testament.”)
• When Jesus accuses the Pharisees of ignoring the “more important matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23), when Paul quotes parts of the Decalogue (Romans 13:9) or insists that “all Scripture [including the Old Testament] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), when James quotes the law of love (James 2:8 from Leviticus 19:18) or condemns partiality, adultery, murder, and slander as contrary to the law (James 2:9, 11; 4:11), and when Peter quotes Leviticus, “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16 from Leviticus 19:2), the unmistakable conclusion is that at least part of the law remains authoritative.
• The demands for obedience to moral law are pervasive in the New Testament. The writers could say that we are saved through faith, but often in the same book or even the same paragraph taught the importance of righteous living—i.e. moral law. For example, Paul taught in Romans 2 that “doers of the law will be justified.” In Romans 3:31 Paul bluntly states that, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we uphold the law.” Paul said in Romans 7:12, 22 that the law is holy, righteous, and good. Compare 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-26 where Paul lists certain things as being especially important in this regard. In these passages, Paul was certainly referring to moral law, and was not anticipating its dissolution in AD 70 or ever. In 1 Timothy 1:8 Paul said the law is good if used properly (also Galatians 3:21). But, elsewhere Paul taught that salvation is by faith without works (Galatians 3:10-12; Ephesians 2:8-10). The only valid conclusion is that, while we are saved by faith alone, moral law still is important for believers.
Antinomianism, the denial of the applicability of moral law in the new covenant, has always been considered heresy in classical Christianity. Both Catholics and Protestants reject it.
Moral law existed before the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. We remember such events as Cain killing Abel, Noah’s flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah where there were clear violations of moral law prior to Moses (Romans 5:13). And moral law continues after the repeal of the civil and ceremonial Law. The Ten Commandments codified moral law, but Paul explains in Romans 1:18-2:16 that moral law is known by everyone through nature and conscience. Compare to Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 10:16. Thus moral law applies to everyone, whether they accept it or not, or even whether they know it or not. This is referred to by Christian philosophers as “Natural Law.”
If you think about it, to suggest that moral law no longer exists places one in the camp of moral relativists or sociopaths!
But, if moral law is not specifically salvational, what is its purpose? Luther and Calvin both taught that there are at least three biblical uses of moral law. These uses are (1) as a mirror to illumine our sinfulness and need for a Savior, (2) to restrain evil including in civil law, and (3) a guide to serve as an instrument for God’s people to give God honor and glory. (To study this further, do a Google search for “three uses of the law.”)
Conclusion: The New Testament writers were not speaking out of both sides of their mouth about how we are saved. There is a close relationship between faith and works. Obedience is commanded in the New Testament, but it is not, strictly speaking, salvational. However, a true saving faith is one that produces good works. Luther said that the relationship between faith and works is like fire and smoke. A true saving faith WILL produce good works just as a fire produces smoke. We are saved through faith alone, but the Scripture makes a distinction between a living faith and a dead faith. We are not saved by a dead faith (James 2), but rather by a living, penitent, trusting faith in Jesus.
In years past, Christian pulpits were aflame with righteousness—for example in the American Great Awakenings. This has, sadly, been largely lost in modern mamby-pamby, easy-believism Christianity. Christianity has lost its power to convert the lost and change the culture. We should regain the power of the full counsel of God.
Also see my article “Sin and Judgment in the New Covenant” at my prophecy website, section C: