Whatever Happened to the Law of God?
a sermon by Joseph Rector
The law of God is a controversial topic among many Christians. While most Christians are fairly comfortable saying that believers aren’t under the law, what exactly does that mean? The Bible tells us that “sin is the transgression of the law” – or, as many modern translations read, “sin is lawlessness.” Should Christians be teaching the importance of keeping the law? After all, we don’t want sin in our lives. But the Bible clearly states that we aren’t under the law. So how should Christians understand the relationship between believers and the law of God? Whatever happened to the law of God? Or did nothing happen?
These two texts highlight the apparent problem:
“For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
“Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (I Jn. 3:4).
So, do Christian believers need to keep the law or not? Whatever happened to the law of God? The answer is something—and nothing.
Definition of the Term Law
First, what is the law? In the most broad sense, the law is the universal application of the righteousness and holiness of God’s character.
In another sense, the law is the first five books of the Bible—the books written by Moses. These books are called the Pentateuch. The term Law and Prophets is used frequently in scripture to denote what we now call the Old Testament. The Law refers to the writings of Moses; the Prophets refers to the other books in the Hebrew scriptures.
The Law—the books of Moses—contain the Ten Commandments and a variety of other rules given by God. The other rules, covering such things as food, cleanliness, and worship regulations, are often called the “ceremonial law,” although the term ceremonial law is never found in scripture.
Virtually all Christians agree that the so-called ceremonial laws do not apply after the death of Christ. But what about the Ten Commandments? Many Christians would argue that the Ten Commandments retain some relevance to the Christian life.
Please keep in mind that the Bible doesn’t make a clear distinction between the so-called moral law and the so-called ceremonial law. Therefore, for purposes of this sermon, the term law will refer to the Ten Commandments and to all the additional regulations recorded by Moses in the Pentateuch.
Turning Point: The Death of Christ
So, whatever happened to the law of God—the Ten Commandments and all the other laws given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai?
Col. 2:13-17, KJV:
Verse 13: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses;
Verse 14: Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;
Verse 15: And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.
Verse 16: Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
Verse 17: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
Verse 13 states that Christ forgave all our trespasses, or sins, on the cross.
Verse 14 tells how: He blotted out something and nailed it to his cross. What was blotted and then nailed to the cross? The “handwriting of ordinances that was against us.” What is the handwriting of ordinances, which, blotted out, resulted in forgiveness for all sins of believers? If we consider that the most serious sins would be transgressions of the so-called moral law (Ten Commandments), the handwriting of ordinances could be nothing short of the Ten Commandments and all the other rules and regulations given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In order to forgive all sins of believers, Christ actually blotted out and nailed all law of condemnation to the cross, leaving true believers without the possibility of being condemned in the judgment. Please note that this “no-condemnation” statement can only be made of true believers (true believers are the “you” and “us” to whom these verses are addressed).
Some Bible translations such as the NIV replace “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us” with a statement that Christ “cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness.” The ESV states that Christ “cancel[ed] the record of debt.” Christ did cancel the record of our sins, but He did so much more than that! He actually set aside the law that established those sins, and which declared death for all of us.
The Greek word translated “ordinances” is dogma, and dogma appears five times in the New Testament. Each time dogma appears in the NT, it refers to a legal decree.
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree [dogma] that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1, NIV).
This dogma or decree was a law—issued by the emperor.
The word dogma is also applied in scripture to the Ten Commandments:
Eph. 2:15, KJV:
“Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances [dogma]….”
What are the ordinances [dogma] that were nailed to the cross? The ordinances are not just the record of our sins. The dogma is all law that would otherwise have condemned us. Christ nailed to His cross not just the record of our sins, but “the law of commandments contained in ordinances”—the law that demands our death—the law we are unable to keep. It was blotted out and nailed to His cross. That’s how completely Christ forgave all our sins on the cross. Past, present, and future—all sins of believers are forgiven.
But what about the so-called moral law—the Ten Commandments? Isn’t the moral law important? Don’t we still need to keep it? Doesn’t Paul say that the law is good and holy? Doesn’t Paul deny making the law void?
Colossians 2 makes clear that Christ did indeed nail the moral law to the cross—along with all other law. Let’s look at Verse 16:
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat….”
What does the word therefore mean? It means that this is the summation of the argument. Christ has set aside the handwriting of ordinances; therefore, what is the implication? What is the result?
“Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday [festival], or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days….”
Religious festivals would take place yearly. They are part of the so-called ceremonial law.
New moons are monthly. They are also part of the so-called ceremonial law.
Sabbaths are generally weekly. (The term sabbath can also indicate the week following seven Sabbaths; it can also apply to every seventh year, the year of rest for the land – http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/sabbath/.) The weekly Sabbaths are part of what law? The Ten Commandments.
The progression of Verse 16 is year to month to week.
The year/month/week progression means that the sabbath days mentioned are not special sabbaths – the sabbaths of Verse 16 are specifically the weekly Sabbath. If the nailing of the ordinances involves the weekly Sabbath days, then the ordinances must include the Ten Commandments, because the Ten Commandments specify the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.
Verse 16 must be understood in light of the previous verses. It means that because Christ has forgiven your sins by blotting out the dogma or ordinances, you are now free with respect to all the ordinances—and these ordinances involve both the so-called ceremonial law and the Ten Commandments.
Christ brought a New Covenant through His blood (Luke 22:20). With His blood, He blotted out the ordinances that were against us, nailing them to His cross. What ordinances were nailed to the cross? All laws that would otherwise condemn true believers—the Ten Commandments included.
So, whatever happened to the law of God? It was blotted out by Christ’s blood and nailed to His cross on behalf of believers.
New Covenant vs. Old Covenant
With the death of Christ, God made a New Covenant with His people.
How new is the New Covenant? Is it completely new, or are the old laws (or possibly some of the old laws) grandfathered into the new covenant?
Heb. 8:8-9, NIV:
The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors….”
The New Covenant is NOT like the covenant made with Israel during the days of Moses.
Heb. 8:13, NIV:
By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.
The New Covenant in Christ’s blood is completely new. The Old Covenant is completely obsolete. What is the Old Covenant?
Ex. 34:28, NIV:
And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.
According to Exodus 34:28, what is the Old Covenant? The Old Covenant is the Ten Commandments written on the tablets of stone. It’s very specific. The Ten Commandments are the Old Covenant. And what does Hebrews 8 say about the Old Covenant? It is obsolete.
The apostles didn’t immediately understand what Christ had done to the law when He died upon the cross. They held a meeting in Jerusalem called the Jerusalem Council, and it was at this time that they understood.
Acts 15:5, NIV:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
A group of legalistic Christians opened the Jerusalem council by arguing that the Gentile converts to Christianity must be taught to keep the law of Moses.
Acts 15:10-11, NIV:
Peter replied: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
To what “yoke” did Peter refer? Some would like to argue that the yoke was circumcision, but what does Peter say? It was a yoke that “neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear.” The men were all circumcised. The yoke of circumcision had been bearable, obviously. So, what yoke did Peter identify as unbearable? Note what the Pharisees say: “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” And Peter said (paraphrased), “No! Even we Jewish people have been unable to keep the law. All God’s people are saved by grace alone.”
Paul would later equate the law of God with a yoke of slavery:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Gal. 5:1-4, NIV).
That’s actually a startling statement. Circumcision was similar to Christian baptism. A Gentile man who wanted to convert to Judaism would have to become circumcised as a means of showing commitment to the Jewish faith. Thus, a Gentile becoming circumcised was promising to keep the law. The Paul says, “Christ will be of no value to this person; he must now keep the whole law.” Otherwise, he will stand condemned by his failure to keep the whole law.
The Law: Curse, Death, Slavery
But let’s not stop. Many other Bible verses make it clear that Christian believers are no longer under the law. And not only are we not under the law, but it is dangerous to try to re-introduce the law into our lives.
"For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.' Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because 'the righteous will live by faith.' The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, 'The person who does these things will live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…." (Gal. 3:10-13, NIV).
We are saved by faith. “The law is not based on faith.”
For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Christians serve God “in a new way” – through the Spirit rather than through the law. For those who fear the removal of the law from the life of the true believer, I ask, “Why?” Christians still serve God, but we do so in the Spirit, not through the Ten Commandments.
Gal. 4:21-25; 30-31
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.
But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
What does Hagar represent? The Old Covenant given on Mount Sinai. This covenant is equated with slavery. What are we told to do with Hagar? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son.” Thus, the conclusion should be inescapable that believers are to dispense with the law.
Christian believers are not under the law. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. We are not to be slaves any more. We are called to freedom in Christ. For believers, the law was blotted out by Christ’s blood and nailed to His cross.
But that doesn’t mean that we are to live in sin, claiming that His blood covers every foul thing we may wish to do. A true believer would never treat the blood of the Lord in that manner. We constantly seek to grow in grace. We repent of our sins. We seek the power of the Holy Spirit to cleanse our fleshly desires. True believers don’t need the law to correct us because we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, gently convicting us of our sins. “We serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
For Whom Is the Law Relevant?
So, whatever happened to the law? For Christians, something happened to the law: it was set aside at the cross.
But are there some people who need the law? Is there any sense in which the law of God still applies? Absolutely!
Rom. 10:4, KJV:
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.
Christ is the end of the law for whom? Believers.
But what about for those who don’t believe? Are they under the law? Are they condemned by the law?
I Tim 1:8-9, NIV:
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels….
The law is not made for God’s people; instead, it is made for the unrighteous. It condemns their behavior. And if they listen to the Holy Spirit, the law may help them recognize their need for a Savior.
It is in the context of unbelievers that I understand I John 3:4, quoted at the beginning of this sermon:
“Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness” (I Jn. 3:4).
John 3:4 isn’t talking about believers. It’s talking about those who are not in Christ—those who aren’t covered by His blotting and nailing of the ordinances to His cross. These are the ones the Bible describes as lawless. They aren’t covered by the obedience of the only Lawkeeper—Jesus Christ.
Something and Nothing
So what happened to the law given by God to Moses? The answer is something and also nothing. For believers, all law standing against us was nailed to the cross. However, the law continues in effect for non-believers—and this includes Christians who insist on being judged by the law (see Gal. 4:21). For them, it hasn’t gone away. They will be judged by the law and found wanting.
Those who are in Christ are actually under a new law—a law that declares life rather than death!
Rom. 8:1-2, KJV:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
The law given to Moses is a law that declares death. That’s all it does. It is the “law of sin and death.”
By Christ’s death, the law of sin and death was nailed to the cross, and believers were placed under “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” It's law that declares life for all who are in Christ. It is a law of grace.
Jesus invites us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30, NIV).
~ Joseph Rector, May 2015