Christian Living,  Law,  Old Testament

Does the Old Testament Law Apply Today?

How does a Christian apply the Old Testament Law today? This is a bit of a complicated question. Given the fact that the Law reflects creation principles, we should not be surprised that it remains relevant. Indeed, Scripture unequivocally teaches the positive role of the Mosaic Law in the life of the Christian.

  • “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom 3:31)
  • “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12)

On the other hand, there are also clear Scripture passages which indicate the believer’s relationship to the Mosaic Law has drastically changed.

  • “Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17)
  • “You are not under the law but under grace” (Rom 6:14)
  • “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom 10:4)
  • “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18)
  • “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also” (Heb 7:12)

In order to deal with this tension, scholars have developed numerous systems of applying the Law under the New Covenant.  Although it is not possible to discuss all these systems in detail, we will survey three of the main views and bring out some of the important theological points of each system.

Traditional Reformed Approach (Three-fold division of the Law)

This view has been very popular throughout church history and is usually traced to Thomas Aquinas, however it may have gone back further. This approach classifies the laws within the Old Testament into three categories: moral, ceremonial, and civil.  

The moral law is so named because it reflects the very character of God and the way God has designed creation; it is thereby unchanging in its essence. Thus, the moral laws in the Old Testament continue to be binding upon the New Testament believer. The moral imperatives, “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17) and “You shall not steal” (Exod 20:15; Deut 5:19) are examples of imperatives that are still binding since they are moral absolutes that reflect God’s character.

The ceremonial law is named after the religious ceremonial prescriptions that are given to Israel to dictate their worship of God. These laws include sacrifices and offerings (e.g., Lev 1–7), as well as priestly conduct during religious ceremony (e.g., Lev 8–10).

The civil law classifies any law which specifically deals with a cultural or geographically specific stipulation for Israel. For example, Israelites who stole an ox were to pay back five of their own oxen, or if they stole a sheep, they were to pay back four of their own (Exod 22:1). This law specifically targets the common livestock owner in Israel, whereas many readers of the Old Testament Law today do not own livestock. These kinds of laws are depicted as civil since they govern the judicial and everyday life aspects of Israel’s cultural, national existence.     

However, a significant problem with the three-fold division of the Law is that it appears to be unknown in Scripture itself.  Both Old Testament and New Testament speak of the Law in its unity. James, Paul, and Jesus all describe the individual laws as being a part of the whole (e.g., James 2:10; Gal 3:24–25; 5:3; Matt 5:19). Further, Israel viewed the Mosaic covenant and its laws wholeistically (Exod 24:7). There is every indication that Israel understood they needed to obey the entirety of the Law.

More evidence for the unity of the Law is found in the use of the singular nouns to refer to God’s Law. For example, the word מִצְוָה (commandment) is used in its singular form in the Old Testament to refer to the entirety of the Law’s requirements for the Israelite (e.g., Exod 24:12; Deut 6:1; 6:25; 7:11; 11:22; 15:5; 30:11–14; Josh 22:5; 2 Kgs 17:37; Ps 19:8).  The same kind of phenomenon also occurs in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 15:3; Mark 7:8–9; Rom 7:8–13; 1 Tim 6:13–14).

There is also a practical problem with trying to differentiate the laws into a three-fold division of categories. There is no easy distinction between moral and ceremonial/civil laws. For example, although the Ten Commandments are often viewed as belonging to the moral law category, the fourth commandment (observing the Sabbath) clearly has ceremonial aspects as well as moral. The Sabbath is repeatedly described as holy to the Lord (Exod 16:23; 20:11; 31:14–15), and those who broke the Sabbath were punished by death (Exod 31:14–15; Num 15:32–36).

However, even though there is this strong moral element to the Sabbath command, Paul instructs the Church that there is no longer an obligation to observe festivals or special days, including the Sabbath (Rom 14:5–6; Gal 4:10–11; Col 2:16–17). So, even though the importance of the Sabbath should indicate that this belongs to a moral category of the Law, the New Testament dismisses its binding force on the Christian. As such, the fourth commandment is a powerful example of the difficulty in determining whether a law is moral (given its importance) or whether it is ceremonial (since it is abrogated in the New Testament).

Theonomy (Christian Reconstructionism)

Theonomy is often represented as a modification of the Reformed approach.  Like the Reformed approach, Theonomy holds to a three-fold division of the law. The main distinction is that theonomists tend to argue for the application of civil laws in a more consistent fashion. Although, it should be noted that even among theonomists the way civil laws are applied varies.

Many theonomists will point to Matthew 5:17 as a positive argument for the continuing validity of the Law, but I think there are better ways of reading Matthew 5:17. Besides many of the same problems that relate to the Reformed approach, I think Theonomy also struggles recognizing the discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. For one, the church is recognizably distinct from the nation of Israel. The Church is not identifiable as a nation, nor is there any direct application of the Old Testament’s land laws to the Church.  It seems that many (if not most) of the laws that apply to Israel specifically as a nation can have no direct application to the Church (e.g., cities of refuge, conquest, etc.).

Lutheran Perspective

The Lutheran perspective (named after Martin Luther) can be modified between various adherents, but at its origin this viewpoint holds that Old Testament laws are only binding if they agree with the New Testament, or if the laws are a reflection of natural law. This viewpoint assumes that the Mosaic Covenant has been done away with, and as such, the laws themselves are done away (unless repeated in the New Testament).

To adherents of the Lutheran viewpoint, the Mosaic Law is entirely fulfilled in Christ, and so the church is now guided directly by the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2), not the Mosaic Law. There is much to commend this position, and I agree with much of it. Perhaps my biggest disagreement would be that it seems to be incomplete in its explanatory power. I would agree that the Law has been abrogated, but if Paul can find continued relevance from Deuteronomy 25:4 (cf. 1 Cor 9:9; 1 Tim 5:18), then there likely a pattern we can follow to implement these principles.

To me, the first two systems of interpretation lack in some capacity to explain the transition from the Old to New covenants. The Lutheran viewpoint is close to how I would describe my own understanding of the believer’s relationship with the Law. Yet, I think there is a need to go beyond what is reproduced in the New Testament. Thus, I would describe myself as an Adherent to the Principle of the Law, which requires its own blog post to explain.  

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.