Christian Living,  Law,  Old Testament

The Heart of the Law is the Heart

Christians often view biblical law negatively. It is often viewed as diametrically opposed to the freedom we have through grace. Many Christians think that the Old Testament was primarily concerned with external obedience, whereas the New Testament is concerned with matters of the heart. However, a careful examination of the tone of the Law indicates that it is not to be viewed as something incongruent with the character of the New Testament Christian.

photo of a heart
Photo of a human heart

When reading the Law, one quickly sees that the Law emphasized the necessity of complete heartfelt obedience, not merely external obedience to a checklist. Consider Deuteronomy 10:12-13:

Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?

As the preceding passage makes clear, the Israelite’s relationship with God was not to be mere external obedience. Rather, each individual was to be completely committed to the Lord, heart and soul. God reminds His people about this truth over and over. For example, when Saul failed to fully obey the Lord, because he had his own plans for what he thought would make the Lord happy, God said through Samuel:

Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.

1 Sam 15:22

This text is a well-known passage that emphasizes that full obedience from the heart is what God requires. Offerings and sacrifices were certainly valid expressions of worship according to the laws given by God. However, Saul failed to have the right heart and lost his kingdom because of it.

Similarly, the prophet Amos condemned the people for going through the motions and worshipping God through externals. Amos relates the message of God as follows:

I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.
 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.
Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:21-24

Clearly mere ritual or Law observance was never what God was interested in at any time. He was always and only concerned with complete and full obedience which is motivated by a heart fully committed to Him.

There are two points of application that should readily come to our minds when thinking through this.

1. God is still concerned with true worship from a heart that is fully committed to Him.

Although much has changed from the time God spoke to Amos, the expectation of God has not changed. He is not impressed with your offerings or your good deeds should your heart not be completely His. Both Old and New Testaments portray the reality that God wants a full relationship. God is not interested in followers who are not fully committed to Him. There is no room for a mere once-a-week offering or a few good deeds here or there. Following God is a full-time occupation without breaks. For those of us living in the New Testament world, the call to follow Jesus demands full abandonment of self. Jesus wants a heart fully set on Him. Not a man who, as James says, is divided and unstable in all his ways (cf. James 1:8).

2. True obedience from the heart does not cancel out the need for external obedience (i.e., good works).

Some mistakenly think that now that we live in the New Testament era, there is no more place for observance of the Law. While the Law is no longer binding upon us, we fulfill the intent of the Law as we live lives in accordance with faith (cf. Rom 13:8). The Law remains valuable for us as we apply it in principle, and those good works are a manifestation of obedience from the heart. Hence, although a true relationship with God begins in the heart, good works must manifest themselves in our lives. To put it another way, although not bound by the Law, our lives should make it apparent that we are fulfilling the Law.

So, although there are significant differences between the Old Testament and New Testament, this is one area where there is quite a bit of overlap! The Law was never intended to be an external source of righteousness that was unconcerned about the heart. Nor is the New Testament unconcerned about righteous deeds! At the end of the day, Scripture puts a significant emphasis on the heart of the individual symbolizing full commitment, both internal and external. So we are certainly within biblical parameters to say that the heart of biblical law is the heart.

Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

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 and Youtube channel.

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