A Framework for Navigating Discontinuity and Continuity of the OT Law

I have been teaching through Covenant Theology at River Oaks Church for the past few months, and we recently have been discussing the covenant God made with Moses at Sinai. Understanding how this Mosaic Covenant fits within the OT as a whole, the covenant of grace, and God’s plan of redemption is a challenge in its own right—see my series on “Rescuing Moses from Exile” (1, 2, 3, 4). But the even more difficult task is figuring out what we should make of this covenant, and the law on which it is centered, in the NT and Christian era.

In some respects the question of “Jesus, Paul, and the Law” may very well be the most debated one in all NT scholarship. The challenge is squaring statements in the NT that (a) seem to suggest that the law as a redemptive era or structure by which God dealt with his historical people (the Israelites) has been consummated/fulfilled/insert-another-word-here-if-you’d-like in the coming of Christ; with those that (b) seem to suggest that the law is ongoing and normative.

Discontinuity

For (a), for instance, we have the following (as samples, in no particular order):

  • Rom 6:14—Since you are not under law but under grace.
  • Gal 3:12—But the law is not of faith.
  • Luke 16:16—The Law and the Prophets were until John [the Baptist].
  • Rom 10:4—For Christ is the end/goal of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
  • Gal 3:19–24—Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. … Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. … So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came.
  • Heb 7:18–19—For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
  • 2 Cor 3:7–11—Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? … Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

Each of these passages, to which others could be added, suggest that something about the covenant with Moses, a.k.a. the “law” (granted, there is much debate about the contours of nomos in the NT, which we cannot get into here), is completed. There is, in other words, discontinuity in the Mosaic law with respect to the era inaugurated by Christ.

Continuity

On the other hand, for (b) there are numerous passages that suggest that the Mosaic law, at least in part, is ongoing for the Christian church. This shows up in how Jesus, Paul, James, and other summarize the law (esp. the Decalogue) using the law itself (e.g., by appealing to Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and in how aspects of the Mosaic legislation found outside the Decalogue (such as, “Purge the evil from among you” (1 Cor 5:13, found in numerous places in Deuteronomy) are presented as normative and ongoing.

Here are a few key examples of continuity:

  • Matt 5:17–18—[Jesus said,] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
  • Rom 3:31—Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
  • Rom 7:12— So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.
  • Rom 7:25—I myself serve the law of God with my mind.
  • Rom 13:9—For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed [or ‘united under a single principle’—anakephalaioo] up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • Mark 10:18ff (and par.)—[Jesus said,] “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing…”
  • Matt 22:36–40—“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
  • Gal 5:14—For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • Gal 6:2—Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
  • 1 Tim 1:8—Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.
  • James 1:25—But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
  • James 2:11–12—For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
  • 1 John 2:7—Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. 

Many others could be added.

Now, it does not work to argue that there is some sort of “new” law that replaces the Torah or the Decalogue (as the crystallization of the Torah) entirely, as many have attempted to argue. As if the “law of Christ” (Gal 6:2) is some novum, and the old is entirely abrogated. To argue this would run completely against the thrust of all the passages listed above and would be a significant misconstrual of Paul’s teaching.

That said, “what is the ongoing relevance of the OT law today?” for Christians remains (and always has been) a key question.

In fact, as one of our church members pointed out, getting this question wrong is one of the key things plaguing the apostolic church as they sorted out the ongoing relevance (or lack of) for circumcision and other types of laws while at the same time asserting that Christianity is not some sort of law-less religion. The modern debates about theonomy, republication, antinomianism, the hyper-grace movement, and so forth are nothing new.

A Proposed Framework

I don’t pretend to have this all sorted out. But one thing I’ve noticed as I have taught lengthy courses on both the Pauline Epistles and the Gospels is that students grapple with two specific issues:

  • The Christian church (following Paul, implicitly, I think) has generally understood the Mosaic Law to be made up of three kinds of legislation: civil (governing the nation-state of Israel), ceremonial (purity laws and sacrificial laws), and moral (ethical commandments binding on everyone). The question has always been: how do you know which law in the Torah fits into which of these categories?
  • Following John Calvin and others, the majority of the Reformed tradition has understood there to be three uses of the law today (and back then): the law as a restraint on evil, the law as a pedagogue/mirror that shows us sin and points us to Christ, and the law as a guide for the church. The question here has always been: how do we understand the latter two “uses” (second use and third use) as it relates to specific commandments? Is it only about ‘love’ now? Can we actually keep any of the laws at all, and if so, which ones are still relevant?

What has been missing, in my mind (though perhaps this has been done before), is a way to bring these two “threes” together to present a more comprehensive picture of the discontinuity and continuity of the Mosaic Law. I’ve attempted to articulate a simple framework that encompasses both axes—the “kinds” of law, and the “uses” of law—as they relate to the church today.

It’s certainly not perfect, but my hope is to get feedback on how to make this more robust as a helpful way of approaching what the NT says (both good and bad) about the law.

Below is an image of the grid. A PDF version can be downloaded here.

Law Grid

An Example To Think Through: Sabbath

One hotly debated topics among Christians is whether, and to what extent, Christians today are supposed to keep the Sabbath (and, on which day). The Sabbath presents an interesting case study for the grid presented above. Given its inclusion in the Decalogue (and references to the Sabbath before the Decalogue), there is really no serious doubt that it is a “moral” commandment. Indeed, Moses roots the Sabbath in creation in Exod 20:11. It is not, then, merely something that can be cast aside. However, it is also treated as a ceremonial ordinance in other parts of the Torah, along with other feast days and similar celebrations.

In other words, it straddles the fence between two “types” above: ceremonial and moral. Therefore, its ongoing relevance would also somewhat straddle the fence. As an ordinance which brought with it numerous stipulations about what Israelites/Jews could and could not do in order to consecrate the day and separate themselves from pagans (the ceremonial axis), such rigors are abrogated for the church. The dividing-wall function of the Sabbath is no more in Christ (paralleling circumcision). However, as a blessing of rest and worship rooted in God’s creative work (Exod 20 version) and redemptive work (Deut 5 version)—which are not ethnic or ceremonial in nature—the Sabbath is an ongoing thing reoriented now around Christ.

Thus, Jesus both corrects the Jewish leaders for approaching the Sabbath in a wooden, rigorous, ceremonialist way while at the same time upholding the relevance of the Sabbath as a blessing for the church (Matthew 12:1–12).

Thus, Paul corrects an externalistic approach to all holy days in Col 2:16 while at the same time joining all Christians in worshipping on the Sabbath (but now on Sunday, Acts 20:7) and encouraging the church to, say, collect offerings on said Lord’s Day (1 Cor 16:2).

So the framework seems to help tease out the complexities of the Sabbath, at least at first blush.

But I’d be curious to get comments on how to improve this framework—feel free to chime in below!

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Footnotes from the grid:

(1) Contra the view known as Theonomy (Christian Reconstructionism) that advocates directly applying OT civil laws both in the State and Church today (e.g., stoning adulterers). However, I would argue that some of the civil laws may provide helpful insights for modern jurisprudence (e.g., lex talionis as an expression of fairness/equity in punishments) as well as church government (e.g., elders)—but they are not binding due to the cessation of political Israel and coming of Christ’s kingdom that is “not of this world.”

(2) See the Sabbath discussion above.

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