God’s Law: its Place in the New Testament

To what extent and in what ways are we to keep Old Testament laws?  It’s a complex issue and it will take more than one entry to deal with the nuances of the question.  We have already seen that we cannot simply disregard Old Testament laws on the grounds that we are “not under the law but under grace.”  The New Testament teaches that the breaking of God’s law is sin (1 John 3:4) and we are not to continue in sin (Romans 6:15).  Nor can we argue that God’s law only applies to national Israel; it is an example for all nations (Deuteronomy 4:5–8).  God does not show partiality (Romans 2:11).  Therefore, His law defines justice for everyone.  He is the judge of all the earth—not just Israel (Genesis 18:25, Romans 3:29).

Most Christians recognize that Old Testament laws such as “you shall not murder” and “you shall not bear false witness” still apply today.  And yet, there are some distinctions now that we have the New Testament.  As one example, we do not offer animal sacrifices anymore as was required by Old Testament law.  In addition, there are “case laws” which illustrate a general principle by a specific example; and there is some confusion as to how these may apply today.  There are some issues where Christians disagree on which laws apply today and how to apply them.  “Should we observe a Sabbath Day rest on Saturday, on Sunday, or at all?  Should we employ Old Testament penalties for crimes?”

There are a variety of opinions on the topic; but these are not of primary importance.  What matters is what God’s Word teaches.  Our goal is not to impose an interpretive scheme on the Scriptures that matches our (often sinful) intuition as to what ought to be done.  Rather our goal should be to allow the Scriptures to correct our thinking (2 Corinthians 10:5).  We are to align our way of thinking with God’s Word, and not try to distort God’s Word to match our feelings or cultural traditions.  I have found that I sometimes need to repent of some of my opinions and my “positions”—those that do not align with the Bible.

Let’s begin with some general principles before we look into specifics.  A good place to start would be to study what the law of God itself says about the law of God.  Consider the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 4:1–2, “Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I am teaching you to perform, so that you may live and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you.  You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.”

In verse 2, God (through Moses) told the Israelites that they are not to add to or take away from God’s commandments. We saw in the previous entry that these laws apply not just to Israel, but were an example for all nations (Deuteronomy 4:6–8, Leviticus 18:24–25).  Thus, we may not add to or subtract from God’s law.  Notice that it does not give an expiration date.  It does not for example say, “until the coming of Christ, and then you can add or subtract whatever you like.”  The law itself indicates that we may never add or subtract from it (repeated in Deuteronomy 12:32).  But also notice what it does not say.  It does not say that nothing can ever be added to or subtracted from the law of God.  It simply says that “you shall not.”  God as the Law-Giver is free to add or subtract from His law.  It is, after all, His law.  But we may not add to or subtract from it, and it is the law itself that tells us this.  It follows therefore that God’s law is binding upon us unless and until God says otherwise.  Only the Law-Giver may modify His law.

Many Christians have the impression that they are free to subtract from God’s laws (at least those found in the Old Testament) unless God renews them like a library book in the New Testament.  But this is exactly the opposite of what God’s law itself teaches.  God’s moral laws do not come with an expiration date.  Jesus indicates the permanent nature of His moral standard in Matthew 5:18, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

God did give ceremonial laws in the Old Testament (such as animal sacrifices), which pointed forward to the work of Christ on the Cross, and therefore are no longer binding on believers today. But did Christ’s work do away with moral laws?  Once again, a moment’s reflection reveals the absurdity of the notion that morality can change with time.  Can what is morally wrong on Tuesday be morally right on Wednesday?  God is beyond time.  So it follows logically that what is wrong in the eyes of God at one time must be wrong at all times.  Moral principles follow from the character of God.  Since God does not change, moral principles cannot change either.  The moral principles of the Old Testament are the same as in the New.

It is theologically crucial that God’s standards do not change; if the moral law could be set aside, then Christ died needlessly!  Think about it: we need salvation because we do not live up to God’s moral standard.  If (hypothetically) God could change His moral standards for us, then He could simply lower them to the level of something we could actually do.  But that is not the case.  God’s moral standards stem from His perfectly Holy character, which is why we cannot live up to them (Romans 3:23).  It was precisely because God’s moral standards cannot be set aside that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary for our salvation.  The basic principles of ethics are unchanging because they are rooted in the Holy perfection of the unchanging God.

Of course, specific circumstances may change—and God as the Law-Giver is free to modify His specific commands to deal with those circumstances.  For example, there was no need for divorce legislation before man fell into sin.  God gave laws concerning divorce to deal with the new circumstances that came with sin, as Jesus explains in Matthew 19:8.  It’s not that God’s standards changed; circumstances changed.  God gave new laws to deal with the sinful nature of mankind.  This is His right as the Law-Giver.

In light of these considerations, if we are going to be truly biblical, we cannot add to or subtract from God’s law.  We are to obey every commandment of God (whether in the Old Testament or in the New Testament) unless there are biblical reasons to think that it is no longer binding on us.  Of course, there are biblical reasons to believe that some Old Testament laws are no longer binding on us.  In the next entry, we will deal with those Old Testament laws that the Bible itself tells us have been set aside in the New Testament—the ceremonial laws.

One Response to God’s Law: its Place in the New Testament

  1. Greg says:

    Hello Dr. Lisle,…Is the Anisotropic Synchrony Convention model “dead”…? I have heard strong criticisms of it…do you personally still think yourself that this is the answer (or a perfectly viable answer) to the Distant starlight problem for creationists??…Thanx…

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