God’s Law: our Obligation

Are Christians under any obligation to obey God’s law?  There are a number of places where the New Testament indicates that we are not “under the law” (Galatians 5:18, 1 Corinthians 9:20).  Rather we are “under grace” (Romans 6:14).  Some people take this to mean that we are no longer under any obligation to obey the laws of God—a position called “licentious antinomianism.”  Such people might say, “Oh we don’t have to be concerned about obedience to the law—Christ paid for all our sins.”

While it is true that Christ paid for all our sins, this doesn’t imply that we should now ignore God’s law.  Most Christians would recognize licentious antinomianism as an extreme and unbiblical position; and yet there are traces of antinomian thinking in many Christians.  Few Christians bother to really study the details of God’s law (particularly those aspects of the law contained in the Old Testament such as in Leviticus and Deuteronomy) because they subconsciously believe that it does not really apply today.

I am going to argue that we are indeed supposed to obey God’s law.  But before I make my case, I want to introduce an important point of clarification so that there is no misunderstanding later on.  There are some Old Testament laws that pointed forward to Christ’s work on the cross (animal sacrifices, for example).  Some Old Testament laws symbolized the separation of Jews and Gentiles before the coming of Christ.  These are often called “ceremonial laws.”  The New Testament tells us that the ceremonial laws were a “shadow” (Hebrews 10:1) and a “tutor” (Galatians 3:24) that pointed to Christ; but now that Christ has come in the flesh, we no longer need such symbols (Galatians 3:25).  We do not need to hold to the laws that symbolically pointed forward to the coming of Christ since we now look back to Christ’s work on the cross as recorded in the New Testament.

But notice that it is the Bible itself that tells us we are no longer bound to the Old Testament ceremonial laws.  So it would be irrational to conclude that since the Bible has set some laws aside that we don’t need to obey any of God’s laws. In a later entry, we will deal with this in more detail.  Right now, I simply wish to refute the claim that “we don’t need to obey any of God’s laws because we are not under the law but under grace.”  In general, we are indeed supposed to keep all biblical laws (“You shall not murder”, etc.) unless there are biblical reasons to think a particular law has been set aside by God (which there are in the case of ceremonial laws).  Even though Christ has paid for our sins, we still have a moral obligation to obey God.

When the Bible tells us that we are not “under the law,” this does not mean that we are under no obligation to obey the law.  Rather, to be “under the law” means to be under the curse of the law.  Galatians 3:10 states, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.’”  It is this curse of the law from which Christ has freed us—not obedience to the law.  Galatians 3:13 states “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.”  The curse of the law—the penalty for disobedience is death (Romans 6:23).  But Christ took our penalty upon Himself.

The New Testament defines sin as lawlessness (1 John 3:4).  Yes, we are “under grace.”  But does this mean that we can now break the law of God (are we free to sin)?  The Bible specifically answers this question in Romans 6:15.  “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!”  The apostle Paul emphatically denies antinomianism.  The grace of God has covered our sin.  “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?  May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1–2).

The freedom that Christ provided for us is the freedom to obey His law—not freedom to sin (Galatians 5:13).  When Jesus forgave the adulteress in John 8, did He then tell her not to be concerned with obedience since she was now under grace?  Of course not.  He told her to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).  In Romans 6:12–13 the apostle Paul states, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”

Being saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ should prompt us to obey God’s law out of gratitude.  The kind of faith that saves is the faith that leads to obedience (James 2:14–17).  So faith is not contrary to the law of God.  In Romans 3:31 we read, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.”

3 Responses to God’s Law: our Obligation

  1. Norm Farnum says:

    Excellent and very well stated… Thank you & God bless your ministry.

  2. Chris C says:

    Dr. Lisle,

    Dr. Lisle, were the Jews “under the curse of the law” in a different sense then we are? In other words, Paul said we are “no longer” under the curse, (under the curse meaning relying on works instead of Christ). But salvation has never been by works, so what does he mean by “no longer”? If the Jews were saved by faith then how were they “under the curse”? Is Paul talking about the ceremonial laws? If so then does “under the curse of the law” have two meanings?

    • Chris C says:

      By “we are” I don’t mean that we (as in Christians) are under the curse. I mean non-Christians today that rely on works would be under the curse.

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