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Thou Shalt Not Keep The Law

There is a clear truth in the New Testament: Christians should NOT keep the law.

I realize that this is a controversial statement, and most Christians will take issue with it. However, a straightforward reading of the epistles of Paul substantiates this claim. It is very difficult to reach any other conclusion without twisting and wrangling the text into submission to a dismissive revisionism. The Christian emancipation from the law is the primary point of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. To deny this is to effectively reject those writings outright, or at the very least, relegate them to a pseudo-inspired category; like antinomians have done historically with the epistle of James.

The quantity and quality of clear statements by Paul declaring the law to not be a Christian institution is overwhelming. He declares it and explains it in every possible way imaginable; at times even serially, in multiple chained statements, pounding the point home for those that will never be convicted of the crime of subtlety or the sin of nuance. But not only are there scores of such statements, but the logical structure of those writings are also organized to be powerful statements against the incorporation of the law into Christianity. So, we see, statements like “Not of works lest anyone should boast” or “Not by works of righteousness which we have done” are not simple, convenient proofs; they are the brightest feathers woven into a full length, regal war bonnet against legalism.

This is why those that teach that Christians should obey the law are averse to providing a meaningful exegesis of these texts, in full. All they are able to do is artificially redefine the words, and contort the sentences to such a degree that Paul seems to have been writing his epistles from Bizarro World, where everything is the exact opposite of what it is. Many defend this approach pointing to statements made by Jesus, James, or the prophets. They reason that it isn’t possible for Paul to contradict Jesus, and since they are more than 100% certain that they understand Jesus perfectly, Paul must be revised to fit that understanding. In reality this has nothing to do with what they have learned from Jesus, James, Peter, or Moses. They have already made up their mind that keeping the law makes sense, and hence the Bible is to be shoehorned into that ideology. 

To their credit their reasoning is straightforward: The 10 commandments are the eternal, moral law of God, so how could they not be binding on all people? However, this is question begging. What evidence is there that the 10 commandments are eternal or moral? Much less the eternal, moral law of God? Don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting that the 10 commandments, or any of the law of Moses, are immoral. I am simply pointing out that the moral appellation of the 10 commandments is both inaccurate and conveniently contrived. How are the 10 Commandments distinguished in such a fashion? They are never called this; not by Moses, the prophets, Jesus, nor the Apostles. And there is no implicit evidence for this designation either. The laws of the 10 Commandments are not significantly more moral than many of the other Mosaic laws, and certainly not more so than the many enjoinders found in the New Testament. Consider the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus colorfully says (and I paraphrase), “You’ve heard old people say, Do not kill? Well, I am telling you, Do not be unreasonably angry.” Many assume, because they have been told so, that the Sermon on the Mount is the proper interpretation of the law of Moses. But Jesus did not fine tune that law, rather he trumped it with a superior law of his own. He says, regarding the common understanding of Moses’ law regarding hating your enemies, that he commanded instead that we are to love them. On the Mosaic law of divorce he was ruthless: He bluntly declared that Moses had issued a substandard law out of pragmatic rationality, but that it was not according to God’s will or God’s design. And then he confirmed the conclusion of the experts of the law that the greatest commandments were not even mentioned in the 10 Commandments: Love God and love your neighbour. 

All this and we haven’t even gotten to Paul’s demolition of the Old Testament law as a viable substructure for New Testament doctrine and practice. Consider the low hanging fruit first: Paul warns us from the works of the flesh, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, enyings, murders, drunkenness, and revellings. Notice that almost none of these are found in the 10 Commandments, neither explicitly nor implicitly. The degree of spiritualization required to find these in the Decalogue is worthy of an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Also notice that this isn’t even a complete list; panting and out of breath, he throws in “and such like”. Meaning this is not to be seen as an enumerated list of sins, but a sampling of what a sin looks and smells like. And now notice how redundant the list is. Whereas the 10 Commandments have almost no redundancy at all, the works of the flesh have four varieties of sexual sin (Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lasciviousness); three, maybe four, varieties of doctrinal error (idolatry, witchcraft, seditions, and heresies); two varieties of intemperance (drunkenness and revellings); and 6 varieties of interpersonal relationship sins (hatred, variance, emulation, wrath, strife, and envy). Almost none of these are outlawed in the law of Moses, and certainly not in the supposed eternal, moral law of the 10 Commandments. But finally notice that no reference or allusion is made to any portion of the Decalogue in this text, except when he says of the fruit of the Spirit that there is no law concerning such things. 

But, as I said, this was just some of the low-hanging fruit. For those looking to really dig in to Paul’s theology concerning the law, I direct their attention to his seminal treatise on the subject: The Epistle to the Romans. However, since most are probably proficient in the more obvious portions, let’s skip that and look at the less well known arguments. A particular favorite of mine is his three-pronged evisceration of the Mosaic law in Galatians. First, the law of Moses was, at best, an interim covenant. Second, for the Gentile believer, the law of Moses is practically equivalent to paganism. And third, God disavows all personal association with that law. Granted, these points are not to be found spelled out in the type of proof-texts that evangelicals are so fond of, but even a precursory exegetical reading of the epistle draws them to the surface. The first statement is the most apparent, Paul implies that the law was not eternal, but rather that it was added as a response to sin, and its role was as our schoolmaster, tutor, and governor until the time appointed by the father. The second statement is implied when he admonishes the Galatians that their desire to be under the law was the practical equivalent of returning to the former bondage of their paganism. And the third statement is driven home when he allegorizes the law as Hagar and Ismael, and God casting out the bondwoman, refusing to recognize her child as his son of promise. So, Paul… why don’t you tell us what you really think? It is no wonder that the Jews considered Paul their mortal enemy and a traitor to his people. 

Another, out of the way, dismantling of the law is found in 2 Corinthians 3. This is particularly important because it the broader context of this text does not deal with the law and grace, which illustrates how committed and concerned Paul was with this issue. He explains that the true evidence, both of his own ministry as well as their own faith, was the New Covenant written in their hearts with the Spirit of God, and then… he just can’t help himself but point out that the juxtaposition of this New Covenant with the one graven on stone tablets. This text is fascinating in part because he leaves no wiggle room for those that believe that the 10 Commandments are still binding. While in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians there is some degree of plausible deniability: if you really strain you can make out the tiniest of crevices in his arguments that can be exploited to legitimize the view that what Paul really meant was that we are under the law; just not the ceremonial law… nor the dietary law… nor the levitical law; nor the 4th Commandment of the 10… Er, 9 Commandments… but definitely under the law. But such is not the case in 2 Corinthians 3 where Paul explicitly and inextricably links his arguments to the stone tablets themselves: i.e., the 10 Commandments. And what does he proclaim? While they were glorious in their day, that day not only is already past, but it was already passing from the very moment they were delivered on Sinai. The glory of the 10 Commandments was due to the lack of competitive comparisons. With each passing day they shrank into the shadow of the awesome power and hope of the ever approaching New Covenant; until the point that what was once glorious above all other covenants was reduced to a bureaucracy of death. He explains that this astounding contrast is so clear that only those whose hearts are blinded can possibly fail to see that the law is abolished in Christ.

What could it hurt to keep the law? some plead, as a middle ground between keeping the law and abolishing the law. They are unmoved by Paul’s intractableness in Jerusalem: “No, not for an hour!” But Paul, what could it hurt to circumcise Titus? Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the laws of God. “No, not for an hour!” Why such vehemence, Paul? “That the truth of the gospel might continue with you.” Keeping the law is much more than eschewing sin and embracing righteousness. It is subjecting oneself to the sovereignty of the covenant itself. The 10 Commandments are the Old Covenant, to keep them is to show allegiance to it. A Christian has no more right or duty to keep the articles of the instrument of that alien covenant than an American has to keep the laws and constitution of another country. Overlap between the prohibitions and enjoinders of the Old and the New does not mean that the New Creature is subject to the Old Covenant. This servile dissimulation in deferring to the law of the Old Testament is obscenely disrespectful of the design of the New Testament. Is the covenant written by the Spirit in our hearts so incomplete and so crippled that we need to import the same graven stone law whose glory did not last a single day? If that is the case, then this New Covenant is a complete sham, it doesn’t even have its own stipulations regarding the most basic forms of human interaction. The notion that absent the keeping of the Old Testament law, we are lawless and licensed to sin is to imply that the New Testament does not make any independent or unique demand in our hearts even for the most elementary form of righteousness. Does the New Testament not legistlate on paganess, idolatry, blasphemy, insubordination, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetouness? Yes it does, and in far finer detail than could be possible with a law chiseled in stone. 

The law of the New Testament is not only deeper than the 10 Commandments, it is broader, and higher. Under the Mosaic law the name of the game was, The Letter of the Law. The object of the game was to satisfy the adjudicators of the law that its requirements had been met. The play was loopholes, technicalities, and extenuating circumstances. Some, like Paul, where legal grandmasters. Others like the poor, hapless fool picking up sticks on Inauguration day were not so much. But the New Testament overturned the table and sent all the pieces flying. It inscribed righteousness itself in the heart of the believer. He is his own judge and jury. No amount of persuading others matters. If all the spectators of his life say he is righteous, it makes no difference, his own heart condemns him. There are no loopholes or technicalities or extenuating circumstances that can make right what our own heart condemns as evil. The 10 Commandments declare, Thou shalt not commit adultery; but when our heart is alive in the New Covenant, we are convicted of every shade and variation of lasciviousness, even those we don’t have names for or even know existed. The 10 Commandments say nothing of lying, pornogrpophy, sacrilege, indifference, malice, lust, and an infinite number of other sins, but the New Covenant speaks clearly and unavoidably on every one. When the glory of the New Testament pierces the veil of our mind, revealing the frailty of the Old Covenant we will understand the disgust of Paul when he posits that the Galatians foray into the law was falling from grace. 

We do not need the 10 Commandments to be righteous, and the 10 Commandments — or any law for that matter — are not righteousness. At its best the law is a meta-righteousness. It is a description of righteousness; but it is not a complete description nor an exclusive description nor a sufficient description nor even a necessary description. It is possible to keep all the law and not be righteous. It is possible to know nothing of the law and be righteous. This is the conclusion of the first two chapters of Romans. If we ask how many commandments are required to completely, sufficiently, and exclusively define righteousness, the answer is not 10, nor 100, nor 618, nor 1 million. Whatever quantity is proposed, it obviously falls at least one short. Hence we find that the righteousness of the New Testament is not a meta-righteousness like the law of righteousness that Israel followed after but was unable to attain; by faith we attain righteousness itself. It is not the shadow cast by the light, as is said of the Old Testament, rather it is the very light itself.

The common diatribe against the primacy and sufficiency of the New Testament, is that without the law of Moses we become lawless and licentious. However, having the law has never resulted in anyone being lawful, except in self-identification. Those given the law, broke the law the first day, and every day after. The law is not bad, but the end result is the same: The law is weak and ineffective. Why would we incorporate into a Covenant that works, the very substance of the Old Covenant that never worked? How is that making anyone more righteous and not just simply more self-righteous? Are the true sons of God, with the unction of the Spirit in their hearts, really being restrained by the sixth commandment? And if not, why do they insist on pretending that they are keeping it?

We do not keep the law. We attain righteousness by faith. We don’t work to be righteous, we are righteous. Not by works but by imputation. And we don’t just begin by faith, but we live by faith. The reason Christians sin has nothing to do with the law nor does it have anything to do with not keeping the law; most of the sins committed by Christians are not even addressed in the law. And regardless, more law has never, and will never, result in less sin. The law is the knowledge of sin not the undoing of sin. It is the awareness of sin, not the death of sin. What impels a Christian to righteousness is righteousness itself in our hearts: The innumerable, indivisible, indescribable, true righteousness of God imputed to us by grace, which transforms our desires. The ignorant object that such a doctrine means that a Christian can do anything he wants, which is true, and not only of Christians, but it categorically misses the point. Grace has nothing to do with being able to do whatever you want. Grace is wanting to do what you should. There is no law that can compete with that power, so why would we follow after such weak and beggarly elements?

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