The Purpose Of The Mosaic Law

Main Verses

The Mosaic Law also showed the Israelites how to live a life pleasing to God. At the very least, it was His guidebook to holy living. But did God offer more than that? He promised, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5; compare Deuteronomy 4:1–2; 8:1; 30:15–19). What did the word “live” mean in these verses? It is not clear if God was offering eternal life through the Law. Paul is not very clear on this point either (compare Romans 7:10 with Galatians 3:21). Scholars cannot even agree whether Paul was referring to the whole Mosaic Law or just to part of it (see panel: What did Paul mean by “observing the law”?).

Some Christians teach that if the Israelites had been able to obey it, the Mosaic Law could have brought them salvation. They suggest that live by them in Leviticus 18:5 meant “live because of obeying the laws” (see Ezekiel 33:15; Matthew 19:17). According to this view, God’s promise of salvation through the Law was genuine, but never actually possible because the Israelites failed. Other Christians teach that even full obedience to the Mosaic Law could not have brought salvation. They suggest that live by them meant to live “according” to the laws, not “because” of them. According to this view, if the Israelites used the works of the Law to earn salvation, they were trying to establish their own righteousness—condemned by Paul in Romans 10:3.

Whether or not God actually offered eternal life through the Mosaic Law, the Israelites did not, in fact, obey it. Only God’s grace was able to save them. The New Testament makes it clear that no one has been able to earn salvation by works—neither by works of the Law (Galatians 2:16) nor by any other kind of good works (Romans 4:5; Ephesians 2:8–9). Therefore, all Christians agree that the Law never actually saved anyone. However, all do not agree about the continuing usefulness of the Mosaic Law for Christians. The sacrifices required by the Law, of course, were ended by their fulfillment in Christ (Hebrews Chapters 9–10). But should Christians try to obey the rest of the Law of Moses in order to live holy lives? There are two main answers.

The Mosaic Law Continues for Christians

The first main answer is, “Yes, Christians should try to follow the Mosaic Law.” Those giving this answer teach that the Mosaic Law always was God’s Law, and always will remain God’s Law. Therefore, Christians should continue to follow the Mosaic Law for holy living. They emphasize Matthew 5:17–19, where Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish them (the Law or the Prophets) but to fulfill them.” They believe that to fulfill meant “to confirm or fill up,” not “to finish.” Jesus often clarified the Law’s true meaning against the twisted false meaning taught by the Pharisees (Matthew 5:19), and He deepened the Law’s meaning by revealing the principles behind it (5:21–48). Jesus said that until heaven and earth disappear not one letter or pen-stroke will by any means disappear from the Law (Matthew 5:18). Therefore this group believes Christians should practice and teach the least of these commandments (5:19). They believe that Paul’s statement that Christ is the end of the law meant that He is the “perfection” or “goal” of the Law (Romans 10:4). The teachings of those accepting this first answer can be summarized by two main principles.

First of all, they argue that there is no real difference between the Old and the New Testament regarding God’s moral law. They emphasize the underlying unity and continuity in the Bible. They point out that even the gospel was preached in the Old Testament (Romans 1:1–2; Galatians 3:8; Hebrews 4:2). According to this answer, the Mosaic Law was not a pause in God’s “covenant of grace” (see General Article: Covenants and Dispensations), but a central part of His covenant with His people. The Law was never bad, or opposed to God’s promises, but holy and good (Romans 7:12; Galatians 3:21). Even in the Old Testament, God’s grace was needed to save His people. God had already delivered the Israelites from Egypt before He gave them the Mosaic Law (Exodus 20:2). Even in the Old Testament, FAITH in God was the only way to salvation, although obedience was demanded as well (Deuteronomy 9:23–24). ABRAHAM was praised for his faith (Genesis 15:6), as well as for keeping God’s commands and laws—before the Mosaic Law was given (Genesis 26:4–5). The written Law did not contradict God’s unwritten law, given to Abraham and the patriarchs long before. The moral requirements of God were true before the Mosaic Law, and are still true after Jesus ministry.

Second, these scholars also believe that the Mosaic Law remains a permanent part of the new covenant (Psalm 111:7–8). Psalm 119 claimed that God’s laws are eternal and will last forever (119:144,152,160). The prophets spoke of God’s Law continuing to the last days (Isaiah 2:2–3; Ezekiel 11:20). According to this group, the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) is the same as the Law of Moses. They don’t believe God has any other kind of law, as God does not contradict Himself. Jesus warned against breaking one of the least of these commandments, referring to the Mosaic Law (Matthew 5:19). Although Jesus taught that justice, mercy and faithfulness were the more important matters of the law, He added that the Pharisees should not neglect the tithe of their spices either (Matthew 23:23). Paul claimed that by faith we uphold the law (Romans 3:31). These Christians believe that the Law of the new covenant is the same as the written Law of the old covenant, just given in a different form. They teach that Romans 10:4 meant Christ was the “goal” of the Mosaic Law, not the end of the usefulness of the Law. James referred to Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 1:17 as the royal law found in Scripture (James 2:8–9). Paul insisted on keeping God’s commands (1 Corinthians 7:19), and listed many of the Ten Commandments in Romans 13:8–10. Through the Mosaic covenant God desired a loving, holy relationship with His people. This group teaches that the new covenant was a renewal of that relationship, not a completely new arrangement (Jeremiah 31:33).

Some of these believers suggest the simple principle: “Christians should follow all of the commands of the Mosaic Law, except those specifically changed or abolished by Jesus Christ or the apostles.”1 But most of those who believe the Law continues do not accept such a broad principle. They do not expect Christians to follow every commandment not abolished in the New Testament. They divide the Mosaic commands into three different categories: moral, legal, and ritualistic. They agree that the commands in the last category (that is, the laws for animal sacrifices and worship ceremonies in the tabernacle) were clearly changed or abolished by Jesus and the apostles. But they also teach that the commands in the legal category only applied to the nation of Israel, and specifically to their life in the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 6:1). Therefore, such commands are now out of date and disconnected from Christians. Believers no longer need to follow every detail of the civil or legal laws, including the laws demanding the death penalty for certain crimes. Therefore, most of those accepting the continued usefulness of the Mosaic Law teach that believers today only need to follow the moral or ethical commands of the Law. Although the moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments and the special holiness commands of Leviticus Chapters 18 and 19, these scholars study the entire Mosaic Law to find all of God’s ethical demands for their lives.

According to this first answer, the Mosaic Law remains useful, not only to convict unbelievers of their sin (Matthew 19:16–22; Romans 7:7), but also to teach believers the path to holiness. When Paul taught that we have died to the law (Romans 7:4), these Christians believe he meant we died to the condemnation of the law (Colossians 2:14) or to the religious sacrificial laws (Hebrews 10:1), not to the moral demands of God written there. They believe that Christians are still under the moral Law as a rule of life. Some of the JEWS misused the Law, replacing faith in God with obedience to the Law as a way to earn salvation (Romans 10:3). They did not use the Law properly (1 Timothy 1:8). Salvation is given through God’s grace alone, so the Law cannot help us earn salvation. But the Law can guide believers toward a life of holiness (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15–16). Those accepting this first answer say, “The Mosaic Law is God’s permanent guidebook, or map, to holiness for Christians to use today.”

The Mosaic Law Has Ended for Christians

The second main answer is, “No, Christians should not follow the Mosaic Law, since the Law no longer applies to believers.” Those giving this answer teach that the Law of Moses was given only to the Israelites, and that the Law was completely fulfilled by Jesus. They emphasize Paul’s statement that Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4). Even if end means “goal,” they believe Paul was very clear earlier in his letter: we have been released from the law, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6). Paul also wrote that we are no longer under the supervision of the law (Galatians 3:25). Jesus said the Law would remain until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:18), and many scholars believe that this happened when Jesus died on the cross (John 19:30). Jesus came to fulfill the whole Law, not just the religious rituals (Matthew 5:17–18). He Himself showed how He was fulfilling it (Matthew 5:17), not only by clarifying the Law, but also by making His own teachings superior to it. Jesus felt free to add to the Law (Matthew 5:22,28,44), or even cancel parts of it (Matthew 5:34; Mark 7:19). According to this view, God no longer guides His people through the Law. Instead, God sent His Son to reveal more of His character, and gave His HOLY SPIRIT to dwell in our hearts—first, as a personal Counselor or guide to holiness (John 14:26; 16:13), and second, as the power needed to become holy (Romans 8:13). The teachings of this second answer can be summarized by two main principles—the opposite of those in the first answer.

First of all, those who agree with the second answer argue that there is a clear difference between the Old and New Testaments, between the period before Jesus life and the period after it.2 A fundamental change in Salvation-History began when Jesus came and died for us. Luke wrote that the Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached (Luke 16:16). Jesus inauguration of the new covenant meant not only a change from the Levitical priesthood of the Mosaic Law, but also a change of the law itself (Hebrews 7:11–12). Indeed, Paul claimed that the fading ministry of the old covenant brought death, for the letter kills (2 Corinthians 3:6–11). Yes, grace was present throughout the Old Testament, but only as hints and prophecies (Galatians 3:8; Romans 1:1–2; Hebrews 4:2). For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Yes, faith is present in the Old Testament, but it is far more prominent in the New Testament. Paul’s contrast between faith and good works was firmly rooted in the big difference between Law and Gospel. Paul didn’t just focus on legalistic abuses of the Law (Romans 10:3), but considered even true Law obedience to be rubbish compared with the Gospel (Philippians 3:6–9). According to this second answer, Paul insisted that the works of the Law are the opposite of faith (Romans 3:28; Galatians 3:11–12); that Law is the opposite of both promise (Romans 4:13; Galatians 3:17–18) and grace (Romans 6:14; Galatians 5:4); that righteousness from the Law is the opposite of righteousness from God (Romans 3:21; 10:3; Philippians 3:9); and that justification cannot come through Law obedience, but only through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:20,26; Galatians 3:11).

Second, these Christians believe that the Mosaic Law was only a temporary part of God’s redemptive plans. The Mosaic Law was something added to God’s promises to the patriarchs until [Christ] had come . . . until faith should be revealed (Galatians 3:17–25). These scholars believe that the Mosaic Law and covenant was only meant to supervise the new nation of Israel, and even then, only till Jesus arrived. The Law was only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves (Hebrews 10:1). According to this group, when the prophets predicted the future success of God’s law they did not mean the Mosaic Law, but a new law written on the heart through the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 2:3; Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20). Paul bluntly said: Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4; Ephesians 2:14–15). These scholars believe that Paul meant the whole Mosaic Law, not just misuses of the ritualistic laws (see panel: What did Paul mean by “observing the law”?). Paul clearly stated: I myself am not under the (Mosaic) law . . . though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law (1 Corinthians 9:20–21). Jesus Himself explained that Moses law on divorce was not the same as God’s eternal law (Matthew 19:8–9; Mark 10:5). According to this view, the Mosaic Law was a true (but only temporary) application of God’s eternal moral law, including commands for tabernacle worship and civil government in the Promised Land. But Christ’s law came to the church directly from Jesus, not indirectly through Moses first. For these scholars, the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) is a new law of the Spirit (Romans 8:2), or “law of love” (James 2:8). Both Jesus and Paul summarized the entire Law as love commands (Matthew 22:37–40; Galatians 5:14). This group believes that James’ perfect law that gives freedom was not the Mosaic Law (James 1:25; 2:12). Even his royal law only contains those commandments that are summed up in a law of love (2:8–11; Romans 13:8–10).

Furthermore, they do not believe the Law can be divided into three categories, thus enabling a person to follow one category and ignore the others. It is not that easy to separate moral laws from those that are not. In Exodus 22:16–31, the moral, legal, and ritualistic commands are all mixed together. Many of the legal and ritualistic laws were based on moral principles. And it is not clear in which category to place laws about skin diseases and mildew (Leviticus 13:1–59), or the rules against planting two kinds of seed in one field (Leviticus 19:19). Also, both Testaments teach that no one was allowed to obey only part of the Mosaic Law. God demanded that the Israelites obey all His commands (Leviticus 26:14–15), and Paul warned those relying on the Law that they were required to obey the whole law (Galatians 5:3; compare James 2:10). It was not the religious rituals alone, but the entire Law that was canceled by nailing it to the cross, and especially the moral laws defining our sins (Colossians 2:13–14; Ephesians 2:14–15). Even the Ten Commandments raise difficulties. Is the command to rest on the seventh day religious or moral? If it is a permanent law, why do Christians rest on Sunday? If it is changeable so that any day may be used, we learn that only from Jesus and Paul (Mark 2:27; Colossians 2:16). Even when Paul included the commandment to honor our parents in the new law of Christ, he broadened the promise to apply to the Gentiles in the whole earth rather than just to the land of Canaan promised to the Jews (Deuteronomy 5:16; Ephesians 6:2).

These believers accept the Mosaic Law as a revelation of God’s character and human sinfulness, but not as a rule of life for Christians today. Some suggest the easy rule: “All the commands of the Mosaic Law have been abolished, except those specifically repeated in the New Testament.” But most of those who believe the Law has ended do not use such a simple rule. They agree that all of the Law’s moral commands were reaffirmed in the New Testament, but often indirectly and without a clear quotation. They say that if we truly followed the principle of love for our neighbors and our enemies we would not need specific commands. And yet we find both principles and commands together in Romans 13:8–10: Paul reaffirmed the Law-commands to avoid adultery, murder and stealing, but also taught that love is the fulfillment of the law (compare Matthew 22:40). Whether or not a simple principle is used, all of these scholars believe that Christians need not follow the Mosaic Law as a rule of life or as a path to holy living. Although some teach that the Law remains useful for preaching to unbelievers3 (1 Timothy 1:9–10), none of them believes that the Mosaic Law directly applies to Christians. Believers have died to the law (Romans 7:4; Galatians 2:19). The Law cannot save anyone, and it cannot make anyone holy either (Galatians 3:1–3). The old covenant and law are obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Those accepting this second answer say, “Like an old guidebook or map, part of the Mosaic Law is out of date, and part remains correct. But both parts are unnecessary now. We have our own personal guide to holiness—the Holy Spirit Himself.”

Summary

In summary, then, the Mosaic Law was a picture of God’s will and grace, and also a mirror showing man’s sinfulness and slavery to sin. The Law stimulated sinful desires in the hearers, while restraining some of the worst outward crimes. For the Israelites, the Mosaic Law was a disciplinarian until faith in Christ arrived. Although some believe the Mosaic Law offered a promise of salvation, all agree that the Law never saved anyone. But the Mosaic Law was at least their guidebook for holy living, helping the Israelites to become pleasing to God.

Many Christians teach that the Law of Moses is also the Christian guidebook or map to holiness. They want to keep as much as they can from the Mosaic Law and believe that Christians should follow Mosaic laws directly in order to live according to God’s desires. Many other Christians teach that believers are no longer under the Mosaic Law, but are guided by the Holy Spirit and have Christ’s law written on their hearts. As much as possible, they want to avoid burdening Christians with Mosaic laws, unless they are confirmed or restated in the New Testament.

All Christians agree that believers need to read and study the Mosaic Law, indeed the entire Old Testament. The Law is essential for our understanding of Salvation-History. Without studying the Law we cannot understand God’s holiness or the seriousness of human sin. Without the Law we cannot understand God’s plan to separate His chosen people from the sinful, idolatrous nations around them. Even if everyone does not agree on whether a particular Mosaic command is still valid today, the principles of obedience and separation from sin are the same in both the Old and New Testaments. Most importantly, without the Law we cannot understand the need for Jesus Christ to come and die for us. The need for a blood sacrifice to atone for sin is taught in both Testaments (see Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22).

In practice, those on both sides of this question often end up very close together. In morals and ethics, hardly anyone teaches something that the other side cannot accept. But whichever view we hold, none of us can live up to God’s standards. We all need God’s forgiveness. Grace has always been the only possible path to salvation. Since we cannot establish our own righteousness, we all need God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness . . . through the one man, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:17).

1 Those who truly follow this principle believe that as much as possible the political and judicial laws given to the Israelites should also be followed by Christians and governments today-including the legal penalties listed there.

2 Some of those who agree with the second answer are Dispensational scholars (see General Article: Covenants and Dispensations). But many who believe the Law has ended follow neither the Covenant nor the Dispensational system.

3 Many begin evangelism with the principle of Law (“You sinned”) before the Gospel (“Jesus died for your sins”). Although unbelievers don’t accept the Mosaic Law, evangelists can point to everyone’s failure to live up to his or her own standards.

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