By Keith Thompson
Various people falsely maintain Christians are obligated to keep the Law of Moses. Seventh Day Adventists for instance hold Christians are under the Sabbath and Ten Commandments. Theonomists or Reconstructionists believe Christians are under the “moral” and “civil” parts of the Mosaic Law, but not the “ceremonial.” Certain Protestants who hold to Covenant Theology maintain only the “moral” laws of Moses are in effect, while the “civil” and “ceremonial” are not. Catholics hold essentially the same view. Some Black Hebrew Israelite sects claim the Law of Moses is still in effect. And various renegade teachers out there assert Christians are bound to Mosaic Law as well.
In this essay I am going to defend the position that Christians are not under the Law of Moses but instead are under the Law of Christ found in the New Covenant scriptures. This position is part of New Covenant Theology. After my study into the matter I am persuaded it is indeed the biblical view. New Covenant Theology says the Old Covenant and Law of Moses (which are inseparable) have been fulfilled and made obsolete by Christ. Nothing in the Mosaic Law is to be observed unless Jesus and the Apostles ratified it in the New Covenant scriptures. All others are abrogated and obsolete. This is because Jesus fulfilled the Law through his life, death and resurrection and ushered in the New Covenant with its set of precepts or rules.
Much of the Old Testament Law was Only Meant for Ancient Israelites
In his masterful essay The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise David A. Dorsey convincingly demonstrated much of the Mosaic Law is simply not applicable to people who are not ancient Israelites.
He notes many laws were meant to “regulate the lives of people in the distinctive geographical and climatic conditions found in the southern Levant, and many of the regulations are inapplicable, unintelligible, or even nonsensical outside that regime.”(1) Here he mentions many laws such as the one in Exodus 29:22 regulating the offering of the ‘fat tail’ of the ram which only exists in a limited geographical location, the law in Exodus 23:11 regulating cultivation of the olive tree which is also rare geographically, etc.
He then notes many laws were “designed by God to regulate the lives of a people whose cultural milieu was that of the ancient Near East.”(2) Here he mentions many laws such as Deuteronomy 17:14-20’s regulations on the style of hereditary kingship practiced in the ancient Near East, Deuteronomy 20:19-20’s regulations on ancient Near Eastern siege practices, etc.
He then mentions many laws that only make sense in the context of the religious milieu of a person in the ancient Near East, or for a person in an actual politically – and geographically defined nation, or for a person in a cultic regime that has been discontinued by the Church.(3) So, when people today around the world claim they are under the Law of Moses, it is absurd.
The New Testament Teaches Christians are not Under the Law of Moses
According to the Law of Moses all Jews were required to pay a temple tax (Exodus 30:13-16). However, in Matthew 17:26 Jesus declared “the sons are free” from this temple tax, indicating the temporary nature of the Mosaic Law.
Moreover, Thomas Schreiner notes(4) instead of solely focusing on the commandments of the Law of Moses, which is what one would expect if the Mosaic Law was meant for Christians, Jesus instead often spoke of “my commandments” (John 14:15, 21; 15:10), “my commandment” (John 15:12), what “I command you” (John 15:14, 17) and “the new commandment that I give to you” (John 13:34), etc. This supports New Covenant Theology. Similar language is also present in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-35, 38-39, 43-44).
What is more, in John 1:16-17 we read, “16For from his fullness we have all received, grace for grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16-17). When verse 16 says the Jewish Christians were given “grace for grace” the Greek word “for” is the preposition anti which should be rendered as “instead of” or “in place of.” So when you take vv. 16-17 together what is being said is the grace found in Christ has been given “in the place” of the grace found in the Law of Moses. Hence, Christians are not under the Law of Moses.
In the Acts 15 Council of Jerusalem the Apostles and Elders convened to settle the question of weather or not Gentile Christians need to be circumcised to be saved. Not only did the council conclude Gentile Christians do not need to be circumcised, but it also concluded they are not under the Law of Moses and that ancient Jews and modern Jewish Christians like the Apostles have not even been able to keep the Law of Moses:
“10Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will’ . . . . 19Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15:10-11, 19-20).
Notice in vv. 10-11 Peter declares both Jew and Gentile Christians are not to have the Law like a yoke around their necks since it is unbearable and the way people are saved is instead the grace of Jesus. A “yoke” or zugos in the Greek was a restraint put on the necks of animals that were tasked with pulling heavy loads.(5) This clearly means Christians are not under the unbearable restraint of the Law of Moses. Moreover, in vv. 19-20 James then goes on to say Gentiles should not be troubled (i.e., by circumcision or the Law of Moses) but instead should abide by New Covenant Law which instead simply includes things such as abstaining from things polluted by idols, sexual immorality, from what has been strangled, and blood, etc. This is New Covenant Theology clearly demonstrating believers are not under Mosaic Law.
What is more, in Acts 10:11-15 Peter had a vision wherein Jesus declared foods clean for the New Covenant – foods which the Mosaic Law prescribed were unclean or unlawful:
“11and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ 14But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ 15And the voice came to him again a second time, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common’” (Acts 10:11-15).
This is confirmed by Jesus in Mark 7:18-19 when Jesus said: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” Mark’s inspired commentary on Jesus’ teaching is Jesus was declaring all foods clean. Thomas Schreiner notes the word “defile” here (i.e., koinoō) in v. 18 “confirms that food laws in the Old Testament are under consideration.”(6) And it was Peter’s eyewitness testimony which was behind Mark’s gospel. This means according to Peter Jesus held the dietary laws in the Law of Moses were done away with. Such dietary laws can be found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. This is, again, because Christians are now under New Covenant rules and not the Law of Moses. In Romans 14 Paul also teaches all foods are now clean for believers (Romans 14:14, 20). He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. . . . Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.” (Romans 14:14, 20).
In Galatians 3:19 Paul affirms the temporary nature of the Mosaic Law when he says it “was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19). S. M. Baugh and Thomas Schreiner point out “offspring” of Abraham here refers to Christ and so the text is saying the Law was given until the coming of Christ.(7)
In Romans 6:14 Paul says Christians “are not under the Law.” And in Romans 7:6 Paul says “we are released from the Law.” Likewise in Romans 10:4 Paul says “Christ is the end of the Law.” Also, in Ephesians 2:15 Paul talks about God “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.” Frank Thielman notes the word for “abolishing” here is katargēsas and it is used elsewhere by Paul when discussing the Law being “set aside” (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:7; Romans 7:2, 6). He notes here “believers [are] being ‘released’ from the law just as a wife is released when her husband dies, from the law binding her to him.”(8)
Lastly, Paul repeatedly states circumcision is no longer necessary to be part of the people of God (Romans 3:30; 4:9-12; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; 6:15). Yet, according to the Law of Moses circumcision was a strict command (Leviticus 12:3; Joshua 5:1-9). This means Paul knew the Mosaic Law was temporary.
The Mosaic Law is Part of the Mosaic Covenant which is now Obsolete
If the Old Covenant is obsolete then the Mosaic Law is as well. This is because the Mosaic Law is part of the Old Covenant. Modern scholarly research (e.g. George E. Mendenhall’s book Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East) reveals ancient Near Eastern people (such as Hittites) would often form treaties with others involving agreements and laws similar to the Mosaic covenant we find in the Old Testament between God and the Israelites. Many scholars affirm the Old Testament was drawing from this ancient practice of Israel’s neighbors, or that there is some sort of connection. In both cases, the stipulations or laws were part of the covenant / treaty. Thus, if a covenant became obsolete, the laws of that covenant would as well. When God made a covenant with Moses and the Israelites, he made an agreement. That is what a covenant is – an agreement with stipulations. The agreement was that God rescued the Israelites out of Egypt, and that the keeping of the Mosaic Law led to blessings, and the transgression of it led to curses (Exodus 20:2-3; 19:3-6; Deuteronomy 28:1-68).
Hence, the fact the New Testament explicitly states the Old Covenant is now obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), means the Laws of that Covenant are likewise obsolete. Again, the law is part of the covenant. This means Christians are not under the Laws of the obsolete Old Covenant. Instead, Christians are now under New Covenant rules of Jesus and the Apostles. This is why the New Testament repeatedly talks about “the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2), and his (i.e., Jesus') commandments (John 13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10; 15:12; 15:14, 17; Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-35, 38-39, 43-44).
This is confirmed by 2 Corinthians 3. There the Apostle Paul contrasts the “New Covenant” with the “Old Covenant” (vv. 6-7, 14). He even connects the Old Covenant with the Law of Moses when he mentions “the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone,” (v. 7), and when he recalls “when they read the old covenant,” (v. 14) and “whenever Moses is read” (v. 15). Hence, since Paul connects the Mosaic Law with the Old Covenant, and since he affirms the Old Covenant is replaced by the New, it follows the Mosaic Law is likewise replaced and obsolete.
Christians are not under the Sabbath Law
Various groups including Seventh Day Adventists teach Sabbath Law is still in effect. However, Sabbath was part of the Old Covenant Mosaic Law which we have demonstrated is now obsolete. Sabbath rest was the covenant sign for the Mosaic Covenant, similar to how the rainbow was the covenant sign of the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:8-17), and how circumcision was the covenant sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17). Since the Mosaic Covenant is now obsolete, the sign of the covenant (i.e., Sabbath) is as well.
Moreover, in Romans 14:5 Paul says “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” When Paul mentions those who esteem one day as better than another, he is no doubt talking about the Sabbath day of rest.(9) Yet, he shows indifference regarding the issue which means Christians are not obligated to keep the Sabbath Law. If Christians were obligated to keep it then Paul would not be so indifferent. Yet, according to the Law of Moses Sabbath was a strict command (e.g. Deuteronomy 5:14). Hence, according to the New Testament the Mosaic Law and the Sabbath command found in it are no longer in effect.
In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul calls the Sabbath a mere “shadow” along with certain food and festival requirements. The word for “shadow” here (skia) and it is the same word the author of the book of Hebrews uses to describe obsolete sacrifices of the Mosaic Law which are no longer in effect (Hebrews 10:1). Thus, Sabbath keeping, as a shadow, is likewise no longer in effect.
This information demonstrates according to the Bible it is sinful for groups to claim Christians are obligated to keep the Sabbath Law.
Now, many of the people who claim Christians are still under the Sabbath are viciously opposed to Sunday worship. They claim it is either a false Roman Catholic invention or a Roman pagan practice that infected the church. However, such thinking is erroneous and contrary to fact. Sunday worship is biblical and primitive. Acts 20:7 tell us Troas believers “On the first day of the week . . . gathered together to break bread” and then they heard a long message or sermon from Paul. Moreover, Paul commanded Christians to give money to the poor “on the first day of every week” (1 Corinthians 6:2). And Revelation 1:10 says “on the Lord’s day” John heard a loud voice from heaven. We know Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday or the first day of the week (Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1). Thus, the “Lord’s Day” is Sunday Resurrection Day when Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection are to be celebrated by believers in gathering.
Because of this evidence the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament went on to affirm Sunday worship instead of Saturday Sabbath rest. These writings were composed long before the Roman Catholic Church existed. Therefore, it is factually incorrect to say the Roman Catholic Church gave us Sunday worship or that pagan Rome did. In the first century Christian document known as the Didache we read “But every Lord’s day . . . gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanksgiving” (Didache, 14). Writing around A.D. 110 the Christian Elder Ignatius of Antioch wrote “Those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s day, on which also our life has sprung up again by him and by his death” (Ignatius, Letter to the Magnesians, 8). Likewise, writing in the mid-second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote, “But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67).
Trying to Keep Mosaic Law is Impossible and Leads to Damnation
Those who falsely say Christians are still under the Law of Moses must realize it is impossible to keep it. There are 613 Laws and legalists must be pressed to realize they do not keep them. Although they think they do, they are actually hypocrites who do not. For example, ask them if they put tzitzit on the corners of their clothing (Num. 15:38), if they bind tefillin on their head and arm (Deut. 6:8), if they affix the mezuzah to the doorposts and gates of their house (Deut. 6:9), if they make sure to read the Shema every the morning and evening (Deut. 6:7), if they remove chametz on the Eve of Passover (Ex. 12:15), if they examine the marks of all cows their beef comes from (Lev. 11:2), if they examine the marks of all the fishes their fish meat comes from (Lev. 11:9), if they slay cattle, deer and fowl according to the slaughter laws (Deut. 12:21), if they never eat flesh with milk (Ex. 34:26), if they never make loans on interest (Lev. 25:37), if they never borrow on interest (Deut. 23:20), and if on the Sabbath they abstain from sowing, baking, washing wool, tying and making loops (i.e., tying shoe laces), tanning, writing two or more letters (including in texts, facebook or internet), erasing two or more letters, building, making a fire, putting the finishing touch on an object, or transporting an object between a private and public domain, etc. If they do any of these things on Sabbath, they are violating Sabbath Law and are hypocrites for putting Christians under it.
Peter knew Mosaic Law was impossible and thus, again, stated he and the ancient Jews were not even able to bear it (Acts 15:10). Paul also knew Mosaic Law was impossible and thus in Romans 3:9-20 he says man’s universal wickedness shows the Law is like a mirror revealing how evil everyone is (vv. 9-20). This then informs his conclusion that no one will be justified by law observance (v. 20) since man is too wicked and the Law is too perfect. His logic is it is not possible to keep the law to God’s satisfaction and be justified by that means. Paul’s solution comes in v. 25 which says therefore God sent Jesus to be our propitiatory sacrifice received by faith. Thus, while law is impossible because of our fallen condition and merely reveals how sinful we are like a mirror, faith in Jesus is instead what leads to right standing with God.
In Galatians 3:10 Paul teaches since we are now under the New Covenant, those who rely on keeping the Mosaic Law are cursed: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10). Paul’s logic here is if you rely on keeping Mosaic Law you are cursed since if you take that route you must keep it perfectly which is impossible. The same logic is found in Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” This teaching is confirmed by James 2:10 which says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” On this text Douglas J. Moo notes, “James is not suggesting that anyone is in reality fulfilling every demand of the law; he simply puts forth a ‘suppose it were so’ assumption. That person, were he to stumble at even one ‘point’ (or commandment) is guilty of breaking it all.”(10) The point is if you rely on keeping the whole law or even just portions of it like circumcision or Sabbath then you are obligated to keep all of it which is impossible and leads to death. This is why Paul says the following:
“For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
The Mosaic Law Can’t be Divided
Roman Catholics as well as Protestants who hold to Covenant Theology both erroneously teach Christians are under the “moral” aspects of the Law of Moses, but not the “ceremonial” or “civil” aspects. Theonomists or Reconstructionists are similar but they say Christians are under the “moral” and “civil” aspects, but not the “ceremonial” which they say is now obsolete.
However, all of these people are incorrect. The Law of Moses should not be divided into three categories (moral, ceremonial and civil). The law is the law. It is either in effect through Mosaic Covenant or its not. This idea of a three-fold division of the law as the basis for establishing continuity or discontinuity of the testaments is just not biblical or historical. Instead, it goes back to 13th century Catholic writer Thomas Aquinas.(11) It is also absent from the early Rabbinic literature.(12) It is indeed the product of modern Christian theology.
When Catholics and New Covenant theologians claim they are under the “moral” law but not the “ceremonial,” that is fuzzy since often times its hard to tell the difference between the two. For example, the law forbidding the taking of interest on loans is clearly moral (Exodus 22:25). Yet, it was given to Israel in the context of it being an agricultural society and so has a ceremonial element.(13) Similarly, while Theonomists distinguish between “moral” and “civil” law, such a distinction is also fuzzy. This is because it can be shown civil laws of the Old Testament have a moral element.(14)
It must be asked: which of the 613 Laws of Moses is not “moral”? They all are. So the idea of classifying some laws as “moral” and others as “ceremonial” or “civil” is problematic. As David A. Dorsey notes, “The Sabbath, the parapet law, the prohibition against muzzling of the treading ox – all the so-called ‘ceremonial’ and ‘civic’ laws embody or flesh out eternal moral and ethical principles.”(15)
The fact is the New Testament speaks of the Law of Moses in monolithic terms which is not what one would expect if this three-fold division idea is true, and if certain categories remain valid while others do not. Dorsey concludes,
“Legal obligation to only a portion of the corpus is nowhere suggested. If one is legally bound to the law, it is to the entire law, including every ‘minor’ stipulation, that he is bound. Paul writes: ‘I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the whole law’ (Gal 5:3). James states that the violation of one law makes one guilty of the whole law (Jas 2:10). . . . In Gal 3:24-25 Paul declares that ‘the law’ – not just one category of laws – was a schoolmaster whose task was to bring us to Christ, and now that it has completed its task ‘we are no longer under the law.’ In none of these or similar passages is there any statement regarding categories of laws.”(16)
We showed much of the Mosaic Law only makes sense for ancient Israelites. We proved Jesus and the apostles taught the Mosaic Law is obsolete. We demonstrated the Mosaic Law is part of the Old Covenant which is now obsolete. We showed Christians are not under the Sabbath and that Christian Sunday worship is neither Roman Catholic nor pagan-based. Instead it is biblical and primitive. We proved trying to keep Mosaic Law, or even just portions of it, results in damnation since keeping the Law is impossible and was only meant to point us to Christ. Finally, we demonstrated it is erroneous to divide the law into three categories.
The New Testament teaches the Law of Moses is gone and obsolete. Jesus fulfilled the Law with his life of obedience, death and resurrection which enacted the New Covenant. Christians must now follow the rules given by Jesus and the Apostles as covenants come with rules. Anything in the Law of Moses that is not ratified by Jesus and the Apostles is not applicable to Christians. Anyone who relies on the Law of Moses, or portions of it, will not be saved.
1) David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” JETS 34, , p. 325
2) Ibid. 327
3) Ibid. 227-228
4) Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, [Kregel, 2010], p. 191
5) David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 2009], p. 426
6) Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, [Kregel, 2010], p. 162
7) S. M. Baugh, “Galatians 3:20 and the Covenant of Redemption,” WTJ 66, , p. 53. n. 17; Thomas Schreiner, Galatians, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, [Zondervan, 2010], p. 241
8) Frank Thielman, Ephesians, ed. Yarborough et al., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, [Baker Academic, 2010], p. 168
9) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1996], p. 842
10) Douglas J. Moo, James, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 2000], p. 114
11) D. A. Carson, Mystery and Fulfilment: Toward a More Comprehensive Paradigm of Paul’s Understanding of the Old and New, eds. Carson et al, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 2, [Baker Academic, 2004], p. 429 n. 108
12) David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” JETS 34, , p. 329
13) Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law, [Kregel, 2010], p. 90
14) Ibid. p. 92
15) David A. Dorsey, “The Law of Moses and the Christian: A Compromise,” JETS 34, , p. 330
16) Ibid. 330