In the Bible, “the Law” typically refers to the rules and regulations that governed Israel from the time of Moses (John 1:17). The Mosaic Code included the Ten Commandments along with hundreds of other laws and ordinances found chiefly in the first five books of the Bible.
Sometimes “the Law” refers to the Hebrew Scriptures, or the entire Old Testament. On occasion, people would say they were quoting from the law when really they were quoting from the psalms or the prophets (e.g., John 12:34). Jesus did this (John 10:34, 15:25) and so did Paul (1 Cor. 14:21). In this second meaning, the Law is analogous to the Bible. Then as now, people viewed the scriptures with lawlike authority.
In addition to the laws found in the Bible, churchgoers are sometimes made to follow other religious laws governing tithing, the role of women, church attendance, church leadership, the consumption of alcohol, divorce, and many other things. Catholics are forbidden to eat meat on Friday or marry non-Catholics. Some Protestants believe dancing and drinking are sins. Christians of all stripes have been told they must do things (e.g., confess their sins) to earn God’s favor (e.g., his forgiveness) or maintain their salvation.
Any religious law, whether it comes from the Bible or tradition, has two distinguishing characteristics. First, it is expressed as an imperative. “Thou shalt not go dancing.” Second, there are consequences for noncompliance. “Or will rescind your church membership.” For this reason the exhortations of the New Testament cannot be regarded as laws as none of them come with sanctions or penalties.
When Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you,” he was preaching law to people born under law (Matt. 6:15). But when Paul said, “Forgive one other as Christ has forgiven you,” he was preaching the good news of unconditional forgiveness (Eph. 4:32). The exhortations of the New Testament should not be read as laws-you-must-obey but as a portrayal of the blessed and abundant life that is ours in Christ.
The Law of Moses was only intended for the Jews, but everyone has an inbuilt law-giver called a conscience. Your conscience is a kind of law-based religion that dictates right from wrong and condemns you when you violate those standards (Rom. 2:15). For this reason, everything the Bible says about the law is universal. We are all condemned by the law, one way or another, and we all need to receive the grace that comes through Christ.
Different types of law
The Bible refers to many kinds of laws including the law of Moses, the law of God, the law of the Lord, the royal law, the law of Christ, the law of the Spirit of life, the law of sin, the law of righteousness, the law of faith, the law of liberty, and the law written on our hearts.
The law of Moses refers to the commandments, ordinances, punishments, and ceremonial observances given to the nation of Israel through Moses (Jos. 8:31, John 1:17, 7:19). This law is sometimes referred to as the law of commandments (Eph. 2:15) or the law of the Jews (Acts 25:8).
The law of God has two meanings, depending on which covenant you are under. In the old covenant, the Jews referred to the law of Moses as the law of God (Jos. 24:26, Neh. 8:8) or the law of the Lord (Ex. 13:9). However, the law codified by Moses was but a shadow of a new covenant reality (Heb. 10:1). In the new covenant, the law of God is synonymous with the word of God. The word of God is the way by which God makes himself and his will known. God has revealed his will through the Law of Moses and the prophets, but the primary way God reveals himself is through his Son. When the Saul the Pharisee concurred with the law of God, he meant he obeyed the law of Moses (Php. 3:6). But when Paul the apostle concurred with the law of God, he meant he took pleasure in obeying God the Father (see entry for Rom. 7:22).
The royal law is to love your neighbor as yourself (Jas. 2:8). This commandment, which comes straight out of the law of Moses (see Lev. 19:18), is the king of laws because loving others fulfils all the other laws (Rom. 13:8–9, Gal. 5:14). In context it means don’t show favoritism. Treat all people with dignity, even if they are poor (Jas. 2:1, 5). The royal law is equivalent to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31).
The law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:21, Gal. 6:2) is the Lord’s command to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Unlike the laws above, the law of Christ is not an old covenant law that comes with penalties. The law of Christ is both a new commandment and a new kind of commandment (1 John 2:8, 2 John 1:5). We don’t love others because we fear God’s punishment; we love because we have received his love. As with everything in the new covenant, love starts with God, and as we receive from the abundance of the Father’s love we find ourselves loving others (1 John 4:19).
On one occasion, Jesus was asked to name the first and greatest commandment in the law. Jesus replied, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36–38). Note that this is the greatest commandment in the law, meaning the law of Moses. Under the law-keeping covenant, the flow was from you to the Lord (Deut. 6:5, 10:12). You loved God because it was a law that came with consequences. But in the new covenant of grace, we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
The law of the Spirit of life refers to the rule or government of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:2). It is being led by the Spirit instead of being ruled by sin (Rom. 6:14, 18). It is walking in step with the spirit instead of walking after the flesh. When we yield to the life-giving Spirit, we reap abundant life (Rom. 8:13).
The rule or law of sin refers to the government of sin over those who are captive to sin (Rom. 7:23, 25). In the same way a sheriff is the law of a town, the world is in thrall to the rule of sin (Rom. 6:14, 20). The fruit of sin is death which is why the law of sin is also called the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2).
Although Christians have been freed from sin (Rom. 6:7), they subject themselves to the law of sin whenever they walk after the old ways of the flesh (Rom. 6:16). One way they do this is by putting themselves under the yoke of law (Gal. 5:3–5). A Christian who sins won’t lose their salvation, but they will lose their freedom and reap the destructive consequences of their actions (Rom. 6:21, Gal. 5:1).
The law of righteousness refers to the so-called righteousness that comes from observing the Law of Moses (Rom. 9:31, 10:5, Php. 3:6, 9). This righteousness is not true righteousness because it is not based on faith, and anything that is not of faith is sin (Rom. 14:23, Gal. 3:11–12). No one was ever justified or made righteous through their observance of the law (Rom. 9:31). If righteousness could be obtained through the law, Christ died for nothing (Gal. 2:21).
The law of righteousness can be distinguished from the law of faith which says we are justified by faith without regard for our works (Rom. 3:27–28).
The law of liberty is another name for “the word that can save you” (Jas 1:21, 25). It is Jesus, the Living Word of God who sets us free. The law of liberty describes what Jesus has done (perfectly fulfilled or completed the law) and the fruit he will bear in our lives (liberty) if we trust him.
The perfect law that gives freedom, can be contrasted with the law of Moses that binds (Rom 7:6). Look into the mirror of Moses’ law and you will be miserable, for it exposes all your faults. But look into the perfect law which is Jesus and you will be blessed, for it reveals his righteousness (Jas. 1:25).
The law written on our hearts is two different things. When Paul speaks of the godless Gentiles having a kind of law written in their hearts, he is referring to the conscience we inherited from Adam (Rom. 2:14–15). In contrast, the law that God writes on the hearts of his children is something else (Heb. 8:10, 10:16). It is not the knowledge of right and wrong, nor is it the law of Moses. When Jeremiah the prophet said that those who had the new law written on their hearts would know the Lord, he was referring to the indwelling Spirit (a.k.a. the law of the Spirit of life) and the believer’s union with Christ (Jer. 31:33–34).
One with the Lord you have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and his indwelling Spirit teaches you all things (John 14:26). The law of the Lord written into your members is your Father’s spiritual DNA. It is the seed of God birthed in you by the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus himself. Jesus is the new law written by God in your heart and mind.
Just as different types of law are mentioned in the New Testament, so too are there different types of commandment. In several places, the commandments refer to the Ten Commandments or the Law of Moses (Matt. 5:19, 19:7, 22:40, Mark 10:19, Luke 1:6, 18:20). Sometimes this also includes the ceremonial ordinances and rituals of the Jewish religion (Eph. 2:15).
In other places, the commandments refer to the teachings of men, such as rabbinical dictates, denominational requirements, or preacher’s instructions (Col. 2:22, Tit. 1:14).
On several occasions, the commandments refer to the commandments of God, which are the many ways the Bible exhorts us to believe, receive, heed, or have faith in his Son (1 John 5:2–3, 2 John 1:6, Rev. 12:17, 14:12). “This is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 3:23). This is the only commandment that counts.
Finally, the word commandments refers to the commands of Jesus (John 14:15, 21, 15:10, 1 John 2:3–4, 3:22, 24). Keeping the commands or instructions of Jesus, like the royal law of Christ (see above), is a response to his great love for us. Just as we love others because he first loved us (John 13:34), we are able to obey Jesus because we know how much he loves us (John 14:15). His great love for us inspires us to trust him (see entry for John 14:23).
What is the law for?
Most of the time when the Bible refers to “the law,” it is referring to the law of Moses. The law of Moses formed the basis of the old covenant that God made with Israel (Deu. 4:40, 30:15–18). Although the Israelites were blessed on account of the grace God showed to their ancestor Abraham, they preferred rules to relationship. Like many religious people they said, “Just tell me what to do and we’ll do it” (see Ex. 19:8). God did not give them the law to bless them; they were already blessed. He gave them the law for three other reasons.
The first purpose of the law is it gives us knowledge of sin. “Through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rom. 3:20). Like a mirror, the reveals our true state before God. “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Rom. 7:7).
We may think of ourselves as decent people, but the law reveals that we all fall short of God’s perfect standard. Thus, the person who most needs the law is not the lowly “sinner” who already knows his state, but the moral superstar who thinks of himself as better than his neighbors.
This is why Jesus preached the law to religious people. They were lost but didn’t know it. They needed the mirror or x-ray of the law to reveal the cancer of sin. “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died” (Rom 7:9). Sin is fatal but you won’t know it if you don’t see it. The law helps you see.
The second purpose of the law is it inflames sin. “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase” (Rom 5:20). The law does not help you overcome sin; it helps sin overcome you. The Apostle Paul had a problem with coveting, but he did not know he had a problem until the law revealed it: “I would not have known what coveting was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7:7). Upon discovering his problem, Paul resolved to fix it. To his dismay, Paul found that his attempts to keep the law only made things worse. “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting” (Rom 7:8).
Try to overcome sin in your own strength, and you will fail. The harder you try to keep the law, the stronger sin becomes, for the power of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56). The problem is not the law, which is holy, righteous, and good; the problem is your flesh which is weak (Rom. 8:3). The good law cannot make good people because imperfect people are incapable of delivering a perfect performance. The law made no one perfect (Heb. 7:19). Try and live by the law, and you will reap death:
I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. (Rom. 7:10–11)
The merciless law ministers death by demanding that you perform day in and day out, with no time off for good behavior. “Try harder! Do more!” We try and fail again and again until our promises are exposed as futile and our proud mouths are silenced. Finally, we reach the point of defeat. “I can’t do this. What a wretch I am. Who will rescue me from this prison of death?” (see Rom. 7:24).
This leads us to the third and ultimate purpose of the law: “The law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). The ultimate purpose of the law is to point you to Jesus so that you may be set free from sin and live in it no longer (Rom. 6:2).
The law is not your teacher, your friend, or your protector. The law is a guide who leads you to Jesus (Rom. 3:21). As Philip said to Nathanael, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth” (John 1:45).
For Christ is the end of the Law [the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to him who is the fulfillment of its types, and in him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled. That is, the purpose of the Law is fulfilled in him] … (Rom 10:4a, AMP)
If you have met Jesus, the law has fulfilled its purpose. You have no further need of its aid. You can dismiss it as a good and faithful servant. Thank God for the law that leads us to Christ.
Improper uses of the law
The authors of the 1577 Formula of Concord said the law was given so that (1) men may have knowledge of their sins, (2) wild men might be restrained, and (3) after they are regenerate they might have a fixed rule to live by. In other words, they taught that the law was a mirror, a restraint, and a guide to live by. Many people today would agree with them.
We have already seen how the law is a mirror that gives us knowledge of sin, but is it also a restraint and a guide? The law does not change the hearts of men, but through fear of punishment it can restrain the outbreak of sin. If you knew that you could be stoned for adultery, you might think twice about breaking the 7th Commandment. But that won’t stop you thinking about it and since thinking about it is as bad as doing it (see Matt. 5:28), the law does not curb sin. If the law was a restraint, the ancient Israelites would have been the holiest and best behaved nation on earth.
The law is not a restraint, but is it a guide? Many people would say it is. They would agree with the Lutherans who wrote that the law (minus the punishments) reveals the will of God and should be taught to Christians. But Jesus said the Holy Spirit would teach you everything you need to know (John 14:26). He will “guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The Christian is to be guided by the living Spirit of Christ, not the dead rule of law.
Some say the Holy Spirit guides or convicts us with the law, but he’s the Spirit of grace not law (Heb. 10:29). We make an idol of the law when we turn to it for guidance and direction. There is nothing wrong with the law – it is holy, righteous and good. But try to live by it and you fall from grace and cut yourself off from Christ.
How do we fulfill the law?
We fulfill the law by putting our trust in Jesus. No one is made right with God by doing good works or keeping the law (see entry for Rom. 3:20). Rather, our justification comes to us as a gift of grace that is received by faith (Rom. 3:24, 28, Gal. 3:24). Writing in The Normal Christian Life, Watchman Nee said:
God’s requirements have not altered, but we are not the ones to meet them. Praise God, he is the Lawgiver on the Throne, and he is the Lawkeeper in my heart. He who gave the Law, himself keeps it.
Who is the law for?
One of the greatest errors in the modern church, is that many Christians believe they need the law. Yet the scriptures plainly state that we are not under law (Rom. 6:14–15, Gal. 5:18), we are dead to the law (Rom. 7:4), and we are free from the law (Rom. 7:3, 6). We have not been made lawless. Rather, we have been given something better. Instead of walking in the old way of the law, we are to walk in the new way of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6, 8:4, Gal. 5:18).
Who is the law for? The law is for the lost. “The law is not made for a righteous person” but for the self-righteous and the independent (1 Tim. 1:9). It is for those who take pride in their moral behavior, who boast in all they are doing for God and country. “I’m not perfect, but I’m better than the next man.” To this the law replies, “Your best is not good enough. A holy God demands perfection. If you have broken even one command, you are guilty of breaking all” (see Gal. 5:3, Jas. 2:10). The mirror of the law reveals our sins and silences boasting mouths (Rom. 3:19).
The law is also for “lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious” (1 Tim. 1:9). It condemns the sinful as guilty and passes the sentence of death. It does this so that all may see their need for the grace of God that comes through Christ alone.
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Thanks again Paul, for your dissection of the very often misunderstood word Law! It is amazing how our own use of a word can lead many into a rat hole from which it is difficult to escape…