The word ‘law’ is used in many ways in the Bible. It may be used of commandments or instructions in general, whether given by God, civil administrators, teachers or parents (Gen 26:5; Exod 18:20; Prov 3:1; 6:20; see also GOVERNMENT). Frequently it is used of the written Word of God (Ps 119:18-20,57-61), sometimes applying to the Old Testament as a whole and sometimes to part of the Old Testament, such as the five books of Moses (Matt 5:17; Luke 24:44; John 1:45; 15:25; see PENTATEUCH). Occasionally it means a principle of operation (Rom 7:21,23; 8:2).
The most common usage of the term, however, concerns the law of God given to Israel through Moses at Mt Sinai (Exod 24:12; Deut 4:44; Ezra 7:6; John 1:17; Gal 3:17,19). This meaning of ‘law’ is the chief concern of the present article.
God’s covenant with Israel
In his grace God made a covenant with Abraham to make his descendants into a great nation and to give them Canaan as their national homeland (Gen 17:1-8). Over the next four hundred years God directed the affairs of Abraham’s descendants so that their numbers increased and they became a distinct people. They were then ready to be formally established as a nation and to receive the land God had promised them. At Mt Sinai God confirmed the covenant made previously with Abraham, this time making it with Abraham’s descendants, the nation Israel (Exod 24:7-8; see COVENANT). God had chosen Israel to be his people, saved them from slavery in Egypt, and taken them into a close relationship with himself, all in fulfilment of his covenant promise made to Abraham. Everything arose out of the sovereign grace of God (Exod 2:24; 3:16; 6:6-8). But if the people were to enjoy the blessings of that covenant, they had to respond to God’s grace in faithful obedience. The people understood this and promised to be obedient to all God’s commands (Exod 24:7-8). The law that God gave to the people of Israel at Sinai laid down his requirements for them. Through obedience to that law the people would enjoy the life God intended for them in the covenant relationship (Lev 18:5; cf. Rom 7:10; 10:5; Gal 3:12). The ten commandments were the principles by which the nation was to live, and formed the basis on which all Israel’s other laws were built (Exod 20:1-17).
Characteristics of Israelite law
No part of the lives of the Israelites was outside the demands of the covenant. The law applied to the whole of their lives and made no distinction between moral, religious and civil laws. Laws may have been in the form of absolute demands that allowed no exceptions (e.g. ‘You shall not steal’; Exod 20:15), or in the form of guidelines concerning what to do when various situations arose (e.g. ‘If a person borrows anything and it is hurt or dies . . .’; Exod 22:14), but the two kinds were equally binding. Israel’s law-code was suited to the customs of the time and was designed to administer justice within the established culture. Unlike some ancient law-codes, it did not favour the upper classes, but guaranteed a fair hearing for all. It protected the rights of people who were disadvantaged or defenceless, such as orphans, widows, foreigners, slaves and the poor (Exod 22:22; 23:6,9,12). The penalties it laid down were not brutal or excessive, as in some nations, but were always in proportion to the crime committed (Exod 21:23-24).
Jesus’ attitude to the law
The covenant made with Israel at Sinai and the law that belonged to that covenant were not intended to be permanent. They were part of the preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, through whom God would make a new and eternal covenant (Gal 3:19,24; Heb 9:15). Jesus was born under the law (Gal 4:4) and was brought up according to the law (Luke 2:21-24,42). He obeyed the law (Matt 17:27; John 2:13) and he commanded others to obey the law (Matt 8:4; 23:1- 3,23). Jesus did not oppose the law, though he certainly did oppose the false interpretations of the law that the Jewish leaders of his time taught. He upheld and fulfilled the law by demonstrating its true meaning (Matt 5:17-19,21,27,31,33,38,43). Frequently Jesus pointed out that the law was good and holy and that God gave it for people’s benefit (Matt 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28; cf. Rom 7:12,14). By contrast the Jewish leaders used the law to oppress people, adding their own traditions and forcing people to obey them. In so doing they forgot, or even opposed, the purpose for which God gave the law (Matt 23:4; Mark 7:1-9; see TRADITION).
Jesus knew that the law, as a set of regulations, was part of a system that was about to pass away (Matt 9:16-17; cf. Heb 8:13). His death and resurrection would mark the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new (Heb 9:15). Under the new covenant people still have to respond to God’s covenant grace with obedience, but the expression of that obedience has changed. Instead of being bound by a set of rules, they have inner spiritual power to do God’s will. Instead of having to offer sacrifices repeatedly, they have their sins taken away once and for all. Instead of having to approach God through priests, they have direct fellowship with God (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-13; 10:1-4,16-18).
Salvation apart from the law
People have never received forgiveness of sins through keeping the law. Under the old covenant, as under the new, they were saved only through faith in the sovereign God who, in his grace, forgave them and accepted them. Abraham, David and Paul lived respectively before, during and after the period when the old covenant and its law-code operated in Israel, but all three alike were saved by faith (Gen 15:6; Rom 3:28; 4:1-16,22; Gal 3:17-18; Eph 2:8; 1 Tim 1:14-16). Salvation depended upon God’s promise, not upon human effort. It was a gracious gift received by faith, not a reward for keeping the law (Gal 3:18,21-22; see PROMISE). Contrary to popular Jewish opinion, the law was not given as a means of salvation (Rom 9:31-32). It was given to show the standard of behaviour God required from his covenant people. As a set of official regulations, it was given solely to the nation Israel and was in force for the period from Moses to Christ. But as an expression of the character and will of God, it operated on principles that are relevant to people of all nations and all eras.
It expressed in a legal code for one nation the principles that are applicable to people in general (Rom 2:12-16; 13:8-10). Through the law given to Israel, God showed the righteous standards that his holiness demanded. At the same time the law showed the extent of people’s sinfulness, for their behaviour repeatedly fell short of the law’s standards. The law therefore showed up human sin; but when sinners acknowledged their sin and turned in faith to God, God in his grace forgave them (Rom 3:19-20,31; 5:20; 7:7; Gal 3:11,19). (Concerning the rituals of the law for the cleansing of sin see SACRIFICE.) Those who broke the law were under the curse and condemnation of the law (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10). Jesus Christ, however, lived a perfect life according to the law, and then died to bear the law’s curse. By his death he broke its power to condemn those who take refuge in him. Believers in Jesus are freed from the law’s curse.
They have their sins forgiven and are put right with God (Rom 7:6; 8:1-3; 10:4; Gal 3:13; Eph 2:15; Col 2:14). Jesus Christ is the true fulfilment of the law. The law prepared the way for him and pointed to him. Before his coming, the people of Israel, being under the law, were like children under the control of a guardian. With his coming, the law had fulfilled its purpose; the guardian was no longer necessary. Believers in Jesus are not children under a guardian, but full-grown mature children of God (Gal 3:23-26; 4:4-5; cf. Rom 10:4; see ADOPTION).
Christian life apart from the law
It was some time before Jewish Christians in the early church understood clearly that the law was no longer binding upon them. They still went to the temple at the set hours of prayer and possibly kept the Jewish festivals (Acts 2:1,46; 3:1). Stephen seems to have been the first Christian to see clearly that Christianity was not part of the Jewish system and was not bound by the Jewish law (Acts 6:13-14). Then Peter had a vision through which he learnt that Jewish food laws no longer applied. He was harshly criticized by certain Jews in the Jerusalem church when they found he had been eating freely with the Gentiles (Acts 10:15; 11:2-3).
These Jews later tried to force Gentile converts to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1), and argued so cleverly that Peter tended to follow them, until Paul corrected him (Gal 2:11-16). When some of the leading Christians met at Jerusalem to discuss the matter, they agreed that Gentiles were not to be put under the law of Moses (Acts 15:19). It was now becoming clear, and Paul’s teaching soon made it very clear, that there was no difference between Jews and Gentiles concerning requirements for salvation and Christian living. People were saved by faith alone, not by the law, and they lived their Christian lives by faith alone, not by the law (Rom 3:21-31; Gal 3:28). When he met opposition to his teaching, Paul pointed out the impossibility of being saved through keeping the law (Rom 9:30-32; Gal 2:16; 5:4; Phil 3:9). An equal impossibility was to grow in maturity and holiness through keeping the law, or even selected parts of it (Gal 3:2-5; 5:1-3; James 2:10-11).
The actions of Paul in occasionally observing Jewish laws were not for the purpose of pursuing personal holiness. They were for the purpose of gaining him acceptance among Jewish opponents whom he wanted to win for Christ. Such actions were purely voluntary on Paul’s part (1 Cor 9:19-23; cf. Acts 15:19-21; 16:3; 21:20-26). If people tried to force Paul to keep the law, he would not yield to them under any circumstances (Gal 2:3-5). Paul explained the uselessness of trying to grow in holiness through placing oneself under the law. He pointed out that the more the law forbids a thing, the more the sinful human heart wants to do it (Rom 7:7-11). This does not mean that there is anything wrong with the law. On the contrary, the law is holy, just and good. The fault lies rather with sinful human nature (Rom 7:12-14; see FLESH).
Free but not lawless
Although the law aims at righteous behaviour, people cannot produce righteous behaviour by keeping the law. They can produce it only by claiming true Christian liberty and living by the inner spiritual power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 6:14; 8:3-4; Gal 5:13-23; see FREEDOM; HOLY SPIRIT). But the same Holy Spirit who empowers inwardly has given clear guidelines for behaviour in the written Word. It is not surprising, then, to find that those guidelines contain quotations from the law of Moses to indicate the sort of character and conduct that a holy God requires (Matt 22:36-40; Rom 7:12; 13:8-10; Eph 6:2; Heb 8:10; James 2:8-12). Christians are not under law but under grace. Yet they are not lawless (Rom 6:15). They have been freed from the bondage of the law and are now bound to Christ (Rom 7:1-4). The law of Christ is a law of liberty, one that Christians obey not because they are forced to but because they want to. The controlling force in their lives is not a written code but a living person (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2; James 1:25; 2:12). As Jesus demonstrated his love for the Father by keeping the Father’s commandments, so those who truly love Jesus will keep his commandments (John 14:15,21; 15:10; 1 John 2:3-4,7; 5:3). And in so doing they will practise love, which itself is the fulfilment of the law (John 13:34; Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; 1 John 5:2-3).