On “Real Children” and British Spies

On “Real Children” and British Spies

I recently watched a detective show. One character sat in a restaurant next to a British spy, a senior MI-6 official, who happened to be a traitor. A gun half concealed in his pocket, he asked the Brit why he’d done it. The spy calmly ate his food and smirked at the weapon as only British spies can do.

He explained that MI-6 was populated by posh types—the sort who went to the right schools, the best universities, who had the right connections. “I came up hard,” the spy rasped, resentment smoldering in his eyes. “They let me in the club, you see, but never fully …”

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so well for the Brit. He was murdered by the NSA, as a result of a deal brokered by the other guy, who was framed for murder by the British guy, who was secretly working for the Iranians … It’s complicated! But, we can understand the British spy’s resentment. Americans often don’t like social class as a status marker. We like to believe anyone can earn a place at the table if he works hard. These two paths, class vs. merit, seem contradictory.

And yet, in a strange way, the dominant religious context in Israel in Jesus’ day held that both social class and hard work were paths to righteousness. If you were a Jew, then you were born with immense privilege. The popular sentiment was to really hate the Gentiles as the other, the inferior. The poor MI-6 spy wouldn’t have approved. And yet, the New Testament also shows us that former Pharisees kept pushing a “obey the Mosaic Law + Jesus” formula as the path for Gentile salvation (Acts 15:1-2; Gal 2:11-21). Secular Americans might appreciate this—if you work hard, you get your reward!

In this section, Paul tells us this is all a lie. Who is a child of God? The one who is born into the right class? Or, maybe the one who works hardest? Neither. I’ll let him explain …

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2. This article covers Galatians 3:23 – 4:7.

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.

Galatians 3:23

The NIVs translation might give the impression that, before Jesus came, believers were imprisoned by the Mosaic Law. It sounds negative, harsh—a terrible burden to be endured. But, we can also translate both phrases here (“held in custody” and “locked up”) in a positive sense (see the NLT translation here). If so, we have a statement that reads something like “… we were guarded by the law—hemmed in until the faith that was to come …”

Because Paul doesn’t see the Mosaic Law as an evil thing (when properly understood), he’s probably writing in a positive sense. The Mosaic Law was a guardrail that hemmed us in until the Messiah arrived with the New and better Covenant in hand. It was a positive thing, a protective shield.

  • Its ceremonial laws told us how to maintain relationship with God, teaching us about Jesus’ coming sacrifice by way of repeated, living object lessons.
  • Its moral laws codified principles of right and wrong.
  • Its civil laws helped maintain social order in the messiness of real life.

In Galatians 3:22 (“Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin”) we saw Paul refer to Scripture in general as teaching no hope for “righteousness by works.” But here, he’s talking about something different.[1] He’s saying that, because we can’t be good enough to earn salvation ourselves (cp. Gal 2:21), God gave us a guardian, a watcher, a custodian to protect us while we waited for the Messiah. That custodian was the Mosaic Law.

So, the law didn’t lock us away for a millennium while we pined away for Jesus to set us free—the Psalmist certainly didn’t feel that way (“the precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart,” Ps 19:8)!

What did the law do, then?

Well, just like parents do with their own children, our Heavenly Father set boundaries and standards to govern our lives until the time came for our childhood to end. It ended when Jesus revealed Himself and His mission—“until the faith that was to come would be revealed,” (Gal 3:23). Now, “faith in God” means faith in Jesus Christ and everything He came to accomplish.

It wasn’t a new thing in the sense of being a “bolt from the blue.” No—it was simply the fulfillment of all the old promises. This is why Jesus didn’t start at the beginning (“Hi. My name is Jesus. There is only one God, and lemme tell you about Him …”). He didn’t have to explain as if He were a Martian who crash landed in a flying saucer. Instead, He assumed His audience would understand Him when He said, “The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15).

So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:24-25

The faith about Jesus has now been revealed. The law used to be our guardian, but its time has now passed. The word for “guardian” here was often used to describe a servant who led a boy to and from school—a watcher and guide. That was the Mosaic Law’s purpose—not a vehicle for salvation, but a set of guardrails to keep our brothers and sisters from the Old Covenant headed the right way “until Christ came.” It “kept us under discipline, lest we should slip from his hands.”[2] This guardian’s purpose[3] was to make us long for a better way to deal with our sinfulness, a permanent solution. And, “now that this faith has come,” the law can be put away.

We’d be wrong to think “this faith” means salvation as we know it didn’t exist before, or that “justification by faith” was a new concept. This is just Paul’s shorthand way of saying “explicit faith in Jesus as the agent of salvation,” (cp. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:30). Abraham was justified by faith, too (Genesis 15:6)! But, God has filled in the details about“this faith” more and more as the bible’s storyline has gone along.   

Now that Paul has clarified what the Mosaic Law’s purpose was (to be a guide, a watcher, a guardian for us), he explains the implications of the New Covenant.  

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Galatians 3:26-27

If you are in union with Christ Jesus—bonded to Him, joined together by faith—then you are a child of God. Not just you, but you and everyone else who has done the same. As we saw earlier, Paul loves this metaphorical picture of “union,” and he deploys it in many ways. Now, he asks us to picture a baptism, an immersion under water, a submersion which joins us to Christ. It’s as if, by faith, we’re fused to Christ by way of this baptism which plunges us beneath the waves and joins us to Him. Now, as we emerge from these metaphorical waters, we’re clothed with Christ Himself. He is us and we are Him. We’ve been made new. Paul will elaborate at length about this same picture in Romans 6.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

In Christ’s new covenant family, this world’s ethnic, socio-cultural, and gender barriers are breached and torn down. This doesn’t mean those distinctions cease to exist in real life. It just means the corrupted value markers these distinctions represent in our fallen world have no cachet in God’s kingdom family.

  • If you’re a Jew who believes Jewish people are inherently superior, then you’re wrong. This was a common prejudicial assumption by some in Jesus’ day—but no more![4] Babylon’s culture is upended in Christ’s kingdom family.
  • If you’re a slave who believes you’re somehow less than a free brother or sister, Paul wants you to know that’s all wrong. Those class markers are obliterated—God doesn’t care about them at all.
  • If you’re a woman who is told patriarchal[5] norms are the way things are supposed to be, then Paul says this is all wrong. Those cultural prejudices are gone—men and women are equal in God’s family.[6]

The Judaizers would have the Galatians become their (wrong) kind of Old Covenant Christian as a pre-condition for entering the family—a “Jews vs. everyone else” kind of attitude. Paul says, “No!” For good measure, he tosses the socio-cultural and gender categories into the mix and says they’re also fake preconditions. The only thing which makes you a child of God is faith in Jesus—“the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent,” (John 6:29). And, once a child of God, the racial, economic, and gender distinctions which this world abuses so much are relativized into proper proportion.

We are all one in Christ Jesus. Our collective diversity isn’t abolished but relativized and integrated into the one mosaic that is Christ’s family. “In other words, it is a oneness, because such differences cease to be a barrier and cause of pride or regret or embarrassment, and become rather a means to display the diverse richness of God’s creation and grace, both in the acceptance of the ‘all’ and in the gifting of each.”[7]

In short, Paul shows us a radically re-shaped social world. “The unavoidable inference from an assertion like this is, that Christianity did alter the condition of women and slaves.”[8]

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:29

Who is a true child of Abraham? The one who belongs to Christ—the penultimate son of Abraham (Mt 1:1). Anyone who says Jewish people are the “real” children of Abraham are wrong. This has never been a genetic identity marker, but an ideological one—the true believer is the real son or daughter of Abraham and an heir according to the promise.

What promise is this? It’s the covenant with Abraham summed up as a single “promise bundle.” Once again, here they are:

Paul is saying that anyone who belongs to Christ is a child of Abraham and therefore an heir to all these promises. “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” (Gal 3:26). There is no Jew v. Gentile distinction, now or forever. Elsewhere, Paul said a mystery that has since been revealed is that “Gentiles are heirs with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus,” (Eph 3:6). Jesus has made these two groups into one, creating “one new humanity out of the two,” (Eph 3:14, 19). Gentiles are “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,” (Eph 3:19).

Why is Paul saying this? Because he wants his audience to know how wrong the Judaizers are. They don’t understand what the Mosaic Law is about. It was a guardian, a guide, a guardrail to keep God’s people true until the Messiah arrived.

What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.

Galatians 4:1-2

Jesus has now come and gone, and so the training wheels can be put away. The time set by our heavenly Father has arrived—that’s what Jesus said (“the time has come!” Mk 1:15)! Any believer is a child of Abraham, an heir according to the promise, and it’s all by trust in Jesus—not by a legalist “checklist” view of the Mosaic Law.

So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.

Galatians 4:3

The analogy is easy—an underage heir might be an heir, but he doesn’t have any of the rights until he actually inherits the estate. But, when he does inherit, the guardians go away. So far, so good.

Paul says it’s similar with us before Christ saved us. But, what he says here is hard to understand. It’s difficult enough that I’ll spill a few ounces of ink spelling it out. What does the phrase behind the NIVs translation “elemental spiritual forces of the world” mean? The word means “the basic components of something.”[9] This could refer to anything—the physical world, physics, Star Wars, a decent espresso. It could also refer to the transcendent powers that control this world. So, for example:

  • Paul warns the church at Colosse to not be fooled by hollow and deceptive philosophy, “which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces,” (Col 2:8). This seems to mean the components which make up the false teaching from which they ought to run away. Or, it could refer to the demonic forces which rule this present evil age.
  • The person who wrote to the letter to the Hebrews said that by now they ought to be able to teach others about the faith, but instead “you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again,” (Heb 5:12). Here, the word means the ABCs of the Gospel—the rudimentary first principles they should have mastered long ago.
  • Peter said that one day, when the day of the Lord arrives, “the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire …” (2 Pet 3:10). This means the components of the natural world will melt away to make way for the new creation.

But, what does Paul mean here? Because Paul hasn’t spoken about evil spiritual forces at all in this section, it probably means the “basic components” of some kind of teaching or doctrine. He’s been talking about the Mosaic Law[10]—warning against a false understanding of it. His audience is the Christians in the various churches in Galatia—some are Jewish and others are Gentile. He seems to be talking to both ethnic groups as one body (see Gal 4:8). So, it’s probably best to see the NIVs “elemental spiritual forces of the world” as referring to the false teaching, axioms, and principles we believed in before we come to Christ.

As we see it, the passage has reference to definite principles or axioms, according to which men lived before Christ, without finding redemption in them … And since the apostle speaks of being held in bondage under these rudiments, we shall probably have to think of the prescriptions and ordinances to which religious man outside of Christ surrendered himself, and by means of which he tried to achieve redemption.[11]

For the Jewish people, that false teaching was that wrong view of the Mosaic Law—the idea that God gave it as a vehicle for salvation. For Gentiles, it was whatever “spirit of the age” we followed. There are many teachings like this floating about today. Be true to yourself! Live your truth! Don’t let anybody tell you who you really are, inside! You do you! The times change, but the song remains the same.

So, Paul basically says (referring here to Jewish Christians like himself who have since seen the light), “so also, when we were underage, we were in slavery to this wrongheaded ‘follow the Law to earn salvation’ idea …”

For, even though the law itself was of divine origin, the use that men made of it was wrong. Those who lived under the law in this unwarranted way lived in the same condition of bondage as that under which the Gentiles, for all their exertion, also pined.[12]

But now, Christ has come and set the record straight. He’s the light which brings revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to Israel (Lk 2:30-31)—sweeping aside all false teaching and wrong ideas and drawing a line in the sand. He’s made these two groups into one, “for through him we both [i.e. both groups] have access to the Father by one Spirit,” (Eph 2:18).

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.

Galatians 4:4-5

The time came. Jesus arrived on Christmas morning. He was born under the authority of the Mosaic Law to rescue us from the law’s curse. The word “redeem” here means liberation from captivity in a slave market context. The idea is something like “rescued us from slavery for a really steep price.” Earlier, Paul said Christ had “redeemed us from the curse of the law,” (Gal 3:13). He means the same thing here. Christ came to set us free—all of us, Jew and Gentile—from the penalty of capital punishment that the Mosaic Law imposed because of our sinfulness. Jesus did this so we’d be adopted as sons and daughters in God’s family. Again, adoption has nothing to do with who your parents are. It has to do with faith in Jesus.

Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

Galatians 3:6-7

If you’re indwelt by the Holy Spirit, you’re a son or daughter of the King. You’re not a “slave” or underage heir waiting for title to the estate (see the analogy at Gal 4:1-2). Now you’re God’s child. The adoption metaphor is beautiful—an adopted child isn’t born into a family; she’s simply brought into it because the parents decide to show love. This is what God has done with we who are His children—we’re each adopted from Satan’s orphanage. And, because you’re His child, you’re also an heir—no matter who you are or where you’re from.

The Judaizers are peddling such a different message! They say, “do this, do that, follow these traditions, and you’ll be saved!” That’s why Paul called it “a different gospel,” (Gal 1:6). Our MI-6 spy might be confused, but he’s dead so I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s not by merit or class that you enter God’s family. It’s simply by faith.


[1] Galatians 3:22 refers to the Scripture as being condemnatory, but in Galatians 3:23 Paul depicts the Mosaic Law as supervisory (Richard Longenecker, Galatians, in Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 41 (Waco: Word, 1990), p. 145). This observation is more inspired by Longenecker than a direct attribution—he saw Galatians 3:22 as referring to the Mosaic Law (Galatians, p. 144), whereas I disagree and believe it is Scripture in general.  

[2] Bengel, Gnomen, p. 4:30. 

[3] The Greek is a purpose clause (ἵνα ἐκ πίστεως δικαιωθῶμεν), explaining why the guardian was what it was. 

[4] If you’re interested in more about this attitude and how it shaped the actions of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day and the time period from the Book of Acts, see Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1876), ch. 2 (https://bit.ly/3Y4hmxH). There are more up to date and scholarly books available, but this one is available for free to anyone with an internet connection, is short, and is accurate.  

[5] I mean “patriarchy” in this sense: “The predominance of men in positions of power and influence in society, with cultural values and norms favouring men,” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “patriarchy,” noun, no. 3). 

[6] Paul’s statement has obvious social implications for how Christian men and women ought to relate to one another in marriage, in the New Covenant family, and in a Babylon society. However, Paul does not elaborate on that here, so neither will I.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1993), p. 208.

[8] Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition., vol. 2 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 343.

[9] See (1) Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker (et al), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), s.v. “στοιχεῖον,” p. 946, (2) Henry George Liddell (et al.), A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 1647; (3) Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 357.

[10] “… certainly what Paul has primarily in view here is the law, and that as an instrument of spiritual bondage,” (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatian, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988; Kindle ed.), KL 2263).

[11] Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), pp. 153-154. See also (1) Henriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, p. 157, and (2) Hovey, Galatians, p. 52.

[12] Ridderbos, Galatians, p. 154. 

Galatians Commentary (No. 2)

Galatians Commentary (No. 2)

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2. This article covers Galatians 3:7-14.

Here, we begin the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter–the relationship of the Mosaic Law to saving faith. Before we begin, I’ll restate some principles from the first article that will help you understand the position this commentary takes. Here they are:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the Scriptures!

Children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-9)

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

Galatians 3:7-8

Who is a child of Abraham? Well, it certainly isn’t about biology. About genetics. About who your parents are. John the Baptist understood that (Mt 3:7-10). No, it isn’t about race or ethnicity—it’s about common faith in Jesus. If you have Abraham’s faith, then you’re one of his children. Easy. Simple.

In fact, Scripture foresaw that the “child of God” concept wasn’t really an ethnic thing at all. God announced the Gospel to Abraham in advance when He announced that “all nations will be blessed through you,” (cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

This is extraordinary. The false teachers skulking around the area are Judaizers—folks who push the rules-based legalism we noted, before. The apogee of their “faith” is to be as Jewish as possible which, in their warped understanding, means to follow the rules and traditions of the elders very strictly (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Thus, you violate the Sabbath if you put spices into a pot, but all is well if you add spices to food served on a dish![1] 

Not so, says Paul. Your pedigree before God has nothing to do with this. It only has to do with whether your relationship with God is based on faith and trust in God’s promise, and love—just like Abraham’s.

So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:9

Paul is making a conclusion based on what he’s just said. It could be translated as something like, “this means, then, that those who rely on faith are blessed with Abraham.” If you want to be one of Abraham’s children, then follow his lead and rely on faith!

Choose Your Path! Galatians 3:10-14

Now, we get down to the hard part. Remember that question about which I said you must have an opinion? Let’s ask ourselves again:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

The answer is no. Never.

This means that, however difficult Paul may be to follow from here on out, he cannot be agreeing with the false teachers that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. Never. It isn’t an option. God doesn’t change the terms of salvation. It’s always been by faith.

So, remember this question and the right answer, because here we go …

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26

If the Mosaic Law was never about salvation, then Paul is not seriously suggesting the Mosaic Law means this. He can’t be. Rather, his point relies on you understanding everything he just wrote, in vv. 7-9.

  • Salvation is by faith—always has been.
  • Abraham had faith and was counted righteous.
  • That’s how you become one of Abraham’s children—faith in the promise.

The “for” at the beginning of the sentence is explanatory. It’s translated a bit stiffly, as if Paul is a Victorian gentleman—and he ain’t one. It could be rendered as something like, “so, this is what I’m saying—everyone who relies on the works of the law …”

He means, “look, if you wanna go that route and try to earn your salvation, then have at it—here’s a quote from Moses that you can chew on!” He accurately quotes the text of Deuteronomy 27:26, but must be deliberately subverting the meaning. Moses didn’t preach salvation by works. When he asked the people to swear that promise in Deuteronomy 27:26 (along with a bunch of others), he presupposed that everyone understood that love was the driving force behind relationship with God (Deut 6:4-5; 10:12-16). I’m saying Paul misapplied Deuteronomy 27:26 the same way the Judaizers were doing. Paul is saying, “if you want to go that way, have fun trying to accomplish this …”

So, the “curse” Paul mentions isn’t the Mosaic Law as it really was. Instead, the “curse” is the impossible burden of trying to adopt the Judaizer’s perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law. Some Christians imagine Old Covenant life as an oppressive burden, a millstone dragging the believers to a watery grave … until Christ came! How absurd. They believe this because they take Paul literally in vv. 10-12—they believe he’s describing the Mosaic Law as it really was. They’re wrong.

As I mentioned, Paul adopts the Judaizer’s arguments to show how bankrupt they are. Read Psalm 119 and see if the writer is being crushed by the law! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Ps 119:18). He isn’t! He loves God and loves His word (including the Mosaic Law). The Law is only a millstone if you think it’s a vehicle for salvation. But, it ain’t one, so it ain’t a millstone.

I’m comfortable suggesting this, because Paul then sweeps this silly idea of “earning my salvation by merit” aside.

Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

The law can’t make you righteous. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which indeed says that “the righteous will live by faith.” So, when he quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 27:26, he can’t really be saying Moses meant it that way. Paul just adopts the arguments from the Judaizers, or from similar sources floating about in the 1st century interwebs, and suggests they have fun trying to do the impossible. He now continues in that vein:

The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”

Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5

This accurate quote from Leviticus is ripe for misunderstanding. Again, he rightly quotes the text but suggests the wrong meaning. When Paul says “the law is not based on faith,” he assumes the perverted form of their argument. The “law” he mentions here is the wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, not that law as it really is. “You wanna have eternal life?” he asks. “Then, make sure you do everything in the law—just like it says. Have at it, boys and girls!”

Remember our magic question—did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation? He did not. So, whatever Paul is saying, he cannot be suggesting the Mosaic Law has anything to do with salvation. This magic question is the key to understanding Paul’s argument. Some Christians fail to ask it, and so their explanations of this passage make little sense.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

I think we’re making a mistake if we think “curse of the law” is the Mosaic Law. The Law isn’t a curse. It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a burden, because it has nothing to do with salvation. The Mosaic Law is simply a vehicle for holy living, while God’s people remained in a holding pattern waiting for Christ. We’ve always obeyed from the heart because He’s already rescued us—not the other way around. “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your laws and obey it with all my heart … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees,” (Ps 119:34, 48). The man who wrote this didn’t think he was “under a curse.”

So, to return to our verse (Gal 3:13), from what “curse” did Christ redeem us, then?

I think it’s the curse of the capital punishment waiting for every one of us, because (in our natural state) we’ve rejected God. That’s what Deuteronomy 21:23 is about—a person guilty of a capital offense is to be hanged on a pole. We’ve each committed the “capital offense” of rejecting God, so we’re under that death sentence, but Christ has come to free us from that. After all, we can’t free ourselves—we can’t be good enough (cf. Gal 2:21).

So, rather than try and dig our way (i.e. “earning” salvation by merit) out of a situation from which there is no escape, we should rely on Jesus. He became a curse for us. He suffered for our capital crimes by being hanged on a pole. The word “redeem” has lost its original force, in English. It means something like “buying back from slavery.” We can’t bribe our way out of our mess, so Jesus gave Himself to buy us out of Satan’s clutches.   

So, Paul isn’t making a negative assessment of the Mosaic Law at all. The “curse” here isn’t even about the Mosaic Law. But, if we think Paul is talking about that, then I ask this—are we really to suppose that God “cursed” His people from Sinai to Pentecost with a system whose design was to crush their souls? Is that the “average Christian life” vibe you get from Psalm 119? Is that what a circumcision of the heart is all about (cf. Deut 10:16)? Was the average Israelite like poor Pilgrim, struggling with that loathsome burden on his back?  

No! Paul’s not even talking about the Mosaic Law. He’s just suggesting another way, a better way, the true way—“because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Gal 2:21, CEB). You can (1) go the Judaizer’s route and try to earn your way into the kingdom, or (2) you can rejoice and trust that Christ has already redeemed us from our death sentence for rebellion (“the curse of the law”).

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:14

Why did Christ buy us back from slavery? So that Christ could be the channel for the blessings to Abraham to flow to the rest of the world. We receive the promise of the Holy Spirit by faith. Always have. Always will.


[1] Shabbat 3:5, in Mishnah.  

Why They Followed the Law (Pt. 2)

lawRead the series

Why do people follow God’s law, both then and now? We do it because we love God, and we want to serve Him with our lives. It has always been that way, and it will always be that way. Jesus addressed this issue directly (Mk 12:28-34), so let’s look at what He had to say.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mk 12:28)

This goes to show you that stereotypes aren’t always accurate; a scribe is the one who asks this question. The context which prompted the question is Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees about the validity of the resurrection (Mk 12:18-27). This man is a Pharisee.[1] He’s somebody who is very concerned with the letter of the law. So, naturally, he wants to know what the greatest commandment is – so he can follow it![2]

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these,” (Mk 12:29-31).

Here is the content of Jesus’ answer, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.[3] Think about what it tells us about why God’s people should obey His law.

Our God is the Lord

God is your master. He is in complete charge of your life, your soul, your blessings, your cursings, your destiny. If you’re a Christian, God created you as a new person in Christ “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” (Eph 2:10). You were saved in order to serve the Lord, and work for Him.

 God is your Lord! If He saved you, then you are now a willing and enthusiastic slave for righteousness.[4] This is the foundation for Jesus’ answer.

The Lord is One

There is only One legitimate Lord you can serve – everything else is a pagan counterfeit. He is the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Scriptures. He is the God of the First Covenant and the God of the New Covenant

You will love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength

You must love God with everything you have, with every fiber of your being! These terms are not synonymous (we could look at each of them individually), but together they express a simple concept – a complete, all-encompassing love for God![5] Anything done for a reason other than this is counterfeit, and God is not pleased by it. This is why God’s people should want to do what He says.

You will love your neighbor just as you love yourself

Who is your neighbor? In the context of Leviticus 19:18 (which Jesus quoted from), your neighbor is a covenant brother and sister – including a believing Gentile (cf. Lev 19:34). In short, Jesus is talking about “brotherly love,” (cf. 1 Jn 4:20). You should love and value your Christian brothers and sisters just as much as you love and value yourself.

All of the Old Covenant law can be summed up in these two commands (cf. Mt 22:40). God is your Lord, therefore you exist to serve Him. Your Lord is One, therefore any other worship is idolatry. So, you must love God with everything you have. This is the only appropriate motivation for service.

  • You serve God because He saved you from yourself, knowing who you are, what you have done, what you are doing now, and what you will do in the future.
  • Because you’re so grateful and love Him so much, you’ll want to serve Him with your life.
  • And because all this is true, you also love your covenant brothers and sisters because, together, you’re each part of God’s family.

Jesus refers to these two commandments as one singular commandment[6] because, together, they sum up the entire teaching purpose of the law.[7] They’re inseparable. If you love God, then you’ll love God’s children, because they’re your brothers and sisters.

And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk 12:32-33)

Why does the scribe have such insight? Isn’t he supposed to be a legalistic hypocrite!? This is why we must always remember we can’t read the Bible like it’s cardboard. This is the story of real people, with real minds of their own, who act like real people would actually act. It’s always dangerous to over-generalize about people; it’s true today and it was true then.

Most of the scribes were legalists like the Pharisees, but not all of them were! This scribe seems to be genuinely sincere.[8] It is likely God was drawing this man to saving faith. I like to think he repented and believed one day. After all, some of the Pharisees did believe (e.g. Nicodemus, Acts 15:5).

And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any question (Mk 12:34; cf. Mt 22:34-40)

This is Jesus’ inspired statement about why God’s people should obey God’s law; especially the Old Covenant law. You obey God’s law because you love Him, and want to serve Him. Real salvation produces real fruit. That fruit is wholehearted love for God, which proves itself by action.

The entire bible agrees.

Notes

[1] William L. Lane suggests the man could be a Sadducee, because that group had its own group of legal interpreters (The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 431). I doubt this. I’m not aware of any place in the NT where the phrase γραμματεύς refers to the Sadducees; however, the reference to “scribes of the Pharisees” (Mk 2:16) is intriguing, suggesting different sects may have had their own scribes.

Generally, however, the scribes are associated with the Pharisee party. Add to it that Jesus had just handily dispatched the Sadducees’ ridiculous argument against the resurrection. If this particular scribe were a Sadducee, one would not expect him to engage in a discussion over which commandment was first of all! This is a Pharisaical question, through and through. A Sadducee would likely be smarting over the discussion which had just ended. “Most scribes aligned with the Pharisees in their theology, including their teaching on the resurrection and the authority of Scripture,” (Mark L. Strauss, Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 541).

[2] There is more to this question, but I don’t have time to go into it here. See Lane (Mark, 431-432) and James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 370-371.

Lane observed, “Both the question and its presuppositions stem from a piety of human achievement, supported by scribal interpretation of the biblical mandates (Lane, Mark, 431).

[3] The UBS-5, TR and BYZ are each identical to the LXX (Rahlfs) here. Very interesting! This phrase can be rendered in a variety of ways, depending on how you interpret the nominatives – just look at the different English translations. I rendered it, “Jesus answered that [the] most important is, ‘Listen, Israel! Our God is Lord. [The] Lord is one.”

[4] “Jesus demands a decision and readiness for God, and for God alone, in an unconditional manner. Clearly this cannot be the subject of legal enactment. It is a matter of the will and action. The love which determines the whole disposition of one’s life and places one’s whole personality in the service of God reflects a commitment to God which springs from divine sonship,” (Lane, Mark, 432-433).

[5] See Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27 – 16:20, in WBC, vol. 34b (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 264.

[6] The Greek is clear here: μείζων τούτων ἄλλη ἐντολὴ οὐκ ἔστιν (“there is not another command greater than these”). Strauss, however, disputes this point grammatically (Mark, 546 [fn. 11]).

[7] Evans suggests they sum up the Decalogue (Mark 8:27 – 16:20, 265). I don’t have time to elaborate that here.

[8] Walter W. Wessel, Mark, in EBC, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 736.

Why They Followed the Law (Pt. 1)

lawThe entire book of Galatians is consumed with the problem of what to do with the Old Covenant law. What does “following the law” have to do with personal salvation through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ?

A large party of Jewish Christians, most of them likely from Jerusalem and former Pharisees, believed you had to follow the Old Covenant law and repent and believe in Christ (Acts 15:1-5). Luke, in a very understated fashion, observes “Paul and Barnabas had no small discussion and debate with them.” The Apostle has little time for this kind of terrible error. He calls this teaching “a different Gospel,” (Gal 1:6). He speaks of the Galatians “deserting Him who called you,” (Gal 1:5). He said this is a perversion of the Gospel of Christ (Gal 1:7).

Did these Pharisees actually understand the message of the Old Covenant scriptures? Why did God’s people follow the law, anyway?

This series of short articles has one simple purpose – to explain what the real impetus was for following God’s law, both then and now. In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.

Some dispensationalists disagree. In any movement, there is a spectrum. A man might say, “I’m a Republican!” That’s fine and dandy, but what kind of Republican is he? That’s the real question, and we all know it – because there’s always a spectrum, isn’t there? It’s the same with theological systems. Some dispensationalists look at the Bible, and see a very, very sharp discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. These folks are usually called “classical dispensationalists.”

Their position is still usually close to what C.I. Scofield wrote in his study bible, way back in 1909. In his study notes, Scofield explained the Mosaic law this way (note on Gen 12:1):

The Dispensation of Promise ended when Israel rashly accepted the law (Exodus 19:8). Grace had prepared a deliverer (Moses), provided a sacrifice for the guilty, and by divine power brought them out of bondage (Exodus 19:4) but at Sinai they exchanged grace for law.

Lewis S. Chafer, the ground-breaking theologian and first President of Dallas Theological Seminary, agreed with Scofield. He built on Scofield’s study notes and eventually produced an 8-volume systematic theology text. It’s still used by many students today. I have a copy, and I’ll always treasure Chafer’s discussion of the doctrine of salvation. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject. In his text, Chafer echoed Scofield’s comments:

When the Law was proposed, the children of Israel deliberately forsook their position under the grace of God which had been their relationship to God until that day, and placed themselves under the Law.[1]

I disagree with this reading of Exodus 19:1-8, but I won’t get into the reasons here. It’s enough for you to understand that this presupposition, that Israel voluntarily exchanged God’s grace for a system of works righteousness under the Mosaic Law, is a core tenant of classical dispensationalism. They view the Mosaic Law completely different than other Christians do. This is why they’ll often paint the law as a system of works righteousness. Chafer continued:

They were called upon to face a concrete choice between the mercy of God which had followed them, and a new and hopeless covenant of works. They fell from grace. The experience of the nation is true of every individual who falls from grace at the present time. Every blessing from God that has ever been experienced came only from the loving mercy of God; yet with that same blasting self-trust, people turn to a dependence upon their works. It is far more reasonable and honoring to God to fall helpless into His everlasting arms, and to acknowledge that reliance is on His grace alone.[2]

Dispensationalism has gradually edged further to the center in the past 60 years. Most theologians don’t emphasize such a sharp discontinuity between covenants. In other words, don’t expect John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie to sound like this! But, make no mistake, this perspective is still alive and well in some seminary classrooms. It’s even more common in many churches with a dispensationalist framework, because its pastors were likely taught by Chafer’s students.

Be that as it may, many Christians are confused about why Israelites followed the law. I’ll repeat something I mentioned earlier in this article:

In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.

Classical dispensationalists would vehemently disagree. They’d likely believe Paul was arguing against the Old Covenant. They’d probably think Paul was describing what the Old Covenant taught. I wrote this series of short articles to combat this error, and to set the record straight. If we don’t get this point, we’ll never understand the Old Covenant, we’ll never understand the book of Galatians and we’ll never understand a good bit of the Gospels, either.

Why do people follow God’s law, both then and now? We do it because we love God, and we want to serve Him with our lives. It has always been that way, and it will always be that way.

Let’s look at what Jesus has to say … in the next article.

Notes

[1] Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, 8 vols. (Dallas, TX: DTS, 1948; reprint, 1976), 4:162.

[2] Ibid, 4:163.

Against a “Social Justice” Interpretation of the Gospels

stopIt’s common in conservative Christian congregations to hear a lot of talk about how we ought to help the poor, the downtrodden, the homeless and the disadvantaged. These are all worthy goals, as long as we always keep one thing in mind:

Christian social activism is a means to Jesus’ Good News, not the Good News itself.

This is not a subtle distinction; it’s vital. Consider this:

  • If a Christian congregation (or para-church organization) provides money and food to the poor, or shelter, food and aid to the homeless (etc., etc.) without also preaching, teaching, explaining and applying the Gospel in a persuasive, winsome and loving way … then all you’re doing is ensuring these people go to hell with a bit more money, food and shelter than they’d otherwise have.

Social programs are vehicles for the Gospel. They aren’t the Gospel. They’re the practical outworking of a desire to bring the Good News of perfect forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation and adoption into God’s family and coming kingdom to this present evil age.

I’m not sure all Christians really understand this distinction. Many times, they appeal to the Scriptures to support their social programs. Unfortunately, I believe they interpret some of these passages incorrectly. I believe most of this is due to a wrong-headed understanding of Christ’s Kingdom, and (in some quarters) a startling ignorance of the context of the various prophetic passages which speak of the peace, justice, righteousness and “social justice” which will characterize Christ’s reign here on earth.

But, all that is a story for another time – to the passage!

Wrongly dividing the word

Many Christians appeal to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount to support this social ethic. I want to gently push back on this. However, because I don’t have the time or energy to tackle the Sermon on the Mount, I’m going to use John the Baptist’s sermon beside the Jordan River as my text.[1]

John fulfills prophesy

John the Baptist came on the scene to prepare the Israelite people to receive their Messiah. The Gospel of Luke tells us “he went into all the region about the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet …” (Lk 3:3-4).

Luke went on to quote a passage from Isaiah 40:3-5, which explains that a special messenger will prepare the way for Yahweh to return. Once He does return, Yahweh will lead His people from captivity back to the Promised Land (Isa 40:6-11). That messenger was John the Baptist, who the prophet Malachi told us Yahweh would send before the terrible day of judgment (Mal 4).

So far, so good. John is the fulfillment. He’s the guy Isaiah and Malachi promised would come. And, this is exactly how the Gospel of Mark starts out, too.

John was preaching to old covenant members, not strangers

Here is what you have to keep in mind, and it’s something many Christians seem to forget all about – John came to preach to Old Covenant Israelites.

Why should you care about this? Well, the Old Covenant wasn’t only composed of believers – it was a mixed covenant:

covenant

If an Israelite boy was born to proud parents in Capernaum, then he’d be circumcised as an external sign that he’s a member of, and heir to, the Old Covenant promises. Then, he’ll (hopefully) be brought up to know, trust, love and believe in Yahweh for salvation. His parents will teach him about Yahweh’s grace, love, mercy and kindness (cf. Deut 6:20-25). Hopefully, this boy will grow into a young man who loves Yahweh with all his heart, soul and might (Deut 6:5).

Here’s the problem – not every little boy and girl grew up to know, love, trust and believe in Yahweh for salvation. Some did; some didn’t. Those who didn’t either left the Israelite community entirely, or perhaps “played along” by following the rituals, ceremonies and observing the prescribed festivals in a rote, mindless and empty fashion.

The Old Covenant was a mixed multitude. The New Covenant is not.

You have to understand that John the Baptist was preaching to Old Covenant members, and he was calling them to be faithful to the Old Covenant law, to prepare their hearts, minds and souls to receive the Messiah – whose ministry was just about to begin.

Why should you care?

Because John wasn’t preaching to homeless strangers on freeway off-ramps, or to inner-city families who didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. He was preaching to fellow covenant members. This means, if you want to import this text (and John’s commands for right behavior) into today’s New Covenant context, then the only direct parallel is to believers. This doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t care about the poor or the homeless; it just means they shouldn’t use these texts to justify social programs. The context won’t allow it.

John preaches to the people

Here is his opening salvo:

He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him,

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” (Lk 3:7-9).

This is fairly simple, but profound. The Gospel of Mark tells us that “there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem,” (Mk 1:5). This was some crowd!

John began by insulting them, striking right at the heart of the legalistic approach to the law so many of them had. He called them a group of snakes. He told them they had to prove their repentance; an outward, pious “show” wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t count on their Israelite blood, because that had never guaranteed anything. Remember the chart, above – at best being born an Israelite (i.e. Tier #1) meant you’d hear about Yahweh and His mercy and grace, so hopefully you’d become a believer (i.e. Tier #2).

So, the natural question is – what should these folks do, then? What kind of fruit is John looking for?

And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” (Lk 3:10).

Good question. Let’s see …

And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise,” (Lk 3:11).

The most basic expression of real love for God (Deut 6:5) is to love your fellow covenant member just as much as you love yourself (compare Mk 12:28-34). What does this look like, then, at a practical level? Well, it could look like a lot of things, but one good example is to provide clothing and food to folks who don’t have any.

On to the next group:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you,” (Lk 3:12-13).

Israelite tax collectors shouldn’t defraud other Israelites. Sounds simple, right?

Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages,” (Lk 3:14).

Jewish soldiers shouldn’t abuse their power and positional authority, and shouldn’t steal.

The answer is pretty simple – he’s looking for them to actually obey and follow the Old Covenant law out of a pure heart. He’s telling them to put the law into practice in their own contexts, in everyday life, starting right now. 

Basically, that means loving your neighbor as yourself (see Mk 12:31; Lev 19:18, 34). And, remember, the context of this Old Covenant command was for Israelites and foreign Gentiles who had, in some form or fashion, joined the Old Covenant community. These commands have always been for Covenant people, and also for those on the way to likely becoming part of this community.

John’s preaching is right in line with the Old Testament prophets who pleaded with Israel to return to the Lord and live faithfully:

Her officials within her
are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
that leave nothing till the morning (Zeph 3:3)

The prophet Zephaniah wrote an entire book, where he recorded his own sermons against this kind of externalism. He paints a picture of moral corruption at the highest levels of society in the Southern Kingdom.

Her prophets are wanton,
faithless men;
her priests profane what is sacred,
they do violence to the law (Zeph 3:4)

Yahweh, however, is a stark contrast to their treachery:

The LORD within her is righteous,
he does no wrong;
every morning he shows forth his justice,
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame (Zeph 3:5)

This message, and John the Baptist’s preaching, is an indictment against this kind of fake “faith.” John’s sermon (and Jesus’ own commands from the Sermon on the Mount) aren’t a manifesto for Christians to sally forth and provide food and shelter or the homeless. It’s a call for God’s true people to return to covenant faithfulness, which means doing what His word says, because we love Him.

“I have cut off nations;
their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
so that none walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely she will fear me,
she will accept correction;
she will not lose sight
of all that I have enjoined upon her.’
But all the more they were eager
to make all their deeds corrupt,” (Zech 3:6-7).

This is the true context of John’s message; a call for God’s people to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight” (Lk 3:4; cf. Isa 40:3) so they’ll be ready for Yahweh to lead them back from exile.

Rightly dividing the word

So, what should Christians do with John the Baptist’s message, today? How do we translate this to a modern context? Well, you have to remember the original context, and accurately translate it to a New Covenant context:

  • John was preaching to Old Covenant Israelites, and calling them to repent and actually live according to the law out of a pure heart.
  • John’s commands for ethical behavior must be understood in that context; he’s telling Jews how to live according to the law out of a pure heart, and he agrees with Jesus that the most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members.
  • So, John is teaching them to show love for one another, according to their own particular context, while they wait for the Messiah to show Himself.

So far, so good – but what about right now?

  • In a New Covenant context for today, we’d direct this message to Christians in a local church. We’d call them to repent and actually live according to God’s Word out of a pure heart.
  • The most basic fruit of love for God is to love your fellow covenant members. The New Covenant only has one tier (see the chart, above), and this means you show your love for God by loving the brethren in your congregation most of all (see 1 Pet 1:22 – 2:3)
  • So, we should use John the Baptist’s message to teach Christians to show love for one another according to our own particular contexts, while we wait for the Messiah to return.

Does this mean we shouldn’t feed the homeless, or help the poor? Heavens, no! It just means these passages don’t teach that. These social programs are good and fine, but they’re nothing more than vehicles for the Gospel. The Good News is all that matters, and we can deliver it in many, many ways. Social programs are one way, but they aren’t the only way.

Notes

[1] Make no mistake, the Sermon on the Mount issue is “complicated,” and it would take a great deal of time to address the topic well. I don’t have that time. My only goal here is to sound a note of caution about a default “social justice” interpretation of the ethical commands in John the Baptist’s preaching, and (by extension) Jesus’ own preaching.

The Law and the Christian

sinai
Exodus 19:18: “Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently.”

 

How does the Old Covenant law (Exodus 19 – Deuteronomy 34) function in the life of a Christian today? Let me get real practical, real fast – why should a Christian even care about the Book of Leviticus? Why should you care about the laws regarding Hebrew slavery? The year of Jubilee? The Day of Atonement?  Jesus quoted from it. the apostles were raised with it. James seemed to think it still had some kind of a role in a believer’s life. In short, what role does the Old Testament law play in your life as a Christian?

I haven’t quite answered this question yet. Just like the Grinch, I’ve puzzled and puzzled ’till my puzzler was sore. But, I have jotted down some overarching principles. I am not presenting this as a definitive answer to the question. It is simply where I am at right now, in October 2016, when it comes to the question of the Law and the Christian. It will probably change!

My Nifty Chart

This very short chart is here so you (the reader) can understand my presuppositions coming into this discussion:

chart

As an entire, indivisible code, the Old Covenant has become obsolete and has passed away. Certain laws within the Old Covenant code transcend covenantal arrangements because they reflect a timeless truth or principle rooted in who God is and how He expects His adopted children to behave. For example, it is always sinful to kill somebody you don’t like or to have sexual relations with your sister.

There is a clear parallel to this in our society today between, for example, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the laws of the State of Washington:

Laws Which Transcend Codes:

It is against the UCMJ to commit sexual assault, involuntary manslaughter, burglary, and many other crimes. It is also against the laws of the State of Washington to commit these acts. These actions are morally wrong, intrinsically sinful, and their prohibition transcends the “code” of the UCMJ or the “code” of the State of Washington. They’re always wrong. And they always will be wrong.

Laws Which Have Applicable Principles:

Under military law, it is a criminal offense to arrive for duty while intoxicated (Article 112). You may be apprehended by Security Forces, advised of your rights in accordance with Article 31(b), questioned as a criminal suspect, charged as a criminal suspect by legal and receive non-judicial punishment or, if circumstances warrant it, a summary courts-martial.

However, under the laws of the State of Washington it is not a criminal offense to show up for work drunk. To be sure, it is a very bad idea, but there are no criminal penalties or consequences for this action. There will probably be penalties, but they will not be criminal and the government has no interest in your drunkenness at all.

Can laws which have absolutely no parallel to civilian life be used as general principles for life today? Again, we turn to the UCMJ for an example. True, it is not a criminal offense to show up to your job at Safeway drunk. But, it certainly isn’t a good idea! Just because the statute isn’t binding doesn’t mean it isn’t a holy and wise principle to follow. Context will determine whether an appropriate principle can be drawn.

For instance, the law for the purification of sins for the common Israelite reads:

If an ordinary individual sins by straying unintentionally when he violates one of the Lord’s commandments which must not be violated, and he pleads guilty, or his sin that he committed is made known to him, he must bring a flawless female goat as his offering for the sin that he committed (Lev 4:27-28).

This regulation is for sinful actions which were not premediated. It tells an Old Covenant believer how to restore fellowship with God after this sinful act is committed, and how atonement is made to satisfy God’s righteous anger and “set things right” between the sinner and his holy God. What is the prerequisite for the sinner? He acknowledges it. He “pleads guilty.” He does not try to minimize or hide his sin. In other words, the man is repentant.

This is a universal principle. This is why God did not accept sacrificial offerings which were not accompanied by sincere repentance (cf. Isa 1)!

Why should New Covenant believers care about this passage? After all, I hope nobody loads up a female goat in their minivan on Sunday morning on their way to church! Well, you should care because of the basic principle which can be extracted from this ceremonial law – repentance is the prerequisite to the forgiveness, reconciliation and atonement of a believer. This is about sanctification.

To extract this principle, this is why you cannot cheat on your wife and then utter a quick and insincere “prayer for forgiveness” to “square things away” while your mistress freshens up in the motel bathroom. God hears your “prayer,” but He is not happy about it. It isn’t efficacious. Discipline is coming.

However, some UCMJ offenses are so clearly irrelevant that there is little use trying to find a parallel; for example, “improper hazarding of a vessel” (Article 110). No parallel. Irrelevant. This leads to another category.

Laws Which Are Completely Irrelevant:

There are other punitive offenses under the UCMJ which have absolutely no parallel to civilian life. They are irrelevant. For example, you may be charged with “misbehavior of a sentinel” (Article 113). This is clearly not applicable to civilian life in the State of Washington. It is completely useless and meaningless. The context of life as a civilian makes this clear to everybody.

The Old Covenant laws governing Hebrew slavery are a good example of this.

What to Do!?

In other words, as you read your Bible and come across a particular passage in the Old Covenant Scriptures, you may wonder, “What does this have to do with me, today!?” The answer is, well . . . it depends!

  • Where is the law?
  • What is the context?
  • How would the original audience have understood it?
  • What kind of law was this under the Old Covenant; e.g. moral, ceremonial, civil?
  • Why did this law exist? That is, why do you believe God instituted this law for the Old Covenant believer?
  • Did this law, or a form of it, exist before the Covenant at Sinai (Ex 19)? What about in the New Covenant?
  • Understanding the New Covenant, how does this particular law function for the believer today?

These are difficult questions, and let me be blunt – if you rarely ever read your Bible and only attend church twice per month, you will never be able to answer these questions. Never. Give up now. Better yet, repent of your sloth and submit yourself to the accountability and authority of the Pastor(s) of a Bible-believing local church.

You need to know God to answer these questions.

You need to know the Bible in a deep, systematic and comprehensive way to answer these questions.

You need to know the Pentateuch thoroughly. This means you have to read, study and understand Exodus 20 – Deuteronomy 24. Many Christians do not know this portion of Scripture, and therefore the Law is a closed book to them, a vast morass of confusion and tedium. It shouldn’t be.

If you’re a dispensationalist, you need to decide what you believe about the New Covenant. You also need to decide how the law functioned in the life of an Old Covenant believer. You need to decide what the impetus for sanctification and obedience to God’s Word was for the Old Covenant believer. Let me be frank – dispensationalists struggle with this question. A lot. A. Lot.

Basically, you must analyze each passage on a case-by-case basis. This isn’t an easy answer. But, I believe it is the best answer.

Notes (from chart):

[1] The Old Covenant, as a complete code encompassing moral, ceremonial and civil laws, functioned as a governing rule of life for Old Covenant members from Exodus 19 – Acts 1. This code is preserved in Exodus 19 – Deuteronomy.

[2] The New Covenant, as a complete code governing moral, ceremonial and civil laws, became operative as a rule of life for New Covenant members from the date of Pentecost (50 days after Jesus’ execution) until the present. This code is preserved in the relevant passages in the Gospels – Acts 1, and explicitly in the New Testament from Acts 2 – Revelation 22.

[3] It is very possible certain Old Covenant saints explicitly understood everything about Messiah’s future work in the incarnation, to include His perfect life, sacrificial death, burial and resurrection. See the Apostle Peter’s commentary on King David’s prophesy about the Messiah in Psalm 16 (cf. Acts 2:22-33).