For nearly as long as I've been a Christian I've grappled with the subject of legalism and the Old Covenant Law. I've read so much and heard so many sermons on the subject and all the while the waters have only grown murkier and my confusion greater. I've heard there are those who disregard the Old Testament entirely, seeing it as useless, something we ought not even bother ourselves with. But, to be honest, in all my years in various church settings (from Pentecostal to Reformed Baptist) I've never, ever met anyone who believes that way. No, what I've encountered are a variety of Christians from a variety of traditions all claiming to be "Bible-believing" struggling, generally with all sincerity, to figure out what to do with the Old Testament in light of the New.
What seems to be the nearly universal practice is a combination of cutting and pasting portions or attitudes from the Old Covenant onto the New. The portions cut and locations pasted differ based upon the traditions and opinions of whoever is doing the editing. The messages I've gotten have been mixed and confusing. Some churches, like the Judaizers of old, require their members to incorporate all of the Old Testament regulations, excluding only the ceremonial portions (priesthood, animal sacrifices, festivals, etc.) Others exclude all portions of the Law save its moral prohibitions: the Ten Commandments along with whichever "secondary" restrictions they find they agree with, say, forbidding tattoos for instance. Others by and large disregard the regulations of the Law, with the exception of the Ten Commandments and then substitute their own system of "Christian" law restricting behaviors never restricted under the Old Covenant (drinking alcoholic beverages, social dancing, women wearing pants or working outside the home, and divorce in cases of adultery, to name a few) and converting the New Testament into a new system of super-spiritual laws by which to judge ourselves and one another. Many still teach that the Old Testament system of blessing and cursing applies to believers today. The blessings are for when they do right, the cursings for when they commit sin. Some believe that the Old Testament Law is God's way of governing men and that it should be replicated in civil government (though I've yet to hear anyone seeking to legislate against covetousness...we've got the economy to consider after all). Some believe that just as God sent the Law before He sent the Gospel, that we Christians must bring the Law to bear on people before we can proclaim the Gospel.
At various points in my life I've been subjected to, or even adhered to nearly every one of these teachings, and various combinations of them. Some of them have come very near to destroying my faith. If you've never experienced this confusion I hope you'll consider yourself blessed and forgive my thick-headedness as I reveal to you the simple truth that has transformed my life.
The God of the universe is a covenant making God. For reasons clear only to Himself He chose to create man and throughout human history has chosen to involve Himself personally with mankind, binding Himself to humanity, to individuals, and to groups of individuals by means of a variety of covenants. Throughout history it has been essential that God's people understand the nature and stipulations of the particular covenants which govern their relationship to Him.
Once upon a time, after the days of the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah, and presumably with the earth, that the seasons would commence predictably for as long as the earth remains and that He would never again destroy the whole earth with a flood. The rainbow was given as the sign of that covenant. I, as a resident of this earth and a descendant of Noah, am a beneficiary of that covenant, though it was not made with me personally, and I am not bound by it in any way. (See Genesis 8:20-22)
Once upon a later time God made a covenant with Abram (Genesis 15). God himself being the only party to walk between the cut animals of the offering, He accepted all the responsibility for the keeping of the covenant. In other words, as far as Abram was concerned it was unconditional. God, without requiring anything from Abram in return, promised to make Abram the father of a multitude and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. Abram "believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness." It would be more than a decade before God would return to Abram to renew and expand the earlier covenant and to give Abram a new name, Abraham - father of a multitude. Circumcision was given as the seal of that covenant.
"And God said to Abraham, 'As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.... Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.'" (Gen. 17:9-10,14)
I was not a participant of that very personal covenant between God and Abraham, but I am, according to the apostle Paul, part of the fulfillment of it, an heir, if you will.
"For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
"That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring - not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shared the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations'..." (Romans 4:13-17a)Because I share the faith of Abraham, I am in God's eyes the offspring of Abraham who is "the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well." (Romans 4:11b) Through faith I am a spiritual child of Abraham and heir to the righteousness God added to him. I am one of the multitude of offspring God promised him. This covenant makes no demand upon me, yet through faith I am a product of it.
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Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the completion of the Old Covenant. His death and resurrection has rendered that Old Covenant obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Just as a widow is no longer bound by the covenant of marriage to her dead husband, so no one is bound any longer by the Old Covenant:
"Likewise my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in or members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we may serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code." (Romans 7:4-6)
Why Paul reacted so violently to any attempts to bring the Law to the Gentiles:
"For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.' But the law is not of faith..." (Gal. 3:10-12a)
"I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law." (Gal. 5:3)Once we attempt to submit ourselves to the Law we find ourselves bound by the whole of it, with all its regulations, blessings, and cursings.
Why the veil in the temple in two when Jesus cried "It is finished!"
Why the temple was destroyed in the very lifetime of those who'd witnessed Christ's sacrifice. There would be no more sacrifices. That covenant is over.
Why Paul was so vehemently opposed to anyone who sought to bring the Law to the Gentiles.
"O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— " (Galatians 3:1-5)
It was not their covenant. It never was. God has authored a New Covenant in His blood. We don't need to subject Gentiles to the Law before we can introduce them to grace.
"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus." Romans 2:14-16 (see also Romans 1:18-32)Nor, we learn from Paul, is it necessary to farm the Old Covenant to learn to live in the New.
"Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code." Romans 7:4-6 (emphasis mine)
Now I can discern the use Jesus makes of the Law in his teachings. He came first to the Jews, those He was in covenant with, teaching them, showing them from the Law their need for a New Covenant. When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, He was not establishing a tougher law. He was teaching the people of the Law from the Law to lead them to Himself, the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and Sacrifice and High Priest of the New.
Now I can make sense of the differences in the approaches Paul takes between Jews and Gentiles. So much of his time addressing Jews is spent convincing them to let go of the Old, that it's work has been finished, that the Holy Spirit will direct them and the Gentiles in New Covenant living, that grace will not cause sin to abound, that His law is now written on the hearts of believers and that obedience to it will come from an internal loving response not following letters of laws, that the New Covenant is vastly different and infinitely better. (Oh, please, do hurry right now to read the book of Hebrews!)
Now I know what it means that there is no condemnation in Christ. Now I can discern the difference between a ministry of condemnation and one of reconciliation.
"...you show that you are a letter from Christ...written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
"Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses' face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.
"Since we have such a hope, we are very bold...." (2 Cor. 3:7-11)
Now, full of joy, I can go forth as a minister, not of condemnation but of reconciliation to God. Oh, my friends, there is no condemnation in Christ. Run to Him and find peace with God who has bound Himself to mankind for all eternity in the person of His Son and by the New Covenant in His blood.
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By way of a post-script I would like to mention, briefly, that I am in no way suggesting we remove the Old Testaments from our Bibles. That, too, is the inspired Word of God. There is much to be learned about God from those earlier books - His authority, His character, His priorities, His faithfulness to His people, His mercy even toward gentiles, His attitude toward sin. (God has not changed. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.) There is much to be learned there about ourselves as well, about the ways of sin and it's deceitfulness, about the history of God with man, and about the meaning of our own blessed Covenant. Perhaps I'll write more on that another time.