The Law of Christ – the debate continues. Part 4

David WhiteThis is an ‘unexpected’ addition to the previous three considerations of this subject.

In Part 1, I looked at the logical reasons why I am persuaded that the ‘Law of Christ’ as referred to by Paul in Galatians 6 vs 2 is not a ‘collection’ of imperatives formed from as a subset of the New Testament.

In Part 2, I examined the text of Galatians itself to see why expositionally, this view does not hold up, and how Paul quite clearly states in the passage what he considers this ‘law of Christ’ to be.

In Parts 3a and 3b, I considered the actual words of Jesus when He instituted the new covenant, and proposed that the ‘law of Christ’ which Paul refers to is the ‘new commandment’ given by our Lord to His disciples on that night.

Recently, there has been yet more published, in spoken and written form, concerning the ‘background’ view that believers must be under the ‘Law of Christ’ because all men, everywhere, throughout history must always be under some form of God’s law. I aim to show that this is a presupposition and is not actually Biblical thinking at all. Thus, however much I respect and love my brethren who hold this view, I believe they are mistaken. However, again, it must be emphasised that this is an ‘in-house’ discussion between believers. I am not, for one minute, doubting their salvation – or their sincerity.

In contrast, I want to assert that the Bible, in fact, teaches that God ‘gave Law’ twice and twice only in human history:

  • The first time through Moses, for Israel, in Canaan, on Mount Sinai
  • The second, in Christ, for believers throughout the world, in the Upper Room in Jerusalem on the night before He was crucified

‘Given Law’, even in human government, has specific purpose. It is the ‘cement’ by which a people group live together. Indeed, we could define a ‘people group’ – tribe or nation – as “a collection of individuals who are in a society under single government, of some kind or other) and in submission to, and thus bound by, an accepted, common law.”
It may be argued that God’s law does not need to be the same as human law. But the living God uses language to communicate to us in His word, and the basis of language is that we understand the same things by the same words. If your ‘idea’ of what ‘red’ is differs from mine, we can no longer use the description with any meaning. We must define terms in order to understand them and to understand each other. It is no different when God speaks to us in His word, the Bible. And in fact, it is quite likely that our concepts of society and government and ‘law and order’ derive from our having been made in the image of God when He created mankind. It’s the way we are ’wired’.

And here we come to an important and fundamental rule. When we read God’s word, we must allow it, not us, to define what it means. We must not ‘import’ meaning into what God says. We must not take a little from one place, and some from another, to construct our appreciation of His truth. Not a few ‘systematic theologies’ have fallen into that trap. Systemetise we must – that is just the way the human brain works in order to make sense of things. But when it comes to God’s truth, the Bible, not our brains, must control how we read it.

So, with God’s ‘given law’, I want to suggest two definitive statements which help us to understand why God gave it:

  1. The purpose of God’s ‘given law’ at Sinai was to govern God’s old covenant people, Israel, through and during their living in the land He had given them – in Canaan – until He would send His Son.
  2. The purpose of God’s ‘given law’ in Jerusalem is to govern God’s new covenant people, the church of Christ, until He appears again at the end of the Gospel age.

And we are told in the book of Hebrews, and elsewhere, that the former covenant, called ‘the old covenant’ or ‘the Mosaic covenant’ was a shadow, a promise unclear and not fully defined, of the new covenant in Christ, which is its ‘substance’ – its fulfilment.

We go on to see more of how the giving of law at Sinai served to distinguish Jew from Gentile.

Mankind in two halves.

When we read the Bible, the Old Testament records for us God’s dealings with His chosen people, Israel – the Jews. The New Testament speaks to those who are called by His gracious purpose to build His church, the body and the bridegroom of His Son, who came to live, die and rise again so that His purpose in all history might be brought to fulfilment. It is in this age, of course, that we now live. Our New Testament writings, delivered by those Apostles Jesus chose and equipped to be the church’s foundation, tell us not only what these two covenants are, but how they relate to each other – and there are parallels and there are contrasts. One of the distinct contrasts stated plainly, again and again, throughout the New Testament is this.

The Jews have the Law of God
The Gentiles do not have the Law of God

Some verses which bear this out:

“…when Gentiles, who do not have the law…” (Romans 2:14)

“…the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God …” (Romans 3:1)

“… the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” (Romans 9:4)

… indeed the biggest challenge the first church had to contend with was the integration in Christ of both Jew and Gentile. Paul speaks of a ‘wall of hostility’ between them, with Jew hating Gentile and Gentile hating Jew:

“ For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace … “ (Eph 2:14,15)

Note that! The way Christ sorts out this great divide is to abolish ‘the law, with its commands and regulations. It is this very law which causes the division in the first place between Jew and Gentile.

Two types of sin

In what John Piper has called ‘the greatest letter ever written’, Paul writes to the church at Rome. Acknowledging God’s call on his life as to earn him the title ‘the Apostle to the Gentiles’, he sets out, for both Jew and Gentile, a brilliant reasoned argument, at the beginning of which he wants to make it plain that both of these ‘two halves of humanity’ are accountable to God and in need of salvation – of Christ. We will follow this argument with care, so that we understand it, but for now, note his comment in chapter 5 verse 14:

“To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given”

And in chapter 2 verse 12:

“All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.”

Plainly then, and distinctly clear, there are two kinds of sin – sin committed by those under the law, and sin committed by those who do not have the law. Paul insists that both are indictable and will lead to death. Both types of sinners are accountable to God. Both will be judged. Both require atonement, redemption, salvation, justification. Note that Paul does not say that Gentiles have their ‘own kind of law’. This is clear. Jews have law. Gentiles do not.

Sin – a universal definition

One of the claims of the ‘All men always under Law’ view is that without some definition of God’s law, we cannot have an adequate definition of sin. For them, sin is simply the breaking of God’s Law – whatever form of it happens to apply to the section of humanity under consideration. And they quote various verses in support of that – we will consider some of these later. But is it true that the Bible only ever defines sin in that way? I believe not. For example, consider Romans 2 again:

“To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.” (vs 7 – 10)

Paul is saying that God’s judgement will be irrespective of whether a person is a Jew or a Gentile. In both camps, he defines sin, not according to law at all, but like this:

“… those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil …”

So we see three distinct components in this description of what sin actually is. It is –

a) Self-seeking
b) Rejection of the truth
c) Following evil

In the famous verse – Romans 3 vs 22,23 – Paul has said:

“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

Thus another way of describing this ‘universality of sin’ is simply ‘to fall short of the glory of God’. In fact, that is what the word ‘sin’ actually means – to fall short, or to miss the target. Law or no law, when man fails to live up to all that God has made him for, he sins.Previously, just a few verses before, he has been even more graphic. Accumulating quotes from the Psalms, he writes:

Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

We have more than enough by way of a description of sin that is comprehensive, and includes those who are and those who are not under God’s Law.

So how do the distinct ‘sinnings’ differ? Paul tells us in Romans 2. There is

  1. Command-breaking sin – including the ‘transgression’ of God’s given Law.
  2. Not-command-breaking sin.

We will consider the second first.

Not-command-breaking sin

Back to Romans 5:

“To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.”

So, points to consider from this:

  1. There was sin in the world before there was God’s law in the world.
  2. Sin was doing its death-producing business all the way along, from Adam to Moses (even if it is not ‘charged against anyone’s account’ – more on that later)
  3. The nature of sin changed somehow when the Law was given through Moses
  4. Sin before Moses included a ‘type’ which was not the breaking of a given command – as was Adam’s sin (but did not necessarily exclude the ‘type’ of sin that WAS the breaking of a given command – like Adam).

Question:
When Cain killed his brother, Abel, was that sin?

The answer must be ‘yes’ – of course it was. But where in Scripture do we see a command, as a direct word from God, which Cain had received, that he must not kill? So when he commits murder, it is not the breaking of a direct, given command. And yet it is still sin.

We see it in Moses’ summary of the state of the world which gives rise to God’s intention to wipe mankind, with the exception of Noah and his family, from the face of the earth. Why? What gives rise to such a devastating solution? Genesis 6 vs 5:

“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. “

God does not say ‘they continually break my law’. His definition of sin is to do with the state of their hearts and the ‘inclination’ of their minds – this is the seat of sin.

Command-breaking sin

The other ‘kind’ of sin, then, is sin that is like Adam’s sin – disobedience to a clear command of God. Adam was instructed :

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2 vs 16)

He is thus commanded, by God, before the creation of Eve. So to him belongs the responsibility for bearing and upholding this command. Evidently, he communicates it to Eve, because when she is confronted by the serpent with the question, “Did God say …” she answers:

“God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”” Genesis 3 vs 3)

Eve was deceived, we are told (1 Timothy 2 vs 14). But when she presents the forbidden fruit to Adam, all we are told is simply, “He ate”. The serpent beguiled the woman. But Adam was just blatantly and rebelliously disobedient. He had a clear command. He chose to disobey it.

Deception and command-breaking

We need to note that Eve’s deception does not excuse her sinful disobedience. She had other options. But she chose to take it upon herself to usurp her husband’s – and God’s – authority and act upon her own judgement, despite the lucid clarity of what had been commanded. We must also guard our own thinking in this respect. It is possible for Satan to use God’s word against Him, twisting it around so that we end up convinced of precisely the opposite to what he says. There is only one recourse in this – get back to the source. Eve’s deception could have been resolved had she not acted until she had referred the options back to the one who had given the disputed word to her – in her case, her husband; and in Adam’s case, God Himself.

Commands and Law

Note also that this command given to Adam is not referred to anywhere in the Bible as ‘law’.

There is a quiz show currently on TV, which is a particular favourite of mine, called ‘Pointless’. The idea is that contestants have to find the most obscure answer to various questions, which have previously been put to 100 people. The score for each question which attracted the least number of right answers, out of the 100, is the winner. Of particular value, attracting bonuses and advantage, is a right answer which not one of the 100 got – a ‘pointless’ answer. Now, we could play ‘pointless’ with the Bible. Which questions give the least number in response? We do it already, from within New Covenant Theology, when we critique systems like Covenant Theology. For example –

  • In how many verses does the Bible speak of ‘the moral law’? Pointless answer – the answer is zero.
    How many times does the Bible mention ‘the Ten Commandments’? Answer – only 3.

So, in our context, we may ask:

  • How many times does the Bible refer to ‘the law of Adam’ (as it does ‘the Law of Moses’)?
    Answer – Pointless – it doesn’t.
  • The ‘law of Noah’? – Zero
  • The ‘law of Abraham’ – Again, zero.

We see plainly that God gives these great men of the pre-Christ order definitive commands, which are obeyed ‘in faith’. Abraham is commanded to leave Ur and go where God says He will show him. Noah is commanded to build an ark. Of course there are God’s commands. Of course they are authoritative. But the Bible does not call them ‘law’. And when we come to the New Testament, neither does the enlightened teaching of the fulfilled old covenant ever mention any ‘Law’ other than the Law of Moses – as ‘law’.

And here is my contention – if the Bible doesn’t call it ‘law’, why should we?

Equally, God gives us commands in the Apostolic writings. Are they authoritative? Of course they are – they are the word of God to us – Scripture. We should love and respond to them as the very food of our souls. They are communications from the God we love and serve. They bring Christ to us and us to Him. But there is no New Testament reason why we should build them into some form of new law, in the pattern of that older covenant. That’s just moving backwards. To do so makes the shadow the substance and the substance the shadow. If you do that, you stand the Bible on its head!

No law = no transgression

So we come to this verse, which those who say there always has to be some kind of law of God in operation so often misunderstand. They argue like this:

  1. Sin has always been in the world since Adam
  2. Without law, there is no sin
  3. Therefore, there must always be law

But Paul does NOT say ‘without law, there is no sin, does he? Look carefully:

“It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.” (Romans 4 vs 13 – 15)

“Where there is no law, there is NO TRANSGRESSION” – not ‘no sin’.

Stand this passage side-by-side with the one from Romans 5, and we start to get the picture:

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.” (Romans 4 vs 13 – 14)

So following Paul’s logic, we see:

  1. Sin was in the world before the Law (of Moses) was given – but it was not always the ‘command-breaking’ kind.
  2. All men sin and are sinners; all deserve death – both before and after the Law was given.
  3. When the Law was given, God laid down commandments to be obeyed for His people Israel. What this does is to give sin definition by ‘drawing God’s lines’, by commanding ‘you shall not’ or ‘you shall’.
  4. Sin against God then becomes the crossing of His drawn lines – transgression. Which is ‘countable’ and ‘chargeable’.
  5. Thus, in judgement, God can say ‘I commanded this and you disobeyed me’ to those who had received His special revelation of Law. And thus this Law brings wrath (the anger of God against unrighteousness) because of transgression.

What about the Gentiles?

We have seen that in His revelation to Adam, and to the Patriarchs, from Abraham through to Moses, the Bible does not say that God gave them His Law. There are verses which indicate His commands to them, in many and various forms. But these are not designated ‘law’ by the word of God.

‘Ah’, but someone says, ‘What about Romans 2? Doesn’t Paul say in that section of his argument that the Gentiles DO have a form of God’s law?’

Well, let us now examine that passage:

“All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (Romans 2 vs 12 – 16)

First, note how emphatic Paul is. These who are Gentiles do not have the law – he says it twice in one sentence. They sin apart from the law. They will perish apart from the law.

Note
This section is actually addressed to Jews who DO have the Law in order to emphasise that it is not sufficient to merely ‘have’ the Law – one must be a perfect ‘doer’ of the Law in order to be righteous in God’s sight. What follows – his comments on the state of the Gentile is a parenthesis; an aside. Hence most translations insert brackets around it.

We will follow Paul’s argument step by step:

  1. Gentiles (non-Jews) do not have the law of God – emphatically not!
  2. As such, they will still be judged by God.
  3. However, they do have not one, but two ‘inner witnesses’ which attest to their accountability for the way they live.
  4. The first of these is indicated when they do ‘by nature’ what the law requires. We may think of this as the universal awareness of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, which ‘everybody has’. More, there is a ‘leaning towards’ wanting to do those things. Humans ‘naturally’ applaud what is considered ‘noble’ and denounce what is thought of as ‘bad behaviour’.
  5. Paul’s language in this respect is careful. He re-iterates ‘even though they do not have the law’. But their actions indicate that the requirements of the law (not the law itself) are written on their hearts. They have that within them that ‘points in the same direction’ as the law. Perhaps as a residue of having been created in God’s image?
  6. The second ‘inner witness’ is the conscience (see the word ‘also’?). Note that this is distinct from the sense of moral right. This is the ‘inner policeman’, which weighs and judges ones actions, either accusing of wrong or excusing it. This leads to rationalisation – the thought processes which explain all this to the individual, within the individual.
  7. And all of this is not ‘God-law’ but self-law – “they are a law for themselves”. As such, it is neither absolute nor perfect; rather, it is self-determined and variable.

So, if we read the passage aright we can see that Paul is NOT saying that God has ‘given law’ to the Gentiles – where is the record of such a revelation? Rather, this is the effect of the Fall, and is the inner state caused by the fallen nature.

Conclusions

So, in conclusion, as far as Biblical revelation is concerned:

  1. Adam was not ‘given law’ by God – he was given a command.
  2. Noah was not given law as apart of God’s covenant with him. He was given commands concerning the repopulation of the earth, and also promises concerning the grace and faithfulness of God
  3. Abraham, even taking into account his faith-filled obedience to the promises and commands of God, was not given law. Indeed, Paul states quite clearly in Galatians that the law came 430 years later.
  4. The period of time from Adam to Moses is differentiated from the period from Moses to Christ as pre-law and under Mosaic Law(for Jews)
  5. The Gentiles are not considered to be under God’s law, nor have they ever been

And, as previously elaborated in this series, in the new covenant, Christ gives us His single, essential ‘new commandment’ – the Law of Christ. Thus I repeat what I set out to begin with, that

In redemption history, God has only twice ‘given law’ – once on Sinai, and as a fulfilment of that ‘shadow’ in the Upper Room in Jerusalem at His Last Supper and the institution of the new covenant.

So it is indeed true that believers are bound by a law – the ‘law of Christ’. And this is what he says is ‘My command’ – that ‘you love one another as I have loved you’. And in Galatians 6, Paul tells us that by living lives of sacrificial, serving love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can actually fulfill that law.

Why does it matter?

Is this just an academic question, with no real bearing on practical Christian living? Something that those who are more disposed towards ‘theology’ will delight in, but just does not touch the believer-in-the-street?

Well, I do not think this is only theoretical. What is important – vital – about it is to understand who we are in Christ and how we live lives under His Lordship and in His Spirit. And it seems to me that when the coming of Jesus is set over and against the previous, Law covenant in John 1:

“Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1 vs 16 – 18)

… here we are being shown something fundamental to the Gospel, to the new covenant. When we are told that we are those who are NOT under law, but under grace, we have to listen. This is more, much more, than a declaration that the Law of Moses is redundant. It is saying that the very way we relate to God in Christ, is distinctively ‘fuller’ in the new covenant. We are led by the Spirit, who indwells us to do His leading – we are not ‘pushed’ by a law – any law. The worship life of Old Testament Israel revolved against the symbol of God in their midst, which was the Jerusalem Temple. But that was just a picture of the lasting, glorious truth that now the living God makes the hearts of His children His home. And although we are, and must be, cognisant of and obedient to, His revealed word, it is born, as living truth, from the page into our very souls. We are living ‘being-transformed’ lives, becoming more like Jesus, not by a rigid and dogged obedience to precepts and commands, but because when God speaks through the Bible to us, our hearts are set on fire. We find our thinking is being retrained, so that more and more, we ‘have the mind of Christ’. And ultimately, this is the way He, the risen Lord, will be exalted in who we are, what we say, and what we do.

“For me to live IS Christ, and to die is gain.”

________________________
David White
Preacher & Teacher
Studied Theology at London Bible College
Lives in Northampton, Northamptonshire UK
Serves a moderator for the New Covenant Grace Facebook group.

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About David White

Until recently David White served as a leader and preacher at a small village church in Lavendon, Buckinghamshire, England. At the present time he resides in Barton On Sea in the UK. He has been a Bible-soaked Christian for half a century, trained at London Bible College (now London School of Theology), but more importantly in God’s school of life.