White-erings 2016-01-30 16:16:00

The Law of Christ – the debate continues

In Galatians 6 vs 2, Paul makes reference to something he calls ‘the Law of (the) Christ’. Although it is the only single verse where this exact phrase is used in the whole of Scripture, many have taken the phrase to indicate the existence of a new covenant ‘regulator’ for born-again behaviour. Whether it is taken to refer to the collected commands of Jesus Himself, or the whole set of New Testament imperatives, the idea is that we are exhorted to obey this ‘set’ as authoritatively binding on Christians. Let me state at the outset that I believe this to be inconsistent with what Paul is actually saying here, and I want to encourage a closer look. But before I do that, I’d like to lay out a few ‘disclaimers’, to allay the fears which are always aroused when we contrast a ‘grace’ approach with a ‘law’ approach to Christian living.
1. I wholly believe in the complete authority of the whole of God’s word as our ‘rule’ for faith and practice. Without reservation. Period.
2. I completely concur that the commands of Christ and the Scripture-writing Apostles, understood correctly from their context, are for all Christians everywhere. We do not play fast-and-loose with Biblical commands.
3. I do not accuse anyone who believes in a more comprehensive ‘law of Christ’ of legalism as a matter of course
That said, let us proceed.

A Whole Doctrine From One Verse?

My first reservation is due to the fact that this phrase only occurs in the one verse.
There is a similar phrase, used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9, where he speaks of believers as being ‘inlawed to Christ’. But it could conceivably be that the two are not really about the exact same thing. And I rather think that if there was a clearly defined ‘body’ of teaching known in the first church as ‘the Law of Christ’, it would have been referred to
(a) more often and
(b) more consistently.
It seems to me that a lot of people place a lot of ‘weight’ on this one verse, and I am by no means convinced that the verse is able to support it. I question the hermeneutical wisdom of such method. It is objected that we ‘draw’ the doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper from just a few ‘mentions’ in Scripture. But I would reply that that is extremely definitive and clear within the historical narrative, and the directives which accompany them, as well as cross-referenced by the ‘untimely-born’ (his own words) Apostle Paul, who receives his knowledge of Christ and His life by direct revelation – which nevertheless concurs completely with the gospel accounts. In Galatians, the phrase ‘the Law of Christ’ – and incidentally, even the capitalisation of the ‘L’ in ‘Law’ is our addition – is almost an aside.

Verbal Communication

Second, if there was a ‘body of doctrine’ known as ‘the law of Christ’, it is nowhere attested elsewhere – anywhere! Galatians is one of the earliest letters Paul wrote, preceded only (we think) by 1 Corinthians and 1&2 Thessalonians, and written c 55 AD. So barely twenty years after his conversion, Paul is writing to the Galatian Christians, warning them in emphatic and distinct words not to either consider themselves to be under, or to revert to, the Law of Moses. My point is this. If there was a collection of commands which he had considered them to have to submit to, it would have been imperative (play on word intended) that he be very clear on the relation of such a ‘suite’ compared to the Mosaic Law, which they must not be ‘under’. And such a collection would have had to be advised verbally. It is not something we have any evidence for as a written item. He spends five chapters (our chapters) proving the former. It seems highly unlikely he would then compromise his argument by suddenly introducing a similar arrangement in the new covenant to that which he insists is no longer binding.
Some take ‘the Law of Christ’ to refer to the indicative commands as a subset of all of the teachings of Jesus Himself. But again, there is no evidence that the Apostles directly referenced – or ‘revered, if I may use that term – any of Jesus’ teaching in this way. In 1 Corinthians, Paul does distinguish commands ‘from the Lord’ from commands that he himself gives. But if we are not careful with this, we end up creating a kind of ‘levels’ system in our Bible reading. Are the ‘red letter’ words of Jesus Himself more ‘authoritative’ in some way than the rest of the New Testament – if so, in what way?

Law is Law

Thirdly, I would argue that the very nature of ‘law’ (and it is not clear whether the reference in the phrase in Galatians 6 is to a single ‘law’ or a body of ‘Law’ – the noun can be either singular or plural) means that it should be
1. Clearly defined – ‘laid down’, so that anyone can see precisely what they are expected to obey
2. Publicly ‘available’ – published and announced, so that everyone is made aware of it, and commonly accepted by the ‘body’ of those it has to apply to
3. Authoritatively proclaimed – so that it is known as accepted by all ‘authorities’ (Apostles, Elders etc.) in the church, and submitted to by its subjects – those for whom it is given.
I think this means that in order for Law to function as Law, it will normally be encoded – written. This serves all three points, for clarity, accessibility and authority.
This is most certainly true of the Law of Moses – on all three counts. I would add that if God ‘gave Law’ in and for the old covenant, in an extremely pronounced fashion – with awesome sights and sounds and much literally earth-shaking effects, we might expect the giving of the later, greater ‘Law’ of the new covenant to be also attended with similar signals. At Sinai, God made it very clear that the people were to pay close attention to what God was giving them. And no-one could debate whether He had really given Moses those commandments or not. He climbed the mountain empty handed. He came down with two inscribed tablets of stone. It was beyond dispute.
I can see no indication of the same being done with anything recognisable as ‘the Law of Christ’. So, in effect, with this ‘Law of Christ, in the view of some, we have,
1. A collection of new-covenant commandments which are not clearly defined, which are
2. Not collected or written down anywhere they can be referenced (and were not when Paul wrote Galatians), and which are
3. Not coherently referenced or recorded or referred to anywhere in our Bibles, and
4. Mentioned almost in passing in just one verse (Galatians 6 vs2) and more obliquely – could even be ‘tongue-in-Pauline-cheek’ in 1 Corinthians 9.
And yet, some are vehemently insisting that if we do not confess ourselves to be ‘under the Law of Christ’ as defined by them, we are at least in danger of slipping into complete subjectivism, if not antinomianism. But their proposed answer is that Christians consider themselves to be under this law-which-is-no-law, an unclear, ill-defined collection of commands and imperatives which are nevertheless to be universally perceived as completely binding upon all believers everywhere. I answer that nothing like this is proposed within the pages of the Apostolic writings we have preserved for us, and were it so, it would be as clear as a proverbial bell that it was and is considered to be the new ‘law’ which replaced Mosaic law in the new covenant.
I fear that the need to have some kind of ‘law’ in place is, in reality, a failure to trust what we are really exhorted to in our new natures – to be led by and walk in the Spirit of God, who has been poured out for us, and who indwells every believer. Of course there are imperatives and commands in the New Testament, and as the word of God, we are to heed them, as we live by ‘every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. But this is explained in new covenant terms as our owning Christ as Lord, not as submission to be ‘under’ a new law. It is significant that the phrase ‘under law’ is used (in 1 Corinthians 9) of born-again behaviour only once in the entire New Testament, and even then in that sideways-kind-of manner by Paul.
The immensely glorious, Christ-exalting nature of new life in the Saviour is that the ‘motivator’ – what it is that moves us to want to live to please God – is no longer external, as written rules and regulations. Rather, God has internalised it by pouring His Spirit into every believer when they believed. He it is who opens our eyes to God’s word and makes it precious to us. He it is who fires our hearts, so that when this risen Lord speaks powerfully from that word into our lives, they burst into vibrant flame. In this is the freedom which Paul is so desperate that the Galatians do not forsake in order to reverse back into the relative safety and protection of the ‘respectable, acceptable’ – their former Jewish tenets. And perhaps we, too, can prefer a visible, written code, which proscribes and prescribes in followable detail, step by step instructions on how we should live for Christ. It gives us a kind of supervision and control of our walk, as well as a way of measuring our progress to see how we’re doing. But what we will not then have is the very freedom for which, Paul shouts, Christ has made us free.
All of this has been rather negative. In Part 2 I will try to be more constructive and take a look at that verse in Galatians which gives rise to the whole debate
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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.