The Law of Christ: A Theological Proposal – Chapter 12 – A. Blake White

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Chapter 12

The Law of Christ in
relation to the Law of Moses:
Discontinuity

It should be clear that there is significant continuity and discontinuity between the law of Moses and the law of Christ. The law of Christ is new, but it is not absolutely new. There is overlap. We see that all the Law and Prophets are applicable to new covenant believers, but only as they are interpreted in light of their fulfillment (Matt 5:17). Craig Blomberg writes, “The Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated.” [1] We read all of Scripture with Christian lenses on. Jesus is our hermeneutical filter.

Discontinuity

First we will look at discontinuity. The law of Christ is not totally distinct from the law of Moses, but it is new. [2] As early as the 150’s AD, Justin Martyr called Christ the “new Lawgiver.” [3] As we have seen, Paul clearly distinguished between the law of Moses and the law of Christ. He is not under the law of Moses, but under the law of Christ (1 Cor 9:20-21). Keeping the commands of God is no longer keeping the Mosaic law (which included circumcision) according to 1 Corinthians 7:19. God’s law has shifted from the law of Moses in the old covenant to the law of Christ in the new. We do not look directly to Moses. “We have our own master, Christ, and he has set before us what we are to know, observe, do, and leave undone.” [4]

Some scholars argue that the law of Christ mentioned in Galatians 6:2 must be a reference to the Mosaic law because Galatians 5:14 (For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself) is clearly referring to the law of Moses. [5] But Paul adds an all-important genitive descriptor to the phrase “law;” it is the law of Christ (ton nomon tou Christou)! Moreover, after spending half the letter showing how the law was temporary and believers are no longer under it, he surely would have confused the Galatians by concluding with “Oh, by the way, you are still to fulfill the Mosaic law.” Also, the ultimate context of any given passage is the whole canon. When looking at the teaching of the New Testament, it seems highly unlikely that Galatians 6:2 is referring to the law of Moses instead of the law of Christ. It is also important to point out that two different verbs are used in these verses, which is almost certainly deliberate. Galatians 5:14 uses plēroō while 6:2 uses anaplēroō.[6]

Another reason it is clear that the law of Christ is not the same as the law of Moses is the glaring lack of direct appeal to the law, especially when it would have been very easy to do so. [7] For example, he could have easily quoted Exodus 20:14 or Leviticus 18-20 (on sexual immorality) to the Thessalonians if he believed it was the eternal moral law of God. But he doesn’t proceed that way. Rather, he says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God” (1 Thess 4:3-5, cf. also Eph 5:3-5). First Corinthians is similar; Paul doesn’t go to the Decalogue, but instead uses gospel logic: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Cor 6:15a). To the Ephesians, Paul could have quoted Exodus 20:16 (Do not lie), but instead he says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor” (Eph 4:28a).

When teaching on idolatry, Paul does not go to the First or Second Commandments (see 1 Cor 10:14-22, Eph 5:5, Col 3:5) when he easily could have. It is quite shocking that he does not! Also, in Philemon, Paul, in returning Onesimus to Philemon “fails” to mention Deuteronomy 23:15-16, which reads, “You shall not give up to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” [8] As Westerholm writes, “Paul never derives appropriate Christian conduct simply and directly by applying pertinent command in Torah – the inevitable procedure if Torah remained the binding statement of God’s will for believers.” [9]

Do/Fulfill

Also of importance is the way Paul carefully distinguishes the verbs “do” and “fulfill” in terms of the believer’s relation to the law. [10] Stephen Westerholm writes,

It is worth noting, however, that in Paul, while Christians are never said to “do” (poiein) the law, those “under the law” are seen as obligated to “do” its commands (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:10, 12; 5:3); indeed, the law itself, Paul claims, rests on the principle of “doing” as opposed to “believing” (Gal. 3:12; Rom. 10:5-6). If, then, the essence of life “under the law” is the requirement to “do” its commands, it is not strange that Paul would avoid the term in contexts where he relates Christian behavior to the law. On the other hand, where specifically Christian behavior is related positively to the Mosaic law, the verb plēroun or a cognate inevitably occurs (Rom. 8:4, 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14); yet these terms are never used where the requirements or achievements of those living “under the law” are in view. Given the occasional nature of Paul’s correspondence, such a consistent distinction in usage is striking indeed and demands some explanation. [11]

Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In Ro­mans 8:4, the righteous requirement (to dikaiōma)of the law is fulfilled in us. I still think (with Calvin) that the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us because of the ob­jective work of Christ on our behalf, rather than being ful­filled by the obedience of Christians (i.e. those who walk according to the flesh). [12] Four reasons lead me to this conclusion: First, the context is primarily judicial. Three verses earlier Paul proclaimed that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ. The previous verse says that God has done what the law could not do, by sending his Son to condemn sin in the flesh in order that the dikaiōma of the law might be fulfilled in us. Second, the way Paul uses this word in other places in Romans (see 1:32, 2:26, 5:16, 5:18, 8:4). Romans 5:16 and 5:18 are most significant for me: “And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification (dikaiōma)…Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness (dikaiōmatos) leads to justification and life for all men.” Third, sinners never fulfill this righteous requirement (note the singular). Calvin writes, “For the faithful, while they sojourn in this world, never make such a proficiency, as that the justification [dikaiōma] of the law becomes in them full or complete. This then must be applied to forgiveness; for when the obedience of Christ is accepted for us, the law is satisfied, so that we are counted just.” [13] Fourth, as Douglas Moo points out, “the passive verb ‘might be fulfilled’ points not to something that we are to do but to something that is done in and for us…we may interpret ‘the righteous requirement of the law’ to be the demand of the law for perfect obedience, or for righteousness. And the law’s just demand is fulfilled in Christians not through their own acts of obedience but through their incorporation into Christ. He fulfilled the law; and, in him, believers also fulfill the law—perfectly, so that they may be pronounced ‘righteous,’ free from ‘condemnation’ (v. 1).” [14]

Also in Romans 13:8 we are told “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Verse ten says “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Only Christians, who have the Spirit of the new age, can fulfill the law. Paul, like Jesus in Matthew 5:17, is referring to eschatological fulfillment. [15] It should also not be overlooked that in these “fulfillment of the law” passages, Paul is not prescribing but describing Christian behavior. [6] Jason Meyer states, “Paul does not prescribe Christian behavior with reference to the law; he describes the ‘fruit’ (karpos) of their behavior with a retroactive reference to the way that it conforms to the law and thus amounts to its ‘fulfillment’ (plēroō). Ironically and paradoxically, those who live under the law bear fruit resulting in sinful passions, transgression of the law, and death, while those who have died to the law bear fruit that amount to the law’s fulfillment.” [17] Only those under the law are required to do the law, while the result of the obedience of those not under the law fulfills the law. [18]

Hebrews

Hebrews is an important book with regard to discontinuity between the Testaments. [19] It could be summed up as “Jesus is better.” The sermon begins “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (1:1-2a). Here we already have a hint of contrast between Jesus and Moses in the first verse of Hebrews since Moses was considered the greatest of the prophets, who are inferior to the Son, through whom God has spoken with finality. Then the preacher shows Jesus’ superiority to angels. This is another way of saying that the Son’s revelation is superior to the revelation given at Sinai for there was plenty of Jewish tradition which associated angels with the giving of the law (Deut 33:2 LXX, Gal 3:19, Acts 7:38, 53, Heb 2:2). [20]

Then Hebrews presents Christ as the true human (Ps 8, Gen 1:26-28). God’s intention from the start was to rule the world through a faithful humanity, but where is the faithful humanity? We see him who restores our humanity by tasting death for everyone and destroying the devil (2:5-18). Next, Jesus, the Son who is faithful over God’s house, is presented as greater than Moses, a faithful servant in God’s house (3:5-6). Jesus is also greater than Joshua (3:7-4:13). Joshua led the people into the land and seemingly had rest (Josh 21:43-45), but much later David wrote, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (3:7 quoting Ps 95). “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on” (Heb 4:8). An eschatological Sabbath rest still awaited the people of God and Jesus has brought Sabbath rest for those who trust him today. One thinks of the famous passage in Matthew 11.28-30 where Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” which is immediately followed by the passage in chapter twelve (an unfortunate chapter break) where Jesus proclaims himself as Lord of the Sabbath.

Next the author of Hebrews begins to show how Jesus fulfills the Levitical priesthood (5:1-10), but pauses to warn the people of the dangers of not persevering. It picks back up the teaching concerning Christ’s priesthood in chapter seven. He begins by making a few exegetical comments on Genesis 14:17-20, and then shows how Melchizedek, priestly-king of (Jeru)Salem blessed Abraham and received a tithe from him, making Melchizedek superior. Melchizedek also lacks a genealogy, which is a very significant literary observation in the text of Genesis. [21] Since Levi was not even born yet, he in some sense paid tithes to Melchizedek, again showing the superiority of the Melchizedekian priestly order that has no end.

Hebrews 7:11-12 are crucial verses: “Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also” (NASB). [22] The change in redemptive history brings a change in the locus of authority. The duration of the law is bound up with the duration of the covenant of which it is a part. Notice first that the old covenant must be seen as a package (as we have seen). On the basis of the priesthood the people received the law. It is a whole unit, consisting of law, covenant, and priesthood. Dividing the law covenant up is foreign to the Bible. [23] You can’t divorce a covenant from its law. The law is contained within the covenant as we saw in Exodus 19-24. Also note that the Text says that when the priesthood is changed (which there clearly is), there is necessarily a change of law as well. The Spirit-inspired Word says that there is a change of the law (not change in the law as the ESV translates it). New Covenant Theology is not making this stuff up. We are seeking to do justice to the inscripturated Text. Also note, as mentioned above, that God never intended for the old covenant to bring ultimate salvation (perfection). This is why David, hundreds of years after Genesis 14, wrote of a new priestly order to come: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17 quoting Ps 110). “On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God” (7:18-19). The former commandment is set aside. Since the law-covenant was a package deal, Christ not only brings a new priesthood, but is also “guarantor of a better covenant” (7:22), as we saw above when dealing with chapter eight.

Hebrews agrees with Paul and Jesus that the old covenant law was intended to be an interim covenant, merely a shadow (skia) of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities (Heb 10:1, cf. Col 2:17). The argument of Hebrews is that the Jew should have understood the self-confessed inadequacy of the old order (Ps 8, 95, 110, Jer 31). The law of Christ is a new law.

Sabbath

Finally, (as with circumcision) the Sabbath command is abrogated in the New Testament. This command creates problems for those who believe that the Ten Commandments are directly binding on believers. The New Testament is clear that we are no longer bound to obey the Sabbath command. The Sabbath was the sign of the old covenant, which has passed away with the death and resurrection of Christ. So just as believers are no longer bound to the old covenant, neither are they bound to the sign of that covenant. [24] Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, is above the law (Luke 6:1-11, Mark 2:23-28). Matthew’s account is significant in that Jesus’ claim as Lord of the Sabbath follows his invitation to the heavy-laden to come and receive rest (Matt 11:28-30, cf. also John 5:1-19).

As we saw above, the book of Hebrews views the Sabbath as a type of the eschatological rest brought about by Jesus (Heb 3:7-4:11). For new covenant believers, the command to obey the Sabbath is a command to believe the gospel. Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” This verse is crystal clear, if we will let Paul say what he says. Paul relegates the Sabbath to a shadow (skia), making it highly unlikely that he viewed the Sabbath as being fulfilled in the Lord’s Day. [25] There is simply no biblical or early historical evidence for viewing the Lord’s Day as a fulfillment of the Sabbath. [26]

Romans 14:5-6a says, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.” The days in mind here would certainly include the Sabbath. As Tom Schreiner writes, “Any Jew would inevitably think of the Sabbath, for this was the day that most distinguished the Jews from others.” [27] This is a far cry from “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exod 20:8-10).

Finally, in Galatians 4:8-11, Paul can go so far as to deem observing Jewish days (the Sabbath would certainly be included), months and seasons and years for their justification as returning to the weak and worthless elemental spirits of the world, i.e. demonic forces (see the exegesis above)!


[1] Blomberg, Matthew, 104; Moo agrees: “the continuing validity of the law is to be understood in the light of its ‘fulfillment’ (v. 17). In all its details, the Scripture remains authoritative, but the manner in which men are to relate to and understand its provisions is now determined by the one who has fulfilled it,” “Jesus and the Mosaic Law,” 27.

[2] Thielman, Paul and the Law, 141.

[3] Martyr, Justin, Dialougue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 24. Similarly, The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. 80-120 AD) speaks of “the New Law of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Early Christian Writings. Penguin Classics (Penguin Books: New York, 1968), 160.

[4] Luther, “How Christians Should Regard Moses,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 147-48. He also writes, “Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service,” ibid., 139. Elsewhere he says, “For since God here promises another Moses whom they are to hear, it follows of necessity that this other one would teach something different from Moses; and Moses gives up his power and yield to him, so that men will listen to him. This [coming] prophet cannot, then, teach the law, for Moses has done that to perfection; for the law’s sake there would be no need to raise up another prophet. Therefore this word was surely spoken concerning Christ and the teaching of grace,” “Preface to the Old Testament,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 129.

[5] E.g. Todd A. Wilson, writes, “the proximity of 5.13-14 and 6.2 within the epistle makes it highly unlikely that Paul would have intended to refer to something other than the law of Moses in 6.2, when he has just said virtually the exact same thing a few verses earlier (5.13-14),” in “The Law of Christ and the Law of Moses: Reflections on a Recent Trend in Interpretation,” Currents in Biblical Research 5, no. 1 (October 2006), 135. Stanton also holds this position in “The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ,” 116.

[6] Fee writes, “In the one case Torah has been fulfilled so as no longer to obtain; in this case ‘the law of Christ’ is ‘fulfilled’ in every case where in love believers bear each others’ burdens. Thus the ‘fulfillment’ in the fist instance is almost certainly to be understood in light of its further ‘being filled to the full’ by those who, empowered by the Spirit, so live as Christ himself did,” God’s Empowering Presence, 463-64.

[7] Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness, 126; Deidun, New Covenant Morality, 157-60, who notes that Paul never appealed to the prescriptions of the law as a basis of Christian obligation; so also Meyer, The End of the Law, 283.

[8] Seifrid, Christ Our Righteousness, 126 n102.

[9] Westerholm, “On Fulfilling the Whole Law,” 232-33. Elsewhere, he writes, “It is, moreover, striking (and has struck many) that Paul repeatedly refrains from citing prohibitions from the law even when dealing with basic issues related to idolatry or sexual morality, opting instead to argue from Christian principles (e.g., 1 Cor 6:12-20; 10:14-22; 1 Thess 4:3-8). And when Paul speaks of the need for Christians to discern the will of God, he does not refer them to the law (though, according to Rom. 2:18, the law provided Jews with guidance about God’s will), but speaks rather of presenting themselves to God, of refusing to pattern their way of life after that of this age, of being ‘transformed by the renewal of [their] mind[s]’ (12:2). They ‘approve what is excellent’ (the same phrase as in 2:18 is used of Christians in Phil. 1:9-10) when their love grows in knowledge and judgment. The fact that Jews had to discover the will of God in the statutes of Torah but Christians must discover it as their minds are ‘renewed’ and they grow in insight shows clearly that the will of God is no longer defined as an obligation to observe the statues of the Mosaic law,” Perspectives, 432-33.

[10] I do not think Romans 2:13-14 is referring to Christians. I think Christians are not mentioned until 2:28.

[11] Stephen Westerholm, “On Fulfilling the Whole Law (Gal. 5:14),” Svensk exegetisk årsbok 51-52 (1986-87): 233-34; idem, Perspectives New and Old, 329, 435-39; Longenecker, Galatians, 242-43; Moo writes, “Vital to understanding Paul’s perspective on the law is to recognize a principial distinction in his writings between ‘doing’ and ‘fulfilling’ the law. Nowhere does Paul say that Christians are to ‘do’ the law, and nowhere does he suggest that any but Christian can ‘fulfill’ the law,” “The Law of Christ as the Fulfillment of the Law of Moses,” 359; idem, “The Law of Moses or the Law of Christ,” 210.

[12] Contra Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 534-38; Schreiner, Romans, 406, who says, “Those who confine obedience to forensic categories in 8:4 seem to miss rather badly the scope of Paul’s argument.”

[13] Calvin, John, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005), 283.

[14] Moo, Romans, 483-84.

[15] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 614. Moo writes, “Paul is thinking about a complete and final ‘doing’ of the law that is possible only in the new age of eschatological accomplishment,” Romans, 814.

[1]6 Westerholm writes, “When Paul prescribes what Christians are to do, the language used is not that of fulfilling the Mosaic law. ‘Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’ (5:16; cf. Rom. 8:12-13). Naturally, it is from Paul’s prescriptions that we must derive his view of the basis for Christian obligation. When, on the other hand, Christian ethics is related to the Mosaic law in the fulfillment passages, the view is retrospective. Paul’s purpose is to provide assurance of the quality of Christian conduct, not to define its several duties,” Perspectives, 434-35.

[17] Meyer, The End of the Law, 283.

[18] Westerholm, “On Fulfilling the Whole Law,” 235.

[19] I am borrowing material from my The Newness of the New Covenant (Frederick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2008) for this section on Hebrews.

[20] Stanton, “The Law of Moses and the Law of Christ,” 113; Westerholm, Perspectives, 413.

[21] See Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 36:9, 37:2.

[22] I use the NASB here because the ESV’s translation is unfortunate. The ESV translates verse 12: “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” Both “law” (nomou) and “priesthood” (hierōsynēs) are in the genitive case, not the dative. It is not a change in the law, but a change of law. See Long, Biblical Law and Ethics, 54 n58. The KJV, NET, NLT, and NIV are better than the ESV on this verse.

[23] Some appeal to Matthew 23:23, where Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but this proves too much because in the very same passage Jesus insists that they should have done all of them. We must read in context, which obviously starts with reading the whole verse.

[24] Reisinger, Tablets of Stone, 72-81; Schreiner, 40 Questions, 249.

[25] Moo, Colossians, 224. On 2:17, he comments, “According to the fundamental salvation-historical perspective of the New Testament writers, the Old Testament, and especially the law, belonged to the time of promise, to the time when God was preparing his people and the world for salvation in Christ. With the coming of Christ, the new era of fulfillment has dawned. The old era and the law have now been brought to their ‘culmination’ (Rom. 10:4). Believers who belong to the new era through their incorporation into Christ therefore experience the reality to which the Old Testament and its law pointed. And they are no longer compelled to follow the laws of that earlier era,” 223.

[26] See the essays in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982); A.G. Shead, “Sabbath,” in NDBT, 749-50.

[27] Schreiner, Romans, 715; so also Moo, Romans, 842.