(Before you decide not to read on, I want to assure you, though fairly theological, it is also quite relevant to our day-to-day life!)
On Sunday, we discussed how obedience is God’s preferred “love language.” I said that “The Old Testament law of Moses is obsolete for the Christian. We are no longer under its requirements, nor will we ever be judged by it.”
Nevertheless, the Old Testament law is still useful in many ways. It is an eternal picture of God’s unchanging heart, character, and values. It defines sin and is instrumental in convicting the conscience, thus showing us our need for a Savior. Paul says in 1 Timothy 1:9, “law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless.”
But as a covenant (or legal code), it is obsolete. Hebrews 8:13 clearly says, “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.”
As a result, the Old Testament law has no legal claim on us. We have been “released from the law, having died to that by which we were bound” (Romans 7:6). This does not mean that we are lawless, though. Now, we are under “the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21), and “the law of liberty” (James 1:25, 2:12), which is a law of love (Romans 13:10, Matthew 22:36-40). Even so, we can still gravitate toward a law-based or performance-based righteousness. The book of Galatians was largely written to correct Christians who had succumbed to this.
Jesus never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). The same is true of God the Father. But his covenants most certainly do change, and have changed. Jesus reiterated each of the Ten Commandments in the New Testament (excluding keeping the Sabbath). They are still morally relevant; however, we will never be judged according to them. Why? Because Jesus lived a perfect life, and as our representative, he perfectly fulfilled the Old Testament law in our place, thus satisfying the law’s demands. And for every point that we fall short, he died on the cross to pay our penalty.
There are two common errors that Christians can make in how they view God’s laws: legalism and licentiousness. The legalist strives to live in strict adherence to the law in order to establish and maintain a right standing before God and men. Many honest legalists eventually despair when they face the fact that they cannot meet or maintain the law’s standard. So in order to find relief, they often convince themselves that because of Christ’s perfect life and death for them, they can reject the law entirely as having no value or relevance. And any positive spin on the law is quickly labeled “legalism.” This perception of the law as being irrelevant (or even bad) is to be antinomian, which literally means “against the law.”
This complete lack of esteem for the law can easily result in licentiousness, which is the unbiblical notion that since we are no longer legally bound to the law, we now have a license to freely sin without worry or consequence. But in Romans 6, Paul flat out condemns this rationale in the strongest of terms. In summary, he says:
1. How can we who died to sin still live in it (v. 2)?
2. We are now slave to obedience to God (v. 16).
3. Sin has no benefit but death, but the benefit of obedience is eternal life (vv. 21-22).
The problem with antinomians and legalists is in their insistence that the law must die, when in reality, it is we who must die (to the law, through our identification with Christ’s death). No one I know explains this better than Sinclair Ferguson, so I’d like to share an excerpt from this article to let him speak with his unparallelled clarity, because this issue is simply too important to muddle. He writes,
There is only one genuine cure for legalism. It is the same medicine the gospel prescribes for antinomianism: understanding and tasting union with Jesus Christ Himself. This leads to a new love for and obedience to the law of God, which he now mediates to us in the gospel. This alone breaks the bonds of both 1) legalism, [in that] the law is no longer divorced from the person of Christ, and 2) antinomianism, [in that] we are not divorced from the law, which now comes to us from the hand of Christ and in the empowerment of the Spirit, who writes it in our hearts.
If antinomianism appears to us to be a way of deliverance from our natural legalistic spirit, we need to refresh our understanding of Romans 7. In contrast to Paul, both legalists and antinomians see the law as the problem. But Paul is at pains to point out that sin, not the law is the root issue. On the contrary, the law is “good” and “righteous” and “spiritual” and “holy.” The real enemy is indwelling sin. And the remedy for sin is neither the law nor its overthrow. It is grace.
If obedience truly is God’s love language, then why we obey is of great importance. Christians will never be judged by the law. Period. But the only way to escape involuntary slavery to the law, is to become voluntary slaves to another: to God and to his righteousness. Now our obedience is relational rather than dutiful. And its motives are love and gratitude, rather than pride and fear. Hallelujah!