In the King James Version, 1 John 3:4 defines sin as “the transgression of the law.” John was referring to the law of God, but how do we define the law of God for Christians today? We know it can’t be all of the law of the Old Testament, because the New Testament clearly shows that the sacrificial system ended.
But what about the other Old Testament laws? Are they still as binding on Christians today as they were for Israelites before the coming of Jesus Christ? Christians frequently ask about their relationship to the laws of the Old Testament. Which Old Testament laws does God command them to obey today?
A similar question troubled the early New Testament church, and even required a council of apostles and elders to address the issue. The conclusion of that council, with the writings of the apostle Paul and other New Testament authors, are instructive in understanding what God’s law is for Christians today.
The New Testament controversy
A controversy that troubled the early New Testament church was whether God required Gentile Christians to be circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses. The basic message of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles was that their salvation was a gift that came through faith in Jesus Christ, and that they were complete in him. Paul placed no demands on his converts that they be either circumcised or required to perform other Old Testament laws as preconditions for justification.
However, the position of some Jewish Christians was that “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Without the authorization of the apostles (verse 24), they had spread this disturbing message to certain Gentile congregations.1
The effect of this teaching was to deny the sufficiency of the Gentiles’ faith in Christ for their salvation. These “Judaizers” wanted to combine the gospel of Christ with the observance of the Law of Moses. Their error was not that they substituted something for Christ’s work, but that they tried to add something to it. For them, salvation was not by faith alone: It was by faith in Christ and obedience to the law.
Paul strongly resisted the idea that adherence to the Law of Moses was a requirement for salvation or for maintaining one’s salvation. He appears to have fought a running battle with these “Judaizers,” whom he regarded as “false brothers” who had infiltrated the Gentile churches (Galatians 2:4). He wrote his epistle to the Galatian church to counter their teaching, which he labeled a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).
Paul and the covenants
It is instructive to analyze how Paul responded to the heresy of the Judaizers in his letter to the Galatians. Although the focus of the Judaizers’ message appears to have been on ritualistic parts of the Mosaic Law (particularly circumcision), one doubts they would have been content with Gentiles observing these laws only. Paul seems to anticipate this view in Galatians 5:3, where he makes the point that, in order to be consistent, those who submit to circumcision are “obligated to obey the whole law.” The Mosaic covenant was a complete unit — submission to its laws could not be selective.
In countering the Galatian heresy, Paul did not limit himself to addressing only the ritualistic part of the Law of Moses. His strategy in his letter was to show that the entire old covenant (that is, the Mosaic covenant) had ended and has been replaced by a new covenant (Galatians 4:24–26). Christians now live under that new covenant and are not obligated to live according to the requirements of the old covenant. They are justified through faith in Jesus Christ, and justification does not require additional works of the law.2
Paul saw the new covenant as the fulfillment of the covenant God made to Abraham. This covenant, based on Abraham’s faith and God’s promise, was not set aside by the Mosaic “law” that came 430 years later (Galatians 3:17). Since the Mosaic covenant was added later, it could not disannul the promises made to Abraham.3
In Galatians 3:19, Paul asks what purpose the law served. He explains that it was “added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred [Jesus Christ] had come.” What Paul means by “added because of transgressions” is not clear, but it may mean something like “to make wrongdoing a legal offence” (New English Bible) — that is, to explain more clearly what behaviors were wrong. (A further explanation of this verse, showing when the sacrifices were added, is found in Appendix Two.)
Paul goes on to explain the purpose of the old covenant law. It was to serve as a custodian or schoolmaster for the children of Israel “until faith should be revealed” (verse 23). In other words, the old covenant law was designed to keep them in the knowledge of God until Christ came, after which faith in Christ would prevail (verse 24). Paul concludes: “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (verse 25).
Paul saw the new covenant as a present reality for Christians, not a future hope.4 In Galatians 4 he figuratively contrasted the old and new covenants to illustrate where Christians’ citizenship lies. The old covenant was represented by Hagar, who stands for Mount Sinai, which in turn corresponded to the city of Jerusalem (verse 25), then the center of Judaism.
The new covenant, on the other hand, was represented by the free woman (by implication, Sarah — see verse 22), who corresponds to “Jerusalem that is above.” She “is free, and she is our mother” (verse 26). Paul concluded that as Christians, “We are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (verse 31). In other words, Christians are the freeborn children of the new covenant, not slaves of the old covenant.
Then in chapters 5 and 6, Paul explains the implications in one’s behavior of living under the new covenant.
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