With this historical perspective from the early New Testament church in mind, we can now examine different views about the law of God for Christians.
If God has already made his new covenant with Christians, what effect does this have on their relationship to Old Testament law? Some might assume that it means a Christian must now fulfill the law not only according to the letter, but also according to its full spirit and intent. Thus, the obedience demands of the law are intensified and are even more binding on a Christian.
This view assumes that much of the law of the old covenant is simply transferred into the new covenant, with the additional benefit of the Holy Spirit. Such a view is flawed, as can be seen in the example of circumcision. If God expects Christians to fulfill both the letter and spirit of the law, then all males must be physically and spiritually circumcised. The early New Testament church decisively rejected this conclusion at the Council of Jerusalem.
This position sees everything in terms of laws to be obeyed, with Jesus Christ providing the perfect example of obedience and the Holy Spirit providing the power to obey the laws. It inevitably leads to legalism because it focuses on law rather than on Christ.
The extreme opposite of this view is that Christians are under “grace,” and therefore all law is abolished. However, this view leads to antinomianism (Romans 3:8), which Paul strongly rejected. Rather, he upheld the law (Romans 3:31) and made it clear that being under “grace” was not license to sin (Romans 6:15–23).
The alternative to both these extremes is that under the terms of the new covenant a Christian’s relationship to Old Testament law is transformedrather than intensified or abolished. This is brought out in Romans 6 and 7. Paul explains that Christians “are not under law, but under grace” (6:14) and that they “died to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4). He writes,
By dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (7:6)
This is elaborated in 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul contrasts the administrations of the old and new covenants:
He [God] has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant — not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (verse 6)
So under the new covenant Christians serve in a “new way” — the way of the Spirit. The “old way” of the written code has been superseded. It has ended because the old covenant was a temporary system designed to act as a guardian for the nation Israel until the Messiah came (Galatians 3:19). Humanity’s relationship to God is no longer regulated by a written law code on tables of stone or in a book, as it was for ancient Israel. It is now based on faith in Jesus Christ (verses 22–24). “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law” (verse 25).
In what way, then, is our relationship to old covenant law transformed through faith in Jesus Christ?
“Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). The Greek word telos, translated as “end,” can mean 1) termination,” “cessation,” or 2) “goal,” “culmination,” “fulfillment.” In this verse, it is best understood in the latter sense, that Christ is the fulfillment of the law. He brought the law to completion by perfectly obeying its demands and by fulfilling its types and prophecies. Through his life and death, Jesus fulfilled all the righteous requirements of the law, thereby freeing Christians from the condemnation of the law.
A major purpose of God’s law is to lead humans to Christ by convicting them of sin. But because believers are justified by Christ’s righteousness, the law has no claim over them in the legal sense. After explaining in Romans 7 the accusatory nature of the law and that rescue is through Jesus Christ, Paul writes,
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1–2)
As its fulfillment, Jesus Christ transcends the law. This is what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:17-19: “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus’ teaching does not abolish the Law or the Prophets, but brings them to their intended eschatological climax. (For a discussion on this passage, see Appendix One.)
In terms of the new covenant, the law no longer exists in the form of a written code apart from Jesus. God’s law, in its spirit and intent, exists in Christ alone. He is greater than the law. The law kills, but the Spirit, which we receive by faith in Christ, gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). Fulfilling the law is through trusting him rather than obedience to an external written code.
Our spiritual connection with God is based on a personal relationship with Christ, not on obedience to an impersonal list of rules. Living faith can be to Jesus Christ only, because salvation is through him.