One of the constant debates Christians seem to have concerns our relationship to the Law. Some take the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 as an indication that we must still live under the Law, that is unless the New Testament clearly does away with some aspect of it (like the sacrificial system). And indeed Jesus did say, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have…come to fulfill them.” But more than that, Jesus says, “I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” He then tells us we will never see the kingdom unless our righteousness is greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus illustrated this greater righteousness with several things: anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, and hating our enemies. In all these things, Jesus points to responses greater than the words of the Law—responses that have to do, first, with one’s heart. Then he said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” There is the greater righteousness: perfection.
But we have a few problems here. One is that if we come to rely upon our own works then Jesus’ words condemn us. We cannot be perfect. Jesus’ words ultimately show our need for something greater: himself.
Another is how we understand Jesus fulfilling the Law.
A popular Law issue that some try to impose upon Christians today is the tithe. They say, “We still must follow the Law unless the New Testament specifically does away with a part of it.” So we no longer offer sacrifices, but we still must tithe. But that’s not what Jesus said—rather, not an iota or dot was going anywhere. Others try to divide the Law into categories like civil, ceremonial, and moral—the first two are gone, but the third remains. Yet that suffers the same as above with the whole dot thing; and besides, the Bible nowhere divides the Law as such. Then if we try to create such divisions, we run into our own problems trying to figure out which law is which category.
The answer is so much simpler than redefinitions and trying to divide the Law into parts: “all” was accomplished on the cross. Jesus fulfilled the Law for us in his perfect righteousness and gave us such status through his sacrifice. Since all has been accomplished, the fullness of the Law was not destroyed but upheld in Christ. And if we are in Christ we are no longer under any part of the Law but free to live in him.
The early church had the same debate, and Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia gives us this answer.
He begins his letter by chastising the churches for turning to a false gospel (1:6-7), a gospel that required them to return to certain tenants of the Law (4:21), specifically that of circumcision (6:12-13) in order to be justified. Paul takes the bulk of the letter to explain how the Law relates to Christ and the life of the Christian.
In 2:15ff, Paul states about himself and other Jewish believers that even though they are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” they know they are not justified by the works of the Law but faith in Christ. Through the Law, Paul states, he died to the Law so he could live to God—and how did he die? “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…I live by faith in the Son of God.” A little later in 3:10ff, Paul states that everyone who relies on the works of the Law is cursed, because a person is cursed “who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Paul’s implication is properly that no one is able to keep the Law perfectly, so all are cursed who try to use living by the Law as a means to their justification. But we died to the Law and found life in Christ because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” Thus, the blessings of Abraham came not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles—all who are in Christ.
In 3:2, Paul reminds the Galatians they received the Spirit by hearing with faith and not the works of the Law, and chastises them saying, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”—in context speaking of their attempts to seek perfection through the commands of the Law concerning circumcision.
But the Spirit and the promises to Abraham are not about the Law and do not come through the Law, rather it is all through faith. So Paul asks in 3:19, “Why then the Law?” His answer: “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promises had been made.” And in 3:21-22, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” And, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came in order that we might be justified by faith” (3:24). So the whole purpose of the Law was to point out our sinfulness and be a guardian to show God’s righteousness until Jesus came—the child God promised to Abraham.
Then a key verse in the discussion concerning Christians and the Law comes in 3:25-26, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.” If the Law is the guardian, and we are no longer under a guardian, then we are no longer under the Law.
In 4:21-31, Paul speaks to those “who desire to be under the Law” and gives them an allegory about Abraham’s two sons born by Sarah and Hagar. He says, “One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.” Mount Sinai, of course, is the place where Moses received the Ten commandments and the rest of the Law. This represents slavery—specifically our slavery to sin and inability to keep the commands of the Law. Then, “But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother…now you, brothers, like Isaac are children of promise.” We are of something better—something greater than the Law, and are therefore free.
Furthermore, “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’ So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” These are strong words, but Paul is telling us in Christ we cast out Mount Sinai, we cast out the Law, for freedom.
And should we want to live under the Law? No! “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). We should want to live in the freedom that Christ brings. Now this freedom is not “an opportunity for the flesh” (5:13). We are free from the demands of the Law, but we are not free to carry on in sin. Instead we have what could be called a new law or new command in Christ (see also: John 13:31-35, “A new commandment I give to you…”), which is “though love serve one another” and this fulfills the whole Law (5:14).
So instead of living under the Law, we live in the fulfillment of the Law through love. And since the Holy Spirit is within us, setting us free, we walk by the Spirit and so not gratify the desires of the flesh (5:16). The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, which “against such things there is no law.”
In summary: the Law was given to stand as a guardian until Christ came. It shows us how far short we fall of the righteousness of God, and thus our need for Jesus. In Jesus, who perfectly fulfilled the Law, we find life and freedom. In this freedom we are no longer bound under the commands of the Law but walk according to the love and fruit produced by the Spirit of God within us.
Like God says through Jeremiah when it comes to the New Covenant: we now have his Law written on our hearts.
Instead of “you shall not murder,” we live by love and kindness to our neighbor. Instead of “you shall not steal,” we live by patience and self-control. Instead of requiring the tithe, we live by generosity.
Instead of sacrificing sheep and bulls, we live in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. We are not bound by the Law but free to live in Christ.