Do I have to keep the Old Testament law? The Ten Commandments? (Part 1)

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Do I have to keep the Old Testament law? What about the ten commandments, do I have to keep them? As a pastor I get those two questions a lot! There are dietary laws, laws for building, laws for removing mold, laws for cooking, laws for living, laws for dying, laws for everything! But what exactly does God expect us to do with the legal code found in the Old Testament, particularly that found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Let me give you my answer and then provide an argument in favor of it. The answer is NO. Christians do not have to keep the Old Testament law, not even the ten commandments.

Before I can give my argument for not keeping the law I need to lay a three part foundation:

1) The definition of ‘law.’ There are two very different ways the Bible uses the word law. The first use of Law refers to the first five books of the Bible, known as the Book of Moses or the Pentateuch. The second use of law refers to the legal code (rules) contained in the first five books of the Bible, often called the Mosaic or Old Covenant. Did you notice I spelled one ‘Law’ and the other ‘law?’ The capital ‘L’ is used for the Book of Moses and the lowercase ‘l’ is used for the legal code that’s in the Book of Moses. Most modern translations will make that distinction to help the reader–although there is only one greek word for law and so deciding which one the author meant can be difficult. It is HUGELY important to see this distinction! Why? Because we have to keep the Law, but not the law (you gotta love that!). The ‘l’aw is a set of rules and regulations while the message of the ‘L’aw is, “put your trust in the prophet like Moses who is coming” (Deut. 18:15, 29:4, 34:10). That’s why Jesus said, “I haven’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (notice the capital ‘L’). Jesus is the promised prophet like Moses, so he kept or fulfilled the ‘L’aw.

2)You cannot separate the legal code into parts. I’ve never met anyone who thinks we have to keep every law in the Old Covenant. We don’t have to sacrifice, don’t have to worry about boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk, and we don’t have to keep the legal/governmental parts of the Old Covenant. What many do, however, is to break up the Old Covenant into three parts–moral, civil, and ceremonial. In addition, some make two distinctions; the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Old Covenant rules. I simply don’t think you can do that. No one, and I mean no one ever does that in the Bible–Old or New Testament (referring to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 as an example is a stretch of the text). In addition, the process of separating the law into sections is completely subjective. Since no one in the Bible does it, how are we to figure out which laws belong to which section? The Old Covenant law, then, is one piece, and that one piece includes the Ten Commandments (see Deut. 5:1 – 5). So, when it comes to keeping the Old Covenant law is got to be all or nothing.

3) The final thing I need to do is break down a framework of salvation that some believe. It goes something like this. 1) you have to be a perfect law keeper (‘l’aw in the rules sense) to go to heaven. 2) I’m not a perfect law keeper. 3) I need someone, namely Jesus, to keep the law perfectly for me. 4) After I believe in Jesus God sees me as a law keeper, and now I must strive to keep the law. I can never remember anyone specifically telling me this when I was a young Christian but I certainly believed it. However, there’s a glaring problem with that framework–it’s not biblical. Over and over again the Bible teaches us that we have to be righteous to see God, to be with God (see verses listed here.) Now I know what some of you may be thinking. “Doesn’t the Old Covenant law show me what righteousness is?” Well, no. Think about it, when the New Testament authors are talking about righteous living do any of them say, “look at the law and you’ll understand?” When Paul teaches us the fruit of the Spirit does he say, “If the Spirit is working in you, you will keep the Ten Commandments?” The Old Covenant law was not given as a depiction of what true righteousness is. In the story of Israel we are told that the Old Covenant law was given to teach Israel–and through the story all men–that they were not righteous. And teaching someone they are not righteous is not the same as teaching someone what true righteousness is. Righteousness is a quality belonging to God. It cannot be captured in a list of rules–no matter how long the list is! If you want to understand righteousness, if you want to see righteousness, you have to see God. That’s why we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect if we are to be with him in heaven. That’s why we are being conformed into the image of Christ. And that’s why when New Testament authors explain righteousness to us they say, “look at Jesus–who is God–and you’ll understand what righteousness is.”

**In my next blog I’ll give my biblical argument for not keeping the law. I’ll mainly use Acts 15 and Romans 7. Take some time to read those two chapters and figure out what you believe they say about keeping the law.

5 Responses to "Do I have to keep the Old Testament law? The Ten Commandments? (Part 1)"
  1. Good stuff. Would you argue the (lower-case-L) law is conditioned upon the existence of the Old Covenant? Another way of saying this is: as Jesus established the New Covenant making the Old Covenant obsolete (as the author of Hebrews puts it), the law is now obsolete and no longer binding in any context or for any people because as it was predicated on the existence of Old Covenant. Is this where you land the plane, so to speak?

    • Good to hear from you Trevor. And yes, that’s exactly what I’ll try to argue in my next post. A proper use of the law, then, is based on letting it function properly within the narrative of Israel.

  2. Great – I look forward to reading it. I didn’t mean to jump the gun. Patience is a virtue, they say.

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