What’s the rightful place of the law that’s referred to in the scriptures to the Christian life? How should Christians today think about the law, and more directly, what bearing does the law have on our life as New Testament Christians? Here’s a passage to maybe frame this discussion a little better. Romans 13:9-10 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” And there is a school of thought out there today that would say, “We don’t need to talk about the law. And in fact, if we talk about specific claims to moral, right and wrongs, do this, don’t do that, that’s old thinking. That’s old Testament, old covenant thinking. That’s law thinking you’re trying to gain your righteousness by following the law. So what you need to just do is love, follow Jesus, walk in his footsteps, love God, love neighbor.”
And it really rejects any attempt to get more specific than that. It rejects the attempt to say, “Well, what does love look like?” It struggles to answer the question, “Is it loving if I love my neighbor’s wife to sleep with her?” It struggles to answer that. It even rejects the question. And I think there’s several issues with this. One, the New Testament is very comfortable answering those kinds of questions. And two, there are many people out there who are really looking for what it looks like to live the Christian life.
Okay, so I get it, I need to love. But can you define that term for me? Because the world is very comfortable defining the term love and how it works. In order for something to be loving on a kind of popular conception today, it needs to fit with what the recipient believes to be good and helpful. There’s not an objective standard. It depends on the individual who receives the action. So one action to one person in the same circumstances as another person receiving the same action could be loving and unloving. This is ultimately what’s behind the claims of LGBT people that when Christians say this behavior is wrong from the scriptures, that’s unloving, because they don’t receive it and feel good about it. Instead of saying, “Actually it is loving because God says this. It’s good to know what God says.”
So we can’t judge if an action is loving or not by how it’s received and how it’s thought about. We must appeal to an external standard. Because it’s true, right, that the person doing the action thinks it’s loving, perhaps, and the person receiving the action thinks it’s unloving. So who’s to say? Well, it’s just a he said, she said kind of thing. Like, I think it’s loving, you think it’s not. And so we have to appeal to some external standard, some objective standard that doesn’t depend on how we think and how we feel in order to determine that. And the scriptures are that standard.
So when we come to a passage like Romans 13, or many others in the New Testament, and it says, “Love is the fulfillment of the law,” we need to ask, well, what is love? Is it a feeling? Can I sit there and feel warm towards you and say I have fulfilled the law? And what’s the law? And if I can’t just sit there and feel warm towards you, I have to do something, how do I know what that’s something is? Is that knowledge just somehow zapped into me at salvation? Or am I taught that by the scriptures? And if I am taught what love looks like from the scriptures, how do I know?
So let’s look at, quickly, some other passages, some of these in Romans, some throughout the New Testament, to show the varied use of how love is talked about, and also to see what role works has and how the law is talked about. So here’s Romans 3:28. This is just something we should be very clear on. “For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of law.” In other words, our righteousness in God’s eyes does not come because we try to or succeed in keeping the law. We are declared righteous. We have credited to us Jesus’s righteousness. So we cannot become righteous by our works or by law keeping. That’s something we should be very clear on. Yet that still does not answer how do we know how we should live? So when Paul tells Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness,” well, what are those things we need to do to be godly?
Here’s another passage, Romans 4:5 “But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.” There’s that claim again. And he’s going to go on to give some Old Testament examples of this. This isn’t just a New Testament concept. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to abolish the law or the prophets. I haven’t come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” That’s really instructive for us. The law was not a bad thing. The law was a guardian. We see in Galatians. We also see that it had a teaching function. It taught us about sin and what it is. And this is why Paul will go on to say that after the law came, sin actually increased because being told what we could not do and being told what wrong was, we wanted to do wrong more. He makes that in other arguments.
But hopefully what you see here is based on Jesus’s words in Matthew 5, the law is not a bad thing. In fact, Jesus lived under the law, and only in so doing could be our perfect representative, such that when he died, we could, let’s go back to Romans 3, be credited with the righteousness of Jesus. It’s only because he lived under the law. But he was not opposed to the law. Jesus is not opposed to the law. He’s opposed to earning. You can’t earn your salvation. So Christianity is not also opposed to works. It’s opposed to earning. I think that’s a really important concept, which maybe I should have waited til we had more time to flesh out. But let’s keep going.
So let’s go back to that Romans passage. It says, “Love your neighbor.” And this school of thought that we are responding to today would say, “See, love your neighbor is new. It’s not law. We don’t look at individual laws and do this and don’t that. Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Well, where does that verse come from? When Paul says love your neighbor as yourself, depending on the translation you have, it might be referred to as a quotation, it might be in bold. And actually what Paul is doing is he’s quoting the Old Testament. When Jesus says the whole law is summed up in love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor, that wasn’t new. When John, writing in first, second, and third John says, “I’m giving you a new commandment,” well, it’s an old commandment, but it’s a new commandment. And he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” It’s not new. It’s from the Old Testament. So love your neighbor as yourself is a quotation from Leviticus 19:18. The Old Testament saints had no problem. And the God who inspired the New Testament also inspired the Old Testament and had no problem saying, “Love your neighbor,” and also giving examples of what that looks like. Do this, don’t do that, that kind of thing.
And so I think that’s very instructive for us. That should hopefully be very helpful for us. And just while we’re here, love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength? That’s in the Old Testament. That’s at the beginning of Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema, “Hear, oh Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And it goes on to say, “And you should teach these things to your children when you walk by the way and when you sit in your homes,” like all the time, it’s a call to family discipleship. But love God, love neighbor, not new in the New Testament. They existed in the old, right along the examples in the law of how to actually do those things, in part, not in full, but in part.
So before we answer the question how do I know what is loving to God and neighbor, we need to make one other qualification. The New Testament uses the term law in several different ways, sometimes even within the same chapter. So you can’t just assume, “Oh, it’s referring to the 613 Old Testament prohibitions and exhortations to don’t do this or do this.” That’s not necessarily true. The law might be referring to that whole entire thing. It might actually just be referring to the first five books of the Old Testament even. So much broader than that.
It might be even much more narrow. It might just be referring to the Ten Commandments. Or it might be referring to just part of the original laws in terms of the ceremonial law, like washings and how to be clean and unclean and sacrifices and don’t wear a garment from two different fabrics or plant two of the different crops in the same field. It might be just referring to that and not the whole thing. It might just actually be referring to the moral law. So not those things I just mentioned, but things like don’t murder, don’t rape, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, it might be referring to that. So we have to use context and sometimes a little bit of an educated guess to determine what is the biblical author referring to when he says law in a specific place. So I just wanted to be clear on that.
But let’s answer the question or try to answer the question in our remaining few minutes, how do I know what is loving to God? So the scripture say, “Love God, love neighbor, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Yes and amen. Okay, but let’s just say I just became a Christian today and someone tells me that. I’m probably going to have the question what do I do? Not that I’m earning. Remember, we’re not earning this side of salvation, our righteousness. And we didn’t earn it the other side of salvation. But how do I walk in such a way that’s glorifying to God? What does this love for God look like? I think that’s a question everyone needs to take seriously.
Well, here’s what 1 John says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commands and his commands do not weigh us down.” So other New Testament writers like John, the beloved disciple, was not uncomfortable saying, “Love is very much linked to obedience. Obedience of commandments.” Which commandments? Well, the ones that came from God, not man. And this refers us back to how early Christians were not uncomfortable saying, “We still do the moral prescriptions and stay away from the moral prohibitions that the scriptures say, all the while trusting Jesus alone for our salvation.” Those are not opposed. When James and James 2 says true faith isn’t just sitting and believing and trusting the right things, it actually does something, it’s active, he even gives us examples of what that is. He says true faith, it doesn’t say, “Well, you’re hungry and cold. Well, go be fed and go be warm.” No, it actually feeds and close people that have needs. It’s not enough to just have a warm disposition towards someone. No, you actually need to make sure they are warmed.
So love is marked by action. In fact, love not marked by action is not love. I think that’s a really important concept. There’s also this trend today to say, “Well, you can be loving towards someone even if you disagree with the thing you’re supporting them in.” Well, love doesn’t rejoice in evil. It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing, 1 Corinthian says. So, no, you can’t be loving if you’re supporting someone in doing something the scripture say is wrong. And the scriptures do actually tell us what is right and wrong for us as New Testament Christians. That’s really important.
Let’s get a little bit more of a running start at our Romans passage. So our Romans 13 passage, and this is what Paul says a little earlier, starting at the very beginning of verse nine, “For the commandments, do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” and if there are any other commandments, “Are summed up in this: love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” We can’t read that, just based on the grammar of it, and come away saying Paul does not concern himself with if we commit adultery or murder or steal. He’s actually saying that the commandments are summed up in love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, all of the commandments together, probably plus something, gets you love. So love is not less than following the commandments. It’s more than it.
So what you can’t do is say since the whole Old Testament law is summed up and love your neighbor as yourself, well, I don’t actually have to follow the commandments. No, love is a greater standard. It’s not a wholly different standard. It’s a greater standard than don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, and don’t covet. Because what some people want to do today is say the standard now is love. So you actually can commit adultery. So you actually can take in certain circumstances. Or marriage doesn’t have to be monogamous. Marriage doesn’t have to be between a man and a woman because the standard’s just love. That’s just incredibly foreign to the New Testament and the Old Testament.
And here’s the other interesting point. At every point when a New Testament author gives moral prescriptions or prohibitions, in other words do this or don’t do that, almost always they’re quoting from the Old Testament, either directly or indirectly. When Paul in multiple of his letters has what we might call vice lists, like things that disqualify you from inheriting the kingdom of God, like murder, adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, abuse, being a reviler, the list could go on, and I’ve missed important things I’m sure, he’s pulling those from the Old Testament. His sexual ethic is straight out of the Old Testament. And so is Jesus’s when he’s questioned in Matthew 19. He refers them back to Genesis 1 and 2, “Haven’t you read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?”
So the New Testament’s ethics are firmly grounded in the Old because the Old Testament ethics are grounded in the character of God. That’s incredibly important. God’s character didn’t change between the Old and the New Testament. So what’s right and wrong didn’t change between the Old Testament and the New Testament. As 1 John says, “This is the love of God, that we keep his commands.” So, if we want to take a step back just very quickly, we could say yes, you can do the right things with the wrong intent, and that’s not good. You can also have the right intent and do the wrong things, and that’s also not good. And so, true righteous action, empowered by the Spirit, let’s not forget that as Christians, that it’s the Spirit working in us to even will to do the right things and carry them out, true righteous action as a Christian, having been credited righteous by Jesus already, is right action with right intent for the glory of God.
But how do we know what those right actions are? The scriptures tell us. Let’s not create a division that Jesus wouldn’t have created himself or recognized that Paul wouldn’t have supported. Let’s not divide living and loving and following the commandments. Now I’m not saying all of the Old Testament, I’ve got other episodes on that if you’re interested. How do we know which commandments, which ones reflect the moral law of God, which are ceremonial, which were just for Israel as a nation? We’ve looked at that before. But even here in Romans 9, Paul is quoting specific Old Testament prohibitions. And he says the summation of them, so not less than them, but the bringing together of them, is love. So love is not less than not doing those things. Well, I hope this has been helpful. And I hope to talk with you next time on unapologetic.
4 thoughts on “Episode 216 – What’s the Role of the Law for the Christian?”
A hard, but important topic well-explained.
Did you provide audio for this episode? When I pressed to play it said Error no URL provided. I really enjoy the audio with the transcript, but happy to have the transcript.
Unintentionally, there wasn’t audio. But it should be there now.
Thank you for telling me!