Challenge: Why Don’t Christians Follow the Law?

Posted: September 4, 2012 by Amy Hall in God is Real, Jesus Changes Everything, Weekly Challenge

Today’s challenge comes from a list of “Ten Questions to Ask Your Pastor, Reverend, Minister, or Priest”:

Matthew 5:17-18 says quite clearly that Jesus demands Christians follow Old Testament law completely, to the smallest possible point. Why don’t they?

Can you respond to this theological challenge? Here’s a hint: The first step with any challenge like this one is to read the passage carefully in context. Take a shot, and we’ll hear Brett’s response on Thursday.

  1. Matthew 5:17 does not say we should follow the law completely. It says that Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but fulfill it. The Old Testament law contains at least three different aspects:

    Ceremonial Law (sacrifices, cleanliness and uncleanliness, dietary laws, festivals, etc.)
    Civil Laws (executions for breaking certain religious laws)
    Moral Laws (universal moral laws that are binding for everyone at all times)

    The first two types of laws were only meant for Israel and THOSE are the laws that Jesus fulfilled here on earth. Since Jesus was the final sacrifice for sin and makes us clean by his blood, we no longer need to follow the various ceremonial laws. God’s new covenant is now with the church, not with a specific nation. Since the church isn’t a nation, but a group of people within nations, it does not need to follow the various civil laws layed out in the OT. The moral laws are laws like do not murder, do not steal, etc. Those are universal and should be followed by everyone, not just Israel.

    I’d argue that there are also culturally contingent laws in the OT that don’t apply to us today. Leverite marriage, where a man has to take the wife of his deceased brother as his own wife, is a good example. That had it’s purpose in Israel’s time (established a clear line of inheritance, gave the woman protection and the chance to bear children), but it does not really apply to us today where inheritance laws are different, women don’t necessarily need husbands for their well being, and having no children doesn’t have the level of shame that it did back then.

  2. Erik says:

    I would first be curious what is meant by the term “follow the law”. As Kyle points out, there are different facets of law in the Old Testament, so to which part of the “law” does the question refer? Civil? Ceremonial? Moral? The Ten Commandments? Are we asking about Levite cleanliness prior to a sacrifice? Or whether or not God has forbidden something he considers to be an abomination that would still apply today? I think I would want to further clarify that point if I was having a conversation with someone on this topic, just so we can correctly understand the reason it was asked, and to further determine the best way to respond. Overall, this can be a complex question and can take some time and study to really answer thoroughly. But depending on who you’re talking to, it may be a bit easier to answer.

    Kyle goes where I would go first in addressing what the passage in Matthew is and is not saying in the referenced passage as well as succinctly pointing out the fact that there are differences in OT laws, some applicable today, some not. If the person I’m talking to takes issue with those distinctions (which they sometimes do), perhaps indicating that we can’t just pick and choose which rules to follow. If they do this, I usually point out that our own legal system reflects a similar construct in that we have various types of laws that apply only to some as well as laws that apply to all. For example, we have State, Local and Federal laws, business laws, civil laws, etc. It shouldn’t be difficult for someone to understand that there are distinctions within the law that don’t apply to every person in every situation. If you are a business owner, for example, there are certain laws regarding your business that apply to you that don’t necessarily apply to the average person. I live in Oregon, so I am bound by the laws of the state of Oregon; laws in the state of Washington don’t apply to me while I’m in Oregon. In similar fashion, some facets of the OT law applied to certain people and in certain situations.

    They may ask “how do we know which laws are for us to follow today?” The long answer is one discussion that probably isn’t suited well for this format. To have this discussion in depth you could go over OT laws in general and review systematic theology texts to arrive at the final conclusions. But I don’t think you have to go that far as Jesus and Paul gave us some easier answers that should satisfy most.

    Jesus simplified the issue for us in Matthew 22:36-40. The Jewish religious leaders were particularly worried about Jesus’ teachings. Their livelihoods were being threatened by a man that was questioning their authority and teachings. In seeking to trap him, they question him on a variety of topics, including the law. In the Matthew 22 passage, Jesus is questioned by a Pharisee, in particular, a lawyer. He asks: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (NASB) Jesus was pointing out that the laws to which they clung so desperately were really a distraction from what was most important. We still follow the law, but do so in the spirit of these two commands. Since these commands are the foundation on which the law (moral) was based, we find ourselves following the law when we follow these commands. In so doing, we act in obedience to Christ.

    Next, I would also point out that while we follow the law in the spirit of the two commands Jesus gave, it’s important to remember that we are not justified by following the law. For that, I particularly like Galatians Chapter 3. Paul does a fine job of pointing out why the law was given in the first place – to show us our sin and our need for a savior. He makes it clear that no law can impart life. He goes on to say in verses 25-26: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (NASB)

    So, do Christians follow the “law”? In the OT sense of practicing the ceremonial laws, etc., no they do not. But in the NT view of the law, Christians find fulfillment of the law in Christ. As we cannot be justified by the works of the law, we can look to faith in His perfect sacrifice since it satisfies the righteous requirements of the law. We then show our love for Him by being obedient to His commands, thereby honoring the spirit of the law.

  3. Mark in Columbia, MO says:

    The list of things demanded of us by Jesus is long – demands on our minds, our heart, our behaviors. We follow very few of them and almost none of them 100% consistently. But that says everything about us — and why we need a savior — and maybe even more about Jesus. Because despite the absolute fact that we will never always live up to even the most simple moral obligations that are demanded of us — let alone the kind of change in self demanded by Christ — Jesus STILL emptied himself for us and made of Himself a SACRIFICE for us. He said it Himself: he came to serve, not to be served.

    Finally, I’d suggest that the fact those who are trying to follow Christ — Christians — fail so miserably to truly do so is just an indication of what miserable wretches we were to begin with. And I speak from experience – because no matter how poor my behavior and heart are now, they were multiple times worse before.