The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Legalism, the Mosaic Law, and the New Testament

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American Vision’s offering of E.C. Wines’ Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews brought many interesting responses. Some of them were troubling. One emailer asked, “Do you want legalism? I sure don’t!” Keeping God’s law is not legalism. Another emailer wrote, “Under the New Covenant, love the Lord God with all thy heart, mind, soul and strength. Love thy neighbor as thy self, encompasses all the law. We are not bound by Mosaic law! [Matt. 22:36–40].” I pointed out that in response to the question by the Pharisees about which is the Greatest Commandment, Jesus quoted the Mosaic law, in particular Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus went on to say that “on these two commandments depend the whole Law and Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Jesus did not say that because of these two laws the law passes away.

Of course, we learn later in the NT that laws related to the redemptive work of Jesus are completed. There is no longer any need for animal sacrifices, earthly priesthood, a stone temple, or circumcision. Jesus is our lamb, priest, and temple. Circumcision is no longer needed because the final seed (Jesus) was born. Circumcision is a blood rite, cleansing the seed. All things related to blood are fulfilled in Jesus. But there is no NT indication that the moral application of the OT law has passed away. Paul makes reference to the OT law when he wants to define love. “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). How do you know when you love your neighbor? How do you know when you love Jesus? “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Paul defines love toward a neighbor in the same way:

For this, “You shall not commit adultery , You shall not murder , You shall not steal , You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:9–10).

Loving your neighbor as yourself is a summary of the law. A summary does not nullify what it summarizes. Love isn’t a substitute for the law; love is defined by the law. Love is not a feeling; it’s an act. Love is what people do.

Jesus had His most vocal disputes with the Pharisees. This has led many Christians to believe that Jesus was opposed to the law, that He had come to nullify the law, because the Pharisees were all about keeping the law. The Pharisees, contrary to popular opinion, did not keep God’s law. They were not “the best people of their day.”[1] The best people were men like Simeon (Luke 2:25), Zacharias (Luke 1:6), and Joseph (Matt. 1:19), and women like Anna (Luke 2:36), Mary (Luke 1:46–56), and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6). Elizabeth and Zacharias “were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). The commandments of God were neglected by the Pharisees (Mark 7:8). They “nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep [their] tradition” (Mark 7:9). Jesus told the Pharisees that they had the devil as their father (John 8:44), not because they kept God’s law, but because they substituted it for a set of man-made traditions. James B. Jordan sets the record straight about the Pharisees:

We are used to thinking of the scribes and Pharisees as meticulous men who carefully observed the jots and tittles [of God’s law]. This is not the portrait found in the Gospels. The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus encountered were grossly, obviously, and flagrantly breaking the Mosaic law, while keeping all kinds of man-made traditions. Jesus’ condemnation of them in Matthew 23 certainly makes this clear, as does a famous story in John 8. There we read that the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman taken “in the very act” of adultery (John 8:1–11). How did they know where to find her? Where was the man who was caught with her? Apparently he was one of their cronies. Also, when Jesus asked for anyone “without sin” (that is, not guilty of the same crime) to cast the first stone, they all went away, because they were all adulterers.[2]

When the “scribes and the Pharisees . . . seated themselves in the chair of Moses,” that is, when the law was properly taught and applied, the people were to do all that they told them (Matt. 23:2–3a). At the same time, Jesus admonished the people “not to do according to their deeds” (v. 3b) which were contrary to the law (read all of Matt. 23).

Does keeping the law save us? Did it save the Israelites in the OT? James tells us that “for whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). One sin, one transgression of the law, is enough to condemn us to eternal judgment. Only Jesus kept the law perfectly. God “made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus “redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). Salvation is by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8–10). In this sense, we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

But does salvation by grace through faith mean that Christians are free to live any way they please since they are “redeemed from the curse of the law”? Paul asks it this way: “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:21). In another place Paul tells us that “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8).

No one ever was or ever will be saved by keeping the law. This is the Bible’s point when Romans 6:14 says that the Christian is not under the law. This is far different from saying that the Christian is not obligated to obey the law as a standard of righteousness. In the very next verse, Paul states, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (6:15).

Sin is defined as “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Obviously some law is still in force or there would be no sin, and if there is no sin then we do not need an Advocate with the Father. In addition, “if we confess our sins [‘lawlessness’]; He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins [lawlessness] and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

While there are many questions about which OT laws still apply under the NT, there is no debate that keeping God’s law is an important part of the Christian life.


[1] George W. Lasher, “Regeneration—Conversion—Reformation,” The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, R. A. Torrey, A. C. Dixon, et al., eds., 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, [1917] 1988), 3:140.
[2] James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes:  Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988), 267.

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