The Goodness of the Law – an answer to legalistic doctrine

Regular readers might have noticed that I’ve written many times on law and legalism. I think a few readers might have wondered if I’d gone off the antinomian deep end.

I have not.

The Place of the Law

Jesus said:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18.)

The law, then, is firmly in place. Jesus came to fulfill it, and it will remain in place and not disappear until “everything is accomplished.”

Yet Jesus’ words tell us that the law will eventually disappear, because its purpose has been fulfilled in him. The purpose of the law, apparently, is very important to the work of Jesus.

The Purpose of the Law

David sang of the purpose of the law a thousand years before Jesus’ birth:

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:9-11.)

David found the law (the decrees of the Lord) sweet not because it is easy, but because of its purpose. We are warned by it, and we are blessed in keeping it.

Paul said as much after Jesus’ death too.

I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. (Romans 7:7.)

This is good news for Paul, since it is by recognizing sin that we recognize the things we allow to get between us and God. Paul was merely agreeing with another one of David’s songs:

Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. (Psalm 25:8-9.)

It is God’s goodness, therefore, that instructs us in his ways.

The Passing of the Law

The law David sang of is found in the laws God gave Moses. Same with Paul. Does that mean Paul told us to follow the Old Covenant law that God gave the Israelites through Moses?

God promised his Old Covenant people that one day they would not need the law as an external guide. He promised them a guide that would dwell within them, one that would come to them when God made his people new creations.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34.)

God promised to write his law on their hearts, to forgive them  forever, and that they would know him.

Knowing God, after all, is the ultimate purpose of the law, And that’s what Jesus came to fulfill.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26.)

The Bible tells us that this same Holy Spirit now lives in those of us who belong to Christ. This is part of life under the New Covenant. This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ work in the lives of those who belong to him.

So the reason the law of Moses does not apply to us is not because it is bad but because its purpose is to show those who do not yet belong to Christ what sin is. For those of us who do belong to Christ, we do not need the law because Jesus defeated sin for us by his death.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57.)

The Bible does not give us permission to sin at will just because the purpose of the law has been fulfilled for us. No, as Paul went on to tell the Corinthian church, our role now is to live in that fulfillment:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58.)

Living in this fulfillment is not always easy, as Paul knew. (Just read Romans 7 for the struggles he found in his life in Christ.) But those of us who belong to God already live fulfilled lives because of what Jesus accomplished for us in his finished work on the cross.


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11 Responses to The Goodness of the Law – an answer to legalistic doctrine

  1. Love how you put all these OT and NT passages about the law together. It takes a Christian judge to do this so well and I a sure that you often struggle with government law and biblical law. As I understand it we observe the moral law of the OT, but not the ceremonial law of the OT.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Carol. My understanding of following law is that we are to follow the law of love under the New Covenant, rather than identify OT moral or ceremonial laws and figure out which ones still apply. None of them do, since all of them are fulfilled in Christ.

      • Would the moral law be the Ten Commandments? Are there any of those ten that do not apply?

        • Say I come to your courtroom and I say that I have been following the “law of love” when I chose both adultery and murder of my spouse. Actually Christ’s law is higher than the OT–He looks at lust as adultery and hate as murder. I do not think that He negates the 10 Commandments when He fulfills them and gives us the strength to follow His commands. I read Rev. 22:14 this morning: “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city.” It is both “work out our salvation” and “God is at work in us”. And yes it is “by grace that we are saved, not of works”.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    ISV Mat 5:17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them, but to fulfill them,
    Mat 5:18 because I tell you with certainty that until heaven and earth disappear, not one letter or one stroke of a letter will disappear from the Law until everything has been accomplished.
    Mat 5:19 So whoever sets aside one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom from heaven. But whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom from heaven
    Mat 5:20 because I tell you, unless your righteousness greatly exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom from heaven!”

    Jesus says not to set aside the LEAST of these commandments (as found in Scripture). So there is no way that “fulfill” means to do away with. It turns out that “destroy” and “fulfill” are Jewish idioms found many times in the Mishnah. Destroy means to misinterpret Torah (so that one ends up breaking a rule) and Fulfill means to interpret Torah correctly so that it can be obeyed.

  3. Pingback: If you rely on law, you rely on death | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  4. Christian says:

    Even as a Christian I do not fully understand this.

    • Tim says:

      One thing I do understand is that in Christ the law is fulfilled and since I am also in Christ the law is fulfilled for me by him.

      • Gwen Acres says:

        I like that Tim. That I can grasp theologically and personally. I can never do Law and Commandments perfectly. In my own sight I will always be a failure and a sinner. So if I believe I am in Christ and He fulfilled the Law then I am in a place of peace.

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