On Law and Liberty - Part 1

When Moses stepped off Mt. Horeb carrying the stone tablets of the Law, he descended into a scene of debauchery within the Jewish camp. Aaron had failed miserably in his appointed role as shepherd over the recently emancipated Jewish tribes, and on his watch the people had forsaken their Lord for a golden calf they fashioned with their own hands.

The sin of Israel was great that day, and for their offense against God and liberty, Moses responded by ordering the deaths of 3,000 men at the hands of the loyal Levite tribe. Ultimately, God put to death all the people who participated in idol worship on that day (Num 14:27-35) as a reminder that the sin of unbelief always brings judgment and death.

In his anger and disappointment over witnessing the Israelites worshipping the golden idol, Moses shattered the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments at the base of the mountain. Through his immortal act, Moses captured perfectly the nature of man’s sin in relationship to God’s holy standard: when men sin, they break God’s perfect law.

The Apostle Paul taught that when men sin, they declare by their actions that they do not wish to be bound by God’s perfection, but rather they believe they are a law unto themselves (Rom 2:1-2). In the end, man’s sin is a rejection of the Lawgiver Himself.

Why the Law?

There are at least four principle reasons for God giving men His Law. First, until the Law had been given, men could not fully comprehend nor appreciate how lofty God’s standard of holiness truly was. The giving of the Mosaic Law gave men a glimpse of God’s holiness.

Secondly, the Law of Moses came to reveal sin to mankind. Without the Law, men could not fully appreciate the depravity of their condition nor the degree of offense God found in it.

Third, the dietary and societal rules of the Law of Moses provided grace to men in their everyday lives, as it protected them from many of the afflictions common to the pagan world.

Finally, the Law of Moses was God’s instrument to drive men to know the true source of their salvation, that is Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, Scripture tells us clearly and repeatedly that the Law was not intended to provide men justification (i.e., the establishment of righteousness before God) nor sanctification (i.e., the process of living out righteousness in our daily walk). The law of Moses was powerless to accomplish either of these things.

In the case of justification, Paul says in his letter to the Romans that although the Law came to reveal unrighteousness, it was not to be a means for obtaining righteousness. Paul says that the righteousness of God was manifested apart from the Law (Rom 3:21); meaning righteousness comes by a means other than the Law, that being by faith (Eph 2:8).

Secondly, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that the Law of Moses cannot make men perfect (i.e., sanctify them), but instead a “better hope” was needed to accomplish this purpose (Heb 7:19). So, the Law was given to reveal the penalty of sin, to reveal the need for atonement, and to reveal the Person of the atonement – but not to produce nor promote righteousness among men.

Perhaps the strongest statement in Scripture declaring the Law of Moses should never be considered a mean to salvation nor holiness is found in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. In drawing a contrast between the Mosaic Law and the Law of Christ, Paul refers to the Law of Moses as the “ministry of death” and as the “ministry of condemnation.”

These are strong terms. Paul teaches that the result of seeking to find justification and holiness through doing the Law is condemnation and death. James tells us why this is so: if you endeavor to keep the whole Law yet break just one, God considers you to have broken them all (James 2:10).

Compare those words to Paul's description of the terms of the New Covenant, which he calls the Law of Christ. This better Law Paul calls the “ministry of righteousness” and “ministry of the Spirit” (2Cor 3).

You could condense all the Bible says concerning the Law of Moses into a simple statement: the Law was given to show men their unrighteousness, but Jesus came so that He might make men righteous. Therefore, one naturally leads to the other. Paul says the law of Moses is a schoolmaster (or tutor) that drives us to Christ (Gal 3:24).

One At A Time, Please

As simple as this concept may be, Christians throughout the centuries have consistently misunderstood the relationship between the Law of Moses given in the Old Testament, and the Law of Liberty (James 2:12) or Law of Christ (Gal 6:2) given in the New Testament scripture.

More specifically, Christians often have been taught it is necessary to submit again to life under the yoke of slavery (as Paul refers to the Law of Moses in Gal 5:1). Such teaching mistakenly believes that observing the law of Moses in some form is a requirement for (or at least a means to) righteous Christian living.

Such a view, however, fails to appreciate the mutual exclusivity of the two Laws (i.e., the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ). Theologically speaking, they are not intended to coexist or complement one another in the Christian experience.

On the contrary, the scriptures make clear that the law of Moses and the law of Christ are mutually exclusive; they work together only in the sense that one leads to the other. We can never be subject to both simultaneously. Rather, we must leave one to join the other (Gal 3:25).

The law of Moses and the law of Christ are, by God’s design, opposites in most every respect. One brings judgment while the other brings mercy. One reminds us of our bondage while the other grants God and liberty. One is according to the flesh while the other is according to the Spirit. One reveals our unrighteousness while the other leads us to righteousness. One is powerless to cover for our sin while the other has the power to cover all sin for all time. (see Heb 7-10).

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews uses several illustrations to make this point to his readers, none more compelling than the argument he makes in Chapter 7. In verse 12 he teaches that the priesthood is patterned and governed by the law that establishes it.

For example, the Levitical priesthood was established by the Law of Moses, but since we now look to a new High Priest in Christ (v. 26), then by necessity there must also be a new Law in effect.

More to his point, the writer teaches in verse 18 that the Law has been “set aside,” and then in Chapter 8 the writer concludes that the Law was imperfect (v. 7), which therefore required God to replace it with something better (v. 13). Clearly, scripture teaches the Law of Christ replaces the Mosaic Law and does not work along side it.

Paul illustrates the principle of exclusivity of law in the seventh chapter of his letter to the church at Rome. Borrowing from the nature of marriage, Paul declares that we were once all “married” to the Law of Moses, in that all men were judged by God according to the Law. Once we come to faith in Christ, however, we “died” with Christ to the Law.

Now, having been “born again,” we are free to remarry (Rom 7:1-4), and consequently we are united in a new marriage to our groom, Christ. Paul’s point in Chapter 7 of Romans is the same as the writer of Hebrews: a man may be bound by the Law of Moses or by the better, New Covenant of Christ, but he can never be bound by both simultaneously.

Once a man is saved by faith in Christ, the Law of Moses ceases to exist for that person. He has died to the old Law and now lives according to a new Law: the Law of Liberty (James 2:12).


Continue to Part II...