In our last article, we saw that some Christians believe that the State should seek to enact God’s Law. We saw that this particularly describes Theonomists who would like to see the Old Testament penal codes enforced. We also saw that “Jubilee” campaigns have their roots in what the Old Testament teaches about care for the poor, stewardship of the land and debt relief and cancellation. But also, there will be times when some of us simply express the wish that the Government would abandon self-interest and human ideology, turning instead to God and honouring his ways.
The challenge I raised against this outlook was that this raises questions about how God’s Law applies today.
Fulfilling the Law
Some Christians argue that the Law no longer matters. We are not under law but under grace. This is demonstrated by the cancellation of dietary laws, sabbaths and holy days and circumcision. However, we are also reminded that Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. We even find Jesus making stricter demands on his followers where adultery and murder become matters of the mind and heart not just external deeds and divorce and marriage are restricted to a very narrow criterion.
Some Christians have found it helpful to distinguish between three types of Old Testament Law these being:
The Ceremonial Law concerned with worship and sacrifices
The Civil Law providing guidelines for daily life in Israel. This would include regulations about gleaning, debts and interest etc.
The Moral Law – particularly the Ten Commandments with ethical demands.
Usually under this tripartite system, it is assumed that only the Moral Law continues. The Civil law was specific to Israel’s context whilst Jesus did away with the ceremonial law by his once for all sacrifice. The moral code is timeless and in fact has its roots in Creation.
Now it is worth noting two points here. First of all, we can see how some of the laws were intended to mark Israel out as different and to show that she was separate (boundary markers if you will). These may well have been specific to the context. Secondly, we have a problem with the tight demarcation. It doesn’t seem to always work like that. For example, don’t the rules about lending, gleaning etc. have a moral dimension? Isn’t the command to keep the Sabbath Day primarily ceremonial even if it has practical benefits? So, these laws may be more interconnected than we think. Furthermore, for the Jews, The Torah was not just about a legal code but about the story of God’s people from Creation through to the arrival at the Promise Land. It isn’t just a set of rules but wisdom for life embodied in a narrative that told God’s people about why they were different, not through their own greatness of goodness but because of God’s mercy and grace to them, calling them, rescuing them, forgiving them, protecting them and providing for them.
Which brings us back to the question. What does it mean when we say that Jesus fulfilled the Law. I want to suggest that Jesus fulfilled the Law by:
- Obeying it perfectly by loving God with all his heart, soul and mind and his neighbour (even his enemies) as himself. His obedience is seen in his life but most of all in his death on the Cross. He fulfils the law on our behalf. We are united with him and we are justified by faith. His imputed righteousness means that it is just as if I kept God’s Law perfectly.
- Bearing the penalty for our sin. He is the perfect sacrifice. He is also the High Priest who mediates for us.
- As we are in him, sanctified, sealed by the Holy Spirit, we are marked out as separate and different from this World.
Christians are saved by grace for works of service. We are justified and then there is the ongoing work of sanctification as we grow in him and learn obedience. The Law is helpful both in giving us the typology that points to Christ’s fulfilment and by offering wise instruction on what it means to live lives that show wholehearted love for God and self-giving love for one another.
Now, that answers part of the question but this still leaves us with the question about how God’s Law applies to governments today.
There has been at times a tendency to talk about The Church replacing Israel and in some quarters this has gone hand in hand with anti-Semitism. A careful reading of Romans 9-11 shows us that it is better to talk about believers being grafted into God’s people like branches into a tree. This means that God has always been calling a people to himself and there is continuity between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God. The continuity that links us is belief in the promise.
Note two important qualifications here.
- It has always been about faith so that people who were physical descendants of Abraham were not necessarily included in true Israel even before Christ
- The people are not replaced however there is a clear replacement of covenants as the Mosaic Covenant is replaced by the Covenant brought through the shedding of Christ’s blood. The replacement covenant is needed so that we can have replacement hearts.
Anyway, that is a bit of an introductory point. My main point here is that at times people act as though there is a “Replacement Theology” between the nation of Israel and nations today. So promises given to Israel along with corresponding duties are applied naively to Britain, America and other countries especially where there is a Christian heritage. Ironically this is often done by people who are most critical of “Replacement Theology” and it is done without Biblical warrant. A similar mistake is made by those who apply he collective promises to Israel to individual believers leading to The Prosperity Gospel.
So, we have a choice. We can either, as the dispensationalists do, assume that one day the nation of Israel will exist again as God’s people under God’s King, in which any of the Old Testament promises and requirements that are outstanding will be applied to that nation. Or alternatively, we can treat those things as applying to God’s people today whether Jews or Gentiles, all those who have put their trust in Jesus.
This means that the Old Testament Law’s primary purpose today is to teach the Church so that that we can know, love and serve Christ better. It is not intended as a text book for government or a kind of catch all manifesto. We should be very careful about applying it in that way.
So, where does that leave us? We’ll pick up on that question in our next article.