The Need for Proper Balance
Discerning how to apply the law of Moses to the Christian life proves challenging because the law of Moses appears to be both rejected and received in the New Testament. At times the biblical authors will critique the law as impotent and obsolete (e.g., Heb. 7:19; 8:13), whereas at other times the biblical authors will praise the use of the law for Christian instruction (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:15–16). More than that, seeking application for the law is fraught with danger. On the one hand, if we overemphasize redemptive-historical continuity, we run the risk of, like the “foolish Galatians” (Gal. 3:1), losing the gospel. On the other hand, if we overemphasize redemptive-historical discontinuity, we run the risk of ignoring divine covenantal instruction and thus finding ourselves awash in a sea of antinomianism.
To achieve the biblically faithful balance, we must recognize that there are elements of continuity and discontinuity between the law of Moses and the Christian life. Whole books have been written on this subject, but in what follows I will offer two ways to apply the law of Moses to Christian life.
1. Editor’s note: See this month’s two-part article from Ardel Caneday, “The Law of Moses—The Mosaic Covenant Viewed Through Progressive Covenantalism“, for further engagement with the Law of Moses.
The Law as Pointer to Christ’s Finished Work
First, Christians rightly apply the law of Moses to their lives when they trust in Christ’s finished work of fulfillment and covenant ratification on their behalf. Christ fulfilled the law through his perfect obedience and through his death that ratified the new covenant. His finished work should lead Christians to trust afresh in Christ as our only hope for righteousness before God.
Throughout Jesus’s life he kept the commandments and thus fulfilled the law. At his birth he was circumcised on the eighth day, and his mother and adoptive father kept the law of purification associated with birth (Luke 2:21–24). As a boy, he exemplified a life of wisdom and attentiveness to God’s will, while maintaining submission to his parents (Luke 2:40–52). As a man, unlike Adam and Israel, Jesus as God’s son exhibited covenant loyalty to God in his time of testing (Matt. 4:1–11; cf. Deut. 6:13, 16; 8:3). Throughout his ministry he embodied the twin summary commands of love of God and love of neighbor, thus fulfilling the true intent of the law. On account of his life of righteousness, Jesus is “the Righteous One” on our behalf (Acts 22:14; 1 John 2:1; cf. Matt. 3:15).
Not only did Jesus fulfill the law in his perfect life, but he also brought it to its intended conclusion, ratifying the new covenant through his death. Many New Testament texts speak of the planned obsolescence of the Sinai covenant and its accompanying legislation. In Jesus’s teaching, he did away with the food laws, as well as the temple tax the law required (Matt. 17:24–27; Mark 7:19; cf. Exod. 30:11–16; Lev. 11:1–47). At the Last Supper, Jesus interpreted his death as inaugurating the new covenant, replacing the old (Luke 22:20). Paul and Hebrews call the Sinai covenant “old” in contrast with the “new” covenant Jesus ratified (2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 8:6). For Paul, the Sinai covenant was in force only until the arrival of the Messiah, and at his coming he abolished the law in its entirety, such that it is no longer binding for Christians as covenant legislation (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:15–4:7; Eph. 2:15).
Similarly, Hebrews tells us that since a change in the priesthood signifies a change in covenantal legislation, Christ’s accession to the Melchizedekian priesthood signifies the end of the Sinai covenant (Heb. 7:11–19). More than that, any attempt to return to a life under the Sinai legislation is akin to rejecting the gospel and falling away from Christ (Gal. 5:3–4). Now that Christ has come, a return to the strictures of the Sinai legislation would be tantamount to a denial of the effectiveness of Christ’s work on behalf of his people and the inaugurated reality of the life-giving new covenant.
Hence, Christians rightly apply the law of Moses fruitfully when they regard it in its entirety as both fulfilled by Christ’s life and replaced by his covenant-inaugurating death. In light of Christ’s finished work, Christians read the law rightly when it points them to fresh faith in God’s goodness towards us in Christ. In this sense, the law can make us “wise for salvation” (2 Tim 3:15), witness to God’s righteousness in Christ (Rom. 3:21), and point to our need for a Savior (Gal. 3:24).
Abiding Instruction from the Law
Second, when we apply the law of Moses to the Christian life, not only do we trust afresh in the finished work of Christ, but we also glean from it divine wisdom and an example of God’s righteousness in a previous covenant era. We see the law as fulfilled in Christ, but this does not mean that it no longer provides instruction for Christian righteousness. Just the opposite, it maintains the righteous commands of God, which were then embodied in Christ. In this way, stating previously that the law of Christ “replaces” the law of Moses in no way suggests that law is replaced by lawlessness (i.e., antinomianism).
Following the logic of Paul, we learn that the law was from God, and therefore it is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). It bears divine authority and teaches us of the unchanging character of God (Heb. 12:29; cf. Deut. 4:24). Jesus recognized the abiding value for his disciples of the commands to love God and love neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Deut. 6:5). Paul likewise asserts that Christians fulfill the ten commandments when we love one another (Rom. 13:8–10; cf. Jas. 2:8–12). The command to honor one’s parents appears in support of Paul’s instruction to children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1–3).
2. On the way in which progressive covenantalism might read Ephesians 6:1–3 and Paul’s use of the fifth commandment, see David Schrock, “Living Long in the Land: Reading Ephesians 6:1–3 through the Lens of the New Covenant.”
Moreover, Israel’s case laws provide wisdom and instruction for the church community, such as the need to establish an accusation on the basis of two or three witnesses, or the necessity to excommunicate an idolater from the community for the sake of a pure church (1 Cor. 5:13; 1 Tim. 5:19; cf. Deut. 17:6–7; 19:15). Paul twice draws upon the law about not muzzling the ox in order to elucidate and support the Christian requirement to support the work of the ministry (1 Cor. 9:9; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Deut. 25:4). Peter likewise draws from Israel’s holiness code to establish the requirement for Christian holiness (1 Pet. 1:16; cf. Lev. 11:44). Finally, even the law’s sacrifices positively instruct Christians: when we offer ourselves to God, we are a fragrant and pleasing aroma to God through Christ (Rom. 12:1; Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:15–16; cf. Eph. 5:2). Thus, as Jason DeRouchie has pointed out, the entire law of Moses instructs us, when seen through the lens of Christ—whether Christ transforms, maintains, extends, or annuls the individual commands.
3. See Jason S. DeRouchie, “Practical Theology,” in How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 427–59.
The Law Entirely Fulfilled and Reappropriated Through Christ
It is striking to see how the biblical authors reject the law-covenant of Moses in its entirety, only to then reappropriate the entire law as wisdom and instruction for the Christian life. This suggests that the biblical authors view the law as a unified whole, that the Sinai legislation is inextricably bound up with the Sinai covenant, and that it comes to the Christian therefore not directly but mediated through the accomplished work of Christ.
The so-called tripartite view of the law, in which the law is seen to be comprised of ceremonial, civil, and moral aspects, thus is inadequate for expressing the covenantal unity of the Sinai legislation, its entire fulfillment and replacement through the work of Christ, and its entire reappropriation in the apostolic writings. A better approach is to ground the law in its covenantal and redemptive-historical context and to view it through the lens of Christ’s fulfillment of it. Such an approach, far from demeaning the law or disregarding its authority, allows the entire law to point to Christ as our righteousness, while at the same time properly upholding the entire law as instructive for Christian righteousness.