One of the big questions that all Christians face at one time or another has to do with the law of the Old Testament. What role, if any, does it now play in the life of the believer? Unfortunately, when Christians attempt to answer this question, the law often suffers. Throughout the centuries, Christians have maintained that the law does have an important role to play in the life of individual, born-again Christians; sadly, though, Christians who totally dismiss the law from their life or downplay its importance are denying themselves a wonderful benefit. So long as they ignore in whole or in part the law, they will miss out on a deeper, richer, and more vibrant experience of God’s call on their life. How can I make such a bold statement? While it is altogether true that the law does not and cannot save us, it does provide us with an indispensable guide to living the holy life that is pleasing to God. As Peter exhorted Christians to be holy in our conduct for God our Father is holy. Peter said,
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ (quoted from Leviticus 11.44) (1 Peter 1.13-16)
Peter was quoting from the book of Leviticus, which was at the very heart of the law of the Old Testament. Once Peter had been saved by grace and was trusting in that grace day by day, he gained a fresh perspective on the law. It was a guide that instructed Christians on how to live a life that is pleasing to God. But before we consider how it is able to help in this way, let’s consider how the law has often been mishandled.
Typically, there are three ways that Christians may mishandle the law:
• Legalism—is the mistaken belief that someone can save himself or, at least, nudge his salvation along simply by following the law perfectly. This belief is mistaken because it assumes that human effort is part of the grounds of salvation, rather than a fruit that grows out of the soil of salvation. Wherever legalism is in full force, God’s grace retreats. Legalism, and its ugly twin-sister moralism, asserts that people may storm the gates of heaven and wring favour from God’s heart simply by doing what is right. Yet the Bible declares that salvation is a free gift given by God and received by faith; it doesn’t depend on human effort at all (Ephesians 2.8).
• Lawlessness (antinomianism)—is the misguided notion that the law no longer applies to Christians. Believers can do away with the law entirely because Jesus obediently fulfilled the law on our behalf; he lived the life of obedient submission to the commands of the law, so we don’t have to. In response to this misguided notion, Jesus replies, ‘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. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.17-19).’
• Law unto oneself (autonomy)—is the incorrect idea that Christ set us free to do what we please. The autonomous person has crowned himself king of his own destiny. No sooner has Christ achieved liberty, then he is side-lined. Although this incorrect idea has an ancient pedigree, it has gained a new sense of life and purpose in the post-modern era of which we are a part. Autonomy literally means ‘self-law’ or self-rule’ and our world has certainly made the self the centre of the universe and the Lord of reality. Not only does the figure of Christ the King of kings and Lord of lords make no sense to self-centered people, he is offensive to them. How dare anyone other than myself tell me what to do!, the autonomous person cries out. Doing your own thing in your own way in your time regardless of how anyone else is doing it is the great preoccupation of the autonomous person. The antidote to the plague of autonomy is found in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where the apostle explains just how glorious and powerful Christ is:
Ephesians 1.20-23: (God) raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
God crowned only one person King of kings and Lord of lords and it is not you or me. God’s only begotten Son, who is co-eternal with his Father, holds that singular office. As a declaration of Christ’s absolute sovereignty, verse 23 says that God put ‘all things’ under the feet of Christ. There is nothing in this universe, past or present, material or spiritual, that stands above Christ. Rather, he stands supreme over it all in its totality. This passage deals a death-blow to the spirit of autonomy in the church by stating that God gave the church to Christ making him ‘head over all things to the church’ (verse 22). Even (and especially) in the church, Christ is supreme ruler. Autonomy is rebellion against Christ’s crown.
We have considered how Christians mishandle the law. So, then, what is the proper way to relate to it? The proper way to handle the law once we are born from above is to treat it is a guide that directs us to live holy lives that please God and bring him glory.
The Holy Life
The holy life is based on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit with whom we cooperate.
Peter preached to Cornelius and his household a truth that applies to all humanity: God accepts anyone who
• Fears him
• Does what is right (verse 35)
Jesus Christ the Judge
Peter also stressed that God appointed Jesus Christ to be judge of the living and the dead (verse 42). What does the judgment entail? John’s gospel paints a picture of a world of darkness that has been pierced by heavenly light. Some are drawn to this light, while others are repulsed by it:
John 3.19-21: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
There are several witnesses who bear testimony that Jesus Christ is supreme judge. Let’s consider three of these witnesses.
The apostles (verses 39, 41, 42 [twice])
The prophets (verse 43)
The works that Jesus does (verse 38)
Jesus the Perfect Judge
There are two things to note about the Judgment:
First, Jesus will be the judge. He will be a fair judge for he knows the entire content of human heart:
John 2.24-25: But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
In this quote, ‘man’ means the breadth and depth of humanity. Jesus knows everything about all of us; nothing about humanity is unknown to him.
Second, the Judgment will be according to works:
Matthew 16.27: For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
Let it be said loud and clear: it is by grace that we are saved through faith (Ephesians 2.8). It is by grace alone through faith alone. Our best works do not save. Yet, as was noted at the beginning of the sermon, the law becomes our guide, directing us to live holy lives that please God and bring him glory. The law can never save, but once we are saved it assists us in bearing the fruit that characterizes the children of God.
Earlier we saw that Scriptures assures us that God accepts anyone who fears the Lord and does what is right. But what do these terms mean—fear of the Lord and doing what is right?
Fear of the Lord: summarizes the first four of the Ten Commandments:
• You shall have no other gods before the Lord God Almighty
• Do not make idols
• Do not profane God’s name; it is holy
• Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy
Doing what is right: summarizes in the final six of the Ten Commandments
• Do not murder
• Do not commit adultery
• Do not steal
• Do not bear false witness
• Do not covet your neighbour’s life
Jesus intensified the demands of the law when he taught that anyone who thinks murderous thoughts is considered a murderer. Those who think wicked thoughts has broken the law and Jesus taught that breaking one law is the same as breaking all the laws
The Holy God must act righteously and judge those who break God’s law.
The Good News
The law of God drives us back to the grace of God. When we consider the impossible standard that the law demands of us, we are forced to turn back in humble submission to our heavenly Father. While we may think that God will deal harshly with us, we are met with something unexpected.
Peter proclaims the truth: God sent the word of Good News of peace through Jesus Christ (who is Lord of all) (verse 36). The prophets witnessed to the forgiveness of sins through the name of Jesus (verse 43). Jesus was hanged on a tree, becoming a curse for us (verse 39).
Galatians 3.13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.