Under Law or Under Grace? YES! (OT Interpretation #5)

Engraved on Stone

Deuteronomy 4:11-14 establishes that the Old Covenant is made up of the 10 Commandments as well as the commandments related through Moses to the people of Israel in the Sinai Desert. Deuteronomy 5:1-6 teaches that this covenant was not given to the patriarchs of Israel like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but only to the generation that came out of Egypt under Moses. And Exodus 20-24 reveals that the Law of Moses was given as one holistic law, it was not divided into a ceremonial, civil and moral law. Though we can see that the individual commands are applied to different areas of life, they are each interconnected and make up one law known as the Law of Moses and referred to as the Old Covenant by the New Testament writers.

Now we must ask, do Christians still need to obey the Old Covenant commands? Are we under the authority of the 10 Commandments?

4 And we have such trust through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 

2 Corinthians 3:4-6

In 2 Corinthians chapter 3 Paul is writing to the Corinthians and defending his ministry as a minister of the New Covenant. He declares that he, and his co-laborers are sufficient ministers, but not in themselves, only by the grace of God’s Spirit. In verse 6 he begins to address some differences between the Old and New Covenants. In this verse he begins to teach that the New Covenant is of the Spirit, not mere letters, and that it brings life, not death.

7 But if the ministry of death, written and engraved on stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of the glory of his countenance, which glory was passing away, 8 how will the ministry of the Spirit not be more glorious

2 Corinthians 3:7-8

In verses 7 and 8 Paul points to the 10 Commandments, those commands engraved on stone, and calls it the ministry of death. That is a strong statement about God’s Old Covenant law. This is not meant to denigrate the Law of Moses, but point to the weakness it had in dealing with sin. Since the Old Covenant was a written law, it could do nothing to internally change the heart of the people that embraced it. It could communicate what God required and warn of the punishments that would follow disobedience, but it could not impart ability to individuals to keep it. It could not deal with the source of sin, the corrupted hearts of men, but merely teach and warn. In this sense it was a ministry of death. It did not bring life, and in fact it made people more accountable for their sin. The more one knows, the more they are accountable.

He also introduces an Old Testament narrative about Moses. After Moses had spent time in the presence of God on Mount Sinai he came down to the people. When the people saw him they saw that his face was glowing with God’s glory. This made them uncomfortable and he began to wear a veil over his face when he addressed the people. Then he would remove it when he went back into the presence of the Lord. Paul notes that the glory on Moses’ face was related to his receiving of Israel’s law from God, so he teaches us that the Old Covenant law came with glory. But he notes that this glory was fading away. It did not remain permanently on Moses’ face. He then asserts in verse 8 that the ministry of the Spirit, that is the New Covenant ministry, was more glorious than the ministry of death.

9 For if the ministry of condemnation had glory, the ministry of righteousness exceeds much more in glory. 10 For even what was made glorious had no glory in this respect, because of the glory that excels. 11 For if what is passing away was glorious, what remains is much more glorious

2 Corinthians 3:9-11

In verses 9-11 Paul goes on to express that the Old Covenant has no real glory when compared with the glory of the New Covenant. The first reason he gives is that the covenant given to Israel brought condemnation. It exposed their sinfulness and magnified it without delivering them from it. But the New Covenant in Jesus Christ brings righteousness. It does not merely show us what we should do, but by God’s Spirit we are enabled to obey God. The second reason the glory of the New Covenant is greater is that it excels, that is, it increases as time passes, but the glory of Moses’ Law passes away.

12 Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech– 13 unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. 15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. 

2 Corinthians 3:12-15

In verse 12-15 Paul uses the veil of Moses as an analogy. He teaches that the unbelieving Jews do not understand the writings of Moses because it is only through faith in Christ that we understand the prophetic nature of the Old Covenant. The Old Testament was written to point people to the glory of Jesus Christ. It was not meant to be something people held onto forever. It was a temporary covenant with one nation that pointed to the Coming One who would bring in everlasting righteousness through forgiveness of sin and the breaking of sin’s power by the giving of His Holy Spirit.

16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. 

2 Corinthians 3:16-18

The people of Israel were shielded from the glory of God radiating from Moses’ face. It was a fading glory. But when we turn to Jesus Christ we are allowed to gaze into the glory of God, which we see in His Son Jesus Christ, Who is revealed to us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is transforming grace. 

Moses was only allowed to see God from behind as He passed by on the mountain. Then Moses had to leave the mountain and go back to the people. The glory then began to fade. But we see God’s glory face to face in Jesus Christ! We, by the Spirit that dwells in us, never need to leave God’s transforming and glorious presence. So we are changed from one level of glory to an ever increasing level of glory! We are not under the Law of Moses, but we are under the influence of the transforming grace of God!

What is the conclusion of all of this and how does it relate to our original question? We asked if Christians are required to submit to the Law of Moses in general and the 10 Commandments in particular. This passage of scripture makes it clear that the Old Covenant law, including those commands that were engraved on stone, were of a temporary nature. They were given to expose sin and give relatively righteous standards to live by. 

But now that Christ has given us His Spirit we are set free from the power of sin and transformed into the image of Christ day by day. Not by trying to obey the Old Covenant Law, but by following God’s Son through the Holy Spirit. In Christ we have not been given laws written on stone, but we are given the very character of God written on our hearts, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit. To exchange the ministry of the Holy Spirit which brings eternal life and freedom from sin for the ministry of death which was written on stone is to go backwards, not forwards. It is to reject God’s grace and choose bondage to sin instead

Are Christians Lawless?

Are Christians lawless since they are under grace and not under the Law of Moses? The answer to this question among evangelical Christians in particular and Protestants in general is usually “We are under grace, not law!” The problem is that our answer is not biblical. To make it biblical we need to clarify which law we are referring to. The resounding statement should read, “We are under grace, not the Old Covenant law which came through Moses!”

Though it is true that Christians are under the influence of the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, we must not imagine that God has left us without a law. We must not imagine that Christ came with grace, but not truth. The fact is that Christians are under the grace of God that is found in Jesus Christ, and they are also under the Law of Christ. Let’s consider the following passage:

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law…

1 Corinthians 9:19-21

In this passage Paul is explaining part of his missionary strategy. In verse 20 he tells the Corinthians that even though he is no longer under (i.e. obligated in the sight of God to keep) the Old Covenant law, he does keep it when he is around non-Christian Jews. He keeps the various ritual and dietary laws of the Torah when among Jews in order to avoid unnecessarily offending them. He wants to make it clear that one can be Jewish and believe in the Jewish Messiah. A Jew does not have to give up Jewish culture to follow Christ. 

Then, in verse 21, he goes on to explain that when he is among gentiles he does not keep the Law of Moses, but he is quick to point out that this does not mean he lives a lawless life among the gentiles. Though he does not keep the ritualistic and dietary aspects of Israel’s law, he does live according to the moral and spiritual teachings of Christ, which were a fulfillment of the Jewish law. He says he is not without law in the sight of God, but is under the Law of Christ. That is to say, he is still obligated to keep God’s law which is the Law of Christ.

So, are Christians under law or under grace? Both! We are under both the grace and the law of the New Covenant in Christ. Being under grace means that not only do we benefit from God’s mercy and sanctifying power (1 John 2:1 & Romans 6:14), but that we are also obligated to receive it through faith and dependence on Christ (Rom 8:13). Being under God’s law in Jesus Christ means that we are obligated to submit our lives to the commands He gave us (Matthew 7:24-27, 28:19-20). In Christ we have a perfect Law Giver and a perfect High Priest. One who tells us what God requires of us, One who continually presents a perfect sacrifice for us in the presence of God and One who supplies His Spirit to us so that we may walk according to His perfect law of liberty!

Freedom Through Death

2 Corinthians 3:4-18 teaches that the Old Covenant is no longer in effect for those who believe in Christ, but how does that work? If God gave a law to be obeyed, why does it not apply to us? How can a law given by God be temporary? Paul answers this very question for us in Romans chapter 7.

1 Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? 2 For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.

Romans 7:1-3

Let us note here that when Paul refers to the Old Covenant law (i.e. Law of Moses, 10 Commandments, etc.) he uses shorthand and merely calls it “the law.” When Paul uses the phrase “works,” that is almost always shorthand for “works of the law.” These are important things for us to recognize or we will give Paul’s teaching a meaning he never intended.

In Romans 7:1-3 Paul shares a basic fact about Moses’ law, namely that the law only has authority over people for a lifetime. Death releases people from being under the law’s jurisdiction. He uses the example of marriage. A woman is bound to her husband in marriage, and only his death can free her from the obligation to be a faithful wife to him. The law does not insist that she remain married to a dead man. 

He further illustrates this point by referring to adultery. He writes that a married woman who marries another man while her husband lives is clearly breaking the law. This act makes her an adulterer. On the other hand, if the woman’s husband dies, she is perfectly at liberty to marry another man. No one would accuse her of breaking the law, because the law does not have dominion over anyone after death.

4 Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another–to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. 

Romans 7:4

In verse 4 the apostle arrives at his point. Is Jesus Christ still under the Law of Moses today? Of course not! He died; death freed Him from the jurisdiction of the law. The law of Israel has no dominion over Him, since the law’s authority ends with death. Jesus Christ is most definitely not under the Old Covenant. When He rose from the dead He became the beginning of a brand new creation, a creation that is not under the Law of Moses. Jesus is free from the law!

But how does that relate to us? When people repent of their sins and believe in Christ they are commanded to be baptized into Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27). In the act of baptism we identify with the death of Jesus Christ, and by coming out of the water we declare that we are new creatures, with new life, in Jesus Christ. By identifying with Christ, we partake in both His death to the law, and His resurrection to new life. Though naturally speaking we have not physically died, in God’s eyes we have. God reckons us dead to sin, and the law, and alive to God in Christ.

Paul says that since we died we are no longer under the Law of Moses. But He does not say we are now free from having a master. Just as the woman in the illustration was free to marry after the death of her first husband, so we are now free to be joined to another Master after dying to the dominion of the law. We are no longer under the authority of the law, but we are now joined to the risen Son of God Who has become both our Lord and our divine Husband. Now we are not under the Law of Moses, but we are under the Law of Christ. We are no longer under the ministry of death, but we are now submitted to the Spirit of Jesus. And we are no longer under the power of sin and death, but we are under the dominion of grace.

5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. 6 But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter

Romans 7:5-6

In verse 5 Paul refers to a time when we were “in the flesh.” He is pointing to the time when God saw us in our sin, under law, condemned to death. But now we are not reckoned as being in the flesh, but in Christ Jesus, filled with His Spirit. While in the flesh we were helpless. We recognized the goodness of God’s commands, but we were in bondage to sinful desires. The commands of Moses’ Law only condemned us more, because we were unable to free ourselves, and the law which was written on stone could not help us to change. 

But now, we have died to the law by placing our faith in Christ and being identified with Him. Now God has reckoned us as His children in Jesus Christ. And with that acceptance as sons and daughters of God comes the Spirit of grace to transform us into the image and likeness of God. The letter of the law written on stone condemned us and did nothing to free us. The kindness of God in Christ both forgives us and writes the Law of Christ in our hearts by His Spirit so that we might bear godly and righteous fruit unto God.

So, how is it that we are no longer obligated to obey the Law of Moses? Because by being joined to Jesus Christ we partake of Christ’s death to the law and a new life in the Spirit of God. We have died to the Old Covenant written on stone, and have come to life under the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. We are no longer under the Law of Moses because of our spiritual identity with Christ in His death and His resurrection from the dead. 

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