Matthew 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.(cf. Luke 16:17)
"If this is true, why are you violating the law by eating pork and wearing polyester suits?"
This is indeed the substance of Skeptical objections I have seen, but behind it lies a valid question: What is the role of the Law in the life of the Christian today? Do we need to trash our polyester? If we are true believers, do we need to execute witches? And finally, is the covenant still "good" with Israel today?
To answer these questions we need to establish some frameworks, and to do this I will draw from some previous and related essays. Our primary framework has to do with the categories of the law.
- First, some laws are universal moral laws. This includes do not steal, do not kill, and others. There is no disagreement that these laws should indeed be continued to be obeyed today, so we need not discuss them further.
- Second, some laws are cultural universals. By this I mean laws geared to Israel's culture that have a universal moral law behind them. As an example, some have suggested the prohibition on trimming your beard [Lev. 19:27] relates to pagan practices that cut facial hair for magical purposes. So the universal behind this cultural would be, don't do the occult. But here is my favorite example, from Deut. 22:8-9:
When you build a new house, make a parapet around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof.
One Skeptic says, "One would be hard-pressed to find home builders" who follow this rule. But actually they do follow the modern equivalent. In ancient Israel, the flat roof of a house would be used for many purposes, such as sleeping, household chores, and entertaining. These chores included drying and storage of produce; even today the roof is used for such things in modern Arab nations.
We don't use our roof the same way -- the modern equivalent is a balcony. Our builders certainly do make sure that they follow the point of this rule to the letter. At any rate, it would also be agreed that the universals behind these cultural applications should continue to be followed.
- Finally, there are ceremonial laws. Instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, for example, are definitely in this, as are sacrificial laws. What else belongs in here? Most likely the dietary laws belong here, as their purpose was to make the Jews "different" and to serve as a testimony to their difference in the most intimate ancient setting, that of meal fellowship.
With these matters in mind, we may now address some issues of how the law is regarded in the NT.
Matthew 5:17-18 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
One Skeptic objects that "the Law of Moses is nothing to be 'fulfilled' in any way....one cannot fulfill the law. One can only obey it." The skeptic is wrong, because he does not understand what "fulfill" means and is "fulfilling" it with his own meaning. To fulfill God's law was to confirm it by obedience; whereas to "annul" the law was to treat it as void.
This leads to our next passage:
Romans 3:31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.
"But wait," the critic says. "Hasn't Paul just said that 'Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law' (v. 28)?"
Indeed he has. And this is where another concept skeptics living in the 20th century know nothing about comes into play: the Semitic Totality Concept. And now we plagiarize our own work again to explain our meaning, The Semitic Totality Concept means that "a man's thoughts form one totality with their results in action so that 'thoughts' that result in no action are 'vain'." [Dahl, Resurrection of the Body, 60] To put it another way, man does not have a body; man is a body, and what we regard as constituent elements of spirit and body were looked upon by the Hebrews as a fundamental unity.
Applied to the role of works following faith, this means that there can be no decision without corresponding action, for the total person will inevitably reflect a choice that is made. Thought and action are so linked under the Semitic Totality paradigm that Clark warns us [An Approach to the Theology of the Sacraments, 10]:
The Hebraic view of man as an animated body and its refusal to make any clear-cut division into soul and body militates against the making of so radical a distinction between material and spiritual, ceremonial and ethical effects.
Thus, what we would consider separate actions of conversion, confession, and obedience in the form of works would be considered by the Hebrews to be an act in totality. "Both the act and the meaning of the act mattered -- the two formed for the first Christians an indivisible unity." [Flemington, New Testament Doctrine of Baptism, 111] And thus when Paul tells his readers that we "establish" (obey) the law by faith, he is saying no more than that it is our faith that prompts us to follow the law. And hence, a person who finds faith, but dies a moment later having done no works, is not condemnedHence also Paul's admonition here:
Rom. 6:15-16 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?
A believer in Jesus will indeed follow the dictates of the law -- the universal morals, of course, not the cultural particulars -- because of obedience to Christ.
"But didn't Paul say in Galatians somewhere that the law is useless?"
Not exactly. Gal. 2:16 says, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." Some may read this and other passages in Romans (7:4) and Galatians (3:13) as referring to the law as ineffectual, or as something to be avoided, but it actually means we are ineffectual, and that is why the law is a "curse" and it is necessary for Christ to make us "dead" to it.
"No flesh shall be justified" by the law because none of us can obey it fully. Paul is stating a condition of fact, not making a statement about the veracity of the law.
"So that means that Christians would have us go out executing witches and homosexuals if they ever got in charge?"
Could we? No -- let's keep something in mind about the Law. Deuteronomy is laid out in the form of an ancient treaty between a king and his vassals. It is in essence a contract between God and Israel. They "signed on" and agreed to enforce the penalties.
What's the equivalent now? We now have a new covenant or contract between Christ and the individual and the believer. The old covenant and our enmity with it is now abolished (Eph. 2:15). The non-believer, the witch, et al. aren't covered by this, but nor does our new contract contain specifications of enforcement -- that is now God's domain, with regard to each individual, on the basis of the new covenant terms.
It also suggests that those who wanted to can remain under the Old Covenant, which was never officially revoked.
What of verses that say the law is "for ever"? The word used in the Hebrew is 'olam and means, not exactly forever, but "in perpetuity." It is used to describe as well the term of a slave (Ex. 21:6//Deut. 15:17). Unless one thinks that this means that the master would dig the slave out of his grave and put him to work, this clearly does not mean "forever" in the sense that covenant would always be kept, but implies that the Jews would keep these feasts and such as long as they maintained the covenant agreement and didn't break it. At the same time, it hardly indicates that God cannot sign a new covenant/contract with others on different terms.
If one then happens to ask, "On what basis do you then continue to say that these laws are still valid morally?" -- beyond the "all agree" level of things like murder, and in the category of things like homosexuality and adultery -- the answer is that when a superior writes a contract, even if you are not a party to it, the contract will still give you an idea what values the superior holds to. We no longer enforce the penalties, but we still know what actions displease God.
"Well, then, why aren't Christians out sacrificing animals and eating kosher?"
The reason is simple for this one: All of the ceremonial laws has been superseded by Christ. (Hebrews is the NT book that lays this out the best, though see Matt. 26:28.) They pointed towards Christ and the unified body. Thus also there is no need for the laws of diet and not wearing two types of fabric woven together (the latter of which may have been related to magical practice, but may also have been a symbol of purity and separation) -- there is no longer a case of a certain people reserved to God, for the new covenant is open to all.
Discussion may of course continue over what laws in the OT belong in what category. But it is clear that the law retains a certain application today, even if not in the same way for us, and even if the critics don't have the tools to grasp it.
Glenn Miller has a related article here.