“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. 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.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
“It is a harmful perversion of the truth of God to teach (as did the Puritan theologians) that while we are not to keep the law as a means of salvation, we are under it as a ‘rule of life.' Let a Christian only confess, ‘I am under the law,' and straightway Moses fastens his yoke upon him, despite all his protests that the law has lost its power. Men have to be delivered from the whole legal principle, from the entire sphere where law reigns, ere true liberty can be found.” – Dispensationalist William R. Newell
Man is naturally rebellious against God’s Law (Jeremiah 17:9). When the law is preached in churches today, cries of “legalism” abound. Seeker-sensitive church goers want a religion without rules, a salvation without repentance, and a Savior without a Lord. In short, they want to have their itching ears scratched, hoping for a cheap grace that will guarantee an eternal inheritance while leaving their hearts as wicked as ever. In my course of examining Dispensationalism, I must need deal with the worst ramification of this theology, the Dispensational treatment of God’s Law. A mild difficulty exists in this matter surrounding how to define a Dispensationalist. The broad definition of a Dispensationalist is one who considers certain portions of Scripture to be relevant only to certain ages (or dispensations). Like many theologies, there are degrees to Dispensationalism. I consider myself a theonomist, but do not agree wholeheartedly with the Bahnsen/North school concerning civil law in this regard. The majority of Dispensationalists hold that the “law” was relevant only to a certain “age of law”, and since Christ’s death, we are now living in a new “age of grace”. Some, recognizing the inconsistency of this view with Jesus’ words in the Great Commission (which we’ll examine later), go so far as to take a “Paul-only” approach, suggesting that the gospels themselves are not relevant today, as well as the books written by Peter, John, and anyone besides Paul. (We’ll examine how Paul himself viewed the law in this discourse). Still others take the racial approach, considering the law to be relevant only to Jews, whereas Gentiles are allegedly recipients of grace. John MacArthur has called himself a Premillennial Dispensationalist, focusing on his view of Israel in eschatology, but certainly does not agree with Newell’s antinomianism. Arthur Pink seemed to be very dispensational in his eschatological beliefs. However, concerning the way dispensationalists divide up scripture to certain ages, Pink correctly observed that Dispensationalism “is a device of the Enemy, designed to rob the children of no small part of that bread which their heavenly Father has provided for their souls; a device wherein the wily serpent appears as an angel of light, feigning to "make the Bible a new book" by simplifying much in it which perplexes the spiritually unlearned.” (A.W. Pink – A Study In Dispensationalism).
Israel and the Law
“The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.” (Psalms 119:160)
When God gave the Law to Israel, He commanded them to observe the words of this law forever (Deuteronomy 29:29). He made it very clear that it was never to be added to or taken from (Deuternomy 4:2). Nor did God ever once suggest that His law was for once particular race of people. God's law was for both Jew and Gentile (Leviticus 18:26, Leviticus 24:22). In fact, the reason God drove out other nations from the Promised Land is because they “would not obey the voice of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:20; Deuteronomy 9:4). They were disobedient to the very same laws that God gave to Israel (Leviticus 18:24). As Greg Bahnsen writes, “what was sinful in Israel was not tolerated just over the state line”. This is why God condemned Sodom and Gomorrah for their "lawless deeds" (2 Peter 2:8). God has one law for all people (Exodus 12:49; Numbers 15:16, 29) at all times (Psalm 89:34, Psalm 119:160). Jesus taught His Disciples to obey the law (Matthew 5:17-18), and that which Christ taught His disciples was to be observed by “all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20).
The Bible knows nothing of an “age of law” and an “age of grace”. Charles Ryrie, one of the godfathers of Dispensationalism, writes, “Another important benefit of the death of Christ was the inauguration of the faith-righteousness principle to replace the law-works principle. However, Paul's statement in Romans 10:4, that Christ is the end of the Law, might be understood as either signifying termination or purpose. In other words, either Christ terminated the Law, or the purpose of Christ's coming was to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17). However, the termination seems clearly to be the meaning in this context because of the contrast (beginning in Rom. 9:30) between the Law and God's righteousness. Paul's argument that follows is not that the Jew was incomplete and needed the coming of Christ to perfect his position before God, but that his position under the law-works principle was absolutely wrong because it sought to establish righteousness by human effort rather than by accepting God's gift of righteousness. Though it is true that our Lord fulfilled the Law, this passage is not teaching that, but rather that He terminated the Law and provided a new and living way to God”1. How does one reconcile this nonsense with the clear scriptural teaching that God law never changes? (Psalm 89:34, Isaiah 40:6-8, 1 Peter 1:22-25). Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-18 are very clear. Not one stroke or letter shall be removed.
Furthermore, if “the death of Christ was the inauguration of the faith-righteousness principle to replace the law-works principle”, as Ryrie states, then we have to consider whether or not the Old Testament saints were actually saved by the “law-works principle”. Paul, however, was very clear that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20). As we shall see, the Old Testament saints were saved by the same grace that we are, yet they were required to obey the law.
Paul and the Law
Did Paul view the law as old, archaic, and irrelevant? Hardly. Paul quotes the Old Testament over 90 times, mostly to support his own teachings. He uses the law on several occasions to define sin (see Romans 7:7), for he writes that “…through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). As John writes, "sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4). Indeed, the law will become irrelevant on the day that sin becomes irrelevant.
Paul’s entire theology is built on the Old Testament. Speaking at his trial, he tried “to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). He encourages the New Testament church to study the Old Testament, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Such a view of the Old Testament would be labeled by most Christians today as “legalism”. In like manner, Paul tells Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Thus Paul himself knew nothing of a New Testament only theology.
But aren't we justified by faith, not law? Yes. But this was also true of the Old Testament saints (Habakkuk 2:4), yet they obeyed the law. True faith does not make the law void, but rather establishes it (Romans 3:31). Likewise, “Love fulfills the law (not ignores it)” (Matthew 22:37-40, 1 John 2:3-6). This was true in the Old Testament as well. (See Proverbs 25:21, Romans 13:8-10)
What about grace? Aren't we under grace and not under the law (Romans 6:14)? True. But many Christians take this out of its context, ignoring the first part of the verse as well as verse 15. Paul was teaching freedom from sin as defined by God's law. He never said that the law had been revoked or made invalid. What he said was...
"For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!"
Paul was not saying that grace made the law irrelevant. He was saying that, because of grace, sin, as defined by the law, no longer has dominion over us. This is a powerful grace, which effectively causes us to walk in His statutes (Ezekiel 36:27), not to ignore them. Grace and Law are not opposites, but compliment each other. (Proverbs 3:21-23). The Old Testament saints were not saved by the law (Romans 3:20), but by grace (Genesis 6:8, Romans 4:1-3). No verse in the Bible exemplifies God’s grace better than Psalm 130:3.
“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalms 130:3)
King David certainly knew something of the grace of God, which was in full force in Old Testament times.
The Necessity of the Law
How then shall we live? Is the life that a Christian walks different then that of a non-Christian? Does not the New Testament command us to live righteous and holy lives (Romans 12:1; 1 John 2:29)? By what standard will we measure such righteousness? Jesus said that we are to live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). If we ignore the standard that God Himself has given us in His law, the results are confusion and nothing else. For example…
Paul tells the Gentile, New Testament church to “flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18). He does so no less than a dozen times. The problem for the New-Testament-only Christian is that the New Testament never defines sexual immorality. What exactly did Paul expect the Corinthian believers to flee from? Paul himself never defines it for them. He didn’t have to. Leviticus 18 does a more them adequate job of defining sexual immorality. This is why the New Testament, as shown above, clearly defines sin by using the law. Otherwise, we are left to guide our lives, as many charismatics do, by some vague "leading of the Spirit", which usually means that the person doesn't like what the Bible says about an issue, so will pray until he feels better about disobeying it.
There are verses, particularly in Hebrews, which seem to contradict the above verses. But these were dealing with Judaists in the church who were commanding obedience to ceremonial laws such as circumcision, animal sacrifice, etc. These were fulfilled in Christ. In reality, the sacrificial laws are still valid, but Christ, the eternal sacrifice, has “…entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). These ceremonial laws have been fulfilled, but have hardly been made irrelevant.
The fact is that man will always be under some sort of law. The question, then, is whose law will we be under? While God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), man’s laws are truly oppressive (Matthew 23:2-4).
One of the most popular myths abounding in today’s antinomian churches is that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for obeying the law. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus chided the Pharisees for their “hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28), because they “neglected the weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23), and for twisting the law to suit their own needs, such as using the civil ordinance requiring judges to exercise fair judgments (Deuteronomy 19:18-21) to justify personal vengeance (Matthew 5:38-42).
The Right Use of the Law
Most Reformers believe that the law has three proper uses.
1.) To restrain evil in a wicked world.
2.) To illuminate and make a sinner aware of his slavery and bring us to Christ.
3.) To give believers a rule of life.
We must be careful to put the law in it's proper place. God's law cannot save (in fact, it does just the opposite - Romans 3:20). We are saved by God's grace, not by law. However, this was also true in the Old Testament (Genesis 6:8). Keeping God's commandments is the result, not the cause of salvation (1 John 2:3-4). This is important, seeing as those who claim to know God yet disobey His commandments are emphatically called “liars”.
As we saw above, it is the law that defines sin, makes us guilty, and requires us to have a Savior. Indeed, without the law, the gospel itself becomes expendable. Without the law, Christ would have, in affect, died for nothing.
The Results of Lawless Theology
“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42)
The Bible knows nothing of lawless Christianity. It is the law that defines unrighteousness, the likes of which those who practice it “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Anyone who claims to know Christ, but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in Him (1 John 2:3-4). One who “practices”2 lawlessness is not a child of God, but of the Devil (1 John 3:4-10). One cannot separate the commandments of God from faith in Jesus Christ (Revelation 14:12, Revelation 22:14). Thus Jesus gave a solemn warning to Christians who think they are OK in ignoring God’s law.
“"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
True Christian Liberty includes obedience to the Law. (Galatians 5:13). In this, I’ll hold with J. Gresham Machen who wrote, "A low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace. Pray God that the high view may again prevail”3. New Testament Christians are to live by every scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), every command (James 2:10), even the least command (Matthew 5:19), every word (Matthew 4:4) and every letter (Matthew 5:18) of God's Law. Oh Christian, do not think that you will ever see the light of the heavenly Jerusalem if you practice a lawless faith, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). Instead, like David, hold to a high view of the law, that you may constantly behold your need for grace, an effectual grace that changes the heart, and causes us to walk in His statutes and be careful to obey His rules (Ezekiel 36:27).
1 Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology - A Popular Systematic Guide To Understanding Biblical Truth, 1986, SP Publications Inc., Victor Books, Wheaton IL, pp. 302-303.
2 The key word here is “practice” (Greek ποιέω). It specifically means “to agree with” or “to abide in”. This does not undermine the seriousness of sin in the life of a Christian, but also does not mean that Christians lead purely sinless lives.
3 J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1925), p. 142.