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The Gospel and the Law


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In discussions of so-called “same sex marriage,” Christians are frequently accused of hypocrisy for taking the passages in the Law of Moses dealing with homosexual behavior literally but ignoring for example those concerning eating shellfish or wearing clothing made of two different kinds of fiber.

The accusation might bear some weight if the decision about which provisions of the Law to accept were arbitrary. But it isn’t; it is made on the basis of centuries of study, analysis, and reflection by theologians on the Law and its relationship to the Gospel. Understanding why Christians see some laws as binding but not others is important not only for issues such as homosexuality but also for developing a deeper appreciation for the Law and its importance for the Christian life.

Theologians recognize three aspects of the Mosaic Law:

  • The moral law, embodied principally in the Ten Commandments, is a reflection of the character of God Himself. It expresses eternal and unchanging principles of right and wrong and is the foundation for the other two aspects of the law.

  • The civil law is, as its name suggests, the law code for the nation of Israel. This code expressed how the moral law was to be applied in a particular historical and cultural situation. Since the New Covenant is not limited to one nation, the civil law is no longer in effect, though since it is based on the moral law we can learn a great deal from it both for our personal lives and for principles of good government.

  • The ceremonial law dealt with issues of holiness before God, including ritual purity, sacrifices, forgiveness of sin, holidays and festivals, etc.1 With the New Covenant, the ceremonial law no longer applies to us, and so we no longer need sacrifices for forgiveness of sins nor external actions to produce ritual purity. These are all provided for us in Christ. Thus the ceremonial law is no longer binding on us either.

When one takes these different aspects of the Law into account, the reasoning behind why some parts of the Law remain binding while others do not is clear: it is based on an analysis of what the different laws were intended to accomplish.

But the distinction between the different aspects of the Law are also important for understanding the New Testament’s teaching on the Law. To understand why, we need to look at each aspect of the Law in more detail.

The Moral Law

The moral law is the backbone of the entire law; and it is the only part of the Mosaic Law that remains binding on us. As expressed in the Ten Commandments, it is the one part of the Law that is quite literally carved in stone.

Jesus had a great deal to say about the Law, though his teaching is often misunderstood. Christians often focus on Jesus’ words about all food being clean and the specific rules for celebrating the Sabbath (both aspects of the ceremonial law), and then jump to the conclusion that Jesus released us from the obligation to obey the Law. They find this view confirmed by their reading of Paul that we are freed from the Law by faith in Christ.

A more complete reading of the Gospels (and a more careful reading of Paul) calls into question this understanding of the relationship of Law and Gospel. Looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ introductory comments about the Law are quite strong:

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 tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matt 5:17-20

He then proceeds to explain the deeper meaning of the commandments, focusing on the commandments against murder (Matt. 5:21-26), adultery (vss. 27-32), and inappropriate oaths (vss. 33-37), and the need to love your enemies (vss. 38-47). In each case, he raises the stakes considerably beyond even what the Pharisees—the most ardent observers of the Law—recognized by making obedience a matter of the heart, not just external actions. In other words, the tenth commandment against coveting applies to all of the other commandments as well.

Jesus’ teaching in this passage focuses on the moral law: the sixth, seventh, and third commandments, and the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, which together with loving God summarizes the entire law. In other words, Jesus may have changed aspects of the ceremonial law elsewhere in his ministry, but he never revoked the moral law. Instead, he emphasized the importance of the moral law and corrected misunderstandings and misapplications of it.

An Example: Adultery
To take one example that has a great deal of contemporary relevance, consider Jesus’ teachings on sexuality. The key verses are Matt. 5:27-28: You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus did not limit his words to married men who lust for women other than their wives, nor did he limit the object of lust to women married to other men. He defined any lust as adultery, and thus any sexual activity outside of marriage a fortiori is also adultery. Jesus applied the commandment against adultery beyond its narrow, literal meaning to all sexual relations outside of marriage, whether actually carried out or only imagined.

So what is marriage? Jesus defined that for us in Matt. 19:3-6:

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Leaving aside the issue of divorce, Jesus gives a clear definition of marriage. God made humanity male and female and joined them together in marriage. Jesus did not need to begin his discussion with creation as male and female; had he been open to homosexual marriage he could simply have focused on becoming one flesh. The fact that he did include those words demonstrates that for Jesus, marriage is a heterosexual union.

But is he really that serious about it? In John 8, in the case of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus famously replied to those who accused her, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” (vs. 7) Does that not indicate that he considered sexual sin unimportant?

Reading the whole passage indicates that this is not the case. Jesus affirmed the moral law in his words to the woman: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (vs. 11) To Jesus, adultery was sin, and people guilty of it need to leave it behind. Jesus was compassionate to those trapped in sin; he fellowshipped with prostitutes and treated “fallen women” with great kindness. But he called them (and everyone else) to repentance.2

Jesus’ attitude toward sexual sin is the same as the attitude of his brother James and the early church (Acts 15:29), as well as Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:18, among many others) and Jesus’ brother Jude (vs. 4). Any serious reading of the New Testament leads inescapably to the conclusion that the commandment against adultery, understood broadly as immorality or any sexual activity outside of marriage, remains in effect.

This is just one example. The other commandments were similarly affirmed by Jesus and the New Testament authors. The reason is simple: they embody the moral law, which is a reflection of the character of God Himself and thus never changes.We will continue to explore the Law and especially the implications of the New Covenant in the next article in this series


1Many of the rules that are cited in response to scriptural prohibitions of homosexual activity (e.g. not eating shellfish or not wearing clothing made of mixed fibers) are aspects of the purity code and thus part of the ceremonial law.

2Further, the penalty of stoning for adultery was part of the civil law, the application of the moral law in the national law code of Israel. The civil law was in the process of passing away because of Jesus’ coming as we will see in the next article.

Next steps

How well do you believe you understand your obligations regarding obedience to Moses’ law? Have this discussion with a friend, and use this article to refine your grasp.


BookFurther reading:
If you’d like to read a thorough treatment of the biblical texts on homosexuality, you can purchase The Bible and Homosexual Practice from the Online Bookstore. Or you can download the article, “Morality and the Public Good” from the Colson Center Library

 

2 Comments

  1. Bravo. A clear and well-focused explanation of something few believers (myself included) grasp adequately. Thank you for mentioning John 8:7-11, the import of which is often misinterpreted. One style suggestion: “same sex marriage” in paragraph one might better be rendered same-sex "marriage," as it is the characterization of it as marriage that is asserted but disputed.
  2. Thanks again Glenn for insisting on continued obedience to God's moral law for Christians. We face the problem here in Australian churches that grace is often emphasised to law's detriment. Just one thing - I'm not sure that one can extrapolate from Jesus' reckoning of lust in adultery (in Matthew 5:27-28) to every other sexual lust. While we know that the 'strong desire of the flesh' (1John 2:15-17) is not from the Father, the particular use in Mt 5 seems to be limited. It may have been better to use the meaning of 'porneia' to carry your contention further. Just a thought! Geoffrey.
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