The Gospel and the Law, Part 2


In the previous article, we looked at the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. The article explained that theologians have identified three facets of the Law of Moses: the moral law, the civil law, and the ceremonial law. The moral law is the only one that remains in force, as is shown by the words of Jesus himself as well as those of the other New Testament authors. To continue our exploration of the relationship of the moral law and the Gospel, we turn now to the Jesus’ teaching of His disciples at the Last Supper and His inauguration of the New Covenant.

Maundy Thursday
At the Last Supper, in Jesus’ final teachings to His disciples before the Passion, Jesus told them, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) He then repeated this commandment in John 15:12. We get the name “Maundy Thursday,” the traditional name for the day before Good Friday, from this commandment (Latin: mandatus).

The commandment to love one another was not really a new commandment, though, as John himself points out in 1 John 2:7-11. Jesus had earlier highlighted the importance of love in response to the question, “what is the greatest commandment”:

And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-39)

This is an extremely important passage that deserves far more study than we have time for here. Among other things, it explains the intent of the Law.  The Ten Commandments were written on two tablets; traditionally, the first was understood as expressing our obligations to God and the second our obligations to our neighbor. Jesus here tells us that the first tablet can be summarized by the commandment to love God completely and the second by the commandment to love our neighbor compassionately. And since the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Law explained the implications of the moral law in the context of ancient Israel, they too were built on these commandments to love God and neighbor.

So when Jesus gave us the new commandment to love one another, He was telling us that the moral law is still in effect, and this despite the fact that very evening the Old Covenant was passing away and the New Covenant was being instituted.

The Law and the New Covenant
Along with again teaching about the importance of love at the Last Supper, Jesus announced the coming of the New Covenant: “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” (Luke 22:20) Jesus’ death ratified this covenant, but what precisely are its terms? More specifically, how does the New Covenant relate to the Old Covenant?

To answer this, we need to look at the Old Testament prophets. The role of the prophet was to evaluate the people’s faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant: if they were doing well, the prophet proclaimed the covenant blessings (Lev. 28:1-14); more often than not, however, the people were not faithful and so the prophets proclaimed the covenant curses (Lev. 28:15-68).

The fact of Israel’s disobedience and its consequences broke the hearts of the prophets. The fundamental problem with Israel was that the Law was external: obedience did not and could not come from within, from their hearts; it was imposed on them from the outside, which made it effectively impossible for them to live consistently with the spirit and letter of the text.

But God held out the promise that He would forgive Israel’s sin, and even more, that He would change Israel’s hearts and that they would thus live in obedience to Him. This was the great hope of the prophets. And this was the fundamental nature of the New Covenant that God would establish with Israel:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34)

For some reason, we tend to ignore this passage despite the fact that it is the longest Old Testament passage quoted in the New Testament (Heb. 8:8-12). It also defines what the New Covenant instituted by Jesus was about: it differed from the Old Covenant in that the Law is placed within us and written on our hearts rather than on tablets of stone, that we obey it, and that we all know the LORD directly, unmediated by priests or prophets.

We see similar promises in other prophets. For example, in Ezekiel, we find these words:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25-27)

From Jesus’ teaching we also know the Law written in our heart in the New Covenant is the moral law summarized in the commandments to love God and neighbor. It focuses not so much on the letter of the written Law, but on its spirit, the underlying principles that inform the written Law, which are summarized by the law of love.

How is it, then, that Christians can tell us that the Law is irrelevant to us in the New Covenant era when the New Covenant is defined in Scripture in terms of the Law being written in our heart? The Law, properly understood as its moral precepts, is quite literally the heart of the New Covenant.

It should be clear by now that the moral law embodied by the Ten Commandments and the Two Great Commandments remains in force today. But what about the civil and ceremonial law? They are no longer in effect, but do they have value for us today? We will explore this question in the next article.

Next steps

Jesus said on the night of His betrayal, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” It doesn’t take a lot of instruction to know what the sum of Jesus’ moral teaching is: Love God, love others. But it takes a lifetime and more to live accordingly. So—how are you doing in the doing of love?

BookFurther reading:
If you’re intrigued by the relationship of Gospel and law, go to the Online Bookstore where you can purchase Five Views on Law and Gospel. Or you can go to the Colson Center Library and download T. M. Moore’s “Law and Gospel: Embracing the One without Losing the Other."



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