Modern Laws of Christianity
If the law leads to bondage then why are so many people attracted to it? Is the law really a bad thing? In this article I’m going to attempt to address these questions. If you believe that the law is bad, worthless, or without benefits then your understanding of the law and how people are ensnared by it will be very limited. If you believe the law provides life, and that you can live by obedience to it, or that it’s not bondage, then you also will be ensnared by it.
When I use the word “law” what do I actually mean? Well, first understand that the vast majority of people do not actually keep the Mosaic law or even attempt to. When I use the word “law” I’m referring to a religious system that promises some kind of blessing if the followers will obey it, and curses if they disobey it. Although religious systems around the world have significant differences, they are all fundamentally the same in that they are systems of law. Seeking a system of law and attempting to live by it is innate to fallen human nature. In the garden of Eden, Adam chose to living by the knowledge of good and evil, and the blessing promised was that he would be like God. The law is attractive to man because it gives him the ability to live independently of God. In other words, if a person can be righteous and sanctified through their own effort then they really don't need grace or the Holy Spirit (i.e. the life of God dwelling within a person). The law provides a means to measure righteousness and decide how much like God a person has become. Many Christians like to say they are becoming "Christ-like" rather than saying they are becoming "God-like", however, they are the same thing. The desire to be like God is innate in fallen nature and is found all over the world. Some wish to be as holy as God, some desire to have power like God, others desire to be beautiful like God. Systems of obedience to religious law have been developed all over the globe. Each system promises reward and some kind of God-likeness to those who will follow it, giving more reward to the more loyal and giving less reward to the less loyal.
If you look close enough, you will find that some form of law is found in all different religions including atheism, secular humanism, and the New Age movement. For example, Buddhists have a system of obedience that will enable them to reach Nirvana. Muslims have a system of obedience that will enable them to be righteous and even enter into Firdaws. Many Christians believe that entrance into heaven is ultimately determined by salvation, however, almost everything else such as the blessings of God, happiness, sanctification, gifts of power, revival, acceptance by God, and many others are determined by repentance and obedience. Thus, practically speaking many Christians lives revolve exclusively around repentance, obedience, and acts of service. A secular scientist may pride himself on being better than others through his knowledge, possibly claiming that he is saving the natural world and mankind through his use of science. A person in the New Age movement may believe they are worthy of blessing by following a system that creates blessing in their lives (in essence, having God-like creative power to create their own reality). Time will not suffice to explore all of these systems of belief and methods by which one can be deemed God-like, righteous, and worthy of blessing. However, I believe that when one studies each system closely it is clear that they are all roots of the same tree...the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
I want to now focus exclusively on the Christian religion and their system of law. Many contemporary Christians believe that certain traditional denominations are legalistic (i.e. live by a system of law) because they follow traditions and routines in their services and daily life. When contemporary Christians are asked whether or not they are legalistic they almost always reply, “No.” They compare themselves to more traditional Christians and say, “Unlike them we wear casual clothes to Church, have contemporary worship services, and are lenient on many things that others consider worldly.” The problem here is that comparing yourself to someone else has never been a wise way of determining what is true.
...But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant!...” 2 Corinthians 10:12, NLT
The truth is that it really doesn’t matter if you are very strict (like a Jew) or very lenient (like a Gentile). If you are ultimately living by your repentance and obedience to some system, then you are living under law. Consider how Paul addressed this in Romans 2.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. Romans 2:14-15 ESV
Gentiles, who don't care about the Mosaic law, can invent their own system of law that either accuses them or excuses them based on their obedience to that system. Even though they are not following the Mosaic law they are still living under law. Many Christians today have developed their own system of obedience, not based on God’s actual law but based on their own law. The most significant problem with this is that God only gave the Mosaic law and only accepts the Mosaic law when it comes to obedience (Rom 3:20, 7:7). Many Christians disregard this and each Christian denomination has developed their own system that defines worthiness and acceptance. Paul referred to this kind of system as a law for righteousness (Rom 9:31). This is where an understanding of the word “righteousness” becomes necessary to this discussion. In ancient Hebrew times, covenants were a regular part of life. Two people would enter into a covenant, or agreement, for personal property, business transactions, and the like. If a person fulfilled their covenantal obligation then they were said to be righteous. The word “righteous” is a covenantal word, and it must be understood that a person is only righteous if they fulfill their covenantal obligation. It must also be noted that there is no such thing as partial righteousness. A person must obey all of the terms of the covenant or be deemed unrighteous. In order to be acceptable to God a person must be perfectly righteous. To understand the importance of perfect obedience and righteousness, one must go back to Deuteronomy 27-28. In that passage it is clear that one must obey all of the commandments, not some of them but all of them.
But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV
Paul commented on this passage in Galatians 3, again stressing the importance of perfect obedience and making it clear that perfect obedience is impossible, so that everyone under the law is actually under a curse.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." Galatians 3:10 ESV
Whether someone is attempting to keep the true law of God (the Mosaic law) or a another man-made law (which Jesus referred to as human tradition) they will always fail. Their obedience will never be good enough. The Pharisees were more dedicated to obedience than any modern Christian I have seen today. If they failed, then so will everyone else. Any person who seeks to be justified by law and obedience will always be found unrighteous.
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." Galatians 3:11 ESV
If we do not live by our obedience then what do we live by? The short answer is that we live by faith. By faith we receive salvation, which is the life of God dwelling within us (Titus 3:5). There is much to be said about this, but I don’t want to begin that discussion in this article. Rather, I simply want to make the point that there is another way. If you’ve been stuck in the law and obedience it may seem like there is no other way to live, but I assure you that there is another way...the way of love.
Back to the discussion at hand, there are two issues that arise when a person attempts to be justified by law or live by the law. The first is whether or not their law is acceptable to God. If someone is following a law that God doesn’t approve of then even perfect obedience to that law would be meaningless. The second, is that once a proper system of law has been established there must be perfect obedience to those laws because there is no such thing as partial righteousness.
In order to understand what kind of law and obedience is acceptable to God we need to look closely at the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus came to earth He was ministering during a time when the old covenant (i.e. the Mosaic law) was still in effect. It would make sense that many of His teachings would be related to the old covenant and even help establish the old covenant to a greater degree. In fact, if Jesus had taught something opposed to the law of Moses it would have been sin.
You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. Deuteronomy 4:2 ESV
Contrary to what some may want to believe, Jesus actually did teach the law and He taught it very well. He even told His disciples to obey the Pharisees’ teachings of the law, but not to follow what they do (Matt 23:2-3). Jesus goes on to point out all of the Pharisees’ faults according to the law, ultimately making the point that they nullify and weaken the true law of God by their traditions (Mark 7:13). Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount was also designed to accomplish the same thing. In that sermon Jesus targeted the Pharisees, claiming that their obedience was simply not good enough and that they had weakened the true law in an attempt to achieve perfect obedience. The entire sermon can be summarized in this one verse.
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48 ESV
This of course, would have been an extremely challenging thing to hear. Truly the law is very harsh. The reason that the Pharisees created many traditions that softened the law was because that was the only way that they could possibly achieve perfect obedience. They were obeying something that God didn’t approve of. In the same way, many Christians like to pick and choose what they will obey. Often saying that they will follow the moral law (such as the 10 commandments) but not the ceremonial law (such as washings and sacrifices). Although following the moral law sounds good and pious it is completely contrary to scripture. God never made a distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law...the law is the law. In addition to this, Jesus greatly expounded the law by revealing its true requirements. Jesus taught that ultimately you need to be as perfect as God, and have an obedience far greater than the Pharisees (Matt 5:48, 20). Since no modern day Christian is going to claim an obedience greater than the Pharisees they simply ignore the Sermon on the Mount and attempt to weaken the law by picking and choosing what they want to obey.
Another way that Christians like to weaken the law is to say that trying their best is all that is required, and grace makes up for the rest. For example, consider the following passage.
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live." Luke 10:25-28 ESV
In this passage a lawyer (i.e. an expert in the Mosaic law) asks Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus refers him to the law because that was the covenant that he was attempting to follow. The lawyer then quotes the law about loving God with your all. Jesus tells him that if he does this he will live. Jesus then goes on to explain that all the law can be kept by keeping two foundational laws, which are love God with your all and loving people as yourself (Matt 22:34-40). What Jesus was saying is that if you keep perfectly the two foundational laws then you will also be able to obey every other law and therefore enter into eternal life. Jesus was first explaining what perfect obedience looked like, then He was claiming that a person could live by it. This perfectly coincides with Lev 18:5 (which Paul quoted in Gal 3:12).
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord. Leviticus 18:5 ESV
Christians today are attempting to live by these two foundational laws by weakening them. The law says first to love God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your strength, and all of your mind. Secondly, you must love your neighbor as you love yourself. It doesn’t say to try your best. It doesn’t say that grace covers your failure. You must do it all, and in total completeness or you are a lawbreaker. The lawyer would have realized how difficult this would be. He wished to soften these two laws and justify himself (Luk 10:29), so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Just like in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained the law in a way that was designed to make the lawyer admit that he really couldn’t obey it. Jesus tells him the parable of the good Samaritan in order to bring him under condemnation.
Why did Jesus do this? Jesus did this because the law is extremely effective at accomplishing its task. The law was never given so that people could work really hard and finally be righteous through their obedience. The law was given in order to force a person to be honest about their inability to obey. It was given to force a person to admit that they could never keep a covenant with God that is based on them. The Pharisees weren't being honest about their hopeless disobedience, and because of this Jesus repeatedly called them hypocrites (this word was used to describe someone who was a theatrical actor). The law was not designed to ever justify a person. It was designed to make everyone realize that they are guilty. Furthermore, when it comes to righteousness, some are not better than others even if their morality is better. Everyone who is not in Christ is completely unrighteous and guilty.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Romans 3:19-20 ESV
The law is only designed to reveal sin. It does not solve the sin issue in a person's life (1 Cor 15:56, Rom 7:5). The problem lies within mankind. The law is perfect and holy (Rom 7:12), but we were not created to live by our obedience to it any more than a bird was created to live under water. Human beings were created to live by God’s Spirit dwelling inside of them. The law was given so that we would forsake the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and choose the tree of life, which is Jesus Christ. If the law is weakened through tradition or false grace (meaning the false belief that the purpose of grace is to compensate for your failure in keeping the law) it looses its effectiveness because a person will never admit that they have completely failed to live by their obedience. A weakened version of the true law will never cause a person be so hopeless that they have to turn to Christ and Christ alone. For this reason Jesus’ ministry on Earth established the law, and everyone who weakens the law with traditions and forms a law of their own will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-20). Once Jesus finished His work on the cross and ascended into heaven His ministry became focused on revealing of the gospel of grace. By that gospel, we die to the law in order that we may be joined to Christ. We are no longer in a covenant based on what we do, but by faith we have entered into a new covenant based on what Christ has already accomplished on the cross. A person can never live by their obedience. Those who will live by faith and the finished work of the cross are righteous.
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