Christians and the 10 Commandments

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Eric Liddell“And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” The life of Eric Liddell is among my favorite stories from church history (albeit recent). We can almost hear the tune to the award winning “Chariots of Fire” movie that highlighted the Olympic year of 1924, when Liddell did something that was absolutely unheard of in athletic history. He was quickly dubbed, “The Greatest Athlete in the World,” after he annihilated the previous 400m world record, coming across the finish line in 47.6 seconds.  He was the first in history to run the race at a full sprint. In his own words, “I run the first 200m as hard hard as I can. Then, for the second 200m, with God’s help, I run harder.”

It was a startling accomplishment, and a record that stood for another 12 years, in large part because both coaches and athletes refused to believe that sprinting at such a distance was possible. And remember, these were the days of cinder and dirt tracks, not the fast-gripping rubber used today. For one, dirt tracks give underfoot causing fatigue. For another, and a more significant factor, was the amount of traction dirt tracks provided. By comparison, think of the difference between dirt track racing and NASCAR. If you watch the YouTube video below of the actual footage of Liddell’s race, you can actually see the dirt kicking up as the athletes raced around the final turn. But it was not Liddell’s athletic career, which is considered one of the greatest of all time, that made him famous. It was his faith.

Liddell died on the mission field in a labor camp in China. His biopsies showed a massive brain tumor, but he was a man who was willing to give up fame and fortune for the cause of Christ. It is unfortunate though, that we typically only remember him as “the man who wouldn’t run on Sunday.” Now, that’s not a bad thing per se. In fact, I wish that more Christian parents would consider the lesson they’re teaching their children when they allow them to miss the corporate worship service Sunday after Sunday during their sport’s season. By their practice, they show that Sunday worship is not the most important event of the believer’s week. But the problem with Liddell’s theology, was that he believed that Sunday was the Christian’s “Sabbath,” and that the Law did not permit work (or sports) on Sunday. This brings up an important issue, and a difficult one for many Christians.

What is the relationship between NT believers and the OT Mosaic Law?

It seems like we keep some of the OT Law, but not others. Why?

christ-is-the-end-of-the-law-of-mosesChristians across the board recognize that there is something different about their relationship with the Law and the OT Israelites. After all, we obviously don’t keep the whole Law. Some try to argue that there is a distinction between ceremonial, civil, and moral law. This is typical of Covenant Theology. They argue that Christians are not obligated to keep the ceremonial or civil law, but they must still keep the moral law. Often, the 10 Commandments are put in this category of “moral law,” and they are therefore as equally expected to be kept by NT believers as they were for OT Israel.

The problem with this argument is that it has no Scriptural basis whatsoever. In short, it’s a view that’s flat out wrong.

that awkward moment

Scripture clearly presents the Mosaic Law as one indivisible unit. Yes, moral, ceremonial, and civil laws appear within the Law, but to divide it as such, or to separate the 10 Commandments from the rest of the Law, does injustice to the purpose of the Law, and is a concept foreign to Christ and the Apostles.

Remember that there are 613 total laws in the Mosaic Law, and James tells us that “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (2:10). In other words, breaking one single command of the Mosaic Law makes one guilty of breaking all 613 in the eyes of God. That’s right, any one point. There’s no distinction between ceremonial and civil law, from moral law there. That includes the 10 Commandments – no distinction there either. “The unity of the Mosaic Law leaves only two alternatives-either complete deliverance from or complete subjection to the entire system.”1

law

Paul affirms this as well in Galatians 5:3, “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision (i.e., places himself under some of the Law), that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (emphasis mine). To place Christians under some sort of “moral law” or the 10 Commandments is a complete contradiction to Paul’s whole argument in Galatians. “We are not under the Law” (Rom. 6:14)! Can that be any more clear? And yet, that doesn’t mean antinomianism. Far from it! We are under the greater Law of Christ, who fulfills the Law (note, however, while not abolishing it because the Law reflects His character), requiring obedience (which by the way, includes the hundreds of commands in the NT).

Remember the context of the Mosaic Law (including the 10 Commandments). It was given to the nation of Israel (cf. Ex. 19:3; 34:27), and the purpose of the Law was to reveal and expose sin (Rom. 3:19-20; 5:20). Paul even refers to the Law as a “tutor,” which in itself is a rather helpful illustrative word. A tutor in the first century (much like today) took care of a child until the child reached maturity. Then the tutor is no longer needed. So, for Paul, the Law was simply a temporary tutor until Christ!

Now, in the church age, NOT living under the Law is actually a sign of being led by the “Spirit” (Gal. 5:18). That is not to say that some Christians aren’t led by the Holy Spirit. All Christians are (Rom. 8:14-15), which means that all Christians are free from the Law. All Christians are instead under the Law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:20-21).

Romans 7 is especially fascinating, since there may be some who might think, “Well… the 10 Commandments should have a special place for Christians.” That is only true insofar as by being obedient to Christ you may also be obeying some of the 10 Commandments, but let me point out that obeying the 10 Commandments does not mean you are obeying Christ! Paul says in Romans 7:4 that we are “dead” to the Law – that is the whole Law, and in vs. 6 he says we are “released” from it – including the 10 Commandments since Paul even uses the commandment “YOU SHALL NOT COVET” as his example (vs. 7). ten commandmentsFurther, Paul teaches that the Mosaic Law, including the 10 Commandments passed away and has been replaced by the “New Covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6-11). He calls them the “ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones.” That’s right. The stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai – Paul calls them the “ministry of death” and they have passed away to the New Covenant. Thus, it is now totally “obsolete” (Heb. 8:13). That is not to say it’s unimportant. Indeed it is as “all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but Christ has “abolished” it (Eph. 2:15), and has “nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14).

Some say that surely there is some applicability to the OT Law though, or that it can be used for a general rule of life. Paul teaches the exact opposite. Note what he says in 1 Timothy 1:8-10:

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous man but for those who are lawless…

So, what’s the good in the Law? Zilch for the believer – the “righteous man.” The good in the Law is restricted to those who are lawless. In other words, the benefit of the Law for the believer is that we can use it to show that people cannot be saved or live a godly life by it! It’s “applicability” to believers is limited to serving as a reminder that we cannot be justified or sanctified by it. We cannot be saved or grow in Christ-likeness by it.

Again, none of this means that Christians are “free” in the sense that they can do whatever they want. Unfortunately, WAY too many “Christians” think that. It really doesn’t matter. They think they have their fire insurance. Let me say that I vehemently oppose that so much so that I would venture to call it heresy, and I would question their salvation. A proclamation of salvation is illegitimate if your life is uncharacteristic of a life given to Christ. You are NOT under the Law. You are free from the Law. That’s true, but you are a slave of righteousness. You are under the New Covenant. You are under the Law of Christ.

  1. Aldrich, Roy L. “Has the Mosaic Law Been Abolished?” Bibliotecha Sacra, vol. 116 #464, Oct. 1959, 325.
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  • Dennis HC

    Interesting article. I don’t think it’s entirely fair to generalize the threefold division of the law as a covenantalist position, although it’s probably true that the (often rabidly strident) ones who advocate for keeping the civil aspects of the law are almost uniformly covenantalist.

    As a dispensationalist myself, I think the threefold division can be a helpful tool to biblically explain a complex theological concept. No time for me to go deep at this moment, but I’d be curious to see you respond to Phil Johnson’s brief but rich comment here. More later, perhaps.

    http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2010/07/primer-on-antinomianism.html?showComment=1280160714189#c17781394873236801

    • Actually, I completely agree with what you have said here. I wasn’t saying that making a threefold distinction is “unhelpful.” I think it is because making them systematically helps us to learn more about the character of God. Using the threefold distinction strictly in this way is not inherently covenantal or dispensational. What I am pointing out though, is that there is not a Scriptural distinction here, and arguing that we must keep the “moral” aspects of the Law is contradictory to the uniform nature of the whole Law. Even so, I noted that this is “typically a Covenantal position.” It’s not exclusive to their position though. I know many dispensationalists who argue that we must keep the “moral law” from the Mosaic Law, or even just the 10 Commandments. The argument here though, is that the NT clearly states that if you put yourself under even “part” of the Law, you are obligated to keep the entirety of it. We live exclusively under the Law of Christ, not under any part of the Mosaic Law. I hope that helps clarify what I’m saying (and what I’m not saying) here. Thanks for the input! You make great points!

    • One more helpful note with regards to Phil Johnson’s article. I think what he said in the comments thread is helpful and clarifying, “I’m neither attached to the threefold division nor put off by it. One thing is clear, however: the backbone of the law consists of moral precepts. These are timeless principles that reflect God’s own character. They are immutable rules by which God has always governed humanity. They are laws that were written on the human conscience ages before they were inscribed on tablets of stone, and they apply to all men of all ages.
      It is clear that the law’s moral standard was in force even before Moses brought the tablets of stone down from Sinai–because the whole reason God drove the Canaanites from the land was that they violated His moral statutes”

      So, as you can see, I think what Phil is saying is that we keep what we may identify as the “moral law” within the Mosaic Law, not because we’re keeping the Mosaic Law, but because we keeping law that is transfixed in the character of God. This article is dealing strictly with direct applications from the “Mosaic Law,” but it is not a denial of law, or OT law. These have been in place both before and after the Mosaic Law was written.

      • Dennis HC

        Respectfully, I’m not sure I understand how you’re reconciling your article with the position expressed by Phil Johnson in his commentary on this topic. In particular, you state:

        “They argue that Christians are not obligated to keep the ceremonial or civil law, but they must still keep the moral law…”

        “The problem with this argument is that it has no Scriptural basis whatsoever. In short, it’s a view that’s flat out wrong. Scripture clearly presents the Mosaic Law as one indivisible unit. Yes, moral, ceremonial, and civil laws appear within the Law, but to divide it as such, or to separate the 10 Commandments from the rest of the Law, does injustice to the purpose of the Law, and is a concept foreign to Christ and the Apostles…”

        “To place Christians under some sort of “moral law” or the 10 Commandments is a complete contradiction to Paul’s whole argument in Galatians.”

        This appears to be a clear argument by you that: (a) it’s “flat out wrong” to make a threefold distinction; and (b) Christians today are free to disregard the moral law expressed in the OT.

        Neither one appears to be Phil’s position… nor mine, although that’s probably a bit less persuasive!

        • I appreciate the ongoing discussion, this is a very refined issue, and I wish that I had the space in the article to more fully address continuity/discontinuity issue here. It seems to me that Phil Johnson is arguing that we are obligated to keep the moral law present “within” the Mosaic Law, but not because we’re keeping the Mosaic Law, but because we’re actually keeping the law transfixed within the character of God, which the moral law reflects. Again, the issue I’m making a distinction on is “Why?” Because we believe that the so-called “moral law” in the Mosaic Law continues in the NT and NT believers are bound to it? Or, we keep what we can refer to as “moral laws” within the Mosaic law, because those laws are consistent with the Law of Christ? I argue the latter. We as Christians are not bound to ANY of the Mosaic Law (ceremonial, civil, or moral), and Scripture does not make a distinction between them when referring to the Mosaic Law.

          However, that doesn’t mean we don’t keep what we can call “moral law,” but we keep it NOT because it is a part of the Mosaic Law (remember, that was given exclusively to Israel), but because the moral law of God has always been in existence. Being a slave or righteousness demands that we are obedient to all that is consistent with the character of God. I think we might sometimes succumb to a part to whole fallacy here, which we have to be careful of. We cannot think that because we keep laws that are within the Mosaic Law, that we are actually keeping the Mosaic Law. We are keeping laws consistent with the character of God (in part revealed in the Mosaic Law) that happen to also be commanded in the Mosaic Law. But we are not keeping the Mosaic Law… if that makes sense 😉

          I wish I could draw a chart to represent the distinction I am making, but suffice it to say, Paul says in Rom. 6:14 that we are “not under the Law” – that is the Mosaic Law, the whole Law. There is no distinction between ceremonial, civil, or moral. Even if we do divide the Mosaic Law into three parts, Paul’s statement eliminates all three as being binding to the believer. His argument is not that “we are not under ceremonial and civil law, but under moral law.” It’s “we are not under any of it, but under grace.” Because we’re under grace, we happen to keep laws that we can refer to as “moral laws within the Mosaic Law,” but it’s not because we’re keeping Mosaic Law, but because living under grace requires us to live under whatever is consistent with the character of God.

          Again, this is a pretty refined issue, and I appreciate the discussion.

          • Jason

            Matt, I’d encourage you to just drop the “moral” law talk. As much as I like the Reformers, their creation of this theological term is misleading regarding Scripture. Maybe just use, we’re to conform to the character of Christ? That seems to be more Pauline? thoughts?

            And in terms of the “moral law” being around before the Law, I’d say there was some form of ‘ceremonial law’ around beforehand too, otherwise how does Cain bring the wrong offering? And what makes Abram’s offering to Melchizekek holy and honorable if there is not some understanding of a valid “tithe” and “sacrifice?”

        • Jason

          Dennis, I’m confused too, what is written above does not reconcile with Phil’s view. 🙂

          • I suppose it’s sticky… and perhaps I misunderstood him, but what I do agree with his argument in general. In the comments thread that I quoted from above, it seems to me that what PJ is saying is that we’re keep moral “aspects” of the Mosaic Law, but not because we’re keeping the Mosaic Law, or part of it. We keep the moral aspects of the Mosaic Law only because they are within the “immutable rules by which God has (always) governed society.”

          • Dennis HC

            Well, I quoted you, so I may as well quote him as well. I think these quotes will illustrate why the thrust of your article (as published, without subsequent clarifications in the comments) seems to be incompatible with the thrust of his comments.

            PJ: “The NT does clearly recognize different categories of law, even though it doesn’t expressly outline the common threefold division.”

            You seem to disagree with this, and even disagree strongly, even going so far as to say the concept has “no Scriptural basis whatsoever” and is “flat out wrong.” Indeed, that seems to be one of the main points of your article.

            PJ: “If someone needs a proof-text using that precise expression (“moral law”), I can’t help you. But it seems clear enough that a certain subset of Moses’ law is eternal. It was in force and used as a standard by which to judge the Canaanites before the Ten Commandments were given, and it is now written on our hearts afresh under the New Covenant. Whether you call it “moral law” or something different matters not to me; just don’t try to argue that Scripture doesn’t recognize that there is such a law, and that it’s binding on us.”

            This seems to be saying quite a bit more than your position that placing “Christians under some sort of ‘moral law’ or the 10 Commandments is a complete contradiction to Paul’s whole argument in Galatians.” Or that there is absolutely nothing (“zilch”) in the moral law for the believer. The moral law — or the eternal law reflecting God’s character that is written on the hearts of all mankind, if you prefer — has many benefits for the believer (much more than “zilch”), even though it certainly doesn’t save us, and even though Jesus has indeed fulfilled ALL of the law, whether civil, ceremonial, or moral/eternal.

            Even Jesse Johnson’s critique of TWOTM was based more on the problem of overemphasis of the Ten Commandments, and the mistaken attempt to force all of the moral/eternal law into a Ten Commandments framework. And I imagine that all three of us (you, me, Jesse) would probably agree with those propositions.

            Anyway, I’m guessing from your clarifying comments that we’re actually quite a bit closer together than I initially thought, but from the article itself, I never would have guessed that. Rather, I believe some of the statements you make in the article itself are probably a bridge too far, and even might seem to be extreme, when devoid of the context brought out here in the comments.

          • Perhaps we might be closer… and certainly in the end, neither of us are antinomian in any sense of the word. But regarding your first point, I also state, “Scripture clearly presents the Mosaic Law as one indivisible unit. Yes, moral, ceremonial, and civil laws appear within the Law…” So, I see this statement as compatible with when PJ said, “The NT does clearly recognize different categories of law, even though it doesn’t expressly outline the common threefold division. To his second point, I may or may not disagree depending on what is meant by “just don’t try to argue that Scripture doesn’t recognize that there is such a law, and that it’s binding on us.” I’m not arguing that there is no “moral law” outside the Mosaic Law, but I’m arguing that we are not bound to ANY of the Mosaic Law. It has all been “done away with” since it has been replaced with the Law of Christ. Perhaps it might be helpful to put the distinction this way. Moral law is a necessary part of the Mosaic Law, but the Mosaic Law is not a necessary part of the moral law. In other words, you can keep moral law without keeping the Mosaic Law, but you can’t keep the Mosaic Law without keeping moral law.

          • Dennis HC

            Argh, somehow my earlier comment on this got eaten or something. Anyway, on the first point, your own quote that you cite in an attempt to show agreement between you and Phil Johnson (and me) ends as follows: “…but to divide it as such, or to separate the 10 Commandments from the rest of the Law, does injustice to the purpose of the Law, and is a concept foreign to Christ and the Apostles.” So from this and the rest of your article, you seem to be clearly speaking against the concept of the threefold division, as both Jason and I read it, anyway. So I’m not sure what else I can say to you on this, candidly.

            On the second point, it sounds like we both agree that there is an eternal law written on the hearts of man (e.g. murder, bestiality) that predates the OT law, is embodied within certain “moral” portions of the OT law, and is still present within the New Covenant. So are you just saying that there was some certain point in time (perhaps nigh-instantaneous) when Christ did away with the “moral” portions of the OT law and instituted the New Covenant? As opposed to, say, the eternal law undergirding the “moral” aspects of the OT law and persisting at all times?

            Sorry to belabor the point, and I promise I’m not saying these things to be argumentative, I’m just trying to understand your position. Thanks.

          • Sorry to hear that! I hate when that happens! 😉 Anyway, it could be that I read PJ’s article too quickly and misunderstood him. I don’t want to speak on his behalf, especially if I’m misrepresenting him, but I am making a distinction between “dividing” the Mosaic Law, and affirming that their are distinctions “within” the Mosaic Law. So, when we keep “moral law,” which we ought to as believers, it’s not keeping “moral law” in the sense that we’re keeping part of the Mosaic Law. On your second point, I think I agree with what you’re saying there, but to clarify, the New Covenant abolishes all aspects of the Mosaic Law, not “OT law,” or the moral aspects of it. Thanks for the continued discussion!

          • Dennis HC

            Thanks, I think we understand each other, even if we might not entirely agree. But I don’t think we’re far apart, and regardless, the difference is at most a tertiary one (i.e. not even a secondary issue). All my best, and have a blessed Good Friday!

  • Jason

    Good thoughts Matt,

    The only thing I would add is 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says studying the Law is beneficial for us so that we can learn doctrine. There are two other articles on this issue, Peter Goeman did a great work on the Ten Commandments too 🙂

    http://shepherdthesheep.com/2014/01/30/why-the-law/

    http://www.petergoeman.com/summary-of-the-ten-commandments/

    • Hey Jason! I would agree with that, and I even mentioned that passage in the article. I was careful not to say that there is “no benefit,” but in fact I noted that Scripture states that “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing that the benefit is not for the righteous man, but for those who are lawless.” I also said, “That is not to say it’s unimportant. Indeed it is as ‘all Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable’ (2 Tim. 3:16-17), but Christ has ‘abolished’ it (Eph. 2:15), and has ‘nailed it to the cross’ (Col. 2:14).” This the brief distinction I was making between being “obsolete” (cf. Heb. 8:13) for the believer, and being “profitable.” The question is, “How is it profitable?” Again, 1 Tim. 1:8-10 tells us – it is profitable to help point out sin for the lawless (i.e., “tutor”). Thanks for the helpful clarification!

      • Jason

        Yeah, the other article is my brief view of why the law and how it relates to the believer. I agree with Peter but am a little confused. 1) Phil’s view of the law and use of the law seems opposed to what you (and I would say). Dr. Barrick says the Law has 5 purposes for us today: defines sin, reveals nature of sin, holiness of God, inhibits sin, and guide Israel to Christ. Even if I was talking to a gentile unbeliever, he or she is not under the Law, so I could never accuse him or sinning when he eats bacon or fails to kill his kid when he disobeys?

        2). What do you mean “live through the lens of the Law?” We are in no way, shape or form, even in a law relationship with the Lord. We are now in the family of God, a child, adopted, identified with Christ our Lord.

        Maybe I’m splitting hairs over this and the language? if so, tell me? I may misunderstand you?

        • “Lens of the law,” that’s a quote from Peter Goeman’s blog. I think what he’s saying (because of the rest of the context of the quote) is that the Law helps us see into the character of God, which is the standard we live by. With pt. 1, I land with Dr. Barrick (and Dr. Vlach) on this issue. With regards to your question about evangelism and using the Mosaic Law (and i.e., the 10 in Commandements) is exactly what Jesse Johnson addressed at Shepherd’s Conference in 2012, entitled “The Way(s) of the Master.” http://www.shepherdsconference.org/media/details/?mediaID=6780