While it’s a mistake to speak of the Sermon on the Mount as a “new law,” it’s likewise a grave error to speak of the New Testament as a “new law.” The New Testament body of literature is not a new law to replace the old Law of Moses. If righteousness could be attained through the keeping of law, it would have come by the Law of Moses and no additional law would be needed (Gal.3:21) .
Yet we commonly hear Moses’ law referred to as the “old law,” while Matthew through Revelation (or in some cases, Acts through Revelation) are referred to as the “new law.” But the contrast between the old and new covenants is not a contrast between an old law and a new law, but between law and grace. Law came through Moses, but grace through Christ (John 1:17). John didn’t say that the old law came through Moses and a new law through Jesus, but that grace came through Jesus. It is not a new law that trumps the old law. It is grace that trumps law. Surprisingly to many, it is grace that goes farther than law in overcoming sin. “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).
Viewing the Sermon on the Mount, or the entire New Testament, as a “new law” attempts to turn this body of literature into a new legal code, or system of legislation, much like the Law of Moses. Under such restrictions we are no better off than people were under Moses. Yet many have traded the freedom of grace for the prison of law.
In so doing, we’ve been like those of Israel, indicted by Paul for pursuing righteousness as if it could be attained by works (Rom. 9:31-32). Some mistakenly think that people are either saved by the works of either an old law or a new one, depending on which covenant they are under. No one was ever saved, even under Moses, because they measured up to a system of law. Salvation has always been by grace through faith in God.
But what does it matter if we pursue righteousness by faith or by works? Doesn’t faith produce works anyway, so that the two aren’t mutually exclusive? The difference between righteousness by faith or by works comes down to that contrast between a God-centered versus a law-centered approach. The law-centered approach simply emphasizes the letter of the law, while a God-centered approach goes to the heart of the matter. Faith seeks the intent of God’s heart behind the giving of individual rules. In short, faith seeks to know God. Is God happy for us to simply stop short of murder and adultery, or is the intent behind the law that we love and respect others? Then there is no danger of murder or adultery.
While faith indeed leads to works, our faith must be in trusting God to know what is best as opposed to trusting in our own ability to keep a law. We obey because we trust God, not because we’re trying to measure up, persuade God to like us, or fill up a punch card to heaven.