My previous post referred to our having exchanged the legal code of Moses for the person of Jesus Christ. While not claiming originality for that phrasing, to just what am I referring as a “legal code”? Is it the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), the entirety of the Hebrews Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament), or something else altogether?
I am certainly not thinking of the entirety of the Torah or of the Hebrew Scriptures. These diverse bodies of literature consist of far more than just legal texts. So by “legal code,” I am thinking more in terms of legal sections within the Torah including especially the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:9), the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-26), and the Law Code in Deuteronomy 12-26. We might also include the laws regarding priesthood and tabernacle (Exodus 25-31and 35:4-40:33) and perhaps the entire book of Leviticus. By “legal code” I am thinking of covenant stipulations under Moses, perhaps especially in regard to civil law, worship regulations, special days, and “cultic” observance.
This was the law that was engraved in letters on stone (2 Cor. 3:7). It was deficient to save, not because of a defect in the law itself (Rom. 7:12), but due to the weakness of human flesh (Rom. 8:3).
But now, through a transforming encounter with the risen Messiah, the law once engraved on tablets of stone has been written on our hearts. We are now free, even empowered, to live holy and moral lives without reliance upon the legal stipulations that served as elaborations upon the Ten Commandments, which is the foundational summary of God’s timeless law, with perpetually abiding validity. In exchange for the legal stipulations of old, which revealed the heart of God and his desires for humanity, we now have Jesus whose ministry and teaching provide an even greater clarity into God’s heart and will.
I do not support the abrogation of God’s law, or of the Hebrew Scriptures, which Jesus had not come to abolish (Matt. 5:17). He fulfills them in terms of completing and perfecting the job they were assigned. His coming, however, does not render this body of literature obsolete. It remains useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). It remains a window into the heart of God which is now less opaque due to the New Testament authors’ Christocentric reading of these texts.
But here is what has changed. The legal texts of Moses were in some cases highly detailed and prescriptive. Some would read the New Testament literature as if it were the same genre as the Book of the Covenant or the Holiness Code. This amounts to viewing the New Testament books, not as occasional literature written to aid disciples in a Christocentric reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, but as a flat law code of new legal stipulations for Christians.
Where the old law / new law dichotomy really misses the point is its misunderstanding of law in Scripture. Those seeking to understand the New Testament writings as a legal code are making a similar mistake to the Judaizers of old. The law is imagined to be in a position it was never intended to hold. The law has never been a means of salvation. No one has ever been saved by law-keeping, under any covenant. Salvation has always been by grace through faith.
When law is held to be in the dubious position of Savior, there is urgency toward perfection in understanding or observance since one’s salvation is thought to depend upon it. So the apostolic literature is scoured for “rules” that will prescribe and regulate in as great detail as the legal texts of Moses. Salvation is misunderstood as a matter of keeping the code which one has to get right in order to keep it. So we find ourselves diligently searching the Scriptures, believing that in them we have eternal life, while failing to trust in Jesus as the Savior to whom the Scriptures point (John 5:39-40). This is bibliolatry, as trust in Jesus is exchanged for trust in our own adequacy to rightly interpret and keep the Word.
This approach not only misreads the New Testament literature, but likewise misreads the laws in Moses, which were never intended to be comprehensive, but paradigmatic. Obedience of God toward the poor, for example, is not limited to laws such as not harvesting to the edge of one’s field (Lev. 19:9-10). Such laws are not intended to be exhaustive in regard to how one might help the poor, but they reveal God’s heart for the poor. One is then free to serve the poor in innovative and creative ways that are not specifically “prescribed” by the law.
To read the New Testament as a highly prescriptive and regulative legal code not only transfers trust from Christ to us, but it also stifles creativity and innovation in the church. Moreover, this “legal” approach will demand conformity and result in strife and division since the “letter of the law” allows no diversity of practice or opinion.