By: Jonathan Harris
One of the harder subjects to tackle theologically concerning Paul’s treatment of the law of God concerns the way in which the Apostle viewed the legitimacy of the Mosaic law in the New Covenant. Theologians from even conservative perspectives disagree on this point quite frequently, oftentimes looking at the topic through an eschatological lense of either Covenantal or Dispensational theology. The goal of this work is to, without drawing heavily on outside texts or eschatological perspectives, formulate a view on Paul’s perspective on the Mosaic Law.
The first thing to realize about Paul’s view of the Mosaic Law is that to him it was a positive thing personally. In referring to Ex 20:17 Paul writes, “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” It was “You shall not covet,” that brought the Apostle to a knowledge a conviction of sin. Again in Rom 7:16 Paul states, “I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.” But can this confession encompass all case laws of the Old Testament and apply them to various human institutions under the New Covenant? J. Daniel Hays explains the traditional view with which many would approach Paul’s statement.
Many evangelical scholars interpret the Mosaic Law by emphasizing the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. They define moral laws as those that deal with timeless truths regarding God’s intention for human ethical behavior. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a good example of a moral law. Civil laws are those that deal with Israel’s legal system, including the issues of land, economics, and criminal justice. An example of a civil law is Deuteronomy 15:1, “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.” Ceremonial laws deal with sacrifices, festivals, and priestly activities. An example is in Deuteronomy 16:13, which instructed the Israelites to “celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress.”
Since the passage seems to be referring to a “timeless principle,” many theologians would not take Paul’s statement to indicate anything remotely close to a full scale endorsement of Jewish case law. However, Paul shows his readers that in fact he does believe in applying the case law of the Mosaic Law—at least the principles behind them. In 2 Cor. 6:14 the Apostle writes, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers,” a restatement of a case law from Deut 22:10 in which an ox and a donkey are not to be harnessed together. Lest critics would appeal to the notion that Paul was just using case law as imagery, it becomes important to also cite 1 Tim 5:18 where Paul relays, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’” An examination of the context will reveal that Paul is using a case law from Deut. 25:4 and a quote from Jesus in Matt 10:10 to prove that it is right to compensate a pastor for his work. This goes far beyond a mere word picture. Paul presents the words of Christ and the words of God in Deuteronomy as being on equal footing as “Scripture.” He then seeks to apply the principle behind the civil law presented in the Mosaic Code. Greg Bahnsen comments concerning this passage that “what is remarkable here . . . is that Paul offers no explanation for his relying upon the Older Testamental case law—as if it were an exception to some rule. It is simply, silently, and forcefully, assumed that the law of God, even its jots and tittles, has contemporary obligation and value in the New Testament age.” It is true that Paul valued the “timeless principles” of the moral laws, but he also recognizes that such principles were contained in even the case laws of the Old Testament. Eph 2:14-15 makes this truth apparent. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace.” Paul does not say that the “enmity” or “division” between Jews and gentiles is the law period. He is very specific—“the Law of commandments contained in ordinances.” It is the ordinances, or civil and ceremonial laws specific to Jewish culture that have been abolished. Gorden Fee writes concerning this truth that “Christ’s death and resurrection have brought an end to Torah observance.” He refers to “circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance” as “identity markers” that distinguished Israel as God’s people. Since Paul’s teaching in Ephesians is that both Jews and gentiles are one in Christ, there exists no need for such a distinguishing feature, but this does not mean there does not still exist a need for the law of God in the form of moral principles behind such distinguishing features.
If the Mosaic law is still in effect today, according to Paul, it would be reasonable for all institutions that Paul endorses as being responsible for applying God’s law to use them as a guide. This would mean that the government, the church, and the family should seek to understand and apply the full counsel of God to every situation in which they are responsible before Him as stewards.