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What Is the Role of “Law” In Living the Bible?

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This is the eighth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.


[Special note… see Mel Lawrenz’s “A Prayer for the Christmas Season” in text, printable PDF, or audio.]

It is inevitable that, when we talk about “living the Bible,” our minds will drift toward verses and passages that are commands or laws which seem to beckon us toward obedience to God. “You shall not commit adultery,” or “you shall not murder,” or “you shall not steal,” and other parts of the Ten Commandments, for instance, seem pretty straightforward.

Man with open Bible

But the New Testament writers tell us that, with the coming of Jesus, everything has changed. It is not that the old covenant has been contradicted, but it has been fulfilled. Whereas the covenant God gave the Israelites included the more than 600 laws in the first five books of the Bible, in the new covenant God has advanced his relationship with us by internalizing the law: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).

That is why the law-obsessed Pharisee Saul of Tarsus became Paul, the “Apostle of the heart set free” as F.F. Bruce put it. Paul offered a revolutionary new view of how God’s “law” works. He asserted that we have “died to the law through the body of Christ, so that [we] might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4). In other words, the fruitful, productive, good life is truly possible when we come to live within the higher law of Jesus Christ, which is not a system of rules and mechanical conformity, but a new “law of the Spirit who gives life and [sets us] free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1).

This could be confusing, so let’s be careful here. The word “law” in the Old and New Testaments is used in different senses. It is used in the Old Testament for the body of laws given to Israel, which define the boundaries of their covenant relationship with God, but “law” can also refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, or the specific body of laws contained in them. In the New Testament, “law” can refer to Mosaic regulations, or to the Scriptures as a whole, or to governing principles of life or spiritual dynamics, as in “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2) or “the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

To sort this out, let’s focus on the example of Paul whose teaching is consistent with the rest of the New Testament, including that of Jesus himself who said that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). When Paul wrote to the Philippians from his imprisonment, thinking he may be living in the last days of his life, he wrote about his prior “confidence” in following the law of God as a Pharisee: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” And then he says: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).

That is the personal testimony of a man who was expert in obedience to laws, but who found that to be rubbish compared with the righteousness that comes from God by faith.

In Romans 7:4-6 Paul explains why “dying” to the law, or “the way of the written code” is necessary for us to live in “the new way of the Spirit” and so “bear fruit.” If anything, the laws of Scripture reveal how incapable we are to live rightly. The law is like a tutor, leading us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). This should not make us think the laws of the Old Testament are wrong. “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12).

Looking at these and many other New Testament passages about “law,” the fundamental point is this: Scripture does not contain laws so that we can read them and simply obey them, and so live good and right lives. Sin has a crippling effect. We need God’s grace and power to carry us toward righteousness. We need to be freed from the curse of sin and freed toward life in the Spirit, which is how obedience is possible.

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” is how Paul put it in Galatians 5:1. But he then goes on to warn people not to think that they are “free” to live however they want. “Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (vss. 13-14).

(To be continued…)

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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.

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