10 Commandments & the New Testament law
How does God’s law apply to us in the New Testament? Are we still under the 10 Commandments, are we under a new law, or are we under no law at all?
REASON FOR THIS PIECE
There are two beliefs about the law we commonly come across:
The first is that because God does not change, neither can His law. The argument goes that the 10 Commandments are God's basic moral code for all time, and therefore it must carry through from the Old to the New Testament. These often conclude that keeping the Sabbath is a sign that a person is in right standing with God.
The second belief system says that Jesus did everything for us on the cross, therefore we are under grace and free from any commands on us. These argue that to suggest a set of commands is to be "legalistic".
The purpose of this piece is to show what the Bible teaches about the New Testament law.
Our discussion will show how the purpose of the law is to reveal the way to become righteous in God's eyes. Perfect obedience to God's law would then qualify us for acceptance before God. But in all the Old Testament, no one was able to achieve perfect obedience, therefore no one could earn their righteousness. To solve this problem in the New Testament, God sent His Son to earn righteousness on our behalf, thereby removing our need to fulfil the law to become righteous. The purpose of the law therefore falls away. In place of the Old Testament law, Jesus then lays down a new set of even more demanding commands for us to walk in – not to earn our righteousness – but because this is the good and acceptable behaviour of children of a holy God, who already are righteous. The result is that under these new commands, the moral obligations of the old law are fulfilled. We close by discussing the place of the Sabbath in the New Testament.
THE PURPOSE OF A LAW
The purpose of the law is to show the way to become righteous in God's eyes. Here is the definition of the word as found in the Strong's Concordance (which is a dictionary giving the meaning of the word as found in the original Greek text):
Righteousness (Strongs G1343)
in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God.
the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God.
integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting.
When we speak about the law then, we are actually speaking about the way we achieve acceptance by God. It is the set of rules He has laid down in order to tell us what He demands from us in order to accept us. So what law did God give us?
The law of the 10 Commandments
God delivered the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It begins with the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and then goes on in the next chapter to say:
“Now these are the laws which you shall set before them:" – Exodus 21:1
These laws cover another 3 chapters, which we won't quote here. But what we will point out is that all these commands together make up the law of Moses. This includes regulations on slavery, the punishment of ‘an eye for an eye and a life for a life’, the feasts and more. This was all written down by Moses in “the Book of the Covenant”.
“So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the Laws... And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD... Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.’ ” – Exodus 24:3a, 4a, 7-8
As you can see in the text above, these laws became the basis of the covenant God made with Israel, what we now call the Old Covenant. These were the rules laid down as the structure of the relationship between God and Israel. On the one side there was God's promises to them, and on the other side, His demands upon them. Together these established the covenant relationship.
“The LORD will establish you as a holy people to Himself, just as He has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in His ways.” – Deuteronomy 28:9
After the covenant was sealed with Israel, the Lord gave Moses two stone tablets – a summary of the heart of the law – and the Bible says:
“And He wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” – Exodus 34:28
So it becomes clear then that the 10 Commandments are the words of the Old Covenant. The ‘Book of the Covenant’ contained the whole law, while the two stone ‘tablets of the Covenant’ contained just the essence of the law, captured in the 10 Commandments.
“So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone.” – Deuteronomy 4:13
“When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant which the LORD made with you.” – Deuteronomy 9:9a
The point we would like to make here is this: The law of Moses (whether you refer to the whole law or just the 10 Commandments) was established as the foundation of the Old Covenant. It is thus intrinsically connected with the Old Covenant.
RIGHTEOUSNESS THROUGH THE LAW
The Old Testament will show that Israel was not very successful at keeping God's law. This is a problem because to attain righteousness by the law, a person would have fulfil the law perfectly. This means following every one of God's commands, from the moment we are born until the day we die. Even one tiny failure on the least important law is enough to disqualify us from this form of righteousness. Only a sinless life will earn righteousness.
“For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” – James 2:10
But no one in all the world (with the exception of Jesus Christ), has ever been able to keep the whole law. Everyone has broken it and thus we are all guilty sinners, forever unfit to be called God's children.
“There is none righteous, no, not one... For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:10, 23
So the result is that it is impossible for us to become righteous by our own efforts of keeping the law. Therefore Paul says that there is no law that can make men righteous:
“...if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin...” – Galatians 3:21b-22a
“For the law made nothing perfect...” – Hebrews 7:19a
The trouble with the law
The fault does not lie with the law itself, but with the heart of the person trying to fulfil it. Man's nature is evil, it is drawn to sin. The law cannot fix that nature, it can only expose it. This is what Paul tells us in the next passage:
“I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law... For apart from the law, sin was dead... the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death... So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good... Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.” – Extracts from Romans 7:7-13
In simpler terms, the text is saying roughly this, “had it not been for the law, I would not have recognised my sin. And though the law is good, it did me no good, but instead produced death in me by exposing my sinfulness.”
A quick analogy will explain why this is: Let us say that a country declares fornication (sex outside of marriage) illegal. There is now a law which teaches righteousness. But those who slept around before there was a law, will still want to continue after the law is brought in. The law does not change their desires. Instead, the presence of the law only makes people more conscious of their desires being wrong. The law does not cure them, rather it exposes the unrighteousness of who they are. As perfect as the law may be, it does not have the power to change the heart. The law therefore makes nobody righteous.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” – Romans 3:20a
So despite the perfection and holiness of the law, it failed to make anyone righteous, and therefore failed in its purpose. This is why something different was needed if men were to have any hope at all of approaching God.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
So if the law could not make men righteous, then something else would have to. Some change would have to take place or else all men would be lost. But before we can discuss what changed, we must address the stumbling block which trips many people up at this point.
There is an argument which says that because God is unchanging, therefore His law cannot change. In fact the idea is often extended to say that nothing God does can change. Now we agree that the Bible teaches that God cannot change.
“For I am the LORD, I change not” – Malachi 3:6a
But the Bible does not teach that God's law cannot change, that is simply an assumption made from logic but not based on the text. We must be very careful when establishing doctrine based only on what seems logicical to us but isn't written in the Word. Many a skewed doctrine has been the result of logical, yet inaccurate, deductions.
In fact, what the Bible does teach is that “of necessity the law had to change” (Hebrews 7:12). We will get back to this point in a moment, but first a quick analogy will help here:
A father can have a ridgid moral code, but that does not mean the law he applies to his children never changes. You see, he can deny his 7 year old social activities after 18:00 and give his teenager a curfew of 23:00, and still remain consistent to his code. When a child turns 21, he can remove all curfews and still he has not changed his standards or his code. His rules have changed – not because he changed, but because his children changed.
In the New Testament, the fabric of God's children is utterly different to the Old Testament. God has never changed. His moral code has never changed. But Jesus coming to earth on behalf of mankind has fundamentally changed us, and how we approach our unchanging God. Let's take a look at what we mean by this.
A New Covenant
We opened this discussion by showing how God established a covenant with Israel and at the same time set down a law to govern that covenant. But the covenant failed because Israel could not keep the law. So God would establish a new and very different covenant the next time around.
“If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, there would be no reason to establish another one. But God found fault with the people who could not keep the law and said: ‘I will make a new covenant which is not like the old one. In the new one, I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.’ Now by calling this covenant ‘new,’ He has made the first one outdated, and what is outdated will soon disappear.” – Shortphrase from Hebrews 8
The Old Covenant failed because it had an internal flaw – the sinful nature of man. So at the end of the Old Testament, God declares the covenant corrupted.
“ ‘But you have departed from the way; You have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ says the LORD of hosts.” – Malachi 2:8
The next chapter goes on to say the Lord will send the messenger of a New Covenant. This covenant would not need to rely on the good works of sinful men, but on the perfect works of a righteous One. So the Son of God came down from heaven to establish that covenant for us.
We do not have the time here to go very much deeper into the covenants themselves. But the topic will enrich your understanding of the difference between the Old and New Testaments and add insights on the law itself which we will not repeat here. Therefore we strongly encourage you to read that piece as a supplement to this one:
For more on the covenants, please click here:
A NEW HOPE IN CHRIST
So how does this New Covenant help us? Well, you will recall that we said the reason God's law can change (even though He does not), is because the nature of His children in the New Testament has fundamentally changed. Let us explain:
The Bible tells us that all men became sinners because of the act of one man. We were ‘in Adam’ – in his loins so to speak – when he sinned. God warned him not to eat of the forbidden tree or he would die. So when he rejected God's command and ate, he did die – he died to his righteous nature (a spiritual death). Thus he became a sinner, and the price of his sin would eventually be his physical death as well.
“For the wages of sin is death” – Romans 6:23a
We say ‘he fell’, meaning he lost his position of acceptance before God. He now had a fallen-nature which loved to sin, loved independence, self-rule and rebellion. Then when he had children, he had them ‘in his own image’ thus passing his fallen nature down them, and they passed it on to theirs. And so all mankind fell in Adam.
“in Adam all die” – 1 Corinthians 15:22a
“through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned.” – Romans 5:12
Now until the time of Jesus Christ (in other words all through the period of the Old Covenant), this sinful Adam-ness was the state of all men. It was only when our Lord came to earth that the possibility of something better was established.
A New Man
What God needed in the New Covenant, was a new man to place men in. Salvation would require a man that had walked this corrupted earth, without being corrupted by it. But we know there was no such man, so God came down from heaven and took on a human form, to become that one, new, righteous man for us. He walked the earth in absolute obedience to His Father.
“For I [Jesus] have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” – John 6:38
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son... born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” – Galatians 4:4-5
Jesus was born as a Jew under the rule of the law, so that He could fulfil the law perfectly. Therefore He says:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law... I did not come to destroy but to fulfil.” – Matthew 5:17
“I [Jesus] seek not My own will but the will of Him who sent Me.” – John 5:30
Though Jesus was born as a man, He did not have a fallen nature. You see, Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit through the miracle of a virgin birth. He therefore had a different Father to the rest of mankind, (we are referring here to His human nature, since His divine nature was neither born nor created). So Jesus was not ‘of Adam’ and therefore He was not born into sin. He was the only righteous man in all of history. So the Bible refers to Him as the second Adam, meaning the second original man. There are now two kinds of men, those who are ‘of Adam’ and this other One.
“The first man Adam became a living being. The last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit... The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” – 1 Corinthians 15:45, 47-49
So here lies our new hope – in this one heavenly man. God could now take us ‘out of Adam’ and place us ‘in Christ’, as if we had been born of His lineage and taken on His nature. In the process we lose our fallen, sinful, Adam-ness and take on a new, righteous Christ-like-ness.
“For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.” – 1 Corinthians 15:22
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17
Without fulfilling one single law, we are accepted by God on the grounds of being “in Christ”. In the same way that Adam represented us all when he sinned, and so we all became sinners through Adam. So Christ represented us in His obedience, so we can all now become righteous in Christ.
“For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” – Romans 5:19
Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law, and when He lived that perfect life, it was on our behalf. The result is that God now sees those who are “in Christ” as those who have already fulfilled the law perfectly. He has earned our righteousness for us.
“For He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
So the critical question then becomes – How do we get placed “in Christ”?
Understanding this concept is arguably the most critical truth we need in our Christian walk. It does not happen just because we attend church, or because we consider ourselves Christian. It is a spiritual transaction with profound implications. Because of its importance we would rather not give a half-hearted explanation here. Instead we will point you to a fuller explanation in another piece:
For more please click here:
In Christ – Two words that change everything (link not active yet)
For the purposes of this piece, what is critical to know is that when God places us “in Christ,” all that His life and death achieved can now be imputed to us. He lived and died as our substitute – our proxy. So when we are “in Him,” His sinlessness becomes our sinlessness, His righteousness becomes our righteousness and so forth.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” – Ephesians 1:3
“you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30b
It is as if we can simply shed our old selves, like an old skin, and be clothed with His eternal holiness.
“put off... the old man [the Adam-ness] which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts... [and] put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” – Ephesians 4:22, 24
The conclusion then is that we no longer need to fulfil a law to become righteous before God. Jesus has already fulfilled the law and purchased that right for us. Therefore the law is no longer our path to righteousness – Jesus is. He offers us that righteousness which the law tried to, but never could (because of our weakness).
“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” – Romans 8:3a
“And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him” – Hebrews 5:9
Because we now become righteous through Jesus Christ, instead of through the law, Paul says that Christ is the end of needing the law to become righteous:
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.”– Romans 10:4
Therefore God has now separated those two things (the law and righteousness), which before Christ could not be separated.
“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed... the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.” – Romans 3:21a-22a
The result is that God has effectively removed the requirements of the law on us.
“[Jesus Christ] wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” – Colossians 2:14
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us (for it is written cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree)... that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” – Galatians 3:13a, 14b
When Christ died our old Adam-ness died and went to the grave with Him. And when He was resurrected, we received our new and eternal life in Him.
“our old man [Adam-ness] was crucified with Him... we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead... we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:6a, 4
Rejecting Grace means rejecting Christ
So after all Christ has endured and purchased on our behalf, any attempt we make to be justified by our own obedience to the law, is nothing short of a rejection of Him. This is why Paul says:
“You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” – Galatians 5:4
If we could have found righteousness without Christ's life and death, then God would never have put His Son through mockery, torture and death. If there was another way to make us righteous, then His sacrifice was for nothing.