Are Christians Bound by Old Testament Laws?
James R. Aist
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:17)
I don’t know about you, but, until recently, I have not had a well-informed response to unbelievers who say that Christians are hypocrites, because they do not obey all of the biblical laws, but selectively disobey many of the Old Testament laws while insisting that everyone should obey the others. How would you respond to such a charge? Are unbelievers correct in making this accusation, or are there biblically sound reasons why Christians are not bound by some of the laws prescribed in the Old Testament?
Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on this topic, but I have studied it enough to be able to provide what I believe to be a valid and reliable overview and to point you to some additional resources (links) that will enable you to study this question to your personal satisfaction and draw your own conclusions, if you are so inclined. So, let’s jump right into it.
Categories of Old Testament Laws
While the Bible does not formally and explicitly list categories of Old Testament laws, it is possible for us to recognize and define, in retrospect, three categories of them. This exercise reminds me of the way in which we recognize the biblical doctrine of the trinity, even though the Bible does not directly and specifically name and list it as a defined doctrine. Therefore, I am reasonably certain that this is a valid, biblical approach to this topic.
There appears to be widespread – albeit not at all unanimous – consensus on the following categories of Old Testament laws:
1) Civil Laws – Ancient Israel was a theocracy, in which God himself, through the Jewish religious establishment, provided the civil laws and their enforcement that were necessary for justice and order to prevail in that culture. This represents the legal system of the Jewish theocracy. Therefore, these were the laws comprising the criminal code, and they prescribed the punishment for various crimes, such as murder, adultery and theft. Because there is no longer a biblical theocracy in existence anywhere, these laws do not apply to anyone, including Christians. That is not to say, of course, that Christians are allowed to murder, commit adultery and steal. It just means that those particular laws were established as part of a theocracy that no longer exists, and that one has to look elsewhere in the Bible to find laws that are binding in today’s world;
2) Ceremonial Laws – Often referred to as the “Mosaic Law”, these laws provided the Jews of ancient Israel a temporary process by which their sins could be covered and they could be made, or kept, “clean”. They were a representation, or type, of something better and permanent that was to come at the appointed time. These laws included such things as animal sacrifices to cover sins, mandatory observance of religious festivals, various restrictions on food and washing of the hands before eating. When the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, appeared, He become the perfect, sufficient, final and effective sacrifice for all of the sins of mankind. By dying on the cross to pay the price for our sins, Jesus replaced the ceremonial laws, rendering them obsolete, unnecessary and ineffectual. Therefore, Christians are not bound by these Old Testament laws, and, in fact, are instructed in the Bible to not practice them; and finally…
3) Moral Laws – These laws are distinct from the “Mosaic Law” and are the biblical laws that establish and define how we are to behave toward God and toward each other. They are most notably embodied in the Ten Commandments, but are to be found also in other biblical instructions and commandments, especially as laid out in the New Testament. Examples include laws against idolatry, murder, adultery, fornication, the practice of homosexuality, stealing, lying, gossip, slander, drunkenness etc. In considering the extent of the moral laws, it is important to keep in mind that the Bible does not mention, specifically, many of the sins that people are capable of, such as child sexual abuse and wife beating, but it is not difficult to recognize that such things violate Jesus’ new commandment to “love one another” and are, therefore, sinful. The Bible presents these laws as permanent and applicable to everyone, including Christians. They have not been replaced nor have they expired. Rather, they are universally valid and binding forever. One notable exception is that the Fourth of the Ten Commandments – to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy – expired at the first coming of Jesus (click HERE)
I hope that this brief discussion of Old Testament laws and the Christian will be informative and useful to you. If you would like to read a more comprehensive treatment of this subject, please select an article listed below and click on the link provided. I particularly recommend the series by Morrison (1997) for detailed study.
(For more articles on BIBLICAL TEACHINGS, click HERE)
Recommended Resources for Bible References and Further Study:
A) More-or-less brief articles
Wright, C.J.H. 2013. Learning to love Leviticus. (click HERE)
Kretzmann, P.E. 1924. The Difference Between the Moral and the Ceremonial Law. (click HERE)
Phillips, R.D. 2000. Which Old Testament Laws Must I Obey? (click HERE)
B) More in-depth, comprehensive resources
Anonymous. 2007. The Ten Commandments and the Ceremonial Law (Mosaic Law). (click HERE)
Morrison, M. 1997. Which Old Testament Laws Apply to Christians Today? (click HERE)
As I mentioned in my article, the Ten Commandments is perhaps the most notable exposition of the moral law in the OT. As part of the moral law, the Ten Commandments are still in force today, and binding on Christians, as I understand it. Jesus confirmed their enduring nature by referring to them as morally binding in several places in the Bible.
So where does that place the 10 commandments? They appear to be a moral law, except dealing with the Shaboth?