How Are We to Relate to Old Testament Law?

Confusion regarding the laws given to Moses in the old covenant and how to apply them, if at all, under the new covenant is not a new thing. Neither is it an old thing. Recently while I was teaching in a session which was part of a prison ministry, I witnessed a controversy over this very subject regarding diet. One inmate held that the passage about God cleansing all kinds of animals meant that the old laws regarding clean and unclean were no longer in effect. He was contradicted by an older man who was part of a group which insisted that those old laws of diet still applied.

Ironically, this was during a study of Romans 14 while we were looking at the verses which plead for charity with one another when such differences arise (see verses 14-20). Instead of being deferent to the differing opinions of each, both left angry with the other. Regardless of who was right about diet, both were wrong in how they reacted in the heat of the disagreement.

Yet there are Biblical helps about this question and we need not allow ourselves to be frustrated that it is too difficult an assignment to discern what to do with the old covenant and its laws. It all has to do with the gospel. Consider that the heart of the new covenant is the gospel. After Christ died and rose again, the gospel was at the heart of every recorded message in the New Testament. The appeal of the evangelist was always to the person, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Who He was, what He did in His suffering and death, why He did it, and how He is alive was the essence of the message of the new covenant.

There is a dramatic difference between the Old and New Testaments. Although the new flows from the old, there is a major change. “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The law had its time, but its time was over with the coming of Christ and His work. “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 3:17). The time of the law was until a certain event at a specific moment. We are told when that new time arrived. “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” Gal. 4:4, 5).

Does the law still have a purpose? Yes. Its purpose is to show us why we need Christ. It reveals what sin is. It helps to define the breadth of sin in its many features. In the old covenant we learn about the beginning of sin in the Garden of Eden. We learn of the results of sin in the expulsion from that early paradise. We learn of the devastation of sin in the flood. We learn the definitions of various sins in the Mosaic law. We learn about the necessity of sacrifice for sin in the Jewish rituals. But those rites could not make people holy or free from sin, “for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” Gal. 2:16b).

What is the main purpose of the law for us? “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). Paul wrote elsewhere that before the law, he was “alive” but when the law came, “sin revived and I died.” The law is like a straight edge against a crooked line. It shows how crooked the line is, but it does not have any power to make the line straight.

The power to make the crooked things straight is in Christ. It is nowhere else. It is not in making new resolutions. It is not in saying certain phrases. We who are of the Wesleyan persuasion may have a hard time with it, but it is not even in our willingness to say yes to God. “So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy” (Rom. 9:7). Think about it, we cannot will ourselves into righteousness. It is not in us to change ourselves. We are dependent on God to change us.

How then are we to be made right? It is in throwing ourselves at the foot of the cross of Jesus, in fleeing to Him from our own inadequacies, our sins, our foolishness, our works, our righteousness, and trusting by faith in His sacrifice and His grace that we can have our crookedness straightened. “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ” (Gal. 2:16a). We are justified by faith and nothing else.

The same can be said about “going on to perfection.” Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). We can go through a list of what we think or what others may think we need to do to be made perfect, but it is all of no avail if it is our will or our effort that we depend on. Who will make us perfect in love? “Faithful is He that calleth you, who also will do it (1 Thes. 5:24). We cannot do it, be He will do it.

We can use the old covenant to help us understand what God thinks about things, to help us see how God worked in circumstances in the past, and to help us trust in God’s promises for things to come. Yet we cannot stop until we follow it into the new covenant. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1,2a). God is not now speaking through the prophets. He is speaking through His Son. It is inadequate to see what He said to them in the old covenant without seeing what the Son says now in the new.

After listening to the minister for some weeks, a young teen asked her father, “Papa, can the preacher never give us some hope?” If our discourse leaves us hopeless we have not completed the circle, for ours is a God of hope. If the sermon leaves us in turmoil, it is unfinished, for ours is a God of peace. If the homily has come across harshly, it falls short, for God is love. The new covenant is full of grace and truth.

Ours is the “good news.” Let us never give an incomplete message. “Yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!”


  1. Reply
    Anne Blake says

    A brilliant blessing!

    Thank you, Dr. Godeuk

  2. Reply
    Anne Blake says

    Thank you, Dr. Gordeuk, for your brilliant and gifted Biblical treatment of the subject.

    What a blessing to read it!

    I am saving it as a seminal resource in spreading the
    Great Joy of the Gospel truth!

    Many Blessings,

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