A STUDY BY
GARY RAY BRANSCOME
One issue that has been debated since the time of the Apostles has to do with the question of how we should conduct our lives. If Christ has freed us from the law, but we are not free to sin, what rule should we follow? Because this question is a stumbling block to many, it needs to be answered. Yet the answer is not simple, and in order to grasp it we must understand both the nature and purpose of Godís law.
First of all basic morality never changes. What is morally wrong today was morally wrong yesterday and will be morally wrong tomorrow. Godís standard of right and wrong will never change because it is a reflection of His own nature. In fact, it was originally a part of our nature also. However, through the sin of Adam, our knowledge of right and wrong has become clouded and blurred. We have lost the image of the Divine, and it is no longer natural for us to do what is right. For that reason, God gave us His law to remind us of what is right, while showing us how far we have fallen. [Romans 3:20 and 7:7, Ephesians 2:3, Psalm 51:5, Malachi 3:6, Romans 5:12]
Jesus pointed out that all of the ordinances of the Law could be summed up in two commandments: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind," and, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:37-40). Moreover, since those two commandments are still in force the entire body of the Law is still in force, and not one jot or tittle of it has passed away (Luke 16:17, Romans 13:8-10). That being the case, before anyone could possibly obey the law, or be counted as righteous because of their works, they would have to perfectly keep every ordinance of the Old Testament, and Godís Word makes it clear that that is impossible (Galatians 5:3, Romans 3:10-23, 1 John 1:8,10).
While the law has changed, in regard to the fact that animal sacrifice (along with the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood) has been abolished (Hebrews 7:12). That change is only a change in the form of the law, not a change in what it requires. The law still requires blood sacrifice! However, the only sacrifice that fulfills that requirement is the death of Christ. The blood of animals is not now required, because it never was required! It simply pointed forward to the one all sufficient sacrifice, on the part of Christ (Hebrews 10:4).
To better understand what the law requires, we need to distinguish between civic righteousness and actual righteousness. Civic righteousness is nothing more than that outward righteousness which makes us good citizens in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of our fellow men. We may never commit the crime of robbery, murder, fraud, or adultery. We may be well thought of, and respected in our community. However, that is not what makes us righteous in the sight of God. While men only look at the actions they can see, God looks at all of the impure thoughts, desires and urges that enter our mind, and anyone of those impure urges or desires, if unforgiven, will send us to hell as surely as the most wicked of crimes. [Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21, James 2:10, 1 John 5:17, Matthew 5:18-28, Galatians 3:21, 2 Corinthians 5:12, Hebrews 4:12, Jeremiah 17:9, Psalm 58:2,3, Ephesians 2:3]
THE WORLD AT THE TIME OF CHRIST
The Gentiles living at the time of Christ generally recognized the existence of a moral order in the universe. In fact, the government of Rome viewed all political law as a reflection of the "Law of Nature," and appealed to that law in harmonizing the Laws of Rome with those of other countries (Romans 2:14,15). In addition, one branch of philosophy (ethics) was devoted to questions of right and wrong. For that reason, the Gentiles of that time were inclined to recognize the truth of the Ten Commandments, while our society is inclined in the opposite direction. Therefore, by the time the Apostle Paul began his work, many Gentiles (who did not observe all of the regulations required by Moses) had accepted the God of the Bible, and the Ten Commandments. Furthermore, because those converts (who outwardly kept the commandments) knew that they were not keeping the whole Law, they wound up trusting in Godís mercy. Consequently, they received the good news of Godís mercy in Christ, with rejoicing, while those Jews who thought they had no need for that mercy rejected it. [John 7:35, John 12:20, Acts 14:1,2, Acts 17:4,12, Romans 9:30-32, Acts 18:4, Acts 19:10, Acts 20:21]
HOW SHOULD WE LIVE?
Under the guidance of the Apostles, Jewish believers continued to live much as they had always lived. While they would not have continued animal sacrifice, and would not have felt that their salvation depended on keeping the law, there is evidence that they continued to circumcise their male children and follow Jewish custom (Acts 15:5). In fact, the Pharisees who accepted Christ continued to live by the law, and the Apostles never tried to get them to go contrary to their conscience. However, with Paul telling his gentile converts that circumcision and obedience to the law was unnecessary, a conflict was bound to arise. And, the church council called to deal with that conflict is described in the fifteenth chapter of Acts. In examining the decision of that council, we need to realize that the Gentile converts were in submission to the laws of the land, and those laws already condemned such criminal behavior as murder, theft, fraud, slander and even adultery. Nevertheless, because Gentile society often winked at sexual activity between those who were unmarried, the council stressed the need to abstain from fornication. Because some Gentiles wanted to worship the God of Israel along with their idols or at least to partake of meats offered in sacrifice to idols the council stressed the need to separate oneself from pollutions of idols. And because the Gentile practice of eating blood and meat cooked with the blood in it was extremely offensive to the Jews the council also stressed the need to abstain from such (Acts 15:20,29).
If there had been any change to the law, or if God had given us a new set of laws, that council would have said so. However, they did not! There was no mention of Godís Law being changed. There was no list of doís and doníts. In fact, by their decision, the delegates to that council made it clear that believers are not to seek righteousness through obedience to the law. Instead we are to walk by faith, trusting in Christís righteousness (Romans 10:1-4). That does not mean that we are free to sin! It simply means that as long as we walk in a clean conscience, as law-abiding citizens who are faithful in marriage and responsible parents, we do not have to worry about the law (1 Timothy 1:9-10). At the same time, we should never deceive ourselves into thinking that such outward righteousness makes us righteous in the sight of God. Those who seek righteousness through their own "obedience" will be condemned by God if they fail to do everything that the law requires (Galatians 3:10 and 5:3, Romans 2:13, James 2:10).
To a certain extent, the kind of behavior that ought to characterize Christians has been captured and portrayed by such television shows as "Leave It to Beaver." "Father Knows Best: or "Ozzie and Harriet." While none of the families portrayed in those shows were trying to be especially righteous, they give us a picture of hard working, responsible law-abiding people. Although the characters in those stories were never portrayed as perfect, they knew the difference between right and wrong. Although they would sometimes tell a lie, in order to create a situation in the plot of the story, lying was never portrayed as right. Yet, there was no attempt to be preachy. Those shows simply reflected the values of our society at that time. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that Ozzie Nelson was an atheist in real life. While he wanted his series to convey the idea that atheists can be good responsible citizens, because he was influenced by the Christian values of our society, he wound up giving us an example of civic righteousness.
[NOTE: Although civic righteousness is good, and should not be discouraged, people sometimes assume that if they have never committed murder, adultery, or some other crime they are not sinners (Romans 3:10-23). At the same time, others try to make themselves righteous by being a little stricter than the rest (donít smoke, donít drink, dress a certain way, tithe etc.). However, in both cases they make the mistake of trusting in their own righteousness, instead of looking to Christ (Romans 10:1-4).]
FREEDOM FROM THE LAW
While the forgiveness that we have in Christ frees us from the Law, we would be dead wrong to conclude that the Law has changed (Romans 3:31). If God had changed His law, or abolished it, all men would be free from the Law, but they are not. Only believers are free from the Law (Romans 7:4 and 10:4). Those who trust in their own works are still under the law, and will be condemned if they do not do everything it requires. [Galatians 3:10 and 5:3, Romans 2:13, Matthew 5:48]
Because the law was given to show men their sin and need for salvation, the law must not be watered down, compromised, or made easier to keep. Since the purpose of the Law is to condemn sin, not make people sinless, it is vital that it be preached in its full sternness (Romans 5:20, Matthew 5:48). Sermons should point people to Christ for righteousness, not to their own works or "obedience." In fact, if anyone claims to not only trust, but also "obey," the Bible says that he is deceiving himself and the truth is not in him (1 John 1:8, 10). For that reason, a faithful pastor will never lead people to believe that they can keep Godís Law. On the contrary he will help them to see that they do not keep Godís law and, therefore, need forgiveness.
It is forgiveness alone that makes us righteous in the sight of God, and that forgiveness did not come easy. Christ had to die to obtain it, and if He had not died in our place there would be no forgiveness for us (Joshua 24:19, Romans 10:4). Furthermore, without that forgiveness all of our righteous acts are foul and repulsive to God (Isaiah 64:6). So repulsive that a forgiven whore is more righteous in the sight of God than a self-righteous holy-man (or Pope). For that reason, true righteousness comes only through being freed from the law, and that is why false teachers continually try to make people righteous by the law [Romans 9:30-32, Romans 5:9, Romans 10:4, psalm 13:5, 1 Kings 15:5, Psalm 119:55,56, Matthew 21:31, Luke 18:9-14, Luke 7:37-50]
Since those who have been blinded by self-righteousness imagine that God is pleased with them because of their works, they will never be able to understand the freedom that is ours in Christ. For as long as they think that the law makes them righteous, they will see freedom from the law as freedom to sin. In contrast, those who tremble at Godís Word, those who know that they cannot be righteous as long as the law condemns them, will be able to understand that freedom from the law is not the freedom to sin, but the freedom to be righteous (Isaiah 66:2). In fact, because it is the law that makes us guilty before God, the only way we can be righteous is to be freed from the Law. And, being freed from the law, we walk in a clean conscience, as law-abiding citizens who are faithful in marriage and responsible parents, not because we are trying to make ourselves righteous, but because we love being free of condemnation and guilt. [Romans 3:20 and 5:20, Romans 7:6, Romans 4:15, 1 Timothy 1:5,19, Titus 1:15, Hebrews 9:9, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 Peter 3:21, Psalm 51:17, Romans 6:6-18, 1 Corinthians 15:56, Galatians 3:10]
THE CEREMONIAL LAW
Although we have been freed from the law, we attend church, study Godís Word, pray, and support the work of the ministry. However, as Christians, our motivation for doing these things should never be the threats of the law, or the delusion that Godís favor depends upon our religiosity.
While we baptize those who come to faith in Christ, they should not come to baptism thinking that they are doing God a favor by their obedience. Baptism is not law (an act of obedience), but gospel. And because it is gospel, God uses it to give all who come His promise of forgiveness in Christ (Acts 2:38 and 22:16). However, that does not mean that forgiveness comes to them automatically, just because the rite was preformed. While baptism gives them Godís promise, the Bible makes it clear that it is only through personal faith in Jesus Christ that we receive what is promised (Galatians 3:22, 2 Corinthians 1:20).
Although the law requires observance of the Sabbath day, we do not attend church because the law requires it, but because God uses the church, and the preaching of the gospel, to feed us spiritually, strengthen our faith, and nourish us through His Word (John 21:15-17, 1 Corinthians 3:2,6, Hebrews 5:12-14). Furthermore, we are not bound to a certain day (Colossians 2:16). In fact, to avoid conflict with the Jews, the Apostolic church began to worship on the "Lordís Day," rather than Saturday (Revelation 1:10, 1 Corinthians 16:2). However, in worshipping regularly we follow Christís example (Luke 4:16). He did not let the hypocrites keep Him away from worship, and He did not say, "I donít get anything out of it." Instead, He honored God, because it was the right thing to do (Hebrews 10:25).
While we should want to support the work of the ministry, and help those who are less fortunate, the motivation for our giving should be faith and love, not the constraint of the law. Many Christians choose to tithe, and they have every right to do so. Nevertheless, those who think that God will condemn them if they do not tithe are weak in faith (Romans 7:4 and 14:1-23, 1 John 3:21). Under the law, God required a tithe to support the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods. However, Christ has not only freed us from the law, but the Old Testament priesthood has been abolished.
Those who do not fully understand the gospel sometimes try to make the tithe paid by Abraham to Melchizedek into a law that is binding on Christians Ė as if Christ only freed us from part of the law (Genesis 14:19-20). They will claim that Abraham was following an unwritten principle, as if we are bound by rules that are not in Scripture. However, their legalism and the fact that they go outside Godís Word [unwritten principles] tells us that they are not true disciples of Christ (John 8:31).
Many Christians have experienced the fact that when faith and love (rather than the constraint of the law) motivates our giving, a noticeable blessing often accompanies it (2 Corinthians 9:6-13). However, we do not receive that blessing because God owes it to us, or because we have earned it by our work of giving. On the contrary, God does not owe us a thing, and all of the money in the world cannot buy His blessing. Therefore, anything we receive from Him is a gift of His grace. If, when our giving is motivated by faith and love, He chooses to pay back what we have given, He does so only because He has chosen to treat what is given for His sake as a personal loan to Him (Proverbs 19:17). He does not have to pay it back, and there is no worthiness or merit on our part to make us deserve it.
Christ did not die in order to make the law easier to obey. If anything, He made the law harder to obey by clarifying it and adding to it (Matthew 5:48, John 13:34, 1 John 2:8). Likewise the Apostles did not change the law, for many of the early Jewish converts continued to circumcise their male infants and live by the law (Acts 15:5,6). Baptism did not replace circumcision; circumcision simply ceased to be required because we have been freed from the law! The one thing necessary, then as now, is not the outward circumcision of the flesh, but the inward circumcision of the heart that takes place when we acknowledge our sin before God and look to Christ for mercy and forgiveness. [Mark 1:4, Deuteronomy 30:6, Mark 1:8, Romans 2:25-29, Colossians 2:11, Deuteronomy 10:16, Acts 7:51]
While Christ has freed us from the law, we should not confuse the law with the guidelines that God has given to His church. For example, the procedure for dealing with problems that Christ gave us in Matthew 18, is not a commandment or a work of righteousness. It is simply the best way of dealing with certain problems. Likewise, the guidelines for determining who is to hold congressional offices, are not commandments, but a general standard for making determining Godís will in the matter.
Even though Christ has freed us from the law, we still have to deal with a sinful nature. Nevertheless, while the struggle with our own flesh forces us to identify and condemn sin and deepens our resolve to resist the flesh, those who try to motivate themselves by the law have fallen into Satanís trap. For, by telling themselves that their efforts will please God and bring His blessing, they in effect deny that faith in Christ makes them acceptable to God and brings His blessing (Romans 3:28 and 8:1). Likewise, by telling themselves that righteousness depends upon what they do, they in effect deny that Christ has made them righteous (Romans 10:4). Therefore, although the struggle with the flesh is very real, the way to victory is found in grace, not works; the gospel, not the law. In short, the more we rely on our own efforts the stronger our flesh seems to become. While the more we rely on Christ, believing that the forgiveness we have in Him cleanses us from all sin making us pure perfect and holy in the sight of God, the more we will experience the help of the Spirit in neutralizing and overcoming the flesh (Galatians 5:22-26, 1 John 1:7-10).
Everyone who truly loves Jesus will love that which is pure, right, holy, and good. And loving that which is good goes hand in hand with loathing all that is evil. For that reason, we should want to do what is right, have a clean conscience, and be kind and considerate in all of our dealings with others. On one hand, we should look to Godís Word for guidance, wisdom and comfort. On the other hand we should never deceive ourselves into thinking that our own righteousness is worth anything apart from Godís forgiveness and mercy in Christ Jesus. May this spirit be in you all, Amen. (John 1:47)