Should Christians Observe the Old Testament Law? Which Parts?

How should Christians in the 21st century relate to Old Testament laws and moral examples? In this Seven Minute Seminary, Dr. Craig Keener helps explain the context of Israel’s laws by pointing out that many of the laws were admittedly meant to limit sin, not abolish it altogether. This means that in some sense, there were laws that were less than the ethical ideal and served as concessions for the ancient culture (see instructions about polygamy, divorce, sexual abuse, holy war, etc.) But Jesus came to reveal a higher standard of moral law that truly and more fully represented the holy character of our loving God.

See also this video by Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. Ben Witherington: “Christians and the Old Testament“; If you would like to learn more about where Jesus is found in the Old Testament, get The Fulfillment: Jesus and the Old Testament by Timothy Tennent from our store.

View our growing playlist of Seven Minute Seminary.

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Get your copy of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament by John Walton.

Get your copy of The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig Keener.


One Response

  1. Some great points. I would just want to caution that not all laws (and we can’t divide the law into moral, civil, and ritual) can be relegated to the category of concessions instead of God’s ideal. It’s a bit more complex and the OT law is still connected to Christian ethics in some way. I definitely agree that there is both continuity and discontinuity between the OT and NT in this regard. Here’s my conclusion when looking at this issue through Paul’s “fulfilling the law” language:

    There is much more that could be said about the relationship between Paul’s ethics and the OT law. There is also much that Paul leaves unanswered. However, we can begin to develop a framework for discussing this topic by studying Paul’s statements regarding the fulfilment of the OT law in the context of the ostensible paradox identified in 1 Cor 7:19. In reviewing these statements, it appears evident that Paul does not generally develop an ethical system or explain a hermeneutical model that identifies the relationship between the OT law and his ethics. Nevertheless, it is clear that Paul is not endorsing libertinism or antinomianism (e.g., 1 Cor 9:21; Gal 5:16–21; 6:2; cf. 5:13, 17–18). He often gives ethical imperatives as the situation demands, but without regularly making direct links with OT commands. Thus, it is difficult to discern the exact relationship between the OT law and his ethics. The closest Paul comes to creating a hermeneutical process is when he endorses rational discernment of ethics with a renewed mind (Rom 12:1–2; cf. 7:14, 23, 25; 8:5–7) and the involvement of the Spirit (7:6; 8:4–6; cf. 7:24–25; 8:7–8). When grounding his ethics, Paul almost always avoids referring to the OT law; instead, he refers primarily to God’s redemptive work in history, Christ and the gospel (with new creation), and apostolic example and instruction. Paul is not more detailed than that vis-à-vis his ethical system and hermeneutical process. Neither is he more detailed in presenting a complete ethical code. That Paul does not provide a full ethical code may be explained by his exhortation to his communities to use their discernment (12:1–2; cf. 2 Cor 4:16; Eph 4:23; Col 3:10; Titus 3:5), enabled by the Spirit as they become new creations (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). Even the OT could not provide an exhaustive legal code addressing every conceivable situation. Reacting to the new reality inaugurated by the Christ event, Paul may be avoiding the same impossibility and, rather, giving his communities principles, examples, and methods to discern what God’s will is for human behaviour; he does this while emphasizing the necessity of the Spirit and reasoned discernment.

    Yet, Paul does provide some statements and examples that offer insight into his approach to ethics and the OT law. One factor that Paul indicates has altered the OT law in some way is the Christ event (Rom 3:21–26; 6:1–6; 7:1–6; 8:3–4; cf. Gal 3:15–18; 4:1–7; 5:2, 4–6; 6:15). In this new reality, Paul focuses on living in the new creation (Gal 6:15) and on the inclusion of the Gentiles (Rom 3:19–31; 4:13–17; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 3:26–29; 5:6; 6:15; Eph 2:11–16; cf. Rom 2:29; 15:14–21; Gal 2:15–16; 4:21–31; 5:2). In this phase of God’s plan of redemption, some OT instructions are no longer necessary, or they actually impede God’s plan. Three areas of instruction Paul repeatedly indicates are adiaphora are those that were closely tied to Jewish identity: (1) circumcision (Rom 2:25–29; 1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:2–3, 6; 6:15; cf. Rom 2:26); (2) dietary regulations (Rom 14:2–3, 6; 1 Cor 8:8; 10:23–33); and (3) holy days (Rom 14:5–6; Gal 4:10–11). Yet Paul does not just address these three areas of the OT law. Paul unequivocally states that Christians are no longer under the Sinaitic covenant and its entire law—they are no longer subject to its power or authority (Rom 6:14–15; 7:4; 1 Cor 9:20–21; Gal 3:10, 22–25; 4:3, 8–9, 24–31; 5:3–6, 13; cf. Gen 17:13; Exod 12:44; Lev 12:3; Josh 5:2–9; Luke 2:21–27; Acts 7:8; Gal 4:21; 5:3).

    The conclusion up to this point may reflect the first part of 1 Cor 7:19 when Paul says, “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing” (NRSV). As discussed earlier, the tension exists when Paul continues, “but obeying the commandments of God is everything” (v. 19 NRSV). This latter half of v. 19 may be related to those statements in Paul’s letters when he implies a connection between his ethics and the OT law. Even though most of the time Paul bases his ethics on things other than the OT law, he does not completely sever the relationship. The clearest example of this is the only time he explicitly and directly quotes the OT law (as opposed to the narrative, wisdom or prophetic literature, etc.). Paul plainly uses Deut 25:4 as instruction for the Corinthians by saying that this OT command “was indeed written for our sake” (1 Cor 9:10 NRSV; cf. vv. 8–14). Paul further emphasizes this connection when he says that his application of Deut 25:4 is a commandment from God (1 Cor 9:14). This instance may be the exception that proves the rule; and Paul may not have had the same concern about the Corinthians’ use of the law as he did about the Galatians’ or Romans’. However, if Paul had an overwhelming concern to dissociate Christian ethics from the OT law generally, it is hard to imagine that he would be this explicit even once.

    The next clearest connection Paul makes between his ethics and the OT law is when he is instructing his audience to love—a key aspect of his ethics (e.g., Gal 5:6, 13–14; 6:2; Rom 13:8–10; cf. 1 Cor 13). Importantly, love is central in two of the three “fulfilment” statements (Rom 13:8–10; Gal 5:13–14). In these statements, Paul uses Lev 19:18 to validate his ethic and motivate his audience to follow his instruction. It is through loving others that one fulfils the whole law since love, specifically Lev 19:18, is the defining characteristic of the lifestyle the OT law was meant to produce in Israel. Paul argues that his instruction to love is the same as Lev 19:18 and, therefore, when his audience follows his instruction to love, they are practically observing Lev 19:18 and fulfilling the law. It is clear that, for Paul, fulfilling the law is positive. Yet this is not an abstract concept. While not reducing the OT commandments to Lev 19:18, Paul does refer to some of the Decalogue as examples of what loving others looks like before *generally* including all OT instructions (Rom 13:9). While not all OT instructions are *specifically* included, Paul’s ethics and the OT law share specific behaviours. These behaviours form part of the general pattern of life the OT law as a complete unit was meant to produce in God’s people and which, in its essential aspects, continues to be the pattern expected of both Jews and Gentiles after the Christ event (cf. 2:25–29). Stated in the inverse, this pattern of life avoids the pattern of sinful living the law also reveals (7:7), even if some things defined as transgression by the law are now acceptable. This pattern of sinful living continues to be of concern for Christians (6:1–2, 12–13, 15–18). This same thinking regarding the proper pattern of life likely lies behind the “fulfilment” statement in 8:4 when Paul speaks of walking and living according to the Spirit rather than the flesh and setting one’s mind on the things of the Spirit as opposed to things of the flesh (vv. 4–5).

    While Paul never encourages the Christian communities to look to the OT law as part of their discernment of God’s will, likely for pragmatic and pastoral reasons, he never precludes that option. His one explicit example in 1 Cor 9:8–14 and “fulfilment” statements in Gal 5:13–15; Rom 8:3–5; and 13:8–10 reveal it to be a possibility. His general principle in 15:4 supports this option as well. Some of Paul’s ethics may also allude to the OT law or contain terms and ideas that indicate a direct or indirect (e.g., traditional Jewish wisdom) connection without citing any commandments. Although no longer covenantal legislation, the OT law—along with the other ethical bases Paul uses and encourages—ought not to be ignored as instructive for Christian ethics in our own time. This use of the law does not undermine Paul’s position that, after the Christ event, the role of the OT law as part of the Sinaitic covenant ended along with the Christian belonging to the realm of the law, sin and death. There is another role the law may have for ethical discernment; and Paul’s appeal to reasoned deliberation suggests that such deliberation will be necessary in deciding how to appropriate the law. With that in mind, “obeying the commandments of God is [still] everything” (1 Cor 7:19 NRSV), but any use of the OT law to determine God’s will must inevitably be complex, requiring discernment and sensitivity to one’s context and the new creation reality.

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