When Jesus began His Sermon on the Mount, He said to the Pharisees, “ ‘When you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men’ ” (Matthew 6:5).*Again, He said, “ ‘When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men’ ” (Matthew 6:2).
Jesus wasn’t suggesting that there’s something wrong with praying or charitable deeds. His concern was with the underlying motive. That’s how Jesus distinguished between true and false religion—between legalism and love. Legalism looks at the outward act to make sure there’s outward compliance. Love looks at the motive for the act.
Some people think that observing the Ten Commandments is legalism. Others think the Ten Commandments came into effect only when God gave Moses the tablets of stone on Mount Sinai. But God’s law existed in principle long before that. The Ten Commandments are eternal principles. It’s always been wrong to covet. It’s always been wrong to lie, to kill, to steal. That’s obvious in the first recorded sins of Adam and Eve and Cain. Every act of disobeying God’s will is sin.
Before the time of the giving of the commandments, God said, “ ‘Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws’ ” (Genesis 26:5). He said to Cain, “ ‘If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door’ ” (Genesis 4:7).
“Where there is no law,” says Paul, “there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15). And he added, “(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law)” (Romans 5:13).
The Old Covenant
The Bible is divided into two parts: the Old and New Testaments. The word testament means the same thing as the word covenant, so they can also be referred to as the Old and New Covenants. When we talk of obeying God’s commandments, people sometimes say, “But that’s the Old Covenant; we’re now under the New Covenant.”
It’s true that since Christ’s death and resurrection we’ve been under the New Covenant. Jeremiah 31:31 says, “ ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,’ ” and the writer of Hebrews said the new covenant is now in effect. He called it a “better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6). Why? Because it’s “established on better promises.”
The problem with the Old Covenant was that when the children of Israel promised to keep God’s commandments, they failed. Even while Moses was still on the mountain talking to God, the people were disobeying the law. Their promises were not good enough.
The first covenant was based on the promise of God and their promise. The New Covenant is based on the promise of God alone. It’s the promise of what God is going to do. God said He would write His law (that’s the same Ten Commandment law) in a different place: on people’s hearts. God still wants us to keep His law, but we will fail if we attempt to do so in our own strength.
Moses was “faithful” (Hebrew 3:2, 5), so the concept of obeying through God’s power isn’t just a New Testament concept. Others in the Old Testament, such as Abraham, did so as well.
Some people claim that Jesus came to establish the New Covenant and thus do away with the law. They say that He came to “fulfill” the law by living the perfect life so that we don’t have to obey the law anymore. But that’s not what Jesus taught. Rather, He said, “ ‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law,’ ” then added, “ ‘but to fulfill [it]’ ” (Matthew 5:17).
To “fulfill” doesn’t means to “do away with.” Jesus said He that didn’t come to destroy the law. The word fulfill means literally what it says: to fill something until full. What He did do, in addition to obeying the law perfectly, was to magnify it and make it honorable. In verse 18 He says, “ ‘Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.’ ”
Love vs. Law
Another false concept of the New Covenant is that it’s just about love. Now it’s true that the New Covenant is about love. Jesus Himself said, “ ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another’ ” (John 13:34). But how do you demonstrate love? Jesus also said, “ ‘If you love me, you will obey what I command’ ” (John 14:15, NIV).
He always makes that connection between love and obedience, as do all the Bible writers. For example, Paul says: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). He then goes on to list several of the commandments so we can be certain of which law he had in mind.
Love is certainly at the heart of the New Covenant, but no more so than the Old Covenant, for when you love the Lord with all your heart, you’ll be keeping the first four commandments, and in truly loving people, you keep the last six.
Spirit vs. Letter
The letter of the law says do not commit adultery. But Jesus said, according to the spirit of the law, if you even look on someone lustfully, you’ve committed adultery (Matthew 5:27, 28). The true law-abiding citizens of heaven are obedient because they have a right attitude.
In fact, it’s impossible to keep the spirit of the law and at the same time break it. The concept of “I’m going to do it, but not in my heart” doesn’t make sense. The letter of the law says you’re not to kill. The spirit of the law says don’t be angry without cause or you’re guilty of murder (Matthew 5:21, 22). So to say, “I’m not going to be angry with my brother as I shoot him” doesn’t make sense.
Law vs. Grace
Paul says, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” And lest anybody misunderstand, Paul goes on to clarify his thought: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” (Romans 6:14, 15).
What does “under law” mean? Simply this: all have sinned, and before you accept Jesus as your Savior, you are under the curse of sin and will suffer it’s penalty. When you accept Jesus, He frees you from the burden and guilt that goes with it. No longer under the curse of the law, you’re now under the sentence of grace. But who, while loving Jesus, could deliberately and repeatedly break His law because of that?
Billy Graham once said, “It is very important that Christians understand what the Bible means when it says ‘free from the law.’ It certainly does not mean they are free from the obligations of the moral law or of God and that they are [at] liberty to sin.
“This law sets forth God’s demands on human life and man’s duty to God and his fellow man. It is quite true the Christian is not saved by his efforts to keep the law, but as one who is saved by God’s mercy through faith in Christ, he is under an obligation to obey God’s law. As it has been said, in Christ we are free from sin, but not free to sin. ‘If you love me,’ Jesus says, ‘keep my commandments.’ ”
Why the Debate?
The devil hates the law because by it comes the knowledge of sin. James compares the law to a mirror (1:23, 24). When we see God’s law, we become aware of our sinfulness, and then we go to God for cleansing.
The law creates the desire for forgiveness and so we can be rid of our guilt. It drives us to Jesus. Thus, when we give up the law, we give up a motivating force that brings us to Him! But observing the law doesn’t save us; rather, it helps us to see ourselves as sinners and sends us to the source of salvation—Jesus.
I once preached in a large prison to a packed chapel. I’ve never heard of a preacher going into a prison and telling the inmates that they’re not under the law. That’s not what they need to hear. They need to hear that Christ will give them power, by His grace, to do His will.
And if we’re reluctant to reintroduce into society men and women who haven’t learned to heed the laws of the land, it’s inconceivable to think that God would introduce them to heaven.