Coming out of our Wednesday School study there were a number of questions being asked that can be summarized as follows, “How does the Christian relate to the Law?”
There are essentially three answers:
1. Legalism – We keep the law to gain some favor from God. This favor can be construed as justification or as some temporal blessing in this life. The former is saying, “Because I am good, God saves me.” This is patently false. No one is justified by works of the law. The latter is saying, “Because I am good, God blesses me” (makes me rich or successful or happy or whatever). This is also patently false. We simply cannot earn God’s favor either eternally in the form justification or temporally in the form of “blessing”.
2. Antinomianism – We need not keep the law at all. We have been freed from the Law in Christ, and it therefore has nothing to say to us. This is antinomianism and fails to make sense of either Scripture or life. It is clear in Scripture that murder is wrong for all people, even those in Christ. This is a law. You should keep it and not reject it. Antinomians take statements in which Paul is dealing with pursuing justification through the law (most often from books like Romans and Galatians), and applies them too broadly.
3. Biblical Christianity – The New Testament takes a more nuanced approach to the law that says you cannot earn God’s favor by keeping the law, but you can glorify him by loving him and obeying his commands. You cannot be one of God’s people by keeping the law, but because you are one of God’s people by grace through faith in Christ, obey. Paul says in Ephesians 2.8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV). We are all familiar with this. Paul then goes on to say in Ephesians 2.10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” So, clearly there is some concept in Christianity of a “good work”, and God has defined them. So, what are they? Are they not just keeping the law. Well, yes and no. Historically, we have distinguished between the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial laws of the Mosaic Covenant. In one sense, the civil and ceremonial laws are particular applications of the moral law for the people of Israel as the existed as this ancient theocracy. Therefore, while these particular applications don’t make sense for us today, the moral law that underlies the civil and ceremonial and is summed up in the ten commandments still serves as a guide for holy living, what Calvin called the third use of the law. This is why Jesus expounds the ten commandments in the Sermon on the Mount and God tells Peter to eat unclean food in Acts 10.
If you are interested in further reading on this issue I recommend this article by Rev. Richard Phillips and this article by Dr. Richard Alderson. If you are interested in a lengthier treatment of the ten commandments and the Christian life, I recommend, The Law of Perfect Freedom by Michael Horton and How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments by Ed Clowney.