(Credit to Dr. Daniel Heimbach, senior professor of Christian Ethics at SEBTS, for first exposing me to the ideas in this post.)
Why are Christians inconsistent with Old Testament laws?
Several weeks ago during a lesson on the Old Testament Law, I took a few minutes to discuss this question: Why don’t Christians follow all of the Old Testament laws? It’s become a common question lately and I wanted to equip my students to handle it. Usually, the question arises like this: “Why are Christians so inconsistent? You quote the Old Testament laws against adultery or murder or to say that certain types of sexual relationship are wrong, but ignore the laws that say you shouldn’t eat shellfish or wear clothes made of blended materials. You’re just picking and choosing which laws to follow!” This can be a difficult question for believers to answer, so what do we do? Should we follow all of the Old Testament laws or should we abandon all of them?
The answer is “neither” and we find this answer in the New Testament. Scripture is one continuous narrative and so, just as a proper reading of the Old Testament helps us understand the New, a proper reading of the New Testament helps us better understand the Old. Think of it like a novel. If you pick up a mystery and skip to the last chapter, you’re going to be missing a lot of detail. You need the beginning chapters to help you understand the end. But also, once you’ve read the end and seen all the reveals, you can re-read the beginning and understand why those characters act that way or what that little hint is actually pointing to. The New Testament shows us that there are certain Old Testament laws that should still be followed and certain ones that should not because Jesus came to fulfill the Law.
There are three types of law found in the Old Testament: Ceremonial law, civil law, and moral law.
Ceremonial laws governed the sacrificial system. These laws included what sacrifices to make and how or what people could and could not eat during certain feasts and holy days. They set regulations on how to be ceremonially pure before approaching God’s presence, including what the priests could and could not eat, touch, or wear before doing so. Some of these laws seem extreme to us, like not wearing clothes of blended materials or not eating pork. The purpose of this is to illustrate the contrast between sinful man and holy God and to make plain to Israel that people could not enter into God’s presence without being made clean first. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus fulfilled all of the ceremonial laws through His perfect sacrifice. It tells us that because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we “have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). The temple veil was torn in half at Jesus’ death because He had fulfilled the ceremonial laws and the sacrificial system was no longer needed. In fact, to return to it would be wrong. Christ had become our perfect, eternal sacrifice.
Civil laws such as caring for the poor, not charging interest on a loan given to another Jew, how to purchase and redeem property, etc., governed how the Jewish people were to interact with each other and with nearby countries. These laws were established with the purpose of making Israel both successful in the Promised Land and unique from its neighbors. Israel was unique because it operated as a nation-state with no king but God. Jesus fulfilled this portion of the Law because when He came, he established a new Israel – the Church. The civil laws of Israel expired when the nation-state of Israel with God as king ceased to exist. Now, instead of the people of God being the people of a nation-state, they are the people of the Church living around the world and in many different types of governments, and so the civil laws of Israel don’t apply any more. Many of Israel’s civil laws are still very good ideas for us to follow, and many are grounded in moral concepts, but the binding civil nature and civil consequences of these laws have passed.
The moral laws were determined by God’s assessment of right and wrong. These laws, like the ones prohibiting murder or theft or adultery, reflect God’s character and His determination of good and evil, and since God’s character does not change, neither do His moral laws. These laws are not bound by time or space. They do not end. In fact, the New Testament reaffirms God’s moral laws found in the Old Testament. Does this mean Jesus didn’t fulfill the moral laws? Definitely not. Jesus fulfilled these laws by keeping them perfectly, as no human could ever do. But this fulfillment doesn’t mean God’s moral laws are abolished. It means the moral laws aren’t binding requirements for salvation. We aren’t obligated to keep the moral laws perfectly in order to earn God’s favor. Instead, we follow God’s moral laws out of obedience to and love for Him after receiving new life in Christ.
Ceremonial laws – fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice and no longer needed.
Civil laws – expired with the ending of Israel as God’s nation-state and fulfilled in Christ’s establishment of a new, spiritual Israel – the Church.
Moral laws – unchanging because they are based on God’s character, nature, and determination of right and wrong, which do not change.
So, why don’t Christians follow all of the Old Testament laws? Not because we’re arbitrary and cherry-picking, but because we’re being good students of the Scripture and interpreting the Old Testament as the New Testament teaches us to.