The church has always had a struggle with legalism right from the beginning and the problem has not gone away. The modern church is still dealing with legalism. To understand the relationship between law and grace, we must clarify the nature of legalism, and what it is not.

Legalism is not dependence on law. Law is good. Every society needs laws to function. Paul had strong words about the value of law.

The law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good (Rom 7:12).

The law is spiritual (Rom 7:14).

This is clear. Attacking the law will not rid the church of legalism.

Abundance of rules is not legalism. Rules can be good. A rule about driving on the right side of the road is useful. However, a massive number of complicated and incomprehensible rules create confusion. Large numbers of detailed rules can be a symptom of legalism, but they are not the cause.

Legalism works at two levels.

1. Legalistic Gospel

The gospel is corrupted by legalism when it is turned into Jesus plus something else that a Christian must do. Legalistic people minimise the gospel, because they assume some other thing has to be done in addition to what Jesus is done. Salvation is partly earned by human effort. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul was dealing with circumcision. Some Christians were implying that faith in Jesus was not enough, so those with faith in Jesus must be circumcised to be fully saved. Their gospel was Jesus plus circumcision.

The addition to the gospel can be something good. Other people in Galatians said that keeping the sabbath was essential for salvation. Their gospel was Jesus plus the sabbath. The sabbath is a good thing commanded by the law. The problem is that when a good command is turned into a criterion for salvation, very detailed rules are needed, as there is always one more exception that needs to be clarified. For example, if sabbath is a gift for life given for our blessing and refreshment, "have a good day off" is enough. However, if sabbath is a criterion for assessing who is in or out, precise rules about multiple categories of work are needed. The Pharisees were playing this game. Their detailed rules are the symptom of their legalistic approach to salvation, which required people to earn their salvation by obeying all the rules.

2) Legalistic Living

Legalism can cripple the Christian life. Humans seem to have a natural propensity for living by rules. Some personalities are particularly prone to this tendency. Christians living can slip into living by a set of rules. A good Christian is the one who does not do things on the forbidden list. This legalistic approach to life fosters pride and exclusivism and leaves many Christians stuck in immaturity and boredom. Rules are fine for beginners, but as a Christian grows in their relationship with Jesus, rules should become less important. The Christian life is following the voice of the Spirit wherever he leads, letting the life of Christ transform our lives. Many ambiguities and tensions will be faced, but these are best dealt with by grace and faith, rather than increasing rules. Walking in the Spirit is much harder and more exciting than living by a bunch of rules.

Covenant of Grace

Fear of legalism has caused many Christians to be afraid of law. Many have been taught that the old covenant established a legalistic system, so they are hostile to God's law. At the same time, they believe in human law. Whenever a new problem arises in society, Christians are among those calling for the government to pass laws to deal with it. We need to get rid of this strange contradiction, where Christians hate God's law, but love the laws of humanistic, secular governments.

Christians need to get this straight. The old covenant was a covenant of grace, not a covenant of works. Ex 23:20-24:4 describes the confirmation of the Mosaic covenant. God had already brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They had been fed in the desert. God promised grace for the people that he had chosen.

I will send an angel before you (v.20).

I have prepared a place for you (v.20).

I will oppose your enemies on the way (v.20).

I will send confusion on your enemies (v.27).

I will take sickness away from you (v.25).

I will establish your borders (v.31).

God chose Israel and promised to bless them. Blessing came first, then obedience followed in response to this grace. The only requirement was to follow the angel into the promised land where the blessing would be given. The Israelites agreed to do what God has asked them to do.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD's words and laws, they responded with one voice, "Everything the LORD has said we will do" (Ex 24:3).

God had brought the people out of Egypt. That was a huge blessing (unearned grace), but it was only half a blessing. Full blessing would only come in the new land. To get there, they had to keep on following God, so he could give it to them. Following God was not good works to earn the land. It was going all the way with him to get his complete blessing.

This is exactly the same situation, as those who follow Jesus. We cannot earn the abundant life that he promised, but unless we surrender to his lordship, we cannot receive it. If we do not follow the leading of the Spirit, we will miss the good things that God has for us.

Sinful People

Most Christians see the Old Testament law as a set of rules that the Israelites had to observe to obtain the blessings of the Mosaic covenant. That is not true. The Mosaic covenant did not require the Israelites to be perfect. In fact, it does not even define perfection. The sins that displease God, like pride, anger, hatred, jealousy, selfishness, ambition and dissension, are not mentioned in the five books of the law. The sins that prevent people from being like Jesus are not forbidden by the law. Obeying the law could not make a person perfect, because that was not its purpose.

The Mosaic covenant expected the people to carry on sinning, so it provides a solution for sin. A system of sacrifices was put in place to deal with infringements. The premise of this system was that people could not be perfected by law, so they would continue to sin. There was even a guilt offering for sins that people were not aware of committing (Lev 5:14-19). Most of the sacrifices were offered by the priests, so ordinary people could get on with life without having to worry about their sinfulness. They knew that offerings were being made on their behalf. They only had to make a personal offering when they committed a significant sin.

Discerning Israelites would realise that an animal sacrifice could not fully deal with a serious sin. The sacrifices actually pointed forward to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. Those who trusted in the sacrifice system were really relying on what Jesus would do much later, even though they did not know that he was going to do it.

Not Legalism

The common assumption that the Old Testament law was a system of salvation by works is wrong. The law was not a system of rules to make people perfect, it was a set of laws that would allow a diverse group of people to live together in relative harmony. The law could not resolve all problems between people, but it restrained the worst behaviours that would divide and destroy the community. That is all that law can do. No system of laws is capable of perfecting people. Even perfect laws cannot make people perfect. Only the cross and the gospel have that power. God did not give the law in an attempt to turn his people into better people, because that would have failed, and he does not do failure. He gave the law to restrain the very worst sins of theft and violence. That was all that could be done before the cross, and that was all he intended.

Moses understood that the law could not make people perfect. Near the end of his life, he said,

The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deut 29:6).

Moses was a prophet. He was looking forward to a time when God would give his people a new heart, so that they could love him fully. This prophecy was fulfilled by the ministry of Jesus. Moses probably did not understand what Jesus would do, but he knew that his people needed a new heart. He knew that law could not change human hearts. The best that law could do was to limit the worst effects of sin, so that people could live together without fighting and destroying each other.

Humans have a tendency to try to prove their righteousness by creating a set of rules and struggling to abide by them. These efforts always fail, but this kind of legalism has been common in every age. The Pharisees twisted the Laws of Moses into a set of rules that they could use to prove their righteousness. Jesus rebuked them for this. He said that they had distorted God's law by transforming it into the traditions of man. They had placed a burden on the people that they could not keep.

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).

God never uses law in the way because he realises that it would always fail. He knows that no one can become righteous by complying with a set of rules. When God gave the law, he was not giving a set of rules that people must keep to be righteous. He had a far more sensible objective. He was giving a set of laws that would restrain behaviour sufficiently to prevent the community from tearing itself apart. The law was not given to make people righteous. It was given to unrighteous people to keep them from harming each other.

The law was a grace system, not a works system.

Receive Do

I don't like the word legalism, because it implies that laws are a problem. They are not.

The reality is that human society cannot function without laws, so there is nothing wrong with laws in themselves.

God was quite happy to give laws to his people, because he understood that they are useful for restraining the worst effects of evil.

Jesus gave plenty of commands/laws.

Jesus wants us to know how to follow him, so he told people what he required of them.

The problem is not with laws and commands. They are as good as the person giving them.

A problem occurs when humans use laws and commands to prove they are righteous, so they deserve God's blessing. That is what the Pharisees did. They used the law, or more correctly, a big list of rules that they selected and derived from the law, to prove that they were righteous and therefore deserved God's blessings.

Some call this legalism, but it is better to call it Phariseeism, or human religious effort. The Pharisees believed that God would bless Israel if enough people proved their righteousness by obeying their rules. Their religion was

Do ▶ Receive
Most religions operate on this approach.

God operates the opposite way. His rescue of the Israelites was

Receive ▶ Do

The gospel of Jesus is

Receive ▶ Do

God gives us what we don't deserve, and we respond with love and obey his commands.

Under a Do ▶ Receive approach, the requirements of laws and rules become an impossible burden, just like the rules of the Pharisees.

Under a Receive ▶ Do, laws and commands are a pathway to transformation. God graciously gives us the Holy Spirit, even though we do not deserve this gift. As we receive him into our lives, listen to his voice, and allow him to soften our hearts, we find that we are beginning to do what the Sermon on the Mount requires.

The Sermon on the Mounts is not a set of commands that we must obey to please Jesus. That would be impossible. They are a description of the life that emerges in the body of Christ as the Holy Spirit transforms our hearts and inspires us to love one another.

Do ▶ Receive becomes an impossible burden.

Receive ▶ Do is the pathway to life.

Gift in Time

The laws given by Moses were a blessing, not a requirement for receiving blessing. The children of Israel did not have to earn the right to live in the Promised Land. It was a gift from God. As part of the gift, God gave Israel a perfect legal system, a perfect system of judges, a perfect system of defence and a perfect economic system. No other nation had this. While the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they did not need a legal system or economic system, because Pharaoh owned everything. If anyone stole something or struck another slave, the Egyptians guards would kill them.

The same was true in Assyria and Babylon. They were slave empires where the emperor controlled everything, so systems of justice and economics were not needed. The smaller states of Canaan were controlled by warlords, who operated in the same way as the big boys controlling the empires.

Abraham led a large household. He did not need an economic system or legal system, because his household was a complete community living in a big land. Abraham had complete control over his household. He decided what would be done and those who did not agree with his decisions were expected to leave, as Lot did. The same was true in the households of Jacob and Esau. The patriarchs did not need laws, because they controlled their own households.

When Israel went into the promised land, numerous households, families and tribes would be living together in a small country. They needed a system of law and economics to keep them safe. God gave this to them as a gift, before they entered the land. This would enable them to live in harmony without the need for another Pharaoh. This was an enormous blessing, not a burden. Being able to live in the land with freedom, without any human dictator controlling them was a wonderful new way of living.

Going into the land, the Israelites had a huge problem. They did not know how to live together without a dictator controlling them. They did not know how to live in freedom. There were no role models among the nations for them to copy. They would be tempted to looking for another dictator to keep the peace, but that would take away their freedom. God came to rescue with his gift of the law, before they even knew that they needed it.

The law was really a gift of freedom, because God gave them a system of laws that would enable them to live in freedom, without losing their peace. No other nation had this gift, and most would give up their freedom to get peace, or have their freedom and peace taken from them. That is the situation even today. When people get a choice, most people give up their freedom in a vain hope for peace and prosperity. God gave the Israelites the gift of freedom, with peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, they gave up the freedom and peace provided by God's law, so that they could have a king like the other nations. What a terrible mistake.

God's gift of a system of justice and an economic system were not just for Israel, but for the nations as well. If the Israelites had implemented them, the nations would have been amazed and would want to copy them.

See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." What other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today (Deut 4:5-8)?

God gave Israel a perfect system of justice. He also gave them a perfect economic system. These were a gift to Israel. They were also a gift to the world that would allow people to have freedom, peace and prosperity. The world has continuously rejected this gift and chosen poverty and slavery under human dictators.

Christians have failed to understand this gift, because they think the law is a failed tool for perfection. They have rejected God's gift of freedom with peace, because they see the law as a failed means for earning God's favour. Instead of living in freedom with peace and prosperity, they have voted a worldly system of justice that has failed and worldly economic system that produces poverty and injustice. Most Christians do not know about God's gift of freedom with peace, because they have never seen it, because they are not interested in the law. They just assume that the law is a failed method for pleasing God.

God did not run a series of experiments, trying something, and if it did not work, trying something else. God works strategically. Each intervention in human history is another step towards the fulfilment of his long-term plan. The gift of the law was a step on the way, nota failed experiment.

Not too Hard

Earning righteousness by good works is impossible. Living in harmony by obeying God's law is practical and not beyond the capability of people without the cross and the gospel.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach (Deut 30:11).

God gave a set of laws and instructions that were not too difficult for them. It was not beyond their reach.

It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it (Deut 30:12-14).

The last sentence is interesting. Moses says that the law was already in their hearts. This seems odd, as these people did not have the new heart that is promised to those who believe in Jesus. Moses seems to be saying that the people had the ability and desire to live together in their hearts, because they were created in the image of God. Although they were fallen, enough of God's image remained that with the help of the law, they could live in unity. Sin will burst out from time to time to destroy peace and hurt people. However, if the law deals with theft and violence, the worst effects of sin will be restrained.

In his book Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes claims that in the state of nature people will be brutish and violent with everyone fighting against each other. A strong political leader with a monopoly on the right to violence is needed to keep society under control. This view is now widely accepted as a justification for political power.

Moses says something different. Humans will have violence or larceny in their hearts from time to time, but good laws will be enough to restrain them. A strong authoritarian political leader is not needed to maintain the peace (according to Samuel a strong leader will destroy the peace). The image of God is strong enough that most people have a desire for peace and harmony in their hearts, and will be able to live in peace, provided they are supported by good law.

Faith in the Law

Faith was much more important to the Old Covenant than is often realised. Many of the actions commanded by the law took a great deal of faith.

The Israelites were not to eat animals that had been killed by wild animals.

You are to be my holy people. So do not eat the meat of an animal torn by wild beasts; throw it to the dogs (Ex 22:31).

The fat of an animal found dead or torn by wild animals may be used for any other purpose, but you must not eat it (Lev 7:24).

The main purpose of this law was hygiene. Eating the meat from dead animals or those that had been killed by wild animals created many health risks. God's people must not be scavengers. However, this took faith. Most people in the ancient world, and many in the third world today, would eat any meat that they came across, because they did not know where their next meal would come from. Passing over food was risky, even if it was contaminated. Most people were more afraid of starving than an upset stomach.

Walking past a dead animal took a lot of faith for people were sometimes hungry. They must trust God to provide them with food when they needed it.

Attending the feasts in Jerusalem also demanded faith. Leaving a rural property unattended for a couple of weeks was a risky action. Other people could steal anything that was not locked away. If all the people in a district were away on a pilgrimage, a foreign army could use the opportunity to invade. They could be established in the land before the local people realised what had happened. God promised to care for their land while they were away.

Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign LORD, the God of Israel. I will enlarge your territory, and no one will covet your land when you go up three times each year to appear before the LORD your God (Ex 34:23-24).

This was a big promise, but it was also a big ask. Understanding human nature, and realising that they owned animals, they were being expected to trust God to prevent anyone from desiring their land while they were away. This required considerable faith that God would keep his word.


The blessings specified in Deuteronomy 28 are mostly economic blessings. They are not magical, but the natural consequence of living in a perfect economic system, even if they are sinful people.

Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do (Deut 29:9).

To get the promised prosperity, they would need to practice the caring and sharing prescribed by the Instructions for Economic Life. This was not works to earn a blessing, but receiving a blessing through being obedient.

The Mosaic covenant was not a failure. It accomplished everything that God intended. The only problem was that the Israelites rejected the covenant and chose to worship idols, which invited evil spirits into the land. They released evil among the people and life deteriorated. When things went wrong, the people did not turn Back to God as the covenant urged. Instead, they chose to have a king, just like the other nations. These kings won a few military victories, but they imposed taxes and forced labour to support their building programmes. Kings who were good at fighting were hopeless at providing justice, so the law was deserted and replaced by royal favours and privileges.


The first five books of the Old Testament cover a variety of topics, including:

  • creation
  • history
  • exodus
  • sacrifices and priests
  • tabernacle design
  • covenants
  • criminal laws
  • justice system
  • instructions for economic life
  • infection control and hygiene
  • genealogies
  • blessings and curses
  • land distribution

The first five books are a big box. They contain a lot of different stuff all mixed up together and often repeated. That means that we have to dig around a bit when we are looking for something.

The five books of the law are often called the "Torah". This Hebrew word is often translated as law, but a better translation would be "instruction" or "teaching". The Torah contains God's instruction to the children of Israel about the way they should live. I will sometimes use the word Torah, because God gave Moses much more than law. A name that encompasses instruction and teaching is a more accurate description of the first five books.

God gave a great promise through Isaiah.

Torah (instruction) will go out from me;
my justice will become a light to the nations (Is 51:4).

Ten Words

Christians refer to the Ten Commandments, but that is a bit misleading. When God announced to the people, he referred to them as words.

God spoke all these words (Ex 20:1).

God gave his people words, not commandments. They are never referred to as ten commandments in the scriptures, but are described as Ten Words several times.

He declared to you his covenant, ten words which he instructed you to do, and he wrote them on two stone tablets (Deut 4:13).

Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant-the ten words (Exodus 34:28).

The LORD wrote on these tablets what he had written before, the ten words he had proclaimed to you on the mountain, out of the fire, on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me (Deut 10:4).

In each of these passages, the English translators have inserted the word commandment, but the Hebrew word is "dabar", which means "word".

The translators often insert the expression "ten commandments" into Exodus 25:16, 21 and Exodus 40:3,20, but the Hebrew word is testimony or witness.

He took the tablets of the testimony and placed them in the ark (Ex 40:20).

The Ten Words are a testimony or a witness between God and his people.

The ten words are each quite different, so it is better to refer to them as words than as commandments. For example, a couple are technically laws, because they have penalties specified that legal authorities can apply to enforce them. Others are more in the nature of advice. They all fit together into four groups.

A) Follow God

1. You must only have one God.

2. Idols are out

3. The Lord's name must not be misused.

The Israelites must stay loyal to the God, who had rescued them. He was committed to giving them even greater blessings, but they had to follow his angel into the land to receive them, and they had to organise themselves in his way, not Pharaoh's way, to be able to keep on enjoying them.

These three words were also important for spiritual protection. They could not cast out demons, because Jesus had not yet died on the cross, so they had to avoid them. Worshipping idols would open them up to demons that would eventually destroy them. Using the names of gods to change things on earth releases demons. They would lose their blessing, if they allowed these things to happen.

B) Family and Tribe

5. Honour your parents

6. No adultery

God was not creating a nation-state. He was not perpetuating an empire/slave culture. Instead, he was creating a family/tribal culture, which was different from anything that existed in the world. Honouring parents and forefathers would strengthen this culture. Adultery would destroy it.

C) Justice System

7. Stealing is a crime

8. Killing is a crime (includes assault).

9. No false witness

God gave Israel a perfect justice system before they went into the land. It was different from anything they had seen in Egypt or in the surrounding nations. God's justice system was encapsulated in three words. The first two were the main crimes. There is more information about how they should be handled in Exodus and Deuteronomy. False witnesses are dangerous, because they undermine the robustness of a justice system.

D) Economic System

10. No coveting

4. Enjoy a rest on the seventh day.

God gave the Israelites a new economic system, before they went into the new land. They would not have a slave system that they had experienced in Egypt, or a serf system that existed in most of the surrounding nations. God was giving them a system where they would could all own capital and be productive. Yet they could not respond to supply and demand without regard for other people. If they took every opportunity to take whatever they could get from other people, they would destroy their economic system and lose their blessing. Coveting is the opposite of the giving and sharing on which this system is based.

A day off at the end of the week was one of the blessings that this economic system would produce.

Some of the implications of the Ten Words are described in more detail in the following sections.

Spiritual Protection

The law is really fussy about one thing. The people were reminded repeatedly that they must not worship idols. This was not because God cannot cope with competition. The reality was that worshipping idols opened the people up to evil spirits. Because Jesus had not yet died on the cross, the Israelites had very little protection from spiritual attack.

In the Old Testament age, there was no cure for evil spirits. When King Saul was attacked by a spirit, he could be calmed by David's singing, but he could never escape their torment (1 Sam 16:14-23). Jesus had not yet died for sin, so evil spirits had not been defeated. The Holy Spirit had not come on all people, so evil spirits could not be cast out. The only way to keep safe from evil spirits was to keep separate from the people who carried them and the places where they lived.

In Moses time, the wickedness of the Canaanites had increased enormously, so the land was full of evil spirits. Canaan had become the haunt of every foul demon and bad spirit. The Israelites had already demonstrated a vulnerability to the practices of the people around them, so God was running an enormous risk by bringing his people into this land without any spiritual protection. The only way to get rid of these demons was to expel the people, so they would carry them out with them.

Some of the demons were attached to the idols that the Canaanites had built. By worshipping these idols, the people of God opened themselves up to demonic attack. Welcoming these evil spirits back into the land was dangerous, because it gives evil much greater freedom to work. If worship of idols got too prevalent, a huge flood of evil would follow. This was why the law was so hostile to the worship of idols. Bringing demonic powers back into the land would release more evil than the law could control. The law could restrain the worst effects of sin, but once evil took hold in a society, evil would win.

The curses in Deuteronomy 28 were self-fulfilling. If the people turned away from God and seriously worshipped idols, evil would be set free. All the blessings that came from living according to God's guidelines would be swamped by the outworking of evil.

Going into a land that had been a stronghold of evil spirits was risky. In the hostile spiritual environment of the Middle East, the children of Israel needed serious protection from spiritual attack. The only workable protection was to avoid the worship of idols and magic proclamations that would release evil in the land.

Honour Parents

The Israelites had come out of a slave/empire culture. In Egypt, the empire took precedence over family. The best young men were taken to work at the king's court. Joseph and Daniel are examples. Attractive young girls were taken for the king's harem. A woman could be taken by the slave master, even if she was married. Young people were trained to honour their slavemaster, not their parents. Many young people did not even know their parents well. The Pharaoh owned all the land in Egypt. He could give land to anyone he chose, but he could also take it back whenever he was so inclined.

God was creating a new family/tribal culture in the promised land. Land would be assigned to families and tribes. This culture would have to be totally different. The strength of the culture would grow out of family life. The economic strength would come through tribal groupings.

Honouring parents was not a way of earning righteousness. It was an important feature of the new life that God was giving his people in the new land. He wanted all of his people to have a much better life than they had had in Egypt. To achieve this, they would have to be organised in a totally different way. They would be doing something totally different that had not been done before. No models existed in other lands for the people to copy.

God gave the command to honour parents, so that the people would switch their allegiance from a powerful ruler and his hegemons onto their family and tribal groups. If God had not given this command, the people might have slipped back into the old way, and turned one of their leaders into an emperor (they did this in Samuels time, when they took a king). The command was prompter to encourage the people to live in the new way that God had chosen for them, not a test of righteousness.

God promised that if they honoured their parents, things would go well for them in the land. Those who honoured their parents were not earning a better life. By respecting their parents and committing themselves to tribal unity, they were positioning themselves to receive the blessing that God had already committed to giving to them. There was no other way it could be received,

They were not earning a place in the new land, they were learning how to live in it. This is the same situation as those who receive the gospel. Obeying the voice of the spirit does not earn us the abundant life, but we need to follow his leading to receive all that Jesus earned for us by dying on the cross. If we refuse to obey Jesus and ignore the Holy Spirit, we will miss out on much of what is promised to us.

Justice System

Every human society needs a justice system. When people live in close proximity, they get into disputes and harm each other. Laws are good, because they provided a way for resolving these issues. A judicial process is needed to apply these laws. There are two ways that laws can be obtained.

  1. God's justice system
  2. Human justice systems

God gave Israel a perfect justice system, so every human justice system will be suboptimal. Some may be okay, but none will be as good as God's system. Strangely, most people prefer human justice systems. Even nations with a strong Christian influence have ignored God's law. Instead of adopting God's justice system, they have mucked around trying to make their own laws.

The cross and the gospel do not eliminate the need for good laws. Even where there is a strong Christian influence, there will be people who have rejected the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit. They will need laws to restrain the worst effects of their sin. Laws will always be needed.

In a society where everyone behaves well because they have received the gospel and love God, law is not needed very often. People will just do the right thing. The law was a system for a society without the cross and the spirit. Without these, people will not do what is right, so the restraint of law is needed. God's law provided the best possible system of government and justice. It's economic and social guidelines allow a community of people to live together in relative harmony without any need for a central, controlling authority to bring order by force.

God's people needed the law before the cross and the spirit had been given. Because the law did not need the cross and the spirit to function, it was applicable to any society of people anywhere in the world. God's law was the best way for any community of people to live together in peace.

As the gospel advances, the law becomes less important, because everyone should do what is right, because they love one another. However, every society can regress spiritually. If this should happen, the law would be still there as a basis for life together with minimal faith.


The Pharisees twisted the laws from a blessing to a burden. The sabbath is a good example. It had two roles.

The first role of the Sabbath was as a cultural marker to distinguish Israel from the nations. This was the reason for the tough penalties. This role was described in the law of Moses.

You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever (Ex 31:13,16-17).

The Sabbath was a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites to remind future generations of what God would do for them. It marked them off from the nations who did not have this covenant. Keeping the sabbath was not good works to make the people holy. It was a reminder to the Israelites that it the Lord who made them holy.

The second and more important role of the sabbath was bringing God's blessing to the people. This is recorded in Exodus 23:12.

Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.

The key word is "refreshed". The sabbath was a gift to the people for their refreshment. Most people in the ancient world had to work every day, just to get enough to eat. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites would have worked every day. Having one day off a week is a huge privilege that most people did not have. When giving the sabbath, God was promising that they would be sufficiently prosperous in the new land that they would not have to work every day. That was a blessing, not a burden. Taking a day off each week would contribute to their wellbeing, because regular rest is essential for human health. God has made us with a need to rest every week.

Celebrating a sabbath rest required considerable faith in God. The people were expected to rest during busiest times of the year, during the ploughing time and the harvest (Exodus 34:21). Pausing during the harvest when the weather is fine is a huge risk. Only people who trusted God to provide for all their needs would have the confidence to rest when the harvest was ready for bringing in.

The Pharisees distorted the Sabbath into a huge set of rules. They came up with a list of hundreds of things that could not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus criticised the Pharisees, because they had changed the sabbath from something to be enjoyed into a work to earn righteousness. If the sabbath is a method of determining who is righteousness, then defining what is work and what is not becomes really important. Knowing whether carrying a chair across the room is work is important, because it could be the difference between being in out. Hundreds of rules are needed, but that was not God's purpose.

He gave the sabbath as a blessing for humans.

Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).

If the sabbath is a blessing, then the boundary between work and rest is not that important. What is work will vary from person to person. Reading theology might be work for a college professor, but could be resting for someone else. God did not give a great list of rules to define work, because the boundary was irrelevant to his purpose. He wants his people to enjoy a day of rest, not keep a set of rules.


The Ten Words give no penalty for coveting, so technically it is not a law. Coveting takes place in a person's heart, so no witness can observe a person has been coveting. No one can be convicted of coveting, because there can be no witnesses.

Coveting is the only personal sin mentioned in the Ten Words. A whole range of personal sins that are listed in the New Testament, such as pride, deceit, envy, strife, greed, malice, arrogance, hatred, slander, boasting and gossip are not mentioned in the Torah at all. We should not be surprised, as the law was not intended to be a tool for overcoming sin and achieving righteousness. That was not even practical until Jesus had died on the cross and the Holy Spirit, so God did not expect the law to do this. He was giving his people a justice system and an economic system.

The law had one other role prior to the cross. It was a tool for exposing sin.

Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "You shall not covet" (Rom 7:7).

This is why coveting was included in the Ten Words. Most people do not commit murder, so a law against murder does not convict them. Coveting is different, because everybody does it, and a lot of what they do seems to be okay.

He is lucky having such a beautiful wife.

I would not mind having a car like that?

Where did you get that dress?

These statements seem to be acceptable, but the Ten Words explain that they are quite likely motivated by sin. The warning against coveting could not change anyone's heart, but it did remind people of how far sin has gone.

The Israelites did not fully understand the nature of sin. God had not given them the means to overcome it, so there was nothing to be gained from giving them a full list of sins. God gave them just enough so that everyone would know that they were guilty of sin and in need of a way to get right with God (the tabernacle sacrifices were a temporary, forward-looking method). The word on coveting achieved this. The same thing could have been deduced from the words about loving neighbours, but the warning against coveting made it explicit.

The law was given to expose sin and create a need for the cross, but this was only one of its roles. A common mistake is to assume that this is its only role. Many other important roles carry on beyond the cross.

Twisted Food

The Pharisees tried to use the laws is used as a method for achieving righteousness. This produced pride and hypocrisy, because the law was not given for that purpose. Their twisted use of the law produced a huge multiplication of rules that turned the law from a blessing to a burden.

The food instructions are an example (they are not expressed as laws). God gave the food instructions to the people to keep them healthy. He wanted them to know which foods are safe, and which are not. The Pharisees tried to make food and eating a standard for righteousness. To make this work, they created hundreds of detailed rules about eating, which placed an impossible burden on ordinary people.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:25-26)

The Pharisees also focussed on the trivial. They were obsessed with food and the Sabbath, but they ignored God's instructions for economic life, that would have really made a difference to the lives of the people.

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).

The Pharisees turned something that was a blessing into a burden, by turning the gift of the law into a standard for righteousness that God had not given. This shut people out of blessings that God had provided them.

And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them (Luke 11:46).

This hypocrisy really annoyed Jesus.

The corollary of the idea that the Old Covenant provide righteousness by obedience to the law is that the New Covenant provides salvation by faith, with no need for obedience. This cheap grace heresy has done considerable harm. Those who accept the gospel must declare that Jesus is Lord. Those who belong to him are required to submit to him and obey the leading of his Spirit.

Cultural Markers

The Torah, and especially the book of Leviticus, prescribed cultural markers that would distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations. The laws of justice and crime and the instructions for economic life could not distinguish Israel, because God intended the nations to copy them (Deut 4:5-7). The surrounding nations would not copy the cultural markers like the Sabbath and food laws.

One example of a cultural marker is wearing tassels on garments.

Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel (Num 15:37-40).

The tassels would be a reminder not to "chase after the lusts of their hearts and eyes" (Num 15:39). The tassels would not give them a new heart, but they would remind them of who they are and mark them off from the surrounding nations in the same way as a sports uniform distinguishes a sports team. The tassels with blue cords were the original "labelled sweater" showing everyone in the world that they belonged to God.

Judging by Jesus' challenges, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had focused on the cultural markers and neglected the more important aspects of the Torah.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former (Matt 23:23).

Jesus requires his followers to focus on justice, mercy and the love of God.

Many Christians are getting into Jewish stuff in a big way. However, they seem to focus on the feasts and the sabbath. These are things that Jesus fulfilled. They also pick up some cultural distinctives like Jewish dancing that come from early Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, but are not in the Old Testament. Yet they ignore the really important stuff in the Torah, like the justice system and the instructions for economic life. Their focus seems a bit odd.

Jesus and the Law

Jesus had strong words for those who teach about the law. He has not abolished the law. He actually came to fulfil the law, not to abolish it.

Anyone who teaches others to set aside one of the least of these commands will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever teaches others to practice these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:19).

Very few Christians have "become great in the kingdom" by teaching people how to "obey the commands of the Torah". Yet that is what Jesus encouraged. He expected his followers to teach people how to apply the law given to Moses. He gave this instruction because he knew that to live in peace every society needs spiritual protection and a system of social and economic justice.

The Torah was not a system of salvation by works. God had already rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt by grace before he gave the law to Moses. He had given then a new land by grace, too. The law was given to preserve the deliverance and salvation that they had already received by grace.

The Israelites needed protection from three things.

The tabernacle sacrifices were effective for dealing with the spiritual powers of evil, because they pointed to Jesus. Once Jesus died and rose again the temple sacrifices became redundant, because Jesus sacrifice did everything that they tried to do, but more completely. That is why God shut them down in AD 70.

Jesus was Israel's Messiah, so it was natural that he would change Torah observance.

The Torah also needed the Holy Spirit to be fulfilled. Without the fruit of the Spirit, loving your neighbour as yourself was almost impossible. Jesus death, resurrection and ascension opened the way for the Holy Spirit to be poured out. The Spirit was able to put the Torah on the hearts of those who choose to serve Jesus.

Law in Galatians

Most Christians assume that Paul's letter to the Galatians dispatched the Torah to the rubbish dump, but that is not quite correct. Paul was actually concerned about the practices being imposed on the growing church.

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, " How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs (Gal 2:14).

He was worried that Gentiles were being forced to take on Jewish customs. He called this "judaising". The most worrying custom was circumcision.

He began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group (Gal 2:12).

Eating with Gentiles was another concern, although the law did not forbid this, just as it did not command circumcision. Most of the Jewish customs that concerned Paul were not even in the law. The other big burden was the sabbath and the feasts that had been fulfilled by Jesus and were no longer relevant.

You are observing special days and months and seasons and years (Gal 4:10).

Paul reminded the Galatians that they have received the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus. They were not to go Back to things that were cultural markers to distinguish Israel from the other nations, because they had never been able to make a person righteous. He explains that a person cannot be made righteous by keeping laws or complying with rules.

We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2:15-16).

Paul claimed that all real Jews knew this. They understood that human effort (works) to fulfil the standard of the law could not make them righteous. The Gentiles who do not understand the purpose of the law did not know this.

The conflict is not between faith and law, as many Christians claim, but between faith and "works of law" (ergon nomos). Law and faith are not in conflict, because they have completely different purposes. Works of law are a distortion of the law, and a false substitute for faith. Those relying on works of law are under a curse.

All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse (Gal 3:10).

Efforts to earn righteousness by works of law come from the flesh.

Are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh (Gal 3:3)?

The flesh is the sinful human nature. The idea that a person can do things to put things right with God by human effort or works is an affront to God and a serious sin whether they are part of the law, or just the traditions of men (Gal 3:21).

Covenant and Law

Paul explained to the Galatians that parts of the Torah have been made redundant by the cross. As part of his teaching, he explains the purpose of the Torah. The covenant did not need law. God's promise of the land was given to Abraham, 430 years before he gave the law.

The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise (Gal 3:17-18).

Abraham did not need law. He was leading a nomadic life in a large country with his family. His word was law in his household. As the patriarch of his family, he was responsible for sorting out all problems faced by his people. While they were in Egypt, the Israelites did not need a law, because they were fully controlled by Pharaoh and his slave masters. Once they moved into the land, they needed a justice system, so God gave them the law right on time.

Law was added because people were still sinful, despite being rescued from Egypt.

Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come (Gal 3:19).

The promised seed is Jesus. Until he came, sin and transgressions would be a problem for any society of people living in close proximity to each other. The law was added to deal with serious transgressions.

But Scripture has locked up all together under of sin (Gal 3:22).

The children of Israel were all locked up together in a small country and still prone to sin, so they needed the law to enable them to live together in peace. That was a huge blessing in the age before Jesus came.

Paul explains that the law was a guardian until Jesus came.

The law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (Gal 3:24-25).

The word guardian (paidagogos) is often translated as schoolmaster, but that is a bit misleading, because it gives the impression that the law was given to teach people how to be righteous. This is wrong, because the law cannot teach us about righteousness, because it does not even have a full list of personal sins.

The guardian was a servant responsible for taking a child to school. They were charged with keeping the child safe until they got to where they were going. Their role was to protect the boy from trouble. This is a good analogy for what the law does. It protects people from the worst effects of sin until the time when Jesus has come to set people free from it. That guardian role continues after the cross. A group of Christians living together in a community would not need the law, because love should overcome all conflicts, but those who do not believe in Jesus still need the law for protection from each other.

Torah and Gentiles

The civil laws in the Torah dealt with the following:

Some theologians argue that Paul did not tell Jews to stop observing the Torah. They say that he only told the Gentiles to stop being Torah-observant. Once the full scope of the Torah laws is understood, it becomes clear that this is wrong. Paul taught the Gentiles how to apply the civil laws. These are the weightier parts of the Torah.

Political Theory

This discussion about the role of the Old Testament law will seem irrelevant to many Christians. However, for those with an interest in political and economic issues, it is really important. When it comes to economics and government, the scriptures look backwards.

The New Testament has very little to say about government and systems of justice. There is plenty of teaching about what is just and injustice, but there is no guidance about a system of judgement. Paul subversively implied that Caesar is a usurper, by declaring that Jesus is Lord, but he did not offer an alternative system of government. Jesus announced judgment on the leaders collaborating with Rome. They will be swept away, but Jesus was silent about what would replace them.

Some Christians assume that in Romans 13:1, Paul provided a treatise on political theory in one verse. That is not true. Paul was actually referring Back to the justice system that God gave to Moses, by referencing Deuteronomy 17:9 and 19:17. When Jesus said to "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar", he was not outlining a new political theology. He was reminding the people that God had brought them out from under the Pharaohs and given them a new system of justice that operated through law and local judges.

The prophets made many declarations about justice and injustice. They described the evils of the kings on Israel and Judah. However, the prophets do not describe an alternative justice system.

The New Testament letters, the gospels and the prophets all point back to the system of justice and the system of defence that God gave to Moses. When the impostors are swept away, they should be replaced by God's system of justice, and God's system of defence, not some human concoction. Anyone who is interested in political theory and justice must study the Torah and gain an understanding of the perfect system of justice and self-government that God gave announced to Moses.


The New Testament does not outline a Christian economic system. The letters to the early church make many statements that are relevant to economic issues, but they do not describe an economic system. The book of Acts describes the economic behaviour of the early church (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37), but it is not clear whether this was a permanent change, or a temporary response to events in Jerusalem under judgment. Luke does not give enough detail to build an economic system on.

Jesus made many sharp statements about money, but he gives very little context. His brevity suggests that he was assuming that his listeners understood what he was taking back. This was the case, because everything he said about money, related back to the instructions for economic life.

The prophets made many comments about money and wealth, but they did not attempt to describe an alternative economic system. They did not need to because God had already given a perfect economic system to Moses.

Paul, Luke, Jesus and the Prophets all pointed back to the Torah, when writing and speaking about economic issues. Christians who want a righteous economic system must go back to the Instructions for Economic Life to find Gods core teaching about economics. Christian economists should study the Torah to get understanding of God system of economics.

Trawling for Principles

When Christians try to develop a political theory, they find that the material in the New Testament is too sparse, so they quickly realise they need stuff from the Old Testament law. The common approach is to trawl through the Torah fishing for principles. The problem is that the judicial laws provided by God were given as part of a system of justice. They do not make sense when wrenched out of that context.

The common result is that "biblical principles" are used to support or critique a modern economic or political system. Many years ago, I read a book by EC Wines called the Hebrew Republic. He analysed the principles he selected from the Old Testament and deduced that Moses gave the children of Israel a republic, complete with a constitution, president, supreme court, senate and house of representatives. This was a huge distortion of the Torah, but it provided a Christian buttress for the American political system. This shows the danger of taking principles from the Torah and ignoring the fact that the laws are part of a complete economic and justice system given by God.

The truth is that people try to draw out principles, because they do not understand, or do not like God's system of justice. This allows them to cherry pick the bits that they like, and ignore what they do not like. This is a dishonest way to apply God's word. If we do not trust the system of justice that God has given, we are not entitled to take out principles and use them to support some other human system of government.

Once principles are extracted from the legal and judicial system given by God, they can be used to support any number of worldly systems. The only way to get the benefit of God's wisdom is to give up our modern worldly systems and allow him to establish his system of justice in our midst.

For the Lord is our judge,
the Lord is our lawgiver,
the Lord is our king;
it is he who will save us (Is 33:22).

If we reject God's system of justice, we cannot expect to benefit from his wisdom. When Christians recognise that God is our lawgiver and judge, they will lose faith in human systems, and trust the system of justice that God gave to Moses.

See Misunderstood Law.