The Law of Christ
Topic: The Law Scripture: Romans 6:15–18
In an article in Relevant magazine, well known pastor Andy Stanley suggested that the 10 commandments were irrelevant to the life of Christians. He went on to say,
“Participants in the new covenant (that’s Christians) are not required to obey any of the commandments found in the first part of their Bibles.”
Among the first wonderful truths we learn as believers in Jesus is that we are no longer under the law. Since the 10 commandments are part of the law of Moses, and believers are free from the law, many have a difficult time understanding what role they have in the life of faith. Even so, although we don’t give a second thought to eating pork or shellfish, we seem to recognize there is something different about the laws against murder and stealing. Why is that?
Today, we begin a new series on the 10 commandments, and Lord willing, in the coming weeks we will look at each of them. But before we dig into the specific commands, I want to reflect on the relationship between law and gospel and the role of the 10 commandments in the life of Christians.
When we were kids, we had to learn in simplistic ways. For example, we were taught that the earth is a sphere, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius, and that Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain in the world. Then, as we mature, we learn that while those explanations are not wrong, they are oversimplifications. The earth is not technically a sphere, it is an oblate spheroid, a bit flattened at the poles and bulging near the equator. 100 degrees Celsius is the average boiling point of pure water at 1 atmosphere of pressure. Mt. Everest is only the tallest when measuring from sea level.
It is similar with spiritual truths. In general terms we contrast law and gospel. We speak of the law as everything in the Bible God demands, and the gospel as everything God has provided for salvation. That is generally true, but there are several laws mentioned in the Bible. If we want to understand the relationship of believers to the law, we must first define which law we are talking about. To clearly answer the question, we must first define our terms.
In the bible there is a law of works, a law of faith, and a law of Christ. The apostle Paul contrasts the law of works and faith in Romans 3:27–28 where he says believers are justified, meaning they are declared right with God, based on faith rather than keeping the law through works. By the law of faith, believers receive rather than earn justification, so all glory goes to God. He says,
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
The law of works are the requirements we must do to be righteous. This includes the laws of the Mosaic covenant, including the 10 commandments. This is shown in passages like Leviticus 18:4–5,
4 You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. 5 You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.
In contrast to this, the law of faith is what one must believe to be saved and inherit the promises. This law is distinguished from the law of works. We see this in places like Galatians 3:13–14,
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
And Acts 16:30–31,
30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
Then there is the law of Christ, which is the law of love written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit, sanctifying us and binding us to obedience as we are transformed into the image of our Savior. The law or rule of faith unites us to Jesus and then we are brought under the law of Christ. This means we now live by the spirit rather than the flesh. By the power of Christ in us, believers are a new creation, and we begin to walk as he walked, being transformed into his image. This is not an external law of performance; it is a law imposed by our own transformed affections.
In 1 Corinthians 9:21 Paul says,
21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.
Galatians 6:2 says we are to,
2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
James refers to this as the royal law in James 2:8 saying,
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.
Do you see how James summarizes this royal law of Christ? James is talking to believers, and he is applying this law to them and the description he gives is taken from a well-known summary of 10 commandments. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus summarizes the law by saying,
37 …“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This summary of the law was not unique to Jesus. These elements appear in the law itself and it was a common summary among rabbis at the time. For example, in Luke 10 one of the lawyers opposing Jesus gave the same answer when Jesus asked him what the law taught. This summary, that we should love God and our neighbor is actually just a summary of the 10 commandments. The first 4 commands deal with how we love God, and the last 6 deal with how we love our neighbor.
It is an oversimplification to think the Old Testament is all law and the New Testament is all grace. Both grace and law appear in both Testaments. But here is the key thing for us to understand. The law of works was never intended to be a means of salvation. The Bible tells us in Romans and Galatians that the purpose of the law of works was to show sinners their need for a savior. The primary purpose of “the law” is to bring us to Christ.
The problem with the pharisees and with all legalists is not their zeal for obedience, it is that they do not understand the purpose of the law. The law should bring us to the end of ourselves so that we cry out for the grace and mercy of God to provide the salvation He promises to all those who humble themselves. This is why Paul says in Romans 9:30–32,
30 What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works...
The law is not the problem, it is our relationship to it. It is impossible to achieve righteousness through works because our hearts are sinful. Just like Israel, we will fall short because our primary problem is not what we do, but what we are as sinners. The law points us to the need for mercy and shows us that any hope of righteousness we have must come from faith in God’s promises rather than our performance. We receive those promises in Christ alone. By faith we are included in the promises of the New Covenant.
Do you recall what those promises were? Jeremiah 31:31–33 says,
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
The same promise is made in Ezekiel 36:25–27,
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
The promise of the New Covenant is that God will transform our hearts so that it is our desire to trust and obey him. What that means is that rather than good works being an external requirement, our hearts will be changed so that we will want to do all that pleases God.
The reformer Martin Luther was once explaining to a group of students that believers are saved by grace alone through faith alone and that works contribute nothing. One of the astonished students said, “but dr. Luther, if what you teach is correct then we could do whatever we wanted”, to which Luther replied, “yes, and if you are a child of God, what is it that you would want to do?”
We pursue holiness not to get into heaven, but because heaven has gotten into us. Rather than working to receive a blessing, we work because we are blessed. The law of works says, “do this and live” but the law of Christ says, “live and do this”. Our acceptance by God is not based upon our performance in any way. We are already accepted and given new life that we desire to spend for the glory of God. The early church father Augustine put it this way,
“The law was given that grace might be sought; and grace was given that the law might be fulfilled”
Augustine is talking about what is often called the moral law. That’s probably not a great name for it because anything God commands is a moral command, but it is called this to distinguish it from other parts of the Jewish law such as commands related to ceremonies and sacrifices or the health and dietary laws that only applied to Jews. All these things were fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus and are no longer relevant.
The moral law, which is summarized by the 10 commandments, is also fulfilled on our behalf regarding the requirements of the law of works but there is something special about this moral law. It is eternal. These same requirements existed before the Mosaic law and continue to appear in the law of Christ.
The 10 commandments reflect the righteous character of God. As part of the law of works they stand to condemn us because we all fall short of keeping them. They show us to unrighteous, rebellious people with evil hearts. They show us that we are not good and do not deserve heaven, that what we deserve is punishment for our sin in hell.
But God being rich in mercy sent his son Jesus, who took upon himself a human nature and kept all the law, including the 10 commandments perfectly. He alone has earned righteousness before God. But then in an amazing act of love, he took the punishment the law required for the sin of everyone who would ever put their trust in him. In exchange, he offers the life and righteousness he alone earned. He was crucified, died, and buried. But then on the third day, he rose again and ascended to the right hand of the father, proving the payment had been accepted.
All those who put their faith in him as their substitute before God are united to him spiritually. This means we have died with Christ. The condemnation and penalty of the law has been satisfied in Jesus. Believers have died to the law with Christ, and are raised with him to life.
We receive not only this transaction of forgiveness, but we are given a new heart! By faith we receive the promises of the new covenant, and the desires of our hearts are changed by the Holy Spirit so that we repent of our sin and are being transformed in our love for God and our neighbor.
Those same commandments no longer condemn us but prove us to be children of God because the Bible says all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. We cannot be saved apart from being united to Jesus through faith. We cannot be united to Jesus without also being united to the Holy Spirit. And we cannot be united to the “Holy” spirit without growing in a spirit of holiness.
That’s why in in John 14:15 Jesus says, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Not because our love for him pressures us to conform to some external law, but because to love him is to keep the commandments. It is the same with the law to love our neighbor.
Romans 13:8–10 says,
8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Andy Stanley is right that believers are free from the law in terms of works, but he is wrong that the 10 commandments are irrelevant to believers. We do not look to keep any of the commandments because they are part of the Old Covenant. We are already justified, already holy. They are relevant not because they are included in the law of works, but because they are included in the law of Christ. Think of it this way,
It is against the law in Pennsylvania to steal. When I lived there, it was illegal for me to steal. Now, I live in Michigan. I am no longer under the laws of Pennsylvania, but it is still against the law to steal. Not because I have any remaining obligation to Pennsylvania, but because the same ethic carries over into the new law I now live under in Michigan. What is more, if I have no desire to steal, I keep the law not out of obligation, but because of who I am. That is the way it works with believers.
The 10 commandments are relevant because they reflect a heart devoted to God. In Christ, we not only receive forgiveness, but we receive the Holy Spirit that enables us to grow more and more like Jesus, who kept the law perfectly.
Each of the 10 of the commandments are repeated in the New Testament as commands to the church. We cannot keep any of these except by the grace of God and even as redeemed believers, they draw to Christ in gratitude for the grace found in him. We keep them in Christ and our lives are an outworking of his work in us. The commandments are relevant in the life of believers when their role and our relationship to them is understood properly. That is why 1 Timothy 1:8–9 says,
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient …
We have freedom in Jesus because there is no law against the love he works in us. Its requirements are already satisfied by Jesus for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ. God is pleased with us and as we grow in maturity, it is our increasing desire to please him. My favorite Puritan, Thomas Watson said,
“Grace, while it cures the heart, does not make the hand lame”
What then is the role of the 10 commandments in the life of a believer? There are two I want to highlight as we prepare for the upcoming series. First, they are a mirror and second, they are a guide.
First, the law is a mirror. Since it reflects the perfect holiness of God, when we examine ourselves considering it, we see every blemish and shortcoming. Paul tells us that through the law comes the knowledge of sin. As one theologian has observed, “It is good to know our sins, that we may not flatter ourselves, or take our condition to be better than it is.”
Once we know that our standing before God is entirely based not on our goodness or perfection, but the goodness and perfection of Jesus, we are free to face the perfection of the law. Rather than bringing us to despair it points us to the amazing grace and mercy of God. Rather than moving us to try harder to do what cannot be done, it humbles us and draws us deeper into the arms of our savior.
It is good for us to know of God’s patience. It is good to be reminded that we are not blessed because of our great love for God, but by his great love for us. The commandments show us what true righteousness is and compels us to lift our hearts in grateful worship for his mercy and grace.
It is when we are most sensitive to the sin in our lives that we can be most assured of his love for us. It is not until we can honestly cry out “Lord be merciful to me a sinner” knowing that he loves us, hears us, and forgives us, that we can claim to understand what it means to be saved by grace.
The law is also a guide. It shows us what pleases God. The moral law never changes because it reflects the character of a God who never changes. It was given in creation, re-affirmed under Noah, expressed in various ways under Moses, David, and the prophets, and is restated in several forms by Jesus and the New Testament writers.
It is a picture of what love looks like. Our culture would have us believe that love is a feeling or an emotion but that is not what biblical love is. Biblical love is a deep affection that expresses itself in selfless devotion. Love is not emotion it is devotion.
Our actions reflect the true desires of our heart. They are evidence of who we really are at the deepest level. Therefore, in the Bible there is a deep connection between love and obedience. The commands guide us in how our love is to be expressed in our relationship with him and with others. That is why Jesus summarizes the ten commandments as loving God and loving our neighbor. We need this instruction. It is good for us and necessary for our growth.
1 John 2:4–6 says,
4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
We do not do any of this under our own power. That is why living this way is itself evidence that the power of God is working in us. But to grow in our faith and maturity we must have a knowledge of what walking like him means. That’s why Jesus includes instruction in the law of Christ as essential to making disciples. Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 28:18–20,
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We do not follow these commands as part of the law of works, but as part of the law of Christ. We do not keep them to gain the favor of God, but because we already have it. Our obedience is not the root of our acceptance before God, but it is the fruit of our acceptance by God. We are guided by them to do the works that God has prepared beforehand for us to do. They are the evidence of Christ working in our heart. Not that we keep them perfectly, but that we want to.
So, brothers and sisters, it is my prayer as we proceed through this new series that we will grow more mature in our thinking about the relationship of law and gospel. There are two extremes we must avoid. On the one hand, we must avoid the danger of legalism. Legalism is believing we can add anything to the finished work of Christ. It is the false belief that Christ is not sufficient and that our own good works count for anything.
The cross of Christ itself proves this to be false. The Son of God dying in place of sinners proves there was no hope for sinners apart from God’s grace. The Bible says our righteousness is like filthy rags before the Lord. Not only does our goodness not measure up, but our attempt to offer it in payment for our sin is offensive to a holy God who has purchased our redemption at such a high price. It is insulting to God and a misunderstanding of the true requirement of the law to attempt such a thing.
We must also avoid the false idea that we are under no law of any kind. If we deny or set aside any role for the moral in the life of the believer in the name of grace, we deny the power of Christ to deliver us from our sin nature. It is another form of the same error because it is a denial of the sufficiency of Jesus to accomplish all he said he did on the Cross. The resurrection of Christ proves it false because it shows that he conquered sin and death. Our perfection comes in glory, but our progress should be evident today.
Both errors result from a wrong view of the relationship between the law and gospel. Both are a denial of the sufficiency of the cross of Christ. Both deadly errors have the same antidote. The answer is to recognize that when we are united to Jesus by faith, we get all of him. There is no partial union with Jesus. If we get him as savior, we get him also as lord. We cannot have the sacrifice of Christ without his resurrection. We cannot have the life of Christ without his spirit and when we are united to him in faith, we are transformed. Our hearts begin to beat with a new love for God and others. We begin to delight in the law of Christ, recognizing it isn’t a set of rules to keep, but a picture of the lord we love.
We are no longer estranged from God because of the law, but we are married to Jesus who fulfills it and writes it upon our heart. Every new insight into the law brings us to appreciate the glory and grace of Jesus more fully. Every new step in our growth brings glory to God as we recognize what we sang about earlier, the strength to follow his commands could never come from us. Grace frees us to love, and love fulfills the law.
I would like to finish the message this morning with the words of Paul, the great apostle of grace, from Romans 6:15–18
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.