The Law and the Spirit

In chapter one we saw that the Sinai law, or law of Moses, was God’s covenant with ancient Israel and not with the church. We saw that it served a vital purpose in God’s plan, and that God designed it to fade when Jesus Christ, whom it foretold and pointed toward, arrived. In this chapter, we will look at the connection between the Sinai law and the law of Christ.

Under a new law

According to the apostle Paul, Christians are not under the Sinai law (Romans 6:14). But what does it mean not to be under the law? Does it mean we ought to sin? “By no means!” Paul answers (v. 15).

Paul is explaining that we have now been made one with Christ, and as such, we now serve God in a new way—the way of the Spirit—not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:4-6). We are now under a “new law”—the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; 1 John 2:3; John 6:28-29; Hebrews 13:21).

The law of Moses—the law given to Israel at Sinai, including the Ten Commandments—was given on the basis of the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:11). When Christ came as High Priest forever, he superseded the Levitical priesthood, and with it, the law that was based on it (v. 12). He established a new priesthood, and the law that is based on this new priesthood is the law of Christ (1 John 2:3; 3:21-24; 4:13-21).

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:20 that he was not under the law, referring to the Sinai law. But the fact that he was not under the Sinai law did not mean he was not under God’s law, since he was under Christ’s law (v. 21).

The Sinai law, which was indeed God’s law, has been transcended and superseded by Christ’s law, which is also God’s law. The Sinai law, the law of Moses, was God’s law for Israel until Christ came (Galatians 3:24-25). Then, just as God planned, when Christ came, Christ’s law became the law for all peoples. The temporary was replaced, right on schedule, by the permanent.

Exposed as sinners

The Sinai law exposed everyone as sinners (Romans 3:19-20). When Jesus came, it was God’s time for sin to be defeated (Hebrews 9:26). That cannot be done by a set of regulations. It can be done only by God. And that is what God has done in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

In Christ, God became human. He, while remaining sinless and guiltless, took our sin and guilt upon himself, died, and was raised in glory.

That changed everything. Now it is clear to those who believe Jesus’ message that God’s purpose all along was to open the door of his kingdom to all humans. He has done what no mere human could do and what the law of Moses could not do—he has broken down the impossible barrier between himself and sinful humans.

Now humans are able to accept the invitation to go through that door—to make the decision of faith—to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that trusting and following him is the most important thing in the world (Romans 3:21-22).

The law of Christ

It would be a great mistake to think that the law of Christ is simply a substitution of one set of regulations for another. The law of Christ is not a codified set of regulations, though the New Testament does give us clear descriptions of the kind of conduct that is characteristic of those who are under the law of Christ (Galatians 5:22-26; 6:2; Ephesians 4:20-6:20; Philippians 2:1-18; Colossians 3:1-4:6; etc.).

Far beyond any mere set of rules, the law of Christ constitutes a complete reordering of life, a total change of heart, mind, intent and purpose—a change brought about by the Holy Spirit at work in us. The law of Christ is identical with the law of God, and it is what the law of Moses, which was temporary, always pointed toward (Romans 3:21-22; 1 Peter 1:10-11; John 5:39-40, 45-46; Luke 24:44-47).

The law of Christ, which is also the law of God (1 Corinthians 9:20-21), can be summarized by two overarching commands: “This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23).

Greatest commandment

By obeying the law of Christ, which is identical with the law of God, we are fulfilling what Jesus called the “greatest commandments” of the law of Moses. Jesus was asked, “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?’ Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Jesus said that when we put our faith in him, we are demonstrating our love for the Father (John 5:23; 8:42), which fulfills the first of the two greatest commandments of the law of Moses. When we obey Jesus’ command to love one another (John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17), we are fulfilling the second of the two greatest commandments of the law of Moses.

But there is much more to the law of Christ. If it were simply a matter of doing these things on our own, we would surely fail, as we do not have what it takes.

Remaining in Christ

Under the law of Christ, when we obey Jesus’ commands by putting our belief and confidence in him, the Holy Spirit comes to make his home in us (John 14:15-17, 21). When the Holy Spirit lives in us, the Father and the Son are also living in us (v. 23), because God is one.

As we remain in Christ, the true “vine,” we bear fruit, but only because we are in him (John 15:1-8). It is for this reason that Paul is able to say:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4)

Righteousness apart from law

To the church at Rome, Paul declared boldly: “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets” (Romans 3:21). Because we are in Christ, God not only forgives our sins, he also provides the righteousness believers need—his own righteousness—and it is a righteousness that does not come from observing the Sinai law. It is a God-given righteousness—a righteousness that comes only by faith in God’s own Son, something Paul says the Old Testament Scriptures had actually been declaring from the beginning.

Paul continued, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v. 22). Once Jesus came, the real meaning of all the Scriptures was revealed—salvation comes to humans only by faith in Jesus. The law of Moses proved everyone sinners; in Christ everyone who believes is saved, and saved apart from that law.

In short, we are saved because God is righteous, not because we are righteous. God’s righteousness, his faithfulness to his covenant promise to Abraham, was attested to by the Law and Prophets (the Old Testament) and has been made fully manifest in Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, transforms us sinners into his own forgiven and redeemed children through faith in Jesus Christ.

Christ is our righteousness—he is our wisdom, our holiness, our redemption and our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). This righteousness, which alone is true righteousness, is not our own, but God’s, and it comes only from God and only by faith (Philippians 3:9).

You see, what Paul wrote in Romans 3:28 is not negated by what he wrote in verse 31. Paul is not contradicting himself. In verse 28 he wrote: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” In verse 31 he wrote: “Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.”

Paul means what he says. We are not made righteous by keeping the law given at Sinai. We are made righteous only by faith in Christ. When Christ came, the purpose of the Sinai law was achieved. “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).

Christ was the fulfillment of the Sinai law. He was its goal, its end, its purpose. By God’s design, that law was preparing Israel for Christ, and through Israel the whole world was being prepared for Christ. But the Jews Paul was writing about retained the Sinai law, and in so doing, they had no room for accepting Christ. In rejecting Christ, they entirely missed the point of what Jesus called “their law” (John 15:25).

The law and the Spirit

The Sinai law served to condemn human rebellion against God—but through God’s own loving initiative in Jesus Christ, the Spirit is now at work to transform rebellious hearts into faithful hearts (Romans 5:20-21). The law of Christ commands a life of faith in Christ that is led by the Spirit—a life confident of God’s gracious love toward us and marked by self-sacrificial love toward God and fellow humans (1 John 3:21-24).

Believers are under the law of Christ, under the Spirit—not under the Sinai law—and as such they are not considered sinners, because the Spirit makes believers into children of God, people in whom God lives, and who love with God’s love. “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him,” Paul recites in regard to believers (see Romans 5:4-8).

Many people find that too hard to believe. They ask: “Why would God just ‘count’ believers righteous, even though they still sin? Why would he simply not count their sins against them? God doesn’t just pretend we are righteous. Surely there is something I must do. Surely I must stop sinning before God will count me righteous.”

But that is just Paul’s point. If we can be righteous ourselves, then we do not need God. Yet the real state of things is that we cannot be righteous ourselves, and we do need God. Alone, we are pitiful, wretched and hopeless sinners. Only God can make us righteous, and he loves us so much that he has taken the steps to do just that. He does it because he is good. He does it by his grace, not because we deserve it, because we don’t. We have no righteousness of our own, and the only pathway to God’s righteousness is through faith in Christ. By his grace through faith in Christ, God forgives our sins and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to us.

Faith in the promise

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is strong. He knew that if they listened to the so-called Judaizers and placed themselves under the Sinai law, they were choosing not to have faith in Christ (Galatians 5:2-3). They would be rejecting Christ and the law of Christ. They would be missing the central point of the now-faded law of Moses.

As Jesus had said, if the Jews had believed Moses, they would have believed Jesus, because the law of Moses was designed deliberately to declare his coming (John 5:46-47; Luke 24:45-46). The Mosaic law was in force for a specific period of time, from Sinai till Christ.

When Christ appeared, everything for which God had been preparing the world was revealed. When Christ was raised from the dead, everything God had promised Israel was fulfilled (Acts 13:32). Even the promises God gave to David were designed to be fulfilled by the resurrection of Jesus (v. 34). This astounding mystery of the ages was revealed—yet many of those who had the law chose to reject what God was revealing (verses 38-41).

Not by the law

God wants his people to love like he loves, not merely to conform to standards of conduct and rituals of separation. Jesus repeatedly condemned those who conformed to the letter of the law but whose hearts were without the love of God.

God wants us to have a new heart, a heart of belief, a heart in which the Spirit dwells. Only the Holy Spirit produces God’s love in us (Romans 5:5) and enables us to keep the law of Christ (1 John 3:21-24). The Spirit comes only by belief. The Spirit does not come by keeping the law (Galatians 3:2-5). That is why Paul teaches that the Sinai law must step aside to make room for the new way of the Spirit, the way of the law of Christ.

Some have misunderstood Acts 5:32 (“We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”) to mean that God gives his Spirit only to those who keep the Sinai law. As we have just seen in Galatians 3:2-5, however, we do not receive the Spirit by observing the law. We receive the Spirit only by faith in Jesus Christ. That is precisely the point Peter made in Acts 5:32.

Peter was replying to orders of the Jewish council not to preach in Jesus’ name. Peter declared that Jesus’ disciples must obey God, who commanded them to preach faith in Jesus, and not people who order them to stop (verses 27-31). The obedience Peter is referring to is not obedience to the Sinai law, but obedience to the new thing God had done in sending his Son so that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life.

New heart needed

Many people are good at keeping certain rules. But if the love of God is not in their hearts, then their success at keeping rules has a way of turning their hearts sour. Without God’s love, they turn into sharp-eyed judges of the failings of others. They become prideful and arrogant, and begin to get the idea that the kingdom of God is meant only for them, “the obedient ones,” and not for sinners. They begin to see themselves as better than sinners.

The better they keep the rules, the more and more obscure their own sinfulness becomes to them. Their own need for a Savior becomes less plain, and they begin to imagine a great spiritual rift between themselves and ordinary people. (If you have been a Christian for long, you have probably experienced that tendency in yourself from time to time. I suspect we all do.)

Led by the Spirit

When the love of God penetrates the heart, however, believers find two remarkable things happening at once. First, they are pleasantly surprised to realize that it is beginning to feel somewhat natural to desire the things of God. Second, they are chagrined and grieved to begin to notice the seemingly hopeless extent of the twisted network of hidden wickedness in their hearts.

That is because the Spirit is at work. The Spirit, through the law of Christ, is rewiring us, so to speak, so that we begin to appreciate and love the things God loves. At the same time, the opposite side of the same coin you might say, he begins to illuminate the dark corners of our hearts, so we can see in God’s light what is really going on in there.

The struggle is on. The believer is a citizen of the eternal kingdom, and as such, he or she walks with Christ with a keen sense of being in need of God’s inexhaustible mercy and grace. But he or she also begins to sense the presence of the limitless power of Christ to give help in forsaking the selfish and hateful ways of the former life. New, godly habits begin to form, and old, ungodly habits begin to fade.

Taught by Christ

We are learning to walk in the divine love God has given us. The Teacher, of course, is Christ. That is what it means to be Christ’s disciples. It means to be his students.

Christ is also the living Word of God. The Holy Spirit has inspired the Bible to be an indispensable means of communicating the inner life of Christ to us. That is why Christians make Bible reading, study and meditation a central part of their daily lives.

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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™  Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com

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This article was written by Mike Feazell and updated in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

As we read the Bible, asking God to bless our understanding and to help us hear his voice for us, God teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us, trains us in righteousness and equips us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Through this means and others, including the Lord’s Supper (John 6:53-57) and through the faithful teaching of church leaders (Ephesians 4:11-16), God continually leads us into an ever-deepening communion with him.

Motivated by grace

Paul knew that the grace of God, when we accept it, is effective in motivating us toward a godly life in ways the law of Moses could never be. He wrote these words to Titus:

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14)

Sabbath fulfilled in Christ

We have seen that Christians are not under the law given at Mount Sinai, which was a temporary expression of the law of God for Israel until Christ came, but rather are under the law of Christ, which is the law of God forever.

We have seen that Christians are led by the Holy Spirit, who makes his home in believers and teaches us to live by the Word of God. In chapter three we will look more closely at the Sabbath day and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Christians are under the law of God, 
but not under the form of it given at Sinai

1 Corinthians 9:20-21 — "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law [the Law given at Sinai] I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law."

Implications

  • Jews were under the law (v. 20).

  • Gentiles did not have the law (v. 21).

  • Paul was not under the law (v. 20).

  • Even though Paul was not under the law, he could be like one who was under the law (v. 20).

  • The law was not binding on Paul, because he could be like one who does not have the law (v. 21).

  • Paul was not free from God's law, because he was under Christ's law (v. 21).

  • "The law" and "God's law" are not identical, because Paul was not under "the law" but was under "God's law" in the form of "Christ's law" (v. 21).

  • "The law" and "Christ's law" are not identical, but God's law and Christ's law are identical (vv. 20-21).

  • Christians are under Christ's law.

  • Christians are not under "the law."

 

The Law

The Law of Christ
Glorious (2 Cor. 3:7) Immeasurably more glorious (2 Cor. 3:10)
Temporary (2 Cor. 3:11; Gal. 3:19) Permanent (2 Cor. 3:11; Rom. 5:9-11)
Springs from the law of God (Gal. 3:19-21) Is identical with the law of God (1 Cor. 9:21)
Demonstrated human failure (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:13) Constitutes human success (Rom. 7:6; 8:3-4)
A precursor (Gal. 3:23-25; Rom. 3:21; John 5:39-40) The end result (Gal. 3:23-25; Rom. 3:21-26)
Not rooted in faith (Gal. 3:12) Rooted in faith (Gal. 3:24; Rom. 3:22; 5:1-2; 1 John 3:23)
Written on tables of stone (2 Cor. 3:7) Written on human hearts (Heb. 8:10)
Designed to fade (2 Cor. 3:11) Designed to last forever (2 Cor. 3:11)

Reflection

  1. What does it mean to be “under the law”?
  2. What “law” has superseded the law given at Sinai to Israel? 
  3. What does it mean to be “under Christ’s law”? 
  4. What is the “greatest commandment” of God's law? Explain how this law operates within us.
  5. What does Romans 10:4 mean when it says Christ is “the end of the law”?
  6. Is conforming to standards of moral conduct enough to be counted as pleasing to God under the new covenant?
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