A great deal of the New Testament is devoted to the question of the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law in the Torah, but if the questions I receive from people are any indication, there’s an increasing amount of confusion among Christians on this topic. (I explain my theory as to why this is happening here.)
Here is one challenge I received from an STR podcast listener who believes that followers of Christ should follow the Torah laws:
If the Scriptures show that Paul, an apostle personally trained by Jesus, was still Torah observant some 25 years after his conversion, would that cause you to rethink the traditions of church fathers (men who did not write Scripture) who say the opposite?
Jesus’ Death and Resurrection Released Us from the Law
It’s actually Paul’s words—particularly in Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians—that inform us most clearly about how the relationship between God’s followers and the Law changed after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Ephesians 2 is explicit about what the work of Christ means for our relationship to the Law:
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [i.e., Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.
In Jesus’ death, “the Law of commandments contained in ordinances” was “abolished,” making it possible for Him to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles to God as one new man, in Himself, with nothing dividing them. Romans 7:1–6 explains why Jesus’ death “released [us] from the Law”:
Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.
Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God…. [N]ow we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
Those who have been united with Christ have died to the Law with Him and have been raised to new life with Him. The way we receive righteousness is by being in Christ, not by following the Law. The Law was “our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:24–25). Likewise, Hebrews 8 says the covenant of the Law is now “obsolete.”
Paul Did Not Preach Circumcision
Yes, Paul followed the Torah, “walking orderly, keeping the Law” among the Jews (Acts 21:17–26), when among the Jews.* We know this was not a matter of obedience for all followers of Christ at all times because he also says in 1 Corinthians 9 that he became “as without law” “to those who are without law”; and even when he says he became “to those who are under the Law, as under the Law,” he adds, “though not being myself under the Law.” In fact, he chastises the Galatians who were insisting that Christians needed to be circumcised (something required by the Law), saying,
If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace…. [I]n Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love….
[T]he one who is disturbing you [by saying you need to be circumcised] will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. (Gal. 5:2–12)
In other words, Paul says he is being persecuted because he’s not requiring obedience to the Torah. This was the source of his persecution. He calls the idea that we are under the cross rather than the Torah “the stumbling block of the cross.” Then he says that those who say we need to be circumcised should go all the way and cut it all off! Serious words, indeed.
In Galatians 2:3, Paul again separates the Law from the New Covenant, saying, “[N]ot even Titus, who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled [by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem] to be circumcised.” If Paul says circumcision is not a matter of obedience (and, in fact, could cause harm if considered a matter of obligation—Gal. 5:1–4), then that speaks to the whole Law since the Law is one undivided, whole covenant (Gal. 5:3; James 2:10). His statement that “receiving circumcision” will place them “under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Gal. 5:3, quoted above) is not a prescription, but a warning, clearly indicating they are not under obligation to keep the whole Law under the New Covenant.
We’re Not Under the Yoke of the Torah
In Galatians 2:11–21, Paul describes a confrontation he had with Peter, who, out of fear of the “party of the circumcision,” began to “withdraw and hold himself aloof” from the Gentiles, who weren’t following the Law:
[W]hen I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?
“We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified…. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. [Romans 6 explains what Paul means by this in more detail.] … [T]he life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
In Acts 15, Peter is in agreement with this. In response to those who were saying, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved,” he says to the Jerusalem Council,
[God] made no distinction between us and [Gentiles], cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.
In the end, the Council agreed, and the yoke of the Torah was not placed on the new followers of Christ.
For more on this topic, see “Why We’re Not Under the Mosaic Law,” “Answering an Objection to Grace: Why Not Sin?” and Greg’s “How Does the Old Testament Law Apply to Christians Today?”
*We see from this that it is perfectly fine to follow the Law if one wishes to do so as part of the Jewish culture or for the purpose of not offending Torah-following Jews as we spread the gospel (see, for example, Acts 16:3), just not as matter of obligation, obedience, or increasing one’s righteousness. Paul did not require obedience to the Torah, but neither did he require disobedience (as he was wrongly accused of in Acts 21:20–22).