Do Christians Have to Keep God’s Law?


Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to consult a document called the Bible in order to distinguish between right and wrong? A friend of mine once told me, “We should be faithful to our spouses, honour our parents, and honour God—but not because of a law.” My friend meant that Christians don’t need any kind of written moral guide.

In Romans 6:14, Paul said, “You are not under law, but under grace”; and in Romans 7:6, he said that Christians “have been released from the law.” It’s a statement that has led many to believe that we can do away with the written moral code that we call the Ten Commandments.

But a quick reading of Romans will reveal several statements affirming that the law still has the proper function of pointing out sin in our lives. Paul said that “through the law we become conscious of sin” and “I would not have known what sin was except through the law” (Romans 3:20; 7:7).

I can’t see Paul saying that the law has no function in the lives of today’s Christians and at the same time saying it does! Because Paul was so positive in his affirmation that the law does have a proper function in our Christian lives, we must assume that he had something else in mind in those other statements.

The Law As Old Testament Salvation

Some people may claim that God’s way of saving people under the old covenant, during the Old Testament era, was by their obedience to the law, whereas grace and faith are His way of salvation under the new covenant, in the New Testament era.

However, Romans 3:20 doesn’t say, “No-one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law under the new covenant.” Paul didn’t say, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law only in the New Testament era” (verse 28). He meant that no-one at any time in world history ever has been or ever will be justified by observing the law.

One of Paul’s key arguments in Romans was that Abraham, the father of the Jewish race, was saved by faith; and in Galatians, he said that the law, which came 430 years later, didn’t annul God’s promise of salvation by faith alone through Christ (Romans 4:1–12). Human obedience has never been the basis of acceptance by God. Every human being who inherits eternal life, whether Jew or Gentile, whether in the Old Testament era or the New, is saved by grace alone through faith.

New Testament Love

Another argument others have used against the idea of an external moral code is that in the New Testament era, God’s people are supposed to obey Him out of love. This is very true—but again, it was just as true in Old Testament times as it is today.

Jesus said that the whole law can be summed up in two principles: love of God with all the heart, mind and soul; and love of one’s neighbour (Matthew 22:37–40). And He was quoting from the Old Testament when He said that (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).

In fact, Deuteronomy—one of the primary books of law in the Old Testament—is filled with admonitions to love God (7:9; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:3; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). Obedience out of love is as much an Old Testament idea as it is a New Testament idea.

What does Romans 6:14 mean?

In Romans 6:14 Paul said, “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” Some Christians interpret Paul’s words that “you are not under law but under grace” to mean that since the Cross, Christians are not obligated to keep the ten Commandments.

However, Paul said that “sin will not be your master, because you are not under law but under grace.” to be “under grace” means to accept Christ’s forgiveness for our sins and his righteousness to cover our sinfulness.

Those who do that have taken the first step toward defeating the power that sin has had over their lives. Those who try to gain god’s favour through obedience put themselves “under law,” and sin will continue to be their master. They will continue to be slaves to its controlling power. The first step toward victory is to accept God’s grace—His forgiveness and his righteousness to cover our sinfulness.

Heart Obedience

Another argument for the no-law view is that under the new covenant, Christians are to obey God from the heart rather than from an external code of conduct. This is similar to the “love” argument.

It’s true, of course, that we must obey God from a converted heart. That’s one of Paul’s own major arguments both in Romans and in his other letters (Romans 2:14, 15; Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:23).

However, God was looking for heart obedience in Old Testament times as much as in New Testament times. Shortly before the Israelites entered Canaan, Moses told them, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts” (Deuteronomy 6:6; emphasis added). Indeed, the word heart appears 26 times in Deuteronomy, and in most instances, it refers to the way God wanted the Israelites to relate to Him and His laws.

Both the “heart” argument and the “love” argument make the fundamental false assumption that a transformed mind and heart are adequate guides for determining the difference between right and wrong, and thus converted people need no external, written moral guidance.

This may be the case for the angels in heaven, but it simply is not true in a world of humans with sinful natures. Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV), and I suggest that this is true even of our converted minds and hearts. Converted minds are willing to learn of their deceptions, but conversion doesn’t cure us of all the deceptions of which our hearts are capable. We need an external guide to point out the sins and character defects that we still must deal with.

The Law As God’s Entire Revealed Will

The Jews sometimes thought of law as the entire revealed will of God. I suggest that we today need to think of law in the same way. And when we do, then the New Testament becomes a “law” for us just as much as the Old Testament with its Ten Commandments, because the New Testament is filled with written moral guidance. Following is a sampling:

  • Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1);
  • Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14);
  • Wives, submit to your husbands. . . . Husbands, love your wives” (Ephesians 5:22, 25);
  • Do not slander one another” (James 4:11);
  • Do not repay evil with evil” (1 Peter 3:9); and,
  • Do not love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15).

Each of these statements, and scores of others like them, are external guides—laws, if you please—that help the Christian to understand what it means to live a loving life from the heart. In our sinful world, we simply cannot defend the notion that a transformed heart filled with love is an adequate moral guide for the Christian and that no external guide is necessary.

So the issue isn’t whether external moral guidelines exist for Christians to follow, because they do in both the Old and New Testaments. The issue is how the Christian should relate to these external guidelines. And the answer is that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20).

If you want to know what immorality is, don’t consult just your heart. Also consult the external code known as “the law.” The Ten Commandments are the Bible’s most succinct moral guide and the fact that they were written by God’s own finger gives them added importance. But the entire Bible is an external moral guide—laws—that help today’s Christians understand moral issues.

I agree with the assessment of the British theologian James Dunn, who in his excellent commentary on Romans, said, “It should be noted that Paul does not bring the law in as a concession or afterthought or footnote. God wants the law to be fulfilled, its requirements to be met. That Paul could express himself in such unequivocal terms [in Romans 8:4] is important.

Think of the confusion that would reign among Christians if we got rid of all the moral instructions in the Bible and determined right and wrong based on what our loving hearts told us!

One would claim that his heart said one thing was wrong, but another would say, “No, my heart tells me that’s OK, but over here is something else that’s wrong.” Christians need an external, written authority to instruct them on what constitutes right and wrong. That’s precisely why Paul affirmed repeatedly that the proper function of the law in the New Testament era is to point out sin.

Have you ever begun to do something and then remembered a text in the Bible that warned you against doing that very thing? Have you ever gone ahead and done what you knew to be wrong and then felt guilty about it because you were aware of what the Bible says? In both cases the law was carrying out its proper function in your life. It’s impossible to overcome a character defect we’re unaware of.

If we’re serious about our relationships with Jesus, we’ll welcome each of these impressions as a warning that there are character defects in our lives that we need to deal with. We’ll also search the Bible to learn more about the way of life God has planned for us. And we’ll praise God that the law is fulfilling its purpose in our lives.

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