God's commands to man lie close to the heart of the biblical story of redemption. The diversity of biblical material on the subject gives rise to tough questions hermeneutical (how can Paul say that justification is by faith and not works, while James says that it is by faith and works?), theological (why does Paul treat the Old Testament law so negatively if it was given as a gift by God?), and practical (how, if at all, are Christians still obligated to the OT law?). I will attempt to respond to these and other questions from a unified reading of Scripture, assuming the inseparability of faith in God and adherence to His commands, the "obedience of faith". This union of faith with obedience to God's commands is a constant in the Bible; what changes is our grace-enabled success at obeying and the role this plays in salvation history.
God's commands play a prominent role in the primeval history of Genesis, most obviously in the creation-fall narrative of Genesis 2 and 3. God gives the first man one command to live by in the garden: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." (Gen 2:16-17 RSV) Of course, the man and his wife disobey God, and a more detailed answer to why they did so than simply "sin" is that they did not trust (i.e. have faith in) God as they should have. "Eve transgressed God's command because she doubted God's goodness ... Adam and Eve were jettisoning childlike dependence upon God by tasting the prohibited fruit."1 In the garden we see a prefiguring of what is to come, especially in Israel's story: we are created for loving relationship with God, neighbor, and creation, the terms of which are specified by God. We obey Him by faith, or we put our faith elsewhere and so disobey. Elsewhere in Genesis we get a more zoomed-out view of God's will for humanity. Genesis 1:28-30 and 9:1-7 come close to our concept of "natural law", being presented as universally binding moral standards for all of humanity, but as they do not factor into later salvation history (except as a ground for condemning the non-Jewish nations, as in the story of Noah), they are not of much interest to us. If anything, they serve as "mission statements" for humanity, setting the overall purpose (creaturely flourishing) that later, more specific commands would aim towards.
With the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, salvation history becomes closely identified with the story of a family. God gives Abraham a command (leave your kin and go to the land I will show you) and a promise (I will make you into a great nation; all the families on earth will be blessed through you). And Abraham obeys. As Paul explains in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, this obedience is closely tied to Abraham's faith, his belief in God and His promises. One does not simply cause the other; Abraham obeys because he believes and works out his faith by obeying. Paul's denial that Abraham was "justified by works" in Romans 4:2 is not meant to lessen the importance of his obedience, but to stress that Abraham did nothing to gain God's favor.2 Hebrews 11 commends Abraham for his faith, but this faith was not only an abstract trust in a higher power; it was manifested in his obedience to God's command to go to Canaan and in his willingness to sacrifice his promised son. To have faith is to demonstrate it. Somewhat like the members of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ, Abraham's "faith and obedience are distinct, but remain undivided."3
But besides his own personal example of faith and obedience, Abraham is also significant for the covenant (another major theme in BT) that God makes with him. Significantly, in Genesis 15 when the covenant is formally established, God ceremonially does so alone, while Abraham is asleep. The message is clear: this covenant is not symmetrical like so many other ancient Near Eastern covenants; God is the one who establishes His covenant with men, and He is the one who moves it forward. Two chapters later, God adds a continuing command to His covenant: the men born into it must be circumcised as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17:10-11). The covenant itself is unconditional, but its blessings depend on faithfulness to its conditions; by disobedience "the benefits of the covenant could be lost for periods of time, but no mention is made of the possibility of cancellation."4 The covenant would become a major component of salvation history and the context for God's future commands to His people, which were not instructions for earning their way into the covenant, but for enjoying its blessings.
We come to the main body of God's commands to His people in the OT, the Mosaic covenant. Again, the precepts of this covenant "are clearly not a means to earn favour with God, not is keeping them necessary to establish a relationship with Yahweh. ... The law must be interpreted within the context of grace."5 Given that it came immediately after God's freeing His people from slavery in Egypt by a variety of miraculous means, it is hard to argue that the law was not given in the context of faith (or it should have been, if not for the peoples' faithlessness). Reminders of God's past acts of faithfulness are interspersed throughout the commands He gives to His people (Exo 20:2, 29:46; Lev 11:45, 19:36, 20:24, 25:38; Num 15:41; Deu 5:6), or more commonly brief reminders that "I am the Lord". The desire to obey God is rooted in our experiential and personal knowledge of who He is and what He has done. In the original giving of the law and especially in its reaffirmation in Deuteronomy, we see that the law is given to Israel for her good (Deu 10:13), that those who keep it may enjoy God's covenant love (Deu 7:9). The covenant itself does not depend on Israel's obedience, only her enjoyment of its blessings.
In Deuteronomy 28, a long list of blessings for obeying the law is enumerated, and a longer list of curses for disobeying. Again, given the law's other statements about itself, it is wise to read these not as God using enticements and threats to make the Israelites do what He wants, but as the positive consequences of either obeying God and experiencing His love as He intended, or of rejecting the author of life and His law, and receiving the negative consequences. The Mosaic law is not so much a statement of abstract ethics, but a blueprint for the corporate life of God's chosen nation, and a testament to how she is to exist as such. If Israel lives consistently (or faith-fully) with how God created her to live (for Israel, in the OT account, is a nation created by God for Himself), her blessedness (not earned by obeying the law, but already there) will be evident to all. If she does not, the result of rejecting God's blessings and prescribed way of being-in-the-world will be equally evident.
The expectations in the Pentateuch of the outcome of Israel's attempts to obey God's law are mixed, as Deuteronomy 30 shows. The second half of the chapter (11-20) is optimistic in tone; "this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off." (30:11) Yet in the first half (1-10), Moses seems to foresee the next few chapters of salvation history. As we know, despite some notable successes Israel ultimately fails to remain faithful to God's law and suffers exile in Babylon as God's appointed punishment. As will become evident later, the failure of the Mosaic covenant is not because of any shortcoming in the law itself, but because of the people to whom it was given, and the outcome that ensued. "The Sinai covenant is a gracious covenant, but the new covenant is inherently superior to the old covenant in terms of its consequences."6
Yet exile is not the end; God's "punishment" is never merely punitive. Breaking the covenant does not equal annulling it. As Moses noted, this exile would be a prelude to God's restoration of His people and the fulfillment of His promise in 30:6-8 to enable them to obey His law more fully. After the warnings of judgment and the Day of the Lord (another major BT theme), many of the prophets envision this restoration in some form. Isaiah and Joel promise the outpouring of the Spirit (Isa 32:15, 44:3; Joel 2:28) after the return from exile. Ezekiel promises a "covenant of peace" between God and His people (37:26) and to put in them a "heart of flesh" identified with His Spirit, to help them obey Him. (36:25-27) Jeremiah similarly promises a "new covenant" in which the law will be written on His peoples' hearts and past transgressions will be forgiven (31:31-34). Hosea brings the charge to Israel that "they have broken my covenant, and transgressed my law" (8:1), but the promises elsewhere in the book (2:14-23, ch. 14) show that though Israel has been faithless and broken God's law, He is still not finished with her. He will restore her and help her to obey Him, fulfilling Deuteronomy 30:6-8.
With this history in mind, the Jews' mixed reaction to Jesus is more understandable. On one hand, Jesus says that "I have come not to abolish [the law and the prophets] but to fulfill them". (Mat 5:17) He identifies love for Him with keeping His commandments and again promises the Spirit, His abiding and graceful presence with His people (Jhn 14:15-26). He even says that the righteousness of His disciples must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat 5:20)! Clearly Jesus seems intent on bringing out the grace-enabled obedience whose promise is God's merciful answer to the Israelites' disobedience and exile. He is the fulfillment of the prophets' promises of a new covenant in which God will help His people to obey Him aright.
Yet His treatment of the actual commands of the law is sometimes confusing. Christ did not purport to teach the law like contemporary teachers; He virtually ignored it except when answering questions or showing how it foreshadowed His own ministry.7 He radically reinterprets or (depending on your position) waves aside OT commands like the temple tax (Mat 17:24-27), the Sabbath (Mat 12:1-4), and food laws (Mat 15:10-20, Mark 7:14-23), doing so on His own authority. Similarly, in Matthew 5:21-48 (right after saying He came to fulfill the law and that His disciples' righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees) He clarifies and strengthens precepts of the law, essentially telling the people what they "really" mean. Schreiner believes He is merely correcting misinterpretations of the law8 and Scobie considers this strengthening to be part of how Jesus fulfills the Torah,9 but at any rate it seems clear that the obedience Jesus is restoring Israel to is not going to look identical to the obedience Moses had in mind when he was giving the law.
No one talks more about "law" in the New Testament than Paul. Broadly, Paul's statements on the law fit into two main categories. First (and well-known among Protestants) are his negative statements about "works of the law" or simply "works", for example in Romans 3:19-31 and Gal 2:15-16,3:10-14. Passages like these have spurred seemingly endless debates among biblical scholars as to what Paul meant, but at the very least he echoes Jesus' statements about fulfilling the law (Rom 10:4) and similarly transcends it; for Paul it is evident that, in some sense, the Mosaic law does not apply to Christians as it did to the Jews (Rom 7:6). On the other hand, Paul certainly seems to expect ethical conduct and obedience from his congregations (1 Cor 11:1, Phl 4:9), and he even mentions a new "law of Christ" (1 Cor 9:21, Gal 6:2) to which he counts himself and the churches as responsible. In his letters he lays down a variety of commands and teachings for the churches, and inasmuch as he sometimes distinguishes between commands from the Lord and his own teachings (1 Cor 7:12), he usually seems to do so in an exercise of the authority given to him by his revelation of Christ (see Gal 1:11-20).
The other NT epistles offer a diversity of perspectives on how obedience to the new covenant moves beyond obedience to the old. Hebrews shows in detail how Christ is the culmination of the whole Torah, especially the priesthood and sacrificial system. The author connects this to Christian ethics by noting that "when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well" (7:12); in chapter 13, he does not shy from giving commands from this new law. James' epistle says some things about practical obedience that cause much consternation among supporters of "justification by faith alone", such as "so faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:17) or "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24). Paul's statements will be explained in more detail later; for now, suffice it to say that since they are not in dialogue, James uses the terms "faith" and "works" in different ways than Paul (albeit closer to our 'normal' definitions of them) and is asking "about the relation between the profession of faith and action consonant with it."10 The witnesses of Paul and James, when taken together, are strong evidence for the unity of faith and works in the Bible.
Throughout the biblical witness we thus see the consistent affirmation of both faith (as trust) in the God who saves and obedience to His commands. No ranking or dichotomy between the two is possible (or at least intended). The rest of the paper will address questions and complications that jump out (at least to me) in response to the biblical narrative of God's commands. Perhaps the most obvious is: if the Bible consistently presents God as desiring from humans the "obedience of faith", what are we to make of the diversity of views relating to God's commands found in the Bible, from Deuteronomy to Psalms to Matthew to Romans? Put another way, what is the progression within biblical revelation in the treatment of God's commands? I contend that they change in two ways: in their scope and in their outcome.
First, whereas most of the OT is primarily the history of God's chosen nation of Israel and her history of trying to live as such, in the NT we see Gentiles as well as Jews called to be His. This point is frequently skimmed over in modern theology, but it was a major shift in the early (initially Jewish) church, requiring a church council to resolve (Acts 15). Paul devotes significant space in several of his letters, particularly Galatians, Philippians, and Romans, to addressing the tensions the inclusion of Gentiles in the formerly all-Jewish people of God raises.
Second, we see a progression throughout the biblical narrative regarding the outcome of God's commands to His people. During the Exodus, Israel is overawed by God's acts of redemption and perhaps inspired by memories of the patriarchs walking with God, so that the people are able to say, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do." (Exo 19:8) But this confidence soon meets with reality; the Israelites have barely moved into their new home before widespread apathy and disregard for the law settles in (e.g. in the book of Judges). Though Israel's history has several high points such as good kings like David, Solomon, and Josiah, it ultimately leads to disobedience and exile—a pattern mirrored, probably intentionally, in the creation-fall story of Genesis 2-3. The prophets express hope for a new covenant in which God's spirit will give believers new hearts and help them to obey Him at last, which is just what we see Jesus inaugurate—though the old order of sin still remains. We will not continue to sin forever; God helps us to live the way for which He made us.
Several more questions branch off from this answer. First, if our fulfilling the law (in its original purpose, not necessarily in its specific commands) is part of God's aim in salvation history, what are we to make of Paul's negative statements about the law? If the law was given by a good God as a gift to His chosen people, how can Paul say that it "consigned all things to sin" and "confined" us (Gal 3:22-23), or contrast the righteousness of the law Moses demanded with the righteousness of faith Christians are to have (Rom 10:1-9)? If "by works of the law shall no one be justified" (Gal 2:16), why was it given at all?
As Schreiner says, the New Perspective on Paul has much to say to the common conflation of Paul's "works of the law" with an amalgam of Pelagianism, medieval Catholic morality, and the modern American "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality under the heading of "legalism" or "works righteousness", all of which would have been nowhere on Paul's first-century radar. Nowhere in the Mosaic law does God command the Jews to be legalists; as I have tried to show, obedience to God's commands has never been opposed to faith, or at least it was never meant to be. A call to strict obedience does not imply a denial of the importance of faith. Schreiner, however, still sees legalism (which he defines as "the view that human works function as the ultimate basis of one's salvation on the last day"11) in passages like Rom 3:27-4:8, 9:30-10:13; Phl 3:2-11; Gal 2:16-21, 3:10-14. But advocates of the New Perspective do not consider these passages "problem verses" or try to sweep them under the rug. Rather, they explain that the "boasting" the Jews partake in and the "righteousness" or "justification" they valued did not concern their attempts to prove themselves to God (they believed they were already "in" with God and did not have to earn their way) but that this very state of being "in", shown by their possession of the Torah, made them superior to the other nations and gave them some kind of privileged status in God's plan.12 The Jews had come to see God's plan of salvation as being for them rather than through them.
By Paul's time shift has taken place within Judaism between Moses and Jesus to this more nationalistic kind of legalism in which possessing the commandments is more decisive than practicing them, rather than the kind Schreiner envisions. The Jews have forgotten the original purpose of the covenants and of the law that was to serve as their guide for abiding in them. God never intended to simply elect Israel out of the sinful world; the purpose of Israel's election, going all the way back to His promise to Abraham in Gen 12:3, was to bless and save all the nations of the world. The law was given to Israel to help her do this, to be holy and separate from the other nations and to ultimately serve as God's cure for the sin and corruption raging in His creation. But Israel failed to obey the law; she became part of the problem. And more than that, especially in the post-exilic period we see the Jews misusing the law as a way of maintaining their separation from (and assumed superiority over) the nations who did not have it. The way of life that was supposed to be redemptive for the nations became a wall blocking them from God. (Mat 23:13) "'Works of the law' cannot justify because God has redefined his people through the faithfulness of the Messiah."13 This kind of abuse, not the obedience of faith commanded by Moses, is what Paul is talking about by his term "works of the law" (or "works of Torah"). When he states in Gal 2:16 that we are not justified by works of the law but by faith, he means that "obedience to the Mosaic law was no longer the distinguishing mark of the people of God. They were now distinguished by their faith in Jesus Christ and participation in his spirit."14
With this in mind, we can make better sense of Paul's actual answer to the question "why was the law given?" in Gal 3:19. He says, somewhat ambiguously, "It was added because of transgressions till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made". The law is not opposed to the promises of God, but it cannot deliver them (v. 21), not because of any flaw in it but because of the people to whom it was given. In the following verses we see him expand on the law's role: it somehow "confined" the Jews until Christ came to fulfill it (v. 22-23); it acted as their paidagogos (variously translated as "custodian", "guardian", "babysitter"...) until Christ came (v. 24); it was their "guardian" leading them until they came into the inheritance God had appointed for them (4:1-2). All of these point to a purpose for the law similar to that of John the Baptist, of "preparing the way" for the climax of God's redemption in Jesus. Unlike the agitators to whom Paul was responding, he saw the law as a good, but temporary stage in the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. "It is essential that the law be regarded as temporary, if its curse is to give way to blessing and if its demand is not to obstruct the realization of the promise."15
A related question, perhaps even more obvious: if God gives us His Spirit to help us to finally obey His commands as He intended, why did He not simply give the Spirit at Mount Sinai, or in Ur, or in the garden? Why the long period of backsliding before the advent of Christ? It seems as though He did not give the Israelites what they needed to obey Him, so He shouldn't have been surprised at their failure. Rather than answering this question directly, I will question it. This kind of question, I think, is based on a very mechanistic view of our obedience that aims to reduce spiritual truths to simple equations: Humans + Law = Disobedience, Humans + Law + Spirit = Growing obedience, and so on. If this were the case, if humans are in some sense ontologically unable to obey God without His Spirit, then the fault of Israel's disobedience would ultimately fall on Him. Given the unacceptability of this, I conclude that this question may be based on too strong a concept of human depravity.
We can learn from eastern theology here, which—while acknowledging the problem of sin—also holds that man's freedom to do good is restricted, not destroyed,16 and his nature remains essentially good17 (Wilson; mention how this emphasizes sin's alien nature and allows Christ to fully share in our nature) (see Rom 7:15-25, esp. 17). "Because we are created in the image of God (Gn 1:26), there is an indelible goodness in our nature that can never be undone";18 this is a valuable counterpoint to the Reformed view of humanity that can border on reveling in our incorrigible bad-ness. Israel's disobedience was not ontologically inevitable (her periodic successes at obeying the law would seem to belie this), but nonetheless it happened because of her free acts of disobedience, and she could not deal with it herself. God's restoration of Israel and giving of the Spirit are less like fixing a broken circuit and more like what they truly (albeit metaphorically) are: restoring a marriage, or reconciling a trespasser to oneself.
Finally, a very common and practical question: how, if at all, do God's commands in the OT apply to Christians today? Paul repeatedly makes clear (as does Peter, in Acts 15:7-11) that we are "discharged from the law" (Rom 7:6), not simply because it was impossible all along and grace is God’s “plan B” for salvation but because the Mosaic law, besides not being given with the grace to obey it and thus seeming to hold the Jews "captive" in their sins (Gal 3:23), also served to set up a division between Jews and Gentiles which has now been obliterated by Jesus. (Eph 2:11-16) Paul warns against returning to "works of the law" not because, as is commonly supposed, they represent a universal human tendency to Pelagian attempts at "works righteousness", but because they entail slavery to a covenant which, while gracious, was only intended to be temporary (Gal 3:24-25), and because they would re-create the obsolete division within God's covenant people between Jew and Gentile, a notion which Paul rebuts in strong terms (Gal 3:28). He similarly emphasizes faith not as a counter-principle opposed and excluded from any kind of active "works", but to mean particularly the faith of the early Church in Jesus Christ. "For Paul, the expression 'works (of law)' refers not to morality in general but to the practice of the law within the Jewish community; and the expression 'faith (of Jesus Christ)' refers not to a willingness to receive God's grace as a free gift and to renounce reliance on one's own achievements, but to the Christian confession of Jesus as the Messiah and the social reorientation this entails (cf. Gal 2:16)."19
What I take from this is that we, as Christians, are no longer directly subject to anything in the Mosaic law. Rather, we are subject to the "law of Christ", or the "law of faith" (Rom 3:27), by which we fulfill the law/Torah (Rom 3:31) as Christ did before us (Mat 5:17). We don't have to search for some hermeneutical principle by which to decide which parts of the law still apply to us today (e.g. the "ceremonial"/"civil"/"moral" division); by following the teachings of Christ as communicated by the apostles, we can have faith that we are fulfilling the law of Moses. Scobie writes that Jesus focused His teaching on the ethical dimension of the law and deemphasized its ritual and ceremonial demands (using these terms descriptively); "Jesus' "fulfilling" of the law constitutes a new righteousness that is available for all humankind, not just for those bound by the ritual and ceremonial requirements of the Torah."20
Throughout the Bible God is seen to state His will for us in the form of commands; these are not arbitrary rules, tests of obedience, or a way to try to justify ourselves before Him, but reflections of His character and love for us in a particular part of salvation history. He has always desired from His image-bearers the obedience of faith not merely because He likes to be in control or get His way, but because by obeying we live the way He created us to live and grow into His likeness as well as His image. As God's redeemed covenant people, those who are "in Christ" (see Rom 6), we are to abide in the "law of Christ", and the Spirit He sent to us (Jhn 16:7), God's grace abiding and working in us, helps us to do so as we are conformed to Christ's image. Far from the burdensome rules they are often depicted as, the commands of God are an integral part of the narrative of BT; in different, equally biblical senses, they are both what we are saved from and saved to.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Commands of God” in Central Themes of Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (eds. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House; Grand Rapids: InterVarsityPress, 2007), 69.
- Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 262.
- Schreiner, “The Commands of God”, 71.
- Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 91.
- Schreiner, “The Commands of God”, 73.
- Schreiner, “The Commands of God”, 75.
- T. Desmond Alexander et al., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity and Diversity of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 636.
- Schreiner, “The Commands of God”, 99.
- Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 772.
- Scobie, The Ways of Our God, 782.
- Schreiner, “The Commands of God”, 89.
- Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2009), 185.
- Wright, Justification, 97.
- Desmond et al., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 636.
- Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, 133.
- Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 223-224.
- Lukas Wilson, “Original Sin and the Orthodox Church,” Once Delivered Faith, 5 July 2014, (21 August 2014); rather than a denial of the power of sin, this assertion emphasizes its foreignness to the way God made us and the impossibility of some sinister “second creation” that altered our nature. It should also be noted that if we really have a “sinful nature” that Jesus was free from, then He did not fully share our nature and, in Orthodox thinking, could not have fully redeemed it.
- The Orthodox Study Bible (eds. Jack Norman Sparks et al.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 1534.
- Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles, 121.
- Scobie, The Ways of Our God, 773.