What role does the Old Testament law play in the life of the believer?Â
The church has argued about its answer to this question since the first century. Basically, three positions have emerged: legalism, antinomianism, and the orthodox consensus. Letâ..s briefly consider each one in turn.Â
Legalism is the notion that our salvation is wrapped up with our obedience to the Old Testament law. We read about early Christian legalists in Acts 15.1: â..Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: â..Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.â..â. Also in Acts 15.5: â..Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, â..The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.â..â.Â
The context of theses verses is important. The earliest Christians all were Jews. They believed that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament law and prophecy, as Christ himself had taught (Matthew 5.17-20). Consequently, when Peter and Paul began to make converts among Gentiles, some of these well-meaning Jewish believers argued that the converts should get circumcised, keep kosher, and otherwise obey the commandments of the Old Testament. Their conclusions precipitated the first church council in Jerusalem, which decided, in essence, that Gentiles did not in fact have to become Jews in order to become Christians (Acts 15.22-29).Â
Now, from this decision, some of these Gentile believers drew the wrong conclusion. Since they were not obligated to keep the Old Testament law, they were not obligated to keep any moral law. This conclusion is known as antinomianismâ..literally, against-the-law-ism. You can find echoes of this position throughout the New Testament. For example, in Romans 6.1-2a, Paul asks and answers a rhetorical question: â..Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!â. Also in Romans 6.15: â..Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!â. Grace does not legitimize a moral free-for-all. Instead, it promotes holiness.Â
And that brings us to what Iâ..m calling the orthodox consensus. In orthodox Christianity, the Old Testament law is fundamentally good because it is the self-revelation of God. As Paul writes in Romans 7.12: â..the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.â. In revealing Godâ..s character, the law shows us how we ought to live. However, in and of itself, the law does not have the power to make us live that way. It cannot make us righteous; it can only point out our unrighteousness. In Romans 7.13, Paul writes that the law was given â..in order that sin might be recognized as sinâ. and â..so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.â. When we realize how utterly sinful we are, we throw ourselves upon Godâ..s mercy through Jesus Christ. As Paul asks in Romans 7.24-25a: â..Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to Godâ..through Jesus Christ our Lord!â.Â
In summary, the law is good but the law cannot save. Only Jesus can do that. As we begin our study of Romans 7, which deals with the role of the law in the life of the believer, it is helpful to keep these things in mind.