Christians and the Torah or Law

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


I've been trying to come to a better understanding of what Paul meant when he wrote, "Christians were not under the Torah!" (Romans 6:14, 15) Didn't Jesus say, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them?" (Matt. 15:17) Because God gave the Torah or the law, how can any human make it void? Hebrews 10:28 states, "Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy, on the testimony of two or three witnesses." So why are Christians not subject to the law in all its forms?


Relying on the above quotes would seem to suggest an obviously affirmative answer. Christians are, indeed, subject to the law and Paul is incorrect. Yet, these are not the only verses that address this topic. In fact, entire books, literally, have been written about this very complex issue. It helps, first of all, to understand the terms. Torah means "teachings." It can refer to the first five books of the Bible (written Torah); it can also refer to all the commentaries/interpretations written about these books (oral Torah). Also, it can refer to the totality of Jewish law and practice. Although Torah and law are oftentimes used interchangeably, studying the Torah encompasses much more than obeying the law.

Scholars also have lively discussions about Jesus' statement in Matthew. They usually focus on the word "fulfill." Generally, this word means to "bring into being that which was promised, to make full, and to bring it to its intended meaning." No doubt, Jesus was saying the law is valid, but it had been interpreted to stress the acts; it was externalized, legalistic. Yet, he does not set it aside, but fills it up with meaning: "Put it inside, internalize it." He is saying that character is important. It is the letter-spirit argument. The letter isn't enough.

Obedience to the law is a natural expression of true repentance and faith. Yet, the law has its limits. In Paul's view, being "not under the law" means not being under its curse because no one will ever be able to fully obey all of the law all of the time. The law can only condemn, point out one's failures; it cannot make one righteous; it does not lead to salvation. Anyone who hopes to earn righteousness by following the law in minutest detail will find its demands hopelessly oppressive. Essentially, sin will become one's master. To this, Paul asserts that, by definition, Christians already have a different master. No longer subject to sin's power, Christians are not under the law, but under grace.

Yet, being under grace does not give one a license to sin. The one who is under grace will serve God because that is what God wills, and it is the appropriate response. If one studies or obeys the law for any hope of reward or credit, his/her study or obedience has already been sullied. Obeying out of love is the only true and pure motive.

The final passage quoted from Hebrews can be better understood in its context. "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?" (Hebrews 10:26-29)

In its context, this is a typical rabbinic argument moving from "the lesser to the greater." Here, it acknowledges a common fact that people could be put to death for not obeying the Law of Moses. Yet, the argument continues: "How much worse, then, should the punishment be for anyone who has 'insulted' or refused the Spirit of grace?" To refuse the Spirit of grace is to turn away from the gospel. Denying the gospel is akin to blasphemy of the Spirit. This is the one unforgiveable sin, and it has eternal implications (see Mark 3:29). Paul never states that people should ignore the law, but he points to something much higher—God's gift of grace. That is what saves.

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