The Old Testament Law and Christians

This page last updated July 3rd, 2011

It has been accepted Protestant doctrine since the Reformation that the Old and New Testaments are equally inspired and authoritative for christians. And so christians almost universally believe we should obey the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Old Testament law – well the moral law, at any rate.

After all, are not the scriptures clear? Jesus said (Matthew 5:17): “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.” And the Ten Commandments are sacred.

But there are serious problems with this apparently obvious view.

Problems with applying the OT Law to christians

The biggest problem is that no-one actually obeys the whole law now, or is even able to attempt to.

  • The law cannot be kept any longer because it is built around the temple, and the temple hasn’t existed for over 19 centuries.
  • The distinction between the ‘moral law’ and the ‘ceremonial law’ is an unbiblical one, and cannot easily be made in practice. Both Testaments say that the law cannot be divided but must be considered as a whole – for example the Matthew passage quoted above goes on to say: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
  • There are parts of what we might call the ‘moral law’ which very few would hold to today – for example the treatment of alleged marital unfaithfulness in Numbers 5:11-28 and the death penalty for various forms of sexual promiscuity in Leviticus 20:10-16.

There is no getting around it, the common claim to abide by the Old Testament Law doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Is there a better understanding?

The surprising New Testament teaching

There are a number of passages in the New Testament which show that the Old Testament Law no longer applies to christians:

Jesus taught this, and acted on it:

  • The word ‘testament’ can also be translated ‘covenant, and Jesus said he had come to bring a new covenant – Luke 22:20, Hebrews 8:13. This fulfilled several Old Testament prophecies of a new covenant – Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:25-28.
  • Jesus said he was bringing the Law to an end – it couldn’t be watered down, but it would be ‘fulfilled’ (which means its purpose was over): “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luke 16:16-17). The ‘Law and the Prophets’ referred to the whole Old Testament, and Jesus says its time was over for those who believe the good news.
  • Jesus didn’t follow the law on several occasions and argued that we too shouldn’t necessarily literally follow the Old Testament teachings – e.g. on the Sabbath and respect for parents (Luke 6:1-5 and 14:26).

Paul also taught this truth quite clearly:

  • In Romans 10:4 he said Jesus was “the culmination of the law” – and ‘culmination’ means ‘end’.
  • He said the Law was “our guardian until Christ came”, but now “we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:23-25), a thought reinforced by Galatians 2:18-19.
  • Paul says we now under “a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:6). And in Romans 7:6 he explains this further: “we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code”.
  • And most amazing of all, he says in several places that even parts of the Ten Commandments no longer apply – Romans 7:6-8: “we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code …. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’.”. And Colossians 2:16-17 says we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bound be any law about “a Sabbath day”, or other rules for that matter (2:20-21).

The book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit guiding the new christians in letting go of the Old Testament rules – notably Peter and Cornelius (Acts 10 & 11) and the discussion of Gentiles and the Law (Acts 15).

The writer to the Hebrews points out repeatedly that the Old Testament Law is ineffective and superseded: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect)” (Hebrews 7:18-19), “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves” (10:1) and Jesus “sets aside the first to establish the second” (10:9).

It is quite clear. The Old Testament Law was part of God’s covenant with the Jews, and is not applicable to those of us in the new covenant, which is a covenant of freedom, grace and the Spirit, not the letter of the law.

But …..

What about Matthew 5:17 where Jesus says nothing will pass from the law until all is fulfilled?
This passage refutes any thought that we need ‘only’ obey the ‘moral law’ – Jesus says it all stands. The question is, when was “all fulfilled”? I wonder whether he was referring to his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, when the kingdom of God began with power, and the old covenant was superseded. If so, then Jesus’ words here no longer apply to us. Certainly the parallel passage in Luke 16:16-17 makes it clear that the situation was changing, and those who knew they couldn’t obey the Law were being offered an alternative.

But won’t this mean that people will feel free to sin now?
We need to understand that God isn’t looking for people who obey him out of fear, but sons and daughters who follow him out of love. But we are not left without clear guidance, and that guidance is a higher standard than the Law:

  • Jesus set higher standards for his followers than those of the Law – on hatred (Matthew 5:21-22), adultery (5:27-30), divorce (5:31-32) and treatment of enemies (5:38-48) – so we are not let off lightly!
  • Jesus said if we love him we’ll obey his teachings (John 14:15).
  • The Holy Spirit will guide us so we will please God (Romans 12:1-2, Colossians 1:9-10).

Doesn’t this teaching denigrate the Old Testament as the Word of God?
The Old Testament was written to the Jewish nation for a period of time before Jesus. It was God’s revelation to them. It still stands as a record of his dealings with them, but it is not the covenant we are under. We do not denigrate it by recognising that.

So where does that leave us?

Thus we are free to pray and decide ‘in the Spirit’ how we should spend the money God has entrusted to us (rather than legalistically give a tithe), how we should spend our Sundays, and other matters on which some christians still try to follow the law.

We are sons and daughters, friends and heirs, not servants (John 15:15, Ephesians 1:5). We have been given a glorious freedom in Jesus (John 8:36) and in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17). Let us not go back into slavery to rules (Galatians 5:1) nor disregard God’s grace (Romans 6:1), but allow the Spirit to guide us into a life of good character and deeds (Galatians 5:16-26). If we love him, we will want to please him out of love.


  1. The Old Law is still in Full Effect! It is man merely picking and choosing when and where, and what portions of the Law that he will try to abide by that has created the confusion we are in today. “His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” Most of the Law that modern Christians set aside today are not the relational Laws between our fellow man, but we keep setting aside the relational Laws between us and our Creator that should set us apart as His peculiar people–His Bride!
    The Law never brought about salvation, but it clearly points out our need for a Redeemer. Once we realize this and seek Him out with a whole repentant heart, then the Ruach Ha Kodesh ( Holy Spirit) can come in and set His house in order. Only by the Help of the Holy Spirit can we fulfill the Law that was formerly impossible. The New Covenant is the same Law written not on stone like it previously was, but written in our hearts!
    God’s standard of conduct is foriegn to a world in disobedience to Him. We do not mould God to our standard, or debate and compromise with Him. He has all authority and it is critical that we recognize this; we have no authoriry on our own. We don’t write our own ticket. Sustenance comes from God, and when we make excuses and walk away from Him, the provisions eventually come to an end. God changed my life when I was broken down to the point of death. I surrendered and He came in that very night. I felt a warmth and Love that I’d never felt before in my empty vacant heart, and I realized that He actually gave His Son to die for My sin!
    He really Lives!
    Michael W Cuber

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for visiting and commenting so eloquently. Do you mind if I ask a couple of questions about what you have said?
    Do you think the whole of the old law is still in full effect? Do you think we should still be sacrificing bulls and sending a scapegoat out into the desert on Yom Kippur? Which desert? And how can you worship without the temple? Or do you not mean the whole law?

  3. Yeshua HaMesiach (Jesus) is our High Priest and satisfied the Temple Service which was merely a shadow of His Ultimate Sacrifice for us. He nailed sin its associated death sentence to the Cross.
    The Law that was written in stone, He now writes on our hearts. Orthodox Judaism still wants to rebuild a Temple and fire up the Old Sacrificial system, rejecting everything that Yeshua fulfilled on the Cross. All the Bulls in the World will not pay for one mans sin, let alone the Worlds; it is only by accepting His Free Gift that we are saved. This being said, the Law is the standard of Yehova’s household–it was never up for debate, and it was never a means by which our salvation was attained. “All have sinned and fallen short of His Glory.”
    I work in the Artic where the local Natives subsist on Whale fat and meat called Mucktuk. This is unclean in the Law, yet Salvation never came from eating clean foods, it came from Calvary. When a person accepts the Free Gift, God will give them the strength to clean our lives whether that means the strength to change our diet, turn away from an addiction, or come out of pagan traditions. We should not just sit in the road so to speak when God does give us the strength to go on to Greater Works and an abundant life. This does not happen all at once, but is a walk with God that we should be on until we leave this world. Sometimes I see resistance to things by Christians that seem to Jewish for them. You must remember that when God gave the Law at Sinai, and the Promise of Messiah later–that Israel was intended to be a Light unto the World. It is all who accept the Gift and surrender in obediance to Him that become Israel (grafted in).
    Yeshua said “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by my Father, and I will Love him, and disclose myself to him.”
    If we pick and chose what we will, or won’t do, what do we have left in the end, and who’s authority are we honoring?
    Thank You for the opportunity to respond.
    Michael W Cuber

  4. Hello,
    I have wrestled on and off with thoughts on the OT laws myself. As far as the moral law versus ceremonial law, I do think there is a distinction between the 10 commandments (written by the hand of God on stone), and the other 600+ rules for daily living in a theocratic society, which were recorded by Moses on (papyrus?). At the time the lots of rules were given, Israel (which wasn’t even in its land yet) had no King, God was the president/prime minister/King and as such had to set out a list of societal rules. The rules given in Leviticus, apart from the sacrifices which Jesus fulfilled as the spotless Lamb of God, make sense to a society way back then. They were certainly more modern than parallel ancient civilizations . The Law (any part of it), exists to show us our sinfulness. I don’t believe we have to follow it, just as our children don’t HAVE to do what we tell them to do (particularly the older they get). However, I do believe it gives us an idea of how God expects us to behave, and what would please him and honor him (thinking here more specifically of the written in stone 10 which Jesus summarized in both Deuteronomy and Matthew as loving God first and fellow humans second/as ourselves). Many, of course, we DO still agree with (not murdering, stealing, lying, committtng adultery). The harder to follow ones we tend to turn a blind eye to, but I don’t believe they are any less important to God just because they are hard for us. In fact the spirit behind them (which we are now to follow the law of the Spirit) is much more difficult to follow (anger, lust).

  5. Hi, thanks for your thoughts. I can certainly identify with you experience of “wrestling” with these questions!
    I can’t help feeling that the distinctions we make in the OT law are simply meeting our own need to classify, and are not really clear. For example, there is plenty of “moral” law outside the 10 Commandments, such as that relating to sexual sin and refugees. And how do we classify laws relating to health? They are not ceremonial, but they are not really moral (who believes laws relating to mould should be applied today?).
    Finally, there are Paul’s statements in Romans 7 that we no longer serve in the way of the written law, but of the Spirit – and the example he gives is one of the 10 Commandments!
    So I think it is best to take Paul at his word that we don’t follow the written law, and Jesus at his word that we are under a new covenant. These are difficult ideas but I think we can only pray for the Spirit’s guidance.

  6. so pls, I want 2 know if the old laws like ‘do not use d name of God in vane'(how do we even know this) ,’do not worship any other god except Me or bow b4 any graven image or thing made by man’. still apply 2 christians of 2day. And if it still applies 2 we christians,then what about d Roman chatholics & their mode of worship. Will their constant violation of this particular command spell destruction 4 them all(i.e world wide) on judgement day. pls enlighten me on this

  7. Hi, the Old Testament describes the covenant, or agreement, that God had with the Jews. But I am not a Jew and I have never made that agreement with God. So even though I recognise that the Old Testament tells us about God, its rules are for jews, not for me or other non-Jews.
    The New Testament describes the new covenant, which Jesus talked about at the Last Supper. That is a relationship with God based on Jesus, and that is an agreement I have made with God. And the commands given to us by Jesus are the ones I try to live up to.
    So while I think we shouldn’t worship any other being than the God of Jesus, and certainly not any statues or images I don’t think making an image is bad, and I don’t think most Catholics worship the images they have.
    So while I don’t agree with everything Catholics do, I don’t think they worship images. That’s what I think, what about you?

  8. The law has been fulfilled. This are some facts to prove : 1 the old law was made only to the Israelites not for Christians; 2 the blood of the beast was used in the old covenant but in the new covenat the blood of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the old covenant kept for us for learning of lessons. Note, Christians are the followers of Jesus Christ which comprised of both the Jews and the Gentile .

  9. Hey unkleE,

    Wow. Like a distant memory. Many years ago I blogged about Paul’s Cancellation of the Law, a lot. I posted a link to your site, and I still have people checking out your site.

    I suspect some many of us follow a pattern: debating Calvinism-Arminianism, debating the timing of the Rapture (!), debating the applicability of the Torah.

    The funny thing is that running through these particular “exercises” has been going on for centuries.

    And before that, serious Christians had different sets of exercises to run through. Similar, but different.

    I suspect these intellectual pasttimes exist in every large ideology. Catholics have unresolvable questions they discuss. Protestants have their unresolvable issues to keep them busy.

    Communists are divided between Maoists, Trotskyites, Cubans and a host of others, and they all have their unresolvable issues to talk about.

    Baseball fans, the “real” fans, can post for hours, debating who was the greatest pitcher of all time.

    “Many are the thoughts of people’s hearts, but instincts guide their steps.”

  10. Hi Ronald, I recall some of that, probably not all. If you have been sending people to my site, thanks, I can always do with some help!

    I understand and mostly agree with you are saying here. People like to speculate and argue. However not all the debates are academic exercises, but some of them deeply affect how people behave and treat each other. I think those are the worthwhile debates. And perhaps many of the debates that seem academic have some impact on behaviour.

    Thanks for dropping by.

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