Are Christians bound by the Law of Moses?

by Emeal ("E.Z.") Zwayne
edited by Matt Slick

The book of Leviticus is perhaps the least read and most misunderstood book in the entire Old Testament. From a New Covenant perspective, this God-breathed revelation, with all of its detailed dietary, sacrificial and sacerdotal Laws, is perceived to be wholly irrelevant by many evangelical Christians.

At the same time, however, it is considered by most Orthodox Jews and some professing Christians, in both this generation and generations past, to be an indispensable element in prescribing true godly conduct for God’s chosen people.

But the question regarding the Levitical Law’s relevance to Christians was perhaps the most hotly debated issue confronting the first-century church. The issue was clearly settled at that time, during the first church council in Jerusalem. And yet some Christians today are still unclear as to whether they are obligated to observe the full requirements of the Mosaic Law, as delineated in the pages of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

God has not, however, left us without answer in this regard, but has in the pages of Scripture outlined for us the express function of His Law and its relationship to the Christian.

The first Christians were Jews, and Jews predominated in the church in its developing stages. These first-century Messianic Jewish believers did not initially forego their observance of God’s Law, but rather continued in it, as was their custom from the days of their youth.

The question of the relevance of the Mosaic Law for Christians arose when God began adding Gentile believers to the Body of Christ. In Acts chapter 10, God directed a God-fearing Gentile Centurion named Cornelius to summon the apostle Peter. God subsequently revealed His will to the apostle in a very disturbing vision. This vision eventually led to Peter proclaiming the gospel before Cornelius and all of his close friends and relatives. This resulted in their dramatic conversion to Christianity.

As the Lord began to raise up Paul the apostle and use him mightily for His glory, this brought about many more Gentile conversions. This great influx of Gentile believers into the early church attracted much attention to the issue of the Mosaic Law’s relevance for the Christian. In Acts 15:1, we learn, "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And Acts 15:24 tells us that they were saying "you must be circumcised and keep the Law."

It was determined that Paul and Barnabas should go up to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles and elders in order to settle this dispute. And it was here that the historic decision was made regarding the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses. Amid much debate and discussion, the apostle Peter asked regarding this matter: "Why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). It was then revealed by the Holy Spirit that the Gentile believers were not obligated to keep the Law of Moses, but they, as well as the Jews, are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus.

It would seem at this point that the Law delivered by Moses to the Jews has no purpose whatsoever for the Christian; that it is altogether irrelevant. In Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, he addressed this issue extensively as this church was also coming under the influence of "those of the circumcision," who were also known as the "Judaizers."

In the midst of his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul proceeds to ask the following question: 

"What purpose then does the Law serve?" (Galatians 3:19).

Paul then goes on to answer this question, and while doing so he makes the following statement:

"...for if there had been a Law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the Law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the Law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor," (Galatians 3:21–24).

According to Paul, the Law was added because of "transgressions." This implies, as the NEB paraphrase suggests, that God’s Law was used to "make wrongdoing a legal offense." In other words, it was intended to reveal to us our moral bankruptcy so that we might discover how sinful we really are.

After an individual has come to faith in Christ, the "tutor’s" job in showing them their sinfulness and therefore leading them to the Savior is accomplished, and they are, at that point, no longer under the "schoolmaster." As Paul so aptly stated in Romans 3:20,

"Therefore by the deeds of the Law no flesh shall be justified in His sight, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin." And again in Romans 7:7, "I would not have known sin except through the Law."

It is therefore indisputable that the Law of God is both relevant and pertinent. In its Levitical sense, God’s Law continues to serve as that schoolmaster to those Jews who still adhere to it as the standard for their conduct. And in its general, moral sense, as found in the heart of the Law, the Ten Commandments, it continues to serve as a moral compass and God’s prescription for holy conduct, while convicting the consciences of men and women throughout the world as it reveals sinfulness and thus the true depth of need for the Savior.

The apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:9,10

"…we know that the Law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the Law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine…"

It is, therefore, fitting for the wise and sensible servant of the Lord to lawfully wield the holy commandments of God while faithfully laboring in the field that is white for the harvest.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.