Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Dispensational View of Law: "No Longer Under the Law" (Part 1)

By Nathan Busenitz @http://www.sfpulpit.com

No Longer Under the Law (Part 1)

Our study will begin by attempting to establish two basic propositions. The first is this: The apostles taught that New Testament believers are no longer under any part of the Mosaic Law.

This proposition is based on four premises, the first of which we will consider today, namely that (1) the biblical saints saw the Mosaic Law as a solitary unit.

Practically speaking, the Mosaic Law was everything to the nation of Israel. As both a personal code of conduct (Deut. 31:12; 32:46) and a national constitution (Ex. 19:4-6), the Law distinguished them from the surrounding nations (Lev. 20:22-23; Deut. 28:1). It articulated God’s expectations for His people—detailing the proper guidelines for worship (Lev. 1:1-7:38), purity (Lev. 11:1-16:34), and holiness (Lev. 17:1-27:34). Moreover, it established the Hebrew justice system, explaining how specific crimes were to be punished in the theocracy (Ex. 19:1-24:18; Deut. 4:44-28:68). Every aspect of Jewish life, from the personal and religious to the public and municipal was affected.

Thus, for the Old Testament Jew, the Law was a single, all-encompassing way of life. And while it certainly covered moral (Ex. 20), civil (Ex. 21-24), and ceremonial aspects of life (Ex. 25-31), “it is wrong [for New Testament scholars] to divide it into three laws, or as is popularly done, divide it into two laws, the one moral and the other ceremonial.” [1] After all, “although this three-fold division of the law is quite popularly accepted in Christian theology, the Jews either did not acknowledge it or at least did not insist on it.” [2]

Instead, the Jews divided the individual commands given in the Law (of which they counted a total of 365 negative commands and 248 positive commands) into twelve categories or families. Ryrie explains:

The twelve families into which the law was categorized were according to the number of the twelve tribes of Israel. These were further subdivided into twelve families of affirmative and twelve of negative commands. The affirmative families concerned: (1) God and His worship, (2) the sanctuary and priesthood, (3) sacrifices, (4) cleanness and uncleanness, (5) alms and tithes, (6) things to be eaten, (7) Passover and other feasts, (8) rule and judgment, (9) truth and doctrines, (10) women and matrimony, (11) criminal judgments and punishments, and (12) judgments in civil causes. The negative families concerned: (1) false worship, (2) separation from the heathen, (3) things sacred, (4) sacrifices and priests (5) meats, (6) fields and harvest, (7) house of doctrines, (8) justice and judgment, (9) feasts, (10) chastity, affinity and purity, (11) marriages, and (12) the kingdom. [3]

Yet, even in categorizing the Law as they did (for the sake of teaching and memory), the Jews nevertheless saw the 613 commands as a single unit (see Joshua 1:8; 8:30). After all, “the Law of Moses never divides itself into these categories, but views itself as a single unit. The prophets of Israel also viewed the law as a unit, not to be broken in any one particular.” [4]

Furthermore, the categories that were given often combine moral, civil, and ceremonial instruction into the same family. Any dichotomy between moral laws, civil laws, and ceremonial laws (while sometimes helpful for understanding) is without Old Testament precedent.

The New Testament also views the Mosaic Law as a single unit. “Paul argued that all who were circumcised were ‘under obligation to keep the whole Law’ (Gal 5:3). And James insisted that whoever proposes to keep ‘the whole law and yet stumbles in one point . . . has become guilty of all’ (James 2:10).” [5]

In Ephesians 6:1-3, Paul cites the fifth of the Ten Commandments and refers to it as “the first commandment with promise.” Since none of the other Ten Commandments have promises attached to them, Paul seems to be referring to the whole Law as a larger unit (and not just the Ten Commandments or “moral law”). First Corinthians 9:9; 14:34; Romans 7:7; Galatians 3:17; Colossians 2:14-17; and Hebrews 12:18-21 also evidence a similar understanding. [6]

Of course, scholars must be careful to identify exactly what the New Testament author is referring to when using the term “law.” Walvoord, for example, cites six different nuances of the word as used by Paul in the book of Romans alone. [7] Nevertheless, McClain maintains that the vast majority of New Testament references to “law” point directly to the Mosaic Law code. In each of these cases, he argues, the New Testament writer has the entire Mosaic Law in view. [8] Both the Old Testament and the New Testament view the Mosaic Law as a solitary whole. It cannot be artificially divided or categorized. As Aldrich aptly summarizes:

Thus orthodox Jewish tradition, able commentators, and the Scriptures themselves recognize that the law of Moses is an indivisible unit. This presents an insurmountable problem for any degree of Mosaic legalism. No modern legalist wants to climb to the top of Mount Sinai with its fire and thunder but many think it is a good thing to take a short hike up its foothills. But to touch the mountain at the bottom was as fatal as climbing to the top (Heb 12:18–21). The unity of the Mosaic law leaves only two alternatives — either complete deliverance from or complete subjection to the entire system. [9]

If part of the Mosaic Law is still binding today, then all of the Law is still binding today — and vice versa.

(To Be Continued Tomorrow)

* * * *


[1] Alva J. McClain, “What is ‘The Law’?” BSac 110/440 (Oct. 1953): 334-35.

[2] Charles C. Ryrie, “The End of the Law,” BSac 124/495 (July 1967): 240.

[3] Ibid., 240-41.

[4] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “Israelology—Part 1 of 6,” CTSJ 5/2 (April 1999): 43.

[5] Robert P. Lightner, “Theological Perspectives on Theonomy—Part 3: A Dispensational Response to Theonomy,” BSac 143:571 (July 1986): 238.

[6] See Roy L. Aldrich, “Has the Mosaic Law Been Abolished?” BSac 116/464 (Oct. 1959): 322-24. Concerning Galatians 3:17, Aldrich argues that Paul is referring to the whole Sinai event and thus the whole Law. On Colossians 2:14-17, he notes that “ordinances” must refer to more than just the ceremonial Law since Paul includes “Sabbath” in his description of “ordinances.” See also McClain, “What is ‘The Law’?” 333-34.

[7] John F. Walvoord, “Law in the Epistle to Romans—Part 1,” BSac 94/373 (Jan. 1937): 20-23. See also Brice L. Martin, “Paul on Christ and the Law,” JETS 26/3 (Sept. 1983): 272.

[8] McClain, “What is ‘The Law’?” 334.

[9] Aldrich, “Abolished?” 325.

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