The Law of God
The law of God is first understood in terms of who God is as the Creator and Lord, and then in its covenantal context of instruction and demand for God’s people. In Scripture, it is used in a number of distinguishable but related ways that center on who God is and our relationship to him as his image-bearers and people.
This article thinks through five ways that Scripture speaks about the law of God. Starting first with the truth that God is the law, the discussion turns to God as our Creator and Lord who deserves and demands perfect obedience from his creatures to locating the discussion of the law in God in the context of God’s covenant relations with us. The law of God cannot be understood apart from God as the Creator and Covenant Lord, and the fulfillment of the biblical covenants in the new covenant and the law of Christ.
In common usage, “law” and specifically, the “law of God” refers to God’s commands given to his creatures to regulate their lives and moral behavior. However, in Scripture the “law of God” certainly includes this idea but is also used in a variety of ways, most importantly in the context of covenant relationships. Law (torah, instruction; nomos) are predominately tied to covenants, beginning in creation with Adam to the new creation in Christ. In fact, in Scripture and theology, we can speak of the law of God in at least five distinguishable but related ways.
The Law of God is God Himself
First and foremost, we must think of the “law of God” in terms of God. The triune God is the law because his will and nature is the moral standard of the universe. For this reason, God alone has the right and authority to determine what is right and wrong, and to hold his moral creatures, both human and angelic, accountable to whether they have perfectly obeyed his commands.
Why is this so? Because God is the uncreated, independent, self-sufficient Lord, the Creator of the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1-2; Psa. 50:12-14; 93:2; Acts 17:24-25). He alone has “life from himself” (aseity), which not only entails his self-existence, but also that he is the standard of what is right. Scripture underscores this truth in its emphasis on divine holiness (Ex. 3:5-6; 15:11; Lev. 11:44; 19:1; Isa. 6:1ff; 57:15; Ezek. 1-3; Heb. 12:28; 1Pet. 1:15-16; 1Jn. 1:5; Rev. 4).
Holiness, in Scripture, has a primary and secondary sense to it. First, it refers to God’s transcendent self-sufficiency—God is “high and lifted up”—the “Holy One” (Deut. 26:15; 1Chron. 16:10, 35; 29:16; Psa. 3:4; 11:4; 20:6; 22:3; 28:2; 48:1; 65:4; Isa 6:1; 40:12-26; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 52:10; 54:5; 55:5; 57:13-15; 63:10; Jer. 25:30; Ezek. 28:14; Joel 2:1; Amos 2:7; Zech. 2:13). Secondarily, it refers to God as the standard of moral perfection. That is why, in light of sin, God’s holiness stands against our sin (Lev. 19:2; 20:3, 26; Josh. 24:19; 1Sam. 6:20; Psa. 24:3; 60:6; 89:35; 145:17; 1Sam. 5:16; Jer. 23:9; Ezek. 22:8, 26; 36:22; 39:7; Hos. 11:9; Amos 4:2; Mal. 2:11; Heb. 7:26; 12:10; 1Pet. 1:15-16; Rev. 15:4). As Scripture reminds us: his eyes are too pure to look on evil; he cannot tolerate wrong (Exod. 34:7; Rom. 1:32; 2:8-16; Isa. 59:1-2). And closely related to God’s holiness and moral perfection is his wrath, i.e., his holy reaction to evil (Rom. 1:18-32; John 3:36). Yet, the wrath of God, unlike his holiness, is not an internal perfection; rather it is an ad extra function of his holiness, righteousness, and justice against sin. Where there is no sin, there is no wrath, but there is always holiness. But where the holy God confronts his creatures in their sin, there must be wrath and the full exercise of his justice and righteousness.
No doubt, God is love (1Jn. 4:10), but love and holiness go together. God is his attributes. As one moves across the canon God’s holy love is revealed, especially in Christ’s cross and our justification. John, for example, does not think of God’s love as overlooking of our sin; rather, he views divine love as that which loves the unlovely and undeserving. In fact, the supreme display of God’s love is found in the Father giving his own Son as our propitiation that turns back his own holy anger against us and satisfies the demands of justice on our behalf (1Jn. 2:1-2; 4:8-10). Thus, in Christ’s cross we see the greatest demonstration of God’s holiness, justice, righteousness and love, where the God of sovereign grace shows himself to be just and the justifier of those who have faith in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).
Combining these truths, then, Scripture first and foremost identifies “the law of God” with God himself. God alone is the Judge of the earth (Gen. 18:25), who always acts consistently with who he is. To fail to grasp this point is to misunderstand who God is and the entire rationale for God’s glorious plan of redemption centered in the obedient life and substitutionary death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Law of God is God’s Absolute Demand on his Moral Creatures
As Creator and Lord, God rightfully deserves and demands perfect obedience and loyal love from his moral creatures, both human and angelic. In this context, the “law of God” refers to his specific commands and demand from us. In creation, this is reflected in God’s command to Adam (Gen. 2:16-17), which is more than a one-time command. Ultimately, God’s demand on Adam, his image-bearer and covenant creature, is to perfectly obey God in a relationship of love and trust.
In fact, from the beginning, God’s demand on Adam, and by extension to all humanity, is to love him with all that we are and our neighbor as ourselves. Adam was not created for isolation but for community, first to know and love God, and then to know and love his wife, family, and by extension the human community. The Great Commandment (Matt. 22:36-40), then, starts in creation and is found in all the biblical covenants, yet specific commands will vary from covenant to covenant, but the underlying absolute moral demand is throughout.
Theology often uses the category of “law” (vs. “gospel”) to describe God’s absolute demand on his image-bearers to love, trust, and obey him completely and fully. Because we are God’s, and under the covenant headship of Adam, all humans are under this obligation, and to disobey God results in our sin and condemnation, which sadly, is what happened in Adam, and now the entire human race (Rom. 5:12-21; cf. 3:23; 6:23).
Some identify God’s absolute moral obligation on all humans with “natural” law. This idea is certainly on the right track if placed in a covenant context. God has created us to be holy like him and to live in relation to God and one another according to the created order he has established. This is why all humans ought to love God, to value human life (see Gen. 9:6), and to live according to what God has commanded and established in creation such as a proper use of our sexuality and the establishment of marriage and the family. To violate God’s created order is to rebel against God himself, to become idolaters, and to come under God’s just condemnation. For this reason, Paul can appeal to what all humans know from creation and their conscience, yet sadly suppress and reject, as the grounds for their condemnation (Rom. 1:18-32; cf. 2:12-13).
After Adam’s sin God’s absolute demand continues on all people, but due to our sin we stand condemned and under the sentence of death (Gen. 3; 5; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Our only hope is found in provision of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gen. 3:15), who is fully human and thus in his life is able to render perfect covenant obedience for us (Rom. 5:12-21; Heb. 2:5-18), but also who is the divine Son who alone can satisfy his own demand against us as our penal substitute.
The Law of God as Scripture
The “law of God” may also be spoken of as God’s Word written, or Scripture. In fact, just as a biblical concept of law (torah, instruction) is directly tied to covenants, so covenants in Scripture are written down. This is especially the case with the Mosaic Law (torah) or covenant that is written as instruction to rule and direct the nation of Israel (Exod. 24:12, 31; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1). The purpose of the covenant and the instruction God gives is for him to rule in the midst of his people as their Lord and King, and to guide and instruct their lives.
The written law-covenant, then, along with the entire Pentateuch becomes known as the torah of Moses or “the Book of the Law of Moses” (Josh. 8:31; 23:6; 2Kgs. 14:6; cf. Deut. 28:61; 29:21; 30:10; 31:26). It not only includes God’s “commands” and “decrees” (Deut. 30:10); it also includes instruction regarding how to live before God, how to approach God by dealing with their sin (e.g., Leviticus), and how to live with each other in proper and just relationships.
As later Scripture is added, such expressions as the “Law and the Prophets” is a way of referring to the entire Old Testament as Scripture (Matt. 5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Luke 16:16; 24:44; John 1:45; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23; Rom. 3:21; cf. 2Tim. 3:15-17). With the coming of God’s Son and the inauguration of a new covenant, New Testament Scripture is added (Heb. 1:1-3; cf. 1Thess. 1:4; 2:13; 2Pet. 3:16), which now results in an entire canon of Scripture. In this sense, then, the “law of God” can refer to Scripture, specifically the torah, but by extension to the entirety of Scripture as God’s inspired Word given to direct, instruct, and to guide his people.
The Law of God as the Mosaic Covenant
In Scripture, this is the predominant use of the expression. The law (torah, nomos) refers primarily to the Sinai covenant and its renewal at Moab in Deuteronomy. It was given to Israel and it is organically related to what preceded it, namely the Abrahamic and creation covenants. In a variety of ways, it anticipates and points forward to the coming of Christ and the dawning of the new covenant.
It’s best to view the law-covenant as a unit or package. Covenant theology has often divided the covenant in a threefold way: the moral law (Exod. 20; Deut. 5) that reflects God’s universal moral demand tied to creation and the civil and ceremonial laws for Israel which are now fulfilled in Christ. No doubt, there is some merit in viewing the covenant this way. Scripture makes various distinctions within the covenant (e.g., certain principles are more important and weightier Matt. 5:24; 9:13; 23:23), laws regarding sacrifices (Lev 1-7) versus civil matters, or even noting the central place of the Decalogue. Yet, overall, Scripture views the Mosaic Law as a unit that serves a specific role in God’s plan for Israel, and as an entire covenant, it has been brought to fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant.
Texts such as Galatians 5:3 and James 2:8-13 point in this direction. Keeping or breaking one part of the Law assumes the keeping or breaking of the whole Law. Or, as the writer of Hebrews argues, the Mosaic covenant is an integrated whole grounded in the priesthood (Heb. 7:11), and with a change in priesthood (Psa. 110; Heb. 7), there is necessarily an entire covenantal change, not merely parts of it (Heb. 7:12; 8:7-13). In addition, Paul can say that before he was a Christian he was under Mosaic Law, but now, in Christ, he is under the new covenant (1Cor. 9:21). Paul views the covenants as entire packages, the old having reached its fulfillment in Christ.
Furthermore, Scripture views the Mosaic Law as an entire covenant that is temporary in God’s plan, serving a number of purposes, but ultimately pointing forward to its fulfillment in Christ (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:15-4:7; Heb. 7:11-12). For this reason, the Mosaic Law, as a covenant, is no longer directly binding on the Christian. In fact, the Law’s supervising God’s people and directing their behavior as a paidagōgos (Gal. 3:24) has reached its end with Christ’s coming and the new covenant (Gal. 4:1-7).
As the Mosaic Law was given in redemptive history as part of God’s plan, its central purpose was to reveal God’s character, the nature of human sin by imprisoning Israel under sin, and also instruct how God would graciously redeem in priesthood and sacrifice (e.g., Rom. 3:19-20; 5:20; 7:7-12; 8:2-3; Col. 2:14; Heb. 7:11; 10:3). The Mosaic Law held out the promise of life (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 2:13; Gal. 3:12), but due to human sin it could not save us despite being “holy, righteous, and good” (Rom. 7:12). In fact, God never intended the Mosaic Law to save us, yet in its typological patterns (e.g., sacrificial system, tabernacle-temple, priesthood, etc.) it pointed forward to how God would redeem his people. But in the end, God’s righteousness comes apart from the Mosaic covenant (Rom. 3:21), and it’s only found in the new covenant (Rom. 3:21-31; 8:2-4; Gal 3:13-14; 4:4-7).
However, it’s important to emphasize that the Mosaic Law still functions for us as Scripture, teaching us about God’s glorious plan of redemption, making us wise to salvation in Christ, and instructing us how to live wisely in the world as God’s new covenant people.
The Law of God as the Law of Christ
Now that Christ has come, Christians are no longer “under the law” (Mosaic covenant) as a covenant; instead we are under the new covenant (e.g., Rom. 6:14-15; 1Cor. 9:20-21; Gal. 4:4-5; 5:13-18). In God’s plan, the Mosaic Law served its purpose, but now in Christ, it has reached its telos (end and goal) (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:15-4:7).
On this point, 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 is important. As a Christian, Paul no longer sees himself as “under the law” (Mosaic Law) and, remarkably, he does not equate God’s law with the Mosaic Law! Instead, Paul views himself as under God’s law, but God’s law is now defined completely in relation to Christ (ennomos Christou)—“in-lawed in Christ.”
However, this does not entail that the Mosaic Law can be ignored since it is authoritative Scripture (2Tim. 3:15-17). In fact, the New Testament teaches both the replacement and fulfillment of the Mosaic covenant by the new. On the one hand, in the new covenant, the old is replaced by the law of Christ (1Cor. 9:20-21). Instead of reliance upon the Mosaic covenant, we rely upon Christ (Gal. 2:19-20; Phil. 3:4-14), and we discern God’s will in Christ and apostolic instruction (Gal. 6:2; 1Cor. 7:19; 9:21). On the other hand, the new covenant fulfills the old.
A crucial text in this regard is Matthew 5:17-20. Although debate surrounds this text, fulfillment is best understood in a redemptive-historical sense (see Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets in that they point forward to him, and Jesus is the one who brings them to their intended end. The Law and the Prophets, then, have a prophetic function as they foreshadow and predict the coming of Christ. No doubt, the prophetic foreshadowing varies depending on whether it is a typological pattern (e.g., exodus, sacrifices, priesthood, and temple), or whether it is the law’s instruction. Yet, in light of the antitheses in Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus teaches that he has fulfilled Old Testament prophecies both in himself and his teaching. In Jesus teaching, he not only clarifies what the Old Testament was saying; in a far more important way, he fulfills the law by showing what the Old Testament was pointing forward to, namely his coming and the entire new covenant age.
This is why for Christians, all of Scripture is for our instruction but applied to us in and through its fulfillment in Christ. In this sense, the entire Old Testament, including the Mosaic Law, is for our instruction, although not all of its instruction is applicable to us. We are no longer under the Mosaic Law as a covenant package, yet the moral demands, beginning in creation, expressed through the Mosaic Law, continue to apply to us in and through the new covenant. In fact, God’s absolute demand of love of God and neighbor, first given in creation, distorted in the fall, then recovered in the Old Testament covenants, both continues and is transformed in Christ and the new covenant. In the new creation, there will be no more sin and rebellion, and our obedience to God’s law will be expressed in a complete love, loyalty, trust, and obedience. And even now, by our covenantal union in Christ wrought by the Spirit, we are being conformed to Christ, which will be consummated at his return in our glorification.
- T. D. Alexander, “Law” in Zondervan Study Bible, ed., D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 2649-2651.
- Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015).
- Michael Hill, The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics (Kingsford, Australia: Matthias Media, 2002).
- Michael S. Horton, Justification, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).
- Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
- Thomas R. Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010).
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