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Whose Law Is It and Why Should You Care?

Someone once wrote, “It is absolutely bizarre that some Christians are still under the impression that they have an obligation to abide by Jewish Law.”

I completely agree.

If that surprises you, then you might be operating under the same lexical error as the original writer. The problem is a confusion of terms. Most Christians will read this phrase and actually understand it to mean “It is absolutely bizarre that some Christians are still under the impression that they cannot be saved unless they obey the Law given to Israel at Sinai,” and that’s probably what the writer meant too, but it’s not what the words, as written, mean at all.

Take the word “obligation” for instance.

If I am obligated to abide by posted speed limits everywhere in the United States, does that mean I will lose my citizenship if I exceed the limit at any time or even if I ignore them altogether? Of course, not. That’s absurd. It only means that I’ve broken the law and thereby placed myself under the jurisdiction of the local justice system, often colloquially known as “The Law”.

At no time before, during, or after my speeding episode was my citizenship in jeopardy. Likewise, no one is under any obligation to keep Torah in order to earn salvation, nor is anyone who is already “saved” or grafted into the nation of Israel obligated to keep Torah in order to keep that status. Which is not the same thing as saying that he is not obligated to keep Torah.

Anyone who claims to be grafted into the tree of Israel is obligated to keep Torah because God commanded Israel to keep it forever. Yeshua (Jesus) said further that anyone who refuses to keep it and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Notice that the offender is still “in the Kingdom,” but has been demoted by his disregard of God’s commands.

Be careful also of the term “Jewish Law.” It’s confusing because it’s often used to describe contradictory ideas. For example, many people are under the mistaken impression that Torah requires ritual handwashing before eating bread. Matthew 15 describes an incident in which a group of Jewish religious teachers asked Yeshua why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating as required by the “tradition of the elders.” Yeshua responded with a question of his own: “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” There is no commandment in Torah to wash one’s hands before eating. This was a “tradition of the elders” only. It was Jewish Law, but not God’s Law, and God isn’t concerned with Jewish Law.

“In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:9 & Isaiah 29:13)

This was the same battle that Paul fought all through his ministry. He was constantly correcting people who were conflating Jewish Law with God’s Law. People who say believers in Yeshua shouldn’t keep “Jewish Law” are making the exact same mistake the Pharisees did: they replace God’s commands with man’s. Either they reject God’s Law and keep a new “Christian” set of laws against drinking, swearing, and smoking, or they reject God’s Law because they don’t want to make the mistake of keeping “Jewish” law, not understanding that they are not the same.

Yeshua and Torah are inseparable

Is God’s Law Jewish? Only if you use the term “Jewish” to refer to all things related to Hebrews and Israel. It’s not technically accurate, since the term originally only applied to the Kingdom of Judah and not to the Kingdom of Israel and the tribes that were scattered by the Assyrians, but human language is rarely technically accurate. Referring to all Israelites as Jewish has a long history–even Paul did it at times–so I won’t quibble with that too much. Just be aware of the difference and be aware that the writings of the Jewish sages, the Talmuds, and the Jewish traditions are NOT the same as the written Torah. They are commentary, and often they are even very good commentary, but they cannot change, add to, or remove anything from God’s Law.

If you are grafted into Israel as Paul described in Romans, then the Law that God commanded the Israelites to keep applies to you. If you are not, then nothing that Yeshua said applies to you either, since he said that he came only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Yeshua and Torah are a package deal. Either you’re in or you’re out. Either Yeshua and Torah both apply to you or neither do.

Nobody’s Perfect, So Don’t Even Try

Does James 2:10 mean that Christians shouldn't try to keep God's law? In Paul's words, Heaven forbid!

Someone once tried to tell me…

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

Good luck trying to become righteous before God through the law…I wish you the best.

This person was equating “righteous” with “saved”, which isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just irrelevant. Whether or not a Christian is obligated to keep God’s Law has nothing at all to do with whether or not it makes a person sufficiently righteous to merit salvation. Abstaining from murder doesn’t make one righteous in this sense either, but no one believes Christians are therefore free to commit murder.

This person is essentially saying, “You can’t keep the Law perfectly, so don’t even try,” which is precisely the opposite of what James was trying to say. Just three verses earlier, he quoted Torah (the Law) from Leviticus 19:18, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scriptures, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” Does it really make sense to interpret James as saying “If you’re trying to keep the Law, you’re doing a good thing, but since you can’t keep all of it, don’t try to keep any of it”? How absurd!

No, James was saying, “It’s great if you love your neighbor, but don’t forget about all the rest of it.”

Nobody’s perfect. We’re all going to fall short of God’s standards (aka Torah). That’s why Yeshua’s sacrifice was necessary. But don’t take inevitable failure as permission to fail. It’s not.

Under the Law of Christ

The Law of God is both life and death depending on how it is used.What is 4? 4 is 2+2. It is also 2*2, the square root of 16, 2^2, 4*1, 100/25, a representation of the Messiah, a common term of a first enlistment in the army, and the month of April. If, in the course of a math lesson on squares, I ask “What is 4?” and you reply “April,” I would say “Wrong. 4 is not April; it is the square of 2.” I would be correct and you would be incorrect, but only in that context. In a discussion on calendars, “April” might be just what I was looking for.

The Torah (sometimes ambiguously known as “the law”) is both life and death. It is death in that if we try to earn our salvation by adherence to it, we will only earn death. It is life in that it is God’s standard for human behavior and teaches us how to live with each other and with God. If, in the course of a lecture on obtaining salvation, I ask “What is the Torah?” and you reply “Life,” I would say “Wrong. The Torah is not life; it is death.” I would be correct in that context. But if, in the course of a lecture on living peacefully with your neighbor or on crime and punishment, you answer “Life,” I would say “Correct! The Torah preserves our lives and teaches us how to live with our fellows in a way that is pleasing to God.

“We are not under the law” does not mean that we cannot learn from it or that we must reject every teaching of the Torah that was not explicitly retaught by one of the Apostles after Jesus’ death and resurrection.1 It means that we are no longer subject to the eternal consequences of the Law. If we fail, we do not lose our souls. To be under the Law is to be below, inferior to the Law. We are not inferior to the Law, because Jesus fulfilled its requirements. The Law does not rule us, because we have been redeemed from our obligation to it by the blood of the Lamb. The Law does not condemn us because the handwriting of the accusations and curses against us has been washed away2 and there is no witness against us. That is what it means to be “under the Law:” to be condemned by it because we remain under the Law of death, which is the Law that requires our death.

Obeying the Law, not as a means of salvation or of justification, but out of love for God and in obedience to God, is not being “under the law.” It is being willingly and gratefully obedient to the commands of God without fear of failure or condemnation, because we have forgiveness and because the price for our failure has already been paid. That does not mean that we are now free to behave as we wish, to ignore God’s teachings concerning his Law. That would be the ultimate insult to our Messiah. Was he killed so that we could spit in God’s face? We are no longer inferior to the Law, but we heed God’s teachings concerning it, because to do otherwise is to spite God.

The sole purpose of the Law (or the Torah, God’s teachings concerning the Law) is not to condemn anyone. That is one purpose. Even if that was its only purpose, it would still be worth using as a standard of behavior. How could it condemn anyone if it was not a standard of righteousness? Can anyone be condemned for doing something right? If anyone is condemned by the Law, it is because of their disobedience and not their obedience. It follows then that disobedience to the Law is undesirable, whatever its affects. If we are forgiven for our disobedience are we then free to disobey at will? That’s absurd! If disobedience condemns, obedience does not.

If we rely on obedience to the Law for our salvation, we will be condemned because we cannot obey everything perfectly. Our obedience to the Law in such a state is a curse, because it is so much wasted effort, and the Law is death to us. If we are forgiven and the accusations against us are blotted out, then our obedience to the Law is a blessing to God and to us. Our obedience to the Law in that state is life, and not death.

1 Romans 5:8-6:23 expresses the core sentiments of this article more eloquently than I ever could.
2 Numbers 5:11-31