There’s a growing dispensationalist belief among Christians that the Law of Moses is distinctly different from the Law of God and even that the Law of Moses is in some ways incompatible with the Law of God. I call this idea metanomianism, since I haven’t found another term for it.
The Law of Moses, in the metanomian view, is the rules that were given by God to the Israelites in Sinai through Moses. The Law of God is deeper principles that aren’t necessarily written down anywhere, but are reflected in aspects of the Law of Moses, as well as the teachings and lives of other Biblical figures, such as Abraham and David.
Accordingly–again, in the metanomian view–the Law of God finds its most explicit treatment in the Sermon on the Mount and the epistles of Paul. Even so, it’s really impossible to express the Law of God in words with any real precision, because it’s too big and too deep to be neatly defined and boxed up by the human mind.
At first glance, that doesn’t seem too far off. The Law of Moses really doesn’t define every possible wrong and right. It was written to encourage people to take what is written and apply it to situations that aren’t directly addressed. That’s even more true today. They didn’t have computers and cars in the Bronze Age, so there are things that we have to think about today that never would have crossed Moses’ mind. Likewise, they had to worry about things that very few people today will ever encounter.
The instructions that God gave to the ancient Israelites in the wilderness were tailored to that time and place. If the Exodus and the wilderness wandering happened today, Moses might have given some instruction on traffic control and digital rights management. Our job is to extrapolate modern application from God’s ancient instructions.
Unfortunately, that’s not really what metanomian teachers mean when they say that God’s Law is different than the Mosaic Law. The devil is in the details, as they say.
Notice that the first paragraph at the top of the article includes the phrases “distinctly different” and “aspects of the Law of Moses”. That’s because metanomians believe that only parts of the Law of Moses are derived from the eternal and immutable Law of God and the rest consists of temporary measures added just to keep Israel separate from other nations or as object lessons about human frailty and substitutionary atonement. Some requirements of the Mosaic Law might actually be contrary to the Law of God and only given as corrective measures for temporary problems, like stealing from someone in order to teach them that stealing is wrong.
According to metanomian doctrine none of the Law of Moses applies to a Gentile Christian. Not the dietary laws, not the sacrifices, not the sexual morals, and not even the Ten Commandments. None of it applies. We are under a different law now, sometimes called the Law of Christ, Law of the Spirit, or Law of Life.
There are some variations on metanomianism, as there are with all doctrines.
Some metanomians will say that the Mosaic Law still applies to Jews, while others insist it doesn’t apply to anyone anymore. Some people will insist that the Ten Commandments apply (except for the Sabbath, for whatever reason). Others will say the “moral” laws apply while the “ceremonial” laws don’t. Dividing the law into moral, ceremonial, and civil is an invention of men, though, and if a person is rigorously consistent in their doctrine, he will have to throw it all out or none of it.
This allows a metanomian theologian to say that New Testament passages encouraging believers to keep God’s Law aren’t talking about the Law of Moses, but the Law of Christ or the Law of the Spirit or whatever other term they choose to substitute. When John writes that “sin is transgression of the law”, he’s not talking about the Law of Moses, but God’s Law, which was never fully written down.
Metanomianism says that any resemblance between this law and that of Moses is due to their common source in God, not to their actually being the same law. We are not to commit murder because James said not to, not because God told Moses “Thou shalt not murder”. We are not to be sexually immoral because Paul said so, not Moses.
Read the following verses from a metanomian perspective and you can see how a Christian might completely reject the Law of Moses and still believe that he’s keeping God’s Law:
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
John 15:10 ESV
For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3 ESV
Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
Revelation 12:17 ESV
But there are three very big problems with this idea.
The first problem is that the Bible itself equates the Law of Moses with the Law of God.
Not only the Bible, but Jewish literature of the Second Temple Period, and writers of the early Church all consistently refer to the Law of Moses as the Law of God or the Law of the Lord. This makes it very unlikely that the Apostles had anything other than the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in mind when they wrote of the Law of God.
Let me give you some examples from all three categories:
The Old Testament
- Joshua 24:6 describes how Joshua completed the book of Deuteronomy, calling it “the book of the Law of God”.
- 1 Chronicles 16:40 references the sacrificial laws of Leviticus contained in “the Law of YHWH”.
- 2 Chronicles 17:9 mentions the “book of the Law of YHWH”, from which a team of Levites taught the people of Judah. There is no question that this refers to the Law of Moses.
- 2 Chronicles 31:4 refers to tithes and portions of offerings due to the Levites as specified in “the Law of YHWH”. Those instructions are in Leviticus and Numbers, the Law of Moses.
- Nehemiah 8-9 describes how the Levites read from the books of “the Law of God” and “the Law of YHWH” in a clear reference to the written Law of Moses.
The Deuterocanon and Apocrypha
- 1 Maccabees 2:26 says that Mattathias was zealous for the “Law of God” when he objected to the Syrians defiling the altar, forcing Jews to eat pork, and forbidding circumcision.
- The Testament of Levi 9 says that Isaac taught to Levi the “Law of the Lord”, including the entire sacrificial system. In 13:2-3, Levi encourages teaching children to read the “Law of God” because knowing the “Law of the Lord” brings honor. You can’t read an unwritten law.
- Tobit 1:3 says that the feasts of ascent detailed in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers are in “the Law of the Lord for Israel”.
The Early Church
- In his Homilies on the Gospel and First Epistle of John, St. Augustine repeatedly calls the written commandments the “Law of God”.
- In Against Heresies, Irenaeus paraphrased Yeshua from Matthew 15:6 to say “Why do you make void the Law of God by reason of your tradition?” The specific commandment in the original statement is “Honor your Father and your Mother” from Exodus 20:12. Irenaeus repeatedly equates the Mosaic Law to the Law of God or the Law of the Lord.
Of course, many of the church fathers completely rejected the Law of Moses and said that God had replaced it with a new law–Marcion is the most infamous of them–but this shows that they still recognized the Mosaic Law as God’s Law and not something separate. Others might have believed this same idea that the Law of Moses wasn’t really the Law of God, but Augustine’s writings show that this wasn’t the predominant view even centuries later.
The second problem is that metanomianism logically excludes all of the teachings of Yeshua from the New Law.
Of course, most proponents of metanomianism haven’t thought it through that far, but I’d like you to consider that Yeshua preached only to Jews who were “under the Old Covenant”, explicitly excluding non-Israelites from his teachings. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24)
Any moral instruction he gave to the Jews before the Cross is only strictly applicable under the administration of the Law of Moses. All forms of dispensationalism teach that Yeshua was under a different Covenant and a different Law. The only moral instruction in the Bible that directly applies to a Christian today, according to metanomianism, is that given by the Apostles after Acts 1. Any moral instruction before that point only applies in so much as it reflects a greater principle within the unwritten Law of God.
The third major problem with metanomianism is that it makes sin undefinable.
In Romans 7:7, Paul says that he wouldn’t have known what sin was if the Law of Moses didn’t tell him. Once he knew the Law, he became responsible for obeying it and failing (committing sin) incurred condemnation. In 1 Corinthians 15:56 he repeats the essence of this argument when he says that “the power of sin is the law”, seemingly reiterating the Law of Moses as the authority which defines sin. Throughout his letters, he based teaching after teaching on specific statutes and ordinances from the Torah.
James, in chapter 2 of his letter, quotes Leviticus 19:18 as the “royal law” and says that if we violate Deuteronomy 16:19, we “are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
In his first letter, John writes that “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is [by definition] lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4) If the law that sinners are breaking is not the written commandments of Torah, how are we to know if we are sinning or not? Certainly the Holy Spirit convicts each of us of wrongdoing and urges us to repent, but that is part of an individual relationship, not an objective standard by which we can advise each other as the Apostles instructed.
Some of the moral teachings of Yeshua and the Apostles were based on the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis or on the prophets, but the majority were explicitly derived from the instructions of Moses. If Peter and James and John and Paul–who said “imitate me as I imitate Christ”–based their moral instruction on the Law of Moses, which was called “the Law of God” in the only Scriptures they knew, on what basis can a person today presume to say that he knows better and that the Law of Moses is not the Law of God and has nothing to do with today’s Christian?
Logically and Scripturally Untenable
These three problems make the whole doctrine of metanomianism logically and scripturally untenable. The only “Law of God” that the Tanakh (what we now call the Old Testament) appears to know is the law given through Moses. Some will point out that Genesis says that Abraham kept God’s Law, and they are correct. However, Genesis 26:5 actually says that Abraham kept God’s “charge, commandments, statutes, and laws”, which implies detailed instructions, not a vague set of principles. Second Temple Jewish literature, such as The Testament of Levi, which was also popular among Christians, shows that the Jews of the Apostles’ day believed those “commandments, statutes, and laws” were exactly the same as those given to Moses at Sinai.
The Apostles didn’t have the New Testament. They only had the Tanakh and other Jewish writings of the day. Moral teaching given by the Apostles was derived from the Law of Moses. Paul said “imitate me as I imitate Christ”, yet Christ (aka Jesus or Yeshua) obeyed every particular of the Law of Moses and spent his entire ministry teaching others how to do the same.
What sense does it make for Yeshua and his Apostles to base their teachings on a Law that has been thrown out in favor of a better one? Of course, it will be argued by some metanomians that they were only using passages from the Law of Moses to illustrate moral concepts that transcend Moses, but why didn’t they ever say that? Why wouldn’t such an important idea ever be explicitly spelled out by anyone?
The closest that anything in the Bible comes to saying that the Law of Moses is not the Law of God is Hebrews 7-8, which only speaks of how different priesthoods operate under different sets of rules for different purposes, but that is in perfect alignment with Moses, and explicitly states in 8:13 that the Old Covenant had not yet passed away at the time the letter was written. (See Priests, Laws, and Covenants in Hebrews 7-8 for a more detailed treatment.)
A consistent application of this division will inevitably lead to something very much like Marcionism. You will eventually have to throw out the 90% of the New Testament that consists of commentary on the Mosaic Law. Just look at Andy Stanley and his comments in recent years about “unhitching” our faith from the Old Testament and how open and unrepentant homosexuals who still go to church have more faith than other Christians who are have not rejected God’s instructions on sex.
True Christians Keep the Law of Moses No Matter What They Believe About it
Fortunately, a Christian who legitimately fears God and wants to be a disciple of Yeshua will still end up keeping almost the entirety of the Law of Moses anyway, despite holding to the false doctrine of metanomianism, because the Holy Spirit will lead him there. Some sins are more deeply embedded in our psyches and spirits than others, but every Christian will be convicted to repent of the most egregious sins against God and neighbor. Whether they choose to follow that conviction or not will determine whether they stand with Joshua who said “Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve YHWH”, or with Andy Stanley who is rushing down the road of throwing out the entire Bible.
As I noted above, I agree that the Law of Moses is not exactly the same thing as the Law of God, but only in the sense that traffic laws are not the same as whole body of laws and regulations of your city, state, and nation. The entire Law of Moses is the Law of God and nothing in it is contrary to anything in the Apostolic teachings. Every single commandment given at Sinai and in the Wilderness is instruction in how to love God and man, and is therefore 100% compatible and consistent with the Law of God.
John said that we can be sure we are loving each other if we are keeping the commandments of God, and Paul said that every commandment of Moses can be summed up in a single phrase: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Yeshua said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” If you believe that Yeshua and the Father are one, as he said, then Yeshua’s commandments are the Father’s commandments that were given to Moses.
An honest and consistent reading of the entire Bible–instead of cherry-picked verses taken out of context–allows no other conclusion: The Law of Moses is the Law of God.