One of the accusations made against teachers of grace is that we do not teach people to obey the Law. Those making this accusation say that since Jesus instructed people to obey the Law, then we should obey the Law and teach others to obey the Law, too.
Those making the claim that we should obey the Law, and also teach others to do so, cite many verses from the earthly life of Jesus to prove that Jesus taught people to obey the Law. They conclude that since Jesus taught people to obey the Law, then so should grace teachers. And failure to do so, they claim, makes teachers of grace lawless.
However, is this true? Did Jesus teach people to obey the Law of Moses? Did Jesus teach people to obey the Ten Commandments? Did Jesus teach people to obey the Commandments of God? Are teachers of grace lawless?
To correctly answer these questions, it is vital that we do not simply quote the words of Jesus when he speaks about the Law, while completely ignoring the context of the words he spoke. The context of the words Jesus spoke provide the purpose for which he spoke them. The purpose of the words of Jesus provides us with the correct interpretation so that we make correct application.
It is important to know that we can’t rip verses from their context to form our beliefs. The context of a verse provides the meaning of the verse and thus shapes our beliefs.
Let’s take a closer look at the context of the words of Jesus when he spoke about the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of God so we can determine the purpose for which he spoke them, and properly apply his teachings.
The words of Jesus during his time on earth are recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts 1. These 5 books of the Bible can only be understood within their larger biblical context. To understand these 5 books, the message of the first 39 books of the Bible must be understood. Apart from understanding the message of the first 39 books of the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts cannot be understood.
So what is the message of the first 39 books of the Bible?
The message of these books is that God has a plan to bring his kingdom to earth where peace, righteousness, health, and wholeness will reign over all of the earth. It is a kingdom that will be inaugurated by a promised king called the Messiah or Christ. It is this kingdom and king which is the subject of many of the songs of Christmas (Isaiah 9:6-7).
The book of Matthew, the first of these 5 books, is the continuation of the first 39 books of the Bible. The people of Jesus’ time on earth were expecting the Christ to come. The were longing, as we do today, for peace on earth. They were wanting the king to come and establish his kingdom. Matthew, as well as Mark, Luke, and John, write their books from this perspective...the coming king and kingdom.
Matthew opens his book with the genealogy of Jesus. He has a purpose for this. His purpose was to prove that Jesus, according to his ancestral line, was indeed the promised Christ foretold in the Scriptures. The Christ was to come from the family lines of David and Abraham. The remainder of his book, as well as the books of Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, were written to prove that Jesus was the Christ as evidenced by his miracles, with his ultimate miracle being his resurrection, as foretold by the Scriptures.
The people of Jesus’ time had two main questions on their minds: Is Jesus the Christ who has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth? If he is the Christ, then how righteous must I be to enter into his kingdom? It was these two questions that sparked intense debate among the people (John 7).
The people understood from the Scriptures, the first 39 books of the Bible, that righteousness was required for one to enter the kingdom of God. But how much righteousness was required?
In the minds of the people, the most righteous people on the earth were the Pharisees. This was because the Pharisees had dedicated their entire lives to achieving righteousness through obedience to the Law of Moses. If anyone, the people thought, could achieve the righteousness necessary to enter Christ’s kingdom, then it would be the Pharisees.
However, Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God a person’s righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Furthermore, he said for someone to enter the kingdom of God, he must be perfect like the Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:48).
This shocked the people… “How could anyone be more righteous than the Pharisees?” they thought to themselves.
This shocked the Pharisees, too! “Are we not righteousness enough to enter the kingdom of God? How dare he?", they thought.
Immediately, this put the Pharisees at odds with Jesus. He became their immediate enemy. They hated him because he told them the truth, which was that they did not possess the righteousness required to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus addressed the subject of the righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom in what has famously been labeled “The Sermon On The Mount”. In this series of teachings, Jesus describes the righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom, while also condemning the Pharisees’ religious activity and arrogance in thinking they were superior to others, thinking they had achieved entrance into the kingdom of God by their own righteousness.
Jesus began these teachings by listing what we commonly know as the “Beatitudes”. In the Beatitudes, Jesus states clearly what people’s heart condition needs to be to enter the kingdom of God. He says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The condition of the heart needed to enter the kingdom was the direct opposite of the heart of the Pharisees. Rather than being poor in spirit, they were haughty in spirit. The poor in spirit were those whose hearts had been humbled and broken by their sinful condition and had no hope of entering the kingdom by their own merits. In Jesus' day, these people were the prostitutes and tax collectors. Many of them mourned over their condition. They were humbled by their sin. They hungered and thirsted for righteousness because they knew they had none.
According to Jesus, it was the poor in spirit who mourned over their sin, who were humbled by their sin, who hungered and thirsted for righteousness who would be allowed entrance into the kingdom of God. Why would they be allowed entrance? Because they would be filled inwardly with the righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom....the righteousness of the Christ (Romans 3:21-24, 5:17; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21). This righteousness would come by grace through faith.
Jesus stated that the prostitutes and the tax collectors were entering the kingdom of God before the Pharisees (Matthew 21:31-32). This angered them. They hated Jesus deeply!
Because Jesus was so full of grace to the poor in spirit (tax collectors, prostitutes, and many others), just as the Scriptures said he would be, the religious community thought he was abolishing the Law. He was accused by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law of being lawless.
As a result of the grace flowing from the heart of Jesus to the poor in spirit, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law tried to influence the thinking of the common people by trying to get them to believe that Jesus himself was lawless. Jesus corrected this by stating that he had not come to do away with the Law, but to fulfill the Law.
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”
Jesus fulfilled the Law by living a life of perfect love. Jesus fulfilled the Prophets by fulfilling all the prophecies made about the coming Christ: what he would look like, where he would be born, when he would be born, from what family tree he would come, how he would live, that he would die for the sins of people, how he would die, and that he would rise from the dead.
Jesus also defended his belief in the Law against the accusations of his religious accusers by saying the Law would not pass away until everything was accomplished. He also taught that anyone who taught others to break the commandments would be called least in the kingdom of heaven and those who practiced and taught the commandments would be great in the kingdom (Matthew 5:18-20). The problem was that no one could practice the Law, as we will see later.
As written earlier, Jesus said that unless a person’s righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom (Matthew 5:18-21).
By this, Jesus was saying that real righteousness must be of the heart. The Pharisees practiced a phony righteousness...an external righteousness where they looked clean on the outside because of their religious activities and morality, but inwardly, their hearts were dirty.
Since the Pharisees thought righteousness was acquired and entrance into the kingdom of God was achieved through external obedience to the Law, Jesus, throughout his time on earth, used the Law as a mirror or an x-ray machine to show them their hearts were dirty. And consequently, it was revealed they did not possess the righteousness needed to enter the kingdom of God.
For example, Jesus said that anyone who has anger in his heart toward another person is guilty of murder (Matthew 5:21) and that anyone who has lust in his heart toward another person is guilty of adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). In these teachings, Jesus is saying the Law requires internal purity, not simply external obedience. With this explanation of the internal requirement of the Law, the Pharisees were guilty like everyone else of breaking the Law, even though they thought they were better than everyone else by trying to keep the Law.
Using the Law as a mirror and x-ray machine to show the Pharisees and teachers of the Law their hearts were dirty is exactly how Jesus taught on the Law throughout his earthly ministry.
He never taught the poor in spirit to obey the Law. He only taught the haughty in spirit to obey the Law. This is because the poor in spirit did not need the Law to convince them their hearts were dirty and that they were in need of grace. They already knew it. Their only hope was grace.
The reason he taught the haughty in spirit, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, to obey the Law was to convince them their hearts were dirty and they were in need of grace.
In Matthew 19:16-26, the rich young ruler thought he could obtain eternal life in God’s kingdom by doing good. To him, Jesus said to obey the Law by selling everything he had and giving his money to the poor. By failing to follow through on what Jesus instructed him to do, the man proved he had not obeyed the Law, because inwardly he loved his possessions more than God and people. Jesus did this to show him that his heart was dirty and needed to be cleansed.
In Luke 10:25-37, an expert in the Law asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, meaning to live forever in the kingdom of God. Jesus asked him what the Law required for entrance into the kingdom. The man replied by quoting the two great commandments of God: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”
Then Jesus went on to tell his famous parable, The Parable of the Good Samaritan, to convince the expert in the Law that he failed to obey these two laws of love because he himself hated the Samaritans, as did the other religious leaders.
Jesus stated in Matthew 22:34-40 that all of the Ten Commandments hung on the two great laws of love which are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving God and people diagnosed the problem of every human heart in the world...the inability to love. If we are honest and humble (poor in spirit), we will admit that we do not love God with ALL our heart, soul, strength, and mind and that we do not love others as ourselves. That is what sin is...the inability to love.
The Bible says that sin is breaking God’s Law and that love fulfills his Law. So this means that we can define sin as not loving God and others the way the Law requires. There was only one person who fulfilled the Law...Jesus. He lived a life of perfect love toward God and others, both inwardly and outwardly. He is the only person who ever loved the Lord God with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength and with all his mind and who loved others as he loved himself. Therefore, he became the perfect sacrifice for all sins for all people.
The Bible says there are none righteous and that we have all sinned by breaking God’s Law. As a matter of fact, the Law convinces us that we are sinners...lawbreakers...people who can’t love from the heart. We have impure, unloving hearts full of selfish and sinful thoughts and desires. The Law and the Prophets state it is by faith, and not by following the Law, that a person is given the gift of righteousness and declared by God to be innocent of breaking the Law (Romans 1:17). This gift of righteousness is by grace and is received by faith in Jesus (Romans 3:10-24; 5:17).
Once receiving God’s gracious gift of righteousness through faith, a person is no longer under Law because the Law has done its work in the life of a person in convincing him of his sinfulness and selfishness (Romans 6:14). This person has been redeemed from the Law, which is what Jesus came to do...redeem people from the Law (Galatians 4:4-5). This person now lives by faith in Jesus who loved him and gave himself for him, and doesn’t live by following the Law (Galatians 2:20).
The Spirit of Jesus now indwells this person. As a result, the Spirit inside the heart of a person calls God “Abba Father”. This person no longer relates to God in fear as a judge under Law, but now relates to God as a Father in love under grace (Romans 8:14-16; Galatians 4:4-7). As a person walks in this love relationship with God under grace, the Spirit produces in his heart “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no Law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Those who are led by the Spirit under grace are not under the Law (Galatians 5:18). Again, they have been redeemed from the Law (Galatians 4:4-5). The Spirit never leads a person to obey the Law that Jesus redeemed him from. The Spirit leads a person to love.
The Spirit of Jesus in a person does something the Law could never do...give us a heart that can love. A person who has been given a new heart that can love doesn’t need a Law telling him how to live. That is what God told Moses in Deuteronomy 30:6. That he would put his Spirit in the hearts of people so they could love God and love people (see also Romans 2:29).
So what does all this mean?
Teachers of grace are consistently accused of being against the Law...of being lawless. Jesus was accused of this as well. I would say we are in good company. But just like Jesus, we know that the Law is good. And if used properly, it convinces those who are confident in their own righteousness that they are unrighteous and in need of God’s grace freely given to them in Jesus and received simply by faith.
Such was the case in Romans 7:7-25. In these verses, a person who was once assured of his righteousness in accordance to the Law, became very aware of his selfish and sinful condition through the Law, seeing his need for grace. The more he tried not to covet, commandment number ten, the more he coveted. The Law, then, exposed his sinful, selfish heart, convincing him of his need for grace and leading him to faith in Jesus for righteousness.
This is exactly how Jesus used the Law in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. To convince the religious elite, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, of their sinfulness and selfishness. Jesus didn’t go around telling the prostitutes and tax collectors to obey the Law. They already were convinced of their sinfulness and selfishness and need for grace. Rather, he used the Law to convince those who thought they were righteous, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, that they were sinful and selfish and in need of grace.
As new covenant of grace teachers, we, like Paul, have been made competent teachers of the new covenant of grace that brings salvation, not the old covenant of law that brings condemnation (2 Corinthians 3). The only time we would teach the Law would be to convince a self-righteous person he is selfish and sinful, and in need of God’s grace that has been freey and fully provided for him through Jesus and is simply received by faith.
Like Paul did in his missionary journeys and letters to the churches, we teach people about the new covenant of grace and a person’s identity in Jesus. We teach people who are members of the body of Jesus, the church, about the deep, life-changing truths of grace. We teach that the Law was abolished and cancelled in Christ for the believer, along with its rules and regulations (Ephesians 2:14-16, Colossians 2:13-14). We also teach on morality, but not in the form of Law, just as Paul taught on morality (Ephesians 4-5).
However, we do not teach believers to try to obey the Commandments of God, Ten Commandments or to follow any of the Law of Moses. We teach people to live under the new covenant of grace and to live by the Spirit from within, not by the law from without. It is by the Spirit that we put to death the sinful deeds of the body, not by trying to obey the Law (Romans 8:12-13).
So, did Jesus teach people to obey the Commandments of God, the Law of Moses, and the Ten Commandments? The answer is yes. But those whom he instructed to obey the Commandments and the Law were those who thought they acquired righteousness and achieved entrance into God’s kingdom through obedience to the Law. He did this to show them the Law required much more than external obedience, it required internal purity and love, which none of them had. He did this to convince them they were selfish and sinful, in need of God’s grace.
So should we teach people to obey the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments and the Commandments of God? It depends with whom we are speaking. If we are speaking to a self-righteous religious person who is convinced of his own righteousness acquired by his religious activity and morality or who is seeking to gain righteousness through his religious organization or denomination, then yes...teach him the Law for the purpose of convincing him of his sinful, selfish condition and need for grace. If we are speaking to someone who is already convinced of his selfishness and sinfulness, then no...teach that person about the grace of God that has been freely, fully, and forever given to us in Jesus and that is received simply by faith.
To read more on this topic in greater detail, see my book, The Story of Grace. Click below to view the book.