Should Christians Follow Old Testament Law?

Old Testament law

Columnists, pundits or journalists often dismiss Christians as inconsistent because “they pick and choose which of the rules in the Bible to obey.” The argument proceeds along these lines: “Christians ignore lots of Old Testament texts — about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath, not wearing garments woven with two kinds of material, and so on. Aren’t they just picking and choosing what they want to believe from the Bible?”

The root of the issue is a perceived inconsistency regarding rules mentioned in the Old Testament that are no longer practiced in the New Testament by the people of God. Most Christians don’t know how to respond when confronted about this, but the best place to start is often by describing the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Old Testament devotes a good amount of space to describing the various sacrifices that were to be offered in the tabernacle (and later the temple) to atone for sin so that worshipers could approach a holy God. That sacrificial system included a complex set of rules for ceremonial purity and cleanness — you could only approach God in worship if you ate certain foods, wore certain forms of clothing, refrained from touching certain objects, and so on. This code vividly conveyed, over and over, that human beings are spiritually unclean and cannot enter God’s presence without purification.

But even in the Old Testament, many passages indicate that the sacrifices and regulations of temple worship point ahead to something beyond them. This “something” was Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus ignored Old Testament regulations regarding purification; he touched lepers and dead bodies, and declared all foods “clean.”

The culmination of Jesus’ ministry made clear his reason for doing this. When he died on the cross, the curtain in the temple tore in two, demonstrating that the entire sacrificial system and its ceremonial laws had been done away with. It is Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice for sin, not the laws of the Old Testament, that makes us clean now.

Understanding Biblical Inconsistencies

The book of Hebrews explains that the Old Testament ceremonial laws were not so much abolished as fulfilled by Christ. Whenever we pray in Jesus’ name, we “have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). As a result, if Christians continued to practice the ceremonial laws, their actions would be deeply inconsistent with the teaching of the Bible as a whole.

The New Testament provides further guidance for reading and understanding the Old Testament. Paul makes clear that the apostles understood the Old Testament moral law to still be binding on us. In short, the coming of Christ changed how we worship, but not how we live. The moral law outlines God’s own character — his integrity, love and faithfulness. Old Testament commandments about loving our neighbor, caring for the poor, being generous with our possessions and being committed to family still apply. The New Testament continues to forbid killing and adultery, and the sexual ethic of the Old Testament is restated throughout the New Testament. If the New Testament reaffirms an Old Testament commandment, then it continues to have force for us today.

Once you grant the main premise of the Bible — the surpassing significance of Christ and his salvation — then all of the Bible’s various parts make sense. Because of Christ, the ceremonial law of the Old Testament is repealed. However, if you reject the idea that Jesus is God’s Son and our Savior, then the Bible may contain some insight and wisdom — but most of it would be rejected as foolish or erroneous.

Where Does this Leave Us?

There are only two possibilities: If Christ is God, then this way of reading the Bible makes sense and is perfectly consistent with its main premise. If Christ isn’t God, then one does not adopt the central proclamation of Christianity, nor can the Bible serve as a guide for much of anything. But the one thing that cannot be said is that Christians are inconsistent to accept the moral statements of the Old Testament while not practicing its ceremonial laws.

This article was adapted from Tim Keller’s article, “Old Testament Law and the Change of Inconsistency,” originally published in the Redeemer Report. It is found in the NIV Faithlife Illustrated Study Bible.

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