Should Christians Practice the Old Testament Law?

Recently I was asked, “What parts of the Old Testament Law are (Christians) still to follow and what parts have been abolished?” Here is how I replied:

The short answer, as I have come to understand it, is that, if you could break down all of what could be considered “the Law” from the Old Testament into categories, while Jesus fulfills them all, we are to live them out in essence, not in practice. For example, the civil and ceremonial laws with all their sacrifices were forever fulfilled in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. So we don’t need to continue the practice of sacrificing bulls and goats. However, the essence of those laws was the reality of atonement, which Jesus fulfilled in his body and we are to live out by faith. The faith we have in Jesus is the same faith the Jews had in their sacrifices. It is faith in the fact that God looks upon atoning sacrifice and forgives sin and restores communion. Jesus’ was the ultimate sacrifice that all previous sacrifices pointed to. He is the true propitiation for our sins, and by faith we live in that reality. Furthermore, the moral laws of the Old Testament, namely, the Ten Commandments, were never invalidated by Jesus. They are more than just some arbitrary set of rules picked out of thin air to make people act a certain way. They reveal the character of God and create the parameters for a meaningful, proper, and blessed way of living life. Jesus never abolished the Ten Commandments. Instead he summarized them in the Great Commandment: Love for God and one another.

So, as a general rule of thumb, Jesus fulfills and therefore “abolishes” the old ceremonial practices of the law, and we are called to live out the moral essence of the law. In sum: Jesus “abolishes” the civil and ceremonial practices, and consolidates the moral. Make sense?

Let me add one more thing on this topic of “abolishment.” Read the following words of John Zizoulas – a Greek Orthodox bishop, and my favorite author – on this topic,:

Nothing was created perfect from the beginning. Everything, including especially the human being, was meant to grow into perfection; their truth lay in the end, not in the beginning. The Old Testament Law was not evil. It was good, yet only in so far as it led to the future things of which it was a foretaste and a preparation. The arrival of the future for which the past things of the Law existed brought about their ‘abolishment’. But this ‘abolishment’ was no annihilation; it was rather confirmation and affirmation, since the truth of these past things, their ultimate being, their ‘ontology’, we might say, consisted in the future from which they drew their meaning. With the arrival of Christ, the Old Testament Law fulfilled itself: this is the meaning of its abolishment…The Greek Fathers describe the Old Testament as shadows of the things to come, attaching reality to what follows, not to what precedes in historical events.

I don’t know about you, but I find that terribly helpful.

For further reading on how the Old and New Testaments relate, see my article “The Unity of Scripture” at the bottom of my academic portfolio page. It doesn’t deal exactly with this specific topic, but rather the issue of how to theologically unify the OT and NT as a whole. Consider it side reading if you are interested.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *