“Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy,
and just, and good.” (Rom. 7:12)
The Church of the New Testament was born in the cradle of Judaism with all of its rituals and ceremonies. As a result, the time came when conflict arose regarding the meaning of the symbols of faith. For centuries conservative Jews were taught to honor the Law of Moses, and observe all of the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil codexs of the Law.
To make certain that this was done. the Jewish Rabbis counted and categorized the Law. In their final analysis, it was concluded that there were 613 precepts and prohibitions which fell into two classifications. There were Mandatory Laws, of which there are 218. These were divided into 18 sections. There were Prohibition Laws, of which there 365. These were divided into 13 sections.
Because the Law of Moses was the central document that held the Jewish society together, because the Law regulated every facet of life to the smallest detail, it was both a blessing, and a burden. The Law was a blessing, for it brought stability to society, and allowed a sense of continuity from one generation to the next. But the Law was a burden, in that it demanded strict obedience with harsh penalties for its violation.
Nevertheless, for the most part, the people of Palestine learned to adjust to the Law. They honored the Law with their lips, if not always with their lives.
In principle, the people held a fundamental respect for the Law, much the same way that people today hold a fundamental respect for the Constitution of the United States with their lips, though comparatively few have ever bothered to read the Law of the Land through completely.
Because of a fundamental respect for the Law of Moses, because they believed that God Himself gave the Law, because the Law brought stability to society, the members of the Sanhedrian were alarmed, and horrified when they discovered that members of Jewish society were being taught, by other Jews, that the Law was no longer valid as a way of life.
Perhaps a modern day analogy might be the reaction our Congressmen would have, along with millions of others, if they woke up one morning to the news that the Constitution was no longer the Law of the Land. The potential would be present for social anarchy, not to mention loss of political power and prestige.
Many of the Jewish rulers, two thousand years ago, awoke one morning to hear that their whole way of life was being overthrown, and they wanted to know what was going on. If the Law of Moses was no longer valid, what New Law was valid? If the Moral, Ceremonial, and Civil Laws of Society were being honored, what would take their place? If the Sanhedrin were no longer the best, and the brightest religious and political leaders of the land, who were?
When members of the Sanhedrian were told that the nation should follow after a crucified Carpenter, and His Disciples, one of which was a despised tax collector, it was just too much. An immediate and intense persecution against the Christian community was launched. The name of Christ, and the followers of Christ had to be destroyed. There was a crisis in the land of Canaan.
To complicate matters, there was a crisis in Christendom itself ,for not all those that came to faith in Christ understood all of the implications that such faith entailed. In particular, there was still the question of the Law of Moses that dominated society. Three responses emerged.
Some people turned away from the gospel so that the religious ceremonies could continue, and the civil law, and social laws of Jewish society could be enforced.
Others embraced the gospel and immediately abandoned any keeping of the Law of Moses. There was a great appreciation for the freedom the gospel message brought from observing the rules and regulations imposed by the Law. Within the Gentile community, acceptance of the gospel was easy enough to do, for there were no emotional, or cultural ties to the Mosaic Law.
A third response to the developing situation between the history of society and the new message of the Messiah, was a compromise between Law and Grace. Those in the Jewish community were inclined to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior, but then they tried to keep certain portions of the Law. One clear example of the attempt to embrace the principles of Christianity while maintaining the practices of Judaism, is reflected in the situation in Galatia.
The term Galatia was used in an ethnic sense, referring to those Gauls who had settled in north central Asia Minor. During his second missionary journey, Paul had established churches in the region of Galatia. But the term Galatia was also used in a political, and geographical sense referring to the Roman province that included such cities as Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch.
It is unclear to which region Paul was writing, either those in the north, or those in the south. On one level, it does not matter for the problem was more or less universal in the Jewish community. Those who came to Christ had to consider their relationship to the Law. As the epistle unfolds, Paul commends the believers to whom he writes because they had made progress in the Christian life, and were doing well spiritually. But he was alarmed to learn that some Jewish teachers, called Judaizers, had taught them that they must also obey the Law of Moses, and continue to perform the rite of circumcision, which was the sign of the covenant people in the Old Testament.
The apostle asked, “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3) And then he chides them for not obeying the gospel principles. “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Gal. 5:7) Because of a compromise position between the Law of Moses, and the grace of the gospel, neither the Law was being fully honored, nor grace. The end result of an inconsistent doctrine was detrimental. Gospel obedience was being hindered. (Gal. 5:7)
Because some parts of the Law were observed (Gal. 4:10), renewed consideration was being given to returning to the whole. “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:” (Gal. 1:6) “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?” (Gal. 4:9).
Paul’s purpose in writing was to arrest the false teaching of the Judaizers, and to expose their impure motives of being authoritative, so that they would not have to suffer for the cause of Christ. “As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. 13 For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.” (Gal. 6:12, 13)
Paul does not want his converts to go back under a system of rules and regulations that no longer served the purpose for which they were designed, nor did he want the believers to inter into a state of legalism. To set forth the doctrine of justification by God’s grace through faith, Paul wrote this epistle.
It would be nice if the story ended with the Galatians refusing to go back under the Law of Moses and casting out the Judaizers, which is probably what happened. But the old controversy will not go away, because there is a part of the Mosaic Law, which confuses Christians to this very day, and that is the Moral Codex summarized in the Ten Commandments.
Today, few Christians would concede that the Church should observe the civil and ceremonial codexs of the Mosaic Law. I am careful to say that “few Christians” believe these things, because there are some that are advocating this very thing.
Those in the Reconstruction Movement seem to be teaching that the Law of Moses is still a valid way to regulate society. In fact, the argument goes, if the principles and practices of the Law of Moses were revived, and applied to society, the Kingdom of God would prevail upon the earth. It is a tempting proposition to embrace.
There are others known as Messianic Jews. These are usually racial Jews who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but they want to keep their Jewish heritage. They believe that the Church, including Gentiles, should join them in celebrating the ancient Jewish festivals, but with the new understanding of how the special days relate to Christ.
While these movements are questionable, there are still two other factions in the church that must be dealt with, for they are fiercely debating, not the Civil Laws (as the Reconstructionist), nor the Ceremonial Laws (as the Messianic congregations), but the place of the Moral Law.
As has been noted, this is an old debate. First Paul argued with the Judiazers, and then Catholics and Protestants argued over the place of the Moral Law in the Church, and then the Reformers argued with each other. The discussion is just as heated as ever, for nothing has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
Like any debate, there is a lot of name calling that goes on, and some rather extreme statements made, on both sides in order to press a point. Because positions are staked out, and name-calling becomes personal, it is easy for those who believe so much alike to separate in anger, because they begin to talk past one another. After a while, it seems that no one is listening, and people are hearing only what they want to hear, and not what is being said.
The names that have come to represent the two major factions over the place of the law are Anti-nomianism and Legalism. In other words, those who believe that the Moral Law of God summarized in the Ten Commandments is still binding on the Church today, are called legalist by their opponents.
Not to be outdone, the Legalist (so called) accuse their opponents of being Anti-nomian, which means literally, Against the Law, or Lawless.
Personally, as I have listened to those on both sides of this religious debate present their arguments, I am saddened at the rhetoric which is often so close, at times, as to be indistinguishable. And I am grieved that so many good people can talk past one another, for the Anti-nomian is usually not a true Anti-nomian, and the Legalist is not a true Legalist. But the rhetoric is hard to over come once the name-calling begins.
If someone were to ask me if I believed the Ten Commandments are morally binding on Christians today, and I said, “Yes,” I would not want to be accused of being a legalist. In like manner, if I asked someone if they did believe the Ten Commandments were not binding on men today, they would not want to be accused of being “Anti-nomian” or “Lawless.”
There is a way out of the dilemma between Law and Grace. May the Lord help us to discover that way out. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)