The earliest threat to the unity of the church was teaching about the believer’s obligation to the Old Testament law. As the gospel spread out from Jerusalem, more and more Gentiles began to believe and come into the church. Some Jews taught that the believing Gentiles had to keep the law to truly be saved. The apostle Paul and others began to argue strongly against this teaching. As a result, a council was convened in Jerusalem to discuss this question.
Acts 15 summarizes the discussion. Four men spake. Paul and Barnabas then told of how they had taken the gospel to Gentiles in Asia Minor and how God had blessed their ministry. James spoke of how God had foretold the conversion of the Gentiles. The plan to save Gentiles was God’s plan all along. Peter told of how he had first taken to the gospel to the Gentiles of Cornelius’ household. Those Gentiles were saved by faith while Peter was preaching. They received the Holy Spirit without doing anything instructed in the Mosaic Law. The conclusion of the council was that the law is unnecessary for salvation and that Gentiles are under no obligation to keep the law of Moses.
The question of the believers obligation to the law did not go away. The question is addressed in the book of Galatians. The simple, clear answer given in that book is “no.” If salvation begins by faith and the Holy Spirit is received by faith without the keeping of the law, then how could keeping the law be necessary for the Christian life? Salvation and sanctification are accomplished without the keeping of the law. (Galatians 3:1-3)
The New Testament is clear that the law has been done away with by Jesus. First, the law is a unit. If a person is under obligation to keep one part of the law, then he is obligated to keep all the law. (Galatians 3:10, 12) The separating out of the law into civil and ceremonial portions is not a valid division. If one part of the law is done away with, then all the law is done away with. The book of Hebrews makes a strong argument that the priesthood formed by the law of Moses was changed by Jesus. (Hebrews 7) The sacrifice of Jesus took away the sacrifices under Moses’ law. (Hebrews 10) Since the law is a single unit, the doing away of the priesthood and the sacrifices means the entire Mosaic Law has been done away with. Second, the law has been abolished by Christ. (2 Corinthians 3:7-11) Hebrews 7 says the Mosaic law was put away because it could not save. In Hebrews 8 we are told that the Old Covenant under the law of Moses was replaced with a New Covenant in Christ. The New Testament could not be more clear. The law has been done away with by Jesus. “There is a truly a setting aside of the former commandment.” (Hebrews 7:18) The Old Testament law is abolished by Jesus. No one, not even the Jews, are now required to keep the law of Moses because it’s purposes have been fulfilled in Jesus.
Does this mean Christians are not under any law at all? Of course not. The Christian is under Christ’s law. His commandment is simple, “love one another.” (John 13:34) The command to love one another is explained in Romans 13 and James 2 as a keeping of the last six of the ten commandments. Galatians 5 and 1 John 3 describe loving one another as selfless, Spirit-filled living that ministers to those in need. The Christian is under a law. The law of Christ is not the law of Moses but it does shares some commands in common with the Mosaic law. Though there is similarity between the two laws, the Christian must not imagine he is obligated to keep the Mosaic law. The Christian is under obligation to a great law, the law to love God supremely and to love others sacrificially.
No Israelite was ever saved by keeping the law of Moses. No obedience could make them righteous before God. (Romans 3:20) Since the law could not save, why did God give the law to Israel? Speculations abound about the purpose for the law, but speculation is not necessary. The Bible gives several specific reasons why the law was given.
God told the Israelites the law was to protect them from idolatry. (Deuteronomy 4:9-14) The nations in Canaan and the nations surrounding Canaan worshiped many false gods. The law served to remind Israel their God is the only true God. The law reminded them of the mighty miracles God performed when He delivered them from Egypt and brought them into the promised land. The law was given so Israel would only worship Jehovah and so Israel would remain confident in Him. (Psalm 78:5-7)
The law was given to set the Israelites apart from the Canaanites and other pagan nations. The Israelites were set apart from all the rest of the world by God. Through the keeping of the law the Israelites secured their position as a “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” to the Lord. (Exodus 19:6) This unique status was reflected in their keeping of the law. Because God is holy, He gave the law to His people to teach them to be holy as well. (Leviticus 20:7-8) Because Israel was set apart for God the law was given to keep them set apart.
God gave the law to convict men of sin. (Romans 3:19; Galatians 3:22) The law makes clear that no man can meet the standard of God’s of perfect righteousness. Because of the law no person has any excuse before God. Everyone is guilty. “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10)
The conviction of the law goes hand in hand with the Christ oriented purpose of the law. The law was given as a teacher to drive people to Jesus. (Galatians 3:25) By showing the impossibility of perfect obedience, the law points sinners to the only One who can make the unrighteous righteous. The law does not save, but the law points humanity to the salvation that is only possible by faith in Jesus. This has been the law’s purpose since it was first given. Before Jesus was born the law pointed men to the promised Christ. The many sacrifices of the law were a constant reminder to the Israelites that death is the wages of sin and a constant reminder of the promise of God to send a deliverer who would suffer the wages of sin in their place.
The law was a wonderful gift given to the Israelites. Those who believed God could say, with David, “Oh how I love thy law.” The restrictions and requirements seem severe to modern readers, yet each command was given by God for a good purpose.
No Christian in the world follows all the laws given in the Old Testament. No Christian even attempts to follow all the Old Testament commands. Regardless of how a person views his obligation towards the Old Testament, the keeping of the laws regarding temple worship and sacrifice is impossible in this present day. Very few Christians are concerned about their inability to offer a burnt offering in the temple. Very few Christians attempt to keep other commands. Most Christians are not concerned if their garments contain fibers from different kinds of materials or if the meat they are eating falls into the category of “clean”.
Why Christians do not keep all the Mosaic law? The typical answer given to this question breaks into three categories the laws given to Israel at Mt. Sinai. Ceremonial laws were those which governed the worship of the Israelites. Civil laws were those given to govern the operations of Israel as a nation and her people as citizens. Moral laws were those laws which summarize God’s universal standards of right and wrong (the ten commandments are usually cited as an example of the moral law). The common explanation asserts the ceremonial laws are fulfilled in Jesus, and thus are no longer needed. The civil law is no longer needed because God does not at this time have a self-governing nation as His people on earth. The moral law is the only portion of the Mosaic law which is still binding on people today.
This author prefers a simpler view to the classic one given above. The Christian is under no obligation to obey the law of Moses because Jesus has fulfilled the law of Moses and because the church is not Israel. The law given to Israel was intended for that nation from the time of Moses until the time they finally and fully rejected their Messiah. The law given to Israel was always limited in its scope, purpose and duration. Christians today are under obligation to keep the commands given to believers in the New Testament. Christians have no responsibility to observe a Sabbath because that law was in no way repeated to the church. Instead, Christians are under obligation to do something that is not found at all in the Old Testament- gather together every Sunday with other Christians. When the New Testament repeats an Old Testament command Christians are bound to obey it, but asking Christians why they do not follow all the Old Testament laws is a bit like asking an East Berliner why he doesn’t follow all the laws of Communist Germany.
This does not mean the New Testament Christian disregards the Old Testament. Some of the laws given in the New Testament are summations of Old Testament laws. For example, the New Testament forbids immorality but does not describe what that is. To understand what God defines as immoral sexual behavior one has to read the Old Testament. The Old Testament also gives the historic and moral foundation on which New Testament commands are based. When Jesus was asked about divorce, he pointed to the events of creation recorded in Genesis 1-3. The Christian does not scorn the Old Testament but reads and studies it to learn the character of His God and the nature of the requirements God places on His people.
Because God’s character does not change one would expect significant overlap between the commands given to Israel and the commands given to the church. One would expect similarity between the Law and New Testament commands. One would expect the same basic principles to be at the foundation of God’s commands to His people. One would expect certain unalterable, moral laws to be universally applied to all men. This is exactly what we find when comparing the laws of the Old and New Testament. Christians don’t follow the commands of the Old Testament because God has given in the New Testament the commands which He expects believers of this age to obey.
Before answering this question, a little explanation is in order. The Sabbath was a special day set aside as holy to God. Sabbath laws are spelled out in the Old Testament as part of the law God gave to the nation of Israel. On the Sabbaths, Jews were not allowed to do any work. The worship at the temple filled a big part of the day and the rest of the day was not free for the Jews to use however they wanted. The entire day was to be set apart to God. Sabbath days were of two kinds, the seven holy days set apart through the year- such as the Day of Atonement, Passover and Penecost- and the weekly Sabbath.
When someone talks about a responsibility to keep the Sabbath, usually he is referring to observing the weekly Sabbath. In the Bible the weekly Sabbath was always on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This was in accord with God’s commands and reflected God’s cessation of labor after the six days of creation. In the church today many people view Sunday as a kind of Christian sabbath. Whatever the specific details of a person’s view of the proper sabbath day, the answer to the question “do I have to keep the Sabbath to be saved”, is still the same.
Sabbath keeping was not and is not necessary for salvation. The Sabbath has no relationship to salvation. This is because salvation is accomplished completely by Jesus and received by faith apart from any individual effort to secure salvation. The Bible is very clear on this point. Salvation is only by faith without any work or merit on the part of the person being save. If one believes he is saved because of faith and Jesus and personal obedience, that one is not saved. (Romans 3:28) God does not grant salvation to one who trusts Jesus and himself. God only saves those who turn away from all other means of salvation to trust only in Jesus. A person does not have to be baptized to be saved. A person does not have to take communion to be saved. A person does not have to accept the eucharist to be saved. A person does not have to attend church to be saved. A person does not have to attend mass to be saved. A person does not have to keep the Sabbath to be saved.
Some will respond that they are not teaching Sabbath keeping as necessary to get saved but keeping the Sabbath is necessary to remain saved or to show the genuineness of salvation. Again, this has no Biblical foundation. The Bible declares that salvation is accomplished and kept by Jesus. At least two entire books of the Bible, Galatians and Colossians, are written to correct the false teaching that something other than Jesus is needed to for salvation or to keep one saved. Believers are asked a piercing question in Galatians 3:3, “Having begun in the Spirit, are ye made perfect in the flesh?” Since salvation is a work of God, can a man bring God’s work to completion? Certainly not. Instead, the Christian and his salvation is complete in Jesus who is fully and perfectly God. (Colossians 2:9-10) Salvation is received by faith in Jesus. Salvation is the gift of God and is never granted for deeds done or service rendered. Either Jesus did and does everything necessary for salvation, or salvation is not of grace but of works.