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Question from a Christian About Law and Grace

A member of the Christian Apologetics Alliance recently asked:

Question: In the old testament God outlines an entire list of dos and do nots for the Jews to follow. Among them is dietary regulation (Kosher food=♥).

In the New Testament Christ says,”until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

Does that include dietary restrictions? Paul suggests in 1 Corintians 8, “But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. ” And Christ Himself says, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’

So my question is thus, if Christ said that not a letter of the law would be removed until heaven and earth disappear and everything is accomplished but says also that what we eat doesn’t necessarily matter because it can’t make us unclean, is he contradicting Himself since in Leviticus 11 God dictates what Israelites were and weren’t suppose to eat?

I’ve heard this objection from 1000 different atheists, worded exactly the way this girl just framed it.  What most people fail to take away from Matthew 5:17-20 is one little snippet in v. 18, which qualifies the otherwise sweeping statement of nothing in the Law will pass away “until all is fulfilled.”  So, what is the fulfillment of the Law?  Christ himself.

Christ fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law, so that means that we don’t have to.  We now live by faith, not by works of Law.  Which means the short answer to this inquiry is, “No, we’re not held to dietary restrictions.”

The long answer is a matter of context.  The historical context of Leviticus is a code of priestly conduct for the Aaronic priesthood.  The letter to the Hebrews explains that Christ’s high priesthood is a heavenly fulfillment of that former priesthood–the Aaronic priesthood was a mere shadow of the heavenly intervention of Christ for his people.  Hebrews 7-9 explains this idea more fully.

The historical context of Deuteronomy was a suzerainty treaty between God and the nation of Israel.  When Israel ceased to be, and the final remnants of the southern kingdom of Judah was obliterated by the Babylonians, Deuteronomy lost its force.  At the end of the day, these things have no bearing on us as Christians and we are free to disregard them.

But should we?  Yes and no.  If we try to live by the Law, we must live by every single dot and stroke of the pen, otherwise we become guilty of all of it (see Jms 2:10).  That’s pretty oppressive, but it is true.  Despite the contention of those in the Pelagian (and semi-Pelagian) camp, it is not possible to fully abide by the Law.  If it were, we wouldn’t need Christ.

So what’s the Law good for, then?  Instruction (Rom 15:4; cf. 2 Tim 3:16-17).  Instead of attempting to rigidly adhere to every letter of the Law, we live by the Spirit of the Law (2 Cor 3:6; cf. Rom 2:25-29).

What this means is that we read the Law to extract its godly principles, not to try to duplicate all of the behaviors prescribed in it.  To this end, realize that the Law is divided into three general categories–the ceremonial and dietary laws, the cultural norms of the day, and universal moral principles.

The ceremonial and dietary laws we need not pay attention to those anymore (see Acts 10).  Jesus has declared that everything is clean; what defiles us is not what we take in, but what comes out (Mt 15:10-20).  Rather than just being good in our minds, inwardly, because we rigidly follow a prescribed set of regulations, Jesus wanted our actions, outwardly, to be reflective of that inward moral character.  Why else would Jesus’ brother challenge us to bridle our tongue (Jms 3:1-12)?

The cultural norms, on the other hand, can yield godly principles without being strictly obeyed.  For example, who would put a railing around their roof (Deut 22:8)?  No one!  Though a balcony should have that railing in place.  Why?  In the time of the Exodus, people’s roofs were used as another room.  They slept up there.  They entertained up there.  So, as a result, the railing makes a lot of sense.  The modern balcony would be an analogous structure to that ancient roof, so we put railings around all balconies in fulfillment of this Law.

The universal moral principles speak for themselves.  They are universal, which means they are still in force today.  It’s still wrong to steal, murder, cheat on spouses, and lie.

I hope this lays the issue to rest.  I know it’s a tricky area even for Christians, because it is tempting to throw the whole Law away since we’re saved entirely by grace apart from works of Law.  But that’s not good; while we can’t attain justification through works, we are still exhorted to live in a manner worthy of the calling we have received (Eph 4:1; Phil 1:27; Col 1:10; 1 The 2:12; and cf. 2 Pet 1:3-11).  Good works complete and supplement our faith (Jms 2:14-26), and as I like to say, our works make our faith more real.

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About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on June 9, 2011, in Apologetics, God, Morality, Religion, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Sorry to barge in here as well, but you say “So, what is the fulfillment of the Law? Christ himself.”

    Hang on a minute. “until heaven and earth disappear” is equally important here, and most people read that quite clearly as a reference to the second coming (fitting nicely with the apocalyptic context of the cult of Jesus) because it isn’t until then everything is accomplished (the resurrection being just one stage in a multi-step program). The law may still apply until then, and this has been a Christian doctrinal argument through all of Christian doctrinal history which you shouldn’t conveniently leave out, and indeed of much heretical dispute and murder.

    • Let’s break this down: Matthew 5:17 says that Christ has come to fulfill these things (that is, the Law). Continuing, then, to read “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (v. 18). Plainly read, the Law stands until heaven and earth pass away, but it is all superseded when “all is accomplished,” which is defined by v. 17.

      Matthew Henry comments:

      Let none suppose that Christ allows his people to trifle with any commands of God’s holy law. No sinner partakes of Christ’s justifying righteousness, till he repents of his evil deeds. The mercy revealed in the gospel leads the believer to still deeper self-abhorrence. The law is the Christian’s rule of duty, and he delights therein. If a man, pretending to be Christ’s disciple, encourages himself in any allowed disobedience to the holy law of God, or teaches others to do the same, whatever his station or reputation among men may be, he can be no true disciple. Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us by faith alone, is needed by every one that enters the kingdom of grace or of glory; but the new creation of the heart to holiness, produces a thorough change in a man’s temper and conduct.

      Wesley wrote:

      I am not come to destroy — The moral law, but to fulfil – To establish, illustrate, and explain its highest meaning, both by my life and doctrine.

      Till all things shall be effected — Which it either requires or foretells. For the law has its effect, when the rewards are given, and the punishments annexed to it inflicted, as well as when its precepts are obeyed. Luke 16:17; 21:33.

      I’m not just picking and choosing those commentaries which help me, by the way. These were the first two I found by Google (that were actual commentaries and not someone’s blog).

      I checked my Nelson’s Compact Bible Commentary, but it makes no comment either way except to note that Jesus affirming the Law in these verses is the strongest internal testimony of inerrancy.

      So why the unity against you here? Because you’re looking at one verse of the Bible that could be taken the way you say, or the way I say, and you aren’t reading it with the rest of the Bible, which is abundantly clear that Christ has fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law so that we don’t have to. There are dozens of verses to that effect, and that illuminates this verse, indicating that the interpretation I have given is correct. You can’t interpret isolated verses in a vacuum (2 Pet 1:20).

  2. The tidy answer is, I think, those laws that Christ explicitly confirms in the Gospel – like the decalogue are still in force.
    In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus directly refutes and/or expands commandments of the old covenant. The dietary laws are, elsewhere, also explicitly refuted – it is what comes out of a man that is unclean….

    I might be a bit slow of the bat, Cory, but I’m still reflecting on what it was like to be brought up by 2 Atheists as a kid! Love to Mrs Cory and the family

  3. “Despite the contention of those in the Pelagian (and semi-Pelagian) camp, it is not possible to fully abide by the Law.”

    The same Paul from which you get this idea, nonetheless says that before his conversion to Christianity, he was “blameless as regards the righteousness of the law.” (Phil 3:6) The same apostle who says the law is impossible to keep due to a “law of sin in his members” that makes it to where he “cannot do the good he wants” nonetheless claims to have kept the law blamelessly in another passage. From this, we see that Paul is somewhat schitzophrenic or forgetful, and cannot keep his doctrine straight. Relying on him for correct doctrine about justification is like relying on childmolestor to babysit your kids.

    • OR, we see that you don’t understand Ancient Near Eastern hyperbolic language. That you don’t understand something, based on your prior performance here and on your “blog” is a far more likely scenario than Paul being schizophrenic.

      I thought we’d seen the last of you. I hope you enjoyed your hiatus. I certainly did.

      You begin on notice. If you derail a thread into your own personal theology, which is clearly regurgitated Marcionism, I will delete your comments very, very quickly. I’m not letting arguments with you occupy center stage here again. You are not worth it. So consider yourself warned.

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