“…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
There are distinct meanings of law in the New Testament, but the first three meanings are of primary importance, and not simply because they have been a theological battleground from biblical times. For anyone who wants to know and do God’s will, it is of utmost importance to discover what that will is. Since both Jesus Christ and the apostles taught that some change had taken place in the relationship of God’s people to “the law,” we must be careful to discover exactly what that law is and what that change is.
All would agree that a change was long overdue from the damning idea that a person can gain acceptance with God through his own efforts. At least some elements of the Mosaic system of law were done away with in Christ’s sacrificial death and the institution of the church. But here agreement ends. Some hold that Paul makes no distinctions among laws and that the Christian is not obligated to any of the Mosaic law, including the moral law.
At this point it is important to emphasize that the New Testament uses the term law to refer to (1) the moral requirements of God, (2) the Mosaic system of regulations, and (3) the figurative use of the law referring to obedience to it.
Yet how do we define the law in the Old Testament? Since Moses, the great lawgiver, recorded the law in his writings, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was commonly called “the law” (Gal. 4:21). The Hebrew Bible was divided into three sections, commonly called the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (or the first of that section, the Psalms). Thus Christ spoke of “my words which I spoke unto you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Here the “law of Moses” clearly refers to the first division of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Pentateuch.
Sometimes the Old Testament was simply referred to by two divisions, the Law and the Prophets (ex. Matt. 11:13). Sometimes the term law actually refers to specific commandments such as the Ten Commandments. “We have a law” (John 19:7) is another example of a specific law in mind. When Paul speaks of fulfilling the law of Christ in Galatians 6:2 and when James speaks of the royal law (James 2:8), the reference is to the specific law of love. Again, when James speaks of keeping the whole law (James 2:10), he is speaking of specific laws, probably the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments.
Consider the law as an operating principle. Sometimes the New Testament uses the term law to mean a principle much as we would say the “law of gravity.” “The law of my mind” and “the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23, 25), “the law of the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:2), and “the principle of faith” (Rom. 3:27) are all examples of the term law being used as a synonym for “principle.”
Because law is used in many different ways and often with several meanings overlapping, it is important to be sure from the context which meaning was intended by the author. Otherwise we shall be applying a teaching concerning the law that does not actually apply. For example, if we speak of being free from the law and use this to refer to the moral law of God when in fact Scripture is referring to the condemnation resulting from the law (Rom. 8:1-2) or the Old Testament system of sacrifices, we are making a great error. For the time being, we will use the term law in its primary meaning: law as the expressed will of God that people be like him morally.
This ultimate standard for the Christian is not merely a code of ethics or system of doctrine or a subjective feel for what is right. The standard for the Christian is God himself (Matt. 5:48). This is exciting. It means that the foundation of our moral standard is not man, his wisdom, his fallen nature, his desires, his values, his traditions, nor his culture. These may be the foundation of man-made law, but not of the Christian standard of life. Since God himself is our standard, our standard is not relative, changing with each age or society. God’s law is absolute, perfect, unchanging, and eternal.
Since God himself is our standard, the standard is universal. The moral character of God as a standard applies to all men of all ages. This standard is personal, living, and visible rather than a dead code. It is not something that God imposes on us arbitrarily. It derives from his own nature.
This truth also means that God’s character is not derived from the moral structure of the universe. Some would hold that God behaves rightly and lovingly because he is obliged to do so by ultimate “natural” law. Rather, we say that righteousness and love are good because that is the way God is. We see these standards flowing out of the nature of our infinite, ultimate, personal God. Thus, God’s will for man is that we be like him. We were created in his moral likeness, reflecting the glory of his character. His purpose in redemption is to restore that image, which has been marred. How incredible!