There's a new comedy show taking America by storm.
CBS aired the first episode of Living Biblically last week. The sitcom is based on a best-selling book called The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. This book was written by Arthur Jacob - a journalist who attempted to obey as many commands as he could possibly find in the Bible.
Watching someone attempt to keep Old Testament laws about food and tents might make for amusing television, but there isn’t a Christian in the world who thinks they need to obey every command in the Bible!
If you read Leviticus and Deuteronomy especially, you’ll quickly conclude you definitely don’t obey them all. Check your clothes, for example. Are they mixed fibres? Then according to Deuteronomy 22:11, you are disobeying the law! Enjoy a bacon sandwich? Such meals are supposed to be off the menu, aren't they? (Leviticus 11:7)
Those who attack Christianity, often use this point as a stick to beat us with! We’re accused of inconsistency. For example, I believe the Bible teaches that any sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong. Critics argue that since I eat bacon and wear mixed cotton shirts, then I’m being selective in my reading of the Bible and ‘picking and choosing’ which laws I do and don’t obey.
But contrary to what atheists often assume, there are good theological and biblical reasons why Christians don’t obey all of God’s laws. We are not guilty of arbitrarily picking and choosing from God’s word.
Here, in a nutshell, is why Christians don’t obey all of the Bible.
Different types of law
The first thing we need to understand is that not all laws are the same. When theologians went to examine these laws, over time, three categories emerged. Not everyone accepts them, but I’ve yet to find better and while they are not perfect, they are still helpful. These are: Moral laws, civil laws and ceremonial laws.
Moral laws set down in absolute, objective terms the rules for our relationship to God and to others. They also help us understand what constitutes sin, because as the Apostle John says, sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). So the Ten Commandments are a unique summary of what is universally right and wrong. Strikingly, unlike other laws the Ten Commandments were written on two tablets of stone, which is suggestive of permanence.
Civil laws are to do with justice. They governed the politics of Israel as a nation-state with God as its king. The ceremonial laws relate to sacrifices and the Old Testament Priesthood. They revealed how God’s people were to worship him in the days before Jesus came. These included food laws and instructions for ritual purity and festivals.
The ceremonial and civil laws, while containing helpful principles nevertheless were temporary and non-binding. The moral law, which codifies what has always been right and wrong is binding and therefore with God’s help I seek to obey it.
Jesus and the law
But there’s more to say about why some laws pass away. Today, we are no longer in the same era in terms of how God deals with humanity. A great and awesome change has taken place. This change can be summed up in two words: Jesus Christ. If I am to understand the law of God, this much I must grasp: the law now comes through Jesus (Galatians 6:2).
Jesus has ushered in an age of freedom! We are not required to observe religious festivals or feasts or limit our diet to certain foods (Colossians 2:16-17). The old ceremonial laws regulated a system of worship that is inferior to the age of spiritual worship ushered in by Jesus Christ. The old way of worship has been fulfilled in Christ.
And if God no longer deals with just one nation, then you can see why I would reject the civil laws, too. They were political laws for the nation of Israel. They were designed to accomplish a specific purpose – to set Israel apart as God’s people, distinct from all other nations. But in Jesus Christ, such laws have been fulfilled and their purpose made redundant. The New Testament church is not a national, geographical state. Now, your membership of God’s Kingdom is not based almost exclusively on your ethnicity, but solely on your relationship to Jesus Christ.
What makes the moral laws different (summarised in the Ten Commandments) is that they were not limited to the nation of Israel alone. It has always been wrong to have idols. It has always been wrong to murder, covet, and steal and so on. And it still is wrong. The moral law expresses the very character of God and he does not change. The same is not true in the same way for the ceremonial and civil laws.
Not under law
As a Christian I am not under law, but under grace. Crucially, my entire relationship to the law has changed for the better. It is not a means of getting right with God. Through Jesus the law has lost its power to condemn me. I am saved through Jesus and through faith in him alone.
Moreover, in his grace to me, God has re-written his moral law on my new heart so now, as a Spirit-led believer I am able to fulfill the law in love (Romans 13:8-10).
To try and keep the law to be right with God will end in disaster and frustration. Jesus Christ is the answer. Thanks to him, I don’t have to earn a salvation that is unreachable. So day by day, I keep looking to Jesus, repenting of my sin and failures, yet finding joy and hope in his grace, his help and his power which helps me to live an obedient life.
James Mildred co-hosts the Holy Political Podcast