If you asked most people outside of the church what Christianity is about, chances are they’d point you to rule keeping. I’ve heard it over and over again: “Christianity? It’s about being a good person, and loving your neighbor.” Or “It’s about following Jesus, living like Jesus!”
We shouldn’t be surprised that the average non-Christian assumes this about Christianity. The fact is, many of us within the church were raised to believe this. After all, the Bible is filled with laws. Commandments that tell us how to live, and what not to do. Even Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the Law (Matt. 5:17), so it has got to be important, right?
The laws in Scripture are a beautiful reflection of the holy God we worship. I have found however that many believers are confused about the role of the rules – especially those Old Testament laws we find in places like Leviticus, that seem so foreign to us. The hundreds of exhortations in Scripture might lead one to believe that Christianity is a religion of moralism, but it isn’t. Let me try and summarize the three types of laws found in the Bible, and show how ultimately, they lead us to Jesus.
In the Bible, we find what's sometimes referred to as the Moral Law. This Law is summarized in the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:1-17), but it's also written on our hearts (Rom. 2:15). All of us have an innate sense of right and wrong. This "natural knowledge" of justice was expounded upon by C.S. Lewis, "…human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it…" Lewis goes on to describe how we're also masters at breaking this Law (Mere Christianity ch.1).
We know the Law is good, and our conscience testifies to us about right and wrong, but we still inevitably do things contrary to the Moral Law. This Law, according to Jesus, is ultimately fulfilled in the command to love God, and our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40). According to the Bible, all of us have fallen short of God’s Moral Law (Js. 2:10), and only Jesus, the blameless Son of God, perfectly loved the Father, and his neighbors (Heb. 4:15).
As God ruled over the people he rescued out of Egypt, he also gave them other laws, sometimes called the Civil Laws, through which he governed the nation of Israel as a political body. In the Old Testament, the “Church” and the “State” were one entity. As such, God gave Israel special laws that pertained to her existence as a religious nation. These laws don’t apply today in the same way they did for Israel, because God is governing his kingdom on earth (the Church) distinctly from how he governed the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant.
For example, under the Old Covenant civil law of Israel, blasphemers and adulterers were executed (Lev. 20:10; 24:16). In the New Covenant, within the church, blasphemers and adulterers who are unrepentant aren't executed but excommunicated (See Matthew 18:15-17; and 1 Corinthians 5:5). We might gather general principles of wisdom from the Civil Law in the Old Testament, but we aren't bound to it as the Hebrews were. When our Lord was put to death, it was under the charge of blasphemy (Mk. 14:61-64). Ironically, the greatest punishment the civil law could give was meted out to the only perfect law-keeper to ever walk the earth.
Another category of law which we find in the Old Testament is the Ceremonial Law. These are the religious laws of Israel associated with the temple sacrifices and calendar of worship. God gave elaborate descriptions of how he was to be worshipped in the tabernacle (and later in the temple) in books like Exodus and Leviticus. The sacrificial system, with its priests and offerings, was given to Israel to depict in types and shadows the hope of the gospel. We might call these laws typological, then, as they point forward to Jesus and his heavenly kingdom. These ceremonial laws were like signposts that pointed to Jesus, and they were abrogated when he arrived accomplishing salvation once and for all. Insofar as Jesus is recognized as the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29) or the true Temple (Jn. 2:18-22), he is being identified as the terminus of the ceremonial law.
Now, it’s important to note that these three types of law are imperfect. When you read the Old Testament, it’s clear that there’s some overlap between these categories. Sometimes ceremonial and civil laws would blend, for example, so that it’s difficult to fit every law into a neat category. That being said, these three distinctions give us a helpful summary of how God has used “law” throughout redemptive history. Some commandments, like those of the Moral Law, endure for all time and are binding even upon believers today.
Other commandments, like those associated with the temple worship or the political theocracy of Israel, don’t and can’t apply today in the same way. Nevertheless, all of these laws in some way help lead us to Jesus. Christianity isn’t about getting to heaven through our good behavior (law keeping). The Christian faith is the revelation that Jesus has ripped heaven open by coming down to us, and taking the curse of the law in our place (Gal. 3:13). Christianity isn’t a religion of rule-keeping, but a religion of love. Love for the God who lifted us up when we had broken his law by carrying the burden of perfection on himself. Accepted in Christ, we get to follow God’s Law from a place of deep gratitude rather than fear of rejection.