Is the New Testament A Book of Law?

By Dan Walters

Certain brethren have defended the concept of unity-in-diversity by claiming that the written Word should not be approached as a legal document. Some have said that the New Testament is a book of principle, not a book of law. It is true that the New Testament stands in contrast to the law, that legal system given by Moses. It is also true that our salvation does not rest upon perfect obedience to law; we are not saved by meritorious works. The most religious Christian must depend upon the shed blood of Christ to remove the stain of sin from his soul. Furthermore, the written New Testament is not in the form of law, at least not in the form of human civil law. It is written in the language of the common man, and intended to be read and understood by the use of common sense. Otherwise, most of us would be dependent upon theological lawyers to explain its meaning to us. It is not written, as is civil law, with the intention of closing every possible loophole. The man who understands the intent of the law, but still seeks a loophole, has transgressed already in his heart.

These facts notwithstanding, it can be clearly established that the written New Testament is a book containing law. It contains history, it contains prophecy, but it also contains law. In the Great Commission, Jesus told the Apostles to teach all nations “to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. . .” (Matt. 28:20). A command is not a suggestion or a piece of friendly advice. It is a directive from a person in authority to a subordinate, which the subordinate must obey or suffer penalty. One of the definitions of law is “a commandment or a revelation from God.” So any commandment of God is a law of God. Jesus commanded the Apostles, but did the Apostles in turn, acting as Christ’s agents, command us? Paul said, “the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). Since Paul had no authority above that of the other Apostles, we can necessarily infer, that the things which all the Apostles wrote in the New Testament are the commandments of the Lord. Certainly the inspired prophets such as James and Jude, working under Apostolic authority and having received their gifts through the laying on of Apostolic hands, were also able to act as Christ’s agents in delivering commands. This being established, it follows that the entire written New Testament consists of “the commandments of the Lord,” which is equivalent to saying that the New Testament consists of the law of the Lord.

The New Testament contains much teaching which is not in the form of direct commands. Paul delivered relatively few direct commands, yet He said that all of His inspired writing consisted of “the commandments of the Lord.” Logic and common sense tell us that there are only two ways, in addition to direct command, by which the Lord may command us. These are approved example and necessary inference. We know that the Old Testament taught in these ways. We learn from 1 Cor. 10 that the Old Testament teaches us by example. Jesus used necessary inference to teach the truth of the resurrection from the Scripture (Matt. 22:31, 32). So any truth taught in the New Testament, whether in the form of direct command, approved example, or necessary inference is in the broad sense a command, or a law, of God.

Having seen that the New Testament is a book of commandments, or laws, of God, we must now ask ourselves whether it is important that a Christian keep these commandments. Perhaps, as some seem to imply, being a Christian, saved by grace through faith, exempts one from the necessity of keeping God’s commandments. Or, perhaps the Christian is not subject to the penalty of the lawbreaker. In that case, though the New Testament consists of law, it is not binding law insofar as the Christian is concerned. I believe that all brethren would agree that love for Christ is necessary in order for a Christian to be eternally saved. Jesus said in John 14:21, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father . . . .” He continued in verse 23, “If a man love me, he will keep my words.” 1 John 2:4 says, “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Where do liars spend eternity? Rev. 21:8 tells us that they shall have their part in the lake of fire. Paul delivered certain commands, in the name of the Lord, to the Thessalonians. He then said, “And if any man obey not out word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). Rev. 22:14 says, “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” So it seems that whether or not a Christian keeps God’s commandments is a serious matter, and has an effect upon fellowship with his brethren and upon his final destiny.

The word “command” or “commandment” in the New Testament is not limited to those items contained in the Ten Commandments of Moses, nor is it limited to moral precepts. The following things are specifically identified as commands in the New Testament: to love one another (John 15:17), to withdraw from the disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), to work and to eat our own bread (2 Thess. 3:12), to remain married to one’s spouse (1 Cor. 7:10), to be baptized (Acts 10:48), for a woman to be in subjection (1 Cor. 14:34), to repent (Acts 17:30), to keep the teachings of the Apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Pet. 21:21; 1 Tim. 4:11; 2 Pet. 3:2). The commandments of God cannot be divided into essential and non-essential. They include those things which we may classify as gospel and doctrine, morals and religion.

But some seek to escape the force of this truth by saying that the New Testament is a book of principles, not a book of laws. A principle is. defined as “an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct.” What is that but a law? It is further defined as “a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.” Here we begin to see the point. The New Testament may be accepted as a law or a rule of conduct, so long as we keep it general. We can then say that if a man has faith, shows love, practices justice toward his fellows, etc., he is a keeper of God’s commandments, even though he ignores or rejects the greater part of the specific commandments. We must then ask how one can distinguish a principle from a law, so as to blind one and not the other. We have already noticed that some of God’s commands are very broad and others are very specific. What about baptism? That is a specific command and the method of obedience to this command is very specific. If the New Testament is a book of principles, not laws, then perhaps the specific action of baptism is merely an illustration in other ways. To insist on one specific action of baptism would be to change the New Testament from a book of principle to a book of law. The same could be said of the Lord’s Supper. The principle is that we should remember the Lord’s death. The specific time and method of remembrance are legalistic details. Perhaps we could remember His death better on some Lord’s Day by viewing a collection of great paintings of the crucifixion. Do I hear an objection? Then it must be admitted that the New Testament is a book of laws as well as a book of principles. The “book of principles” argument is used very selectively to support some particular innovation of which some brother is fond. Few would be willing to apply it consistently.

The great truth which should be presented concerning the New Testament is that it is a book of law, but it is not merely a book of law. It is written to regulate our conduct, but more basically, to regulate the thoughts of our hearts. It is a book which reveals Christ, the gift of God’s love, and, thus, is designed to remold the intellect, the emotions, and the will of man. The obedience demanded by the New Testament is, in some cases, as specific as the obedience demanded by the Law of Moses. But the emphasis is now upon the underlying attitudes and motivations. If there is no love, if there is a grudging spirit, then the most perfect outward obedience is totally nullified. If, on the other hand, one’s heart is right toward God, there will be no reluctance to follow the pattern laid down by Christ and the Apostles, even to the most specific details.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 13, pp. 213-214
March 27, 1980