God’s Commandments in the New Testament

Prof. Johan Malan, Mossel Bay, South Africa (March 2011)

The New Testament (NT) commandments of God are derived from the nature of His divine love which has been revealed to us by the coming and atoning death of His Son, Jesus Christ. The commandments pertaining to Christian living are on a distinctly higher level than the Old Testament (OT) laws as they demand the honouring of the principles of divine love rather than the mere legalistic adherence to certain patterns of behaviour. Unfortunately, not all Christians have truly made this transition to a new dispensation and therefore do not fully understand that we are not under law but under grace, and that “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 6:14; 10:4). This ignorance has detrimental consequences in the lives of those believers who try to mix law and grace.

There is a growing movement among undiscerning Christians to revert to the Old Testament law as the most significant embodiment of God’s commands to people of all time. Far from seeing the dispensation of the law as a preparatory phase leading up to the revelation of God’s Son as the Saviour of sinners, they keep on adhering to the law as the ultimate expression of God’s moral norms to people everywhere. They even go beyond the demands of the moral law and also observe ceremonial laws such as the OT Sabbath and Jewish feasts, despite that fact that these feasts have all been fulfilled in Christ and have therefore become obsolete in the present dispensation (Col. 2:16-17; Gal. 4:9-11).

All references to the commandments of Christ in the New Testament emanate from only one basic command, and that is to have a heart filled with divine love: “The purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (1 Tim. 1:5-7).

Since agape love is not of human origin but a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22), a heart filled with God’s love refers to a Spirit-filled life. This blessing can only be obtained by faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. Such a life may be described as “Christ in us, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). He is the personification of God’s love for us.

If we are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ we will fully know His wonderful love which passes knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:17-19). Such a person will never revert to the elementary principles and shadowy practices of the OT law because he who truly loves has fulfilled the law (Rom. 13:8-10). He is challenged to pursue the more lofty demands of God’s love such as following in the footsteps of Christ, being filled with the Holy Spirit, complete holiness, continuous prayer, evangelising the world, preaching the Word on every occasion, denying the corrupt practices of the depraved world, and engaging in spiritual warfare by putting on the full armour of God and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. The OT law does not even come close to commanding or fostering these Christian virtues.

We are not convicted of sin by the OT law but by the Holy Spirit who is our guide and tutor. The standard against which we are measured is not the law but the sinless life of Christ. The ways in which we give expression to His law of love determine the nature of our spiritual life. We really only observe the singular law of love, although it has many different applications. Jesus said to His disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). A changed heart is needed to live up to this challenge, and that is exactly what the Holy Spirit wants to do for us (Rom. 5:5).

Although multiple obligations follow from this commandment, it is basically one and the same law of divine love which determines our attitudes and actions in different ways. We have to give expression to it in all the circumstances of our daily lives and also defend it against the wrong interpretations of false teachers. John says, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard it from the beginning, you should walk in it” (2 John v.6). Walvoord & Zuck (Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 907) say: “The movement from the plural ‘commands’ to the singular ‘command’ is natural for this author (cf. 1 John 3:22-23). The many specifics of God’s will can be thought of as a single obligation.”

Those people who wrongly impose OT laws on the NT gospel message often base their arguments on John’s frequent references to the commandments of God which should be observed by all of us. They keep on reading and observing OT laws, but with an overlay of the NT gospel message. To them the Messiah did not come to fulfil and consummate the law, but to perpetuate it and provide for the forgiveness of infringements of the law. To them, believers still have to live in accordance with the Torah if they wish to be sanctified and please God.

However, this is a complete misrepresentation of John’s message. In his Gospel as well as his Epistles John equates the commandments of Jesus Christ with the NT instructions given to us by Him and His apostles: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, I know Him, and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His Word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you have heard from the beginning” (1 John 2:3-7).

Walvoord & Zuck (ibid., p. 889) say: “Verses 3-6 introduce the issue of obedience, though it was surely implicit also in 1:5-10. But John’s insistence on obeying God’s commands as a test of one’s personal intimacy and knowledge of Him leads to a natural question: Which commands did John have in mind? The answer is offered here. John did not have in mind some new obligation which his readers had never heard. On the contrary the command foremost in his mind was an old one, which they have had since the beginning (cf. 2 John v.5). No doubt John thought here especially of the command to love one another (cf. 1 John 2:9-11). … Whatever innovations the readers might be confronting because of the doctrines of the antichrists [false teachers], their real responsibility was to a commandment which they had heard from the very start of their Christian experience.”

Obedience to God’s Word (His commandments) results in a rich and full experience of God’s love: “Whoever keeps His Word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him” (2:5). A Christian already knows God’s saving love but this love is made complete in him if he fully knows God and observes His commandments. This is not a call for OT Torah observance but abiding in Christ and walking as He did (2:6; cf. the vine-branch relationship of John 15:1-8).

Christ is the epitome of OT law observance but His life and works represent an abundance of grace and divine love that was unknown in OT times. We have an upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:14) which not even the priests in the OT enjoyed. The law was their tutor to the Messiah (Gal. 3:24-25), but we already have the Messiah and share in the richness of His grace through His finished work on the cross, the indwelling of His Spirit, and all the promises of God in the NT which are Yes and Amen in Him (2 Cor. 1:20). We have received the promise of the Messiah, as well as a life of fullness in Him, which OT saints were waiting for (Heb. 11:39).

The NT commandments given to us amount to nothing more and nothing less than complete obedience to Christ. It gives us confidence towards God in our prayer life, in building our relationship with Christ and daily walking in the Spirit: “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence towards God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 John 3:21-24).

This scripture contains a key statement on God’s NT commandment of love which can in no way be interpreted as referring to Torah observance: “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” This is the foundation of a Christian life of loving and serving God through His Son, of loving our fellow-believers and reaching out to an unsaved world with the gospel of hope and love. Walvoord & Zuck (ibid., p. 897-898) comment as follows on 1 John 3:21-24:

“As a result of active participation in the truth by real deeds of love, Christians can calm their disapproving hearts and achieve boldness in prayer, and their prayers will be answered because they, as believers, are consciously subject to God’s will (they obey His commands and do what pleases Him). This presumes, of course, that the requests themselves are made in subjection to God’s will (5:14-15). The writer had declared that a confident and effective prayer life is founded on obedience to God’s commands. Now those commands are summed up in a single command consisting of faith and love. The phrase ‘believe in the name of His Son’ contains the epistle’s first direct reference to faith. … 1 John 3:23 furnishes a kind of climax to the paragraph beginning in verse 18. As a Christian actively engages in deeds of love and as he achieves boldness before God in prayer, he is doing what God commands: living a life of confidence in the name of Christ which is undergirded by love. Since faith and love, thus conceived, go together, this kind of life is seen as obedience to a single “command”. … Two new themes appear in verse 24. The first theme is the epistle’s first reference to God, or Christ, abiding in each obedient believer. … The second new idea is the epistle’s first of six explicit references to the Holy Spirit. The way a believer can verify that God lives in him is by the operation of God’s Spirit in his life. John then showed that God’s Spirit is the Spirit of both faith and love – the two aspects of the two-part command given in 3:23.”

The righteousness of Christ

There is no other way in which we are imbued with the righteousness of Christ than to be born again and subsequently raising the level of our obedience to Him by completely surrendering ourselves to be filled with His Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:16-17). Human efforts of law observance, as well as humanistic inspired efforts of fostering attitudes of kindness and morality, can never instil the divine nature of Christ in us. We can only trust the Saviour to regenerate us by His Holy Spirit. When we see true righteousness in a person we know that he is born of God: “If you know that He [Christ] is righteous, you know that everyone who practises righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:29).

Any effort of diminishing the immense significance and divine nature of the new life in Christ which NT believers receive through faith, is an attack on the sufficiency of the gospel of salvation. Those who try to supplement salvation by OT law observance ruin their faith: “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).

Modern Judaisers

Many of the modern Judaisers justify their cause by stating that they do not base their salvation upon the law as they fully trust in the atonement offered by the Messiah. They are nevertheless convinced that the law plays a crucial part in their life of dedication after salvation. They wrongly base their argument on statements such as the one in Matthew 5, which was made before the crucifixion of Christ when the dispensation of the law still prevailed. Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil” (Matt. 5:17). According to the Strong’s Concordance the word “fulfil” (pleroo in Greek) means: “to finish a period or task; to expire; to complete; to accomplish.” This dispensation has expired.

In the period after the crucifixion of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, OT law observance was completely ruled out as a practice among NT believers. The first synod of the early church took a clear stand on this issue by confirming that believers are not under the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1-29). We are not to build a relationship with the OT law, but with Jesus Christ who has completely fulfilled the law. All the moral principles of the OT law were fully observed by Christ, while a vast array of new values, virtues and commandments were added. These are all encapsulated in the commandment of divine love – to love God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves. If we strictly adhere to the principles of divine love we do not need laws to govern our behaviour.

Paul said to believers in Rome: “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). We are not guided to more holiness by the OT law but by the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-13; Gal. 5:16). He pours out the love of God in our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and teaches us to live in accordance with the NT commandment of love. He glorifies Christ and reminds us of all His promises and commandments (John 16:14-15).

A life of Christian liberty

We are not subjected to any form of bondage to the Mosaic Law but instead enjoy the wonderful liberty of following Christ under the tender but clear guidance of His Holy Spirit. We should dedicate ourselves to studying the Word and meticulously applying its noble principles to our lives. Fully surrender yourself to the control of the Holy Spirit and trust Him to give you enlightened eyes of the mind to fully comprehend the height, depth, width and length of the love of Christ. Set your mind on becoming conformed to Him so that people can see Christ in you. Take all decisions and determine all your priorities and values in the light of His divine nature as well as the urgency of His mission to an unsaved world.

Always guard against any inclination to develop an outward form of godliness which is devoid of the power of the Holy Spirit. People who conduct their lives in this way are often inclined to reducing New Testament teachings to a set of legalistic rules which are of no real use in becoming more Christ-like. Some of them are spiritually blind slaves of denominational creeds which may be nothing more than the commandments of men (cf. Mark 7:7). How can they claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit?

Paul entreats us to stand firm in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and to take care of not becoming entangled with a yoke of bondage to sin, to the Mosaic Law or to the doctrines of men (Gal. 5:1). Walvoord & Zuck (ibid., p. 604-611) make the following very relevant remarks on Galatians 5 and 6:

“Having defended both his authority as an apostle and the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul turned to defend the life of Christian freedom. Would the apostle’s teaching lead the Galatians into lawlessness or into godliness? The Christian life is described as a life apart from Law, a life apart from license, a life according to the Spirit, and a life of service.

“Galatians 5:1 summarises chapter 4, where the theme is bondage and freedom. It also serves to introduce chapter 5. Paul declared that Christ was the great Liberator who set believers free from bondage. The apostle then appealed to the Galatians to stand firm in that liberty, for having been delivered from slavery to heathenism, they were in danger of becoming entangled in slavery to the Mosaic Law. … Paul emphasised that a godly life is not lived under the rules of the law but is a life led by the Spirit. …

“Paul reminded the Galatians that in addition to a divine judgement of the sinful nature there is a divine enablement in the person of the Holy Spirit. He made the believer alive by regeneration, so each believer is exhorted to walk in the Spirit (‘If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit’ – 5:25). Step by step one’s Christian life should conform to the Spirit’s direction and enablement, lest believers become ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’ (5:26). The latter traits would be true of a walk in the flesh and may point to divisions in the Galatian churches occasioned by the Judaising error.

“A believer is free from the Law of Moses and possesses liberty in the Spirit, but he must fulfil the law of Christ, and this can be done in the power of the Spirit. Such a life involves sacrificial service directed towards sinning Christians, burdened Christians, the pastor-teachers, and all people. …

“Paul’s calling as an apostle and the message he preached had been challenged by the Judaisers. He asked for an end to such trouble, and he offered as a final proof to his critics the marks of the Lord Jesus on his body (6:17). These ‘marks’ meant signs of ownership such as were branded on slaves and cattle. Paul referred to the scars on his body, which were caused by persecution for Christ’s sake, because they demonstrated he was a slave of Christ and not just a people-pleaser.”

The true nature of divine love

The agape love of God is infinitely more than an outward set of rules or laws that prescribes certain forms of conduct and prohibits others. It is a divine principle of life which is established in the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit. Its holiness, its unselfishness, its truthfulness, its forgivingness, its compassion towards those in need, and its unwavering commitment to honouring God who is the source of true love, are its basic characteristics as a deep spiritual motivation to do the right things. It brings the divine light of God’s presence to those who walk in it, and enables us to take the right decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in every circumstance of our lives.

The love of God is so pure that it cannot compromise with any form of thinking or acting that is contrary to it. It is completely at variance with the distorted human love that tolerates all sorts of evil for the sake of unity and good relations, and even compromises itself out of existence. But God is not a compromiser and that is the reason why He would chasten His wayward children that they may be partakers of His holiness (Heb. 12:5-10).

The agape love of God is the greatest asset any person can have in life: “Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have no love, I am nothing. … Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:2-8).

The high moral and spiritual values of divine love are evident from its characteristics. When the love of God has been poured out into your heart your dispositions and behaviour will be determined by its sublime principles. Rather than reminding you of the OT law, the Holy Spirit will lay the necessity on you to give expression to the demands of divine love. You will have an inner conviction of what is right and wrong. A Spirit-filled Christian, therefore, is not a licentious person who is inclined to disorderliness and lawlessness. Christ’s law of love is his norm and ideal, and he should find creative ways of expressing it. When His love urges you to share the gospel message with other people you must always, under the prevailing circumstances, find the best ways of doing it.

Always remember that the characteristics of Christ’s law of love, as well as the moral and spiritual obligations emanating from it, are stated in the Bible. Never proclaim your own ideas to people without quoting relevant Scripture. Our command is to preach the Word at every opportunity (2 Tim. 4:2). Only God’s Word is credible to convince people. There are too many personal opinions in circulation that reveal a poor knowledge of Scripture. The words which the Lord Jesus has spoken to us are Spirit and life (John 6:63). They are the purest statement of His love for us and for the world.

Conclusion

There clearly is a new definition of God’s law in the NT. In terms of “the law of love” (also referred to as “the law of Christ” – 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2) it is unwise to start sermons with the reading of the Law of Moses, or to write tracts on conversion from the perspective of the OT law. The legalistic critics would argue: “But isn’t it true that God’s moral law (e.g. the denouncing of stealing, lying, murdering, the dishonouring of God, etc.) are unchangeable and equally apply to the Old as well as the New Testament periods, and also beyond?”

This equation is only partially true. In the NT, sinful acts are not defined as the breaching of Torah prohibitions but as the corrupt works of the flesh which are in opposition to the holy nature of Christ, and therefore also against the demands of His divine love. In addressing this problem, we should not merely realign ourselves with the law but rather restore our broken or strained relationship with Christ.

We must clearly understand that the depraved nature of all human beings calls for a spiritual rebirth by virtue of which we have the privilege of putting on the new nature of Christ, thereby becoming a new person. When sinning, we do not act according to the Spirit (the new man in Christ) but according to the flesh (the old, sinful man). The correcting of this problem does not call for a restored relationship with the OT law, but with Christ. Thinking and acting in terms of His law of love must again become our normal way of living.

Paul counsels sinning Christians as follows: “But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him. … Above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts… Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:8-16; cf. Eph. 4:22-24).

If we teach Christ’s law of love in all its implications, the emphasising of OT laws becomes irrelevant, because “he who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). When statements such as the one in Romans 13:8-10 are read to people they will realise that a new dispensation has dawned after the law, as well as a more effective way of becoming partakers of God’s holiness. That is the fundamental reason why the Holy Spirit has guided the early church in Acts 15 not to start with the law in preaching to the Gentiles but with faith in Jesus Christ.

Further reading

There are a number of related articles on the author’s website, as well as a book, that can be used for further reading on this subject. It is of the utmost importance to gain full clarity on the distinction between law and grace.

The following article highlights the salient aspects of the New Testament’s message of grace: The Greatness of God’s Love and Grace.

Link: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Grace.htm

Many people revert to Old Testament Sabbath observance without realising the full implications of their misguided decision: The Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday.

Link: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Sabbath.htm

The Seventh-day Adventists are Old Testament Sabbath observers who are also in error in various other ways: Theology of the Seventh-day Adventists.

Link: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Adventist.htm

The Hebrew Roots Movement is in error for alleging that Christians are grafted into the people of Israel, in terms of a symbol used in Romans 11. They also fall into the trap of legalism: We Cannot be under Law and under Grace.

Link: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Septuagint-Eng.htm

A review of the different dispensations also reveals the error of mixing law and grace: The Dispensations of God – Do You Have the Correct Perspective?

Link: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Dispensations.htm

The following book fully explains the important differences between law and grace: The Old Testament Law and the New Testament Grace.

Link: http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Librarylists/Bookschaplist/Law%20and%20Grace.htm