Relating to the Law

Don Johnson

“Can Christians eat pork?” A fellow visiting our church asked that question a couple of weeks ago. Again, someone else asked me, “In the law, some foods were not allowed. Was it because they were not healthy to eat? Should we eat those foods now?”

Both of these questions are responses to teaching picked up somewhere along the way. Some will be surprised by the questions in our modern context – the answers seem so obvious in our “anything goes” culture. However, “anything goes” isn’t the standard by which Christians live. We live according to the Bible, not the opinion of men or the assurances of our worldly culture.

How, then, do we answer questions like this?

First, as to the specific area in question, food/dietary laws of the Old Testament, our Lord gives us specific instructions. We don’t have to have any doubt about our relation to the dietary laws since we have explicit instructions. Two passages immediately come to mind.

Mark 7:18-19: And he saith unto them, Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

Just to be clear, that last line in the NASB is “(Thus He declared all foods clean.)” On the authority of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament dietary laws no longer apply. Anyone who teaches differently contradicts Jesus Christ. That’s not a position I would want to be in!

The second passage is in Acts, where Peter still has scruples about what he eats:

Acts 10:9-14 On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.

And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.

We recall the Lord’s reply following Peter’s objection:

Acts 10:15 And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.

Of course, the main lesson for Peter here is that he must overcome his scruples about Gentiles as we will find him taking the Gospel to Cornelius, but the same principle that opens the Gospel to Gentiles also opens the table to our palates. The Old Testament dietary laws no longer restrict us.

“Of course,” I said to my questioner, “I’m willing to eat a chicken, but I’m not willing to eat a crow.” Our choices on foods depends on things other than the Law.

A wider question arises from these questions, however. What is the relation of the Christian to Old Testament law?

That question is answered for us in the New Testament as well, most notably in the epistles of Paul, especially in Galatians.

Salvation is by grace, not law:

Galatians 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Attempting to live by the law is contrary to receiving life by grace:

Galatians 3:10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.

When men take the Old Testament law and make it into a requirement for New Testament Christian life, they badly confuse the Gospel. In Galatians, Paul is arguing against some men who were teaching that Christians must undergo circumcision and keep certain Jewish holy days in order to have true salvation. They were confusing grace with law.

When men teach that a Christian must keep the Old Testament dietary laws, the same confusion comes about. Suppose a Christian doesn’t keep the Old Testament dietary laws. Is he still a Christian? Is he a second-class Christian, somehow on God’s “B-list”? Will God punish him in some way, like give poor health or some other punishment? All of these possibilities confuse the Gospel. Salvation is by faith in Christ alone, no Law keeping is necessary.

Paul says in Romans:

Romans 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.

The law is complete in Christ. It no longer hangs over the Christian. Its requirements are fulfilled, by grace through faith, I believe the Gospel and I am right with God, none of the Old Testament law applies to me.

What, then, of the law? What use is it to me as a Christian? Paul answers:

Galatians 3:24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.

The Law instructs us, points us to Christ by pointing out our guilt, but it no longer masters us, and it never could save anyone. The Law informs us, but does not rule us.

Thus, it is a mistake to mix the Old Testament law into Christian experience, making it a requirement for holy living. Holiness comes by walking in the Spirit, fulfilling the law of Christ (the New Testament guidelines), not by keeping the external nationalistic requirements of ancient Israel.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.