“Are Old Testament laws still relevant for Christians?”

"Are Old Testament laws still relevant for Christians?"

The Pulse Podcast includes interviews, weekly biblical studies, and also featured talks. This episode is a category of the later.

At the church I pastor we sometimes have a Q and A Forum. People submit questions and I provide an answer.

Here is one of the questions: “I quite frequently hear that the Old Testament, with its emphasis on law, is not really relevant since we are now under grace. Some put the emphasis for our lives on love of God and love of others as the only two commandments that need to guide our lives. Is there a place, and if so what is it, for the laws in the Old Testament?”

You can listen to the answer below or read on for the full blog post.


In short, the Old Testament laws are still relevant for Christians. But ‘relevant’ is not the same as ‘applicable.’ Some apply, some don’t. But they’re all relevant. Let me explain.

A few of you have had this same question. But I’m guessing that many of you have had different questions, but which still relate to this topic:

  • “In Leviticus 19:22 it says to not tattoo yourself. Does that mean I shouldn’t get one?”
  • “It says we shouldn’t wear clothes with two different kinds of fabrics in Leviticus 19:19, so does that mean I’m breaking God’s law with this shirt from Old Navy?”
  • “Deuteronomy 22:5 says that men shouldn’t dress in women’s clothes and that women shouldn’t dress in men’s clothes. Is that about what we today call cross-dressing?”

You may also have heard proponents of same-sex marriage say something like this: “Yes, Leviticus 18:22 says that it’s an abomination if a man lies with another man, but Leviticus also mentions a bunch of other laws we don’t seem to keep like not eating shellfish; this shows there are laws that just don’t apply to Christians anymore.”

What are we to think? How are we to live?

With all of this in mind—and if we’re going to answer this question in an accurate and faithful way—we need to do it by keeping three critical points in mind. Think of these three points like rumble strips on the side of the road. They keep us from veering into the theological ditch.

My answer to this question is perhaps already longer than you would have guessed. But as you can see, it has far-reaching implications. So I encourage you to follow the logic through to the end. How we answer this question is critical for how we relate to God. It is also a question that will come up time and time again as we journey through life. It may take different forms, and it may reference other specific questions. But like spring flowers—or like weeds in a garden—it keeps showing itself year after year.

Before we begin, let me also say that it is common for Christians to downplay God’s laws because, as the question itself suggests, some only focus on the “greatest commandment” to love God and neighbour. However, after Jesus makes that statement in Matthew 22:34-40, he says: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, all the other commands are related to loving God and neighbour. They help us to live out those primary commands.

Perhaps that makes you even more puzzled. Stay tuned. Let’s proceed.

Three Critical Points

Here are the three critical points. And fear not; I’ll provide a short, clear summary at the end.

First, the Bible is God’s inspired word to us.

If the Bible was just a collection of old and culturally conditioned writings from fallible human beings, then none of us would really care what it says.

However, Christians affirm that the Bible is God’s word to us. Yes, he worked through people like you and me, but he did so by his own Spirit.[i]

In Hebrews 1:2 we learn that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son…” After the New Testament period, no other writings were to be added to the Bible. The books we have are the books God intended his people to have.[ii] No more, no less. This Bible includes God’s law. Therefore, it’s important that we understand what it is and how it applies to our lives.

Second, the Bible is a whole.

What this means is that we read passages as a part of a larger narrative, not in isolation and out of context. I live in Canada. If I look back into the past I might discover that in 1910 there was a 9 p.m. curfew for children under 18. Does that law still stand? It depends on whether or not it was repealed or updated.

In a similar way, we need to pay attention to what is happening with God’s law in general, and with certain laws in particular, as a part of the longer and evolving story between God and his people.

Further, Scripture interprets Scripture. Clearer passages interpret passages which are more obscure. This principle is evident in the Bible itself.[iii] We need to keep it in mind when we encounter passages which may seem unclear.

Third, how Christians relate to God’s law has (somewhat) modified.

God enters into relationship with his people through covenants. A covenant is a sacred bond—a contract between two parties. When I perform a marriage ceremony we call it a “covenant”—a sacred bond, a contract between two parties. In terms of our covenant with God, he agrees to be our God, and we agree to be his people. That’s the agreement.

There are stipulations to this covenant. If we follow his law, we will be blessed. If we fail to follow his law, we will be cursed.

A covenant was often sealed with blood.[iv] Blood is a sign of both life and death. That’s why Jared Longshore describes the covenant as a “bond-in-blood.”[v] If you keep it, life. If you fail to keep it, death.

This covenant relationship is sometimes called the “covenant of works” because it is based upon our ability to keep the law through our “works” (i.e. deeds). In the Old Testament we are often reminded how God’s people failed to keep the covenant because they disobeyed the law. This was obviously very bad news.

In the New Testament something new happened. Here it is, and it is incredibly good news: Jesus fulfilled the terms of the covenant on our behalf. He perfectly kept the law which we failed to keep. He was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Since we deserve punishment under a God who is both holy and just, Jesus took that punishment upon himself on the cross. This is the ‘curse’ that I mentioned previously. He took the punishment for our disobedience.

In this way—and only in this way—we do in fact keep the covenant. Jesus fulfilled the terms on our behalf. He died as our substitute on the cross. His righteousness was imputed (or transferred) to his people. At the inaugural Last Supper, Jesus visibly demonstrated this for us with the bread and wine. His body and blood were broken and shed for us. In Luke 22:20 he explains: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

There’s that word ‘covenant’ again. Bond-in-blood.

The way to gain access to these benefits is to trust in who Jesus is and what he has done for us. As a result, God gives us grace. What was sometimes called a “covenant of works” is now often referred to as a “covenant of grace.”

By the way, ‘Old Testament’ means ‘Old Covenant’ and ‘New Testament’ means ‘New Covenant’; the idea of covenant is so central to the Bible that each half is now identified by that very concept.

Having outlined these three points, I hope it’s clear that we aren’t made right with God by keeping the law. We are made right with God through trusting in Jesus and what he has done for us. By ourselves we are covenant-breakers; in Christ we are covenant keepers. This isn’t because we are great, but because he is!

Because of this, some Christians downplay the importance of the law. ‘If we are now under grace,’ they argue, ‘and if Jesus kept the law on our behalf, doesn’t that mean the law is no longer relevant to us?’[vi] Not exactly.

While it’s true that our ability to keep the law is no longer the basis of our covenant relationship with God, that doesn’t mean that all of God’s laws don’t matter. This is when we need to look more specifically at what the different laws are about. This relates to the second point outlined previously about interpreting the Bible as a whole.

Three Kinds of Laws

Generally speaking, there are three kinds of laws. The Israelites wouldn’t have thought of it like this, but today these categories can be a helpful way to think through whether they do or do not apply.

First, there were judicial laws.

These governed the nation of Israel. Since it ceased to exist, those laws don’t apply in the same way. The spirit of those laws continue, but the application may have changed. For example, we don’t have or need ‘cities of refuge’ for people who have committed accidental manslaughter (Exodus 21).

Second, there were ceremonial laws.

These had to do with worship. Think of slaughtered animals on the temple altar. After Christ, this changed. In Hebrews 10:10 we learn that we have been made holy because of the sacrifice of Jesus “once for all.” The sacrificial system of worship came to an end in Christ. Thus, the nature of worship evolved, so to speak.

Third, there were moral laws.

These have to do with livingly rightly toward God and neighbour. These include the 10 Commandments. These are still in effect. Jesus quoted them (as in Mark 10:19), as did others. This shows that they continue to be relevant to Christians. We are not made right with God on our ability (or inability) to keep them, but they are still a part of God’s family code. We live this way as an expression of our love toward God and neighbour. They are acts of faithfulness and a blessing to ourselves and to the world.

Related to this, they keep our eyes fixed on God, and thereby guard us against selfishness and pride. Even the command for Sabbath rest—which, on the surface, seems to be a bout us, draws us away from our selfish agendas. With this in mind, Rosaria Butterfield asks: “How will I build my empire if I spend all of this time on God?”[vii]

Three-fold use of the law

It’s also helpful to keep in mind the three-fold use of the law.[viii]

First, God’s law serves as a mirror, showing us both God’s perfection and our imperfection.

When we reflect on how great God is, we can’t help but notice how great we aren’t. In Rediscovering Holiness, J.I. Packer writes: Sin “is also an energy, an obsession, an allergic reaction to God’s law, an irrational anti-God syndrome in our spiritual system that drives us to exalt ourselves and steels our hearts against devotion and obedience to our Maker.”[ix] Well said.

Second, God’s law restrains evil in society.

When people know there is a punishment for breaking a law, they are less likely to do it. This is about civil order.

Third, God’s law guides his people into doing good deeds.

If we love Jesus we will follow his commandments (see John 14:15). When we do this we are also showing the people around us what God’s character is like—holy, just, loving, wise, etc. In her book No Greater Love, Rebecca McLaughlin writes: “We’re not called to blend in or to check out, but to shine.”[x]


Let me summarize.

The Bible is God’s word to us; therefore, what it contains is eternally important. It is to be read and interpreted as a whole.

God enters into relationship with his people through covenants. This is a sacred contract, a “bond-in-blood.” Today, we are made right with God not based our ability to keep God’s law, but on Christ. His righteousness is credited to our account. By ourselves we are covenant-breakers; in Christ we are covenant keepers. This isn’t because we’re great, but because he is.

Generally speaking, there were three kinds of laws: judicial, ceremonial and moral. The moral laws are still in effect. Although our ability to keep these laws is not the basis for our salvation, they are a kind of family code which reflects God’s character—“be holy, for I am holy”[xi]—and which bless other people and the world.

The laws themselves (a) serve as a mirror, (b) restrain evil in society, and (c) guide us into good deeds. This is one of the reasons I make an effort to frequently return to Psalm 119. It is the longest chapter in the Bible and an extended acrostic poem (in Hebrew) about the beauty, majesty and perfection of God’s law and word.

Until all is accomplished

In conclusion, the Old Testament laws are still relevant for Christians. But ‘relevant’ is not the same as ‘applicable.’ Some apply, some don’t. But they’re all relevant.

Psalm 19:7-8 says: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple…”

In his novel In the Beginning, Chaim Potok tells about a Jewish boy who remembered people celebrating a religious festival in the synagogue and actually dancing with scrolls from the Bible as a part of their worship. This is a picture of people who supremely valued the word and wisdom of God carefully preserved.[xii]

As we study God’s law, may we repent of sin, rejoice in God’s character, live as his holy family, and give thanks that we receive grace in his presence—not because of what we have done, but because of what Jesus has done for us: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

[iv] See God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.

[v] Jared Longshore, The Case for the Christian Family (Canon Press, 2022), 38.

[vi] Antinomianism is a heresy which rejects all aspects of the biblical law. It means anti-law.

[vii] Rosaria Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2012), 40.

[viii] This is a term made popular by Reformer John Calvin.

[ix] J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life with God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 2nd ed., 55.

[x] Rebecca McLaughlin, No Greater Love: A Biblical Vision for Friendship (Moody, 2003), 139.

[xi] Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16.

[xii] Chaim Potok, In the beginning (New York: Knopf, 1975), 360.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *