Do the Old Testament Commandments Apply to Christians Today?

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

The Promise Keeper

Salvation, the reconciling of man to God, has its roots in the unconditional Promise God gave to Abraham and his seed when He told him, “in you all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:16). It was unconditional in the sense that God promised to do this regardless of what Abraham or his descendants would do. In contrast, the Law, told to the Israelites by God through Moses and summarized in the Ten Commandments, was given 430 years later (Gal. 3:17a) as a conditional covenant.

The Israelites agreed with God to enter into this conditional covenant which, if obeyed, guaranteed blessing and security for them in the land of Canaan (Deut. 30:15-20). The Law was not contrary to the Promise of God because this new conditional covenant was not about imparting personal salvation. Therefore, it did not invalidate or nullify the unconditional Promise of salvation given to Abraham (Gal. 3:17, 21).

Salvation cannot be based on keeping the Law because it would then no longer be based on the Promise, and “God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise” (Gal. 3:18). Scripture is clear on this: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:20). In fact, if salvation could be attained by keeping the Law, then the inevitable conclusion is that “Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).

The Message of the Law

The Law was a conditional covenant between God and the Israelites; if they followed His commands, He would bless their nation; if they did not, He would punish them. Within the Law, then, we see God’s perfect moral standard for human life, encapsulated in the Ten Commandments. The Israelites quickly learned, as does anyone else who tries to obey the Law perfectly, that people cannot measure up to this ideal moral benchmark. So the Law reveals an internal flaw within ourselves, that we are not perfect, that we miss the bullseye, that we have sin. Paul said, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20) and “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7).

The Law then becomes our tutor which leads us to Christ (Gal. 3:24) in that it teaches us we have a problem before God, namely that no one is able to live out His moral requirements, and so we all deserve His punishment of eternal death in hell. In this sense, then, the Law accomplished its purpose in “shutting up everyone under sin” (Gal. 3:22). The Law “was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19) so we would understand our sinfulness. Then “we were kept in custody under” (Gal. 3:23) it “until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made” (Gal. 3:19), the seed promised to Abraham that would bless all the families of the earth.


The Law shows us that we cannot earn God’s favor by our own attempt at living up to His perfect moral standard. This can be very frustrating. It tells us what is morally right and wrong, and our hearts recognize that it is true (Rom. 7:22), but yet we are unable to follow it. We do not practice the things we would like to do but end up doing the very things we hate (Rom. 7:15). We rightly conclude that there is nothing good that dwells within us; the willing is present but the doing of the good is not (Rom. 7:18). It helps us realize that evil is present in us even though we want to do good (Rom. 7:21). It leaves us in a hopeless situation and should cause us to turn to God for help and forgiveness. We all associate with Paul when he exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24).

To be reconciled back to God, we must become perfect—justified. The Law told us we are not perfect, but it could do nothing to make us perfect. The good news is that “now, apart from the Law God’s righteousness has been manifested” (Rom. 3:21) through the work of Jesus, the Messiah. For what the Law could not do, because of the weakness of our flesh, “God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as an offering for sin” (Rom. 8:3).

Instead of trying to develop our own righteousness by keeping the Law, the one who “believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Our justification is not the result of our working hard at improving our life; we are “justified by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). As Paul says, “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). The Law cannot save us; it only tells us that we need saving.

The Law for Christians

A person is saved, personally reconciled back to God, when he recognizes his disgusting sinfulness, realizes his own inability to appease God, and places his trust not in his own attempts to be good but instead in Jesus Christ as the Lord of his life and the Savior of his soul. An important matter for such a person, then, is what role the Law should play in his new life now that he is a Christian. This was one of the first controversies in the early church.

The Law was a tutor which led us to Christ so that we would understand our need to be justified by faith, “but now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Gal. 3:25). The concern is that, if Christians completely jettison the Law, then they will have no moral compass to help them know what is right or wrong. In response to Gentiles who had trusted in Jesus, “some of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses’” (Acts 15:5).

During this debate amongst the apostles and elders, Peter made this point: “Why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:10-11). In the end they wrote, “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29). While this was not a final solution to the puzzle, it was a wise compromise to settle upon until they understood the complete answer which God used Paul to explain sometime later.

The key to this enigma is the Holy Spirit. At the moment of salvation, the Spirit indwells a person and gives them enabling power to turn from their sin and live for God. We no longer need the Mosaic Law as our moral compass because “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the Law of sin and of death,” and the requirement of the Law is “fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:2-4). The Holy Spirit is our moral compass.

The Spirit is vastly superior to the Law in this regard because it not only instructs us on what is right but empowers us to do such. So if you live by the power of the Spirit, then you “will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The conclusion then is this: “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (Gal. 5:18) because “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, against such things there is no Law” (Gal. 5:22-23).

Convincing Proof