Moral Law and the Law of Christ
It may be a general concern or question in the minds of many Christians: is there really a moral law, (and) a law of Christ? Or are they the same? We’ve had brief discussions regarding the subject, but unfortunately, due to the very nature of such public discussion, it appears we cannot find common ground. My hope in writing this is not to persuade you to my line of thinking. Instead, I hope to generate a helpful discussion that could help us all learn. Perhaps you will disagree with my assessment? That is perfectly reasonable and understandable. However, if your evidence abounds and I am wrong, I will change my position.
On the other hand, it is possible that we already agree and are simply having a level of miscommunication. This article is aimed at clarifying any possible area of misunderstanding. It is my prayer that this helps your study and consideration of this essential concept.
In this article, I will be addressing four significant sections for your evaluation: the first will be setting up a biblical precedent for a moral law instead of the law of Christ or even that of Moses. In the second section, I will discuss moral law from an argument of logic and reason. Within the second section will be references to other scholarly works—men who’ve done far better than I ever could- addressing our topic.
As for the third section, I will establish a biblical example for the Law of Christ, in contrast to the moral law. This contrast is necessary to show the difference between the two, as well as the similarities. The fourth and final section of our writing will address the reason and need to distinguish between the two. I’ve received one question: why the need to differentiate between the Law of Christ and the moral law? I wholeheartedly believe this question is a necessary one. Yet, I think the answer will become evident as we study this together.
Is there a biblical example of a moral Law?
The most fantastic text, and yet, quite possibly the most confusing and most debated text regarding this matter, is Romans 1-2. I believe Paul makes the argument here relatively straightforward, but as I’ve said, not all agree with my position.
He addresses Jewish and Gentile Christians in his letter, and much of the argumentation is regarding righteousness and unrighteousness. The central question that needs to remain as we study the text is this: how can a person be condemned apart from the revealed law (whether through Moses or Christ), if they do not have something within themselves that indicates a natural tendency to morality? It seems unnecessary to condemn a person that is incapable of realizing they have any error at all.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the CREATION (emphasis added, DV), of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:18-20).
Paul’s use of ALL unrighteousness and ungodliness is a reference to all humankind. If there is any doubt, he makes it even more apparent by adding the phrase, “since the creation.”Naturally, we are aware of when the Law of Moses came into play for the Jewish people (Roughly 1,500 B.C.). So he cannot be speaking to all ungodliness instead of the revealed word in the Mosaic covenant.
Furthermore, Paul says that God has made it plain and has shown them himself. What kind of law could he be speaking of that is clear to ALL humanity, ever since the creation? The law of morality! Certainly, our concept of WHAT is moral has changed over cultures, societies, and centuries. However, having a SENSE of righteousness (right and wrong) has always been and will always be. We will discuss morality in further detail in another section. At the moment, we simply need to establish a moral law within the biblical text.
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:28-32).
Paul tells us that God gave them up to a debased mind. God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone with evil (Jam. 1:13). We cannot assume that He pushed them to a debased mind, but rather that He created natural order of right and wrong, cause and effect. This natural order is what is causing wicked people to be handed over to perversion.
You will notice the use of “what ought not to be done” (Rom. 1:28). This is an important factor that plays into our discussion in later sections. For now, we can acknowledge that what is mentioned are things that ought not be done, and the people mentioned are ALL people. It is fascinating that the things Paul mentions are not those higher things that we find in the Law of Christ, but rather, moral things that ALL acknowledge are wrong.
We will, and have, naturally disagreed with societies on what crimes or attitudes constitute these characteristics. However, these attributes themselves are NEVER glorified as a whole. “Unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Rom. 1:29-31).
When we examine these attributes, as a whole, no society has ever held these in “high regard”. These are typically viewed as wrong. Where the debate comes in is: what constitutes murder? What does a person consider maliciousness? What you and I may view as murder or malice may differ, yet no individual in their right mind, or society, would boast of such. Certainly psychopathic or deranged people will, but the majority, those in their right frame of mind, will not admire these qualities.
Rom. 2:8-16 is yet another section of text that holds great value in our discussion. Wrath, is waiting for all unrighteous, regardless of ethnic background; whether they have received the revealed word (Law) or not. Perhaps the most significant reason given by the apostle is, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” (Rom. 2:15).
God has written law into the hearts of ALL men. The text is certainly not suggesting that God wrote all 613 laws given through Moses on the hearts of ALL men. It must be something different. Most likely, judging by the negative attributes of morality mentioned above (Rom. 1:28-32), the written law is more in line with the Ten Commandments, especially the latter six, but not exclusively. The law written on the hearts of men is something that ALL men recognize, regardless of who they are. To better understand this, we need to know how we’ve been created instead of the rest of creation.
Gen. 1:26-27 says that God created us into His image. God, as we know, is righteous (Ps. 7:11), He is holy (Is. 6:3), and evil may not dwell in Him (Ps. 5:4). God is a moral being. He knows exactly what is right and wrong since He created the heavens and the earth. He created us in His image. We are the only part of creation that is mentioned as such at the beginning (Gen. 1). What is one of the most remarkable differences between us (humans) and the rest of creation? It is our sense of morality! When man discovered evil, he knew good and evil. The reason in which we acknowledge there at the least is right and wrong. Again, disagreements may abound as to what those are, but ALL recognize it is indeed right and wrong.
A further biblical example of a moral law, can be found throughout the Old Testament. I will simply mention a couple of examples before moving to our next section. In Gen. 6:5, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”Once again, we are prior to the Law of Moses. The Lord was not only able to recognize man’s wickedness (because of His morality), but he was also able to cast down punishment on man (Because of man’s awareness of morality) Gen. 6:7.
If there was NO sense of morality, then Noah was chosen out of partiality. We know this cannot be true, because God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11). Noah must have been chosen on the basis of moral law. Which is why he can be called a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5).While the rest of the world is considered wicked.
The final example I’ll use, is Jonah. Jonah is given a role that is entirely unique when it comes to the work of prophet. Most prophets are going to God’s chosen people, to confront them of their abandonment of God’s revealed word, as given through Moses. Jonah on the other hand, is called to go to Nineveh, of Assyria. He is called to go to God’s chosen people’s arch-enemy… People who did not have the Mosaic Law, or any such revealed Law. Yet Jonah is told to them and preach to Nineveh. In Jon. 1:2, we’re told that God has seen their evil. It is easy to assess whether God knows they are evil. However, it is the cities reaction that is most important.
When the king of Assyria hears the message that the city will be overthrown by God for their evil (Jon. 3:4), he commands his people to fast (which is not specifically a Jewish practice). He also tells them to put on sackcloth (a sign of repentance and sorrow). Then, he tells them the most significant words of all, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” (Jon 3:8-9).
We are not told what else Jonah had said while there. But these people did not start following the Jewish Law of Moses in order to repent. Instead, they fasted, felt sorrow, and ceased to commit evil. They obviously KNEW what evil they were doing, apart from the Mosaic Law. Because the sign of morality is written on our hearts.
It appears we have sufficient enough evidence within the scriptures to, at the least, conclude that there is a moral law written within our hearts. A law that all are aware of. A law that cannot be denied, since all seek some form of right and wrong, justice and wrath. Our next section should be much shorter, since we’ve established our initial premise within the biblical pattern.
Can reason and logic shed light on the moral law?
Fortunately for us, we’ve utilized simple reason and logic in the establishment of the first premise: is there a moral law in the biblical pattern. This should help alleviate some of the confusion that can so easily arise in such discussion. We must always drawback to what we’ve found in God’s word, and work from there.
There have been many contributors to the argument in support of a moral law, separate and apart from the word of God. None so recognized as: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963).
Lewis, I believe, makes the most prominent and clearly understood arguments of the three. I will utilize much of his thoughts found in his 1952 publication of “Mere Christianity”. Other notable contributors include W.R. Sorley (1855-1935), Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), and Elton Trueblood (1900-1994).
The basic and simple premise that is set forth by these men is as follows:
- Moral laws imply a moral lawgiver.
- There is an objective moral law.
- Therefore, there is a moral lawgiver.
Mind you, these are very simplified points to shorten the article. There is a great deal of reading on all sides. Some even have more than three points, perhaps four or five. They are all in line with this simple process of thinking, though.
I believe C.S. Lewis to be the best writing and explanation because of his style of writing, which simplifies a concept that might otherwise boggle the mind. His use of analogy and reason makes the argumentation easy to follow.
For instance, he starts with the idea that all men have a sense of morality. In that, they all have a sense of what ought to be done. The difference is that there are things we ought not do., and stuff we OUGHT to do. He establishes this, using a simple way of differentiating the laws of nature from the laws of human nature (moral law).
One of the points he makes in this distinction is: when it comes to the laws of nature, such as gravity. All bodies are subject to obey it, whether or not they desire to. If you or I were to drop a stone, it would fall. That is a fact of the law of nature. However, when it comes to the laws of human nature (moral law), we are given the ability to choose to obey or disobey, and often, we ALL choose the latter. The moral law is the sense in us that says, I ought to do this, but instead, I prefer this. Why do we have that feeling? That sense? What reason can we conclude for our sense of guilt, shame, wrongdoing?
As I mentioned earlier, how we apply morality and what we view as moral does indeed change over time. However, a sense of morality (right and wrong) never changes. Some moral attributes have been shared throughout time by all nations. Lewis states, “Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might as well think of a country where two and two made five.”
We ALL acknowledge certain things are shameful. That is why murder, in and of itself, has always been condemned. However, what people VIEW as murder has changed. It’s also one of the reasons drug and alcohol abuse is so rampant in society. The sense of guilt, shame, and turmoil over our wickedness cause us to seek to eliminate those feelings through substance abuse.
Have you ever wondered why people feel the need to make excuses in the first place? Something inside of them is speaking to the wrong they’ve done. In that wrong, they feel almost obligated to excuse such behavior under the guise of moral reasoning. Even when God condemns man throughout the scriptures, a good portion of the condemnation is for violating a fundamental principle: love your neighbor as yourself. Not violating the Christian laws, such as: “Sing and make melody to the Lord in your heart” (Eph. 5:19).
Lewis makes another keen observation regarding the internal guilt of man when it comes to poor behavior: “If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much; we feel the Rule of Law pressing in on us so; that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently, we try to shift responsibility. For you notice that it is only for the bad behavior that we find all these explanations. It is only for our bad temper that we put down to being tired, worried, or hungry; we put our good behavior down to ourselves.”
Again, let it be stated that we’re not talking deep specifics and agreement on WHAT is moral. Rather, we are discussing the concept that ALL people, since the CREATION, have sought a sense of morality; or at the least, acknowledged one, regardless of pursuit. This can be found in every human being alone. This is something that deep down, we all know. It is not in regard to education, societal norms, and cultural practices. No, if that were the case, then why do small villages with no real “education” or “society”, still strive for justice within their community? Why does man have a sense of right and wrong? If we were indeed given a moral law within our hearts, there must be a reason.
What then, is the law of Christ?
In this portion of our text, we will examine what the Law of Christ is, and how it differentiates from the moral law. The two must be established from one another, and in our final section, I’ll go into detail as to why, that is so.
In the first section of our discussion, I established a moral law within the biblical context, apart from the Mosaic Law. There will be no need to rehash the thought flow and verses for that. It should also help us understand much more straightforward and readily that there is a very distinct and clear difference between the moral law and the law of Christ.
We have already shown the clear distinction between that which is considered, revealed words of God, and that which has been written on the hearts of men. The chosen people have always had a standard that is above and beyond the standard of morality written on our hearts. As was shown with the city of Nineveh.
So naturally, if Christ came and laid down the law that ALL men should follow IF they desire reconciliation with God, it will go above and beyond what is already known.
Let us examine the elementary aspects of the law of Christ that differ from the moral law: Christians are called to worship together (Heb. 10:24-25), sing to God together (Eph. 5:19), partake of the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:17-32), and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18-19). There are certainly more, but these will suffice.
These are all specific things given to those who have submitted to the Law of Christ. These are commands that only a person who has a chance to hear (Rom. 10:17) or read (Acts 17:11), can choose to follow. NOT every human on the planet HAS already listened to the gospel and denied it. Some are still waiting to hear it, and some may never listen to it. However, with the moral law, ALL are keenly aware of a creator. Even if they choose to deny Him, which is, in fact, the whole point Paul makes in Romans 1-2.
Where the Law of Christ and the moral law overlap are those commands of Christ that fall in line with “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).In its simplest form, any time a command of Christ, whether through Him, or His beloved apostles, is given that adheres to this principle, it must overlap with the moral law. I will detail the need for the difference and its significance in the final section.
We need to be able to acknowledge at this point in our discussion that they are separate. One is simply the natural tendency to feel guilt, shame, and sorrow, through the avenue of morality. The other is the desire to go above and beyond the former to implement “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37).It is the combination of the two that creates the greatest commandments. Jesus even said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Is there really a need to differentiate between the two?
Most assuredly, the most excellent and most important question is this: is there a purpose and reason for differentiating between the Law of Christ and the moral law? There is! There MUST be!
Without the moral law, God would be rather cruel to condemn people who have no knowledge of Him. Without the moral law, it is simply against the nature of a loving God to say people all over the world, since the creation are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).Without the moral law, that statement that they are “without excuse”, is indeed a lie. We may consider ourselves loving parents. What parent would punish their child so severely for something they simply did not knowf? Something they could NEVER have known because they were not told in some form or fashion.
Differentiation between the two means that people of this world, if they are honest, will look to the creator through the inherent moral law. It means that, through the moral law, they can acknowledge a divine, moral being behind all of this. Once they can properly acknowledge this fact, they can seek to pursue Him through the avenue He has ordained. This is why ALL men everywhere are “Without excuse” because the moral law is evident within us.
It is also needed so that men everywhere can be rightfully called to repentance. It’s why Peter can tell the Jews (who literally participated in the death of Christ), to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38), and yet, the same message of repentance can be preached by Paul in Athens, Greece (Acts 17:30). This message can be preached toJews who were physically and literally responsible for the death of Christ, as well as these Greeks who had no real knowledge of the man Christ.
It’s why these Greeks, who did not participate in the chanting to release Barabbas, were called to repent just the same as the Jews who did. It’s why the Greeks, who were not standing before the cross of Calvary hurling insults at Christ, are called to the same repentance as the Jews who were. The moral law teaches ALL men that they are guilty of an offense against a Holy God! Praise God that He gave us this moral law that teaches us of our wickedness!
The Law of Christ, however, saves us from our violation of the moral law. Praise God even more for the fact that He found us a way of escape from our inability to keep the moral code written on our hearts. No man anywhere would be able to save himself by his ability to adhere to the moral law. That is why Christ did just that. He adhered to it perfectly, along with the Mosaic law, and died to release us from the guilt of our failure.
That is the entire premise of Paul’s internal battle recorded in Romans 7:15-25:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Thanks be to GOD through JESUS CHRIST our LORD!!! That is the key! A person that has not submitted to the Law of Christ, will die for denying Christ. They will die for their sin against the moral law and against the Son of God. They are not being condemned for NOT partaking in the Lord’s Supper, or singing with the saints. They will be condemned because their wickedness, according to the moral law, never received recompense.
As for you and I, we now hold to the Law of Christ, which goes above and beyond. We will be condemned if we do NOT adhere to the Lord’s Supper, the meeting of the saints, and so forth.
Without this distinction, men are condemned for lack of knowledge. Rather here, with the moral law as their evidence, they are condemned for not going further into the WHY, they are given this moral law. This is exactly why Paul can so readily write, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Some (Jews) do so according to the Law of Moses given on Mount Sinai. Others (Gentiles), do so according to the law that is written on their hearts, the moral law. The moral law teaches us of our sin against God, and the Law of Christ teach us how we can please God and serve Him, in His way.
There is certainly a reason for distinguishing between the two. The need is great! Knowing that God created mankind with a moral code, is exactly the thing we need to understand in order to know why we are condemned. It is my prayer that this article, long as it may be, has helped you in your understanding of the subject. If you find that you disagree with my position, please, bring it to my attention. If I have an error in my understanding, I do not wish to hold onto it. I desire, as I’m sure you do, to serve God in both Spirit and truth (John 4:24).
May God bless you as you continue to serve Him daily!