Written by BCC Counselor Dan Tsouloufis
“It’s just too hard to do what God says – I’m frustrated, I can’t ever do it. I’ve read the Bible, and it seems like there is command after command – and many of the commands seem strange or a bit off. I’m not sure that I want the ‘biblical’ part of biblical counseling. It’s all so confusing to me – I believe in Jesus, but the rest of the Bible I have my doubts about.”
Perhaps you have had these thoughts or find yourself interacting with people at work, school, or family gatherings who would feel similar.
How we interpret the Bible makes a big difference in how we apply the Bible. Good biblical counseling doesn’t ignore the commands of Scripture that we don’t like, but it also gives context as to why some commands of Scripture have been replaced by the death of Christ on the cross.
We often interact with those in counseling who may ask questions like: “Are the Old Testament laws and commands even relevant today?” or “Should we just follow the way of Jesus and view the laws as outdated and useless because Jesus came?”
This article will help answer those questions and explain how to view these laws from the Old Testament.
The Law reminds us that we have a problem.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he was revealing to the Jews that, despite his own commitment to observing the law (i.e. the Mosaic Law), he had come to realize that he was condemned – not saved – by observing the law.
Secondly, Paul was revealing to the Gentiles that even though they were not “under the law”, they were nonetheless condemned due to their sin and rebellion with respect to God’s holiness and justice.
In their wickedness, both Jews and Gentiles were deserving of God’s wrath due to their sin, since they had violated God’s standards as reflected in His law. Their inability to keep the law, not the law itself, was the source of their broken relationship with God.
The Law reminds us of the character of God.
The law was put in place as a guardian (Gal. 3:24, and in some translations: schoolmaster or tutor) until Christ would come to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17-20). The law served to point us to Christ and His righteousness, which is the only righteousness that could impart life to us (Gal. 3:21).
Thus, the law was never meant to save us. Rather, we are saved by Christ’s righteousness that we receive by faith, which then becomes our righteousness since we now live according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4). The law was a shadow that pointed to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross, which Christ endured in order to cleanse us from our sin and unrighteousness due to our failure to keep the law (Heb. 10:1-4).
Therefore the ceremonial laws and the laws pertaining to the tabernacle and temple are no longer needed/required (Heb. 9:11-15). This should be an indication to us that Jesus came to fulfill the law, rather than do away with it completely.
We believe the law still exists, but we are no longer “under the law” with respect to the Old Covenant. Instead, we are under the “law of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:2) with respect to the New Covenant. The law is still holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12-13) because the law is a reflection of God’s holy character, and it serves to reveal our sins. Therefore in its general sense, it remains relevant for us, even though we are no longer bound by its ceremonial and dietary commands.
For example, the law had functioned (in part) to separate Israel from the Gentiles. But the coming of Christ in the New Covenant brought Jews and Gentiles together under one gospel of grace, as the Gentiles were grafted into the same tree with Israel (Rom. 11:11-24). Certainly, this function of the law is no longer required.
The Law reminds us to grow in grace.
Under the New Covenant, the primary purpose of the law for the Christian is that it serves to guide the believer in sanctification and obedience. In this sense it serves a moral purpose, but not a salvific one. In Reformed theological circles, this is known as the “third use of the law.”
Since we now live according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:25), we should seek to please God and worship Him out of a sense of gratitude for the mercy He has given us through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross (Rom. 12:1). As such, our response to God’s grace should be one of faithful obedience and good works that are motivated by gratitude.
As the late theologian R.C. Sproul keenly said, “The sum of theology is grace; the sum of ethics is gratitude.”
Why does all this matter?
First, we all need to embrace the gospel of grace, not moralism.
Since unregenerate people cannot obey God’s law on their own power nor please God with their own righteousness, simply choosing to live a moral life will not lead anyone to justification or right standing before a holy God.
Good counseling cannot simply teach moralism because this will not lead to growth in sanctification. We need God’s Word as well as the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17; Rom. 8:5-6, 8:12-13; Gal. 5:16-17).
Second, we all need to find the balance between the restrictions of the Bible and the freedom we have in Christ.
Some people focus more on legalism and keeping the law than on passages that convey our freedom in Christ. We need to maintain a balance, based on the whole counsel of Scripture and careful interpretation of the law.
As such, we don’t want to drift too far one way and become legalistic in our thinking, thereby choking out grace. Nor do we want to drift too far the other way and become antinomian in our thinking, thereby disregarding God’s command to be holy.
Rather, we can, and should, walk in true freedom in Christ (based on His righteousness, not our own), while we pursue holiness and grow in sanctification.
Otherwise, we may end up cultivating a works-based righteousness, which will not draw us any closer to Christ nor give us peace and freedom in Christ. Moreover, works-based righteousness demonstrates a lack of trust in Christ’s atonement for our sins.
Third, we all need to pursue a strong connection with God.
None of us can obey God’s law merely on our own power – we need His help. As Jesus declared, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17).
Further, Jesus said, “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (John 16:7). “But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
Rather than throwing out the portions of the Bible that seem weird to us, careful interpretation can help you understand what purpose they serve in the complete story of God.
Even the strange laws, which no longer apply in a binding way, tell us something about God and His character. His character hasn’t changed, even after Christ came and fulfilled the law by giving us complete and permanent forgiveness of sins.
If we are going to please God, we have to be careful to understand His words and the purposes of His commands, so that we don’t restrict what God allows or embrace what God prohibits.
Great article! Thank you.
Yes, many counselees struggle with legalism and it is a joy to see them find God’s grace and peace in the Gospel when they finally let go of the legalism.