Romans 2:12-16 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 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 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
(Note: what follows is not a complete exegesis of this passage; it is a focused review of the stated topic.)
A casual read of this paragraph has caused many to get confused about Paul’s use of the term “the law;” it requires careful thought and analysis of what he is saying here and what is revealed elsewhere. Much of Paul’s use of “the law” is clearly meant to refer to the Mosaic Covenant and the Law of Moses. Those without the law are Gentiles: everyone who was not a Jew in Paul’s day, and includes all people in all ages who were not part of national Israel. It was clearly Paul’s kinsmen of the flesh who had “the law” in this paragraph.
Lost Gentiles are not without a law; God’s universal law convicts them of certain truths. We in the New Covenant are not without law; but we are not within the Law of Moses.
James gives the same counsel as Paul: But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25) We see reference to a different law than that of Moses; one that is given to the church, not national Israel. He picks this up again in chapter two, My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. (James 2:1) Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:8-9) This phrase, love your neighbor as yourself, is the second great command, taken from Lev 19:18. It is the other side of the coin which also conveys the greatest command: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might, cited from Deuteronomy 6:5. On these two commands, neither taken from the Decalogue, hang the Law and the prophets – all the scripture then in hands of man. This shows us that while the Law of Moses is not our master, certain truths that apply to all of God’s people are found in his books. Jesus draws out two and declares them to be supreme to the Old Covenant, the essence of the New Covenant – love for God and one another; love as defined and portrayed in the Bible, not as our culture as deceitfully defined it these past few centuries.
Paul clarifies this in his letter to the Galatians, wherein he gives another term for the perfect law, the law of liberty, the royal law. These are not different laws we must figure out, they are different terms for the same divine concept, in simplicity for those in Christ, contrasted to the endlessly complex scheme developed by the nation of Israel. The New Covenant is contrasted with the Old Covenant in several places, the most familiar one being in Hebrews 8 where the old covenant is described as obsolete and ready to vanish. In Galatians 4 the old covenant is described as earthly Jerusalem and represents slavery while the new covenant is heavenly new Jerusalem wherein lies liberty. We, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise, children of the free woman. And our apostle gives us clear counsel on how to keep this law. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:1-2) This is the love of God expressed in the body of Christ – we love Him by loving one another, and this is an example of biblical love – confronting a brother caught in sin. Not exactly what the world presents as love, is it?
While only the redeemed truly love God, even we are unable to love Him with all that is within us, as the first commandment requires. In the age to come, unstained and not tempted by sin, we will be able to fulfill this law. We can, however, love one another because Christ first loved us. This must be a deliberate focus as our fleshly desires will work against us. There can be no fatalistic “let go and let God” into our lives for He tells us to work out our own salvation (here meaning the present tense “being saved” that characterizes our daily walk) with fear and trembling. As one preacher put it years ago, “The path of least resistance makes both man and rivers crooked.” Seek after the Lord – He will make your pathway straight!
You will hear simple rules such as “if it’s not repeated in the NT it doesn’t apply” and its corollary, “if it’s not repealed by the NT it applies.” These are easy to remember but not at all accurate. Tithing is seen before the Mosaic Covenant and required during it, including those Jews who lived in last century of that covenant, during Paul’s time. Such activity is taken note of the NT but not once is tithing taught by word or example as a New Covenant rule. Without understanding the rule of covenants, one cannot comprehend what rules apply. As Martin Luther summed it up, we follow Christ Jesus, not Moses – and Moses stands with us, accusing those who think their feeble attempts at keeping the Law of Moses will merit favor with YHWH (John 5:45).
The ancient preacher agrees with his New Testament brothers. He gave this advice as the sum of all he had written: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)
Jesus said the same thing: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
Note these tangible actions of loving one another in Christ. This is fulfilling the law of Christ, the law of liberty, the royal law – the focus being on truly loving one another within the body of Christ in response to being loved by Him. This is the same thing Paul, James, and Peter have taught.
After feeding the five thousand, many followed after Him because He fed them. Seek after the food that leads to eternal life, He told them. They then asked Him What must we do to be doing the works of God? (John 6:29) Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” This is the law of Christ – believe in Him, love Him, love one another.
Many Christians are struggling to keep the Law of Moses, having a faulty guide for interpreting Scripture. The right view of man and his need of Christ, with the biblical record of the faithfulness and sufficiency of Christ Jesus will provide the guardrails we need to keep from thinking the heavy yoke of the Old Covenant is ours. Acts 15:10 has Peter rebuking Jewish Christians who taught this: Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? Jesus, on the other hand, said Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
There is an old covenant, and old law, and a heavy yoke that was given on stone tablets to a people with stone hearts who worshipped in a stone temple. There is a new covenant with an easy yoke, a spiritual law written on tablets of flesh, given to people with hearts of flesh who worship as a spiritual temple; our Savior bids us find our rest in Him.
All will be made plain on the day of judgment, when God brings this age to its end.