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Podcast: Do Christians Need to Follow the Mosaic Law? (Frank Thielman)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Understanding Tough Passages in Galatians

In this episode, Frank Thielman discusses what the New Testament, and particularly the apostle Paul, teaches about how Christians today should think about the Mosaic law. He reflects on why this seems like such a challenging, hermeneutical issue, why the topic of circumcision was so central in Paul's epistles, and how this so-called "new perspective" on Paul fits in this conversation.

ESV Expository Commentary

Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:32 - Does the Mosaic Law Apply to Christians Today?

Matt Tully
Frank, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Frank Thielman
I'm delighted to be here, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt Tully
Before jumping into the weeds on understanding what the New Testament actually teaches about how the Old Testament law applies, one bigger question that maybe some people have wrestled with—I know I have—is do you think that Scripture—in particular the New Testament—is crystal clear on this issue of exactly how it applies to believers today or are there some ambiguities or just things that are left a little less clear that we kind of have to become comfortable with?

Frank Thielman
I think there are hermeneutical ambiguities in exactly which laws carry over and which do not. But I think there are some pretty clear principles given, especially when you watch Jesus and his handling of the Mosaic law in his teaching and the way that he deals with the Mosaic law. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 he says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old . . .” (Matt. 5:21), then he'll quote a part of the Mosaic law. And then he'll say, “But I say to you . . .” (Matt. 5:22). And at first it looks like he's contrasting his teaching with the Mosaic law—that he's setting his teaching over against it. But when you look carefully at what he teaches, it's often bringing a principle that's buried in that Mosaic commandment forward to perfection. For example, in his treatment of divorce he quotes the Mosaic law, that Moses did allow divorce. He assumes that that is there, but he says that the law was given because of “the hardness of your heart” (Matt. 19:8). What he's talking about there is the law needing to be given within a context where not everybody within Israel was a believer. So this law of divorce had to function in a way to regulate divorce, which was not ideal and was not God's best plan at all; but divorces were going to happen within Israel, just like they happen within any society or within any nation. Moses gave this law that dealt with the hardness of people's hearts on one hand, but also dealt with it in a way that showed great compassion toward the woman who would be divorced. She was to be given a certificate of divorce, and that would allow her to marry someone else and not starve. But Jesus goes on and he says, “but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). In other words, this is not God's ideal for his people. We shouldn't just assume that divorce is the norm. Instead, God created man and woman to be in a monogamous relationship with each other in marriage and for that to last their whole lives. So that's the way that Jesus handles the Mosaic law. I think with a little bit of study of the teachings of Jesus, and also Paul's understanding of Jesus in his teachings, we can come to some real clarity about which parts of the Mosaic law move over very directly into the New Testament era and which parts are more ambiguous and that we can have some friendly debate about.

05:20 - Is the Tripartite Division of the Law Helpful?

Matt Tully
That's a helpful word of encouragement, as I'm sure many people have felt similar to how I feel at times of just wondering if there is clarity on this, or is there just inevitably going to be so many different opinions on these things and different ways of reading the text. One of the most common ways of talking about the Old Testament law and its application to Christians today is to divide the law up into these three categories: the moral component, the ceremonial component, and the legal component. I think Calvin is a good example of this. He did that in his Institutes. Some people will say the ceremonial and legal aspects of the law have fallen away, they're not applicable to Christians today—although maybe we could learn from them in some ways—but the moral aspects are still applicable. So that's kind of a shorthand that they have for trying to explain why some apply and some don't. I know others have rejected that because they feel like that's imposing an extrabiblical framework on what the biblical text is actually doing. I'm curious if you have an opinion on that—do you think that's a helpful way to break things up?

Frank Thielman
I think from a first century Jewish perspective, dividing the law in that tripartite way between moral, ceremonial, and legal is not helpful because historically no Jewish person would have said that you could divide the law. Each part of a law is God's word, and the law can't be divided up in that way. From the perspective of systematic theology, I can understand why Calvin and the Reformed church analyzed the law in that way. I think it's a New Testament way of analyzing the law, but projecting backward from conclusions that draw based on the New Testament and the Old Testament. For example, if Calvin were to have a discussion with a first century Jewish person, I'm not sure they would know what Calvin was talking about. But what Calvin said was quite helpful for us today. It's a way of showing that, given what the gospel says, there are parts of the law that point forward to Jesus and his sacrifice—the ceremonial law. There are parts of the law that were intended for the nation of Israel as a nation, and there are parts of the law that are moral—the Ten Commandments mainly fall into this category—in the sense that they stay enduring moral precepts that often many societies in the world discover humanity best lives by. No society functions very well for very long if people don't observe the commandments “Thou shall not steal, you shall not murder, you shall not bear false witness.” Society best works when those laws are followed, and those are woven into the fabric of humanity because God created us that way. In other words, I don't think it's inappropriate to analyze the law of God in those three categories, but we have to understand that when we're doing that we're doing systematic theology. We're not doing something that any first century Jewish person would have understood very well, and we're really not following categories that Jesus himself talked about, or that Paul talked about. When we're talking about the New Testament and interpreting Galatians, we're talking about Paul's argument that the Mosaic law was valid until Christ came. So the Mosaic law, functioning in the way that God gave it to function, has now been set aside. Now we have what Paul would call the “law of Christ”—he refers to the law of Christ in Galatians 6:2. If you analyze it and look at it, it's the Mosaic law—it's Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The law of Christ is built on the Mosaic law and brings the Mosaic law to its intended perfection for the people of God, but in such a way that the people of God now consists of more than just the nation of Israel—we come from all the nations of the earth. I know it's sort of a complicated answer, but that's the way I would approach the tripartite understanding of the law in systematic theology.

10:38 - The Backdrop of Galatians

Matt Tully
That's really helpful. As you mentioned, the book of Galatians is a pretty crucial New Testament book where Paul says a lot about this issue—how the law functions in the life of the Christian, what its original intended purpose was. He seems to be doing that in a way that's correcting a misunderstanding of his original readers. Maybe before jumping into some key passages in Galatians that I would love to discuss with you, can you give us a quick sketch of what was going on in Galatia—what was the historical context and the impetus for the book that we should know before we try to understand what Paul actually said?

Frank Thielman
Galatians was written early in Paul's career, and I'm beginning to think it was probably written from the city of Corinth. So it's a very early letter of Paul. It was written to churches that were in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia—the churches of Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and the church in Antioch. These were churches Paul and Barnabas had both founded on their first missionary journey, and then Paul revisited them on his second missionary journey. This was a period of time in which there was a great deal of foment, in Judea especially, among people that were Jewish Christians. They were asking questions like the questions we just discussed—What parts of the Mosaic law are still valid? Which ones are not? They were working through those problems. People came to the conclusion that it was really important for any Gentiles who were interested in believing in the Messiah to actually become Jewish in order to complete their original faith in Christ, their original faith in the Messiah. Paul saw this, very perceptibly, as a violation of two principles. First of all, that salvation cannot come by anything human beings do. Righteousness with God only comes by trusting in God's ability to save us through Christ and through the gospel. And secondly, Paul saw this as a violation to the promise to Abraham, that Abraham would be the father to many nations, and not just of one nation. If all the Gentiles who want to believe the gospel have to become Jewish, then Abraham is only the father of the Jewish people. That wouldn't fulfill the promise to Abraham. If the promise to Abraham is to be fulfilled, then all the nations of the earth have to be included, and that means they need to be included by some means other than becoming Jewish. Paul sees faith as that means. There were some Jewish Christians in southern Galatia who had come to this conclusion that Gentiles had to complete their faith by becoming Jewish, and Paul writes this letter to set that false teaching straight. He's very concerned about it. It's a very emotional letter.

14:25 - If Justification Is by Faith, Why Did God Give the Law?

Matt Tully
In Galatians 3:19, Paul seems to ask a question on behalf of his readers. It's probably one of the first questions that many of us have when we see him saying the law is no longer this dominating thing for the life of the Christian. He asks this question: If the righteous live by faith, and we don't get justified by the law, why did God give Israel the law? Can you summarize his answer to that initial question?

Frank Thielman
He asks the question himself. He knows this will be a question. If the law is so often alive with sin, and if our attempts to obey the law can never make us right with God, and if Christ had been crucified and take the curse that the law placed upon us, is the law against the promises of God? Is the law really aligned with God, or is somehow the law against God? Why then the law? He recognizes that these are very good questions, but he's also very clear that the law does come from God. It's God's word. Paul calls it “Scripture” in Galatians 3:22—“But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin . . .”—and that's in the process of answering the question, Why then the law? He says that Scripture imprisoned everyone under sin “so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). Paul explains this much more fully in Romans, particularly Romans 5 and in Romans 7. But the short answer is that God did not actually give the law so that we might be made right with him by keeping it. God is true to his word. He's true to his promises. If we could succeed in keeping the whole law, he would save us by that means. But God gave us the law to show us that we're sinful. That's what Paul means when he says “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin” (Gal. 3:22). God knew when he gave the law that we could not keep it. The law promises life to those who keep it. Deuteronomy 30: “Do these things and you shall live.” It's not as if God gave us a law that was too hard to keep. Deuteronomy is also very clear about that. It's not an unreasonable law. At any given moment, keeping the commandment "You shall not covet" is not a difficult commandment. But over the course of an entire lifetime, keeping the commandment "You shall not covet" is very difficult to keep everyday over the course of a lifetime. And so it is with commandments of God—absolutely none of them are unreasonable. We recognize that when we realize that there are just ways of treating others the way that we would want to be treated, and ways of acknowledging God for who he is—they're very reasonable. But the thing is, no human being can keep these laws in their entirety. When God gave the law he knew it would show us that his holiness is far beyond our fallen human ability to match and that we cannot keep the law. It's purpose was to show us why faith in Christ is necessary. Why it was necessary for Christ to die on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin, and why righteousness with God can only come by faith in him. It can't come by any human means. Paul says that in a nutshell in Galatians 3:19-22: “Why then the law . . . because of transgression.” What Paul means by that is it was added to show that sin is transgression against God. Sin is kind of a vague concept. Transgression is a more specific concept. It refers to crossing a line. When we have a law in place that tells us what to do and what not to do, we know real clearly and very specifically that we've crossed a line and that we've violated it. So the law was added to define sin as transgression. And then Paul goes on: “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Gal. 3:19); and that, of course, is Christ. And it was put in place, Paul says, at that time until Christ should come (Gal. 3:24). So, it was temporary, and it was not God's ultimate way of addressing sin. It didn't say everything that needed to be said about sin. It defined sin very clearly, but it didn't offer the remedy for the problems introduced by people who sin against it. Only Christ could do that.

20:13 - Does Paul Contradict Himself?

Matt Tully
You mentioned that idea of spiritual circumcision, and that ties into the broader topic of circumcision that Paul comes to in Galatians 5 where he says those who would say that physical circumcision is required for the Christian are actually “severed from Christ” (Gal. 5:4)—pretty strong language. Earlier in Galatians 2 we see how he's emphasizing that Titus wasn't allowed to get circumcised as a Gentile. Those who are familiar with that might also recognize that we have this story in Acts 16 where Paul actually does have Timothy—another Gentile—circumcised. I'm curious, how does circumcision fit into this conversation, and why does it seem like Paul does two different things at different spots?

Frank Thielman
That's a very common question and a good one. Everything has to do with the circumstances. Paul was not against circumcision per se. In Romans 4 he says that circumcision served as a sign and seal (Rom. 4:11) of the faith of Abraham. So the problem is not with circumcision per se. The problem is the reasons for which circumcision was undertaken. The problem in Galatia is that people are requiring circumcision as a necessity of membership within the people of God, and Paul believes that is to set up a human work as an entry requirement into the people of God. And that entry, Paul insists, is only by God's grace and is a matter of human faith. So why did he have Timothy circumcised? Because Timothy was actually Jewish. His mother was Jewish. His father was a Greek. Timothy was actually from southern Galatia. He was from these churches that Paul is writing to right here. There was a great deal of foment in southern Galatia among Jewish people who were quite aware that the Roman empire in various ways had treated them unfairly. He very much wanted to preserve their distinctives as Jewish people. Paul was not against Jewish Christians preserving their distinctiveness as Jewish people. He was not at all against Jewish people continuing to circumcise their male young as long as they didn't believe that was necessary for salvation. What he was against was forcing non-Jewish people to be circumcised as a necessary requirement for entering the people of God. He absolutely insisted that Titus—who was a Greek—not be circumcised, but he encouraged Timothy to be circumcised. In fact, the book of Acts says that Paul did the circumcising. If you read the Greek text carefully, it says Paul circumcised him. It doesn't say Paul had him circumcised. Paul was a learned rabbi, so he knew how to do circumcisions. He circumcised Timothy, and he did that because Timothy was Jewish, and Timothy's reputation was undoubtedly widely known as an uncircumcised Jewish person whose mother had not had him circumcised because the father was Greek. Paul didn't want that to be a stumbling block. I'm sure Timothy was happy to have it done. If Timothy had resisted, Paul wouldn't have done it. With Timothy's permission and seeing the necessity of it for a mission strategy, Paul did it. I think this falls right in line with the strategy Paul articulates in 1 Corinthians 9:19-21 where he says that to the Jews he is a Jew; and when among Gentiles, he lives as a Gentile. The point is not to put any stumbling block in the way of the progress of the gospel. So he's not going to give unnecessary offense. You can see the wisdom actually in Paul having done that if you look over in Acts 21 and 22 where Paul does finally end up in Jerusalem. One of the first things that James, who is the leader of the Jerusalem Christian community, says to him when Paul arrives is, Paul, word has gotten out that you are teaching Jewish people not to circumcise their male young. And that's not what Paul was teaching. Paul doesn't want that to be a hindrance to the progress of the gospel, and I think that's why he had Timothy circumcised.

Matt Tully
So, it was a cultural thing that had a missiological purpose, but Paul wasn't changing his theology of what circumcision meant and what it was for.

Frank Thielman
Not at all. It was actually perfectly consistent with the theology that's articulated in Paul's letters all the way through.

26:00 - Galatians and the New Perspective on Paul

Matt Tully
Another kind of broad issue—maybe the elephant in the room for pastors or those who have studied some of these things before—is this broad topic of the new perspective on Paul. How does that fit into this? How would someone who advocates for that understanding of both the law but also what justification is and how Christians are justified—what Paul's saying when he says that we're justified by faith and not by works of the law like circumcision. How would that person understand Paul's argument here in Galatians?

Frank Thielman
When I talk about the new perspective, I always like to talk about it as a scholarly movement that is quite diverse. The two representatives of it that I'm most familiar with are James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright. I would just say about their scholarly work that I think they've been very helpful in many ways at helping us understand the mid-first century background within the Judaism of the time that forms the backdrop for Galatians and Romans and Paul's theology. What they've very helpfully reminded us of is that Paul's theology is very much about the church and the multi-ethnic nature of the church. The church does not just consist of one group of people with one language and one set of customs but is a multinational, multi-ethnic group. I think that's a wonderful emphasis. It's there all through the Bible, and you find it in Paul and the new perspective has helped us to appreciate that greatly. I think I would want to tweak and differ from those positions a little bit. Sometimes when I read new perspective advocates on justification and the way it works, I think the Reformers got justification exactly right. When I read Luther and Calvin on justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law, I think they have understood Paul extraordinarily well. So, anyone that wants to say they didn't understand Paul, I will hear them out and hear what they have to say, but I have not been convinced by any new perspective author that Luther and Calvin didn't get the basic principle behind justification correct. I think they did. I do think that sometimes new perspective authors have been misread on this. They have to be read very carefully, and I think sometimes positions have been attributed to them that they don't actually hold. I do think occasionally they have also said things in ways that have brought some controversy. But basically, I just read the new perspective stuff very much like I read G. K. Chesterton. There is a lot of G. K. Chesterton I absolutely love. He is so good on so many things, but when Chesterton starts talking about Calvinism and Protestantism I don't follow him there. So there's some new perspective authors that I kind of view in the same way. I think they've done a lot of good work in a lot of areas, and I want to benefit from those areas; but there are also other areas where I'm going to go right back to the Reformers to get my theology. That's kind of my approach there.

30:35 - Understanding the Mosaic Law as a Lutheran and a Calvinist

Matt Tully
Final question: Broadly speaking, among many Protestants, when it comes to understanding the law there are two camps—there's the Lutheran side of things and there's the Calvin side of things. Calvin famously advocates for three uses of the law among Christians today, and Lutherans now often say there's only two uses. Based on all that we've said here today about Galatians and understanding what Paul says what the purpose of the law is and continues to be, where do you fall on the side of that debate?

Frank Thielman
My instincts are Calvinist. I was raised in a Presbyterian home and I'm an ordained Presbyterian minister, so it won't surprise anyone that I like Calvin. I always want to put the Bible first. If I discover that the Bible corrects Calvin, then I go with the Bible. The Bible is the word of God, and Calvin would want me to do that. I do think the classic Reformed understanding of the relationship between the two testaments is very valuable and helpful understanding. I think the Lutherans have something to teach us here too. We need to be careful about overemphasizing our own distinctives and we need to recognize that there are ambiguities and we probably need to be more unified than we sometimes are when we divide up into our various camps. I think being careful students of the Bible can do that for us. We can see where the ambiguities lie and why Luther articulated certain things some way and Calvin in other ways. But I do think the Bible is a unity. I think that justification by faith alone is taught in the Old Testament. I do think that there is plenty of law in the New Testament. I believe that it's really important for Christians to keep the law of God. We don't keep the law of God in order to get right with God, but we do need to keep the law of God as a matter of sanctification. That's taught from the beginning to the end of the Bible—that we need to live as the holy people of God, set apart from the world around us. Not in some kind of cliquish way, but in a missional way, to show the people around us what the character of God is like—that he is merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and that he is concerned for the oppressed and the poor, the disenfranchised, the widow and the orphan. That goes all the way through from the beginning to the end of the Bible. It's what's taught in the law of God; it's what's taught in the teachings of Jesus; you see it there in Paul's writings as well and also in the other writings of the New Testament. Rather than talk about Lutherans and Calvinists, I would just talk about the importance of a biblical theology and seeing the Bible as having unity on these really important topics.

Matt Tully
That's such a good word. I appreciate you taking the time today to help all of us better understand not just a little bit of the book of Galatians, but this broader topic that is often so confusing or overwhelming for us as we try to understand what it is that Paul is saying. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

Frank Thielman
Matt, thank you. It's been a delight.


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