What is the biblical definition of the law?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: What is the biblical definition of the law?

Answer: If you search a standard English dictionary for the term "law," you’ll find that it is used in many ways. This shows that legal concepts permeate our lives… and it’s the same with the Bible. You see, the Bible contains the records of people’s lives, and it also has some moral commentary. As such, it’s a good reflector of human life in its period. And since God uses common language, common culture and common experience to communicate uncommon things to common people, concepts that translate into the English word law infuse the Bible — just like they infuse our lives today.

There are obvious differences and emphases, of course. It’s hard not to think of the Ten Commandments when talking about biblical law… and I’d guess that’s the first thing many people would think about. But even that notion is flexible. Jesus condensed these ten into only two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40), and Jewish tradition sees upwards of 613 in the extended version. As you can see, different people will mean different things by the word law even when referencing the Bible or the Judeo-Christian tradition.

We also hear terms like the Law of Moses or the Mosaic Law to reference all or part of the Old Testament law, so a lot of different terms circle the same ideas — and few are precise. In fact, some terms can refer to more than one thing… such as the word “law” in the following verse.

This is the law Moses set before the Israelites. (Deuteronomy 4:44, NIV)

In the verse, the word law is referencing the collection of laws itself — and you might recognize the Hebrew word for this body of work — the Torah. But speech — and especially figures of speech — show the plastic nature of language.

For example, God introduced the Mosaic law early in the Old Testament. As such, it gets a lot of play in the early books… so much so that, despite having other important narratives like the creation, the flood of Noah, the call of Abraham and the Exodus from Egypt, the Jews take the first five books of Scripture — which is the historical record of God calling them as a people — and call them the Torah… the law. This shows me that they identify with the law more than with their history… or that they see their history as the law — and that the historical narratives are merely supporting detail.

Perhaps this is what drives the metonymy where the meaning of “the law” extends to the books of the law themselves (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy collectively) — so that in the right context, a communicator might use the word law to reference the five-book collection or vice versa. The same action comes to bear where the word Torah is sometimes used in a synagogue to refer to the physical scroll which contains the Hebrew Scripture.

Let’s look at how the Apostle Paul used the term law. The following passage demonstrates just how flexible that word can be.

(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) (Romans 2:14–15, NIV, emphasis mine).

The highlighted word law refers to the honorable behavior of pagans — and not to the law of God. But the same Greek word is used for all the occurrences of the word law in that passage. What we have then is the word law meaning a set of moral laws that are commonly known but not necessarily written down anywhere and the Mosaic law — arguably the most well-known written code of all time… but in the same sentence!

We should remember that people were aware of God’s law before Moses. Abel sacrificed rightly, Noah obeyed God, and people like Abraham and Job were performing the priestly duties and animal sacrifices centuries before the laws were written down. There has always been — and will always be — a “law” of God in the air (so to speak)… and in my opinion, this is a piece of important evidence for the existence of God. As Romans 2:14-15 demonstrates, he created us with the law in our hearts… and this simply shows up everywhere — in Scripture and in life! But this can make the word “law” hard to pin down.

I’ll end with what I feel is the most important use of the term law for the New Testament believer. It is used broadly to differentiate its own dispensation (the age of law) from our current dispensation — the age of grace.

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
(Romans 10:4, NIV)

For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also. (Hebrews 7:12, NIV)

We believers should remember that Jesus did not destroy the law. He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). But the problem is that by fulfilling it, he has removed the curse of the law from us (Romans 8:1)… and that’s the part we associate with the law. So, when Jesus fulfilled the law — and I’m speaking from a cursed sinner’s perspective — he did indeed destroy it! … the burden of it, anyway. And in so doing, he set us up to treat law and grace as binary entities — as an either/or construction which evident in the “not under the law, but under grace” portion of the following verse.

For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:14, NIV)

The either/or construction works to communicate Paul’s intentions for the above sentence, but he is not making a statement of what is technically true of law/grace or what is true of them throughout all time. The law cannot be eliminated. It does the important work of calling sin a sin (and calling a sinner a sinner!) As such, the law will always be part of the Gospel — part of redemption… and perhaps the real answer to your question is right here.

God unfolded redemption progressively. And in the age of the law, the biblical definition of the law was different than what it is now… and I think that Paul captured this nicely.

Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. (Galatians 3:24–25, AV)

There’s nothing wrong with the law. But we’ve graduated to grace! Now, the law remains foundational to our faith… so it never goes away. But once we have graduated from elementary school, we never have to go back there to prove we can do our sums. Instead, we live the life that school has prepared us for. And while we are there — in our mature Christian lives — we use the definitions that are appropriate to that life.

The law was our schoolmaster… but it is still the foundation of our morality. And — thanks be to Jesus Christ who died to save us — its curse cannot touch us.

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10, NIV)

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