Christians and the Law: A Friendly Response to Tim Keller’s “Making Sense of Scripture’s ‘Inconsistency’”

With the recent marriage ruling by the Supreme Court, I’ve seen several people on Facebook link to this 2012 Gospel Coalition article by Tim Keller: Making Sense of Scripture’s “Inconsistency”.

Keller sought to give a brief explanation as to why Christians still seem to hold to Old Testament teaching that condemn homosexuality yet “ignore lots of Old Testament texts—about not eating raw meat or pork or shellfish, not executing people for breaking the Sabbath,” etc. Keller addressed the charge that Christians seem to be inconsistent in what they accept from the Old Testament, and especially the Law, and what they do not.

As a staunch Presbyterian, Keller did not surprise in his explanation to divide the Law into the civil, the ceremonial, and the moral. As his and the typical “reformed” explanation goes: the church is not a theocratic nation-state so we are not bound by the civil, Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial as the great sacrifice so we are not bound by those either, but God’s ethic does not change so we are still bound by the moral.

I agree with the line of thinking in this way: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever; in him there is no shifting of shadows; and his nature has defined the true north of the moral compass for all eternity.

However, being from the Show Me State I have to reply with a skeptical “show me” when it comes to the overarching argument itself: Where in Scripture do we ever find such a breakdown of the Law and how do we know what Laws belong where?

On the one hand, yes do not murder is clearly a moral issue; but what about that law from Deuteronomy 22:8 that says you must build a fence around your roof so you’re not guilty of bloodshed if someone falls off? That certainly seems like a moral issue, yet I don’t see too many roof fences around. Of course, some would say, “Well, the application of that principle today would be…”—fair enough, but it still shows a point: we can be kind of inconsistent with the “moral laws” as well.

I would say that the Bible offers a better response than the standard Reformed breakdown, and that is: We are not under the Law at all. Some of you will surely agree, others of you just shared a collective gasp—hold that breath for a moment. To say that we are not under the Law at all is not necessarily to become an anything goes antinomian, as I’ll detail below. Like I said: God’s moral character is unchanging; but I believe the New Testament teaches that when Christ came the Law—the entire Law had served its purpose and no longer holds sway over us. Instead, we are remade in Christ with new hearts, new desires, and the Holy Spirit dwelling within us who leads us into a new kind of law, what Paul calls the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) and James the law of liberty (James 1:25) and royal law (2:8). This law could be called the law of love as it was defined by Jesus in Matthew 22 as love God and love your neighbor.

So, for example, we don’t murder because it was written on tablets of stone thou shalt not murder; we don’t murder because we love our neighbor and love always seeks the good of another.

I would argue that the clearest text about this is the entire book of Galatians. There, Paul dealt with a situation in the churches of Galatia where certain teachers from a staunchly Jewish background had crept in and told the Gentile Christians, “Faith in Jesus is good, but if you really want to be part of the Family, then you have to be circumcised as well.” To say that this ticked off Paul would be an understatement.

His argument about faith and the Law begins in earnest in 2:15 and follows through most of the rest of the letter. Some highlights include Paul’s insistence that no one will be justified by keeping the Law (2:16), in Christ we are dead to the Law (2:19), and that the Holy Spirit comes upon a person by faith and not by keeping the Law (3:2).

Then Paul weaved his way to the purpose of the Law. In 3:24-25 he called it a “guardian.” In other words, the Law kept watch over God’s people “until Christ came.” Since Christ has come, Paul argued, “We are no longer under a guardian.” That is about a clear of a statement on the issue one comes across: The Law was a guardian until Christ came; Christ came and we are no longer under the guardian; therefore, in Christ we are no longer under the Law.

Paul did not make a distinction between different types of law. He simply pointed back to the Law as a whole. And if we are confused on that point, in 4:21-31 he spoke of Hagar and Sarah in an allegorical fashion. He called one a slave woman who bears children for slavery (Hagar), and the other a free woman who bears children for freedom (Sarah). Then Paul called Hagar Sinai and Sarah the Jerusalem above (which could be taken as Zion).

Of course, the most famous thing about Sinai, and Paul’s point in context, is that it was the place Moses received the Ten Commandments and then additional laws giving further explanation to the Ten—the items some know as moral, ceremonial, and civil laws. Paul then wrote, “‘Cast out the slave woman and her son…’ So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (4:30-5:1). In other words: you’re free from the Law, the entire Law, so quit trying to submit to certain parts of it.

Now Paul was well aware that a misunderstanding here could lead to antinomianism. So after a brief trek back to the issue of circumcision, he returned to the idea of freedom from the Law and wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:13-14). Here we find a reference back to Jesus’ Matthew 22 summary of love: “On these two commands hang the entire Law and prophets;” and we find a response to irresponsible antinomianism.

It’s not do whatever you want, do what feels right, redefine your morality. No, Paul doubled down on the unchanging morality of God. But he came at it from a different way. Instead of words on stone, we have the Spirit of the God who defines true morality within us.

In our state of sin apart from Christ we were bound by the flesh. Paul said, “The works of the flesh are evident.” And the very first thing he mentioned is sexual immorality. Ultimately, the Bible always takes sexual ethics back to Genesis 2, before the fall: one man, one woman, bound together as husband and wife, sharing one flesh. Anything else, including heterosexuality and homosexuality, is defined under sexual immorality—a work of the flesh, not of the Spirit.

Likewise, Paul listed under fleshly works: impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the likes. And those who practice such things “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Instead, being in Christ and having his Spirit we are freed from the Law and free to live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “Against such things there is no law.” Thus, we are free to live by something greater: the character the Spirit of God within us produces. Whether we’re talking heterosexual desires or homosexual desires, self-control is the very thing that leads us to be able to abstain from sexual relations outside of a Genesis 2 one flesh definition.

Side note here: Paul wrote about this in shorter order in 2 Corinthians 3 where he contrasted letters carved in stone with the ministry of the Spirit—a clear reference to the Ten versus the Spirit within.

Now this is not to say that the Law is without purpose today. Though it is no longer a guardian holding sway over us, Paul wrote that it still proves we are sinners in need of a greater righteousness (Galatians 3:19, cf. Romans 7 where Paul also states in 7:6 that we are “released from the Law” before going onto speak about the purpose of the Law).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even upped the game a bit by teaching that with the Law it’s not merely about the exact commands but the heart behind them. Anger and hate are akin to murder even if you don’t carry out the physical act (Matthew 5:21-26, cf. 1 John 3:15). Lust is adultery even if you never crawl into bed with someone other than your spouse (5:27-30). That was the Pharisee’s problem, after all, they had down the literal keeping of the Law. They obeyed the letters carved into stone. But their hearts were far from God and they ultimately were guilty Law breakers because of it.

Yes, Jesus said in Matthew 5:17-20 that he did not come to abolish the Law and that not the smallest bit would pass away “until all is accomplished.” But he is the One who accomplished all through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. That is ultimately what Paul was arguing, and even James, and also the entire book of Hebrews.

Unlike Keller’s viewpoint, shared by many wearing the Reformed label, it’s not that we are bound by certain aspects of the Law but not by others, depending on if it’s civil, ceremonial, or moral. No, it’s much simpler than that: everything changed through Jesus. The Child of Promise came—the One promised before the Law and the One who frees us from the Law.

Yes, we are still called to hold to God’s moral proclamations but not because they were encoded in Law, rather because they transcend what was given to Moses on Sinai. Instead of being bound by that which was first carved into stone, we are free—free to live for something greater than our fleshly desires, free to live by the Spirit because Jesus fulfilled every iota and every dot in what he accomplished.

That, I believe, is the most consistent way.