Q&A: Are We Under the Law or Not?
Q: According to Matthew 5:17, non Christians (both Jew and non Jew) are still under the law, correct?
A: First there is a distinction between the Law (Mosaic covenant) and a law (ethical mandates, from God, conscience, or even society at times). Gentiles were never under the Law (Rom. 2:14), so they are not now under the Law – all though they are accountable to a law. Jews were under the Law, which was a conditional covenant that they broke and invalidated. They are not now under the Law either (see Jer. 31).
Q: If we are under the Law, is this essentially why Jesus says not one “dot or Iota” will pass away until all is accomplished?
A: Matthew 5:17 addresses both the Law and the Prophets (the Hebrew Bible or OT). He said he doesn’ t come to abolish (Greek, katalusai – to destroy) but to fulfill (plerosai – to fill up, or to complete). He is not saying that the Law will be in effect until all is accomplished – notice here he includes both the Law and the Prophets (again, the Hebrew Bible). He continues in 5:19, that whoever annuls (Greek, lusei – same root Jesus uses in 5:17, translates as abolished) the least of the commands will “be least in the kingdom of heaven.” In applying this with respect to the Law, we can see that the Law is inoperative, but it is not destroyed. It still serves important purposes. One who disregards even the slightest aspect of the Law is making a mistake (but that is not to say that people are currently [or in the future] under the Law). Jesus continues in 5:20 to explain that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (who made claim to obey the Law). They may have in some cases kept the letter of the Law, but they missed what the Law pointed to – the need for God’s righteousness in order for man to properly love God and his neighbor.
Q: Was all accomplished on the cross and therefore it is fulfilled, but still in effect for the unsaved?
A: On the cross He said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and the veil of the temple was torn in two (Lk. 23:45). Paul later refers to this in Ephesians 2:14-15 – saying He abolished (Greek, katargesas – to invalidate or render useless – different from the word Jesus used) the Law. The Law was rendered irrelevant and inoperative as an ethical mandate and as a contract, but it still serves the purpose of pointing us to Christ (Gal. 4:19-24) and it prefigures (along with the Prophets) The “greater” ethical mandates upon which the Law and the Prophets are built (see Mt. 22:37-40). Thus He, Himself, is the fulfillment of the Law
Q: When was all fulfilled? Cross or future?
A: In a sense, both. The cross ended the Law as an operative system. From that moment no man would ever again be under the Mosaic Law. Still, from then to eternity, the Law would serve the purposes of demonstrating human need for Christ’s righteousness and the prefiguring of the two “greater” commandments.
In Mt. 22:37-40, Jesus explains that the Law and the Prophets were summed up in two commands (love God, love your neighbor). The Law and Prophets prefigured these “greater” commandments. So, while the Law is inoperable as a system, the requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:1-4). So, the Law was in one respect fulfilled by Christ at the cross, in another respect it is being fulfilled in us through the Spirit of Christ, and in a future sense it will be fulfilled as His kingdom is inaugurated on earth (Mt. 5). In all respects, Christ fulfills the Law, but different aspects are being accomplished at different times.
Q: Are we judged by the Law?
A: People are only judged by the law which is operable in their time – that law shows simply how thy have fallen short of God’s glory, and how spiritually bankrupt they are. Ultimately, all whose names are not written in the Book of Life are judged according to their deeds, by whatever ethical standard they are under (for OT unbelieving Jews, the Mosaic Law, for OT Gentiles their instinctive understanding of the Law [Rom 2:14] law, and for NT unbelieving Jews and Gentiles, the Law of Christ). Believers are judged by the Law of liberty (James 2:12), and undergo a judgment for reward (and loss of reward, 1 Cor. 3), so they are also judged according to their deeds, but not in regard to eternal position.