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  • Daniel Botkin

Christians Keeping Old Testament Commandments: Not a Yes/No Question, But a Question of Which Ones


When talking to Christians about keeping the commandments of the Torah, Old Testament “law” (or, more accurately, “instruction”), it is very important that we clarify two things:


1. We are not justified by keeping the law.

2. All true Bible-believing Christians do, in fact, believe in keeping the law.


Not Justified by Keeping the Law

This fundamental, foundational truth is so obvious that it should not even need to be addressed. Even the Old Testament saints were not justified by keeping the law; they were, like us, justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. “The just shall live by faith,” a statement that appears three times in the New Testament (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38), is a direct quote from the Old Testament (Hab. 2:4). Justification is not now and never was something that a person can earn or merit by keeping the law. Here are just a few verses that state this foundational truth:

- “ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39)

- “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight” (Rom. 3:20)

- “a man is justified by faith without [apart from] the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28)

- “a man is not justified by the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16)

- “by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16)

- “no man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11)

When we speak to our Christian brothers about the Torah, we need to make sure they understand that we are not talking about keeping the law in order to earn our justification; we are talking about keeping it as a result of our having been justified. Making Christians see this is easier said than done. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone through a conversation like the following:

“I’m not talking about keeping the law to earn our justification,” I say. “I’m talking about obeying our Father’s commandments after we have been justified, as a response to His free gift of salvation. When it comes to salvation, justification, redemption, atonement, forgiveness, eternal life, etc., we receive all this by faith apart from the deeds of the law, because Jesus died for our sins. You and I are on the same page when it comes to the question of how we are saved. But I’m not talking about keeping the Torah as a means of salvation, okay?”

“Okay,” the Christian says. “I understand.”

Then follows a discussion about a subject like the Sabbath or dietary laws. I present solid, compelling evidence from the Bible, which makes the Christian realize he needs to offer a reason to explain why he ignores these particular commandments. There is only one reason he can think of, so he says it:

“But we’re not saved by keeping the law.”

So we are back to page one again, trying to make him see that we’re not talking about salvation; we’re talking about what we are supposed to do with the law after we are saved.


Christians Do Believe in Keeping the Law

If they are honest, Christians will have to admit that they do believe in keeping the commandments of the Torah -- at least those commandments which they believe are still valid. For example, Christians believe that God still expects them to obey the commandments that prohibit murder, adultery, theft, and lying. Even though we are not justified by doing the law, “the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom. 2:13). In the end, it is only the doers of the law who are justified, because if a person is truly justified by faith, he will do the law. He will begin to walk in the instructions of the Torah. If he doesn’t, then his non-doing of the Torah is evidence that he is not really justified by faith. He only thinks he is, or he is just pretending he is, because it is “the doers of the law” who “shall be justified.” Even though no man is justified by the law in the eyes of God (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:11), James says that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (Jas. 2:24). You are not justified in the eyes of God by keeping the law, but your keeping of the law is the proof that you are justified. Or, if you do not keep the law, that is proof that you are not really justified.

Christians keep Old Testament commandments against murder, adultery, theft, and lying, but not because they are trying to earn their salvation. They keep these commandments as a response to their salvation, to express their love to their heavenly Father. And they believe that all Christians should keep these commandments. Yet if we say that we should also keep the Sabbath and dietary laws, we are accused of doing these things for the purpose of trying to earn our salvation. To accuse Sabbath-keepers of trying to earn their salvation by keeping the Sabbath makes no more sense than accusing a faithful husband of trying to earn his salvation by refusing to commit adultery, or accusing honest Christians of trying to earn their salvation by refusing to steal and lie.


Which Torah Commandments Should Still be Kept?

One does not need to be a theological wizard to see that God still expects His children to keep at least some of the commandments of the Torah. The Apostles often quoted from the Torah to give instructions for Christian behavior. In the Epistles you will read things like “Do such-and-such, because the law says...” So the real question for Christians is not “Should we keep the commandments of the Torah?” The real question is “Which commandments of the Torah does our Father still want us to keep?”

According to the rabbis, the Torah contains 613 commandments. Some Christians say, “How could anyone possibly keep that many commandments? I couldn’t even memorize that many rules, let alone keep them all. Surely God doesn’t expect a person to live with 613 laws!”

Think about this, though. Your federal, state, and local governments have a lot more than 613 laws, and they expect you to be a law-abiding citizen. You are able to live with thousands of federal, state, and local laws without breaking them. So why should it seem unreasonable and unrealistic to live with 613 God-given commandments?

You are able to live with thousands of civil laws because most civil laws are situation-specific. The laws apply only to people in a particular situation, and while they are in that situation. For example, building codes apply only to people who are building houses. If you are not building, you do not even need to be aware of the many laws that regulate building codes. Laws that regulate the collection and payment of sales tax apply only to retailers who sell retail merchandise. If you are not a retailer, you do not need to familiarize yourself with these laws. Driving laws apply only to people who drive, gun laws apply only to people who own guns, and so on.

Many of the 613 commandments of the Torah are likewise situation-specific, so nobody is expected to do all 613. Even Yeshua did not keep all 613 commandments, because some of the commandments are specifically for women. Some are for lepers. Some are for married people. Some concern bastards, Moabites, and Ammonites. Yeshua was not a woman, nor a leper, nor any of these other things, so He did not actively “do” all 613 commandments. Yet He did not once break any of the 613 commandments.

So, how many of the 613 commandments are Christians still supposed to keep? Or, we might ask, How many of the 613 commandments can we still keep? Years ago a rabbi known as the Chafetz Chayim compiled all the Torah commandments which can still be observed today. The list of commandments (along with rabbinical interpretation) was first published in 1931 and again in 1943 and 1968. In 1990 it was published under the Hebrew title Sefer HaMitzvot HaKatzer, The Concise Book of Mitzvoth (Commandments). The Chafetz Chayim lists 77 positive commandments (things we are commanded to do), 194 negative commandments (prohibitions), and 26 commandments which apply only in the land of Israel. That makes a total of 271 for people living outside Israel and 297 for people living in Israel. That’s 316 less than 613. What happened to the other 316 commandments? These are, for the most part, commandments which pertain to the Tabernacle/Temple services and sacrifices which were administered by the Levitical priesthood. Without a Temple and without a functioning Levitical priesthood, these commandments obviously cannot be observed today -- which explains why the subtitle of the Chafetz Chayim’s book is The Commandments Which Can Be Observed Today.

I do not recommend The Concise Book of Mitzvoth, because most of the text consists of man-made rabbinical interpretation that prescribes in great detail how the rabbis expect the commandments to be done. We do not need to put ourselves under the lordship of dead rabbis. I mention the book only because it gives some indication of how many of the 613 commandments deal with Temple and priesthood issues, and are therefore now non-observable under the new covenant.

Whether they realize it or not, Bible-believing Christians believe in keeping most of the Torah commandments which can still be observed. For most Christians, the commandments which they have a problem with are commandments that deal with Sabbath, Feasts, dietary laws, and miscellaneous things like tzitziyot (fringes), mezuzahs, beards, etc. These things are dismissed as “Jewish rituals, just for the Jews to do until Christ came.” Yet the Bible nowhere singles out these commandments from the rest of the Torah and says that they are just for the Jews. Nor does the Bible say that these commandments would be abolished by the coming of the Messiah. People think of these things as Jewish practices only because Christians abandoned them centuries ago, and Jews have continued to practice them. But the Bible does not give one set of rules for Jews and a different set of rules for non-Jewish believers. “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am Yahweh your God” (Lev. 24:22).

Some commandments cannot and/or need not be observed. If a commandment concerns the Temple and sacrifices offered under the Levitical priesthood, it is not observable (or at least not necessary). Or if a commandment was obviously just a temporary injunction for the Israelites during their time in the wilderness (e.g., Deut. 23:12-14, carry a spade to bury your dung in the desert), or for the conquest of Canaan (e.g., Deut. 20:17, utterly destroy the Hittites, Amorites, etc.), it is not a commandment we can or must observe. Or if a commandment prescribes stoning or some other punishment, this is not observable because 1) we are not currently living under a theocracy and therefore must let the civil courts punish lawbreakers; and 2) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13), the curse being the punishment we deserve for breaking the law, and not from the law itself.

If a commandment does not fall into any of the above categories and can still be kept, we should have a good reason to explain why we do not keep it. Christians who advocate the public display of the Ten Commandments need to explain why they keep only nine, and abolish the Sabbath commandment by spiritualizing it away. Christians who condemn sodomites and sorcerers by quoting from Leviticus and Deuteronomy need to explain why Christians ignore the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. If we ignore a commandment, we should have a good reason to explain why we do not keep it.


| DB

 

Image: Psalm 105 by Daniel Botkin from his Psurrealistic Psalms Pseries. See this and all Daniel’s art galleries on his art website, DanielBotkin.com.

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1 Comment


Mike Weaks
Mike Weaks
Jun 01, 2022

Daniel, you are my oldest friend in Christ. I love you and your insights and wisdom. I respect you. I've been studying this issue since you first wrote me a letter back in 1985 explaining your new relationship to the Law. I believe we would be chasing our tails engaging in our understandings of the Scriptures in regards to our relationship to the Law. One thing, in the New Testament, whether I am preaching, teaching, or evangelizing would be finding any direct and clear commandment to keep the Law. Any "obedience" to "keeping the Law" is not by any compulsion on my part knowing what the Law demands is only what is "written upon" my heart. I do not purposely…

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