ONLY ONE LAW IN THE NEW COVENANT
The only law in the New Covenant is the law of love, based on Jesus’ statement to His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”(John 13:34). To get a proper understanding of this command to love, we need to first understand two groups who existed during the first century—the Judaizers and the Antinomians. Judaizers were the first century covenant theologians; they wanted to drag the old covenant into the new covenant. Paul wrote the entire Book of Galatians in response to the error of the Judaizers, and he battled their false teaching everywhere he went. The polar opposite to the Judaizers were the Antinomians, who said there is no law. Anti means “against,” and nomian means “law.” They were literally against any laws. They believed grace meant that they could sin as much as they wanted. Paul wrote against this view in Romans.
The position of Better Covenant Theology is neither of these, and it is not a middle ground, either. It is something else entirely, because the law of Christ does not fit with either of these ideas. It is not the old covenant Law, and it is not a rejection of law. It is a completely separate ideal called the law of Christ. When we say the law of Christ is love, that is an accurate summary, but it is just a summary. People can hear that and end up with a lot of different interpretations, some of which can lead to very immoral decisions. The question at the bottom of all of this is, who defines what love is? In other words, the law of love can seem very subjective.
For that reason, here we will clarify what the new covenant law of love looks like according to the New Testament. To start, we will look at what is typically called the great commandment. In Matthew 22, a lawyer approached Jesus and asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). In other words, he was asking Jesus to tell him the greatest commandment in the old covenant. Jesus responded:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37–40).
Here, it is important to note that Jesus did not say, “This is My rule for you.” He simply summarized the old covenant in two commandments, which we see by His statement, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” It is a summary of the old, not a new covenant commandment.
Once we understand that, we can look at John 13:34–35, where Jesus said to His disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
His command was not “love your neighbor as yourself” but “love others as I love you.” In other words, He was telling them to love others in the same way that He loves them. Jesus loves all people equally, perfectly, and unconditionally. This is the standard, the new command we are to follow. If we search the word command in the Strong’s Concordance, what we will find is that this command is the only command Jesus gave. For example, later in John He said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12), and, “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).
When Jesus gave His disciples what we now call the Great Commission, He told them to teach new disciples “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). The disciples were not told to “teach them everything I ever did or said,” but to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded.” The only thing commanded was to love as Christ had loved them!
We see another mention of Jesus’ command to love in John’s second letter, where he wrote:
And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love (2 John 1:5–6).
Likewise, in First John 3:23, it says, “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” Just prior to this, in verse 16, John gave a definition of love: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16). In other words, Jesus is the definition of love; we are commanded to love like He loves. This, in fact, is the proof John gives of our salvation: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). We are truly Christians if we love like Jesus loved. Jesus made the same statement when He said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Living in Christ-like love is the evidence of our faith. Because we have been united with Him, love flows out of us in the same way it flowed out of Him.
Paul also affirmed this in First Timothy 1:5: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Later in the same letter, Paul continued this reasoning by saying:
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ,which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen (1 Timothy 6:11–16).
The command Paul was referring to, as laid out in verse 11, is an expanded version of the law of love: “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” It is essentially the same as Jesus’ command to love, which is what we find over and over in the New Testament. The command always goes back to love.
Paul made a contrast in First Corinthians 7 between the old commands and the new that illustrates this so well. In talking to the Church about circumcision, he said:
This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts (1 Corinthians 7:17–19).
His mention of circumcision is a reference to the old covenant Law, where the covenant sign was circumcision. The new covenant sign is “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Living in Christ-like love is the sign we are in Christ, walking in the new covenant. Paul’s point was that the old Law no longer matters; what matters is keeping the new covenant commands of God (the law of Christ). Paul specifically mentioned this law when he said, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). We fulfill the law of Christ by loving others. Here, Paul gave a specific application of that kind of love—carrying each other’s burdens.
Paul also mentioned the law of Christ in First Corinthians 9:21, where he said, “To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law.” Paul was saying that when he was around gentiles (people without the Law), he became like them, not because he did not have a law but because his law was the law of Christ, which includes freedom to minister to gentiles in a way they can relate to. He was free of the Law (the old covenant) but not free of all law, because he was under the law of Christ—the law of love.
In the biblical passages about the new covenant commands, sometimes it uses the word in the singular and sometimes in the plural. The reason for this is that the basic command, to love like Jesus, is fleshed out in many periphery commands that all fall under the great command of love, which is the law of Christ. So, throughout the New Testament, Paul and the other apostles fleshed out what the command of Christ looked like by adding more specific commands that give practical legs to the law of love.
For example, Paul wrote, “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14). In doing so, he was showing that one way in which we fulfill the law of love is by financially caring for those whom the Lord has given as gifts to the body to equip and serve. In other words, giving money to support ministers of the gospel is part of the law of love. Likewise, gender equality is part of the law of love, as evidenced by Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians for their treatment of women as “lesser.” He closed his argument by saying, “If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command” (1 Cor. 14:37). By using the word command here, Paul was equating gender equality with the law of love. Another example is race equality, which Paul laid out in Ephesians 2:14–16:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Some people teach that this is still in the future, but the passage clearly says Jesus has already done it. He has already created the one new humanity and, thereby, outlawed racism with the law of love. Where the old covenant Law brought division between racial groups and genders, the new law of Christ brings equality. It means we get to love everyone equally.
The law of Christ is the broad law of love, which has many different manifestations. Another way we could say it is that the law of Christ is the law of the Spirit and the law of freedom. Paul showed us the connection of the new covenant to the Spirit when he wrote: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant— not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). The actual nature of the new law is that it is Spirit; it is not written in letter and in stone. It gives life, not death. Similarly, in Romans 7:6 it says, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” In other words, the law of the Spirit is not a written code of rules. In Galatians 6:15, Paul also said, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”
In the new covenant and the new creation, we are not guided by a list of rules but by the nature of Christ living within us and the law of love. Paul sometimes referred to this lifestyle as living by the Spirit: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other” (Gal. 5:25–26). Instead of living according to a list of rules, we live by walking in step with the Spirit. This is why, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). When we are led by the Spirit, we are following the law of Christ, which is summed up in what Peter referred to as “the sacred command” (2 Pet. 2:21)— the command to love as Christ loves. This is the core of the new covenant, which is the covenant of life and forgiveness, not death and judgment.
One question people often ask, when shown the new covenant reality of the law of love and forgiveness, is: What happens when we sin? Clearly, though we are not under the old covenant Law, we are under the law of Christ, which still commands us to live in a certain way (to love as He loves). Since God has already permanently forgiven us at the cross, what is the ramification of sinful choices in our lives? The wrath of God no longer exists, which means we do not make Him angry. We are pre-forgiven and eternally loved, meaning that He will always forgive anything we may do. However, when we sin, we can still grieve the Holy Spirit, which Paul discussed in Ephesians 4. When we choose to sin, we are not living up to our identity as new creations in Christ, and we are not loving others as we should. This grieves the Holy Spirit, because He knows our potential, and He is hurt when His children hurt one another. It is not an issue of His forgiveness or love being removed; it is an issue of walking in the light and living in our identity. Part of staying in step with the Holy Spirit is walking in vulnerability and transparency, living with an open heart. When we do this, we will be less and less likely to grieve the Holy Spirit with our actions and attitudes.