How Should Christians Apply the Law? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

I pointed out recently that the divine commands given by God to the nation of Israel in the first five books of the Bible (the Law) were not directed at Christians. The law was written for us, but not to us. Christians are not under the Law.

But this doesn’t mean that we should ignore what was written in the Law. On the contrary, there is much in the Law that we can apply to our lives today as 21st century Christians. So how do we interpret and apply the Law?

Theologian J. Daniel Hays offers an approach that he calls principlism. According to Hays, principlism

(a) is consistent, treating all Old Testament Scripture as God’s Word, (b) does not depend on arbitrary nontextual categories, (c) reflects the literary and historical context of the Law, placing it firmly into the narrative story of the Pentateuch, (d) reflects the theological context of the Law, and (e) corresponds to New Testament teaching.

Hays describes principlism as a five-step method. The first step is to


Identify the historical and literary context of the specific law in question. Were the Israelites on the bank of the Jordan preparing to enter the land (Deuteronomy) when the law was given, or were they at Mount Sinai soon after the Exodus (Exodus, Leviticus)? Was the law given in response to a specific situation that had arisen, or was the command describing requirements for Israel after they moved into the Promised Land? What other laws are in the immediate context? Is there a connection between them? How did this particular law relate to the Old Covenant? Did it govern how people were to approach God? Did it govern how they were to relate to each other? Did it relate to agriculture or commerce? Was it specifically related to life in the Promised Land? What did this specific law mean for the Old Testament audience?

The second step is to


Delineate the theological and situational differences between Christians today and the initial audience. For example believers in the present church age are under the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant. Thus they are not under the laws of the Old Covenant. They are not Israelites preparing to dwell in the Promised Land, nor do they approach God through the sacrifice of animals. Also Christians live under secular governments and not under a theocracy, as did ancient Israel. In addition Christians face pressures  not from Canaanite religions but from different non-Christian worldviews and philosophies.

The third step is to


Behind the Mosaic commands for the original audience lie universal, timeless principles. Each of the Old Testament laws had a meaning for its first audience, a meaning that is related to the Old Covenant. But that meaning is usually based on a broader, universal truth, a truth that is applicable to all God’s people, regardless of when they live and under which covenant they live. In this step one asks, “What universal principle is reflected in this specific law? What broad principle may be applied today?”

The principle should be developed in accord with several guidelines: (a) It should be reflected in the text, (b) it should be timeless, (c) it should correspond to the theology of the rest of Scripture, (d) it should not be culturally bound, and (e) it should be relevant to both Old Testament and current New Testament believers. These universal principles will often be related directly to the character of God and His holiness, the nature of sin, the issue of obedience, or concern for other people.

We will continue with the final two steps and an example of using the method in future posts.