New Covenant Theology–Must We Obey a New Law?

by Peter Ditzel

New Covenant Theology teaches that Jesus Christ fulfilled the law, and that by fulfilling it, He ended it. But Jesus also said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus also gave us a new standard of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount, and the Bible also speaks of the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2), the “law of faith” (Romans 3:27), the “royal law” (James 2:8), and the “perfect law of freedom” (James 1:25; 2:12). Is there a new law with new commands that Jesus has given us under the New Covenant? If so, must we obey these commands?

Neonomianism

New Covenant Theology has been accused of being neonomian (from the Greek neos, “new,” and nomos, “law”). Historically, neonomianism taught that the Gospel is a new law. The Puritan, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), taught that the requirements of the new law are faith and repentance. This is an error that some slip into today when they teach that we are saved by faith and/or repentance. To say that we are saved by faith or repentance is to teach a works salvation. It makes faith and repentance laws that we must keep to be saved. There are, in fact, some teachers whom critics sometimes put into the New Covenant Theology camp who teach that Jesus has paid the penalty for everyone’s sins except the sin of unbelief or lack of faith. This makes belief or faith the one work of the saved sinner that distinguishes him or her from the unsaved sinner. This makes faith a new law, causes salvation to be dependent on the work of the sinner instead of the grace of God founded on the work of Christ, and is, in fact, neonomianism. But it is not true New Covenant Theology.

New Covenant Theology teaches the biblical doctrine that the atoning death of Jesus Christ is what saves sinners, and that the atonement was an act of God’s grace. The atonement was for God’s elect only. Faith is the instrument through which the elect receive Christ’s imputed righteousness. Thus, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). For more information on this point, see “The End of Sola Fide—’By Faith Alone’.” Far from being a new law, the Gospel is the announcement of God’s grace. Rather than being a new law, the Gospel tells of the sinner’s release from all law and penalty by the atoning death of Jesus Christ for all believers.

Neonomianism doesn’t have to be confined to the new laws that Baxter specified—faith and repentance. Keeping any new laws to earn any part of your salvation is a form of neonomianism. According to William Jeyes Styles, the seventeenth-century theologian Daniel Williams taught that “the Gospel is a New Law, but of milder requirements, in which Faith, Repentance, and sincere though imperfect Obedience, are substituted in the room of the perfect and perpetual Obedience required by the original Law” (A Manual of Faith and Practice [London: Robert Banks & Son, 1897] 276). This, too, is a form of neonomianism. Again, there are those who are misidentified as being New Covenant Theologians who teach this today: The New Covenant gives us new laws we should be keeping, but since Christ died, God is a more laid-back dude who gives us more leeway. No! Even though the requirements are milder, even though the obedience is imperfect, any attempt to earn any part of our salvation, whether it be our justification or our sanctification, by our works is a form of neonomianism and contrary to the true Gospel. Besides that, Jesus didn’t lower standards; He raised them (see the examples in Matthew 5). But He also fulfilled God’s perfect standard of righteousness for all who trust in Him. We don’t meet God’s standards of perfect righteousness by keeping Christ’s new laws. We meet them by being in Christ.

Yet it is precisely this—the notion that Jesus gave us new laws that we must keep however imperfectly for our sanctification—that the detractors of New Covenant Theology accuse us of. Why? And what is the purpose of Christ’s new laws?

New Laws

One of the reasons New Covenant Theologians are accused of being neonomian is simply because we teach that Jesus Christ did, indeed, give us new laws. Our detractors believe that the New Covenant is merely a new administration of the Old Covenant, and that, instead of giving new laws, Jesus only corrected the Pharisees’ misinterpretation of the Old Covenant law. Their position is a curious one, since we can find where Jesus quoted the Old Covenant law and then said, “But I tell you.” Plainly, Jesus was giving new law, new commandments (see “The Sermon on the Mount“). In John 13:34, Jesus explicitly states, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another.” Since Jesus said this, it is bizarre for someone to criticize me for repeating it.

We must remember that neonomianism isn’t just believing that the New Covenant has new laws. By this definition, the Bible itself would be neonomian. Neonomianism is believing that keeping the new laws is necessary for any part of our salvation. New Covenant Theology believes that the New Covenant contains new laws, but it teaches that God does not require us to keep the new laws for our salvation. Our salvation is entirely gracious and Jesus Christ has accomplished it.

The Purpose of Christ’s New Law

So, why then did Jesus give us new laws? I believe that one reason is so we can fully appreciate just how gracious God is. It might be one thing to avoid actually murdering someone. Thankfully, most of us achieve that. But it is another matter entirely to never ever fly off the handle and get angry with someone over what is really just a trifling matter. It happens to all of us at times. After we cool down, we may feel sorry and foolish, but the fact remains that it happened. Does the new law condemn us? No. For those of us who are in the New Covenant, the new law has no teeth: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who don’t walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1). God is wonderfully gracious.

This is why it is wrong to speak of being under or bound to New Covenant law. These are terms used for laws that obligate us to keep them and punish us when we don’t. Christians are not under or bound to any law (except, of course, man’s civil laws—Romans 13:1-7) (Romans 6:14). Paul describes himself as being “lawful to Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21, Apostolic Bible Polyglot) or “in law to Christ,” as the Greek has it. The Greek does not say “under the law to Christ,” as so many translations wrongly render it. Christians are in Christ, and by their standing in Christ, they meet the righteous requirements of the law. The law holds nothing over them. They are not under the law; they are not bound to it; they cannot be condemned by it. By being in Christ, they are perpetually in a right standing to the law, not just the Old Covenant law that was a shadow of God’s righteousness, but to his real right standards, the law of Christ.

Another reason Jesus gave us new laws is so that we can learn—through trial and error with no fear of condemnation—to let God work His pleasure in us (Philippians 2:12-13) to do the “good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). In this way, we grow in grace.

And, of course, all of the new laws boil down to one thing: love. Love is itself a motivation. God is love, and it is through love that we come to know and become like Him (1 John 4:8, 16). Love fulfills the law (Romans 13:8-10). This principle applies even to what Jesus did for us: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When Jesus died for us, He fulfilled the law. But how does this relate to our acts of love fulfilling the law?

Read the answer in Romans 8:3-4: “For what the law couldn’t do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh; that the ordinance of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Notice that what Jesus did in the sinful flesh fulfilled the law in us. We would not be able to fulfill the law in acts of love if Jesus had not already fulfilled the law. This, too, is an act of His grace.

Always, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, our salvation, including our sanctification, is by God’s grace. Never, NEVER, NEVER is it based on any of our works, including our keeping Jesus’ new laws and our loving others. If believers succeed in living by Jesus’ new laws, they do so because they are already saved, not to cause their salvation. If they don’t succeed in living by Jesus’ new laws, their failure is covered by God’s grace.

So, did Jesus give us a new law with new commandments? Absolutely. Does God in any way require us to keep these new commandments to earn our salvation, including our sanctification? Absolutely not. Is it a new teaching to say that Christ has given us commands that we, as a result of our salvation, desire to obey but which in no way affect our salvation or sanctification, which are gracious gifts in which we stand in Christ in the New Covenant? Not at all. Article XXIX of the London Baptist Confession of 1646 states,

All believers are a holy and sanctified people, and that sanctification is a spiritual grace of the new covenant, and an effect of the love of God manifested in the soul, whereby the believer presseth after a heavenly and evangelical obedience to all the commands, which Christ as head and king in His new covenant hath prescribed to them.

Those who accuse New Covenant Theology of neonomianism are making a false accusation, and they should also then make that accusation against the early Baptists and, for that matter, against the apostles and against Christ Himself. For Scripture teaches that Christ gave those who are already saved by the completed work of Jesus Christ new commands, that these new commands do not hold a threat of condemnation over believers, and that they in no way initiate or add to our salvation.

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