At least some and, perhaps, many Christians believe that when they trust in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation they no longer are subject to the Old Testament laws (i.e., the Law). It is likely that this belief is based primarily upon their interpretation of two particular New Testament passages that indicate Christians are dead to the Law or have died to the Law. Another two New Testament passages use different terminology, but may seem to have the same inference. This article will focus on these four scripture passages.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
The Apostle Paul declares in Romans 7:4, “Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another, even to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.”
And in Galatians 2:19, Paul says, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.”
According to Strong’s Concordance of the Bible, the Greek word thanatoo that is translated as dead in the phrase “dead to the law” in Romans 7:4 pertains to “the change from bondage to the Law to union with Christ.”
With regard to Galatians 2:19, Strong explains that the Greek word apothnesko that is translated as died refers to “the Law as a means of life.”
In other words, Strong indicates that the Law is no longer the basis (or standard) for the manner in which Christians should conduct themselves. The new basis for conduct is each Christian’s relationship with God (or Jesus Christ), which begins when they trust in Christ for eternal salvation and matures as they follow His teachings.
It should be noted that the word that is translated as died in Galatians 2:19 is the same Greek word that is usedin Romans 6:2, in which Paul asserts that Christians have “died to sin.” Therefore, if Galatians 2:19 is stating that the Law is dead, then Romans 6:2 is likewise stating that sin is dead. However, every Christian who struggles to overcome sin in their own life knows definitely that sin is not dead.
In Ephesians 2:14-15, the third scripture passage we will consider, Paul states, “He Himself [i.e., Jesus Christ] is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of division between us, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace. . . .”
Strong explains that the Greek word katargeo that is translated as abolished in this biblical passage means “by the death of Christ, the barrier between Jew and Gentile is rendered inoperative as such.”
The fourth scripture passage on which we are focusing is Colossians 2:13-14. In this passage, Paul says, “You, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He [i.e., Jesus Christ] had made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”
Strong says the Greek work exaleipho that is translated in this passage as “having wiped out” means “to wipe and signifies to wash, or to smear completely; hence, metaphorically, in the sense of removal, to wipe away, wipe off, obliterate.” Thus, a superficial interpretation of Colossians 2:13-14 may cause a person to think that wiping out the handwriting of requirements means the Law is no longer in effect (i.e., it is dead).
Let’s now consider what various Bible commentaries have to say about each of the four aforementioned scripture passages.
[Note that many of the quotations from the commentaries regarding each scripture passage consist of only the statements that we regard as most relevant to this article).
What Bible Commentaries Say about Romans 7:4
With regard to this verse of scripture, the following comments by Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible state that Christians are dead to the Law “as a way of justification and sanctification” (i.e., abiding by the Law will not result in eternal salvation and holiness):
The connection between us and the Law is dissolved, so far as the scope of [the Apostle Paul’s] argument is concerned. He does not say that we are dead to it, or released from it as a rule of duty, or as a matter of obligation to obey it; for there neither is, nor can be, any such release, but we are dead to it as a way of justification and sanctification. In the great matter of acceptance with God, we have ceased to rely on the Law, having become dead to it, and having embraced another plan.
John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible indicates that, for Christians, the Law is no longer a yoke that constrains or burdens them. Calvin states,
[The Apostle Paul] . . . says that the bond of the law was destroyed; not that we may live according to our own will, like a widow, who lives as she pleases while single; but that we may be now bound to another husband; nay, that we may pass from hand to hand, as they say, that is, from the law to Christ. He at the same time softens the asperity of the expression, by saying that Christ, in order to join us to his own body, made us free from the yoke of the law.
The perspective of Adam Clarke Commentary is somewhat similar to that of Calvin, but states that the Law is dead to Christians, whereas Romans 7:4 actually says that Christians are dead to the Law. Clarke says,
You were once under the law of Moses, and were bound by its injunctions; but now ye are become dead to that law – a modest, inoffensive mode of speech, for, The law, which was once your husband, is dead; God has determined that it shall be no longer in force; so that now, as a woman whose husband is dead is freed from the law of that husband, or from her conjugal vow, and may legally be married to another, so God, who gave the law under which ye have hitherto lived, designed that it should be in force only till the advent of the Messiah; that advent has taken place, the law has consequently ceased, and now ye are called to take on you the yoke of the Gospel, and lay down the yoke of the law; and it is the design of God that you should do so.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible infers that Romans 7:4 also says the Law is dead to Christians, but Gill explains that this means the Law has no power over Christians to curse or condemn them, although they will cheerfully obey it, because of their love for Christ. Gill declares,
[Christians]are become dead to the law, and that to them, as in Romans 7:6,and can have no more power over them than a law can have over dead persons, or a dead abrogated law can have over living ones. They are represented as “dead to sin”, and “dead with Christ”, Romans 6:2; and here, “dead to the law”, as in Galatians 2:19, and consequently cannot be under it; are out of the reach of its power and government, since that only has dominion over a man as long as he lives the law is dead to them; it has no power over them, to threaten and terrify them into obedience to it; nor even rigorously to exact it, or command it in a compulsory way; nor is there any need of all this, since believers delight in it after the inward man, and serve it with their minds freely and willingly; the love of Christ, and not the terrors of the law, constrains them to yield a cheerful obedience to it; it has no power to charge and accuse them, curse or condemn them, or minister death unto them, no, not a corporeal one, as a penal evil, and much less an eternal one. . . .
David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible asserts that observing the Law is not the way for Christians to be justified in their relationship with God (i.e., it is not “an option as a way of salvation”) and that Christians are expected to live a righteous life (i.e., bear fruit to God”). According to Guzik,
In Romans 6:3-8, [the Apostle] Paul carefully explained that we died with Jesus and we also rose with Him, although Paul there only spoke of our death to sin. Now he explains that we also died to the law.
i. Some might think, “Yes, we were saved by grace, but we must live by law to please God.” Here Paul makes it plain that believers are dead to the law as far as it represents a principle of living or a place of right standing before God.
ii. “Believers are through with the law. It is not for them an option as a way of salvation. They do not seek to be right with God by obeying some form of law, as the adherents of almost all religions have done.” (Morris)
However, we are not free from the law so we can live unto ourselves; we are free so that we can be “married” to Jesus and so that we can bear fruit to God.
The following comments by Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible clearly indicate the belief that Paul was not saying that the Law is dead, but that instead he was declaring that Christians are free from the Law’s bondage and its punishment for disobedience:
[The Apostle Paul] does not say, “The law is dead” (some think because he would avoid giving offence to those who were yet zealous for the law), but, which comes all to one, You are dead to the law. As the crucifying of the world to us, and of us to the world, amounts to one and the same thing, so doth the law dying, and our dying to it. We are delivered from the law (Romans 7:6), . . .we are nulled as to the law our obligation to it as a husband is cassated [sic] and made void. And then he speaks of the law being dead as far as it was a law of bondage to us: That being dead wherein we were held not the law itself, but its obligation to punishment and its provocation to sin. It is dead, it has lost its power and this (Romans 7:4) by the body of Christ, that is, by the sufferings of Christ in his body, by his crucified body, which abrogated the law, answered the demands of it, made satisfaction for our violation of it, purchased for us a covenant of grace, in which righteousness and strength are laid up for us, such as were not, nor could be, by the law. We are dead to the law by our union with the mystical body of Christ. By being incorporated into Christ in our baptism professedly, in our believing powerfully and effectually, we are dead to the law, have no more to do with it than the dead servant, that is free from his master, hath to do with his master’s yoke.
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible says that Christians “are freed from the control of the Law,” which does not imply that they are free to live in any manner they choose, but because of their relationship with Christ, they are instead expected to live a righteous life without the control of the Law. Pett asserts,
[T]he sacrificial death of Christ . . . has made us ‘dead to the Law’. While Jesus was alive on earth men were bound by the Law. Indeed in Galatians 4:4 Paul tells us that Jesus Himself was ‘born under the Law’. (And the fact that the Pharisees never directly accused Jesus of breaking the Law demonstrates that He adhered faithfully to it, even by their standards). But when His body was suspended on the cross His body offered in death made us ‘dead to the Law’ because there He died to the Law and we died in Him. As a result we can now ‘be joined to (married to – Romans 7:3) another’. We can become conjoined with the risen Christ, something which will result in our bringing forth fruit unto God in righteous living because we are freed from the Law’s constraints, and experience His risen power.
Many . . . see ‘you were made dead to the Law’ as signifying that the Law was her first husband. She was married to the Law, but as a result of its ‘death’ at the cross (Colossians 2:14), she (the true church) can now marry the risen Christ. And the result will be fruit unto God, the fruit of righteous living (see Galatians 5:22). But that is to read in what Paul deliberately does not say, for he does not mention the Law in this regard and that in verses where the Law is mentioned four times. In the light of Romans 7:6 ‘dead to the Law’ simply indicates a death that freed from the control of the Law.
Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible infers that Christians don’t need to hope that they will be justified in their relationship with God by keeping the Law, but nevertheless they should continue to observe the moral laws. Poole states,
Ye also are become dead to the law; i.e. ye are taken off from all hopes of justification by it, and from your confidence in obedience to it, Galatians 2:19. The opposition seems to require that he should have said, the law is dead to us; but these two phrases are much the same.
Question: What law does he mean?
Answer: Not only the ceremonial, but the moral law, for in that he instances, Romans 7:7. The moral law is in force still; Christ came to confirm, and not to destroy it; but believers are freed from the malediction, from the rigid exaction, and from the irritation thereof. Of this last he speaks, Romans 7:8,9, and from it we are freed but in part.
By the body of Christ; i.e. by the sacrifice of Christ’s body upon the cross; thereby he delivered us from the law, in the sense before mentioned.
The following comments by The Pulpit Commentaries indicate that Christians are free from “the claims [i.e., demands] of the law,” but because it does not explain that the Law has been superseded by the commandments to love God and other people, this commentary seems to infer that it is not necessary for Christians to obey the Law:
[A]s in all cases death frees a man from the claims of human law, and, in particular, as death frees the wife from the claims of marital law, so that she may marry again, so the death of Christ, into which we were baptized, frees us from the claims of the law which formerly bound us, so that we may be married spiritually to the risen Saviour, apart from the old dominion of law, and consequently of sin.
What Bible Commentaries Say about Galatians 2:19
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible indicates that most Bible commentaries agree that the Apostle Paul was implying in this verse of scripture that the Law was not the basis for justification of Christians, but Barnes states that the Law “ceased to have influence over him [i.e., Paul],” which suggests that Paul did not consider it necessary to comply with the teachings of the Law, since he was living according to a higher standard (presumably, to love God and other people, as Christ taught). According to Barnes,
It is agreed [by commentators] that in the phrase “am dead to the law,” the Law of Moses is referred to, and that the meaning is, that Paul had become dead to that as a ground or means of justification. He acted as though it were not; or it ceased to have influence over him. A dead man is insensible to all around him. He hears nothing; sees nothing; and nothing affects him. So when we are said to be dead to anything, the meaning is, that it does not have an influence over us. In this sense Paul was dead to the Law of Moses. He ceased to observe it as a ground of justification. It ceased to be the grand aim and purpose of his life, as it had been formerly, to obey it. He had higher purposes than that, and truly lived to God. . . .
Apparently, John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible takes the similar position that Paul was saying he was not going to try to live by the Law, which could not provide eternal life, but as a result of his trust in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, he was instead going to “live unto God,” which suggests that he intended to live by what he regarded as a higher standard, as we previously indicated. Calvin declares,
To die to the law may either mean that we renounce it, and are delivered from its dominion, so that we have no confidence in it, and, on the other hand, that it does not hold us captives under the yoke of slavery; or it may mean, that, as it allures us all to destruction, we find in it no life. The latter view appears to be preferable. It is not to Christ, he tells us, that it is owing that the law is more hurtful than beneficial; but the law carries within itself the curse which slays us. Hence it follows, that the death which is brought on by the law is truly deadly. With this is contrasted another kind of death, in the life-giving fellowship of the cross of Christ. He says, that he is crucified together with Christ, that he might live unto God. The ordinary punctuation of this passage obscures the true meaning. It is this: “I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live to God.” But the context will read more smoothly thus: “I through the law am dead to the law;” then, in a separate sentence, “That I might live to God, I am crucified with Christ.”
Similarly, Adam Clarke Commentary expresses the belief that the Apostle Paul was inferring that the Law does not provide help or salvation, and that it has been replaced by the Gospel, which instructs people how they can have eternal salvation and “live unto God.” Clarke explains,
In consequence of properly considering the nature and requisitions of the law, I [i.e., the Apostle Paul] am dead to all hope and expectation of help or salvation from the law, and have been obliged to take refuge in the Gospel of Christ. . . . Law is here put for a system of doctrine; as if he had said, I through the Gospel am dead to the law. The law itself is consigned to death, and another, the Gospel of Christ, is substituted in its stead. The law condemns to death, and I have embraced the Gospel that I might be saved from death, and live unto God.
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible expresses the belief that the Apostle Paul was not asserting that he was not going to follow the Law “as a rule of walk and conversation” (i.e., the Law’s rules about how people should conduct themselves), but instead he was declaring that he was not going to observe the Law in an effort to attain eternal life and righteousness, which he already had received as a result of trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. Gill states,
The apostle [i.e., Paul] further replies to the objection against the doctrine of justification, being a licentious one, from the end of his, and other believers, being dead to the law: he owns he was dead unto it, not in such sense as not to regard it as a rule of walk and conversation, but so as not to seek for life and righteousness by it, nor to fear its accusations, charges, menaces, curses, and condemnation: he was dead to the moral law as in the hands of Moses, but not as in the hands of Christ; and he was dead to it as a covenant of works, though not as a rule of action, and to the ceremonial law, even as to the observance of it, and much more as necessary to justification and salvation: and so he became “through the law”; that is, either through the law or doctrine of Christ; for the Hebrew word . . . signifies properly doctrine, and sometimes evangelical doctrine, the Gospel of Christ; see Isaiah 2:3 and then the sense is, that the apostle by the doctrine of grace was taught not to seek for pardon, righteousness, acceptance, life, and salvation, by the works of the law, but in Christ; by the doctrine of the Gospel, which says, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved; he became dead to the law, which says, do this and live: or through the books of the law, and the prophets, the writings of the Old Testament, which are sometimes called the law, he learnt that righteousness and forgiveness of sins were only to be expected from Christ, and not the works of the law. . . .
David Guzik’s Commentary on the Bible explains that although the Law was not dead, the Apostle Paul’s dying to the Law implies that the Law was not the basis for Paul’s acceptance by God, and as a result, he was “freed from the Law’s dominion [i.e., sovereignty].” According to Guzik,
For I through the law died to the law: Paul makes a bold statement, saying that he has died to the law. If he is dead to the law, then it is impossible for the law to be the way he stands accepted by God.
- Notice that it isn’t the law that is dead. The law reflects, in its context, the holy heart and character of God. There was nothing wrong with the law. It isn’t the law that died, but Paul died to the law.
- How did Paul die to the law? I through the law died to the law. The law itself “killed” Paul. It showed him that he never could live up to the law, and fulfill its holy standard. For a long time before Paul knew Jesus, he thought God would accept him because of his law-keeping. But he came to the point where he really understood the law – understanding it in the way Jesus explained it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) – and Paul realized that the law made him guilty before God, not justified before God. This sense of guilt before God “killed” Paul, and made him see that keeping the law wasn’t the answer.
- To die to the law is to renounce it and to be freed from its dominion, so that we have no confidence in it and it does not hold us captive under the yoke of slavery.” (Calvin)
Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible says that Paul was dead to the Law insofar as his “hope of justification and salvation” through observing the Law, and indicates that as a result of the influence of his faith in Christ, he was living a life of holiness and righteousness toward God. Henry asserts,
[The Apostle Paul] acquaints us what his own judgment and practice were. That he was dead to the law. Whatever account others might make of it, yet, for his part, he was dead to it. He knew that the moral law denounced a curse against all that continue not in all things written therein, to do them and therefore he was dead to it, as to all hope of justification and salvation that way. And as for the ceremonial law, he also knew that it was now antiquated and superseded by the coming of Christ, and therefore, the substance having come, he had no longer any regard to the shadow. He was thus dead to the law, through the law itself it discovered itself to be at an end. By considering the law itself, he saw that justification was not to be expected by the works of it (since none could perform a perfect obedience to it) and that there was now no further need of the sacrifices and purifications of it, since they were done away in Christ, and a period was put to them by his offering up himself a sacrifice for us and therefore, the more he looked into it the more he saw that there was no occasion for keeping up that regard to it which the Jews pleaded for. But, though he was thus dead to the law, yet he did not look upon himself as with law. He had renounced all hopes of justification by the works of it, and was unwilling any longer to continue under the bondage of it but he was far from thinking himself discharged from his duty to God on the contrary, he was dead to the law, that he might live unto God. The doctrine of the gospel, which he had embraced, instead of weakening the bond of duty upon him, did but the more strengthen and confirm it and therefore, though he was dead to the law, yet it was only in order to his living a new and better life to God (as Romans 7:4,6), such a life as would be more agreeable and acceptable to God than his observance of the Mosaic law could now be, that is, a life of faith in Christ, and, under the influence thereof, of holiness and righteousness towards God.
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible indicates that although the Law is not of major significance for Christians, this does not mean that the sins addressed by the Law no longer matter, but rather that as a result of the salvation experience of Christians, their conduct will be governed by their desire to serve and please God. Pett says,
Paul points out that the Law crucified Christ. He [i.e., Christ] died as a supposed lawbreaker. But the wonderful thing is that when He died, Paul and all those who are in Christ and believe in Him, died with Him. His crucifixion counts as their crucifixion. For because they are in Christ they were crucified with Him. Thus they are made dead to the Law by the body of Christ (Romans 7:4). For in Him the Law has carried out its verdict and its execution, not only on Him but on all who are His. He had done no sin, but He was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). So once we have become members of His body what happened to Him is also counted as having happened to us. . . . The result is that those who are His, and have been crucified with Him, are no longer under the law.
But he then stresses that those who are His have died to the law for a purpose. And that is so that they may live to God (compare Romans 7:6). There is to be no complacency here. There is to be no suggestion that therefore sin does not now matter. Rather there is to be experienced a divine compulsion. Those who have been crucified with Christ now recognise [sic] that it is because they are in Christ and Christ is in them that they are acceptable to God. Yes, it is because the risen Christ now lives in and through them. So they recognise [sic] that they are now responsible for Christ’s reputation, for Christ lives in them. Thus they are deeply aware that they must live the Christ life, that they must manifest Christ in their lives. To genuinely say that I have been crucified with Christ and so have died to the law and its condemnation, and not then to let Him live through me is not possible, says Paul. The tree is known by its fruit.
‘I through the Law, died to the Law.’ The Law had condemned Paul and had sentenced him, and had carried out his execution ‘in Christ’. So that was the end of the old Paul. There was no coming back from crucifixion! And the same is true for all who put their trust in Christ and what He has done for them on the cross.
‘That I might live unto God.’ And the purpose of this is not to free us to do whatever we like, but so that we might live ‘unto God’. So that we might live as in the presence of God. So that all our hopes and aspirations may be to serve and please God. That is what salvation is all about. It is not an easy way into Heaven, it is the way back to God that we might live to and for Him. It is to allow Him to work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
What Bible Commentaries Say about Ephesians 2:14-15
In the following comments, Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible says “the laws commanding sacrifices, festivals, fasts” (i.e., the ceremonial laws), not the moral laws, were abolished:
For he is our peace – The “peace” here referred to is that by which a “union” in worship and in feeling has been produced between the Jews and the Gentiles.
Having abolished – By the sacrifice of his [i.e., Jesus Christ’s] body on the cross.
The enmity – Between the Jew and the Gentile. Tyndale renders this, “the cause of hatred, that is to say, the law of commandments contained in the law written.” This is expressive of the true sense. The idea is, that the ceremonial law of the Jews, on which they so much prided themselves, was the cause of the hostility existing between them.
Even the law of commandments – The law of positive commandments. This does not refer to the “moral” law, which was not the cause of the alienation, and which was not abolished by the death of Christ, but to the laws commanding sacrifices, festivals, fasts, etc., which constituted the uniqueness of the Jewish system. These were the occasion of the enmity between the Jews and the Gentiles, and these were abolished by the great sacrifice which the Redeemer made; and of course when that was made, the purpose for which these laws were instituted was accomplished, and they ceased to be of value and to be binding.
Likewise, John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible explain that what was abolished was not the moral law, but rather the ceremonial law that included “circumcision, sacrifices, washings, and abstaining from certain kinds of food.” According to Calvin,
For he is our peace. He [i.e., the Apostle Paul] now includes Jews in the privilege of reconciliation, and shows that, through one Messiah, all are united to God.
Having abolished in his flesh the enmity. The meaning of Paul’s words is now clear. The middle wall of partition hindered Christ from forming Jews and Gentiles into one body, and therefore the wall has been broken down.
Even the law of commandments contained in ordinances. What had been metaphorically understood by the word wall is now more plainly expressed. The ceremonies, by which the distinction was declared, have been abolished through Christ. What were circumcision, sacrifices, washings, and abstaining from certain kinds of food, but symbols of sanctification, reminding the Jews that their lot was different from that of other nations. . . . Paul declares not only that the Gentiles are equally with the Jews admitted to the fellowship of grace, so that they no longer differ from each other, but that the mark of difference has been taken away; for ceremonies have been abolished.
Paul is here treating exclusively of the ceremonial law; for the moral law is not a wall of partition separating us from the Jews, but lays down instructions in which the Jews were not less deeply concerned than ourselves.
The Pulpit Commentaries similarly states that the law that was abolished by Christ was “evidently the ceremonial law of the Jews; certainly not the moral law,” as follows:
For he is our peace: Christ is not only our Peacemaker, but our Peace, and that in the fullest sense, the very substance and living spring of it, establishing it at the beginning, keeping it up to the end; and the complex notion of peace is here not only peace between Jew and Gentile, but between God and both. . . .
Having abolished the law of commandments in ordinances: The law abolished or superseded by Christ was the law of positive requirements embodied in things decreed, evidently the ceremonial law of the Jews; certainly not the moral law (see Romans 3:31). By removing this, Jesus removed that which had become the occasion of bitter feelings between Jew and Gentile. . . .
John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible also supports the position that it was the ceremonial law that was abolished. Gill states,
For he is our peace: [T]here was a great enmity of the Jew against the Gentile, and of the Gentile against the Jew; and chiefly on account of circumcision, the one being without it, and the other insisting on it, and branding one another with nicknames on account of it. . . .
Having abolished in his flesh the enmity: The ceremonial law, as appears by what follows:
even the law of commandments contained in ordinances: which consisted of many precepts, and carnal ordinances; and is so called because it was an indication of God’s hatred of sin, by requiring sacrifice for it; and because it was an occasion of stirring up the enmity of the natural man, it being a burden and a weariness to the flesh, by reason of its many and troublesome rites; and because it was the cause of enmity between Jew and Gentile. . . .
Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible likewise supports the position that it was the ceremonial law that was abolished. Henry declares,
The apostle [i.e., Paul] here shows that those who were in a state of enmity are reconciled. Between the Jews and the Gentiles there had been a great enmity so there is between God and every unregenerate man. Now Jesus Christ is our peace (Ephesians 2:14). He made peace by the sacrifice of himself and came to reconcile. . . Jews and Gentiles to each other. He made both one, by reconciling these two divisions of men, who were wont to malign, to hate, and to reproach each other before. He broke down the middle wall of partition, the ceremonial law. . . . By his sufferings in the flesh, [he] took away the binding power of the ceremonial law (so removing that cause of enmity and distance between them), which is here called the law of commandments contained in ordinances, because it enjoined a multitude of external rites and ceremonies, and consisted of many institutions and appointments about the outward parts of divine worship. The legal ceremonies were abrogated by Christ, having their accomplishment in him.
Adam Clarke Commentary, Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible, and Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible are among the other Bible commentaries that say the statement in Ephesians 2:14-15 indicatingthatthe law that was abolished pertains to the ceremonial law.
What Bible Commentaries Say about Colossians 2:13-14
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible declares that the requirements of the Mosaic Law have been superseded by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, but Barnes is somewhat ambiguous as to whether or not the word handwriting in Colossians 2:13-14 includes the moral laws as part of the Mosaic Law or if handwriting pertains to just the ceremonial law that established numerous other religious practices. According to Barnes,
The word rendered handwriting means something written by the hand, a manuscript; and here, probably, the writings of the Mosaic law, or the law appointing many ordinances or observances in religion. The allusion is probably to a written contract, in which we bind ourselves to do any work, or to make a payment, and which remains in force against us until the bond is cancelled. . . . The Jewish ceremonial law is here represented as such a contract, binding those under it to its observance, until it was nailed to the cross. The meaning here is, that the burdensome requirements of the Mosaic law are abolished, and that its necessity is superseded by the death of Christ. His death had the same effect, in reference to those ordinances, as if they had been blotted from the statute-book. This it did by fulfilling them, by introducing a more perfect system, and by rendering their observance no longer necessary, since all that they were designed to typify had been now accomplished in a better way. . . .
John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Bible takes the position that the handwriting of requirements (or ordinances) in Colossians 2:13-14 pertains to religious ceremonies (i.e., the term does not pertain to the Law in its entirety, which includes the moral laws). Calvin says,
Paul contends that ceremonies have been abolished, and to prove this he compares them to a hand-writing, by which God holds us as it were bound, that we may not be able to deny our guilt. He now says, that we have been freed from condemnation, in such a manner, that even the hand-writing is blotted out, that no remembrance of it might remain. For we know that as to debts the obligation is still in force, so long as the hand-writing remains; and that, on the other hand, by the erasing, or tearing of the handwriting, the debtor is set free. Hence it follows, that all those who still urge the observance of ceremonies, detract from the grace of Christ, as though absolution were not procured for us through him; for they restore to the hand-writing its freshness, so as to hold us still under obligation.
This, therefore, is a truly theological reason for proving the abrogation of ceremonies, because, if Christ has fully redeemed us from condemnation, he must have also effaced the remembrance of the obligation, that consciences may be pacified and tranquil in the sight of God, for these two things are conjoined. While interpreters explain this passage in various ways, there is not one of them that satisfies me. Some think that Paul speaks simply of the moral law, but there is no ground for this. For Paul is accustomed to give the name of ordinances to that department which consists in ceremonies, as he does in the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:15). . . . More especially, the passage in Ephesians shews clearly, that Paul is here speaking of ceremonies.
Others, therefore, do better, in restricting it to ceremonies, but they, too, err in this respect, that they do not add the reason why it is called hand-writing, or rather they assign a reason different from the true one, and they do not in a proper manner apply this similitude to the context. Now, the reason is, that all the ceremonies of Moses had in them some acknowledgment of guilt, which bound those that observed them with a firmer tie, as it were, in the view of God’s judgment.
Adam Clarke Commentary also asserts that the handwriting of requirements (or ordinances) refers to the ceremonial law, as follows:
By the hand-writing of ordinances the apostle most evidently means the ceremonial law: this was against them, for they were bound to fulfill it; and it was contrary to them, as condemning them for their neglect and transgression of it. This law God himself has blotted out.
In the following comments, John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible states that the wiping out (or blotting out) of the handwriting of requirements may have any of several possible meanings:
Various are the senses interpreters give of these words; some think by the handwriting is meant the covenant God made with Adam, Genesis 2:17, which being broken, obliged him and all his posterity to the penalty of death, but is cancelled and abolished by Christ; others, the agreement which the Israelites made with God at Mount Sinai, when they said, “all that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient”, Exodus 24:7; which was as it were setting their hands, and laying themselves under obligation to obedience, and, in case of failure, to the penalty of the law; others, God’s book of remembrance of the sins of men, out of which they are blotted when pardoned; others, the book of conscience, which bears witness to every debt, to every violation and transgression of the law, which may be said to be blotted out, when pacified with an application of the blood and righteousness of Christ; rather with others it signifies the ceremonial law, which lay in divers ordinances and commands, and is what, the apostle afterwards speaks of more clearly and particularly; and may be called so, because submission to it was an acknowledgment both of the faith and guilt of sin; every washing was saying, that a man was polluted and unclean; and every sacrifice was signing a man’s own guilt and condemnation, and testifying that he deserved to die as the creature did, which was offered in sacrifice: or rather the whole law of Moses is intended, which was the handwriting of God, and obliged to obedience to it, and to punishment in case of disobedience; and this the Jews . . . call . . . “the writing of the debt”. . . .
Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible indicates that the handwriting of requirements (or ordinances) may refer either to the “obligation to punishment” under the Law (presumably, the moral law) or to the ceremonial law contained in ordinances. Henry explains,
Whatever was in force against us is taken out of the way. He [i.e., Christ] has obtained for us a legal discharge from the hand-writing of ordinances, which was against us (Colossians 2:14), which may be understood, 1. Of that obligation to punishment in which consists the guilt of sin. The curse of the law is the hand-writing against us, like the hand-writing on Belshazzar’s wall. Cursed is every one who continues not in every thing. This was a hand-writing which was against us, and contrary to us for it threatened our eternal ruin. This was removed when he redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, Galatians 3:13. He cancelled the obligation for all who repent and believe. “Upon me be the curse, my father.” He vacated and disannulled the judgment which was against us. When he was nailed to the cross, the curse was as it were nailed to the cross. And our indwelling corruption is crucified with Christ, and by virtue of his cross. When we remember the dying of the Lord Jesus, and see him nailed to the cross, we should see the hand-writing against us taken out of the way. Or rather, 2. It must be understood of the ceremonial law, the hand-writing of ordinances, the ceremonial institutions or the law of commandments contained in ordinances (Ephesians 2:15), which was a yoke to the Jews and a partition-wall to the Gentiles. The Lord Jesus took it out of the way, nailed it to his cross that is, disannulled the obligation of it, that all might see and be satisfied that it was no more binding.
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible says the handwriting of requirements (or the written bond in ordinances) pertains to the Torah, which may include the moral laws as well as the ceremonial laws. According to Pett,
‘The word for ‘written bond’ refers to a signed legal bond or certificate of indebtedness. The idea would seem to be that God’s ordinances as revealed in the Torah (God’s ‘instruction’ – the first five books of the Bible) so bind us and condemn us that they are seen as a certificate of debt. Indeed men were put under obligation to the Law when they were accepted (see Exodus 24:3), and therefore put under the curse of the Law (see Deuteronomy 27:14-26), for we were then liable to meet its demands in full. We are thus, in our unconverted state, failed debtors to God (Romans 8:12; Luke 16:5; Matthew 6:12). We could translate the words ‘the written binding legal demands which we had failed to meet’. Gentiles are included for they have the Law written in their hearts and consciences (Romans 2:14-15). Thus they consent to them in their consciences and are equally liable to obey them.
‘In ordinances’ . . . means ‘decrees, ordinances.’ Compare Luke 2:1; Acts 17:7 where it means the emperor’s decrees; Acts 16:4 where it means the decrees of the Church Meeting in Jerusalem. In Ephesians 2:15 it clearly means the Mosaic Law, and it is used in this way by Josephus and Philo. Thus it could mean the Law’s demands or the Creator’s demands or indeed all divine demands. It may therefore be that the ordinances are to be seen as including all moral demands.
Neither Romans 7:4 nor Galatians 2:19 states that the Law is dead, but rather that Christians are dead to the Law. The teachings of the New Testament challenge people to a higher standard than the moral teachings of the Old Testament. Teachings such as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which are found in Matthew 22:37-40, place particular emphasis on the importance of love. Jesus Christ made it clear in this scripture passage that all of the other moral teachings in the Bible are based upon these two commandments. Anything a person does that violates either of these two commandments is a sin, regardless of whether or not it is specifically addressed in the Bible. If a Christian loves both God and other people, that person’s focus will be broader than the Old Testament moral laws and will result in a desire to refrain from all kinds of unloving actions, not just those specified in the Law.
Ephesians 2:14-15 is primarily addressing the fact that the ceremonial laws followed by the Jews are no longer relevant and, as a result, a major cause of enmity between Jews and Gentiles has been eliminated. The passage certainly does not infer that the Old Testament moral laws are dead.
Although Colossians 2:13-14 does not specifically say that the Old Testament moral laws are dead, it does state that Christ “wiped out the handwriting of requirements,” andthere is no clear consensus among the commentaries as to whether or not this is a reference to just the ceremonial laws or to all the Old Testament laws, including the moral laws.
Despite the ambiguity regarding Colossians 2:13-14, we believe there is sufficient evidence that although the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament no longer matter insofar as Christians are concerned, the moral laws still matter. Therefore, with the possible exception of the Commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day (i.e., Saturday, which is the seventh day of the week), there is not a valid reason to believe that the Ten Commandments are no longer in effect. Certainly, it is still a sin for people to murder, to steal, etc.
Furthermore, the doctrine that a person who has sincerely trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation (i.e., a genuine Christian) cannot lose their salvation does not imply that such a person is not expected by God to obey the Ten Commandments and other moral laws taught in the Old Testament, as well as those in the New Testament. Paul emphatically says in Romans 6:15: “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!” And Paul goes on to indicate in Romans 6:22 that Christians should be holy, which includes striving to consistently conduct ourselves in a manner that demonstrates our obedience to all the moral teachings of the Bible. [For more information regarding the significance of holiness for Christians, click on “Can Anyone Except God Be Holy?”]