In the King James Version, 1 John 3:4 defines sin as “the transgression of the law.” John was referring to the law of God, but how do we define the law of God for Christians today? We know it can’t be all of the laws of the Old Testament, because the New Testament shows that the sacrificial system has ended.
But what about other Old Testament laws? Are they as binding on Christians today as they were for Israelites before the coming of Jesus Christ? Which Old Testament laws does God command Christians to obey today?
A similar question troubled the early New Testament church, and even required a council of apostles and elders to address the issue. The conclusion of that council, with the writings of the apostle Paul and other New Testament authors, help us understand what God’s law is for Christians today.
The New Testament controversy
A controversy that troubled the early New Testament church was whether God required Gentile Christians to be circumcised and live according to the Law of Moses. The basic message of Paul to the Gentiles was that their salvation was a gift that came through faith in Jesus Christ, and that they were complete in him. Paul placed no demands on his converts that they be either circumcised or required to perform other Old Testament laws in order to be saved.
However, the position of some Jewish Christians was that “Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). Without the authorization of the apostles (verse 24), they had spread this disturbing message to certain Gentile congregations.
This teaching implied that faith in Christ was not enough for salvation. These “Judaizers” wanted to combine the gospel of Christ with the observance of the Law of Moses. Their error was not that they substituted something for Christ’s work, but that they tried to add something to it. For them, salvation was not by faith alone: It was by faith in Christ and obedience to the law.
Paul strongly resisted the idea that the Law of Moses was a requirement either to get salvation or to maintain it. He fought a running battle with these “Judaizers,” whom he regarded as “false brothers” who had infiltrated the Gentile churches (Galatians 2:4). He wrote his epistle to the Galatian church to counter their teaching, which he labeled a “different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).