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Why do Christians pick and choose which laws to obey from the Old Testament (OT)? Isn’t that inconsistent, or just a way for Christians to be judgmental against certain groups?
Some of the laws in the OT were binding at that time but are not binding for Christians living today.
The Sacrificial System
In the OT, there was a sacrificial system where food and animals needed to be sacrificed in order to atone for sins (Leviticus 2). In the New Testament (NT), Jesus is the final, ultimate sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18). His death, burial, and resurrection signified the end of the OT sacrificial system. So it is not a contradiction for Christians today to refrain from ritual sacrifice.
Nation-State or Church?
In the OT, Israel was a nation, but in the NT, God’s people are not merely those who are descended from Abraham physically (Israel), but all those who have faith like Abraham (Galatians 3:7). Nations and local churches have very different roles when it comes to things like governing. Since God’s people is a church, not a nation-state, that comes to bear: the church is not responsible for enforcing the laws of ancient Israel.
Old and New Covenants, Old and New Hearts
In the OT, we have the “old covenant.” In the NT, we have the “new covenant,” a new way of relating to God as a people through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:6-13). This isn’t to say that God changed his mind. Rather, God knew all along that this new covenant would eventually have to come. As early as Deuteronomy 10, God told the Israelites that they should not merely circumcise their bodies (a symbol of God’s covenant with Israel) but their hearts, meaning they needed to allow themselves to be changed from the inside. But only a new covenant would ultimately yield these results (Romans 2:29).
In the OT there is an “outside-in” kind of faith that doesn’t change us inside (Romans 7:14-25), and in the new, an “inside-out kind” of faith. Because people’s hearts need to be changed by God, it ultimately required Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection to change us from the inside so we could obey on the outside through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13).
In the case of both the OT and the NT, there is still moral law, which are guidelines that are true for every culture and generation. These moral standards deal with the relationship between humanity itself and humanity and God. They have to do with things like murder, adultery, idolatry, and blasphemy; Jesus teaches on much of this in the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7. Not only does he reaffirm what the OT says about such things, but he even takes it steps further at times (Matthew 5:21-26). (See excursus 1 below for more on other types of OT laws.)
While some of the unique ways God’s people relate to him have changed, his moral character has not. Christians don’t obey the OT law because Jesus fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17-20), and unless he gives us reason to hold onto old standards, we are not bound by them.