By Grady Stuckman
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus seems to contradict himself in regards to what he thinks of laws governing religious observance. The Sermon on the Mount famously declares, “think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). In the Gospel of Mark, he becomes sharply critical of Jewish tradition, admonishing the Pharisees for “leaving the commandment of God and holding fast the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6).
Paul is also a culprit of this as well; he says that God “will render to every man according to his works,” but paradoxically admits that “for by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Rom 2:6, Eph 2:8).
These words of Paul seem to reconcile the misgivings of many Protestants: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal 5:13-14). Throughout the rest of Galatians, Paul is critiquing a Christianity that still bases itself upon purely Jewish rules, thus making a distinction between two kinds of law: moral law and ceremonial law.
Jewish ceremonial law is the kind of law that Jesus and Paul inveigh against because the Jewish sacrifice pointed ahead to the one sacrifice Jesus made himself upon the cross. Having fulfilled the sacrifices of old, the Christian religion now follows a ceremonial law of its own. That ceremonial law consists of the liturgical rites of the Catholic Church, the origin of which is Christ’s institution of the Seven Sacraments. Jesus, through his one sacrifice, rendered useless the Jewish ceremonial laws, replacing them with rituals that draw their power from that sacrifice. This is why the Mass is properly called the “Sacrifice of the Mass,” as the changed bread and wine really make Christ’s self-offering present. It is not a re-sacrificing of Jesus, but rather a participation in the graces the one sacrifice offers to us. The bishops, whom Christ gave authority to act as ambassadors for Him, may regulate these new ceremonies to ensure the spiritual goods Christ wants to offer are offered as He wished (Jn 20:19-23, 2 Cor 5:20). Since the Church has been established as the New Jerusalem, the Pope and bishops (and to a lesser extent, the priests and deacons) may regulate Christian worship, similar to how David had the authority to regulate Jewish worship (Rev 21:2, 2 Sam 24:18-25).
Moral law can be understood by all through reason (hence why it is sometimes called “natural law”), and is never abrogated or abolished. This is why Christians still obey the Ten Commandments and other moral maxims presented in both Testaments. Each provides moral guidelines for how everyone should act. (By implication, I mean that the existence of a God is knowable by reason—but that’s another article.)
Therefore, Christ does not remove the moral obligations binding on all people, since they existed from the foundation of the world, and he established religious ceremonies intended to replace the Jewish ones.
This is not to say that the ritual itself effects salvation and grace—on the contrary, Christ using the ritual as his instrument is what really affects grace. One’s disposition to faith is how one receives the grace into his soul, meaning that the only “work” required on man’s part to be saved is an act of faith in the saving work of Christ, the outward sign of which is Trinitarian water baptism. The rest of the “works” of the new ceremonial law help one to persevere in the graces of salvation, and further perfect the soul towards its ultimate union with God in heaven.
(All biblical citations are from the RSV.)