Lesson 7: The New Law of Christ
Read: Summa Theologiae, I-II, 106-108.
The Old Law was written on tablets of stone. It was comprised of many commandments, which could be expressed in human speech. It remedied for the punishment of ignorance in the intellect for the Original Sin, but in itself it did not remedy for the defect of Malice or weakness in the will. Only Christ could do this in the New Law. This New Law of Christ is taught in the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, the interior motivation for the observance of the commandments is stressed as the foundation for the written letter. The New Law of Christ is primarily not a written law. Christ remedies for malice by sending the grace of the Holy Spirit into the soul. The New Law is both an interior law, taught by the Holy Spirit, and a written law. It is primarily an interior law. Secondarily and no less essentially it is a written law. The written commandments in the New Law dispose someone to the grace of the Holy Spirit (dispositive) and teach someone how to act according to the grace of the Holy Spirit (executive).
The New Law justifies in itself, something the Old Law could not do. Still, it does not justify because of the written part, but because it contains in itself the grace of the Holy Spirit. If someone under the New Law only follows the letter without the Spirit, then they live as though they were under the Old Law.
There were, under the regimen of the Old Covenant, people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit and longed above all for the spiritual and eternal promises by which they were associated with the New law. Conversely, there exist carnal men under the New Covenant, still distanced from the perfection of the New Law: the fear of punishment and certain temporal promises have been necessary, even under the New Covenant, to incite them to virtuous works. In any case, even though the Old Law prescribed charity, it did not give the Holy Spirit, through whom 'God's charity has been poured into our hearts'.
The New Law was not given immediately at the beginning of time because man had to be prepared to receive grace by realizing his dependence on God. This preparation of the human race was progressive. Nothing in nature is immediately brought to perfection and the same is true of the life of grace, which builds on nature. Had God offered grace to men as soon as the sin was committed, they would not have accepted it because they would not have understood their need for grace, their need to surrender to Him.
This New Law was given in the fullness of time and includes the interior grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it justifies in itself, as opposed to the Old Law, which only justified by the faith of the recipient. Since this is the essence of the New Law as given through the complete revelation of God, Jesus Christ, there will be no further revelation of God which is more complete than that given in Christ. In the Middle Ages, there was a heretical movement which taught that there were three ages of the world: the age of the Father (The Old Testament), the age of the Son (The New Testament and fleshly Church founded on Pentecost) and the age of the Holy Spirit. This latter age would be on this earth and would entail a more complete revelation of the God than the one given in Christ and expressed in the sacraments and the hierarchical Church. The implication was that the hierarchical Church would evolve into a more complete Church of the Spirit, which would be without structure and sacraments and entail only the perfect.
St. Thomas answers this heresy by saying that there are indeed three ages of the world: the age of the Father and the Son (the Old Testament which finds completion in the Messiah); the age of the Son and the Holy Spirit (the New Testament which finds its completion in the Sending of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles at Pentecost); the Final Perfect age. This last age is not experienced in this life. It is only experienced in the Vision of God in heaven. There will be no more complete revelation of God on this earth than the one given to the Apostles on Pentecost and which is expressed in the hierarchical and sacramental Catholic Church.
The Old Law and the New Law are not two essentially different laws, but two stages in the same law. They are related like the plant to the rose or child to adult. The one is an imperfect stage of the other. Both are oriented to charity, but the Old Law could not in itself give this charity, though it was perfect for its time and place. The Old Law instructs us like children; the New Law like adults. For this reason, there were many temporal punishments and promises given under the Old Law. The New Law on the other hand is a law of Love. It is grace itself and motivates people as spiritual adults.
The Old Law contained 618 precepts, 248 commands and 365 prohibitions according to the authorities at the time of Jesus. It contained so many precepts because it instructed people like children who need constant reminders. Those who live under the Dispensation of the New Law have only those precepts which in themselves are according to or against the living of charity.
Jesus fulfills what is lacking in the Old Law as to both its end and its precepts. As to the end, Jesus truly gives the grace of the Holy Spirit and so the Old Law is brought to perfection. As to the precepts, He fulfills them in both His actions and in His teaching. In His actions, he was born under the Old Law and did all that was required under the Old Law. In the great hymn for Corpus Christi, Pange Lingua, Thomas Aquinas writes, "He obeys the law's directions, even as the Old Law ends."
In his teaching, Our Lord shows the proper understanding of the Old Law. The exterior principles of the Old Law were about charity, the interior love of God brought by grace. Jesus interprets the authentic meaning of the law by pointing to its ethical dimension, which implements the intention of charity.
For this reason, the New Law is more difficult to live than the Old Law is. Though the Old Law had many precepts, in itself it did not give the grace to live them properly. Since the New Law gives this grace, it demands that what it commands and forbids be done from the right interior intention. The person who acts according to the New Law must perform whatever works he performs from spontaneous joy and free internal love born from the supernatural perspective of life according to the Holy Spirit. The interior hardship, which the New Law demands, can only be borne with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who supports us with His presence and power. In this sense, the New Law is much more difficult to live than the Old Law is.
The New Law is therefore a law of freedom, but not in the sense that there are no works commanded. The external works of the New Law are few when compared with the Old Law, but this is because this is a law fulfilled. The external works commanded are those which lead to grace (the sacraments) and those which are in accord with (positive precepts) or contrary to the living of the life of faith working through love (negative precepts). There are still, then, absolute moral norms under the dispensation of the New Law against those actions, which are incompatible with the living of grace, e.g. murder, theft and adultery.
The Kingdom of God is primarily interior, and so all exterior actions which do not correspond to interior reconciliation with God are forbidden. Those, which are indifferent to this interior peace, have no relation to this law, e.g. food. All foods are permitted under the New Law and there are no ritual laws of purification or ablution. The New Law is a law of freedom in two senses: (1) it does not constrain us to do or avoid anything except what is necessary to or contrary to salvation and (2) it demands that we fulfill the precepts freely from the inner stirring of grace. The Old Law restrains the hand. The New Law restrains the heart and therefore also the hand.
Finally, Jesus adds to the precepts of the Old Law counsels of perfection in the New Law. These counsels recommend that one gives up even legitimate goods because of the possibility of manipulation under the New Law. They correspond to the legitimate goods which tempt us with the lust of the flesh (sexuality) -- chastity; the lust of the eyes (money) -- poverty; and the pride of life (perfection) -- obedience.
The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who 'does not know what his master is doing' to that of a friend of Christ -- 'For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you' -- or even to the status of a son and heir (CCC n.1972).