The Apostle Paul wrote much about being set free from the law. But what exactly are we set free from? It is not that Paul is throwing the entire law out. Otherwise, passages like the first two chapters of Romans and Galatians 3 make no sense. He clearly still believes that we must obey some moral rules.
I think it is instructive that many of the places where Paul is more vehemently railing against the law he is also decrying circumcision. (Galatians is a prime example.) It provides a hint as to what Paul means by this law that we must be set free from. Paul is not the only one, however.
Peter had his vision in Acts chapter 10 that reinforced Jesus’ earlier teaching that we can eat bacon (and some other stuff, too—see Mark chapter 7). Let us not forget that Jesus himself was continually running afoul of the predominant Pharisaical practice of the Sabbath as well. He seemed to spend a fair amount of time redefining what the fourth commandment was intended to produce.
Jesus, Peter, and Paul all inform our idea of “Christian liberty.” Yet none of them could really be accused of “taking it easy” on morality. What are we set free from in terms of the law? I think we are set free from having to be Jewish. We don’t need circumcision, food laws, or elaborate Sabbath rituals to define us as a people. Jesus gave us our defining characteristic, and it had nothing to do with prayer shawls, beards, or yarmulkes.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 13:35 (ESV)
When followed, the ritual laws of Judaism produced a distinctive culture in the midst of the surrounding nations. From the physical marks of circumcision to the dietary restrictions, Israelites were to be different from Canaanites, Amalekites, Philistines, Hittites, and everybody else they spent most of their time at war with. God was trying to forge a people for himself and in order to do that he had to call them out.
He had dramatically called them out from Egypt, but he had to set them apart from the nations they were soon to be neighbors with. Failure to do so would mean they would intermingle, intermarry, and idolize. (Which is exactly what happened anyway.)
When the church was born in the book of Acts, the focus seems to have been on calling people to Jesus from every tribe and nation. Instead of forging a group to represent God, Jesus came to call everyone to God.
The law that we are set free from is the sacrificial law, because Jesus was our ultimate, final sacrifice. We are also set free from the “ceremonial” or “cultural” law pertaining to those things that served mainly to set the Jews apart—circumcision, clothing restrictions, food restrictions, some of the civil regulations.
How is this good news? Why was it worth Paul fighting over? Two main reasons come to mind. First, God has opened access to himself through his Son to all people. Second, while the old covenant had provisions for proselytes, there weren’t very many. By removing many of the barriers, this change made it easier for people to approach God and become part of his church.
What’s the catch? While it is now simpler, it is still hard. Jesus did nothing to lower the moral bar we are expected to clear. But we can solely focus upon following him in love and obedience without having to change cultures. (Or at least without changing cultures entirely. To make the changes Jesus calls us to will have cultural effects, though.)