Are Christians who don’t “keep Torah” in Covenant?
Written By — David Wilber
In recent decades, Christians around the world have been coming to realize that the Torah is still relevant to them today. Some call this growing movement within Christianity the “Messianic Movement,” while others more recently have referred to it as simply “pronomian (pro-law) theology.” Regardless of which label you prefer, all who have embraced this movement have had to revisit some doctrines they were taught previously in their Christian upbringing.
For instance, we’ve realized that we should observe the weekly Sabbath and that it’s not on Sunday but Saturday. We’ve also discovered that Yeshua did not abolish God’s laws against eating pork and shellfish. Moreover, we’ve seen that Yeshua and the apostles observed the feast days—and there is no indication in Scripture that they ever stopped—so we observe them too. Among a few other things, these are some ways our theology differs from “mainstream” Christianity.
There really isn’t much of a difference between ordinary Christians and us Torah lovers when you think about it. However, that hasn’t stopped some people from exploiting God’s beautiful Torah and turning it into a platform from which to exalt themselves and look down on others. Some have even gone so far as to question the salvation of Christians who don’t “keep Torah” as they do! As an example of this type of erroneous thinking, here is how one teacher put it:
“Covenant is always the key element of the relationship between the Creator and His children … Are Christians covenanted? No! … Look, they’re not covenanted. They’re confused because they’ve been lied to.”
Later, he elaborates that Christians are not in covenant with God because they are not in a covenant of “Torah keeping.” So, according to this teacher, Christians who don’t “keep Torah” as he does are excluded from the covenant people of God. “Only me and my followers get to enjoy a covenant relationship with the Creator because we’re so smart and special,” the haughty teacher proclaims on YouTube while turning up his nose at most Christians throughout history worldwide (countless who were martyred for their faithfulness to the Messiah).
Needless to say, this is a grievous error that needs to be addressed. There are two things I want to say in response.
First, as you might have suspected from seeing my scare quotes in this article, it’s inaccurate to say that ordinary Christians don’t “keep Torah.” If they are genuine followers of the Messiah, they do. While they might not recognize the validity of some parts of the Torah, like the seventh-day Sabbath and dietary laws, they do keep much of it.
For instance, all genuine Christians believe in following at least nine of the Ten Commandments. They all believe in giving to the poor. They all adhere to Torah-based sexual ethics and much of the holiness code. In reality, there are only a few things they are missing. Who is anyone to say that such Christians aren’t in covenant relationship with God?
Additionally, many ordinary Christians, in fact, keep more Torah than those who profess to be Torah keepers! I’ve personally met numerous Christians who didn’t recognize the validity of commandments like the Sabbath. Yet, they “kept Torah” in other ways better than myself and every other Messianic I know.
You think that just because someone doesn’t get that slice of ham on their Subway sandwich that they’re a super holy Torah keeper? What if they neglect to minister to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:31-41)? What if they fail to love their neighbor as themselves by looking down on them with unrighteous judgment? There are many “Messianics” like that. Can they really be called Torah keepers in any meaningful way?
Once again, the fact that someone doesn’t recognize the validity of commands like the Sabbath does not necessarily mean that they don’t “keep Torah.” The fact that some people do recognize such commandments as valid does not necessarily mean that they do “keep Torah.” This dichotomy that some people have created is overly simplistic and unfounded.
As followers of Yeshua, we have a responsibility to be faithful to God and obedient to the best of our knowledge. Every genuine Christian does their best with what they know. I think the Sabbath, feasts, and dietary laws are important, but we should not be looking down on other faithful Christians just because their eyes have not yet been opened to the relevance of those few additional laws.
The second thing I want to say in response to this error is that our covenant relationship with God is not based on our Torah observance.
This fact was made evident during the Jerusalem Council. Some Jews at the time believed that Gentiles could be “saved” only by becoming Jews via ritual conversion (Acts 15:1). Ritual conversion was a man-made formula by which Gentiles were received as covenant members with Israel. This formula involved adhering to certain Torah commandments, like circumcision, as a prerequisite to covenant membership.
The idea of ritual conversion as a prerequisite to being received as a covenant member of God’s people was entirely man-made. As Tim Hegg explains, “Nowhere in God’s word is there a ceremony outlined for a Gentile to become a proselyte. In fact, the Torah is quite specific that the resident non-Jew was to be received as just that—a non-Jewish person who had attached himself to Israel and to her God.” The Torah doesn’t exclude believing Gentiles or demand that they fulfill certain commandments before being received as covenant members (they had to get circumcised if they wanted to eat the Passover, but that’s it). After all, Abraham himself was received as a covenant member by faith—long before God eventually commanded him to be circumcised.
On the basis of the Torah and Prophets, the apostles recognized that it was wrong to place the yoke of man-made ritual conversion upon the Gentile believers (Acts 15:10). As scholar J. K. McKee explains:
“The yoke being placed upon these non-Jewish Believers in the Messiah was a legalistic perversion of the Torah which demanded that if you do not observe it and convert to Judaism (perhaps according to the particular sect represented) you cannot be saved. It is a yoke that keeps people out of God’s intention, rather than one that welcomes them in.”
The apostles taught that Gentile believers are saved no differently than Jews are saved: by grace through faith in the Messiah (Acts 15:11). They argued that covenant membership is not something that is gained through ritual conversion, Torah keeping, or any other type of human effort. Covenant membership is based upon putting one’s faith in the Messiah.
Indeed, after hearing all the arguments, James stood up and proclaimed that Gentile inclusion into the covenant community was prophesied in Scripture and that “we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19). In other words, the Gentile believers were not to be pressured into getting circumcised and taking on the weight of the entire Torah all at once (contra the Pharisees in Acts 15:5). Instead, they were to be received as covenant members based on their faith in Messiah. They were to start with four Torah-based instructions to reassure their Jewish brothers that they had fully renounced idolatry (Acts 15:20) and then continue their journey of learning the Torah as they attended synagogue services every Sabbath (Acts 15:21).
Thus, in principle, Acts 15 proves that one can be a covenant member without having “kept Torah.” Thank God that He receives us on the basis of faith. Thank God that He is continually patient with us as we strive to serve him to the best of our knowledge.
In conclusion, yes, Christians who don’t “keep Torah” as Messianics do are in covenant with God. We know this because every genuine Christian does keep Torah to the best of their knowledge as evidence of their faith, even if they don’t recognize some commandments as valid for today. In fact, many of these Christians “keep Torah” better than professing Torah keepers in other ways. Also, according to Scripture, covenant membership is not based on Torah observance anyway. It’s based on faith. So, it’s silly to think that any genuine Christian (someone who has put their faith in Christ by definition) is not in covenant with God.
I think most Christians are wrong about the relevance of commandments like the Sabbath, feasts, and dietary laws. I think keeping such commandments is part of walking out our faith as believers. But that doesn't change the fact that our foundation—the Gospel—is the same. We are all saved by faith, not works. None of us can boast. And indeed, there would be more opportunities for fruitful dialogue regarding some of our differences if we united on the foundation instead of dividing from each other.
- Steve Berkson, “First Look – CC101: Are You Covenanted? Part 13.” https://youtu.be/7_7K3Tiw3k0
- Tim Hegg, The Letter Writer: Paul’s Background and Torah Perspective, 2nd ed. (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2008), 236
- Does that mean men need to get physically circumcised to partake in a modern-day “Passover seder”? No. To find out why, see Caleb Hegg’s excellent article on the topic here: https://nrfcommunity.org/blogs/3379113--do-i-need-to-be-circumcised-to-keep-passover
- J. K. McKee, Acts 15 for the Practical Messianic (McKinney, TX: Messianic Apologetics, 2010), 53
David Wilber is a popular author, speaker and teacher. He has written works such as Is God a Misogynist and A Christian Guide to the Biblical Feasts. Check out davidwilber.com to find out more about David Wilber and his ministry.