A 10,000-meter Look at the Law
If you have had teaching on the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), Romans, or Hebrews, among others, you've probably gotten a basic picture of what the Law (capital L) is and its relation to, and contrast with, the Gospel. The Law is a set of over 600 rules for living given by God to Moses and the Israelites before they entered the land He had promised them. These laws covered just about every aspect of life at the time, from justice to worship to the economy. Unfortunately, the Israelites forsook God and His laws and, as He had warned, He allowed them to be conquered and taken away by other nations.
The New Testament offers the other side of this story: the Law was never intended to save, and because of our innate slavery to sin it cannot save anyone. The prescriptions and regulations of the Law were shadows of the reality to come (Hebrews 10:1) with Jesus. The whole system of animal sacrifice for sins foreshadowed Christ's once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world, the role of the priests was a preview of His role as our perfect intercessor and high priest, and the whole structure of the Law is a shadow of how God will, by the Spirit, write His law on our hearts. Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17) and now we are set free from it. God always intended salvation to be by faith, as we see with Abraham being justified by faith before the giving of the Law. (Genesis 15:6)
Why the Law?
This is a grossly simplified explanation of the role of the Law for Christians, with which I have never really been satisfied. It raises many questions that have been plaguing me in my reading through the Old Testament, the biggest of which is obvious: if the Law was powerless to save anyone, if its rituals and rules were simply shadows of the reality to come, then why on earth did God give it to His "chosen" people in the first place? It almost seems like some kind of celestial con act; even as God was promising them that they would live if they obeyed the Lew (Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 6:25, 32:37), one pictures Him chuckling behind His back at how naive they were to think they could actually do it.
In answering this question it's easy to do so wrongly and so reach a misconception that I wrestled with. (Or just assume and work from that misconception) I'm first going to follow this wrong train of thought before getting to what I've actually learned.
A Wrong Conclusion
Fortunately, Paul answers the question "Why the Law?" for us.
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. (Romans 5:20)So it seems that the purpose of the Law was to heighten the guilt of our sin, increase our awareness of it by showing us God's perfect standard for holiness that we fail to live up to, so that we will more clearly grasp our need for a savior and seek Jesus, who alone is able to save us from our condemnation arising from not obeying everything written in the Law. (Galatians 3:10)
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. (Galatians 3:19)
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
But wait a minute. This means Christians have been thinking about their sins with tunnel vision. If we are condemned for lying, stealing, thinking angry thoughts, or having idols, aren't we also condemned for not circumcising our children (Genesis 17:12), not offering sacrifices for our unintentional sins (Leviticus 4), getting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), wearing composite fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), or not using the metric system (Leviticus 19:35, my favorite law)? Shouldn't we equally be repenting of these sins and asking God to sanctify us in order to follow these laws as well?
This is a cavil (thank you, John Calvin) often raised against Christians by people trying to ridicule Christianity. They ask why Christians are breaking some of these more obscure laws, or ask why they can't own their own slaves since the Law clearly seems to permit slavery. (Also plural marriage--Deuteronomy 21:15-17) Is there anything to this? The reasoning is pretty simple: if we are condemned for not obeying the law, then shouldn't we as forgiven people try to please God by obeying it?
The Purpose of the Law
I don't think so. Several times in His teaching, Jesus lays down ways to live that openly contradict the Law; some of its restrictions are set aside, others are made more rigorous. (See Matthew 5:17, where His teaching is based on but different than the Law or clarify it) He says that simply not murdering or committing adultery aren't enough; wanting to do these things is equivalent to doing them. Whereas God commanded the Israelites to take oaths by His name (Deuteronomy 6:13), Jesus says not to swear by anything on heaven or earth (Matthew 5:34-37). In Acts 10 and 11 we see that Christians are no longer held to the Jewish dietary restrictions. Paul says that Christians do not need to be circumcised (1 Corinthians 7:18) and elsewhere commands them not to seek it (Galatians 5:2-3). He equates circumcision with trying to be justified by the Law and contrasts it with justification by grace.
So clearly Christians are not meant to live by the Law of the OT, either to gain salvation or because of it. As further proof that we are not condemned because of our failure to act specifically according to the law, notice all the times people are condemned in Genesis before the giving of the law--most notably Sodom and Gomorrah. God hadn't laid down the rules for sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 yet, so how could He be angry at these cities?
Look at the flip side of this: the justification of Abraham (Genesis 15:6), again before the Law. (see Romans 4) He is declared righteous purely because of his faith/belief, his willingness to set everything else aside to follow God. So, conversely, people are condemned because they lack this faith--not faith in the sense of agreeing with a set of truths about God, but faith as total devotion and surrender to Him. This is why Jesus gives Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment; everything else is subordinate to this supremely important command, that we love the Lord.
In light of this, the Law shows us our sin not simply by our failure to do everything in it, but the reason we keep failing: because we don't love God as we should and can't make ourselves do so. This is why it's not enough to look at the rules we've broken and say, "I messed up; I'll try harder to obey that next time." If we don't go deeper and ask why we keep failing, we're missing the point. So the purpose of the Law is to bring down the proud and demonstrate that no one can be righteous enough for God to accept them; the need for a savior is universal. Even if we are vaguely aware of our own inability, the Law makes it clear; the attitude of rebellion that may have long lain hidden in our hearts rises to the surface when presented with such a clear command and becomes undeniably clear. (See Romans 7:7-13)
So in other words, the Law is not the way for us to be righteous like God and was never intended as such, but it is a holy standard set up by God to show us our own sin. It reveals the failings of our hearts, not our actions.
You may object, as I did, "But if the Law was so incomplete, why did God withhold the Gospel for so long after it and make the Jews think they had all they needed from Him?" Well, consider what would have happened if the Law hadn't been given. (Which is not hypothetical at all; just look at any nation before the Law or any non-Israel nation after it) Without the Law, these nations heard little from God except whatever prophets He sent to them. Over and over again, the pattern is that they keep sinning and sinning until it gets so bad that God destroys them. The end. (As seen in Romans 1) It's bleaker than Norse mythology, but God is entirely within His justice to treat people this way. Compare this with all the promises God makes to Israel, the grace He repeatedly shows them, and the laws He gives to help them prosper. So it's hard to argue that the Old Covenant was a bad thing in any sense.
As for the objection that being given the Law blinded the Israelites to their need for the Gospel, I would say that they did know "enough" about what was casting the shadows God was showing them. From the example of Abraham they knew that remaining faithful to God would be counted as righteousness and prosper them. They themselves had provided plenty of examples proving that faithlessness and an attitude of disobedience would be punished as it was in the other nations. Abraham's justification and others' condemnation before the law would have shown them that God cares more about the heart than the exterior.
Another problem I struggled to understand: how does the Law point to a need for Jesus as the savior if the procedure for what to do if it was broken (sacrifice; the Day if Atonement) was already built into it? And how can people be cleansed of their sins on the Day of Atonement among others (Leviticus 16:30) if animal sacrifices can't take away sins? (Hebrews 10:4) The Leviticus verse is very clear: the peoples' sins were atoned for "on this day", not on some future day that the Day of Atonement foreshadowed. It is worth mentioning here that the OT term "atonement" and the wording in Hebrews, "take away", don't seem to be referring to the same thing. The Hebrew word for atonement, kaphar, can also mean to cover over (i.e. God commanding Noah to cover the ark with pitch) or push aside, whereas the NT word, aphaireo, means to "take away" or "cut off".
So again, we get this accumulative picture of sin; it keeps building up, but the ceremonies in the Law, by design, didn't deal with it as fully or completely as Jesus did. The point, then, is that we wouldn't put our faith in rituals to save us from sin, but in God Himself. The prescribed sacrifices were intended to help produce the humility and repentance God desires, not to fix our sin themselves. One other interesting thing brought up in class was that while the Law has rules for unintentional sins, it makes no provisions for intentional or "presumptuous" sins. If you sinned defiantly, you had no recourse except to trust in God's mercy.
I see three takeaways from this:
- Stop expecting people to try to obey any of the commands from the Law unless you yourself try to obey all of them. (Hint: you don't)
- On a related note, to convince people that they sin, don't just list off the Ten Commandments and show that everyone has broken at least one. (I listened to a sermon from the Village Church that kind of did this) Like Jesus did, go deeper; ask why no one follows them all.
- At least for me, the tendency to interpret parts of the Old Testament solely as "shadows" of the reality of the Gospel is unhelpful. It seems like mistaking a secondary purpose of these things for their primary purpose. What did the Laws mean to the Israelites when they were given, in context, when they had barely any idea of the Gospel?