The Law: The Misunderstood Covenant
What is Meant by Law? · The Law Was Given to Israel · Duration of the Law · The Nature of the Law · The Law Could Not Save · The Benefits of the Law · The Focus of the Law · The Weakness of the Law · Conclusion
The subject of the Mosaic Law is either directly or indirectly addressed in most every book of the Bible. The time of its reign takes up the content and covenantal setting of every book of the Old Testament except Genesis and the first half of Exodus. Jesus lived under the Law, thus most of the four gospels are taken up with its influence. Many of the epistles deal with the relationship of the Law to the church. As widespread as the subject is, the Law and/or its applicability to the church has been misunderstood by many for the past two millennia. Even before the church age, the Jews misunderstood the Law. They mistook it for a means whereby one could gain righteousness before God, by strict obedience to its letter apart from genuine trust in YHWH. Many Christian cults have arisen over a misunderstanding of the Law. In fact, it was the first major heresy to be dealt with by the apostolic church (Acts 15), and was by far the most prevalent heresy in the first-century. Its influence has continued ever since.
What is meant by law? Who was the Law given to? How long was the Law intended to remain in effect? What is the nature of the Law? What was its purpose? These and many other questions will be addressed in this introductory article.
What is Meant by Law?
"Law" has many shades of meaning in the New Testament when referring to the Law of Moses. The actual covenant of the Law is laid out in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, four of the five books of Moses known as the Penteteuch. The rest of the Old Testament concerns itself with the lives and times of those under this covenant, but it does not add more commands to the covenant commands appearing in the Pentateuch, although at times it will expand upon, or clarify them.
Is the Law, then, only the Penteteuch? Internal evidence points us to answer in the negative. Paul quoted from the Psalms and Isaiah in Romans 3:10-18, yet he said that it was the Law that said these things (Romans 3:19). Sometimes the use of "law" is in reference to the entire Old Testament (Matthew 5:17-18; Romans 3:10-19; Isaiah 28:11 with I Corinthians 14:21; John 5:10 with Jeremiah 17:21). Other times it only refers to the Penteteuch (Luke 24:44; I Corinthians 14:34 with Genesis 3:16; I Chronicles 16:40). Sometimes it refers solely to the book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:1-5; 27:1-8; Joshua 8:30-35). Still at other times the reference is to the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17; 24:12). It can also refer to a human custom (II Samuel 7:19, where Hebrew word torah is translated "manner").
The New Testament also uses "law" in reference to the law of the mind (Romans 7:23), the law of sin and death (Romans 7:23; 8:2), the law of the Spirit of life (Romans 8:2), and the law of faith (Romans 3:27).
The wide range of reference ascribed to "law" in the New Testament should make us keenly aware of the falacy of pigeon-holing every occurence of the word into a certain meaning or reference. As with all words, it must be defined by its context.
The Law Was Given to Israel
The Law-covenant was instituted by God at Mount Sinai solely for the chilren of Israel. It was never intended for Gentile nations. The Lord told Moses to speak to the "house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel" that because they had been delivered from their Egyptian bondage, they were to keep the Sinaiatic covenant and thus become "a peculiar people...above all people....", and "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:3-6). The deliverance from Egypt, being peculiar to Israel alone, necessitated that they alone would participate in the covenant.
That the special revelation of the Law was only given to Israel is also evident from Psalm 147:19-20, "He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them."
This is not to say that Gentiles could not partake of the covenant, entering into a relationship with YHWH, and receive the covenantal benefits. To do so, however, they had to proselyte to Judaism first: "And if a stranger shall sojourn among you, and will keep the passover unto the LORD; according to the ordinance of the passover, and according to the manner thereof, so shall he do: ye shall have one ordinance, both for the stranger, and for him that was born in the land." (Numbers 9:14; See also Exodus 12:43-49).
The New Testament singles out the nation of Israel as being the recipients of the Sinaiatic covenant. In Romans 9 Paul expressed his burden for his kinsmen, national Israel. In his description of them he said, "Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law...(v. 4). The Law was something to be claimed by national Israel, their exclusive possession.
The early church convened a council to determine whether or not Gentiles were to abide by the Mosaic Law or not. Two major camps had arisen within the church over this issue. One group claimed that all believers, whether Jew or Gentile, must keep the Law of Moses in addition to their faith in Christ to be saved, while the other group believed that faith in Christ was sufficient by itself for salvation. Luke recounts it in this manner, "But there rose up certain sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them [Gentiles], and to command them to keep the Law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). James' decision was to not trouble the Gentiles with obedience to the Law, since neither they (Jewish people) nor their forefathers were able to keep it (Acts 15:10, 19, 24).
Duration of the Law
The Law was never intended to be God's final covenant with mankind, neither was it to be an enduring covenant. The Law itself prophesied of the day in which the Mosaic Covenant would be superseded by a superior covenant. Jeremiah's prophecy states this quite succinctly:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah [authenticating the fact that the present covenant was made only to the house of Israel]: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.... But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts...(31:31-33).
Some maintain, based on statements in the Law which indicate that the ordinances would be for them "for ever," that the Law was never intended to cease (Exodus 12:14; 27:21; Leviticus 16:33-34). The word translated "for ever" is the Hebrew owlam. This word is used to "indicate indefinite continuance into the very distant future."1 Although the word can be used to express eternality, as it does in references to God's existence (Genesis 21:33), it does not always refer to eternality, but to a long duration of time. Context must determine which sense the word has in any given passage. Given the fact that the Law itself contained several prophecies of its replacement by another covenant, owlam must be referring to a long period of time.
One such example where context demonstrates owlam to mean "long time" is the love servant. Exodus 21:5-6 relates how if a servant that had served his seven years for his master, and could be set free, but desires to stay with his master for the rest of his life, could have a hole punched through his ear, "and he shall serve him for ever" (v. 6). That did not mean that he would serve him for eternity, but for the rest of his life. Exodus 31:13 uses the same Hebrew word in connection with the command to keep the Sabbath. This cannot mean that the Sabbath must be obeyed for the rest of time because the New Testament clearly states that we need not observe the Sabbath (Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:14-17). The references, then, to keeping the Law "for ever" must be taken to mean "for a long time" instead of eternity.
The author of Hebrews, in his attempt to demonstrate that the Law was weak and had come to an end, argued that the Law foretold the Messiah would be a priest after the order of Melchisedec, which was a different order than that under the Mosaic Law (Hebrews 7:17; Psalm 110:4). Seeing that the Mosaic Law and the Aaronic/Levitical priesthood were intertwined in one covenant, the prophecy of the cessation of the Aaronic priesthood also signaled a future termination of the Mosaic Law-Covenant. It was to be supplanted with a different covenant, connected to a different priesthood (Hebrews 7:11-19).
In his epistle to the Galatians Paul gave both the time of, and reason for the Law's abolition. According to Paul, the law was only intended to endure until the time that Christ was to come. The Law was only a schoolmaster to bring the Jewish people to faith in Christ. Since Christ/faith had come, the Law was no longer necessary (Galatians 3:21-25).
The Nature of the Law
The nature of the Law is possibly the most misunderstood aspect of the Mosaic Covenant. I will deal with five areas of its nature here: its unity, eternal value, benefits, focus, and weakness.
The most prevalent view of the Law is that it is divided up into three categories: moral law, civil law, and ceremonial law. Although this way of viewing the Law may be beneficial for facilitating our mental categorization of the many laws, the concept is foreign to the Scripture. The Law of Moses was never fragmented into various parts, but was always viewed as one cohesive, unified whole. One had to keep all 613 commandments of the Law to receive of its benefits (Galatians 3:10-12). Moses said "cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them" (Deuteronomy 27:26) The Lord said through Jeremiah, "Cursed be the man that obeyeth not the words of this covenant, ...Obey my voice, and do them, according to all which I command you" (Jeremiah 11:3-4; See also Galatians 3:10). James summed it up best when he said, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10; See also v. 11). The Scripture declares that to keep 612 commandments, and yet fail to keep one, is to break all 613. To break a "ceremonial" law was viewed in the same manner as a "moral" law. Perfect obedience was demanded to all the commands of the covenant, because it was a unified whole.
The laws of the Mosaic Covenant governed the priesthood, clothing, food, housing, the calendar, festivals, the sacrificial system, giving, and many other areas of activity in the lives of the Israelites, yet they all formed one covenant. To disobey a law pertaining to diet was equally significant to breaking a law dealing with sexual morality. This does not mean that all laws were on the same ontological level. Some laws were considered to be abominations to God while others were not (Deuteronomy 22:5). Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees, "Woe unto you...hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matthew 23:23). Although Jesus recognized some matters of the law as holding more weight than others, He still maintained that all were to be kept.
This understanding of the Law is very important to our understanding of the relationship of the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant because it is commonly taught that Jesus only abolished the ceremonial and civil laws of the Mosaic Covenant when he established the New Covenant, leaving the moral law still effective. However, because the Scripture depicts the Law as a single, unified-whole we must conclude that Jesus abolished the entire Mosaic Covenant, including its moral laws (James 2:10-11). This does not mean that God no longer has laws concerning morality today. God's moral nature demands that He will always have a moral law for mankind. Before the Law He instructed men through their conscience and through oral laws passed down from generation to generation (Romans 2:12-16). This was necessary because no written revelation existed before the Law of Moses that could define right and wrong. Abraham never had a Scripture to tell him about God's laws, yet we read that Abraham obeyed God's voice, kept His charge, His commandments, His statutes, and His laws (Genesis 26:5). The laws of God that have to do with His moral nature predated the Law of Moses and were added to what we think of as the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law, but when Jesus abolished the Law at His death (Hebrews 9:16-17) even what we would call the moral aspects of the Law were abolished. God did not abolish His own moral laws when He eradicated the Law, but He did eradicate the legality of the covenant in its entirety. He could not abolish some parts of the Law and not others because it stood as a single unit. After abolishing the entire covenant God reiterated His moral commandments to the church via the New Testament Scriptures. Whatever God's moral laws were before the Mosaic Covenant were also contained in the Mosaic Law, and continue to be so for us in the church age, written for us in the New Testament Scriptures. These moral laws were contained in the Law of Moses, but we have no way of judging whether or not they were part of God's moral law except for the fact that the command is reiterated in the New Testament Scriptures. If a Mosaic command does not reappear in the New Testament it can be concluded that it was not part of God's eternal moral law, for the identity of God's moral law is found in the expression of revelatory commandments in His Word (Romans 7:7-13).
Take the example of eating fish without scales. The Israelites were forbidden to do so under the Mosaic Covenant (Leviticus 11:12). No one under the New Covenant is commanded to do the same; therefore, we determine that this command is not part of God's moral nature, for if it had it would have been reiterated in the New Covenant. To us it seems quite obvious that eating fish without scales is acceptable to God, but it must be remembered that it's only obvious to us because we have the preconceived idea that it is acceptable, based upon the New Testament Scriptures. We realize that the command need not be obeyed, although it is found in the Bible, because it is contained in a covenant given to a specific people of another dispensation, and not to the church.
How does such an understanding of the Law affect our understanding of the Ten Commandments, then? Most believers would affirm that Christians should keep the Ten Commandments because nine of the Ten Commandments also appear in the New Testament in one form or another. The command to observe the Sabbath, however, does not reappear. The New Testament is clear that the church is not under obligation to the Sabbath law (Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:9-11; Colossians 2:14-17). To argue, then, that the church is to keep the Ten Commandments as set forth in the Old Testament, would necessitate the inclusion of keeping the Sabbath commandment also. This contradicts New Covenant theology, and the Biblical view of the Law of Moses as one integral unit. Seeing that the Ten Commandments are part of the 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law (and arguably the very heart of the Mosaic Covenant), they too were abolished at Calvary. Nine of them were "reintroduced" in the New Covenant due to the fact that they are part of God's "moral law," emanating forth from his holy nature.
It is noteworthy to examine Paul's treatment of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) in his writings. In Romans 7:4-7 Paul told his readers that they were delivered from the Law through its termination, so that they might be able to serve Christ. They were "dead to the law" through Christ (v.4). The Law actually stirred up their sinfulness, culminating in their spiritual death (v.5). Now that the Romans had been delivered from the Law, however, they could serve God in the newness of the Spirit (v.7). To exemplify how the Law stands in opposition to the power of grace to overcome sin, Paul quoted the tenth commandment which prohibited covetousness. Had the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic Covenant still been legally binding on the church as the Ten Commandments of the Law, Paul would not have made such a statement because in this context the Law (oldness of the letter) was being contrasted with the New Covenant (newness of the Spirit). Paul argued that the Law brings death, but Christ brings life. Part of the Law that brings death is the tenth commandment in the Decalogue, which stands in opposition to the New Covenant, and binds us in sin rather than liberating us from it. This further demonstrates that the Law from which the child of God is delivered includes the Ten Commandments.
Paul also referred to the doing away of the Ten Commandments in II Corinthians 3:6-11.
But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. For even that which was make glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.
The only commandments that the OT records as being written and engraven in stones were the Ten Commandments. They were written on the stones of Mount Sinai. Those commands resulted in condemnation, and have been superseded by the New Covenant characterized by the life of the Spirit. According to the Apostle Paul, then, we are not under the Decalogue. We are under the commandments of the New Covenant, which happens to contain similarities to nine of the Ten Commandments.
Some may argue that it is mere hair-splitting to declare that the Ten Commandments have been abolished with the rest of the Law only to "reinstate" nine of the commands again. If the commands of the New Covenant so closely parallel the commands of the Old Covenant, why make such a distinction? An analogy might be helpful.
It can be compared to a real estate contract. A real estate agent makes two contracts for two men who are buying two different houses. Although both contracts will contain similar elements and language, they are indeed two different contracts. The two contracts will also have many differences between them. They may both include information such as payment, lot space, or time of purchase, but they will have differences. The one man is not subject to the other's contract, neither vice-versa. The Mosaic Covenant is not the church's covenant. It contains many similar elements, but it has many differences. We are not to obey a commandment from the Law simply because there is a similar command in our covenant. We are only subject to the terms of our own covenant, i.e. the New Covenant.
The Law Could Not Save
The second major misunderstanding concerning the nature of the Law is the belief that the Law was salvific for the Old Testament saints, just as the New Covenant is salvific for the church today. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Law of Moses had nothing to do with salvation and justification. Salvation and justification were received by faith in God as it is in all dispensations and covenants. Paul said concerning the Law, "If there had been a law which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law" (Galatians 3:21). Righteousness can not be received by keeping laws, but can only be received by faith (v.22). That the Law of Moses could never justify man is evidenced by a host of Scriptures (Romans 3:20-24, 26-28; 4:1-8; 9:30-33; 10:1-13; Galatians 2:16-21; 3:2-6, 10-14; 5:1-6; Ephesians 2:8-9).
God never intended the Law to serve as a means of justification or salvation. As we will see later, the Law was intended to lead the Israelites to see their utter sinfulness and inability to keep the Law, and thus seek a Savior. Nevertheless, the Jews misunderstood the nature of the Law as do many today, and began seeking righteousness by obedience to the Law instead of by having faith in God's righteousness and ability to save. Paul explained their predicament in Romans 9:31-33:
But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.. For they stumbled at the stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. (See also 10:1-4)
Even after the birth of the church and the inauguration of the New Covenant, the idea that the Law was salvific in nature saturated the Jewish element of the church. These Judaizers (Christians who kept the Law) were trying to teach the Gentile converts that they too must keep the Law in addition to believing in Christ to be saved. This was the very reason the apostolic council of Acts 15 was called: "And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). Circumcision was a Jewish icon for the Law of Moses (Galatians 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-13, 15). That the entire Law was in view is evidenced by verses five and tweny-four. As mentioned previously, the council determined that obedience to the Law of Moses was not necessary for salvation (Acts 15:7-11, 19-21, 24, 28).
The Jewish Scriptures themselves taught that one is justified by faith, not works. Habakkuk 2:4 reads, "But the just shall live by his faith." Paul used this Scripture to relate this same point to the Galatians who had been bewitched by the Judaizers into believing they needed to keep the Law to show them from the Law itself that justification comes only through faith (Galatians 3:11).
The Benefits of the Law
If the Law was not salvific in nature, then what was the benefit of observing the Law? If one could be saved by placing their faith in God apart from the works of the Law as the Scriptures declare, then why did anyone obey the covenant? First of all, obedience to the covenant was a demonstration of the Israelites' faith and love toward God (Deuteronomy 7:9; 13:3-4). Just as James demonstrated in the New Testament that action and obedience always follow true saving faith (James 2:14-26), likewise, obedience to God's law would naturally follow the Israeli man or woman who had placed their faith in God. Faith and obedience are intrinsically connected concepts (Matthew 7:21, 24-27; John 14:15, 23; Acts 6:7; Romans 1:5; 10:16; 16:26; II Thessalonians 1:7-8; Titus 3:8; Hebrews 5:9; 11:28; I Peter 4:17; I John 5:1-3).
The Law was a covenant given to Israel to provide them with temporal blessings in the land of Israel such as wealth, victory over their enemies, retention of the land, and long life. Failure to keep the covenant would result in just the opposite. Deuteronomy, meaning "second law," sheds the most light on the beneficial nature and purpose of the Law. "The significant themes found in the 'second law' include 'life,' 'righteousness' and 'law/covenant.' An examination of the use of the first two of these topics reveals that they have to do not with eternal life or moral righteousness, but with temporal life in the promised land and external righteousness related to obedience to the commandments of the law/covenant."2
In the Law of Moses there is never a mention of eternal life. The life that is mentioned numerous times in Deuteronomy only refers to the length or quality of life in the land of Israel. The following Scriptures demonstrate this:
That thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son's son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged (6:2).
And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: (28:64-66).
See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; In that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it (30:15-16).
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live: That thou mayest love the LORD thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice, and that thou mayest cleave unto him: for he is thy life, and the length of thy days: that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them (30:19-20).
And he said unto them, Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life: and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land, whither ye go over Jordan to possess it (32:46-47; See also 4:40; 11:8-9).
"Life" is equated with "good/blessing," while "death" is equated with "evil/cursing" (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19). The good/blessing and evil/cursing has to do with the temporal benefits or lack thereof based on the people's obedience to, or lack of obedience to the covenant. Most of these blessings and cursings can be found in chapters 28-30. If the Israelites were disobedient to the covenant, their lives would hang in doubt, and they would have no assurance of life (28:64-66).
The concept of righteousness, as found in Deuteronomy, is not a righteousness of the same quality as spoken of in the New Testament, a righteousness received from God on the basis of faith in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ. Rather it "has to do with conformity to an ethical or moral standard."3 The Hebrew root word, tsadaq, means "to be straight," as in an ethical norm.4 The righteousness that Deuteronomy speaks of is purely contingent upon personal behavior. It is gained by what one does, not where one places his faith. It was possible for an individual who had no faith in God, but who obeyed the Law to be considered righteous in light of its requirements. For example, Deuteronomy 6:22 says, "And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us." The righteousness is earned by works apart from faith, the exact opposite of the New Testament concept of how righteousness is received (Romans 4:1-5). An example of how a man could gain righteousness would be by returning a man's cloak that was being held as collateral for something borrowed, before sunset (24:10-13).5
Paul expressed the type of righteousness the Law offered when he said to the Philippians:
Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel...as touching the law a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss...that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." (Philippians 3:4-9).
There was a righteousness in the Law. The Law offered its own kind of righteousness, other than faith-righteousness which brought salvation. Paul claimed that he had been blameless in this Law, and therefore was righteous. He could have confidence in himself because his performance made him righteous. Paul had no salvific righteousness, however, and that is why he turned to Jesus Christ for salvation. If he could have been justified, receiving God's righteousness, by the works of the Law, then surely Paul would have already had salvation. Rather, Paul merely possessed the righteousness inherent within the Law, being based upon his obedience to the temporal covenant, regardless of his faith in God. It is evident from verse 9 that the righteousness of the Law is radically different from the righteousness offered by Jesus Christ. One is based upon one's own works (self-righteousness) and is non-salvific, while the other is based upon faith in Christ's work (God's righteousness) and is salvific in nature.
The benefit of keeping the Law, then, was the quality of life in this present world. If the Jews were obedient to the covenant, they would receive life/blessing as manifested by the temporal blessings of long-life, abundance of rain for crops, peace, wealth, and maintenance of the land of Israel. If they were disobedient to the covenant they would receive death/cursing as manifested by the temporal cursings of short-lived lives, lack of rain for crops, war and captivity, and loss of the promised land.
The Focus of the Law
The focus of the Law is in complete contrast to the focus of the New Covenant. The focus of the Law is on works (what you do), while the focus of the New Covenant is on faith/believing. The righteousness of the Law was received by doing, but the righteousness of the New Covenant is received by believing. Paul summed it up best when he said:
For they [Israel] being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, THAT THE MAN WHICH DOETH THOSE THINGS SHALL LIVE BY THEM (Romans 10:3-5).
Paul stated plainly to the Galatians that the Law is not a faith covenant, but rather a works covenant. He said, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, CURSED IS EVERY ONE THAT CONTINUETH NOT IN ALL THINGS WHICH ARE WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW TO DO THEM. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH. And the Law is not of faith: but, THE MAN THAT DOETH THEM SHALL LIVE IN THEM (Galatians 3:10-12). The Law is not a faith covenant, but the New Covenant is.
The Weakness of the Law
The final misunderstanding of the Law is that it was a perfect system. It is true that the Law was holy, just, good, and spiritual (Romans 7:12, 14a), but it is equally true that those attempting to keep its commands were sold under sin (v. 14b). Although the Law held up a perfect standard to be obeyed by those under its reign, it was weak through the fallen, sinful nature of man. Paul described the inability and weakness of the Law when he said, "For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4).
The author of Hebrews also spoke of the Law's inadequacies:
...he [Jesus] is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them, he said, BEHOLD, THE DAYS COME, SAITH THE LORD, WHEN I WILL MAKE A NEW COVENANT WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL.... NOT ACCORDING TO THE COVENANT THAT I MADE WITH THEIR FATHERS...BECAUSE THEY CONTINUED NOT IN MY COVENANT... (Hebrews 8:6-9).
In both the Romans and Hebrews passages, the problem that is identified with the Mosaic Covenant is that those living under it could not keep it. The Law that demanded perfect obedience gave no power to the individual to do so. Paul's words in Romans 7 give an actual testimony of one who tried to live up to the standards of the Mosaic Law.
For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. v.15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. v.16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. v.17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. v.18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. v.19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. v.20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. v.21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. v.22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: v.23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. v.24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? v.25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.
Paul desired to keep the Law in his mind, but could not find the ability to perform that which was good. The law of his mind was not powerful enough to overcome the law of sin that dwelt in him. When he desired to do good, he found himself committing sin. When he tried to stop sinning, he could not. He delighted in the law of God (v. 22), yet this delight could not keep him from giving into the sin nature within him. We are not talking about a man that had a haphazard attitude toward God's law. It was not that Paul did not try hard enough, but it was that it is not possible.
Paul did not leave off with this hopeless testimony, but continued on to speak of his victory over these struggles through Jesus Christ. What Paul could not do when relying upon his own desires, works, and abilities, he could do when relying upon Jesus Christ. He continued to say:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:1-3).
The Law did not give the ability to fulfill the desires of the mind to do good. This is why it had to be superseded by the New Covenant. Only the New Covenant gives the believer both the desire and the ability to obey God's law, and to carry out the desires of the mind to do good. In Philippians 2:13 Paul said that "it is God which worketh in you both to will [desire] and to do [ability] of his good pleasure." This is in stark contrast to Paul's plight in Romans 7:18, where he said he could not find the ability to perform that which is good.
The point the author of Hebrews made in 8:7-10, which I quoted earlier, had to do with this very subject. It was because Israel could not keep Yahweh's covenant that He decided to make a new covenant with them. The prophecy quoted by the author, found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, demonstrates that the reason God needed to make a new covenant with the Israelites was because they could not keep the Mosaic Covenant. Jeremiah prophesied:
Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake...: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.... And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (31:31-33 emphasis mine).
This new covenant was going to take the law of God which was external to the individual, and make it internal. Whereas before one had no internal ability to keep the external law written on tables of stone, in the New Covenant that same individual would have an inner ability to keep God's law, seeing that it was now engraved on his heart.
Ezekiel also prophesied that the New Covenant would give the individual the inner ability to keep God's law: "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean..... A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them (Ezekiel 36:25-27 emphasis mine).
Instead of giving the individual power to overcome sin, the Law actually aroused and increased the sinful desires in man, thus increasing mans' sinful acts. It might be compared to sediments which are settled at the bottom of a glass of water. When the waters are stirred those sediments will be aroused from their dormant position. So it is with sin. When the law is given, the sinfulness of man is aroused against it. The Law cannot assist anyone in the struggle against sin, but actually made their sinfulness all the more apparent. This was intentional on God's part. The Scripture says, "Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound" (Romans 5:20). Paul explained what his experience with the Law was like when he said:
For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. v.6 But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. v.7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. v.8 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence [evil desire NKJV]. For without the law sin was dead. v.9 For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. v,10 And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. v.11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. v.12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. v.13 Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. v.14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin (Romans 7:5-14).
Here Paul explained how the Law actually increased the desire to sin, because it gave 613 ways to sin, some of which never would have been thought of had there not been a commandment for or against them. Paul used the example of the commandment against covetousness to demonstrate his point. He would not have known covetousness was wrong except by means of the Law. The Law brought the knowledge of the sin to his consciousness (Romans 3:20; 7:7). The command increased Paul's natural, sinful desire to covet, so that he coveted all the more. The command, therefore, gave sin its strength (I Corinthians 15:56). Paul found no ability to break out of the Law's clutches on his life, for as long as he was under the Law, sin would have dominion over him. It's only under grace that one can overcome sin (Romans 6:14).
It is human nature to desire to do what we are told not to. It's like the kid and the cookie jar. He may not have even been thinking about wanting a cookie until his mother forbade him to have one. After that, all he could think about was how to get a cookie. Law increases the desire to sin, and shows man his utter sinfulness. God instituted the Law for this very purpose. Once man saw his sinfulness, it would in turn lead him to seek a Savior.
In case some might think that the Law was evil, because it produced evil desires in man, Paul made sure to point out that the Law was holy, just, and good (v. 12). Sure that this might confuse his readers because of what he had just said about the negative effects of the Law, Paul asked, "Was then that which is good [the Law] made death unto me?". His answer was a resounding no! It was his sin that produced the spiritual death in him. The Law only revealed that fact to him, emphasizing the sinful nature within him (v. 13). The Law was spiritual, but Paul could not keep it because he had no power to do so, being controlled by his sinful nature (v. 14).
The Scripture says that "the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression" (Romans 4:15). Until Moses received the first written revelation from God on Mount Sinai, there was very little knowledge about the laws of God. According to Paul, those who disobeyed commandments contained in the Law from the time of Adam until the giving of the Law did not have their sin imputed to them: "For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law (Romans 5:13). Paul never said that those before the Law did not sin, but that their sin was not imputed to them.. An illustration might be helpful at this point. A parent may not want their child to color on the walls, but until they make it known to the child that coloring on the walls is wrong, they cannot justly punish the child for doing so. They can punish the child, however, after he has been given the rule against such behavior. Before the rule comes, however, the child can not be said to be disobedient. It is not that his act is not wrong, but that the wrongness of his act cannot be charged against him because of his lack of knowledge concerning the rule. Although an act or attitude may be considered sinful by God's holy nature, unless there is a law given (either through the general revelation of conscience [Romans 2:12-16], or through special revelation to the individual) making it known that it is wrong, the individual will not be held accountable for his sin by God. Daniel Segraves summed it up well by saying:
...since the Law of Moses had not been given and could not therefore serve its purpose of defining sin, the individual sins committed by people, which would later be defined as sin in the Law of Moses, were not reckoned to their account before God.... This does not mean that people were saved by ignorance; Paul had already pointed out about these very people that they failed to live up to the limited revelation they had. (See Romans 1:18-32) What this means is that nobody prior to the giving of the Law of Moses will be held responsible for the requirements of the Law of Moses. They will, however, be responsible for the sins they committed against the revelation they did have.6
The law of God precisely defined what sin was (Romans 3:20; 7:7; I John 3:4). So when the Law was given, and sin was defined, those who were under the Law were now held accountable for their actions, and the wrath of God would be executed against it. The Law, then, made sin appear as sin (Romans 7:13).
While there are many more purposes for the Law of Moses indicated in Scripture, we will but speak of one final purpose as found in Galatians 3:15-26. In this passage Paul explained how the Law, which was 430 years after the confirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant, did not affect the covenant made to Abraham (vs. 15-18). Paul anticipated the readers' question, "Wherefore then serveth the Law?", and immediately answered, saying, "It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made... (v. 19). The Greek phrase translated "because of transgressions" is parabaseon charin. Frank Thielman points out, "The statement is so broad that it could be taken to mean that the law came to place limits on sin, to reveal sin, to punish sin or even, if read in the light of a similar but more specific comment in Romans 5:20, to increase sin."7 James Boice also comments, "The phrase can mean either that the law was given to restrain transgressions...or that the law was given to make the transgressions known, even in one sense to encourage them or to provoke them to a new intensity."8 Boice then gave his opinion on the meaning, saying that "the latter is the only real possibility" considering "Paul's choice of the word 'transgressions' (parabasis) rather than 'sin' (hamartia) in this context and of his discussion of the purpose of the law elsewhere."9 Elsewhere Paul said there is no transgression where there is no law (Romans 4:15), so this phrase cannot mean that the Law was added to stop transgressions, because there would be no transgressions without the Law. For a transgression is the breaking of a certain commandment. Without a commandment there can be no transgression.10 Without the Law the Israelites had no transgressions. In light of this, it seems best to interpret this phrase to mean that the Law was added to increase transgressions.
Since the Law had nothing to do with the promises given to Abraham, Paul asked his readers a rhetorical question, "Is the law then against the promises of God?" (v. 21). Again his answer was, No! The Law was not against the promises given to Abraham. It simply had nothing to do with the promise made to Abraham. The Law could not give eternal life, but the promises made to Abraham, namely justification by faith (Romans 4:1-5, 16-25; Galatians 3:5-9, 14), could (v. 21). The Scripture declares that all are "shut in" under sin (the literal meaning of the Greek sunkeleio, translated "concluded"). They are confined in on all sides. The purpose is so that none will try to justify themselves on the basis of any law, but will believe in God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5; Galatians 3:22). The Law was only to remain in effect until faith came. Once faith came, the Law was to end. It was only their guide to bring them to faith in their Messiah so that they might be justified by faith. Once faith came, and the Law had served its purpose, there was no more need for the Law (vs. 23-25). Their faith in Christ made them children of Abraham, partaking of the same promise he did, namely justification/salvation through faith (vs. 27-29). The Law could never save the Israelites, or give them the promises that were in the Abrahamic Covenant. They were completely separate covenants for two different purposes. What the Law could do, however, was lead the Israelites to salvation through showing them their utter sinfulness and need of a Savior. Once they understood that their hearts and works were unrighteous, they would cry out to God for His mercy and salvation.
As I have demonstrated, the Law is over. The church has no obligation to obey the Mosaic Covenant. There are scores of New Testament Scriptures that underscore this fact, many of which I have mentioned already. The apostolic council in Acts 15 decided that the Law had no part with the church and that it was not necessary for salvation. Paul's letters are consumed with thoughts fighting against those who taught that the church is under the Law. To the Ephesian church Paul said that Jesus "hath broken down the middle wall of partition...;having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances... (Ephesians 2:14-15). In Romans 10:4 Paul explained that "Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to every one that believeth." In Romans 6:14 he simply stated, "...we are not under law.... Finally, the author of Hebrews said the Law was abolished because of its weakness and unprofitableness. It could not make anything perfect, but the New Covenant can (Hebrews 7:18-19; 9:9-11; 10:1-12, 14; 12:22-24).
The Scriptures teach that the Law of Moses was a temporal covenant given specifically to the Israeli nation, to be terminated at the coming of Christ. The Law was not salvific (soteriological) in nature, but was a works covenant. Since the covenant was one unit that could not be divided into components, being a unified whole, perfect obedience to all 613 commandments was required. If the Israelites obeyed the terms of the covenant, they would receive specific temporal benefits from Yahweh. If they disobeyed the covenant they would receive certain temporal judgments from the same. The purpose of the Law was to increase man's sinfulness, and make him aware of his utter need for a Savior. It was to lead man to faith in God, and to make it clear to him that his good works can not save him. Because of the weaknesses and inadequacies of the Law, it was necessary that it be superseded by a superior covenant, based upon better promises. It did indeed terminate at Christ's death on the cross, thus the church has no relationship to it. The church is under the New Covenant, instituted by Christ's blood.
1. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody Press: Chicago, 1980), as found in BibleWorks, computer software, 1998. <back>
2. Daniel Segraves. Systematic Theology II (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1998). 56. <back>
3. Ibid. <back>
4. Ibid. <back>
5. See also Deuteronomy 9:4-6 for another example. Here righteousness is clearly something that is done. It is not a standing with God that one receives, nor does it have to do with a clean heart, but is merely based on external behavior. <back>
6. Segraves, 67. <back>
7. Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), 132. <back>
8. James Montgomery Boice in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 464. <back>
9. Ibid. <back>
10. This does not mean, however, that the act would not be sin simply because there was no commandment. Sin and transgressions are two different things. A sin is against God Himself regardless of what revelation man might have of God's Law, but a transgression is a direct violation of the expressed Law of God. The Law never made anybody a sinner, for they were already sinners. It did, however, make them transgressors against God's Law, because they could not perfectly keep it as God had commanded them. With the coming of special revelation (the Law), the conscience has a standard external to itself, which gives men more knowledge of God's holiness, and more knowledge of ways to sin against God. Through the Law men are shown their inability to yield completely to God, and thereby become convinced of their need of a Savior. <back>
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