Could the law have been averted?
If we allow our minds to wander back to the Garden of Eden prior to the fall, I would like to propose a question. Was the law of God necessary? Or, if we ask the question in a different way, will the law of God be necessary in heaven? Consider Timothy below.
We know that the law is good when used correctly. For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God.
1 Timothy 1:8-11
Paul certainly doesn’t mince words in his letter to Timothy. So basically, the law 1 is for lawbreakers, right? Easy enough, oh, but wait, it also says for the rebellious, the ungodly and sinful. How do we define those terms? This could get a little dicey! Let’s dive into this a bit, shall we?
From the time of Adam and Eve until the law was given at Sinai, at least a couple of thousand years had passed. Why didn’t God deliver the law at the time of the fall; why did he wait all of those years? The fall of our first parents wasn’t the only failure. Recall the first fratricide with Cain and Abel, the wickedness of humanity prompting the great flood, and the direct rebellion against Yahweh at the tower of Babel. The moral failures go on and on through the Age of the Patriarchs.
I would suggest that the Mosaic law was God’s last, but necessary, choice to force us to see our own hearts. If we could but see our true condition, maybe then we would turn back to our creator. If we (mankind) had turned wholeheartedly back to God after the fall, could we have averted the Mosaic law? This assumes that our arrogance, pride and rebellion could somehow be dealt with. We may never know the answer this side of heaven.
But before we venture too far afield into the realm of speculation, let’s get back on track. Our first parents had been created in the image of God – their created selves perfectly reflected the triune Godhead and it was good! In this context, law and rules were unnecessary because their lives operated within the framework of God’s image and purpose. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end on that note. Adam and Eve were deceived and fell from their position of grace, holiness, and innocence. After the fall a standard was required, one which would allow us to see the ugliness of our rebellion and failure. This standard would have provision for pointing us back to a place of cleansing and redemption.
But there was a delay in implementing this standard (the law). In fact, it was over 2000 years later that the law was given at Sinai. During this time we had the covenants of Noah and Abraham. It was as if God were providing an age of grace prior to the law so that we (mankind) of our own volition could confess the wickedness of our hearts and turn back to God. Unfortunately, we continued to make poor decisions and did not avail ourselves of the opportunity, so our Heavenly Father (in his mercy) had to resort to the law. We began this chapter by quoting from Timothy, “We know that the law is good when used correctly”. So the question we will attempt to answer in this chapter is, “What is the correct use of the law”?
Shampoo, Rinse, Repeat
When we think of the law of God, we’re usually reminded of the Ten Commandments or perhaps the requirements spelled out in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. For centuries, the Jewish people followed these laws. They would keep the moral, civil and ceremonial laws as well as the religious festivals, the sacrificial system, memorize the Torah, and train their children to do the same. They adhered to a system of laws and traditions which were a reminder of their sins, but they were powerless to address the root cause-an uncircumcised heart. Even in the Old Testament God desired the people to return to him in repentance.
…and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore…..
The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.
But the people really did not grasp that God was after the heart all along, hence the Mosaic law and the sacrificial system prevailed. The more they failed, the more they were reminded of their weaknesses and failures. This is the way the book of Hebrews explains it:
The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared.
But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
The Jews are not the only ones stuck in this legalistic system. Those of us who have been believers for any length of time are likely familiar with the Levitical priesthood. Now we don’t call it that, but nonetheless, many of us abide by its statutes or principles. In the spirit of brevity, let me summarize much of our experience today:
- We experience moral or ethical failures
- We repent for those failures
- We attempt to make atonement through a sacrificial system
Today we may use different terminology depending on our religious background, but the basic premise remains the same. This is how most of us live out our lives. We seem stuck in a cycle of sin, repentance and making atonement for our failures. Think of this cycle as ‘Old Testament Christianity’ or attempting to live the Christian life under the Old Testament system. But for followers of Jesus, I’m not sure we correctly understand the atonement Christ paid for at Calvary.
If we consider our sin under each covenant how might we be impacted?
|Ongoing sacrifice(s) for each sinful act||One sacrifice for all time|
|External cleansing only||Cleansing of conscience|
|Sacrifices were a continual reminder of sin(s)||Christ’s sacrifice makes us holy and perfect (Hebrews 10:10, 14)|
|People were trapped in a system of performance/legalism||Reliance on the finished work of Christ alone|
|Canceled the record of charges which stood against us (Col. 2:14-15)|
|Declares an end to sin’s control over us (Romans 8:3)|
Eyeglasses to see my Sin
If the law was unable to deal with the problem of sin, why was it given in the first place? Let’s begin by saying the law of God was never intended to make us holy, righteous or acceptable to God. Let that last statement soak in! If the law is not to make us holy, what was the point? The law was an external standard which declared us guilty.
Consider an example. Suppose that we are speeding down the highway at 90 mph. Well, we’re not really speeding unless there is a sign which says the speed limit is 65 mph. Without the objective speed limit sign no laws are broken, but when a sign is present we are clearly in violation of the law. Under the Levitical system, the law was that objective standard. And once the law had been violated, it also provided a sacrificial system to atone for guilt. The people were then trapped in this system of sin > guilt > sacrifice > atonement; repeat ad nauseam. Paul explains it like this:
But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” It is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.”
The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian.
For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.
There are numerous other scriptures which address this same point, but let’s understand that Paul (Pharisee of Pharisees – keeper of the law, par excellence) is making the case that the law is insufficient to make us right with God! Even Paul fell short of the law’s demands. The law is God’s way of demonstrating and helping us to see the fallen nature of humanity. If we fail to see our own sinfulness, we will not recognize our need for a savior. So the law of Moses fills this gap perfectly. It demonstrates the fallen nature of mankind and is a reminder that we do not have the power to meet the laws demands; it then points us to the coming Messiah through a series of types and shadows. The New Testament provides two examples of this point.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…
For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.
The law is there as a mirror of our true self. It mirrors the true condition of our heart before God and when we “look carefully,” we see how far short from God we truly are. The objective for the law is to identify our failures so that we can run to Christ for cleansing. This is how the law acts as a “schoolmaster” to set us free, if we allow this work to occur.
A similar illustration is used by Christ when speaking with Nicodemus in John Chapter 3. The story is of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21. The people had become impatient and began complaining against God and Moses, and the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people; many of them died as a result. When the people realized that their hearts were rebellious, the Lord instructed Moses to make a serpent replica and lift it up on a pole, allowing all who look to this replica to be healed and live.
We note in this story that Moses, the law giver, lifted up the serpent which was a type of Christ as our sin offering. When the people obeyed and looked up at the serpent (sin offering), they were restored to life. This is what the law does as our schoolmaster – it lifts up God’s precious Messiah so we can look to him and live. So, hopefully, we see a two-fold purpose to the law- it convicts us as guilty and points us to the cross of Christ. Notice how Jesus refers back to this story in describing his own life purpose:
And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.
OK, it’s time to address the proverbial “elephant in the room”. We’ve made the case that the law of God is the schoolmaster pointing us to Christ, but what is the destiny for those who’ve never heard or been exposed to the law of God? Do they have no opportunity for salvation? Paul addresses this question in the opening paragraphs of his letter to the Romans.
They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.
So here we see the truth about God, his power and divinity is revealed through creation and his law (law of conscience) is written on our hearts. Because of these, even people who have never heard the gospel are without excuse. From the two above scriptures we understand that whether or not we have the law, or the witness of creation we are without excuse, as they both testify to God’s existence. God removes the self-righteous safety net from the religious person as well as those with zero knowledge of spiritual matters. Both individuals are left standing accountable to a holy God, a God who himself has paid the ultimate price for those willing to surrender.
Between a Rock and a Hard place—by design
OK, so now we’re stuck. We cannot live up to the demands of the law because we are powerless against it, and self-effort and striving will not take us any further. Therefore, left to our own devices, we develop sophisticated coping mechanisms and try to get through life the best we are able, while living within our small world of mediocrity. What a helpless, pitiful condition we find ourselves in.
Paul summarizes our condition in no uncertain terms:
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ.
So now we have made the argument that the sacrifices under the law were not adequate to make us righteous, nor do we have the power within ourselves to achieve that goal. So we truly are left in a helpless, pitiful and lost condition. Was this Yahweh’s intention, to point out our condition and then abandon us to fend for ourselves?
The short answer is an emphatic”No”, but let’s explore in a bit more detail.
Before the Law
Throughout this book a recurring theme is that the blessing, promise, and covenant were all given to Abram before the law ….. this is a critical point.
This is what I am trying to say: The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses.
Think of it like this: God’s original and ultimate intention was a relationship with his creation and not a set of rules. Otherwise, why do we see God walking in the garden with Adam and Eve, Gen. 3:8 or Abraham being referred to as a friend of God? Even David was called a “man after God’s own heart.” God’s desire is to interact with his creation and mankind is the pinnacle of that creation. We are made in his image. Unfortunately, we violated the integrity of that relationship, so after a long period of forbearance, the law was given as a divine object lesson to show us the error of our ways. Nature and conscience serve a similar a purpose showing the disparity between God’s majesty and our fallen condition, leaving us without excuse. So if we allow God’s law, our conscience, or nature to point us to the Messiah, we can be cleansed and receive eternal life.
The law is only the ministry of death ll Cor. 3:7-9 when we reject the messianic provision to which the law points. So we come to understand that the heart of God has always been for reconciliation – restoration of the created order back to the Creator.
The law of God has declared us guilty and provided a means of atonement by pointing us to Christ. Receiving Christ as our redeemer, we have been set free – but free from what? Further, what are the implications of that freedom? We will look into these questions as we move forward.
Meditation and discussion
When are people set free from slavery to the law of God?
ll Corinthians 3:14-18
In Romans, Paul says the law is good, right and holy (Romans 7:12). If the law condemns us, how is that good?
Do you still have a compulsion to be obedient to the law? How do you understand Galatians 5:1?
Consider Hebrews 10:14. How do you understand that you are already perfect while you are yet still being made holy?
1. In this chapter we are drawing the readers attention to how the law is designed to point us to Christ for redemption. This should not be construed as the only purpose for which the law was given by God. Other reasons include: as a basis for law in a civilized society, helping to form a national identity for the nation of Israel, a means of protecting the people (ex. protection from disease), drawing a distinction between the ways of Yahweh compared to the godless nations surrounding them, and the basis for judgement for those who reject the messiah. These other reasons, although they may be valid, are not the focus of this work.