God’s Law – Our Pathway to Freedom

In the last chapter I may have surprised you by saying the grace of God was introduced in the Old Testament through the life of Abraham.  To the surprised readers, perhaps your view of the Old Testament depicts God as harsh and judgmental, but the New Testament God is compassionate and grace filled.  In this chapter I want to begin demonstrating the coherency of scripture and the consistency of God’s nature from Genesis to Revelation.  We’ll begin by explaining the laws intent and purpose. 

Let’s travel back in time to the garden of Eden. The year is approximately 3500 BC and our ancestors just sold out to the enemy.  It was a great day for Satan; Adam and Eve had just rebelled against Yahweh, future generations would be ruled by the adversary and the enemy now has the upper hand (or so it seems).  With this backdrop let’s consider a legalistic perspective.  God should have given the law immediately so that Adam and Eve could strive to live up to the perfect standard thereby expunging their poor decision at the tree of knowledge.   

But that is not what Yahweh did. Instead he waited at least 1500 years before giving the law at Mt. Sinai.  If the purpose of the law was to make us right with God, then why did he not give the law immediately after the fall?  Why did God wait for Noah, the flood, Babel, various events in the lives of the patriarchs and then 430 years after Abraham to give the law at Sinai?  Why did God wait such a long time to deal with human rebellion?

To really understand this topic requires some thoughtful analysis.  I am in the process of writing the backstory to Abraham’s life journey, so I will only make reference to it here.  Remember that God had disinherited the nations at the Tower of Babel.  Then in Genesis 12 he chose a man, Abram, and his descendants (Israel) through whom he would work to bring the nations back to himself.  Part of this calling was to make Israel a holy, set apart people distinct from all the other disinherited nations. The plan was to work through this chosen people, Abraham and his descendants, undoing the effects of Genesis chapters 1-11 and foster reconciliation of the nations back to Yahweh.

Misunderstanding the Law
The Mosaic law was never intended to be the means of reconciliation.  It was powerless to make us holy, righteous or acceptable to God.  How do we know this?  Let me provide several reasons.

  • After the fall God promised the “seed who would crush the serpents head”, he did not promise the Ten Commandments nor the 613 Mitzvot commandments of the Torah to remediate the sin problem.
  • Secondly, the Abrahamic covenant which the New Testament continually references came 430 years before the law of Moses. Does it make any sense that God would provide two ways of reconciliation?  Perhaps God wanted the people to know there are multiple pathways to heaven.  They could follow the law of Moses or the Abrahamic covenant – the choice was theirs!  Do you see the absurdity of this position?
  • Finally, what does the Apostle say in the book of Hebrews? If anyone understood the laws purpose it would be Paul.  Yet even he says it was not possible for that system to provide cleansing for sin. 

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. 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
Hebrews 10:1 – 4

We have yet to address the “elephant in the room”.  If keeping the law is not the way for me to achieve right standing with God, then what is the point?  Why was the law given?  Multiple reasons exist but let me provide two.  The first will be the easiest to explain.

Restraint for Wickedness
Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…
Galatians 3:19 (ESV)

This verse is a bit of a double-entendre.  What does it mean the “law was added because of transgression”?  In other words, the law was a restraining influence on God’s chosen people.  The surrounding nations lived in horrible idolatry and immorality.  Israel was enticed to follow along in their neighbor’s depravity.  The law of God was a restraining influence until the coming of Messiah.  In spite of the fact that Israel often failed in their observance of the law, the law remained as the unchanging authority differentiating Israel from its’ ungodly neighbors.

As an analogy, consider the laws in our country.  They allow us to have a healthy, functioning society and provide a check on crime, corruption and violence.  But these laws do nothing to address the corrupted heart of man.  The law of God is similar, it shows the holiness of God, provides a picture of our brokenness and restrains our depravity until the messiah is revealed to us.  

Mirror to see my Sin
If the law was never intended to address my sin problem then what was the point? It was an external standard which declared the people guilty. 

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

The law declares us guilty and then provides a sacrificial system.  That sacrificial system is not a perfect system, rather it is a foreshadowing of the cross of Christ and his blood.  Recall that the law was given to Israel and not the Gentile nations?  God’s plan in choosing Abraham and his descendants (Israel) was to provide a roadmap for the Gentiles to be grafted back into Yahweh’s family.  So before we get to comfortable as Gentiles thinking we are off the hook in regard to God’s law consider Paul’s comments in Romans.

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.
Romans 2:14-15

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.
Romans 1:19-20

So, whether we are Jew or Gentile we have the law of God.  In the case of the Jew, the law is the Mosaic system.  In the case of the Gentile the law of God is written on our hearts and we stand or fall by our heart’s indictment or acquittal.  For the Gentile 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.  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 their pride.   

Consider an example.  Suppose that we are speeding down the highway at 90 mph.  If there is no speed limit sign indicating 65 mph, then have I really broken the law?  What if there was a sign when I entered the town saying 25 mph unless otherwise posted?  Regardless if I have the objection standard or know the speed limit internally I am in violation when bypassing the limit.  The law was that sign or the heart level indictment.  And once violated, it also provided a sacrificial system to atone for guilt.  The people were then trapped in this system of sin > guilt > sacrifice >; 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.”
Galatians 3:10

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.
Galatians 3:24-25

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.
Galatians 5:4

As said above if you are Jewish and trying to keep the Mosaic system or Gentile and trying to follow the law of conscious you are condemned either way.  There are numerous other scriptures which address this same point, but we should 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 through the Jewish people our fallen nature and need of a savior.  If we fail to see our own sinfulness, we will not recognize our need for a savior.  The law of the Torah and the law of conscience both fill this gap perfectly. After helping us see our true condition it then points us to the Messiah.  The New Testament gives us two examples.

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.
James 1:23-25

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 laws’ objective is to identify our failures so that we can run to Christ for cleansing.  This is how the law acts as a “schoolmaster” pointing the way to freedom.

A similar illustration is used by Christ when speaking with Nicodemus in John Chapter 3.  The story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is found Numbers 21.  The people had become impatient and were complaining against God and Moses (no surprise there).  In response, the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people; many of them died as a result. When the people understood that the judgement of God was related to their rebellious hearts (they had been complaining against God and Moses) the Lord instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent.  Moses, the lawgiver then lifted the bronze serpent up on a pole so that all who looked to this serpent replica would be healed and live.  

In this story, Moses (the lawgiver) lifted up the serpent which was a type of Christ as our sin offering.  When the people obeyed and looked to the serpent (sin offering), they were restored to life.  This is what the law does as our schoolmaster – it lifts up God’s Messiah so we can look to him and live. If you are a student of “types and shadows” in the Old Testament you understand how the sacrificial system so elegantly typifies Messiah’s sacrifice.  Even Jesus uses this story to illustrate 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.
John 3:14

So again, why was the law given?  The two reasons we saw above were:

  • to restrain the flood of wickedness until the time of Messiah.
  • and the second was to demonstrate to all people (through the nation of Israel) the sinfulness of mankind. The was to help us recognize our need for a savior so that the broken relationship could be restored.

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 this system was powerless to address the root issue – 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…..
Deut. 30:2

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.
Deut. 30:6

The people 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.
Hebrews 10:1-3

Torah in the Gospel
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 how the religious system works.  Allow me to summarize its principles as we experience them today. 

  • We experience moral or ethical failures
  • We have shame and guilt
  • We repent for those failures
  • We attempt to make some kind of atonement
    • promise it will never happen again, punish ourselves for being stupid, etc…

Today we may use different terminology depending on our religious background, but the basic premise remains the same.  This is how many of us live out our lives.  We are stuck in a cycle of failure, guilt, repentance and atonement.  Is not this cyclical pattern the Mosaic system applied to the gospel?  For believers of Jesus, I’m not sure we fully understand the atonement Christ paid for at Calvary.  

If we consider our sin under each covenant how might we be impacted?

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…..
Deut. 30:2

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.
Deut. 30:6

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.
Hebrews 10:1-3

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?

New Covenant

 

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)

Between a Rock and a Hard place—by design
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 coping mechanisms and get through life the best we can while living in 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.
Eph. 2:1

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.
Eph. 2:11+

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.  We are left in a helpless 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.
Galatians 3:17

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, designed to be his family.  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 and to restrain the flood of evil.  Nature and conscience serve a similar purpose showing the disparity between God’s majesty and our fallen condition, leaving us without excuse.  If we allow God’s law, our conscience, or creation 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

We have seen that God chose Abraham and the Jewish people to lead the disinherited nation’s back to himself.  All people even the Jews stand guilty before a holy God.  The law was both a restraint for evil and a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ.  This has been a challenging chapter to both write and read – please do additional study on your own.  I would love to hear any comments or questions you may have. 

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?

Foot Notes
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.

 

One comment

  1. As I was reading through this, I was reminded of the life of David. He was called “a man after God’s own heart” yet, he grievously sinned against the law. However, when confronted with his sin, his heart was soft toward the Lord and ready to repent and face the consequences of his sin. Then he was FREE to continue living knowing God had forgiven him.

    Isn’t it the same today. We have the law and the holy spirit. Once we accept the Lord, our heart is to obey him. When we fail, as we all do, we have the comfort knowing Christ died for our failings and we can ask for forgiveness and then WALK IN FREEDOM (as if we had never sinned/no condemnation). David sure did!

    Liked by 1 person

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