Today, in Christian circles, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the purpose of the Old Testament Law. Many believers even say the Old Testament is not relevant anymore. Some believe we only need to read and consider the New Testament of grace. I believe with all my heart in the message of grace, but if we are not familiar with the Old Testament and the purpose of the law, we will miss out on the richness of God’s grace. In this brief article, I want to look at a couple of passages for a short survey of the law’s purpose.
Before we begin, consider these verses from Paul’s writings:
Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.”
Romans 7:7 NLT
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
Galatians 3:24 KJV
But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.
Romans 7:12 NLT
How can the law of God be holy, righteous, and good if it condemns and judges me? Maybe we have not understood the law’s purpose correctly? Let’s consider the account of the rich young man, in the gospel of Mark.
You can find this story beginning in Mark 10:17.
As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.”
“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
In this short interaction we find a man who had kept the law his entire life, but something was still missing. Maybe this itinerant preacher he’d heard about could provide the missing link? What did Jesus do? Did he explain to him the message of grace? No, quite the contrary he pointed him back to the law, the same laws he’d been keeping his entire life.
Is it possible Jesus was after something deeper? The man had been keeping the last six of the commandments, the ones which relate to his fellow man, but it seems as though he’d neglected those dealing with his relationship with Yahweh (the first four of the 10) such as:
“You must not have any other god but me.”
In other words, he had been dealing with others righteously (in fact he was a model citizen), but he had neglected the most important thing in life, a heart given fully to God. The Lord then extended the same invitation to him that he had to the rest of the disciples, “Come and follow me.’’ In other words, I am the one that the first four Commandments in Exodus 20 refer to.
Let’s go back to Galatians 3:24 which states that the law is the schoolmaster that points us to Christ. What did Paul mean when he called the law a schoolmaster? For the rich young ruler, it was an invitation to discover the Lord of grace by forsaking everything and following Christ. The law showed him his true condition, that he hadn’t fully surrendered to God and pointed him to the solution.
This is one of the ways the law of God is holy, righteous and good, it highlights the true condition of our heart and points us to the only means of grace. Unfortunately, for the rich young ruler he missed the opportunity. May we respond in an opposite spirit – allowing the law to point out our failures so we turn to Christ who bridges the gap between our lawlessness and his grace.