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Last Update:  1/2016

The Law

Discovering new meanings and main themes from uncovering layers found in biblical stories, people and locations are not only exciting, but also faith-strengthening as they demonstrate that all scripture is God-breathed.  Often, when you re-read a story another layer is unveiled and meaning discovered.  This is why even the greatest theologians who study the Bible their entire lives never stop discovering and learning. Yet with all these layers and discoveries, there is one constant which is the most amazing of all; that Jesus Christ is the central motif in the Old Testament people, places and stories to whom God is pointing us to.  As you study and learn, these veiled layers come into focus connecting all the seemingly disconnected people, places and stories God is pointing to and has completed for us in Jesus Christ.  This is one of many ways God’s fingerprints are repeatedly revealed to us through scripture.

Though not obvious to many, the law is one of dozens of Old Testament instruments God uses to point us to Christ.  In fact, this is the main purpose of the law for Christians today.  Yet for many Christians, the law can be a point of confusion by not understanding to whom it was given, why it was given and how it is to be used today.  This is especially true if one is investigating or a new student of the Bible.  Even today there are various ways Christians interpret and use the law.  But as you study the law and the reason for which it was given, it should become clear that the law is yet another way in which God points us to Christ. 

To Whom was the Law Given and Why?

Galatians 3:19-25 is an excellent summary of why Israel was given the law.  The law was given specifically to Israel and can be summed up in three main parts: the Ten Commandments, the ordinances and the system of worship. 

Galatians 3:19: the law was given to Moses for the benefit of the Israelites because of their transgressions until Jesus came.  After the Israelites were freed from their Egyptian slavery, the law came soon after.  They used their freedom to go from one form slavery to another by becoming slaves of sin and they were deteriorating rapidly as a nation.  God knew the Israelites needed the law so the nation would survive to see the promised Messiah.  The law reveals God’s perfect standard of holiness; it demonstrates what Godly people look like.

Galatians 3:21: the law is not against the promise to Abraham, meaning the law does not supersede or contradict the promise of justification by faith.  Paul makes it very clear that if there was a law that could have given life, then righteousness would have been by obedience to the law.  We know that Abraham was justified (made righteous) by faith in God back in Genesis 15:6 twenty plus years before his offering of Isaac, which was a demonstration of his faith.  Since the law does not replace the promise God made to Abraham, we know we can be made heirs according to this promise by faith.  It’s important to remember an heir is someone who inherits something which was earned by someone else.

Galatians 3:22-25: scripture has revealed our imprisoned state in sin so that the promise made by faith in Christ would be given all who believe. But before faith came, the law was our teacher and guard to bring us to Christ so that we could be justified by faith.  Once faith has come, we are now under grace through Christ, not the law. 

Though these verses seem to make it very clear of what the law was for, many churches today will do what was done soon after the law was given and turn it into a checklist to be kept as a basis for acceptance by God.  It is natural to feel that the better the person I am, the better chance I have that God will accept me into heaven, so people will measure their acceptance by their own worthiness and obedience. 

It would be greatly beneficial to now examine the various ways how the law has been used in the Bible.  We really have three options in how people in the Bible used the law: 

  • People did their best to keep the law as a basis for their acceptance by God

  • People changed the law to make it more manageable

  • People let the law convict them pointing them to Christ

Since the Gospel demonstrates all three of these options, let’s examine what it reveals about each and their implications.

We can do our best to keep it as a basis of our acceptance to God

There are several great examples of using obedience to the law a basis of acceptance by God, which is also called legalism.  Even today, many people come to Christ by faith yet feel they grow in the Gospel and become sanctified by keeping the law.  This is what the Galatians did and Paul wrote a letter warning them that this was not the Gospel that he preached and would lead them to spiritual death.  Paul pleads with them in Galatians 3:3 asking them if they are that foolish to have begun in the Spirit by faith and are made perfect by the flesh (works of the law).

Another great example were the Pharisees, who were the teachers of the Old Testament to the common people.  The Pharisees were almost perfect in their religiosity through law-keeping.  Check out how Paul had mastered religion in Philippians 3:5-11.  The Pharisees followed every one of the 613 laws as best they could as they believed meticulous adherence was what made them worthy, righteous and accepted by God. The problem for the Pharisees was while they were extremely religious and obedient, the motivation was ultimately for themselves and not to glorify God alone.  Their obedience was driven by a heart that wanted to earn the favor of God rather than a heart that was motivated by selfless love and pure joy in recognizing what God has complete for them.

The motivation in using the law as a checklist to tick off blinded them to their fatal flaw, as Jesus pointed out, an unchanged heart motivated for the wrong reasons.  Everything they did may have had an external appearance of goodness, but was driven by an unchanged heart full of self-righteousness and pride.  They thought they were better than others because of their nationality (chosen people of God) and their meticulous obedience to the law.  Though very religious and seemingly busy for God, Jesus said the Pharisees were like whited tombs which appear beautiful on the outside, but are hollow and full of dead bones on the inside (Matthew 23:27-28).  Jesus’ point is that our hearts must be changed first which then leads to obedience, not the other way around. 

Paul lays it out clearly in Romans 9:30-10:4 that although Israel had a zeal for God, they sought righteousness through obedience to the law, did not attain righteousness and were not saved.  Paul says their zeal was not according to knowledge and were ignorant of the righteousness of God, instead establishing their own righteousness.  The Gentiles, however, did not seek righteousness, but received righteousness through faith.  Paul pleads that “Christ is the end of the law for everyone that believes” (Romans 10:4).

Religious people will use the law like a measuring stick in order to make themselves feel more worthy of blessings and love from God.  They also will view it as a balancing act of good and bad.  Weighting down one scale - the demands of the law; on the other scale - you spending your life trying to maintain the shift in balance by accumulating good works and morality.


When you use the law as a system of salvation, the law is a burden stacked against you constantly demanding and accusing, pointing you to condemnation.  You end up obeying out of shame, guilt or fear of the consequences.  Obedience to the law as a basis of acceptance to God will shackle you and leads to a life that cycles between pride and despair.  When you feel you are keeping the law your heart will be filled with pride and self-righteousness.  When the law is beating you down, it will lead to despair and eventually you will grow to hate God.  Paul has been demonstrating that religious people are in a very perilous situation because of their attitudes towards obedience.  He is boldly proclaiming that religious people need the Gospel just as much, if not more, than unreligious people.

This is highly evident in the parable of the two sons Jesus told in Luke 15, which the Pharisees and scribes represented the older brother (religious people) and the publicans and sinners represent the younger brother (irreligious people).  The younger brother was lost in disobedience while the older brother was lost in religious obedience.  Both used different ways to get what they felt they earned from the Father rather than desiring the Father’s love and relationship.  Jesus clearly demonstrates religious obedience will not make us worthy, righteous and bring us closer to God; it will only separate us further from God.

We can change it to make it more manageable and achievable

Legalism is extremely appealing and easy to slip into because of its attractiveness to the human heart.  It is much easier to manage holiness when you have a list of rules to abide by.  Legalism also makes holiness more achievable.  The legalist typically never views himself in this manner, but merely as one who is serious about his obedience and holiness.

Religious people don’t want “do not covet” or “love your neighbor.”  These two laws go beyond action and reveal the heart.  This is why the Pharisees would filter out or diminish the 9th and 10th Commandments because they dealt more with the heart as much as action.  So they would magnify the weight of other laws easier to follow.  In Matthew 23:23-24, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for focusing on trivial laws such as tithing while ignoring the more important matters of the law such as judgement, mercy and faith.

Religious people want something more manageable and achievable, so they minimize or filter these heart laws out and replace them with other laws they feel will make them more worthy, righteous and acceptable.  Religion will focus on details like “look and dress like this,” or “act like this,” or “don’t eat/drink this,” so that when you are be obedient to these achievable commands, you feel more worthy and acceptable.  Just because someone has told you obedience to these additional laws will make you more worthy, it does not change the clear demands and requirements of God no matter how you feel in the situation.  This is not the Gospel, but another Gospel which we are warned not to follow.

These two ways we have seen demonstrated in the Gospel do not sound like the freedom, peace and rest that Jesus promises to those that trust in him.  So there must be another interpretation of the law and how we are to use it.  If we look to Jesus and the Gospel, rather than human interpretation, we will find the answer. 

We can let it convict us pointing us to Jesus Christ

Jesus, however, taught a radically different approach with the law.  Whereas the Pharisees were focus on the letter of the law, the external action of adherence, Jesus was focused internally on the heart and its motivations.  We see this in how he taught it from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

The law says “do not murder,” yet Jesus said anyone who has hatred in his heart for another has already committed murder in his heart.  The law says “do not commit adultery,” yet Jesus taught anyone who looks at another with lust has committed adultery already in his heart.

When you focus on the letter of the law, most people can feel pretty good about these as long as you have not murdered or cheated.  But when Jesus teaches this radically different interpretation of the law and you apply it to yourself now, what happens?  If you are like me, your sin is exposed and you are convicted; declared 100% guilty no matter how great you are at following the letter of the law.  The law exposes just how deeply you have sinned against God.  The law shows us we are not simply sinners who need to try harder, but imprisoned by sin and need to be rescued.  The Gospel goes as far as to say we are “dead” in our sin (Ephesians 2:1, 5) and dead people can do nothing to help themselves.  This is bad news for humanity, but thankfully the Gospel means “good news” and good news is here.

The Gospel demonstrates the proper application of the Law in that it does not remove our sin, but it reveals our sin and points us to Jesus Christ, our sin bearer, so we may be accepted by God on the basis of what Jesus completed for us on the cross (Galatians 3:22-25).  Romans 3:20 and Galatians 3:24 teach us that adherence to the law will not make us more worthy of God’s acceptance and love.  They state by the law we are made aware of our sin and teach us so we may be justified by faith. Paul says in Romans 7:7 that “I had not known sin, but by the law…”.  So the law is our teacher and guides toward salvation by grace.

In fact, the gospel makes it crystal clear that adherence to the law will never justify (make us righteous and worthy) us before God (see Galatians 2:16, 3:21, 5:4; Romans 3:21-24, 28, 4:2-8, 9:30-10:4, 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-7 and Acts 13:39 to name a few).  Satan is waging a spiritual battle and winning when you attempt to establish yourself righteous by the law, which was given by God to establish we are sinners.  Paul warns the Galatians throughout his letter that we will not be justified by the works of the law, but by faith (Galatians 2:16) and we are severed from Christ and fallen from grace if we use the law to establish our justification (Galatians 5:4).

Religion declares “obey these golden rules, or else ...”.  The motivation for religious obedience is guilt, shame and fear of the consequences (blessings withheld, no salvation, etc.).  Jesus, however, does not motivate us towards acceptance, but from acceptance.  Religious obedience is trading one form of slavery for another as you are now being controlled by fear of consequences.  Jesus teaches we cannot show selfless love to others if we have fear hanging over us (1 John 4:18, 2 Timothy 1:7).  We would never be able to be obedient to the two great commandments on love when our motivation is rooted in fear.

Using the law as a form of greater worthiness and acceptance from God is not the Gospel that Jesus and the Apostles taught.  Why?  You are effectively saying Jesus plus something I do will make me more worthy and acceptable to God.  Paul warned the Galatians that adding one single requirement (circumcision) to the Gospel for greater acceptance from God makes the Gospel null and void (Galatians 1:6-9).  The work of Jesus plus anything is a different Gospel that does not save; Jesus either does all the work or none of the work (Romans 11:6).  Adding anything to the Gospel for worthiness and acceptance by God shifts the glory from Jesus to humanity and Jesus alone deserves the glory.  Salvation is a free gift of God by grace through faith alone, and a gift cannot be earned, only received.

Those who are in Christ are no longer under the law, but under grace (Romans 6:14).  Paul says in Romans 7:6 we have been delivered from the law and should serve in the newness of the spirit and not the oldness of the letter.  The law reveals the list of crimes and moral debt of humanity and no one can escape a guilty verdict.  Jesus, in living the perfect life we should have lived, took these requirements and erased the debt we owed from our judgement and nailed them to the cross as if to say, “paid in full” (Colossians 2:14).

Since Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly and you trust in him alone as your sin-bearer, you are spiritually regenerated or reborn, and are a new person in Christ (1 Corinthians 5:17), and the law is now an asset on your side and not a liability and burden.  God now looks at you as if you have done everything Jesus has done.  There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus as God did through Christ what the law could never do so that the perfect righteousness of the law would be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:1-4).  You have freedom from the curse and slavery of the law as a system of salvation (Galatians 3:13, 5:1) and can be obedient out of sheer joy because you are saved and not to be saved.  This is how we fulfill the two great commandments on love and demonstrate selfless love to others because we have no fear as we are alive in Christ knowing our future destiny is eternally secure (1 John 5:13, Ephesians 1:6-14).

It’s important to understand that Jesus did not nullify or cancel the law through his perfect life and death, but scripture says he fulfilled the law.  The law is God’s perfect and holy standard required for reconciliation and eternal life in his presence.  If anyone is <100% obedient to the law, then the demands of the law requires death.  No human can attain the perfect righteousness required, so we are dead in our sin (Colossians 2:13, Ephesians 2:1) and dead people can’t help themselves; we need a complete rescue.  The good news is Jesus was 100% obedient to the law.  As our substitute, Jesus took our punishment of death so that those who are in Him, could have the benefits of his obedience in life and death.  One man’s disobedience spread a judgment of condemnation to all humanity, but through the obedience of One, many will be justified and made righteous through the free gift (Romans 5:18-19).

There is no greater selfless act of love than Jesus living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died.  The benefits of this love are astonishing and life-changing.  In his death on the cross, Jesus took the curse of the law and punishment for our sins he did not deserve so we could have freedom from condemnation.   This is not all he did for us though, as in his perfect obedience in life, Jesus earned the blessing of God for us.  This is amazing grace.  So when we come to the cross, we come with empty hands and open hearts not to give, but to receive. 

“In the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed (Romans 1:17).  All we need to do is come to Christ with empty hands and receive his righteousness.  What keeps people from salvation is not so much their sins, but their good works.  If we come to God telling him we are good offering him the works of our hands as our righteousness, we cannot take the righteousness he gives by grace” (Tim Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, p. 76-7).

License to Sin?

With all this amazing grace being freely poured out by God many will look past the expensive cost of grace and assume this new found freedom comes with an unlimited license to sin.  This brings us up to Romans 6 when Paul anticipates the readers’ questions based on the truth he has revealed to this point.  Chapter 6 begins with Paul asking a hypothetical question: Well if we are not saved at least in part by obedience to God’s laws and living a moral life, but by grace alone, should I continue to sin so grace may abound?  Effectively, people are going to ask: if my goodness does not help me then why be good? 

Paul’s quick response is “By no means!”  Paul is suggesting that if you are asking this question, then you do not understand the gospel, the depth of your sin and the life-transforming nature of grace.

We learned from Romans 1-5 what God has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ in the Gospel while chapters 6-8 will build on this justification and show us what happens to us as we live by and experience the Gospel. 

Paul then tells us we are “dead to sin.”  Being dead to sin does not mean we will not sin or sin will no longer influence us because we will sin and sin does influence us.  It means that sin no longer rules and controls our lives; we no longer have to obey sin because we are free in Christ.  When we experience liberty in Christ, it is not the freedom to do what you want; it is the power, desire and will to do what you ought to do.

It is worth quoting Tim Keller at some length here.

“When we believe, we are united with Christ, so that whatever is true of him is now legally true of us.  Since Christ died, and dead people are freed from sin, so we are freed from sin. 

But our union with Christ doesn’t stop there.  Since Christ’s death led to his resurrection and a new life, so in the same way our union with Christ will, and must, lead to a new life (Romans 6:4).  If we believe in Christ, a change of life will happen.  We will not live in sin anymore. 

One fruit of union with Christ is certainty.  Since all that is true of Jesus is true of us, and since he rose to new life, so we know that we are living that new life.  And that new life points forward to the future state of perfect glory we shall enter, with him” (Tim Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, p. 140-1).

 Our old self died when we were spiritually reborn in Christ.  Our new identity in Christ hates sin and desires godly living because we recognize that Jesus lived the life that we should have lived and died the death we should have died.  We not only receive the benefits of his death, our sin wiped clean, but we also receive the benefits of his righteous life as he earned the blessing of God for us (1 Corinthians 5:21).  He took our judgement in his death and gives us his perfect righteousness.  Because of this, our hearts deepest desires and motivations are being transformed because we are saved (selfless motive out of gratitude and love) and not to be saved (selfish motive out of fear).  We would not be living out our new identity in Christ if there were no external changes in us flowing from our inner-heart change.

Christians must fight against the constant battle sin is waging against us.  Paul is clear that sin shall have no dominion under us because we are not under the law, but under grace (Romans 6:14).  This means that when we are under the law, i.e. using the law as a system of salvation, sin is our master.  This is because religious people will seek acceptance by God by placing their identity in things like their worthiness, church, career, family, obedience to laws, morality, etc. instead of where it has peace and comfort in the security of Christ alone.

“Religion makes us proud of what we have done.  The Gospel makes us proud of what Jesus has done.” – Tim Keller

Christians must always remember that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and nothing we have done to make God love us less when we trust in Christ.  Reminding ourselves who we are in Christ, redeemed and righteous children of God, will always be the best way to crush our desires for sin.

Paul continues his assault on using the law as a system of salvation after posing the hypothetical question in Romans 6:15 that essentially asks if we have any obligation at all to keep the law.  If we don’t use it as a means of acceptance by God, can we do what we choose?  Again, Paul quickly responds, God forbid [as in “heavens no!”].  Paul demonstrates in Romans 6:16 that everyone is a slave to someone or something.  We are controlled by whatever is our lord.  Sin has a veiled, but powerful enslaving nature and anyone who speculates if Christians can live an unchanged life of sin is naive to this fact.

As Christians, we have been delivered from the law and made free from sin by centering our identity on the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the process, become slaves of righteousness.  When the law is appropriately used, it is transformed from a burden and tool of condemnation to an asset on our side pointing us to salvation by grace.  We then have a new selfless motivation to be obedient because of what Christ has completed for us, not based on what we need to do to earn acceptance.  It is my hope and prayer that the law will be a light in your life and asset on your side pointing you to Jesus Christ, our Lord and King.