The Purpose of the Law (part 1)
The Purpose of The Law
In order to come to terms with the role Law of Moses in the lives of New Testament believers, the New Testament itself must be the beginning of knowledge. We call ourselves “New Testament Christians” because of the very fact that the New Testament, or the New “covenant,” fulfilled much of what had been formerly introduced, prophesied or practiced and established itself as the next step in God’s progressive revelation to man. While some New Testament believers proclaim the necessity to continue to obey parts of the law, such claims – to a New Testament believer – should be established firmly in the doctrine of the New Testament itself, as the New Testament is a new chapter of understanding and spiritual insight. To obey the law on the grounds of the Old Testament, while ignoring New Testament teachings on the subject is not to be Christian at all, but to be Jewish.
A primary step in that process it to understand what the New Testament teaches concerning the purpose of the law.
To reveal sin
Probably the foundational principle of New Testament theology concerning the law is that the law had as a primary function the revealing of the shear sinfulness of man. While the previous chapter established the impossibility of New Testament believers to fully obey the law, it is also important to note the impossibility of obeying the law even before the advent of the New Testament. Even those who lived in the Old Testament, and under the law, were utterly incapable of obeying the law in all of its 613 commands, as Ecclesiastes notes,
Ecclesiastes 7:20 (NIV)
20 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.
Solomon recognized the truth which demanded the place for another covenant; that all are incapable of maintaining the righteous requirements of the law. All have failed. That is precisely the point. The law existed to demonstrate God’s righteousness and man’s sin. It is the law which demonstrated the very need for salvation through the vicarious substitutionary atonement of Christ. For, as Paul put it,
Galatians 2:21 (NIV)
21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Thus, the very necessity of Christ’s atonement is based on the understanding that the law simply could not be upheld and that atonement in Christ was necessary.
Isaiah 53:6 (NIV)
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Indeed, if it were possible to attain salvation through the law, it would have been unnecessary for Christ to have perfectly fulfilled it and to have died as a final perfect sacrifice. The purpose of the law was never to provide salvation (as will be demonstrated later in this work) but to reveal the sinfulness of man and thus demonstrate the necessity of salvation through another means: the atonement brought by the sacrifice of Christ.
Romans 2:17-29 (NIV)17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24
Verses 23-27 once again indicate that the law is a unit. Verse 23 states “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” This text points to several commandments, and also notes that those who brag about obeying these commandments are as guilty as others in breaking them. 25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.
The law is still demonstrated as a unit. Even those who break part of it have broken all of it, and are become as though they had not been circumcised, or as if they had not obeyed at all. They are utterly sinful, even in light of having gotten some of the law right.
Continuing, verses 28-29 indicate that the law is intended to reveal something spiritual, not physical, 28“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical…29circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”
Only in New Testament theology does one understand the role the law had in biblical history: to reveal the sinfulness of man and the need for a savior.
Romans 3:19-26 (NIV)19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
Righteousness Through Faith
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished– 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Verse 20 eliminates any further misconception concerning the complete failure to keep the law by those who fail even on one part of it, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
The law, then, was put into place to reveal sin – that we may become conscious of our transgression against God and realize the necessity of a permanent savior; one who could once and for all pay the atonement for sins past, present and future. The text teaches that without the law, we would not have understood the nature of our separation from God. We would not have known what sin is.
Romans 7:7 7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.”
Thus, the law reveals sin, by demonstrating God’s character and man’s inability to meet his expectations.
Throughout these texts one message is clear: the righteousness of the law is unattainable – yet the law exists to demonstrate to us clearly how unable we are to be united to God in righteousness. It reveals to us both how sinful we are and how righteous God is.
Without this understanding, no one could ever become a Christian. As anyone who desires to become a biblical Christian must first come to terms with his or her utter sinfulness, which is the very grounds for the need of a savior. No gospel presentation is biblically accurate if it does not begin with the unassailable assertion, “I am sinful” and am in need of being saved from it.
The purpose of the law, according to Romans, is to make this assertion known.
Romans 3:23 (NIV)
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
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