The Role of the Law

I once heard a sermon titled, “The Two Ways of Salvation.” The first way presented was the way of the law.  It was suggested that in order to get to heaven, you have to be righteous.  The question was raised, “How are you doing in terms of keeping the law?”  Are you good enough to go to heaven?  The preacher then presented the other way of salvation–the way of grace.  He said that if you weren’t good enough to get to heaven by keeping the law, you could get to heaven by receiving God’s grace. While the sermon was intended to encourage people to accept God’s gift of salvation through grace, it reflected a serious misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Law as revealed through the Hebrew Scriptures.

A proper understanding of the place and purpose of the Law in Israel’s religion is foundational to the development of any biblical theology.  Much confusion exists in regard to this subject.
Was the Law give as a means of salvation? Was it possible for a believing Israelite to keep the Law? Is there more continuity or discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants? How deeply rooted are evangelicals in the Old Covenant? How doe we determine what laws apply to believers today?

How does the believer under the New Covenant relate to Old Covenant Law?

Over years if study of the Hebrew Bible I have grown in my appreciation of nature and purpose of the Law–God’s great gift to His people.  I think you will grow in your appreciation of that gift to as you come to understand it better.

The Meaning of Torah.  The Hebrew word, torah, comes from a verb (yarah) which means “to teach.”  The noun form simply means “teaching” or “instruction.”  Torah can refer to the teaching a father gives his son or the instruction God gives Israel.  The Law given to Israel was simply Yahweh’s instruction.

The Revelation of the Law.  The Law was given to Israel as a contractual obligation when the covenant was enacted at Mount Sinai.  Yet the principles of the Law existed long before Moses’ day.  The moral precepts set forth in the Ten Commandments appear in one way or another in Genesis (Kaiser, OTE, p. 82).  Abraham was chosen by God to instruct his family “to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19).  God did not invent a new moral code for Israel when He gave them the Law at Sinai.  He simply stated in covenant form the moral precepts which reflect his character and have always existed.

The Relationship Which Preceded the Law.  Which came first–the law or the relationship God had with His people?  It is clear from Scripture that the relationship (initiated by God through the exodus) preceded the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. The Law was not given to Israel as an instrument for initiating a relationship with God.  God had a relationship with the Israelite people long before the giving of the Law at Sinai.  God was working with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on the basis of Promise (Gen. 12:1 3, 26:2 4, 28:
13 15, 35:11 12).  His intervention in behalf of Israel at the time of the exodus was based on His Promise to the patriarchs (Exod. 2:24, cf. 32:13).  At the first Passover the people applied blood to their doorways as an expression of obedient faith.  They left Egypt as a redeemed people (cf. Exod. 6:6 7).  Paul speaks of them as having been “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor. 10:2).  The point here is that the Law was not provided as a means of meriting grace or earning salvation.  Rather, it was given as a
result of God’s gracious dealings with his people.

The Nature of the Law.  The historical background of the law as seen in the suzerain vassal treaty helps to illustrate the nature of the law.  Yahweh, the Great Suzerain, had redeemed the Israelite people from bondage.  Now they were obligated by that gracious intervention to love and obey Him.  The Law contains the governing regulations for society as He has planned.  Law was designed to function as a national constitution, guiding the people in their relationships with God and with each other.  The Law offered Israel the way
to abundant life and prosperity by following God’s way.

The Law and the Abrahamic Covenant.  God made an unconditional promise to Abraham of a land, a nation, and blessing (Gen. 12:1  3).  Yet, in the Mosaic Covenant, blessing is conditioned on obedience (Deut. 28:1 14, Lev. 26:1 13).  How can blessings be conditional and unconditional at the same time?   It seems that the blessings are guaranteed Abraham’s posterity.  Indeed, the Blessed One, Christ, has come!  Yet the appropriation of blessing by a generation or an individual is dependent upon a personal
response.  There must be an obedient recognition of God’s Lordship and demands.

Obedience to the Law.  Could a believing, godly Israelite living under the Old Covenant obey God’s law?  It is often said that the Israelites were given a law which they had no power to obey.  Certainly many unbelieving Israelites did violate God’s law.  The fallen nature of humanity tends to disobedience rather than obedience (cf. Rom. 3:9 18).  Yet it is incorrect to say that Israel foolishly accepted the law which they had no spiritual power to keep.  God Himself said, “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach” (Deut. 30:11).   Certainly there would be failure.  But the failure was due to man’s willful disobedience.  The blessing promised for obedience and cursing for disobedience supports the view that Israel had a choice (Deut. 30:15 20).

Paul’s View of the Law.  Paul evaluates the Law as holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12).  He condemns a misuse of the Law, not the Law itself.  Law keeping cannot be the basis for justification (Rom. 3:28) or sanctification (Gal. 3:2 3).  The law serves to reveal man’s sin (Rom. 3:20, 7:7) and point to Christ (Gal. 3:24).

The Law and Christ.  Romans 10:4 reveals that “Christ is the end [telos] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  Telos combines the ideas of aim (goal) and termination.  Christ is the One to whom the law points (Gal. 3:19,24 25, Lk. 24:44), thus He is its aim or goal.  The law directs men to Christ.  But Christ is also the termination of the law.  (1) He fulfilled the demands of the Old Covenant for us by coming under the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13, Matt. 5:17), presenting to God positive righteousness for all who are in Him.  (2) The Law as a contractual obligation is terminated by the establishment of the New Covenant (Eph. 2:15).

Not Under the Law.  You have no doubt heard someone say,”I’m not under the law.” People sometimes mean by this that the moral commands of God have no application or relevance to them because they are under a New Covenant.  When Paul wrote, “You are not under the law” (Rom. 6:14), he was talking about the potency and provisions of the Old Covenant law in contrast to the potency and provisions of grace.  Within the context, Paul
is discussing the process of the believer’s sanctification (Rom. 6:12-13).  In light of what Christ has done, Paul concludes that “sin shall not be master over you” (Rom. 6:14). The basis for this affirmation is set forth by way of contrast.  Believers “are not under the law but under grace.”  The words, “under the law,” describes the person whose life is being determined by the resources of the law, and hence, is under the dominion of sin. The words, “under grace,” describes the person whose life is being determined by the unlimited resources of redeeming and renewing grace.  Paul is saying in Romans 6:14 that reliance upon the law can do nothing to relieve one’s bondage to sin. But under grace, believers have the resources of the resurrection life of Christ under the New Covenant to live a life of liberty, enjoying freedom from sin’s dominion.

The Application of the Law.  The New Covenant does not present believers with a new law. The New Testament upholds the law revealed by God in the Hebrew Bible as an essential element of the New Covenant (Heb. 8:6 13).  By the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:3 4), those who share in the New Covenant will “walk in God’s statutes” and observe His ordinances” (Ezek. 36:27).  That the Law has application for the N.T. believer is seen by Paul’s appeal to specific Old Testament commands as the norm for Christian
conduct (Rom. 13:8 10).

The O.T. Law is often divided into three parts: moral, civil, and ceremonial.  However, the N. T. does not seem to distinguish between differnt types of the law in the word nomos.  And it is often difficult to draw the line between “moral” and “ceremonial” law.  Much of the civil legislation is grounded on the principles set forth in the Ten Commandments.

Rather than distinguishing different types of law, it is better to say that some injunctions are broad and generally applicable while others are more specific and directed at the particular needs of ancient Israel.

The law as a contractual obligation under the Old (Mosaic) Covenant has ended (Longenecker, Paul, pp 145 48).  This means that certain requirements concerning circumcision, foods, feasts, and Sabbath keeping no longer apply (Col. 2:16).  But the Law as the righteous standard which reflects God’s holiness has not changed.  The holy conduct emphasized in the Law is just as applicable today (Lev. 19:2, 1 Pet. 1:16).

Certainly, there are aspects of the law which are rendered obsolete by the finished work of Christ (Heb. 10:18).  Laws regulating the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial ministry have no direct application to Christians today.  Yet these laws are still relevant in that they provide an historical and theological context for our understanding of the atoning death of Christ.

Should Christians obey the law?  Yes!  Not for the purpose of attaining righteousness, but as an expression of our love for Christ (Jn. 14:15).  Believers must study the Law for the underlying principles (Wenham, Leviticus, p. 36).  These timeless principles reflect God’s holy character and standards.

It is helpful to ask three questions when studying the Old Testament law:

(1) Does the N.T. nullify the O.T. application? ie., Heb. 10:18;

(2) Does the N.T. modify the O.T. application?  ie., Matt. 5:38 42;

(3) Does the N.T. verify or confirm the O.T. application? ie., Rom. 13:9.

Christians should be challenged to study and appreciate God’s law, applying its principles in relevant ways.


George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 495 510.
Walter C. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, pp. 81 95.
_______________. “Leviticus 18:5 and Paul: Do This and You Shall Live (Eternally?), JETS 14 (1971): 19 28.
Richard N. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty, pp. 86 153.
Douglas J. Moo, “Law, Works of the Law, and Legalism,”  Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 73 100.
Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, pp. 32 37.

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