Exciting phrases, easy acronyms, and memorable lists formed from dense works of systematic theology can be helpful for the everyday Christian. While these reductions of God’s Word and His nature help us understand general frameworks, they are unable to help us understand everything the Bible teaches. It is one thing...
As Christians, we champion grace. Rightly so. We read, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14), responding with an emphatic, Amen! The law is a great burden, one that you and I could not fulfill. Praise God that we are under his grace! Our salvation rests upon this.
In the New Testament (NT), the Old Testament (OT) law is described as something that “proved to be death” to us (Romans 7:10), “came to increase trespass” (Romans 5:20), and held us “captive” and “imprisoned” (Galatians 3:23).
So, in addition to being life-long advocates of the grace we have been given in Christ, we read these verses about the law and perhaps find ample reason to dismiss it. If the law proved to be death, came to increase trespass, and held us captive, are we not given reason to believe that Christianity in the NT has advanced in an alternate direction—away from the law of the OT?
However, we also have to contend with NT expressions. For example, in Matthew 5:17, Christ teaches that he is indeed not progressing away from the law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” If that is not enough to convince you that Christ did not intend for us to abandon the law, I submit to you Romans 3:31: “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
An important question we may have is of the correct interpretation of the OT law in the NT age—for example, how exactly does all of Leviticus apply to us today? My purpose here is to write about our attitude toward the law, not to answer our questions of interpretation. My hope is that we will be motivated to learn more about interpretation after reading of the benefits of that work.
So, if according to NT teachings, we are not moving away from the law—if God indeed did not push some proverbial re-set button with Christ, nullifying it for us—then we are left with this question: What benefit does the law possibly have for those under grace?
We See Our Need More Clearly
The law serves to inform us of and increase our awareness of our sin.
We need to be taught and instructed, then taught and instructed again. Do you not feel that too? We need definitions and designations about right and wrong—teachings to visit and revisit. We are indeed “prone to wander.” So, God gave the law as a concrete, definitive designation—reflective of his righteous and holy character—about how to honor him in this life he has given. How good that we have this gift!
Following the law out of a motivation of love for the Lord and his character is an incredibly life-giving way to live. Think of an area of sin over which you have gained freedom. How much more abundant is life on the other side of every sin! Being freed of sin is not merely the absence of that sinful behavior. Being freed of sin is deeper communion with God and lasting joy from faithfulness to him. That is why Paul could say that law promised life.
The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. (Romans 7:10)
Yet, the law also proved to be death to those with a sinful nature. The law did not keep sinners from sinning. The law is holy, righteous, and good. But mankind has a propensity toward sin. Commandments plus the sin-nature do not function well together at all.
For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. (Romans 7:11-12)
Perhaps you too have heard this oft-cited example:
If you draw “do not write here” on the chalkboard and leave the piece of chalk right underneath, our nature produces in us a desire to defy—to write on that chalkboard. So, whereas the law itself is a good provision for which to be thankful, mankind’s sinful nature becomes revealed clearly for what it is.
Christians can relate as Paul pinpoints the condition of our hearts: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19). Later he speaks of himself: “Wretched man that I am” (Romans 7:24)!
Wretched are we! The law is necessary for us. It is not to be neglected because through it we see ourselves more clearly, as Romans 4:15 teaches: “Where there is no law there is no transgression.” Our awareness of our sin is increased. It points us to the true source of our salvation, Christ: “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
We Praise Christ as One Who Fulfilled the Law
According to our great need that the law clearly demonstrated, God did something incredibly gracious. He sent Jesus Christ, who could be perfect in righteousness according to the ways of God. He made a way for us to trust him and be credited his righteousness—leading to eternal life.
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21).
Through the necessary awareness of sin that God gave us through the law, he is able to demonstrate his further grace in Christ. In stark contrast to the capabilities of mere man stands Christ. The more we understand of the law, the more we see his capability and magnificence to fulfill it. Praise him! Grace could only come to us because Christ did not minimize one measure of the law, but instead met it in full.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)
When Jesus taught that a person’s righteousness must surpass the scribes and Pharisees, that would have been shocking to his audience, who viewed the scribes and Pharisees as the spiritual elite. Ultimately, when he said that righteousness must exceed the Pharisees,’ he was speaking of himself, who alone could do this perfectly.
We Love the Law with Hearts of Flesh
Whereas Christ already had the law in his heart, we have to have it written into ours (Hebrews 8:10). Ezekiel 11:19 foreshadowed what we experience through new life in Christ: “I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” The words above from Matthew 5 are followed by Christ’s teaching that hate is murder and lust is adultery. So, the law has not been demolished, but revealed to be all about one’s heart. Those who have hearts of flesh by faith through grace can love the law and have the law written there to stay.
Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:21-26)
God’s requirement of holiness for mankind has never changed from the beginning of time. But we changed; we sinned. Justly, God continued to require his “end of the deal,” that his righteous requirements be truly fulfilled. Grace, that is, being out from under the law of the OT, means that now, we are under the Christ who perfectly fulfilled the law—the one who gives the Holy Spirit to help us obey the law from the heart. Our faith in this Christ produces the desire to know the law of the Lord—to know his righteous ways and to see every possible fulfillment of his righteous ways in our hearts.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)
Grace leads us right back to the law through a different perspective. We can say, “Wretched I am,” “I am forgiven by grace through faith in Christ,” and “I long that God’s righteous requirements be fulfilled in me,” all in one breath.
His grace will always bring us to love the law that Christ embodied. When under grace, Christians are not only free from the law and from the sin that the law increased for those with sinful natures. More, we are freed to the law.
Through grace in Christ, we are freed to return to the law with the knowledge that the burden of it is not ours, but that the grace of finding the freedom of righteousness out of love for him is. How good to have such a God whose justice never sacrifices the righteousness that is our freedom, and whose fulfillment of the law enables us to pursue that righteousness while already having complete peace with him. What a Savior!
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1)