How then shall we think about the Law?


It has been said that understanding how the Law of the Old Testament fits into the Gospel of the New Testament is one of the hardest theological issues for a believer to wrestle through.  If you are like me you have probably been taught to see the Law in a negative light.  We like to point to Paul’s indictments of the Law as our proof.  Paul calls the Law a curse in Galatians 3:13, in Romans 4:15 Paul says the Law brings wrath, and in 2 Corinthians 3:7 he refers to the Law as a ministry of death.  But is this the dichotomy that Paul intended to draw between the Law and the Gospel?  Furthermore, if the Law is not these things (a curse, wrath, and death) what is it and how should we think about it?

I think we find a shocking answer in an unlikely spot; the Gospel of John.  John calls the Law grace. You heard me right, grace.  There are two verses in the prologue to the Gospel of John that changed forever how I think about the Law and I think Paul would agree with their content.  John 1:16-17 says this, “For his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  In a very succinct statement John has summed up the history of redemption.  It is all grace.  From God clothing Adam and Eve as they are sent out of the Garden, to Noah and his family being saved from the flood, into the promise given to Abraham, followed by the Law given to Moses, culminating in the person and work of Christ, it is all grace from God.  The primary reason for reading these two verses in this way is that John 1:17 textually seems to be the explanation of John 1:16.   Grace upon Grace.  The first grace was the Law given through Moses and then the second grace was what came through Jesus Christ as grace and truth.  We should let the depth of these verses upend the way we commonly think about the Law and the Gospel.

But does this explanation of the Law as a grace square with Paul?  Let’s take a quick look at the three passages I mentioned above (Galatians 3:13, Romans 4:15, and 2 Corinthians 3:7).
Paul in Galatians is making an argument that the true children of Abraham are not those marked in the flesh by circumcision and law keeping, but rather those that believe through faith in Jesus Christ that are the true sons of Abraham (Galatians 2:15-16; Galatians 3:1-9). Paul goes on to explain that the Law was a guardian until Christ came (Galatians 3:24).  It imprisoned us in sin, showing us our sin, so that when Christ came the promise by faith would be given to those who believe (Galatians 3:22).  As Paul says in Galatians, life cannot be given by the Law and neither can righteousness, but as a guardian it kept the people of God until the promise in Christ was revealed.  If you rely on the Law and try keep the Law to be righteousness before God then it is a curse because you can’t do it. If the Law was participated in with an eye of faith towards the greater promise in Christ the Law becomes the grace it was intended to be. In fact, this is similar to the argument that Jesus makes as recorded by John in John 5:45-47 to the Jews.  They have trusted in the Law to give life but missed the whole point of the Law, which was to point forward to Christ.  Moses understood the greater fulfillment to come through faith and will be the accuser of the Jews for missing the object of faith the Law was witnessing to.  The Law in and of it self cannot save yet it points and keeps those with and eye of faith toward the revelation that was coming in Christ and Christ can save.  As a side note, I think this is the most probably reasoning for how Old Testament believers were saved.  They participated in God’s Law given through Moses with an eye of faith towards the Law’s fulfillment in Christ.  But that is a different article to be written.

Romans 4:15 speaks of the Law bringing wrath and bringing about transgression. The very next verse Romans 4:16 says, “This is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace…”  Paul continues in Romans 7:7-25 to ask, is the Law sin? And his response is by no means. Without the law we would not have known sin.  But sin seized an opportunity in the Law and made sin come alive all the more in us.  Paul says in Romans 7:12 that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”  The problem is we are not good and we could not keep the Law, hence the need for a grace upon grace.  All of Romans 7:7-25 is a great discussion concerning the purpose and place of the Law within God’s plan of redemption.  Primarily, in Romans 7 Paul sees it as revealing our sin.  We have to ask ourselves, is it not a grace of God to reveal our sin and then provide a greater grace in the person of Christ to take away the sin revealed by the Law?

2 Corinthians 3:7 calls the Law a ministry of death however, this verse in the wider passage speaks about the glory of the Law (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).  Paul here shows us that the Law had glory even in its condemnation of our sin but it has been far surpassed by the ministry of righteousness that Christ brings in the glory department.  In fact the Law looks as if it has no glory compared to the new covenant in Christ’s blood.  So in this case Paul is speaking of a glory upon glory.  The glory of the Law was trumped by another glory; that of the work of Christ that results in salvation.

Finally Hebrews 10:1-10 helps to clarify how we should think about the Law.  The author of Hebrews here calls the Law a “shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities.”  He goes on to show us how the sacrifices could not take away sin yet anticipated the advent of Christ.  Hebrews 10:9-10 gives us a clear picture of Law being eclipsed by the work of Christ as well as Hebrews 9:11-28.  The offering of the body of Christ as the perfect sacrifice once and for all is what sanctifies us.

Paul not only called the Law a curse, wrath, and death, but he also called it a guardian, Holy, righteous, good, and a glory.  Whatever good titles we can attribute to the Law we have to remember that they are swallowed up by the reality of grace in the person and work of Christ.  The Law was a grace and the Israelites that had an eye of faith toward its fulfillment definitely experienced it as such.  The fact that through the Law a Holy God could dwell among a sinful people without striking out and killing them all could be nothing less than grace.  Is the Law really grace?  Most definitely so, but the grace and truth that comes through Christ, grace upon grace, is far better.
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