Purposes and Results of the Law
Summary: The law of the old covenant revealed humanity’s inability to conquer sin and it in effect was a ministry of death.
The most detailed covenant in the Old Testament is the one God made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai and later confirmed as they were about to enter the Promised Land. God made that covenant exclusively with the Israelites, not with any Gentiles. The terms of that covenant are called the Law of Moses, or simply the law.
Many people think everything in the Old Testament, including God’s covenant with Israel and its law, applies to Christians today. This is especially true of those who adhere to replacement theology, which maintains that Israel broke their covenant by crucifying Jesus and the church has now replaced Israel in God’s plan. In this article, we’ll examine New Testament passages because it provides clear historical descriptions of the law. It identifies the purposes and results of the law to help us determine whether Israel’s covenant and its law apply to Christians.
Purposes of the Law
Before God gave the law to the Israelites, they had no standard of right and wrong, so they basically did whatever they wanted. This was probably true of all mankind at the time, but God chose the Israelites and gave them a standard of righteousness — the law of Moses. After receiving the law, the people knew what God expected of them and discovered they were violating the law. The Bible calls violations of God’s law “sin” and states that sin isn’t taken into account when there is no law. (Ro 5:13) That is, through the law, they became aware of sin. (Rom 3:20; 7:7)
The first and primary purpose of the law is to make people aware of sin.
The law included punishments or curses for violators to show that violations aren’t acceptable. Those punishments or curses collectively are called God’s wrath and are direct results of the law. (Ro 4:15) So a second purpose of the law is to mandate punishment or God’s wrath as a response to sin.
Though they had the best of intentions, the Israelites discovered they simply could not adhere to the law, because they had to obey the whole law. (Gal 3:10; 5:3) By breaking just one part of the law, a person became a law-breaker subject to God’s wrath. (Jas 2:10-11) God provided a system of sacrifices that would temporarily atone or make reparations for sin, but the people remained fully aware they couldn’t keep the law. Their sacrifices couldn’t clear their consciences. (Heb 9:9)
God knew they would violate the law and never intended for them to keep it, but he had another purpose for giving it. The Israelites needed to realize they couldn’t become righteous by their own efforts and needed someone to save them from their predicament. The natural human tendency is to rely on self-effort, but that self-centeredness is the fundamental trait of sinful human nature and is a major target of the law. The law allows us to try earning acceptance through our efforts but proves that it’s impossible. Fallen humanity doesn’t deserve and can’t earn righteousness, a guilt-free status before God. Mankind is totally powerless against sin and therefore needs a savior, so the law leads us to Christ. (Gal 3:24)
The law had three basic purposes: (1) to make people aware of sin, (2) to mandate punishment for sin, and (3) to prove that people need a savior because they can’t keep the law to avoid sin and its punishment.
You might be thinking this was a totally unreasonable plan because God guaranteed man would fail. Instead, he should have created a system that would allow the faithful to succeed. That’s a typical human reaction. We must realize, however, that God had a superior plan in mind and the law he gave Israel was only a first step, a prerequisite for the ultimate solution. And what he planned would be far superior to what we could ever accomplish by our own effort — the new covenant.
Results of the Law
Now let’s consider some of the law’s results. Sin was already an issue in God’s eyes and the law made Israel aware of it. The law defined God’s standard for righteous and violations of that standard were transgressions or sin deserving judgment. In effect, the law increased sin and gave power to sin. (Ro 5:20; 1 Co 15:56) Temptation can’t exist in the absence of law. Even if there were only one law, as there was in the Garden of Eden, law incites or increases sin. (Gen 2:17)
From that perspective, it should be obvious that the law was against the Israelites, as it’s still against us today. (Col 2:13-14) If the law didn’t exist, sin would be dead, but sin seizes the opportunity presented by the law to produce desires contrary to the law. (Ro 7:8, 11) That’s what we call temptation.
The Apostle Paul lived under the law before becoming a follower of Jesus. Here’s how he described the effect of the law: “Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.” (Ro 7:8-11) Elsewhere, he described the law as the ministry that brought death. (2 Co 3:7)
So the law strengthened or increased sin and therefore served as a ministry of death. Whatever we may think of the law, it was holy, just and perfect. (Ro 7:12) It was totally effective for what God intended it to do.