Purposes and Results of the Law
(Reading time: 5.5 minutes)
The most detailed covenant in the Old Testament is the one God made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai and later confirmed before they entered the Promised Land. God made that covenant with the Israelites, not with any Gentiles. The terms of that covenant are called the law of Moses, or simply the “law” (lower case). The “Law” (upper case) refers to the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible.
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 believe 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 they provide a clear historical perspective of the law. It identifies the purposes and results of the law to help us discover whether Israel’s covenant and its law apply to Christians.
Before God gave the law to the Israelites, they had no standard of right and wrong, so they did whatever they wanted. This was true of everyone 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 (Rom. 5:13).
That is, the first and main purpose of the law was to make people conscious of their sin (Rom. 3:20; 7:7).
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 (Rom. 4:15). So the law’s second purpose is to mandate punishment or God’s wrath as a response to sin.
The Israelites’ initial response to the law reveals a problematic trait of fallen human nature, which is self-centeredness. This trait causes us to trust our own perspective, judgment, and efforts. When they first arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses told the people God would make a covenant with them. They knew the covenant would include terms they’d need to obey, because all covenants do. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said” (Exod. 19:8, NIV). Later, when Moses presented the law to them, the people affirmed, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (Exod. 24:3, 7). Confident in their ability, they believed they could do whatever God required.
Though they had the best intentions, the Israelites discovered they simply couldn’t 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 lawbreaker subject to God’s wrath (James 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 expected 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’s impossible. Fallen humanity doesn’t deserve and can’t earn righteousness, a guilt-free status before God. Everyone is powerless against sin and therefore needs a savior, so the law leads us to Christ (Gal. 3:24).
The law had four basic purposes.
- Make people conscious of their sin by defining it (Rom. 3:20; 7:7).
- Mandate punishment for sin, which is the curse of the law (Gal 3:10).
- Address fallen human nature’s fundamental problem (self-centeredness) by proving people can’t become righteous by their own effort (Gal. 2:16; 3:10-11).
- Prove people need a savior to rescue them from the curse for violating the law (Gal 3:13).
This seems like an unreasonable plan because it guaranteed the Israelites and all humanity would fail. We must realize, however, God had a superior plan in mind and the law he gave Israel was only a first step, a prerequisite for the ultimate solution, which Jesus would later provide.
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 as transgressions or sin deserving judgment. In effect, the law increased sin and gave power to sin (Rom. 5:20; 1 Cor. 15:56). Temptation can’t exist in the absence of laws. Even if there were only one law, as in the Garden of Eden, law incites or increases sin (Gen. 2:17).
From that perspective, the law obviously was against the Israelites, as it’s still against people 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 (Rom. 7:8, 11). That’s what the Bible calls temptation.
The apostle Paul lived under the law before becoming a follower of Jesus. Here’s how he described the effect of the law: “But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the 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” (Rom. 7:8-11). Elsewhere, he described the law as the ministry that brought death (2 Cor. 3:7).
The law strengthened or increased sin, so it served as a ministry of death. Whatever we may think of the law, it was holy, righteous and good (Rom. 7:12, 16; 1 Tim. 1:8). That is, it was divine in nature and origin, compatible with God’s standards, and completely suitable for what he designed it to do.
The old covenant law revealed humanity’s inability to conquer sin and proved people need a savior to rescue them from judgment for their sin.