Last weekend at Riv, we launched into a new series which will take us through the Bible one book at a time. We started out with Genesis, which is not only the first book in the Bible but the first of five books of “The Law.” Over the course of the next month, we are going to encounter this concept quite a bit so I thought this would be a good time to post a summary. This article has been adapted from my book Unchained and is subject to copyright and used by permission.
What is “the Law?”
The Law, simply, is a set of 613 specific rules God gave Israel to help us know what God cares about and what sin is. The Law is commonly broken down into three categories:
- The Moral Law—how the Jews were to determine right and wrong
- The Civil Law—how they were to interact with each other and the people around them
- The Ceremonial Law—how Israel was to worship God
These three little categories are fairly helpful when studying the Law, but they cease to be helpful when they cause us treat some of the Law as really important, other parts as kind of important, and other parts as quaint and irrelevant.
But that’s how we like to treat all laws, isn’t it?
Embezzling a billion dollars doesn’t feel quite the same as absconding with a ream of paper from the office, right? Sure, they are both technically stealing, but, come on! Is a couple bucks worth of paper that big a deal?
This attitude bleeds into how we view the Law. We tend to treat some of it (like the Ten Commandments) as a big deal and other parts (like the dietary restrictions not to eat shellfish) as another. But God lumped it all into one unit and handed it to the Jews, calling them to live under its demands.
As Christians, what do we do with “the Law”?
Now, even though the Law was given to the Jews and it directly applied to them alone, the Apostle Paul makes an interesting observation for those of us who are not Jewish:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them …” (Romans 2:14–15)
The Law is written on every human heart. It doesn’t matter if you are a Jew, a Gentile, or Kim Jong Un, the Law is etched into the core of your being. All of us have a conscience that tells us about the Law and that means our (often conflicting) thoughts battle daily over what is right and wrong. Sometimes our conscience excuses us—sometimes it accuses us. Now that doesn’t mean every person naturally understands the Law or what it means for them. The Apostle Paul tells us our consciences can be damaged and our thoughts can be tainted with sin but nevertheless, the Law is written on our hearts and it shows the distance between our behavior and God’s standard.
So do we, as New Testament followers of Jesus, climb under the Law and submit to its demands? Let’s let the Apostle Paul answer:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners… (1 Timothy 1:8–10)
“The Law is good if…”
“If” is an essential word to understanding and applying the Law.
“If” tells me that there is a wrong way of using the Law, one that moves it from “good” to “ungood.” It is possible to take the good Law and make something bad out of it. How? Well what did Paul say? The Law is not to be laid down for whom?
Is “the just” someone who keeps the Law perfectly? It can’t be! If that was the case, the only person who would qualify is Jesus. Who is he talking about? He’s talking about someone who has been made perfect by Jesus. In other words, if you are “in Christ,” if you have been saved by grace through faith, you are “the just,” and the Law is not laid down for you! The Law exists to shine a light on your sin in order to drive you to Jesus. Once you are safe and secure in him, it has completed its purpose. Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection put a period on the end of the Law’s sentence.
What good is the Law now?
Can we just ignore the Law or only carry around New Testaments, never to look at the Old Testament again? No! The Law still has great use for those of us who are not under it, showing us we are sinners who need to be saved. It reminds us we are hopeless and helpless. You can’t help but read the Law and have a growing pit in your stomach when you see how different you are from God. Since sin is any failure to reflect the image of God in nature, attitude, and action, the Law shows us how we fail in all three. In that sense, the Law fulfills its ultimate purpose: it serves as a giant arrow pointing at Jesus.