What’s the Purpose of Old Testament Law?

Understanding the law in the Old Testament can prove difficult. For instance, Paul believed that the law is good and holy (Rom 7:12). However, he also said that it only serves to expose and even increase sin (Rom 5:20; 7:5-11). He wanted to carry out the law, but he also found himself unable to do this consistently (Rom 7:9-24). The result was that the law brought Paul to the point at which he proclaimed that he was a “wretched man” and cried out for someone who “will rescue me from this body of death” (Rom 7:24).

What then is the purpose of the law?

Paul argued that one of the reasons God gave the law in the first place was to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:17-24). The law leads us to Christ both by showing us what love for God and others looks like and by showing us how we can never be united with God through the law. “No one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).

We cannot arrive at union with God through the law because we cannot actually get our relationship with God right on the basis of our ethical behavior. We lack the one thing that is necessary for genuine relationship to exist: love.

The law is a classic Catch-22. Our efforts to get life precludes our ever getting life. And this is exactly the point! Through the law, God actually intensifies our need to get life in order to break us from the illusion that we can ever get life from the law.

The law pushes us to see that the only way we can get life is by being united with God, as was always intended. And the only way to be united with God is to receive it as a gift. A life-giving relationship with God can only be entered into when we stop trying to establish it on the basis of judging what is right and wrong. It can only be entered into by placing our total confidence in God’s ability to make us good and abolish our evil in Jesus Christ.

The only way to get life is to have it freely infused into us by the Spirit of God. As we learn to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, all that belongs to God by nature begins to evidence in us by grace. When we abide in love, the evidence of love is manifested in our lives. Without striving to keep a list of laws which means that we are trying to acquire something we don’t yet have, we don’t strive to acquire something we don’t yet have. We now can manifest love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives. There is no law that can get us such things (Galatians 5:16-23).

—adapted from Repenting of Religion, pages 90-93


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