An Evangelical looks at What the Law Could Not do and Why: A Bible Study

Taken and adapted from, The Mosaic Covenant: ‘Law,’ Chapter 4.
Written by, Charles Leiter

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For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world…

…was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. Romans 4:13-16

Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Galatians 3:11-12

In Chapter 3, we considered God’s covenant with Abraham and his “seed”—a covenant that Paul describes by the term “Promise.” In this chapter, we will consider God’s covenant with Israel through Moses—a covenant that Paul describes by the term “Law.” Then in Chapter 5, we will consider the New Covenant—a covenant that Paul describes by the term “Faith.” It is clear that Paul views Law as fundamentally different from both Promise (Galatians 3:18), and Faith (Galatians 3:12). He repeatedly speaks of the Mosaic Covenant in terms of “works,” in contrast with “faith.” “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’” (Galatians 3:10-12)

Some have argued that when Paul says “the Law is not of faith,” he is speaking of a Jewish misunderstanding or distortion of the Law. They maintain that, in reality, the Law was a covenant of grace based on faith, but the Jews misconstrued it to be a covenant of works based on human performance. It is evident, however, that Paul is not setting forth here a Jewish misunderstanding or distortion of the Law, but the basic principles that characterized the Mosaic Covenant itself.

Blessings and Curses

To understand why this is so, we must remember that the Law had both a positive and negative side, setting forth the dual possibilities of either life or death. These possibilities were conditioned upon human obedience or disobedience. This is well illustrated by the blessings and curses pronounced from Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. Though this important passage should be read in its entirety if we are to feel its full impact (Deuteronomy 27:11-28:68; see also Leviticus 26), a few excerpts will be sufficient to demonstrate the fact that the Old Covenant was characterized by “conditions” and that its blessings (or curses) hinged upon human performance.

Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the LORD your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground and the offspring of your beasts, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out…. Deuteronomy 28:1-6

But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. The LORD will send upon you curses, confusion, and rebuke, in all you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and until you perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken Me…. Deuteronomy 28:15-20

All this is summarized, on the one hand, by the Law’s warning that “the soul who sins will die” ( Ezekiel 18:4), and on the other hand, by the Law’s assurance that “he who practices” the commandments “shall live by them”(Galatians 3:12; Leviticus 18:5). This assurance that those who “do” will “live” had a temporal application to the Jews—as long as they obeyed the commandments and requirements of the Law of Moses, they would “live” in the land that God had given them and experience His “blessings.” This held true even if their obedience was far from perfect and (in many cases) only external or “outward in the flesh” (Romans 2:28-29).

But the promise of “life” also represented a deeper and abiding legal principle—it had to do, not only with “life in the land,” but with eternal life. And the obedience required for obtaining such life involved nothing less than perfect love to both God and man. The Lord Jesus made this clear on more than one occasion:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” And he answered and said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” –Luke 10:25-29

Likewise, when the “rich young ruler” asked Jesus, “What good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” His reply was, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17). This means that if anyone were to keep the law perfectly, he would earn or merit eternal life by working out his own (Philippians 3:9) righteousness in the eyes of the law. “For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness” (Philippians 3:9). Not only did the promise of “life” that was set forth by the Law represent more than mere “life in the land”; the Law’s “curse” also represented more than mere physical death or expulsion from Canaan. This is made clear by Paul’s statement that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). The “curse of the Law” from which Christ has redeemed us by drinking the cup of God’s wrath, is none other than the eternal death that is the just “wages of sin.” Christ did not die to save us from a Jewish misunderstanding of the Law’s curse, but from the actual curse (Romans 6:23) of the Law itself!

In light of these clear teachings of Scripture, we must conclude that, whatever gracious provisions the Mosaic Covenant may have included, it nevertheless represented a covenant of works. It was characterized by the principle that life is contingent on doing. It was not just another “gracious administration of the covenant of grace,” essentially one piece with the New Covenant, as some have supposed. The Law served a gracious purpose in God’s overall plan, as we shall see, but the Law itself was not based on the principle of grace! Instead, it was given to “increase transgression” (Romans 5:20), and its inevitable result was to “bring about wrath” (Romans 4:15). This is why Paul views the Old Covenant as such to be a “ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7) and a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9). It was not a Jewish misunderstanding of the Old Covenant that represented a “ministry” of death and condemnation, but the very “tablets of stone” (2 Corinthians 3:3, 7) themselves!

It is true that most of the Jews did in fact fail to understand the real purpose of the Law of Moses. But their misunderstanding related, not to the fact that the Law promised life on condition of obedience, but to the fact that men are too sinful in themselves to merit this life (Romans 7:10). Rather than realizing that the Law had been given to “shut them up under sin” (Galatians 3:22) and show them their desperate need to be justified by faith as their father Abraham had been, (Romans 4:1-5; 11-12) they supposed instead that they could obtain a “righteousness of their own” (Philippians 3:9) by keeping the Law. “For not knowing about God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:3-4).

The stark contrast between the demands of the Old Covenant and the provisions of the New is seen even in the very manner in which the two covenants were inaugurated. The giving of the Law on Sinai was an event full of fear, foreboding, and darkness—as sinful men trembled before an unapproachably holy God and the “holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12) law He was calling them to obey.

For you have not come to…a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them. For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” –Hebrews 12:18-21

By contrast, the New Covenant was inaugurated in the quiet intimacy of the Upper Room, where Jesus, “having loved His own who were in the world, loved them to the uttermost” (John 13:1) and spoke to them words of comfort and assurance before laying down His life for them. The inauguration of the New Covenant did indeed involve darkness, earthquake, and terror, but it was the darkness that fell upon Christ Himself (Matthew 27:45-46) as He redeemed His people from the curse of the Law and drank the bitter “cup” (Luke 22:42-44) of God’s wrath reserved for them!

Law vs. Promise

According to Paul, “the Law is not of faith,” (Galatians 3:12) and it is only when salvation is by faith that it can be a matter of grace:

For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified…. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants…. Romans 4:14-16

We see in these verses that Law, because it is characterized by the principle of “works,” is opposed to both Promise and Faith. And it is precisely this opposition that leads to Paul’s question, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God” (Galatians 3:21)? If Paul were teaching that the Law is a covenant based on the principle of grace, this question would never have arisen. But as it is, God has done something apparently inexplicable: He has made unconditional promises to Abraham and then followed them with a covenant that is conditioned on human performance! Does He really intend that men will earn their salvation by keeping the Law? Paul’s answer is an emphatic, “May it never be!” “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (Galatians 3:21). God never intended the Law as an alternate method of salvation, because man’s sinful condition renders the Law “unable” to impart life. The problem lies, not in the Law’s promise of life, but in man’s inability to keep the Law and thus obtain its “righteousness.” For this reason, Paul speaks of “what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh” (Romans 8:3). Instead of bringing life to fallen men, the Law brings only death: “And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me” (Romans 7:9-10). The commandment did indeed promise life, but it “proved to result” only in death.

Why the Law Then?

If God never intended that men should be saved by law keeping, the question naturally arises, “Why the Law then” (Galatians 3:19)? Paul’s answer is that “it was added because of transgressions…until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made.” Notice that Paul describes the Law here as something “added.” It is not the main entity, but an attachment; it “came in beside” (Romans 5:20 ASV). Not only was the Law added; it was also temporary. “It was added…until the seed [Christ] should come to whom the promise had been made.” When Christ appeared, the time of the Mosaic Covenant was over. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:25).

Paul says that the Law was added “because of transgressions.” What he means by this statement is spelled out in considerable detail in his other writings. According to Paul, the Law “arouses sinful passions” in those who are unconverted (Romans 7:5). Sin “takes opportunity through the commandment” to produce more sin, to “deceive” us, and “through the commandment” to “kill” us (Romans 7:8, 11, 13). The Law awakens and stirs up sin; in fact, the Law is the very “power of sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56)! Thus, Paul can actually say, “the Law came in that the transgression might increase” (Romans 5:20). By showing men more clearly their condemnation and horrible bondage to sin, “the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24). The Law of Moses did its part to “shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22).

The Mosaic Covenant does indeed serve a gracious purpose in that it “leads us to Christ.” Its laws reveal to us our sinfulness, and its sacrifices foreshadow our Savior. But the Mosaic Covenant itself is not characterized by the principle of grace, “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’” (Galatians 3:10).

Promise vs. Law

Since “as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse” (Galatians 3:10), it is evident that those Jews who found eternal life while living under the Mosaic Covenant, found it not through the Law as such, but through the Promise. Unlike their fellow countrymen who imagined that they could succeed in establishing a “righteousness of their own” by keeping the Law (Philippians 3:9; Romans 9:31-32; 10:3), they realized, instead, that the Law itself only condemned them. They knew that even their “righteous” deeds were but “a filthy garment” (Isaiah 64:6) in God’s sight, and they understood that scrupulous observance of the sacrifices and offerings of the Mosaic system could not actually take away their sins (Micah 6:6-7; Psalm 51:16; Hebrews 10:4). Instead, they “followed in the steps of the faith of their father Abraham which he had while he was yet uncircumcised” (Romans 4:12). They, like Abraham, “believed God,” trusting Him to “justify the ungodly” and to “reckon righteousness” to them “apart from works” (Romans 4:3-6). They, like Abraham, looked in faith to the promise and to the coming of the One to whom the promise had been made (John 8:56; 12:41; Acts 2:30-31; 1 Peter 1:10-12). As a result, they experienced the “blessing” of Abraham, even though they lived under the Law of Moses:

Just as David [a man who lived directly under the Mosaic Law] also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”  Romans 4:6-8

The same principle applied to the survival of the nation of Israel as a whole. Time after time, when the nation of Israel should have been utterly destroyed (Deuteronomy 28:45, 48, 51, 61 “until you are destroyed”), it was Promise, not Law, that preserved a remnant. Under the conditions of the Law (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), the people of Israel richly deserved every judgment that came upon them (Nehemiah 9:26-37; Daniel 9:1-19), and the fact that God did not “make an end of them or forsake them” is attributed to His grace and compassion (Nehemiah 9:30-31; Deuteronomy 4:29-31), not to His legal justice. When Israel sinned, no prophet ever interceded for the nation on the basis of Law, but solely on the basis of grace, imploring God for mercy and appealing to the covenant God had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.” So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people. –Exodus 32:12-14 NAS95

You have been rebellious against the LORD from the day I knew you. So I fell down before the LORD the forty days and nights, which I did because the LORD had said He would destroy you. I prayed to the LORD, and said, “O Lord GOD, do not destroy Your people, even Your inheritance, whom You have redeemed through Your greatness, whom You have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not look at the stubbornness of this people or at their wickedness or their sin.” –Deuteronomy 9:24-27 NAS95

Now Hazael king of Aram had oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion on them and turned to them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them or cast them from His presence until now. –2 Kings 13:22-23

In this remnant preserved by grace lay the hope and future of God’s people. Through the prophets, God assured the Jews that one day He would yet fulfill every promise made to Abraham by sending the Messiah, who would establish a New Covenant with the renewed “house of Israel and house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31-37; 32:37-41; Hebrews 8:6-13).

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who gave birth to you in pain; when he was one I called him, then I blessed him and multiplied him.” Indeed, the LORD will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and sound of a melody….“Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment, and its inhabitants will die in like manner, but My salvation shall be forever, and My righteousness shall not wane.”…So the ransomed of the LORD will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. –Isaiah 51:1-3, 6, 11

“Shut Up Under Sin”

In answer to the question, “Why the Law then?” Paul says that it was “added because of transgressions.” After considering something of what he means by this phrase, we have seen that God’s ultimate purpose in giving the Law to fallen men was not that they might save themselves by keeping it, but that their utter need of a Savior might be established by their failing to keep it! In light of this truth, several questions immediately press upon each of us, even though we have never lived directly under the Mosaic Covenant:

Do I see God’s demands as “holy, righteous, and good” (Romans 7:12) and His requirements as only good and right? Have I stopped blaming God for my sins by excusing them or by imagining that He expects too much of me?

Do I realize that I have fallen infinitely short of living a life of perfect love to God and man, and that, in myself, I stand hopelessly condemned in God’s sight? Can I see that I am condemned, not because of any fault on God’s part, but because of my own selfish and wicked heart?

Do I realize that I will never be able to establish any righteousness of my own before God or do anything that will obligate Him to love and save me? Have I given up on ever being able to “merit” the merits of Christ? Do I realize that unless salvation is entirely by grace, I will never be saved?

If my answer is “yes” to all of these questions, then the law of God has done its intended work in me! I have nothing to do but to look away from myself and put my trust in Christ alone for my righteousness and salvation!

“So the ransomed of the LORD will return, and come with joyful shouting to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads.” Hallelujah!