Keeping the law can’t save you. The law method regarding salvation never leads to satisfaction and success. Over the weekend I was with a group of fellow Christians and we started discussing the law and whether or not a Christian was capable of keeping it to the degree that God required. It soon became apparent that there were almost as many views concerning the law as there were people discussing the topic. Some of us thought there was no way possible to keep the law whatsoever. Some of us thought we could do it through God’s strength while others thought that since God demanded it of us, then we should be able to obtain the goal of perfect law keeping and earn God’s approval.
As Christians few topics confuse us more than a good discussion on the law. For many of us we can’t even agree what Paul or James, for example, mean by the law. Do they mean everything in the Pentateuch or do we divide the law down into ceremonial, civil and the Ten Commandments? When Paul writes in Galatians 3:10a, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse,” what law is he referring to?
How do we equate Galatians 3:10 with Matthew 5:17, 18 where Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
When reading the Old Testament it doesn’t take long to discover God demands that His people are to keep the law. It was a sign of obedience and acceptance of the Covenant. But, it doesn’t take long to also realize that the people didn’t keep the laws. When Moses gave the commandments to the people they promised to obey them. Almost at once, however, they forgot their promise and built a golden calf to be their god.
The law is a reflection of God’s character. It is a mirror of what God is like and how He relates to us. The New Testament writers are right when they say that the Law is good, pure, holy and right. The law (Ten Commandments) demands that if we are to have a proper relationship with God and our fellow man, then we are to keep the law so that sin will not separate us from God.
But here is the rub. This is where we end up arguing, debating and taking sides concerning the law. Like I mentioned earlier, many Christians believe that since God demanded the law to be kept in order to have fellowship with Him, then either on our own or through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit we must keep it. To people who think this way any of us who disagree with their interpretation are simply copping out and electing to follow, “cheap grace.”
On the other hand, there are many of us who believe though the Law is perfect, good and Holy, and God requires us to keep it, because of our sinful natures it is impossible and we see those who attempt to keep the law as “legalists”. It becomes an obstacle because it is an unattainable perfect standard.
I personally believe perfect keeping of a perfect law that reflects the character of God is impossible. If I could keep the law perfectly without ever making a mistake or erring in any way, not only in my actions but my thoughts, then would I not obtain perfection and be on the same level as God? It is for the very reason that the Law is the character of a perfect and Holy God that I believe I can’t keep it, because I fall far short of the character of God.
I have many sympathies for those who believe in the ability to keep the Law and fulfill the requirements of God’s commands. These Christians are very sincere and dedicated and many are a long ways from legalism. They simply believe that God can transform their weakness and failures regarding Law keeping into success through the inward dwelling of the Holy Spirit. For these brothers and sisters, Jesus is our example showing us through His perfect life as fully man (while His divinity lay dormant) that it is possible to have perfect obedience to all that the Father commands.
I agree that the law requires perfection of character, but I see the Law as bringing about the exact opposite of what it requires. Where the Law tells us that we must be perfect, it also shows us that we are not perfect. Paul reminds us in Romans 3:10-12, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.” Again in verse 21 he writes, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law and the prophets bear witness to it.” It is little wonder that later in Romans 3 he writes, “For no human being will be justified in His sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” v. 20
The Law points out my sin and shows me how far short of God I am. As a result of seeing myself in the light of the perfect and holy Law, I am driven to my knees at the foot of the Cross. It is because of grace that Paul can write in Romans 3 “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law,” and also writes, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? On the contrary we uphold the law.” v .28, 31
When we come to the Cross we understand our need of Christ because we can’t be perfect. We understand how much love and compassion Jesus has for us that He became our substitute, living the perfect life that we couldn’t and dying the death that we deserve for our failures. It is no wonder Paul could cry out, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin.” Romans 7:7
The problem is not with the Law but with us. We are the ones who fail to obtain and keep the Law because of our sinful natures. The Law’s job is to point out our sin. It is only when we come face to face with the character of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments that we understand our fallen nature and our need of the grace of God to redeem us. How wondrous are Paul’s words, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Romans 7:14 The reason sin has no dominion over us is because we have surrendered our rebellion and sin to Jesus at the foot of the cross. He imparted His righteousness to us, declaring us righteous, and He took our sins upon Himself thus paying the penalty for our sins and giving the free gift of salvation to us at the same time. Only Jesus, my substitute, makes that possible.
What joy the penitent thief on the cross must have experienced when Jesus, God of the Universe, hanging next to him declared, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43 There were no years of law keeping or striving for perfection for this man. Instead, he understood the simple truth that he deserved to die for his sins but Jesus did not deserve to die because He was sinless. (v. 41) He understood Jesus was His substitute, and His Savior through the grace of the loving God of the Universe. The thief on the Cross, the Philippian jailor, Lydia seller of purple, the Demoniac, the man at the pool of Bethesda, the ten lepers and the Ethiopian eunuch along with you and me and countless millions of others have all found redemption through the grace of God at the foot of the cross.
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live;’ but the law does not rest on faith, for ‘he who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us.” Galatians 3:10-13a What more could Paul say?