The more I study the Old Testament law, the more I am amazed at our merciful God.
(Don’t believe me? Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan)
Paul explains it all in a few short verses. Having demolished any believer’s excuse for practicing Judaism or upholding Old Testament law/tradition, he indulges the question that he knows he’s put in everyone’s mind:
What purpose then does the law serve? (3:19a)
It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. (3:19b)
But before the law, there was no law, but God has always been the same. His law is not about pointless rites and rituals, but about shaping us into holiness so that we can be with Him. Paul makes the case in Romans that God’s attributes are clearly seen in His creation, and we are all responsible for acknowledging Him. Written in stone or not, God has always been the same, which means the requirements have always been the same.
So the law was added because we broke God’s law. To make it as easy as possible, He spelled it out for us.
He goes on:
But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. (3:22-24)
Scripture has confined us all under sin because scripture revealed our sin, and we kept on in it. We’re held accountable to it. We’re trapped under it.
Why? So that the promise of righteousness by faith in Jesus – the promise that we will be made righteous before God if we believe in Christ and His sacrifice that serves as payment for our offenses – could be given. Because you can’t rescue a man who thinks he’s free.
Before Jesus came and made this opportunity available, the law guarded us. From what? From ourselves – our own tendencies and habits and desires for sin. We will go to great lengths sometimes to justify our actions, to get what we want, but when sin is clearly spelled out, the boundaries are drawn and we are saved from ourselves (until we willfully decide to ignore those boundaries).
The law guarded us until faith would be revealed. Not made available, but shown, unveiled, demonstrated. Because righteousness by faith has always been available – Abraham found it. But God was going to make it really plain in Christ.
So then, the law was a teacher whose goal was to lead us to Christ.
Why, then, was the law added? Review:
- To protect us from ourselves before Christ came.
- To teach us what He looks like, so we would recognize Him and be saved by faith.
None of which should have been necessary.
God reveals Himself in creation. People have found him there without scriptures. And righteousness has always been rooted in faith. Job found it. Abraham and the patriarchs found it. Moses found it. Just believe.
But because our hearts are hard and greedy, God – in His mercy – designed a law code that would do two things. It would, on the one hand, create a society moving toward His image and protect us from our tendency toward destruction. On the one hand, the law was a playpen for toddlers.
On the other, the law revealed God’s character and nature, and the promise of righteousness by faith, so that when the Messiah came, His people would recognize Him and have faith in Him. Not so He could start a new religion, but so that we could be made holy and be with Him.
The Old Testament law is not a tome of rules and regulations meant to keep people on a short leash. It’s mercy. It’s God’s endless, amazing mercy – in guarding us, and preparing us. What more could He possibly do?