“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (English Standard Version, Matt. 5:17). These are the words of Christ, who brought the gospel of grace to the world. One might would expect the law to be antithetical to the gospel, but that is not the attitude of Christ toward it. The Lord says, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Upon examining the Scriptures, one can see that the law, given by Moses, was given to aid God’s covenant people in the Old and New Testaments toward holiness by faith rather than prideful legalism.
It is necessary that the law should do this. It reveals the holiness of God, what man must do to walk in a manner pleasing to his Creator, man’s inability to comply with such holy standards, and the necessity of faith in One who can set man in the right before God and walk according to His statues. Something must happen in the heart of man to cause him to keep the commands of God. After Christ fulfilled the demands of the law and was punished in accordance with the sins of the people of God, He sent the Holy Spirit to “put [His] laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). Understanding this, it would be highly erroneous for the church to consider the law of God as nonessential, irrelevant, or a hinderance to the gospel or to Christian living. One must set their eyes on Christ who can deliver them from the sins revealed to them by the law. Once they have been born again, they are to walk in accordance to the will of God as revealed in the law and expounded on in the New Testament. Only in this way will one be holy before God.
Holiness is the primary goal of God’s covenant dealings with His people. This is evident in the repetition of God’s statement in the Pentateuch, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Holiness is defined as “pertaining to being unique and pure in the sense of superior moral qualities and possessing certain essential divine qualities in contrast with what is human” (Swanson 7705). When the Lord was bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt, He said to them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). God made it clear that what made the people holy, what set them apart from all the other nations of the earth, was obeying His law. Why did this make Israel holy? God answers, “[F]or I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). God made Israel His people and, being such, they were to show forth His likeness.
Is the same true of the church? Peter answers in the affirmative, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pt. 1:14-15). Peter quotes from Leviticus to make it clear that obedience to the law of God is not abolished with the New Covenant. He does not mean that all the ceremonial laws to be followed so one can be holy in the New Covenant, but rather writes, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pt. 1:22). It is made evident by Peter and throughout the Scriptures that the end of the law, which is holiness, can be summarily described as loving God and loving others.
The law requires God’s people to love Him and their neighbors. The law says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). It should be understood that one must love the Lord with their whole being, with all they do and all they are. How does the law describe what this looks like? It says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children” (Deut. 6:6-7). Doing them and teaching others, especially the children of Israel, is the manner one was to love God under the Old Covenant. It had to not only be done by outward obedience, but also as a matter of the heart. One’s affections had to be honest and right toward God in order for their compliance with His statutes to be acceptable in His eyes.
John, in his first epistle, makes it clear that the same requirement in Deuteronomy is required of the church under the New Covenant as well. He writes, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected” (1 Jn. 2:4-5). One’s love for God is perfected, or completed, by keeping His commandments. John goes on to say, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn. 2:5-6). As Christ taught that whoever obeyed the law and taught others to do them would be “called great in the kingdom of heaven,” so John is carrying out his role as the apostle of Christ and is teaching others to obey the law of God (Matt. 5:19). Such instruction in law-keeping is understandable in light of Calvin’s explanation of the nature of the law, “If it is true that in the law we are taught the perfection of righteousness, this also follows: the complete observance of the law is perfect righteousness before God” (351).
The Scriptures in no way state one can be sinless when it says that keeping God’s commandments is how God’s people walk in holiness. In fact, the law leads to a dependence on God’s grace for obedience. The psalmist who wrote Psalm 119 understood this well. He first makes it clear that true righteousness is found in keeping the law. He writes, “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD” (Ps. 119:1). Following this he writes, “Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works” (Ps. 119:27). He also adds, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Ps. 119:34). The Psalmist, who has studied the law rigorously, is petitioning God to grant him understanding so he can keep the law of God. It is noteworthy that he includes “with my whole heart” (Ps. 119:34). He later writes, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain” (Ps. 119:36). It is clear that he understands keeping the law is a matter of the heart as well as the head, and the only way one is conditioned to do so is by the grace of God.
Paul, like the Psalmist, understood that the law directs the child of God toward the grace of God to keep it. After briefly stating the difference in relationships to the law between the saved person and the lost person, he writes, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7). The law exposes sin and shows the sinner how utterly sinful they are by exposing their sinful passions. Paul then clarifies the reason why the law has this effect on people, “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14). Before regeneration, the sinner is considered as “flesh.” Paul explains, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). Seeking to obey the law while in the flesh is futile, then. As the law continually rouses the sinful passions in defiance to the law of God, it reveals the depravity of man and points to a Savior.
That is what God has intended the law to do. Paul writes:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.(Rom. 8:3-4).
What does it mean to walk by the Spirit? For one, Paul writes, “[I]f by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Additionally, Peter explains in his second epistle, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21). It is by the Holy Spirit that the Scriptures were written and given so God’s people could walk in His will. This is why God said of the New Covenant that He would “put [His] laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts” (Heb. 8:10). The law comes to the lost sinner and convicts them of their sin and points them to Christ. It is God who regenerates them, otherwise they will not come to Him. When they have been born again, God then causes them, by the Spirit, to walk in His ways in increasing measures.
This was why the Pharisees, who were the most studious readers of the law, were wicked sinners. Jesus said of them, “[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). They never sought the righteousness of God by faith, but “as if it were based on works” (Rom. 9:32). The Psalmist of Psalm 119 was more righteous than the Pharisees because he understood the righteousness of God could not be gained by keeping the law perfectly, but by faith in God’s grace. The works of the law are carried out by grace through faith in Christ who did carry them out perfectly. It is as John writes in his Gospel, “But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John. 3:21).
It is only by the working of the Holy Spirit that the law leads one to holiness in the keeping of the law by faith. Apart from the Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures, the law will only condemn. One must love God in order to keep His law. Fuller writes:
If we are destitute of the Holy Spirit, we are blind to the loveliness of the Divine character, and destitute of any true love to God in our hearts; and if destitute of this, we shall not be able to see the reasonableness of that law which requires love to him with all the heart.Fuller (139)
Without the Holy Spirit, one will only seek to establish a self-righteousness that claims holiness but is idolatry in the name of godliness. It is only through a faith that is dependent on the work of Christ applied by the Holy Spirit through the Word that leads to holiness. That is why the law is still necessary. The law keeps believers from living in sin and rebellion to God while thinking they are accepted by Him. It also removes pride and keeps believers humble by reminding them only God can give them the ability to walk in obedience to Him with their whole hearts. The law must be a present guide towards that which is pleasing to God so it redirects believer’s hearts towards Him in faith. The regenerated soul will bear witness with the law and be revived to worship God with one’s heart to the praise of His glorious grace.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion: Volumes 1 & 2. Edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
English Standard Version. Crossway, 2016.
Fuller, Andrew Gunton. The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. Edited by Joseph Belcher, vol. 1, Sprinkle Publications, 1988.
Swanson, James. Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testaments). 2nd ed., Logos Research Team, 2001.