Sunday, March 17, 2013

Law and Grace (4) Not Legalism

A common assumption that the Old Testament law was a system of salvation by works is wrong. The law was not a system of rules to make people perfect, it was set of laws that would allow a diverse group of people to live together in relative harmony. The law could not resolve all problems between people, but it restrained the worst behaviours that would divide and destroy the community. That is all that law can do.

No system of laws is capable of perfecting people. Even perfect laws cannot make people perfect. Only the cross and the gospel have that power. God did not give the law in attempt to turn his people into better people, because that would have failed, and he does not do failure. He gave the law to restrain the very worst sins of theft and violence. That was all that could be done before the cross, and that was all he God intended.

Moses understood that the law could not make people perfect. Near the end of his life he said,

The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deut 29:6).
Moses was a prophet. He was looking forward to a time when God would give his people a new heart, so that they could love him fully. This prophecy was fulfilled by the ministry of Jesus. Moses probably did not understand what Jesus would do, but he knew that his people needed a new heart. He knew that law could not change human hearts. The best that law could do was to limit the worst effects of sin, so that people could live together without fighting and destroying each other.

Humans have a tendency to try to prove their righteousness by creating a set of rules and struggling to abide by them. These efforts always fail, but this kind of legalism has been common in every age. The Pharisees twisted the Laws of Moses into a set or rules that they could use to prove their righteousness. Jesus rebuked them for this. He said that they had distorted God’s law by transforming it into the traditions of man. They had placed a burden on the people that they could not keep.
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt 23:4).
God never uses law in the way because he realises that it would always fail. He knows that no one can become righteous by complying with a set of rules. When God gave the law, he was not giving a set of rules that people must keep to be righteous. He had a far more sensible objective. He was giving a set of laws that would restrain behaviour sufficiently to prevent the community from tearing itself apart. The law was not given to make people righteous. It was given to unrighteous people to keep them from harming each other.

The law was a grace system, not a works system.

1 comment:

Kublai7777 said...

there is much confusion about legalism and grace. Some have taken the idea is that you have discussed here and concluded that all the laws and regulations in the Pentateuch no longer carry any weight or authority. Instead, they teach that we are now and age of grace which is ruled by the holy spirit. Some have even taken this teaching further and concluded that there is no need for scripture anymore since the holy spirit fulfils that role and replaces it completely. Therefore it is common to hear people talk about "being led by the spirit." in practice it becomes a random walk along the path marked out by capricious feelings. I think this is probably why God gave us the scriptures in writing.