Last week we looked at the idea that the Law is just a bunch of rules and that you have to follow to keep God happy, a divine checklist as it were (see Love Your Wife…Check). And I argued that this is a terrible way of viewing the Law. In the Law itself, God is much more concerned about the hearts of his people and whether they are living out of their love for him. We make a tragic mistake whenever we think that God’s relationship to Israel was fundamentally grounded in their ability to follow his rules. Once we begin to believe that, it becomes very easy to think that maybe he relates that way to us today.
But if the Law isn’t a list of Do’s and Don’ts that God’s people were supposed to follow in order to be his people, what exactly is the Law there for? What does the Law do?
1. The Law Manifests God’s Glory
At the very least, the Law shows us God’s holiness. Most Christians I know avoid reading Leviticus. “It’s boring,” they complain. “It’s just a bunch of rules and regulations.” Ah, but it’s so much more. Sit down and read through Leviticus some time. But don’t focus on the specific details of each Law. Instead, notice what the book as a whole reveals about God. He is pure, holy, and righteous. He cannot and will not abide sin and pollution in his good creation. And wanting the best for his people, he calls us to the same standard: “You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:45).
2. The Law Reveals Our Brokenness
At the same time, however, the Law shows us how desperately sinful we are. Over and over again the Law points out all of the different ways that we become polluted with sin and need to be cleansed—our thoughts, our actions, and even the actions of people around us and the things that just happen in the normal course of life (e.g. Lev. 4-5; 15; Num. 35). Reading through the Law, you begin to wonder how anyone could go a single day without being corrupted by sin in some way. And that’s just the point. You can’t. The Law doesn’t free God’s people from sin; only he can do that. Instead, God’s law reveals to us how desperately sinful we are (Rom. 3:20; 5:20; 7:7-8).
3. The Law Demonstrates God’s Grace
Fortunately, the Law doesn’t stop with revealing that God is holy and we are sinful. If that were the case, the Law would be terrible news! As we have already seen, everyone who lives east of Eden has been corrupted by sin and no longer loves God as they ought. How can a sinful people live up to the impossibly high standard of a perfectly holy God? Even the Law’s focus on love would be bad news. How can anyone “love the Lord your God with all your heart,” when our hearts have been corrupted by sin?
But the Law doesn’t stop here. It goes on to reveal that despite our sin, God remains gracious, faithful, and loving. The mere fact that God continues to speak to his people, engaging them in meaningful relationship and holding them accountable for living up to the expectations of that relationship is an expression of grace. But he goes further; he promises to give them the heart that they need (Deut. 6:5; 30:2; Ezek. 36:26). God knows that what his people need is a total and complete transformation. If they are truly to be his people, loving him with all of their heart, and manifesting his glory throughout creation, they need to be reshaped, reworked, and remolded in his image. And he promises just that.
4. The Law Marks God’s People
Finally, when we hear the word “holy,” we often think in moral terms. To live a “holy” life, means to life a life of moral purity and uprightness. And that’s definitely true. But there’s another meaning of the term that is even more important. To be “holy” also means being “set apart” for God. That’s what the Bible has in mind when it calls the things in the tabernacle—lampstands, tables, etc.—“holy” (Num. 10:21). Obviously this doesn’t mean that these lampstands lived particularly pure lives. But a lampstand can be holy in the sense that it has been set apart for God, to be used in his temple. Although that may still be a table, it is now fundamentally different from any other because it is God’s table. It has been set apart—it is holy.
The Law makes God’s people holy in this sense. It doesn’t actually make them morally pure or righteous—just read the Old Testament; God’s people stay pretty messed up even after they get the Law. But it does identify them as God’s people, clearly marking them as the people through whom God is at work to accomplish his plan in the world. God even goes so far as to give them a different way of dressing and eating to make it absolutely clear that these are his people.
The Law Was a Gift
So, far from being a list of rules and regulations that Israel needed to follow in order to be saved, the law becomes an expression of grace: revealing God in his holiness and our desperate need for cleansing, demonstrating the incredible truth that God freely and graciously offers this cleansing to his people through faith, and marking this people as God’s own—his agents in the world, through whom he will accomplish his plans and purposes for all of creation.
Israel became God’s people by grace. They did nothing to earn it. God simply chose them and then freely entered into a meaningful relationship with them. The Law came later to express God’s desire for how that relationship should be lived, nurtured, and displayed in the world. Once again it’s important to realize that we’re telling a story about grace. Any other story is not Gospel.
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.