4 Things the Law Does for God’s People (What’s the Law For, Part 2)

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.

2 thoughts on “4 Things the Law Does for God’s People (What’s the Law For, Part 2)

  1. I really couldn’t agree with you on your understanding of the Law. In any way, at all. Christians are new creatures in Christ. We have a new nature which is embryonically made in the image of Christ. As with any embryo, growth is the key to maturity.God’s Perfection is already a possession but not yet fully manifested to outsiders. We are already seated in Heavenly places in Christ Jesus and it does not yet appear what we shall be but when we see Him we shall be (fully) like Him!

    Such transformation can never come by observing the Law only by “seeing “Christ, that is by faith. In fact, the Law retards the growth of the Christian. And it’s not just the ceremonial Law we are speaking of but the heavy lifting part, the moral part of the Law. Paul said in Galatians that observing the ceremonial Law in circumcision, obligated one to keep thewhole Law. Thus he showed that the Law is a unit and cannot be divided.

    Since the new creations never sins, the Holy Spirit can forever reside within. Otherwise, He would have to vacate every time we sin and then come back in every time we repented and asked forgiveness. This ping-pong ball understanding is the residual effect of misunderstanding the place of the Christian. That is, we perfect new creations have been placed in Christ. Is there any sin in Christ? Perish the thought! Thus God always sees us in Christ. If that makes anyone want to rush out and whoop it up, they have fallen from grace at the least, meaning that they are not operating with the grace principal in mind.

    Our sin was seperated forever from us in the Person of Christ when He was seperated from God on the cross. We do sin experientaly as the old nature is still seeking to conquer us and take back its former position as leader of our little set-up. The struggle is often seen as defeat by the uniformed but the Risen Christ provides Hiw Word, His Spirit and His Presence via the Holy Spirit to continue our maturation.

    So we don’t need the Law; it can only condemn no matter how one seeks to honor it or obey it. It is not needed for guidence since we have the Spirit and the Word in how to grow and serve. What we do need is constant cleansing of the water of the Word so that we can be ministered to by Christ often through other Christians. A thorough reading and understanding of Galatians will re-enforce what I’m writing here.
    It’s well to remember that Abraham was saved and sanctified 430 years before thye Law was given. He had the testimony of God that God was pleased with him through faith. The Law is NOT of faith! “Are you a teacher in Israel and know not these things?” 🙂

    The law of life in Christ Jesus has freed me from the Law of sin and death” God bless, Dennis


    1. Marc,
      Dennis’s response shows us why we needed a class at Western that clearly and thoroughly taught how to distinguish between Law and Grace in Scripture. Failure to make this distinction leads to a serious and negligent perversion of the Gospel. Your take on your post was right on in terms of defining for us what the law does and what it’s purpose is for both believer’s and unbelievers.

      I can’t tell you how many times I have heard pastors mutilate this distinction in their sermons — which does nothing to serve their flock but confuse a most significant issue. This issue was of MAJOR concern to the Puritans and Reformers who were adamant about clearly making this distinction. I have articulated how the Puritans have resolved this rather complex discussion on a post on my blog if you are interested http://blogthebliss.blogspot.com/2012/05/sermon-on-mount-law-or-gospel.html

      Rather than respond in detail to Dennis’ post it might be best to simply stay here with a few of his concerns. Your post did not suggest anywhere that as Christians we are ‘justified’ by the law, which Dennis seems to be contending it did, (your post being perfectly in line with Calvin by the way, as stated below):

      “Christians therefore remain subject to the Law, but not in the same way that the Jews used to be… The first aspect of Christian freedom then, is the liberation of the Christian from any care about the Law so far as his justification is concerned. Likewise, expressing the same as Luther, “the other part of Christian freedom, which depends upon the foregoing is this: it inclines the conscience to observe the Law, not at all as constrained by the necessity of the Law, but that, being delivered from the Law, they are freely obedient [of their own choice] to the will of God … never will they be firmly determined to obey the will of God voluntarily and with an open heart unless they have first obtained that deliverance [Instit. III, 19,4].

      However, the Law does serve a purpose in the believer’s life in this way:
      “…it is in the Law that the believer will continue to know the will of God, at the same time as in the Gospel. To be in conformity with it [His will], then, one has only to contemplate it in the Law, where God has made it explicit.”

      This use of the law for the regenerate is thoroughly delineated in the Westminster Confession, chapter 19, below:

      It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin:[16] and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.[17] The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof:[18] although not as due to them by the law as a covenant of works.[19] So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one, and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and, not under grace.[20]

      16. James 2:11-12; Psa. 119:101, 104, 128
      17. Ezra 9:13-14; Psa. 89:30-34; Gal. 3:13
      18. Exod. 19:5-6; Deut. 5:33; Lev. 18:5; 26:1-13; Matt. 5:5; 19:17; II Cor. 6:16; Eph. 6:2-3; Psa. 19:11; 37:11
      19. Gal. 2:16; Luke 17:10
      20. Rom. 6:12-15; cf. I Peter 3:8-12 with Psa. 34:12-16; Heb. 12:28-29

      Finally, the Law actually does serve us in guiding us toward the perfect will of God for our lives as is clearly taught in these Scripture references.

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