By Mike Willis
The word nomos which is generally translated “law” appears a number of times in the New Testament. The greatest concentration of references to the law occur in Romans and Galatians, as one familiar with the theme of these two books would expect.
Law Before Moses
Inasmuch as sin is the transgression of the law of God (1 Jn. 3:4), where there is no law, there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 5:13). Without divine law, sin is dead (Rom. 2:8). If there was ever a period during which man had no law from God, there would have been no sin committed.
Consequently, we see that some law from God existed from creation. Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden. Others were guilty of sin prior to the giving of the law of Moses. Hence, Paul wrote, “For until the law (of Moses) sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed where there is no law” (Rom. 5:13).
Furthermore, the Gentiles , were under law to God, though not under obligation to obey the law of Moses. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is designed to show that the Gentiles rejected God’s revelation and turned to lawless conduct. In summation of his argument in chapter 3, Paul stated that he had proved that “both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin” (Rom. 3:9). If the Gentiles were sinners (which they were), they were under a law of some kind from God.
Whatever law the world in general was under prior to God revealing a special law through Moses was the law under which the Gentiles lived until the Christ came. They were guilty of sin because they violated that law.
The Covenant And The Law
Some people tend to confuse God’s covenant with the Law of Moses. Let us remember that God established His covenant with Abraham, promising that through his seed all families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), over four hundred years before the law came.
In Galatians 3:15-18, Paul affirmed that once a covenant is made between two parties, new conditions cannot be added.
Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise (Gal. 3:15-18).
Hence, one becomes an heir of God, not through the law, but through the covenant. Salvation comes through the covenant, with its perfect forgiveness of sin, not through mere law-keeping, with a perfect life void of all sin. In Romans 4:14, Paul, emphasized this same point; he said, “For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect” (Rom. 4:14).
Understanding this, one can see that man has never been acceptable to God on the basis of perfect law-keeping. A law system of salvation never has been used for justification. If it had been used for justification, no one could have been saved.
The law of Moses was never thought of as other than divine in origin. The law came from God; Moses only repeated what God revealed to him. “It was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Gal. 2:19). Hence, the law of Moses was the law of God.
The Law’s Demand of Perfect Obedience
The greatest concern for the book of Galatians is with reference to the law conceived as a system of justification. Paul contrasts salvation by works of obedience to the law with salvation by faith through grace in both Romans and Galatians. To understand the theme of these books, one must understand the contrast intended by Paul and his usage of the word law.
The law promised salvation to the man who obeyed its commandments. Paul stated,
For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified (Rom. 2:13).
For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them (Rom. 10:5).
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them (Gal. 3:10).
Hence, life is promised to the man who obeys the law of God whereas the curse of the law falls upon the disobedient.
The law never was intended as man’s means of justification. No one has ever been justified by a flawless life of law-keeping. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is that no one was ever expected to be justified by perfect obedience. The case of Abraham, who was justified by faith, was cited to show that God has always justified man by faith and not through perfect obedience to the Mosaical law (or any other law for that matter). Hence, Paul said, “For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect” (Rom. 4:13-14). Similarly, he added, “But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness” (Rom. 9:31). In Galatians, Paul added the following:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified (2:16).
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith (3:10-11).
What was true of the Mosaical law is true of any law. No one can be saved by perfect obedience to law inasmuch as none of us are perfect keepers of the law; we all have sinned, have become transgressors of the law, are lying under the curse of the law, and are doomed to damnation. If law could justify, there would have been no need of anything except the law of Moses; “for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Gal. 2:21).
Inasmuch as all men are guilty of sin, the law left man in a condemned and doomed condition. It worked wrath (Rom. 4:15); it brought death (Rom. 7:5); it left man in a wretched condition (Rom. 7:24); it left man under a curse (Gal. 3:10-11); it left all men under sin (Gal. 3:22); it left all men in prison to sin (Gal. 3:23). Hence, it was a yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1). Peter described the law as a “yoke” which “neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The law of commandments contained in ordinances was enmity (Eph. 2:15). The very strength of sin was the law (1 Cor. 15:56). The law was unable to deliver us from the bondage of sin (Rom. 8:3). It could not justify (Gal. 3:21); it made nothing perfect (Heb. 7:19). Those under the law needed redemption (Gal. 4:5).
No one could live a perfect life. All men have sinned (Rom. 3:23). Jesus alone has lived a life of perfect obedience to the law. He came to this world, being subject to the law (Gal. 4:4). Though tempted in all points, He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). He was able to meet all of the law’s demands. Having lived a perfect life, He was qualified as a Lamb without blemish (1 Pet. 1:19) to be offered for the sins of the world.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was needed in order to deliver mankind from sin. Hence, Paul preached, “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sin: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). Notice that the Law could not justify man (whether the Mosaical law or any other law; for surely no law of human origin could do what the Law of Moses could not do).
The demands of the law cannot be met by me living a perfect life, inasmuch as I am guilty of sin.-However, the demands of the law can be met by the shed blood of Christ; hence, the “righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). Christ is the end of the law of righteousness (Rom. 10:4).
If the law could not justify, why was it given?
Why Was The Law Given?
There are several statements in the New Testament which reveal the purpose of the law. Paul said, for example, that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). We need to look at several of these statements to see God’s purpose in sending His law.
1. The law revealed sin to man. The only way in which man could know what sin is was through the revelation of God. Paul said, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). “By the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In this sense, the law made offences to abound (Rom. 5:20). The law “was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19).
When we look at this aspect of law, we appreciate the fact that God has given a law to mankind. The only thing that makes murder, rape, stealing, etc. sinful is that God has said, “Thou shalt not.” Without a revelation from God, we would not understand these things to be sinful for “where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom. 4:15). Hence, the existence of a law makes certain things sinful; the revelation of the law manifests to man what things displease God. God’s law is not transmitted in man’s physical nature by conception and birth any more than the guilt of sin is thusly transmitted. Special divine revelation is required in order for man to know right from wrong. Hence, the law revealed to man what sin is.
2. The law revealed the correct way of life to man. Even as the law revealed sin to man, it also revealed righteousness to man. The “law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12). It was ordained to life (Rom. 7:10); that is, it was ordained to reveal the way of life to man.
As a Christian, I look upon the law of God, not as a yoke of bondage which is grievous to be borne (though were I trying to be saved through perfect obedience to law, I would probably so consider it), but as a revelation of how God wants me to live. The law reveals to me the kind of conduct which God approves and wants me to manifest in my life.
We can see therefore a two-fold purpose of the law. It was given to hold the wicked in check (1 Tim. 1:8-10) and to reveal the proper conduct in life for the righteous. For this reason, one can understand why Paul listed the giving of the law of Moses as one of the blessed privileges given to the nation of Israel (Rom. 9:4).
3. The law brought one to Christ. The law was added because of transgressions (Gal. 3:19). Its temporary nature was seen in that it was to last until “the Seed” (Christ) should come. Hence, the law was “our (the Jew’s) schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Paul told Timothy that the Sacred Writings (the Old Testament) was able to “make thee wise unto salvation which is in Christ Jesus”(2 Tim. 3:15).
4. The law typified the work of Christ. Through types and shadows, the Mosaical law foretold and explained the great work of Christ in the redemption of mankind. The book of Hebrews demonstrates this usage of the law in detail by comparing Christ to the Levitical priest and the sacrifice in Levitical worship. Without the ordinances of the law, we would have trouble understanding how Jesus is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin, of the world” (Jn. 1:29).
Truth Magazine XXIV: 10, pp. 163-165
March 6, 1980