God Did What…?! The Relationship between the Law and the Gospel

Two weeks ago many of you had the opportunity to be a part of our second night of equipping and training where we talked about “God Did What…?!” During that evening we discussed why some of the bizarre stories in the Old Testament matter and how they also point to the major covenants found throughout the Old Testament. If you did not get a chance to be a part of that evening we have the podcast, notes, and hand out online for you to check out. You can find the resources here. As I prepared for the evening I knew I would not be able to answer all of your questions; however, I wanted you still to have an opportunity to ask your questions and get some answers. So everyone that night received an index card where they could write their questions. I’ve selected six questions, some wacky and some serious, to answer for you.

The first question I am going to answer is based on two questions people asked. Here are the questions:

How were people saved before the Law was given?
Since Jesus said he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and we are made righteous through faith, what of God’s Old Testament Law does he still desire for us to keep?

Both of these questions are directly related to one another. At the heart of the issue is the question of the relationship between the Law and Gospel. This has been a major debate for hundreds of years. Unfortunately no consensus exists between theologians and pastors on the relationship between the two. In order to understand the relationship between the Law and Gospel we need to look at two passages in particular: Romans 3-4 and Galatians 3-4.

In Romans 3:20 Paul writes “for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In Galatians 3:11 Paul also writes “now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’” A few verses later he writes “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:24-26). These verses provide us with an important truth: the Law has never and will never save anyone. Rather, what Paul says is that the law was a “guardian,” which gives us knowledge of our sin. What he means is that the Law defined sin, restrained sin, and also increased sin. So the Law vividly shows us that we are sinners in need of salvation.

If the Law has never saved people then how were the Israelites saved when God gave them the Law? Here it is important to understand covenant in the Old Testament. Whenever God made a covenant with people, it was for a redemptive relationship. Salvation never came through the obligations the people were required to keep (like the Law).
Rather, what brought salvation was the relationship which God created with the people. Throughout the Old Testament there is a phrase which God repeats over and over again. He says “I will take you to be my people and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). What God is saying is that he alone is creating a relationship with his people and therefore saving them. Nothing the people did or do can save them. Only God can save. The Law, however, was important. Although it did not save the people, it did perpetuate or continue the covenant God made with his people. When the people broke their covenant with God there was discipline as well as consequences. Still, that does not mean God did not save them.

This brings us to our first question: How were people saved before the Law was given? If the Law never saved anyone when it was given, then the Law never saved anyone prior to it being given. Paul actually answers this question in Romans 4:13. He writes “for the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” In another place Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 where the text states “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” So even Abraham was not saved by the Law. Rather he was saved because God chose to have a relationship with him and through faith Abraham trusted God. Abraham’s faith to God’s initiative to create a relationship with him saved Abraham.

We now need to answer our second question: Since Jesus said he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, and we are made righteous through faith, what of God’s Old Testament Law does he still desire for us to keep? First, it is true that Jesus came to fulfill rather than abolish the Law. He says this very thing in Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In the past when someone has written on the Old Testament Law, they have have often subdivided the Law into three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. This leads many to conclude that Jesus fulfilled the civil and ceremonial law and therefore these are no longer necessary. The moral law still applies because Jesus continued to teach these and in fact reinterpreted them (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7).

So what do we do with the Law. Basically two options exist. The Law is either discontinued or it is continued. If it is to be continued most believe that the moral law is to be followed and the other laws are to be principalized (i.e. the principle behind the law should be discovered). Jesus has without a doubt fulfilled the Law. Therefore we are no longer under the Law. Rather, in Christ we are new creations filled with the Holy Spirit. We follow the moral law not because we are following the Law but because we are bearing fruit in relation to the Spirit living within us. When we have the Holy Spirit we will love God and love others (the basic understanding of the Law) because it is a natural result of being filled by the Spirit. Therefore in a sense we are living according to the moral law, not because we are following the Law but because we are living in the Spirit. So live by the Spirit!

If you would like to read more about the Law and the Gospel check out Five Views on Law and Gospel.

Next week we will be answering another one of your questions from “God Did What…?!