Christ and Old Testament Law

“If I am good enough, a good God would not condemn me.” I hear this type of statement quite often as I interact with people who have not believed specifically in Christ, and there are a couple problems with the statement. First of all, how are we to know what it means to be good? Even in our day, there is much disagreement about what good is. For instance, there are some who believe that it is good to give women the choice to have an abortion while others believe that it is good to make abortion completely illegal. There are some who believe it is good to force others to either buy health insurance or pay a fine, and others who believe it is good for people to have the freedom to choose for themselves without a government penalty. In fact, here is one of the great contradictions of our day: many who argue that women should have the choice to either have an abortion or not also want to force everyone into a health insurance plan. We cannot be both pro choice and not pro choice. There are some who believe it is good to wage war when it is justified and others who believe it is good to be entirely passive. There are some who believe it is good to hunt and to fish and others who believe it is good to preserve the life of every living thing. How are we to know what is truly good? If we cannot arrive at some definitive answer, then we cannot possibly know if we have earned condemnation or not, according to the statement above.



Second, we assume that God grants justification based on our goodness or our ability to be good. If in the beginning (or closer to the beginning than now) God punished humankind for choosing to pursue knowledge on their own (Genesis 3) and, as a result, people were separated from God, what causes us to ever think that by pursuing goodness on our own we could ever correct the sin of self dependance? If humankind earned separation from God by relying on self, it cannot ever return to God by relying on self. It is nonsensical to think this way.

It is why the prophet Isaiah wrote that “All of us have become like something unclean,

and all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment; all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities carry us away like the wind” (Isaiah 64:6 HCSB).

This is an idea that is so heavy for us to deal with. Before we get to the text at hand, I need to provide some background. Jesus was teaching his disciples, which at this point in his ministry were numerous. He taught that it was Him and Him alone that could provide sustenance. He was in this culture that relied on ritual worship, on the sacrificial system, and on human ability to keep the whole law. When I refer to the law, here, I mean the Old Testament Law. Jesus, who was a Jew, was speaking to those who followed Him, also Jews, and basically saying that people cannot be justified before God by keeping the whole degree of the Law. Instead, Jesus argued, they had to place their utter faith in Him. Please take the time to read the story in the first part of John, chapter 6.

There is one thing we need to realize about the Old Testament Law before moving forward. Many preachers and teachers will exclaim without a second thought that it is by the keeping of the Law that the Israelites were justified before God. This cannot be further from the truth. The sacrificial system did not literally commute the sins of people to the sacrificial animal. The keeping of the law did not save people or justify people before God in the Old Testament era. This, again, is why Isaiah states that all of Israel’s good works, which were measured according to the law, were like filthy garments. When we read the Old Testament, we tend to focus only on the commands that are given without focussing on why they are given. In Exodus 19, before the description of the Ten Commandments given to the nation of Israel, Moses describes the why:

Moses went up the mountain to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain: “This is what you must say to the house of Jacob, and explain to the Israelites: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now if you will listen to Me and carefully keep My covenant, you will be My own possession out of all the peoples, although all the earth is Mine, and you will be My kingdom of priests and My holy nation.’ These are the words that you are to say to the Israelites.”

After Moses came back, he summoned the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. Then all the people responded together, “We will do all that the Lord has spoken.” So Moses brought the people’s words back to the Lord (Exodus 19:3-8 HCSB).

Only after this does God proceed to give the Law. Here is what I notice: the Law was for the purpose of covenant between the people of Israel and God: That they would be God’s holy nation, through whom all nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). Secondly, the Law was only given after the people trusted in God. Thirdly, the Israelite nation agreed to receive the law from God after placing their faith in Him. So, we learn that the law was not the process by which God saved the people. God first brought people to Himself, and then gave the Law, not for the purpose of salvation or justification, but for the purpose of holiness and for the purpose of the covenant or agreement between the people and Himself.

This means that when the Israelites trusted in the Law to save them, they missed the point entirely. Obedience to the Law had no power if the people had not first trusted in God. Salvation or justification has never been possible through the works of people or the goodness of people. It has always been only God. This is why the teaching was difficult for the Jews. It meant that, possibly for centuries, the source of justification had been wrongly placed by people; and people do not like to admit when they are wrong.

My question is this: are we somehow fooled into thinking that God will bless us more when we are good enough or that we can, by some degree, earn our place with God? Do we, today, fall into the same false idea that many Jews were trapped by in the first century? After Christ taught that He was the ultimate sustaining power for all people, we arrive at our current text.

John 6:60-71 HCSB

Therefore, when many of His disciples heard this, they said, “This teaching is hard! Who can accept it?”

Jesus, knowing in Himself that His disciples were complaining about this, asked them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to observe the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? The Spirit is the One who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some among you who don’t believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning those who would not believe and the one who would betray Him.) He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father.”

From that moment many of His disciples turned back and no longer accompanied Him. Therefore Jesus said to the Twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?”

Simon Peter answered, “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God!”

Jesus replied to them, “Didn’t I choose you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is the Devil!” He was referring to Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, one of the Twelve, because he was going to betray Him.

The flesh doesn’t help

It amazes me that many of the Jews had claimed to be scholars of the Law, yet glorified the Law more than they did faith in God. The Law became everything to the Jews, and they worshipped it to such a degree that they forgot to actually place their faith and their belief in God. In the midst of His teaching, Jesus made this statement to these Jews, “…the flesh doesn’t help at all.”

At this juncture in the story, Christ had not yet given Himself on the cross. He had not yet paid the penalty for all sin. The Sacrificial system was still in place. The ritual that was part of the Law still had great bearing on the lives of the Jews. God’s covenant with Abraham had not yet been fulfilled, and yet Jesus exclaimed that the flesh (or the ritual works of the flesh) did not help. This was a hard teaching because the Jews had depended on ritual worship for so long and Jesus was now telling them that it was worthless. It was not worthless for no reason. It was worthless because the Jews failed to have faith in God first. The covenant or agreement that was held together by the Law meant nothing if there was not first faith. It was faith that brought justification. It was faith by which eternal life was accepted. It was faith and grace through which God’s people were still saved. Without this faith in what God had promised, obedience to the Law was worthless.

Jesus had some other things to say about the Law. He did not consider it to be unimportant. For instance, in Matthew 5:17, Jesus implores the Jewish people, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For I assure you: Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished” (HCSB).

The law, then, was something that could be fulfilled according to Jesus. If we remember the reason for the existence of the Law, it was to be a sign of the covenant that all nations would be blessed through the nation of Israel. The Law itself was to set Israel apart from all other nations (to make it holy). If Christ came through the nation of Israel and it was by His death and resurrection that all nations were blessed, then God’s covenant with Israel was fulfilled in the person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Law was fulfilled in Christ because it was a sign of the covenant. Since the covenant has been fulfilled in Christ, there is no longer a nation that must fulfill a ritual contract to remain separate from the the world and holy as a national people. This may be why God’s people today find that it is okay not to keep some of the ritual and civic laws that were given as part of this covenental agreement, because the requirements of this covenant have now been completed and they were completed by God, not people.

God’s people don’t usually find it necessary today to abstain from eating bacon (Lev. 11:4-7), or from trimming our beards (Lev. 19:27). The ethic (moral standard) remains, but the Law has been fulfilled in Christ. God has honored His covenant, and this is the truth that the Old Testament Law points us to. It leads us directly to the person of Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant that God made with people. God did not depend on people to fulfill His covenant by keeping a perfect ritual code. He came and fulfilled His covenant on His own for His glory and for our benefit!

This truth remains: people were never justified or saved by works of the Law. The works of the Law were a sign of a covenant and a method by which God set apart an entire nation for the purpose of His glory and to fulfill His promise.

Here is what I learn: If people have never been saved by being good enough, then we cannot be saved or justified by being good enough. Sometimes we tend to think that if we can give enough of our money, have better attendance, do more good deeds, volunteer more, lead a ministry, feed the poor, etc… that we can earn our place with God. If God has never operated on the basis of human works, what makes us think that we can possibly please God with what we do? The works of the flesh do not help.

So, when it comes to something like tithing, we cannot think that tithing more will earn us a better place with God. Justification is and has always been by faith. If we believe in God, then we will yearn to do what He has called us to do. Thus, the measure of a person’s wallet is a good measure of his faith. The ones who tithe are usually those who have already trusted God with everything, and this applies also to the leadership of the church even if they are paid by the church. Those who do not tithe are usually the ones who are trying to hold something back from the God of the universe. It is no surprise, then, that Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 HCSB). Belief and faith must come before works or works are useless for us. It is by faith we live and work. It is not by living and working that we have faith. Similarly it is by faith that we make sacrifices by tithing, volunteering, and investing; not according to what we can see, but trusting that God will not fail to keep His promises. For, by faith we can and will accomplish more than we ever thought we could because we do not rely on our own works. The great message of Scripture, and all Scripture, is this: that God does not and has never depended on our ability to keep the Law or follow the rules. He depends only on Himself and, thus, we find our dependance in Him and not in our ability to be good enough. Thank the Lord for that!

Total depravity

There is, therefore, no work that can bring a person closer to God, for works are a result of our closeness with God. Works, then, are of the flesh. Philosophy is of the human mind. Science is of human observation. Teaching is of human instruction. None of these can possibly bring us to God. Works without faith are dead. Philosophy without divine guidance is vain. Science without proper worldview is pointless. Teaching without a listener who cares about the truth is without meaning.

If nothing we can do can earn us justification or bring us closer to God, then we are completely and utterly lost within all of our members, even to the depths of our hearts, minds and souls. I will not describe myself as a Calvinist, but it sure does seem, according to this text, that we are all wholly depraved. Unless God reveals Himself to us, we are lost and without the hope of ever coming to Him. The reality is that if we want to claim that works do not save us or justify us, then we must also say that we are completely depraved. If we are not entirely depraved, then we can, by some degree of our own works, come to justification before God. We cannot contradict ourselves by saying salvation is by faith alone, but that we can also come to God by some degree of our own work.

Jesus, here, makes another revelation for us, “No one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” It is only by God that anyone can come to God. God may choose a variety of ways to reveal Himself, but it must be God that does the revealing.

On Sunday nights we are currently wrapped up in an Apologetics series. What I learn from this passage is that no degree of human argument will bring someone to Christ. God must reveal Himself. So, I learn that the purpose of apologetics is not to argue someone into the faith, it is for us to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have. For, God may use us to answer the concerns of someone that God is drawing to Himself. If we are not ready to answer those concerns, then God will not use us. The more prepared we are, the more we are able to be used where God might use us for the work of His Kingdom.

Only Christ has the words of eternal life

These teachings are difficult, not only for the Jews of the First Century, but also for us. They mean that we have nothing to give. God already has everything. Anything that we can possibly offer, even the keeping of the Law, falls short. God cannot be bought. He cannot be negotiated with. He cannot be persuaded to change. He might choose to grant our petitions, but He does not depend on us. This is difficult because it forces us to deal with the fact that we are so small. We make ourselves out to be giants. We choose celebrities for ourselves. We dream big. We plan from a young age about how we will take over the world in some manner. We think it means something to have a PhD or to be a voice that the world listens to. The truth is, we are not quite the giants that we have made ourselves out to be. We are so small because we have nothing to offer.

Because of this teaching, many of the people who followed Jesus at this point stopped following Him. They turned away. They liked Jesus because of what He could give, but did not want to admit that they needed Him and only Him for their sustenance and their satisfaction. We find ourselves in a similar environment. People are leaving the church in droves. Churches across the western world are shrinking. People today believe that they are giants and refuse to admit that, when we really think about it, we are nothing. For some reason, students are led to believe that they are big shots in the world. Celebrities think that theirs is the only voice that matters. Activists think that without them the world is doomed to failure. We, brothers and sisters, are nothing. That is a good thing.

Jesus turned to the twelve and asked, “Are you going to leave too?”

Peter answered, “Where will we go? You are the only one who has the words of eternal life.”

The truth is, that there are many opportunities we have today to make ourselves appear to be giants. We can pursue a great career, get a great education, have a good looking family, be popular or famous, or even just relax and be comfortable. These things, though, cannot give us the eternal life that Christ offers. Christ is the only one who has the words of eternal life. Without Him, we really do have so little in this vast universe, and nothing else compares to having Him.

Leave a Reply