Why have a law you could never keep?

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Paul makes it clear that it is impossible for anyone to live a perfect life and keep the whole law (apart from Jesus): “No-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law” (Romans 3:20); “clearly no-one is justified by observing the law” (Galatians 3:11). So why would God give Israel a law they could never keep?

For some reason there is a deep seated urge in the human heart to try and make ourselves acceptable to God by our own actions – even though this is doomed to failure from the start, because we cannot change our fallen nature one bit by ourselves. It is as if we are unconsciously terrified of God’s rejection and judgement, and so we do the only thing we know to do – something, anything, to justify ourselves and make ourselves acceptable to him.

I believe the reason God gave people the law was to settle this issue once and for all. “You want to make yourself righteous before me? OK, here is the standard.” We could never be convinced until we tried our very hardest and then fell flat on our faces and failed completely.

The kindest thing God could do for us was to totally disillusion us with our own ability to fix ourselves up, so that we would have no option other than to accept his forgiveness as a gift from him which we have no part in.

The Jews were actually never meant to approach God with an offering of their own good works, in order to make themselves acceptable before him. They were always meant to come to God by faith – faith in God to forgive them by trusting in his promises, not faith in their own good works. It says in Romans 9:31-32 that the Jews missed out on God’s righteousness because they pursued it “not by faith, but as if it were by works”.

It never really was by works. How could our works have ever made us acceptable to God? Our best acts are like filthy rags* (Isaiah 64:6) and we have nothing to commend ourselves to him. There is no kind of currency we have in our hands to bargain with God. Forgiveness was always only ever a gift, received by faith as a free gift from God.

Galatians 3:11 says, “Clearly no-one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith’”. The righteous always “lived” (had life, i.e. were right with God) by faith, before, during and after the law was given.

* Note: “our best acts are like filthy rags.” This is in the context of people making themselves righteous by their own actions. God most definitely values and treasures the things his children do for him, even if they are done imperfectly – just as any loving parent does.

For reflection:

God did not make a mistake when he gave his people the law. The New Covenant is not a second attempt to get it right after the Old Covenant failed. The Old Covenant was meant to fail; it’s just that we needed a lot of convincing before we could believe we could never make ourselves OK.

Sometimes in evangelism the most helpful thing to do for a self-righteous person is to point them to the law. God may well already be at work in their lives bringing them to the point where they have no choice but to give up on their own righteousness. Show them the standard of the law, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the pure and perfect life of Jesus, and let it kill them. Painful, but sometimes people won’t be convinced until they see how badly they can fail.

“The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24)

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