The Lord gave the Law as a tool for diagnosing the deadly disease of sin. For the Jews, however, this diagnostic tool was converted into a system of works as a cure for their guilt. This will take some explaining, for the process of changing the Law from an instrument for revealing sin unto condemnation into a ladder of works righteousness up which a sinner could climb, is lengthy and intricate.
WHY WAS THE LAW GIVEN?
It must be understood at the outset that the Law was given at Sinai to reveal to all mankind their sin before the thrice holy God. “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). “For I would not have come to know sin except through the Law. For I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Romans 7:7). It was an act of God’s grace to declare the Law so that sinful man would become aware of his sin, and then God’s kindness would lead the sinner to repentance (Romans 2:4). In other words, the Law was written to reveal to the sinner his sin and his consequent condemnation so that the sinner would cry out to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. The Law was the diagnostic tool that showed man his sin, but faith in the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness was the cure for the sin.
HOW WAS THE LAW DISTORTED
But there was another way to respond to the condemnation from the Law, a response which was itself sinful and which nullified the intended purpose of the Law. In this wrong response, the priests and the scribes and the false prophets, and later on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, realized that obeying the Law was impossible, because the Law required perfect obedience. The Law as written gave no wiggle room, but rather demanded perfect obedience from birth to grave. If you failed to obey perfectly, the Law brought full condemnation. The priests and the scribes perceived this as a problem. The way they solved this problem was by changing the absolute obedience demanded by God’s Law into a relative obedience based on a set of man-made “works” that could be obeyed. Thus, the Jews modified the terms of the Law so that they could obtain their own righteousness through their obedience to the Law (Romans 10:1-3). The modified “Law” could be obeyed because it only required relative obedience. Instead of the perfect Law of God, which was graded as either perfect obedience or absolute failure, the modified “Law” accepted your “best effort” as good enough and then was graded on a curve. Thus, your own works achieved your right standing before God.
Now, consider for a moment what was lost by this emasculating of the perfect Law of God. As we compare these two versions of the Law, we will see how catastrophic this was for the Jews and how it rendered them almost beyond the reach of the gospel.
THE PURE LAW AS GIVEN AT SINAI
If the Law as given at Sinai were allowed to stand inviolate, then the hearer of the Law could realize their abject failure to keep the requirements of the Law and thus see their complete condemnation. Knowing their condemnation before the Holy One of Israel, the sinner could abandon all their own works and all their own efforts at achieving righteousness and could, instead, see the worthiness of Jesus and the glory of His death on the cross, and could cry out to Him for mercy as the only one who could save them from their sins. The sequence would be to hear the Law and thus to realize the greatness of my sin. Being convicted of my sin, I would seek God’s appointed means of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this way, I would find Jesus and would cry out to Him in faith and repentance. The cross of Christ has overwhelming power, for it is only at the cross that God’s justice and His mercy meet. It is only in Jesus that forgiveness is to be found. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”
THE MODIFIED “LAW” AS MADE BY THE JEWS
On the other hand, the modified “Law” offers an entirely different scenario. In this case, the hearer is not convicted of their sin by the Law’s holy demands, but instead is alerted that their performance must improve. Instead of despairing of any and all personal merit, the hearer considers what works they need to perform to achieve their righteousness. Instead of the cross of Christ towering to infinite height as the only means of forgiveness in all of human history, the death of Christ is unnecessary and insignificant, since my sin can be covered by my own good works (Galatians 2:21). Instead of Christ being the one worthy of all praise as the only Savior, He is reduced to a pathetic martyr and a good teacher and nothing more.
Therefore, the Lord graciously gave His perfect Law to reveal to us the cancer of our sin. Like an undiagnosed terminal cancer, unconfessed sin is killing every person and condemning them to eternal judgment under the wrath of God. But God has designed the Law to be a diagnostic tool that exposes sin and makes our iniquity known to us. The Law is the best instrument for diagnosing sin, but it is useless as a cure for sin. As a PET scan shows the existence and extent of cancer but is worthless for fighting cancer, so the Law reveals the existence and extent of sin but is worthless for fighting sin.
So, the Law and the cross of Christ work together to bring justification and forgiveness and righteousness. The Law reveals the sinner’s sin, and, by faith, the blood of Jesus shed on the cross cleanses the sinner of all guilt and condemnation and unrighteousness. Through faith and repentance, the sin the Law reveals is the sin that the Lord Jesus heals.
SDG rmb 11/30/2021 #461