Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Defining the Law (Part 1)

“Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1659

Welcome back! So far in my efforts to answer the question, “Did the Old and New Covenants have the same substance?” I have considered how the Bible describes the New Covenant, how the memberships compared, what is meant by “types and shadows”, if the systems of mediation differed, and whether the Old Covenant was completely broken prior to the coming of Christ. Today, I must address another issue that tends to come up in the writings of Paul and the Book of Hebrews.

What is meant by “the Law”?

You do not have to read very far in the New Testament epistles before you see contrasts made between “the Law” and faith. Particularly when taken out of context, these quotes present a harsh dichotomy.

  • “…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight…” (Romans 3:20a)
  • “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Romans 3:28)
  • “…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16)
  • “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse…” (Galatians 3:10a)
  • “For the Law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near.” (Hebrews 10:1)

Everyone agrees that there is some kind of contrast being made here, but how that contrast is interpreted depends very much on how the words themselves are interpreted, and one word above all others: law.

Our first difficulty is that there is a difference between a law (that is, any command given by God) and the Law (that is, a specific set of commands given by God at a point in time). Add to that the fact that scholars differ on which set of commands the biblical authors refer to when they say “the Law”. Do they mean a general moral or natural law that applies to all mankind? The Covenant of Works? The commands contained in the Mosaic Covenant? Only certain commands within that covenant, e.g. the ceremonial and civil laws? Or do they mean all the commands in multiple covenants?

There is no question that Paul and the author of Hebrews present us with two different ways that people attempt to be righteous: either by Law or by faith.[1] The first method is impossible for Adam’s descendants, according to the biblical authors. Because of original sin, no one can keep the Law perfectly, and it is a curse to all who are under it. The second method (righteousness by faith) is the only way for a sinful human to be justified before God. Therefore, what is meant by “the Law” is very important for our understanding of not only the covenants, but soteriology in general.

Over the years, theologians have developed many terms for talking about God’s commands, including natural law, moral law, positive law, threefold division of the law, and the threefold use of the law. This can all get rather confusing, and I do not intend to explore each of these terms in depth. One thing that would be useful to remember is that the Mosaic Covenant is often divided between moral laws, ceremonial laws, and civil or judicial laws. However, I am mainly seeking to determine what Paul and the author of Hebrews meant when they referred to “the Law”. Specifically, did they mean a general law that applies to all human beings, or did they specifically mean the Mosaic Law? Could they have actually meant the Covenant of Works?

You may be thinking, “When does the Bible talk about the Covenant of Works?” That is a fair question. The words themselves don’t appear in scripture, nor do the words Covenant of Grace. Rather, the terms were developed by theologians to describe scriptural concepts. The Covenant of Works was made with humanity in the Garden of Eden. Adam served as a federal head—that is, a representative of everyone else in the covenant. Although you and I were not there at the time, Adam’s actions in response to God’s commands had a very real effect on us all. How do we know that God made a covenant with Adam prior to the Fall? That is another good question, and I will attempt to answer it. The Book of Genesis records the following conversation that occurred prior to the creation of Eve.

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Genesis 2:15-17

We see here that God gave Adam a very specific command: he could eat from any tree in the garden, but he was not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The command included a penalty for disobedience: “…in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” In addition, the fact that God placed Adam in the garden “to cultivate it and keep it” also seems to imply a kind of creation mandate. For example, Genesis 1:28 says after the creation of Adam and Eve, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” This was also a command, though it was not given to Adam individually, but to the first two humans together.

Exactly how many unrecorded commands God might have given to Adam will remain a mystery to us in this life, but we know for certain that He commanded him not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and this is the one that ended up being most significant. It is the command that Adam and his wife eventually broke. When the Lord confronted them over their sin, He pronounced curses on Eve and the serpent. He saved Adam for last, and in that passage we find the worst curse of all: death.

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;

Cursed is the ground because of you;

In toil you will eat of it

All the days of your life.

Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;

And you will eat the plants of the field;

By the sweat of your face

You will eat bread,

Till you return to the ground,

Because from it you were taken;

For you are dust,

And to dust you shall return.”

Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.

Genesis 3:17-24

The penalty for breaking God’s command was death, and this curse was passed down to all of Adam’s descendants. The existence of the tree of life is interesting. God’s pronouncement of the curse of death leads me to believe that Adam was immortal before the Fall. However, if there was a tree that gave eternal life, and he had not yet eaten from it, should we conclude that Adam had to earn eternal life even before he sinned?

Here it is important to remember that there is a difference between an earthly life that goes on forever and the eternity in heaven that awaits those who are in Christ. The Garden of Eden, as wonderful as it was, cannot compare with eternity in the presence of a holy God, where there is no possibility of evil entering the picture. Therefore, even though Adam was immortal prior to the Fall, he was required to be perfectly obedient in order to gain eternal life, which is greater in terms of quality more than quantity. Adam also served as a federal head for all humanity, and he therefore passed on a curse to all of us.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:12-17

This is a very important passage for our understanding of salvation history. The Apostle Paul contrasts Adam and Christ. One sinned and brought death to humanity. The other was perfectly righteous and brought a free gift of grace to humanity. The key word here is “imputed”. It means to ascribe a thing to another person vicariously. Both Adam and Christ imputed something to others. Adam imputed original sin and the curse of death. Christ imputed His righteousness to those who were unrighteous.

Paul tells us that “until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” I believe “the Law” is clearly referring in this case to the Mosaic Law and not some kind of natural or moral law. Otherwise, it would have been in the world from the beginning. Paul is saying that there was sin in the world prior to the Law of Moses—indeed, since the Fall. He then makes the further point that this sin could not be imputed if there wasn’t a law. Is Paul essentially contradicting himself? No. “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam…” If people were dying, then the sin must have been imputed, and if it was imputed, then there must have been a law. Therefore, Paul is saying that there was a law governing humanity prior to the Mosaic Law: a law under which all were guilty though they had not sinned in the same way as Adam. How did Adam sin differently from us? He sinned without being cursed by original sin, and he sinned as a representative of others.

Even as Adam was a federal head for humanity, so Christ is a federal head. As Paul writes elsewhere, “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22) Adam’s death passed to all humanity, because he was a federal head for every human being. Christ’s life will not pass to everyone, but only those who are united to Him by faith: those who are under His covenant headship. All of these people will be made alive. The two covenants to which I am referring are the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.

I do not believe anyone really doubts that Christ is the head of a covenant. The author of Hebrews describes Christ as the mediator of the New Covenant on three occasions (8:6, 9:15, 12:24), and Jesus Himself said to His disciples at the Last Supper, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.” (Luke 22:20b) However, as I noted in the previous essay on mediation, the Bible never describes Christ as a mediator or federal head of the Mosaic Covenant. Rather, the Apostle John writes, “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Of course, that verse also brings us back to what exactly is meant by “the Law”.

Even if we can describe Jesus as a covenant head, is it really correct to describe Adam that way? Did God actually make a covenant in the Garden of Eden, or did He simply give some commands? I feel that the earlier passage in Romans chapter 5 implies that even as Christ is the head of a covenant, Adam is also the head of a covenant. However, there is one other passage that is worth considering. It comes in the middle of one of Hosea’s prophecies.

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?

What shall I do with you, O Judah?

For your loyalty is like a morning cloud

And like the dew which goes away early.

Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets;

I have slain them by the words of My mouth;

And the judgments on you are like the light that goes forth.

For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice,

And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant;

There they have dealt treacherously against Me.

Hosea 6:4-7

In these verses, the Lord is describing through Hosea how the nation of Israel (divided at that time between two kingdoms) had violated the terms of the Mosaic Covenant. Interestingly, He compares this to the actions of Adam: “But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant…”[2] What covenant did Adam transgress if he was not part of any covenant? The answer is that while Genesis chapter 2 does not explicitly call it a covenant, the commands given by God to Adam actually represented a covenantal relationship, with the promise of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The title Covenant of Works is not divinely inspired, but it is an appropriate moniker for the covenant in which Adam was required to be perfectly obedient or die.

Every person who has come after Adam has been bound by the commands of the Covenant of Works. More than that, they have had Adam’s covenant guilt imputed to them, and therefore reaped the curse of death. Are there any other commands that bind all mankind? Scripture suggests that the answer is “yes”. There is a basic moral law of which all human beings are innately aware, and by which God judges them.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

Romans 1:18-23

The Book of Romans contains Paul’s longest examination of how a person can be righteous before God, and he begins it by arguing that none of us are righteous. Why are we condemned? Because we actively “suppress the truth in unrighteousness”. Paul tells us that there are certain basic things about God that are revealed within creation, and “that which is known about God is evident within them”. Obviously, many important things about God can only be known through His special revelation, but Paul tells us there are certain facts that are obvious to anyone who is thinking clearly, such as God’s existence and the responsibility man has toward his Creator. I would identify this with the moral law: a set of commands that are incumbent upon every human being who has ever lived.

The moral law has existed since Creation, and all of us are required to keep it. Failure to obey these commands is sin, by which we are rightly condemned. What is this mysterious moral law? I believe it is best summed up in the two commands highlighted by Christ.

But when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered themselves together. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:34-40

You will notice that the New Testament epistles refer back to these commands as a kind of summation of the morality that is required of all human beings. For example, we read, “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well,” (James 2:8) and “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) There are other commands that are part of the moral law as well. Cain clearly broke one of them when he murdered Abel. (Genesis chapter 4) The prohibition against murder was repeated to Noah along with the creation mandate.

“Whoever sheds man’s blood,

By man his blood shall be shed,

For in the image of God

He made man.

As for you, be fruitful and multiply;

Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

Genesis 9:6-7

The Ten Commandments are often mentioned as an inherent part of the moral law, and I agree with this assessment. They are the heart of the moral law that was contained within the Mosaic Covenant: a set of commands that was not unique to that Law. The Law of Moses also contained many ceremonial and judicial aspects that have since been abolished, but as part of the giving of the Mosaic Law the Lord repeated commands that had existed since the dawn of Creation. We know this because the whole of scripture testifies to their truth, and they are all repeated in the New Testament in one form or another.

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Romans 13:8-10

The one part of the Decalogue that tends to provoke disagreement is the fourth commandment.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”

Exodus 20:8-11

Many arguments are put forward for why Christians today are no longer required to observe the Sabbath. Some note that even the early Church did not meet for corporate worship on Saturday, as the Jews had always done, but rather on “the Lord’s day”, which is Sunday. Other people point to the comments made by Jesus Christ that seem to de-emphasize the Sabbath.

And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Mark 2:23-28

I understand why people would read such passages and conclude that we should extend grace when it comes to exactly how one observes the Sabbath. However, please note that Christ never suggested that the Sabbath had been or would be completely abolished. Rather, He described Himself as Lord of the Sabbath. When He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” He was pointing to the original purpose of the Sabbath, which included rest, communion with God, and communion with fellow believers. All of these things are highly beneficial and even essential for human flourishing. What Jesus was pushing back against were the many additions that had been made to the Sabbath laws by the religious leaders of His day: additions that had never been suggested by God. He was also condemning the raising of certain ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath laws—such as the commands regarding the gathering of food—above moral laws, which were of greater importance. Because Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, He has authority to define and redefine it. This is the passage that comes immediately after that previous one.

He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. They were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him.

Mark 3:1-6

The Pharisees evidently considered healing to be a kind of labor, which was forbidden on the Sabbath. However, we must remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) In this case, the way for Christ to love His neighbor was to heal him. That took precedence over any concerns regarding Sabbath observance. That is why He asked, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?”

The Sabbath is part of the moral law incumbent upon all human beings, because it is rooted in Creation.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

Genesis 2:1-3

This principle of a day of rest was merely repeated in the Ten Commandments. It was not something new. However—and this is an important “however”—the Mosaic Law also added many other commands regarding the Sabbath that were not part of the moral law, but rather the ceremonial law. The moral law is what never changes. It was part of the Covenant of Works. The ceremonial law is another matter. Those commands do not bind the Christian. This is why we see the early Christians meeting on Sunday rather than Saturday and eating with Gentiles. At the same time, they were maintaining the principle of the Sabbath, which is a type of the rest that a believer has in Christ and will receive fully in the next life. (Hebrews 4:1-11; this is an active type)

I do believe we should show grace toward one another when it comes to the details of Sabbath observance, for the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 1:16-17) However, this does not negate the basic concept of regular rest, reflection, worship, and fellowship that is outlined in scripture.

Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 is often interpreted as an abolishment of the ritual purification laws. The judgment of the Council of Jerusalem did instruct Gentiles to abstain from “from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled”. (Acts 15:29) Interestingly, God also commanded Noah not to eat “flesh with its life, that is, its blood”. (Genesis 9:4) Perhaps the apostles were thinking of this when they placed that prohibition on Gentile converts. To sum up, the ceremonial laws given to Moses are now abolished, but not the moral ones.

This has been a long discussion to make the point that the moral law has bound every human being who has ever lived. It was part of the Covenant of Works given to Adam. It was part of the Mosaic Covenant. It is part of the New Covenant. Therefore, this is a proper definition of “the law”, but is it what the New Testament authors meant when they spoke of “the Law”?

In addition to the moral law that binds us all, the nation of Israel was very much bound by the Mosaic Law. While the Apostle Paul assures us that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (Romans 3:9) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), he also states that the Jews were uniquely required to keep the Law of Moses, which added many commands to the basic moral law.

Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets…

Romans 3:19-21

It is clear from the context of these verses that Paul was not referring to a general law given to all human beings, but the specific laws given to the nation of Israel under Moses. Just a few verses earlier, Paul writes,

For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:12-16

We learn the following things from these passages: 1) Some people are under the Law and some (the Gentiles) are not. 2) It is possible to sin and be condemned apart from the Law. 3) It is likewise possible to keep the Law even if you are not under the Law. 4) No one can actually be justified by the Law, but the Law testified to the righteousness of God.

How can all of those things possibly be true? Because Paul is bouncing back and forth between different meanings or implications of the word “law”. When he speaks of Gentiles not being under “the Law”, he clearly means the Law of Moses. When he speaks of Gentiles keeping “the Law” and having it written on their hearts, he refers to the moral law that was contained within the Law of Moses: the very same laws by which we are bound today. Nevertheless, Paul tells us that we cannot be justified by any of these laws. Why? Because we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. In fact, we are sinners from birth, as he teaches elsewhere. (Romans 5:12-14) Therefore, if we are to be righteous before God, it must come from another source.

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

Romans 3:21-30

Here we find a third kind of law: the law of faith. Is the law of faith different from the moral law? No, the law is not different, but the method of justification is different. The one who is under the law of faith, also referred to as the law of Christ, knows that they cannot be justified by keeping God’s commands. They are justified by grace through faith. Only this justification, which is accompanied by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, allows a person to truly obey the moral law. Those who are hoping to be justified by that law fail to keep it. Those who know they are justified by grace will keep the law by faith.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on law shall live by that righteousness. But the righteousness based on faith speaks as follows: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

Romans 10:1-10

Neither righteousness nor salvation come from following the Law, whether one means the Mosaic Law or the more broadly defined moral law. However, the one who has already been declared righteous and assured of salvation in the last day has the commands of the Lord written on their heart. They are therefore able to follow that Law by faith, for they are no longer bound to the sinful desires of the flesh, but have had their spirits regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Ephesians 2:1-10

We were made to do good works. We were made to keep God’s laws. However, the fall of Adam ensured that none of us can do that apart from the power of God. It is therefore the Spirit working in us who enables us to keep the Law—again, by faith.

Sadly, many of the Jews of Paul’s day did not understand this distinction. They believed that they were justified by the Law. Moreover, they believed that their special identity as God’s covenant people meant that they were somehow better than the Gentiles. Little did these people know that even as the Gentiles (and Jews) were condemned under the Covenant of Works, they were condemned under the Mosaic Covenant. The Jews took pride in their physical descent from Abraham and felt this would somehow contribute to their justification. Yet, Paul taught that it is Abraham’s spiritual children who are justified, for they have the faith of Abraham. Not even this great patriarch had any inherent righteousness in himself, but rather his faith was credited as righteousness.

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.

Romans 4:1-5, 16-17

Many of Abraham’s physical descendants did not understand this. They boasted in their ethnicity and in the Law. They boasted in the fact that they were circumcised. Paul turned this thinking on its head.

But if you bear the name “Jew” and rely upon the Law and boast in God, and know His will and approve the things that are essential, being instructed out of the Law, and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth, you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written. For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.

Romans 2:17-29

Again, Paul raises the spiritual and the heavenly above earthly things. Those who are seeking to be justified by the Law, he argues, are guilty of breaking the Law. (Note again that he is clearly referring to the Mosaic Law, which was given only to Jews.) He links circumcision with the Law, in as much as the Jew who was circumcised and hoped to be justified by the Law was required to keep that whole Law or suffer the covenant curse. Paul is not suggesting that the Law could have really justified them. He is pointing out that to boast in the Law was essentially to boast in one’s physical descent from Abraham. To follow that path toward justification was a pursuit of works righteousness, not the righteousness that is by faith. The Jew’s circumcision should have reminded him of the righteousness that Abraham had by faith (Romans 4:11) and led him to seek after the circumcision of the heart, which can only be performed by God. (Colossians 2:8-14) Therefore, ironically, circumcision was meant to reveal to the Israelites that circumcision was not enough. The Law cannot make one righteous. We must receive the righteousness of God by grace through faith.

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written,

“Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,

And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

Romans 9:30-33

Note again that Paul does not suggest that the Mosaic Law was somehow evil any more than the moral law that has stood since Creation is evil. It was, however, an insufficient method for sinners to be justified, and it never offered eternal life. Israelites who sought to become righteous by their obedience to God’s commands were bound to fall short and be condemned. In fact, they were already condemned under the Covenant of Works, and had reaped the covenant curse of Adam. No one who is born sinful can be justified by works righteousness. That is why faith is necessary: one must trust in the grace of God as the only source of justification and salvation. The “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense” mentioned by Paul was Christ Himself. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) Christ was a stumbling block to Jews because they were seeking to be justified by works righteousness, and He called on them to admit their own inability and rely on His saving work. That sacrifice of pride was too much for many Jews to make, and they therefore failed to attain the righteousness that is by faith.

Even as the Gentiles were slaves to the Covenant of Works under which they were condemned, the Jews were slaves to the Mosaic Law. They took pride in their status as Abraham’s children and believed that God was their Father (John 8:34-47), yet Paul presents a very different path to become children of God.

Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

Galatians 4:1-7

Note that Paul says that those “born under the Law” needed to be redeemed in order to be adopted as sons. They had not received the true inheritance, which was a spiritual inheritance. Only those who have been redeemed by the Son and have the Spirit in their hearts can truly call God their Father, and only these people are heirs to the promises.

So far, I have discussed the different types of laws present in scripture. I have established that there was a Covenant of Works made with Adam under which all mankind was condemned. This was linked with the moral law that is incumbent upon all human beings. The Mosaic Law was given specifically to the nation of Israel, and contained within it the moral law, as well as various ceremonial and judicial laws. No one who is born a sinner can ever hope to be justified by following God’s laws. Rather, they must be justified by grace through faith, receiving the righteousness of God. Those who have been justified and indwelt by the Spirit are able to truly follow the moral law. However, many of the Jews in the first century A.D./C.E. did not recognize this, and as a result they were still hoping to be justified by works righteousness.

In the next article, I will continue my analysis of those times when “the Law” is mentioned in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. I will attempt to determine whether certain instances are referring to the Mosaic Law, and whether this is one and the same with the Mosaic Covenant. I will then discuss some of the implications of these findings. Thank you and come again.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] The name of the author of Hebrews is not mentioned in scripture. I myself suspect it was written by Barnabas or Apollos. Paul was more traditionally thought to be the author. I strongly believe that this book was written by a man who was either an apostle or a close associate of the apostles, and therefore I refer to the author of Hebrews using the male pronoun.

[2]There is some disagreement over how this verse should be translated. This is due to two complicating factors: 1) The grammatical structure of ancient Hebrew creates a certain amount of ambiguity about the relationship between various words, and 2) The name Adam comes from the Hebrew word for man. Therefore, we find such translations as “But they like men have transgressed the covenant…” (KJV, 1599 Geneva Bible) and “But at Adam they transgressed the covenant…” (RSV). Most modern translations, including the ESV, NIV, and CSB, use a translation that is nearly identical to the NASB, following in the tradition of John Wycliffe.