Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: Defining the Law (Part 2)

“Sacrifice of Jeroboam” by Claes Moeyaert, circa 1641

In the previous essay, I began analyzing how the Law is discussed in the books of Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews and what the implications are for our understanding of the biblical covenants. I noted the existence of the Covenant of Works and moral law, in addition to the Mosaic Law that was given to the people of Israel at Sinai. The challenge is to differentiate between these types of law in the writings of Paul and the author of Hebrews. Therefore, we must continue with our consideration of that all-important question.

What is meant by “the Law”?

The New Testament epistles often place “the Law” and “faith” in opposition to one another. While both are holy, there is only one that is capable of justifying sinners. But why is it so important to know if “the Law” means the Mosaic Law? In short, because we are attempting to determine whether the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and the New Covenant have the same substance. Do they both offer the righteousness of Christ by grace through faith? Are they both saving covenants in that respect? Obviously, if “the Law” means the Law of Moses, and if that in turn means the Mosaic Covenant, it starts to answer the question of whether or not the Old and New Covenants have the same substance.

In fact, there are many New Testament passages that talk about the Law in such a way as to clearly identify it with the Mosaic Law, while at the same time placing the Law in opposition to faith. Let’s take a look at some examples.

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, 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.

Romans 3:19-25a

In this passage from Romans, it is clear that the Apostle Paul is not speaking of the general moral law. How do I know that? First, because the verses leading up to these have been contrasting Jews and Gentiles, only the former of whom are under the Mosaic Law. (e.g. 2:12-15, 17-18, 25) Paul writes that one of the advantages of being a Jew is “that they were entrusted with the oracles of God”. (3:2) Therefore, when we reach the passage above, we can safely assume that Paul is still discussing the Mosaic Law. He refers to “those who are under the Law”. However, he says the Law also speaks “that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God”. How can a law that does not bind someone make that person accountable?

Here I would submit that we should remember Paul’s earlier words that the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. They were meant to be a light to the nations. While the Gentiles were not bound by the ceremonial or judicial aspects of the Law of Moses, the moral law applied to everyone. Moreover, it revealed a person’s sinful state and pointed them to the righteousness that is by faith.

Paul goes on to say that “apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets…” It seems clear that when Paul speaks of “the Law and the Prophets” he means the Law of Moses and the Jewish prophets. We can therefore conclude that Paul was indeed talking about the Mosaic Law when he said “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight” and “apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested”. Let’s move on to the next passage.

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 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 4:13-17

Paul teaches here that Abraham’s heirs received both the Law and a promise. These were each proclaimed ahead of time to Abraham, and indeed the covenant of circumcision in Genesis chapter 17 represents the beginnings of the Law. (More on that later…) However, Paul connects the Law with Abraham’s physical descendants and the promise with his spiritual descendants. In so doing, he indicates that the Law in question is the Mosaic Law. Paul writes that “the Law brings about wrath”. Why? Because it convicts those who are under it of sin. Moving right along, we come to this passage in Galatians.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews? We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 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 2:11-16

The Apostle Paul is recounting a time when the Apostle Peter (Cephas) came to visit him in Antioch. Although he initially associated with uncircumcised Gentiles, Peter eventually succumbed to peer pressure and stood “aloof”. The contrast here is clearly between Jews, who were raised to follow the Mosaic Law, and Gentiles, who were not. This is the Law Paul has in mind when he then says “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus” and concludes that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” Paul recalled this incident because some of the members of the church in Galatia were teaching that it was necessary to follow the Mosaic Law in order to be justified before God. In the following passage, Paul makes clear that the Law is actually antithetical to the righteousness of faith.

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:10-14

Paul tells us that “as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse” and “the Law is not of faith”. This is very strong language. Can we be sure that he was referring to the Mosaic Law and not the Covenant of Works? While Adam’s descendants are certainly condemned under the Covenant of Works, I believe that Paul is talking about the Mosaic Law in this instance. For one thing, we saw how the passage immediately before this made clear references to the Law of Moses. For another, two of Paul’s quotes here, “He who practices them shall live by them,” and “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,” come from the Mosaic Law. (Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 21:22-23, respectively)

I should clarify that Christ actually redeemed people from two curses. He fulfilled the righteous commands of both the Covenant of Works and the Mosaic Law. Therefore, He made it possible not only for both Jews and Gentiles to be justified, but also for them both to become part of God’s people under the New Covenant. It was in this covenant that “the blessing of Abraham” came to all of Abraham’s spiritual heirs by faith.

At this point, some who are confessionally Reformed might say, “I agree that what Paul is talking about is the Mosaic Law, but He is not talking about the entirety of the Mosaic Covenant. He is referring to the administration of that covenant rather than the substance, which is the same as what exists under the New Covenant.” This is a further difficulty with defining what the biblical authors mean when they speak of “the Law”. I would argue that the Mosaic Law cannot be separate from the Mosaic Covenant: they are one and the same. Within that Law were contained all the blessings of perfect obedience and the curses of disobedience. It was a conditional arrangement very much like the original Covenant of Works, with the difference being that it included only one portion of humanity and did not offer eternal life. However, I must present evidence to back up this suggestion.

There are two passages that are particularly relevant in this regard. The first occurs in Paul’s writings and the second is in the Book of Hebrews. Let us examine the first one.

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.

Galatians 4:21-26

Paul speaks here of two different covenants. The first was made at Mount Sinai, so it is clearly the Mosaic Covenant. Paul does not connect this covenant with Isaac, the child of the promise, but rather with Ishmael. He says that it “corresponds to the present Jerusalem”, another indication that it is the Mosaic Covenant, since Jerusalem was the Jewish capitol and a symbol of the nation of Israel. Paul says the children of the bondwoman are “born according to the flesh” and enslaved. He contrasts this with the second covenant: that which corresponds to “the son by the free woman through the promise”. This covenant is connected with “the Jerusalem above”.

The implication is that the Mosaic Covenant was linked with Abraham’s physical descendants and the New Covenant is linked with Abraham’s spiritual descendants. This contrast between the earthly and the heavenly is common throughout Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. Paul suggests that the Mosaic Covenant is akin to slavery. It is not linked with the promises by faith. Not convinced? Very well. I will move on to the second passage.

Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him,

“You are a priest forever

According to the order of Melchizedek.”

For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,

“The Lord has sworn

And will not change His mind,

‘You are a priest forever’”);

so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

Hebrews 7:11-22

Whereas Paul often contrasts “the Law” and faith, the author of Hebrews typically contrasts the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, or alternatively earthly things and heavenly things. Whenever he does use the word Law, it seems clear that this author is referring to the content of the Mosaic Covenant. Notice here how the he describes both the Levitical priesthood and the Law as inferior, then says that Jesus “has become the guarantee of a better covenant”. Therefore, he is not only saying that the Law was inferior, but that the whole Mosaic Covenant was inferior. The “change of law” was actually a change of covenants. In the very next chapter, the author says the following about Christ’s role as our great high priest.

Now if He were on earth, He would not be a priest at all, since there are those who offer the gifts according to the Law; who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second.

Hebrews 8:4-7

Again we see the contrast between the Law and the New Covenant. The author places no distance between the Mosaic Law and the Mosaic Covenant. He says that “if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second”. Why did it have faults? Because the things of the Law were only “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things”. The Mosaic Law and the Mosaic Covenant are the same thing.

Up until this point, I have used the terms Old Covenant and Mosaic Covenant interchangeably. This is a restriction of the concept of the Old Covenant, but one that I felt was necessary and appropriate. Nevertheless, while the Bible has a lot more to say about the Mosaic Covenant than the Abrahamic Covenant, the two are inextricably linked. God made a covenant with Israel at Sinai precisely because He had already made a covenant with Abraham. These were not the same covenant. They were not even two different versions of the same covenant. The Bible clearly describes them being separately inaugurated in blood. Nevertheless, some of the commands given under the Abrahamic Covenant are included when the New Testament authors speak of the Old Covenant, and they were included in the Mosaic Law. Here are two examples.

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 2:25-29

Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.

Galatians 5:2-6

These verses make a clear link between circumcision and the Law. Paul tells us that “circumcision is of value if you practice the Law” and a man who receives circumcision “is under obligation to keep the whole Law”. Why would he say this? Because circumcision was part of the Law. It was a commandment given to Abraham and his physical descendants. It therefore became a major component of the Mosaic Law, which is the Old Covenant. When you read the following, it sounds very much like the Law.

“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

Genesis 17:10-14

Circumcision was yet another example of the concept, “Do this and live,” the very thing that Paul called a curse in Galatians 3:10. If you’re thinking, “Being circumcised seems simple enough,” then you have not yet grasped the full meaning of this sign of the covenant. Remember, Paul said that “every man who receives circumcision…is under obligation to keep the whole Law”. (Galatians 5:3) He taught that the sign of circumcision was given to Abraham as “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised”. (Romans 4:11) But Paul also told the Galatians that if they were circumcised, then they were attempting to be justified by works righteousness rather than the righteousness that is by faith. “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)

The point is this: circumcision of the flesh pointed to the fact that the heart should be circumcised as well, for that was the only way to truly keep the Law. (Deuteronomy 10:16) Now, we have already seen how Paul taught that only those who have obtained the righteousness of God by faith are capable of keeping the Law. This is what brings the pieces together.

A Jewish male who was circumcised under the Old Covenant was receiving the following messages: 1) You are a physical descendant of Abraham and thus subject to the blessings of that covenant including the Promised Land. 2) You are to follow the Law or be cut off from that covenantal relationship. 3) You must be circumcised in your heart in order to keep God’s Law. 4) You cannot accomplish this on your own and therefore cannot fulfill the Law on your own. 5) The only way for you to be justified is by receiving the righteousness of God by faith, as Abraham did. 6) A coming seed in the male line of Abraham will be cut off for His people and fulfill the covenant, while also imputing the righteousness of God to those who have faith.

Could that many things be wrapped up in one sign? I submit that they could and they were. (For a fuller exposition of the typological element of circumcision, please refer back to my article on types and shadows.) This brings us to another very important point. The Abrahamic Covenant included both a Law and a promise. The Law began with the covenant of circumcision and was concluded with Abraham’s physical progeny at Mount Sinai. That is the Old Covenant. The promise was brought to fulfillment for Abraham’s spiritual progeny at Golgotha. That is the New Covenant. The greater promises were not attached to the Old Covenant. (Hebrews 8:6-7) They were still to come.

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 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 4:13-17

Notice how Paul describes two different progenies of Abraham: one that is physical and connected with the Law, and one that is spiritual and connected with the promise. He tells us that the promise did not come through the Law, and those who are of the Law are not the true heirs. It is those who have the faith of Abraham that make up his spiritual progeny, whether or not they are physically descended from him. These people are subject to the greater promises. Abraham’s physical progeny were not unimportant, and they did have a special covenantal relationship with the Lord for a time. They were honored to receive the oracles of God and serve as a light to the nations. Moreover, God kept His promise and brought forth the Deliverer, Jesus Christ, through Abraham’s physical seed. Nevertheless, it is those who have had their faith credited to them as righteousness who receive the greater promises.

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.

Galatians 3:6-18

Paul says that the Law did not nullify God’s earlier promise. It was a curse to those who were under it, for they could not be justified that way. The greater promises included justification and the gift of the Spirit, and these only came through faith. Paul writes that, as a physical descendant of Abraham, he had to die to the Law, for the Law could never make him righteous.

For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.

Galatians 2:19-21

If the Old Covenant had been perfect and righteousness could have been obtained through that Law, then there was no need for Christ to die, according to Paul. However, there was no way for sinners to be justified through the Old Covenant, because they were relying on lesser sacrifices for sin, and as previously discussed, they had inferior mediators. Moses and the priests were no replacement for Jesus Christ, who was not the mediator of the Old Covenant.

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. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins? But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,

“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired,

But a body You have prepared for Me;

In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come

(In the scroll of the book it is written of Me)

To do Your will, O God.’”

After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Hebrews 10:1-10

Please remember that the author of Hebrews does not leave any space between the Old Covenant and the Mosaic Law. When he says that the Law was “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things”, he means the entire Old Covenant. That is why he later says that Christ “takes away the first in order to establish the second”. He is speaking there of two covenants. Christ fulfilled and thus took away the Old Covenant in order that He might establish the New Covenant. That sacrifice is the only one that can make us holy. The blood of Christ cleanses those who are under the New Covenant once for all.

So if the Law was not inaugurated to make people righteous, then what was its purpose? Why did God bother with a covenant that was so inferior? The scriptures have much to tell us about this as well.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 5:18-21

In this passage, Paul indicates that the Law was instituted “so that the transgression would increase”. Was God forcing people to sin? No, Paul is making a subtler point. He notes that all men were already condemned due to Adam’s sin. They were already “made sinners”. The Law was very much like the original Covenant of Works. It once again offered blessings in exchange for obedience. (Leviticus 18:5) I will not quote them all, but take a look at Leviticus chapter 26 and Deuteronomy chapter 28. The Mosaic Covenant contained terrible curses for those who did not perfectly obey. Why did God need to institute another covenant that was based on human works? To reveal the sin that already existed in the hearts of His people, to condemn it further, and to make them see that they must pursue righteousness by faith, placing their hope in a coming salvation.

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, 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.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.

Romans 7:7-13

The Law was not evil any more than the Covenant of Works was evil. They were both entirely just and holy. The problem was that no sinful human being could keep the Law. That is why it was a curse. When Paul says “I was once alive apart from the Law”, he is speaking figuratively. All human beings were sinful before the Mosaic Covenant was inaugurated. We are all dead in sin until the Spirit regenerates us. When he says that the commandment came and “sin became alive and I died”, he is referring to his own awareness of that sin: “for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” Was it wrong for Paul to covet before he heard it in the Law? Yes, for that goes against the basic moral law of God. Nevertheless, the Law did increase his sin in a sense, for the Law awakens rebellion in the heart of the sinner. The Word of God will either draw us to Himself or harden our hearts, and for many people, the Mosaic Law produced only an exterior behavior modification as their hearts became entrenched in the pursuit of works righteousness. Paul says that through the Law, sin was revealed for what it actually is.

Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 3:19-29

Paul assures us that the Law was not contrary to the promise of God. What he means by that can be found just a bit later in the passage: “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.” Therefore, the Law is not contrary to God’s promise because it was not actually providing another path to justification. It was not able to give a person eternal life. That promise was connected to righteousness by faith. As Paul said earlier in the same chapter, “…the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” (v. 17)

Paul further explains in the passage above that the Law was a “tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith”. This is important: the Law was not Christ. Justification by faith, through the blood of Christ, was not available under the Old Covenant. These promises are given to Abraham’s spiritual progeny: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.” Justification by faith was not the substance of the Old Covenant. The New Testament never makes such a claim.

The entirety of the Old Covenant was Law, but that did not make it evil or worthless. It was meant to point to Jesus Christ. It was meant to show people that they could only be righteous by faith. In this way, it functioned much as the Covenant of Works does for us all: to condemn sin as truly sinful and reveal our need for a mediator and source of salvation.

Every person on earth is under one of two covenants: the Covenant of Works or the Covenant of Grace. If you are under the Covenant of Works, then Adam is your federal head. He cannot serve as a mediator between you and God, and he has imputed unrighteousness to you. If you are under the Covenant of Grace, then Christ is your federal head. He is a perfect mediator between you and God the Father, and He has imputed righteousness to you. The question for all of us is, “To which covenant do we belong?” Are we pursuing a path of works righteousness by which we are condemned in Adam’s sin, or have we received the righteousness of God by faith and have the Spirit living within us, empowering us to keep God’s commands? Through union with Christ, we are ushered into the Covenant of Grace and receive all of Christ’s benefits. We die to the Law that we might be raised with Him.

Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.

Romans 7:4-6

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:1-11

Thank you for persevering through this rather long discussion of the Law over the course of two articles. Next time, I will discuss whether or not the New Covenant can be broken. Until then, take care and God bless!

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

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