The Threefold Nature of the Law
One theme in the book of characterized it as a mere “shadow” of Galatians is the superiority of good things to come and explained: the gospel over the Mosaic “For this reason it can never, by the Law. Paul summarizes his argument in Galatians 3:11: “Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’” Why, then, did God give the Law? To understand the answer, we need to understand its threefold nature.
First, God gave the Law to help us understand the nature of His holiness and our own unrighteousness. The Ten Commandments, originally given to Israel on Mount Sinai in Exodus 20 and then repeated in Deuteronomy 5, reveal the moral foundation for all God’s subsequent laws. Sometimes referred to as the moral law, the commandments do more than reveal God’s moral nature. When properly understood, they enable us to see our own sinfulness (cf. Matt. 5:21–30). In this way, the Law functions not only as a kind of guardian of morality but also as a signpost that points to our need for the righteousness only through Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:24).
The second dimension of the Law was ceremonial. This Law, revealed to Israel through Moses, included rites and regulations that anticipated the ministry and atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The author of the book of Hebrews same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship” (Heb. 10:1). The sacrifices and ceremonies of the Law of Moses were never intended to make the worshiper perfect. They pointed forward to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which does take away our sins to make us truly righteous (Heb. 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18).
The Law also had a civil function. Some of the commands in the Old Testament were intended to regulate the community life of God’s people. Rules that dealt with slavery, divorce, or the kind of penalties to be meted out for various crimes were intended to order the culture of God’s people. These commands were not intended to be permanently binding on all people at all times (cf. Matt. 19:8).
The Mosaic Law was a path to salvation. Salvation is and always has been by grace and through faith.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
To learn more about the foundational moral law of God, read Ten: How the Commandments Set Us Free by Mark Mitchell (Discovery House).
By John Koessler, Chair and Professor of Pastoral Studies
John Koessler serves as chair and professor in the division of applied theology and church ministry at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is married to Jane and has two sons, Drew and Jarred. John is the author of The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody) and True Discipleship (Moody). John has written several other books and articles and serves as a contributing editor for Today in the Word.