The Point of the Law

When people complain that the Old and New Testaments have nothing to do with each other, I often think of a dinner I had one evening with some friends. That evening, Kim, a teacher, remarked with amazement that some of her students seemed to like eating Play-Doh.

“Well,” said I, “That’s probably because it tastes so salty.”

Heads slowly turned to look at me.

Finally, I spoke again.

“You’re… probably wondering how I know what Play-Doh tastes like,” I said, turning red and swallowing hard.

It was a rather classic moment of “giving me enough rope to hang myself.”

It is also a pretty graphic illustration of the general way in which we seem to have to learn-particularly about our flaws.

Fact is, there has never been anybody who could hold a candle to ourselves when it comes to getting us to see our own faults. Generally, conversations where we try to impose repentance on somebody are conversations largely guaranteed to generate the Captain Kirk Response (“Shields on full, Mr. Sulu!”). In the face of full frontal assaults from critics, we usually tap out the dilithium crystal power supplies of the soul coming up with good reasons why we’re Nice People or Not That Bad or Not as Bad as That Guy Over There.

This is why God did not use the full frontal assault method to show us we were sinners when he revealed himself on Sinai. Instead, he gave the law: a law which Israel recognized as good and indeed as “sweeter than honey” (Ps 119:103). He presented them with a vision of something so good, so pure and so true that they were simply enthralled with it. As the Psalmist said, “The law of the Lord is perfect,/reviving the soul;/the testimony of the Lord is sure,/making wise the simple;/the precepts of the Lord are right,/rejoicing the heart;/the commandment of the Lord is pure,/enlightening the eyes;/the fear of the Lord is clean,/enduring for ever;/the ordinances of the Lord are true,/and righteous altogether./More to be desired are they than gold,/even much fine gold” (Ps 19:7-10). Israel saw the law’s glory and genuinely thought they wanted to obey it, promising again and again, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

But then they had to try to live out the promise. Result: abject failure. Suddenly it was not some external critic pointing out what was wrong with them but their own law, their own hearts, their own consciences. They were hoist on their own petard, condemned out of their own mouths, hanged with a noose they had knotted and put around their own necks.

And that was the point of the law. It provided a diagnostic, like an x-ray machine, revealing all the sickness of the human soul. But that was also pretty much all it could do. The law was, as Paul said, holy, just and good (Romans 7:12). But it had no power to make us that way. Indeed, next to something beautiful like the law, we, who love neither God nor neighbor, merely suffer by the contrast. In light of the law, we look not like saints, but like slobs who need to be saved.

Which, says Paul, is precisely why the Old Testament was given: as a tutor to point us to our need of a Savior. Like all good tutors, it taught us, not by getting us to parrot some rhetoric about sinfulness that we don’t really believe, but by allowing us to do and be exactly what we are until the day came when we-we ourselves-saw ourselves for exactly what we are in the light of what we-we ourselves-acknowledged as true and right. It taught us to drop our shields and want to ask for mercy-and then ushered us into the Presence of Christ.


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