What is the law meant to do in the life of the believer?
Heidelberg answers well
114. Q. But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?
A. No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God. 1 Eccles 7:20; Rom 7:14, 15; 1 Cor 13:9; 1 Jn 1:8. 2 Ps 1:1, 2; Rom 7:22-25; Phil 3:12-16. 115.
Q. If in this life no one can keep the ten commandments perfectly, why does God have them preached so strictly?
A. First, so that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach the goal of perfection.1 Ps 32:5; Rom 3:19-26; 7:7, 24, 25; 1 Jn 1:9. 2 1 Cor 9:24; Phil 3:12-14; 1 Jn 3:1-3.
Scripture on the role of Law in the life of the believer:
Galatians 3:1-5 (ESV) 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
Paul is talking here about sanctification. The idea that the subject of Galatians is justification is misguided – Galatians is about how justification relates to sanctification. As you can see in the text above there is a close relationship – The FAITH that latches onto Christ for justification is the exact same way believers must latch onto Christ for sanctification. He is not saying the faith at the moment of justification grants you some other internal power to sanctification – NO! He is saying in the exact same way you came to Christ – today you must continue with him – namely by trusting his promises in this moment. This is faith–faith that rests in grace to sanctify as much as to justify. This is opposed to going to the law for righteousness. He goes on
Galatians 3:10-12 (ESV) 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Those who rely on the law either for justification or “to live by it” are cursed. Why? Because “the one who does them shall live by them” he quotes from the Torah. The law is given with great blessing and cursing – those who wish to live by the law will be destroyed because 1) no one can keep it – 2) the law doesn’t enable the righteous living it requires. In fact Romans says it makes it worse.
Romans 7:7-13 (ESV) 7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.
So the Law is good – in that it reveals the absolute perfection and holiness of God. The problem is not the law – it is me. And when exposed to its white hot revelation of the nature of God – sin is exposed – and worse – rises in me so that I am condemned by falling massively short of its holy demands. Through the law I see the exceeding sinfulness of my sin – but it does not bring me hope.
Look at II Corinthians 3
2 Corinthians 3:4-18 (ESV) 4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. 12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.
What is the focus of this passage? Transformation of Believers! (vs18) Or Sanctification.
Does this passage talk about the law?
Yes we know it is referring specifically to the Mosaic Law or 10 commandments because it says “carved in letters on stone” and references the veil that had to cover Moses’ face.
How does the passage refer to the law in light of the new covenant?
1) The letter that kills
2) The ministry of death
3) The ministry of condemnation
Perhaps we should use these titles the next time we quote the 10 commandments.
Why does Paul refer to the law this way? Look at Galatians 3 again
Galatians 3:18-22 (ESV) 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
1) The law’s blessings for keeping it cannot be obtained by us. Yes! If we could keep the law it would give life and righteousness (positional and practical or “having begun” and “go on”) would indeed be by the law.
2) Instead this “Holy and Good” “Ministry of Death and Condemnation” “Imprisons” and “Reveals” the “exceeding sinfulness of my sin” so that I know that I must fly to the “exceedingly great and precious promises” that reveal that Christ alone is able to free me from the curse of the law.
Romans, Galatians, and I Corinthians passages are all written to reveal this truth to BELIEVERS so that they will not only think they are justified by faith but so they will LIVE BY FAITH in the precious promises of the Gospel.
How are we transformed believers? How can we make advances against sin? The law? NEVER! The law alone cannot enable what it commands. Its primary function as Luther said is “to convict human beings of sin SO THAT they would be driven to Christ.” The law is rightfully preached to reveal the holiness of God. It is rightfully preached to tells us God’s good designs. The believer is rightfully convicted by it. The believer does well to love the law of God as it reveals the beauty of God. BUT it cannot change us. What can?
II Cor 3:15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Turn your face, gloriously unveiled, to gaze upon the beauty and majesty and wonder of your Savior. He has fulfilled what you could never fulfill. He has paid what you could never pay. He has forgiven what you could have never earned. Trust his fulfillment – his payment – his forgiveness – today. And worship your King who is your friend. As you behold Him by His Spirit – through the Word and through prayer and through His body the church – you will be changed by one degree of glory to another into His image. Or to put it another way – All the things we think we can accomplish through the law are rather accomplished by delighting in Christ and trusting his promises. Then and ONLY then do the fruit of the Spirit seep out of our lives.