Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
Many Christians today adopt the attitude that the Old Testament Law no longer applies because we are not under the Law but under Grace. That is certainly true. However, the fact that we are under Grace does in no way render the Law irrelevant or make it of no effect.
The Law given in the Old Testament accomplished two things. It codified what God expected of His people, Israel, and it provided specific practices for God’s people to follow that set them apart from the pagan nations among whom they lived. They were to be “holy” as their God in heaven is holy, i.e., set apart, consecrated, distinct.
The Law provided a third way for the people to relate to God through the sacrificial system which provided a way to atone for or “cover” the sins of the people. However, the sacrificial system did not provide a permanent solution to the sin problem. Sacrifices were made for all kinds of infractions of the Law, and like sin, they were a perpetual practice. The continual offering of sacrifices illustrated the insufficiency of sacrifices to fully atone for the sin of the people. Even so, the sacrifices required faith in the offering otherwise they became a ritual practice akin to pagan practices. God rejected such sacrifices.
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. (Isaiah 1:11)
To what purpose cometh there to me incense from Sheba, and the sweet cane from a far country? your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet unto me. (Jeremiah 6:20)
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)
One thing we learn from the Old Testament is that it is impossible to keep the Law, and that it is insufficient to atone for sin. Our opening verse makes it clear, “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20). The only sacrifice sufficient to atone for sin is the one offered by God Himself in the person of Jesus Christ and the blood He shed on the cross. Sin – all sin, for all time – was paid in full when Jesus exclaimed, “It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (John 19:30). However, Jesus did not remain dead. On the third day, He rose from the dead and conquered the “last enemy” giving us access to eternal life by the simple act of believing. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” The Old Testament teaches us that we are incapable of keeping God’s Law, therefore we are doomed by that standard. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, emphasis mine). Grace is God’s gift to us. Grace is “unmerited favor.” Grace cannot be earned through any human effort because “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Romans 3:20). Grace is a gift, bought and paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). As with any gift, it must be accepted before it becomes one’s own possession.
What good, then, is the Old Testament Law, if one cannot gain salvation, i.e., eternal life, by keeping it (not that you could if you tried)? Paul provides the following affirmation: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). We are declared “just” when we place our “faith” in what Jesus did for us on the cross. That is a “done deal” outside the keeping (“the deeds”) of the law. Then Paul poses and responds to our question. “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Romans 3:31). The Greek word translated “establish” is histēmi, and it means “to cause to stand.”
The Law still stands. It is not required to gain eternal life nor is it needed to maintain our salvation. However, it does serve as our guide to holy living which God still requires of His children. “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Jesus tied our love for Him to the keeping of His commandments. Jesus spoke these words 25-30 years before the first Gospel was written, so His commandments were the same commandments He gave to Moses, which are summarized in two great commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (your whole being), and love your neighbor as yourself.
But what does that look like? Our opening verse tells us: “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). Granted, much of the Mosaic Law had direct application to the culture of that time, however, the principles therein apply to our modern time. Take for instance the laws given to dress. The reason for those laws served to make the children of Israel distinct from the people among whom they lived. God still wants the same for us today. We shouldn’t dress and look like the lost world around us. We should be distinct. We should be holy as our Father in heaven is holy – set apart from the world. Speaking of us, Jesus said, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:16). What the law does is show us how not to live like the world.