Writing about the Old Covenant is something of a difficult task. If you look at your Bible, you’ll note that three quarters of it are largely dedicated to the Old Covenant. Beyond that, the only thing more misunderstood in contemporary evangelicalism than the Old Covenant is, perhaps, the book of Revelation. This, by the way, is not a coincidence.
When Christ came to His covenant people, He came to a people who had every Old Testament book that we have but hardly understood any of it. This is not a fault of the Old Testament. Man’s inability to see Christ in the temple furniture is not a deficiency in the carpentry. It’s also not a deficiency in our eyes; we have them and they work, but we don’t see. By faith, we can see Christ everywhere—in the Old Covenant and the New. Without faith, we can’t even see Him in the gospels.
A common assumption is that the Old Testament taught men how to be saved by works; the original Scofield Reference Bible went so far as to say this explicitly. However, this is nothing but rank heresy. No one can be justified by the works of the law; Paul went so far as to say this explicitly in Romans 3:20. The pendulum swings, then, and many consider the Old Covenant to be useless for anything except condemning us. This, however, just replaces one error with another.
As we’ll see, there are three main uses for the Old Covenant Law. Yes, these are based on Calvin’s three uses. What did you expect from a series called Calvinism and the Rest of It?
To Show God’s Righteousness
There are six hundred and thirteen commands in the Old Testament Law. It comes to us like a size 13 boot comes to a housefly. It is a yoke so great that no one can bear it (Acts 15:10), so why did God give it to us?
To answer this, we need to remember that all men are condemned in Adam’s sin. We talked about this before, but to reiterate, God holds everyone in violation of His covenant of creation and therefore worthy of death. No amount of law keeping could actually save a person, although further lawlessness does serve to further condemn. This makes sense. If you’ve just murdered someone, you can’t work off your sentence by doing the speed limit as you flee the crime scene.
Our nature, though, is to downplay our sin. Scripture says that although we know the things we do are wrong, we not only do them, but we also approve of those who do them (Romans 1:32); we make sin out to be something less than sin. We suppress the truth about God (Romans 1:18). Although our moral conscience is enough to convict us, we’re all experts at ignoring it.
Ignoring it can look differently for different people. For some it involves only glossing over the sins we don’t do and pretending that we’re righteous because we don’t do those things. Others, however, ignore their conscience almost entirely and indulge heartily in whatever sin their hand finds to do. Both of these lead to damnation.
The law comes to us and it shuts us up. It shuts up the man who thinks he’s better than his neighbor and it shuts up the man who doesn’t care about his neighbor. This is very important because in order to come to God for forgiveness, a man must know that he desperately needs it.
The law crushes us so that we can know we are already crushed. It gives us hundreds of commands we can’t keep so that we can know that we don’t even come close to keeping God’s commands. In this sense, it doesn’t create the problem; it shows us the problem.
Side note: I’m speaking here of written law, the commands of the Old Testament as they were given to Moses. God’s standard for righteousness certainly does cause problems for us, but His giving of a written code to His people is more about showing us the problem than it is about creating the problem.
Now, when we see that we have this problem, we have two choices. We can ignore it, what some call proactively waiting for the problem to go away; or we can cry out to God for mercy and forgiveness. Before the law came, we had this same dilemma with our consciences, but with the law, God’s standard is turned up to eleven, as it were. A written code is harder to suppress than a still, small voice in the back of our mind.
The law, then, reveals God’s standard and pushes us to go to Him for salvation—which we needed even before we heard the law. In this sense, it reveals God’s righteousness. It also reveals God’s righteousness in another sense.
All of the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, and in some sense every single command points us to Christ. The most obvious example of this is the sacrificial system. The Day of Atonement presupposed that everyone in Israel had sinned that year. It was the Old Testament version of John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” It showed the people their sin and pointed them to the Savior. It did this in countless other ways.
The law, then, was not given to teach people how to merit or earn justification. Rather it was given to teach people of their need for a justification that comes, not by the works of the law, but by faith (Romans 3:28). The law told everyone they were condemned so that the regenerate would cry out to God for salvation and thereby receive it. It revealed God’s righteous standard and it revealed how to acquire God’s righteousness—it revealed Christ.
To Restrain Evil
The second use of the law is to restrain public evil. Before the gospel comes to us and we are regenerated, our desire to keep the law (even if only in part) helps to stabilize societies so that men are not as bad as they can possibly be. It allowed for the preservation of the Messianic line from Moses to Christ and even today it allows the gospel to go forward with fewer hinderances into all the nations.
To Instruct the Regenerate
Lastly, the regenerate man finds the law to be a tremendous blessing. He doesn’t see it as a way of meriting God’s approval, but He sees that the man who follows it is blessed. He sees the law as a good thing; he longs to behave according to the righteousness freely given to him, so he reads and studies God’s law in order that he might not sin against God.
The law gives us instruction for every field of our lives; it contains instructions for our thought lives, our family lives, our public worship, and even commands that pertain to government. The Christian considers all of these a blessing: a lamp to his feet and a light to his path. Now that he has been quickened by the Holy Spirit, the law seems good to him and he is enabled in some measure to follow it.
The Old Covenant is not an awkward law-heavy rough spot in God’s otherwise gracious plan for humanity. Nor is the church age inconsistent with God’s treatment of Israel. The Old Covenant and the New Covenant are both part of God’s covenant of grace, which we saw goes all the way back to Adam and his children. Man’s righteousness before God has always depended on faith and all 613 commands only serve to make that message louder and clearer; it is only hardness of heart that muddles things up.
God’s covenant of grace is made most clear in the New Covenant, which is what we’ll be looking at next.