The Law, that is, the Sinai Covenant, in the words of the NT, is ‘not of faith’ (Gals 3:11). God’s covenant with Abraham relied on God’s promise for its fulfilment received simply by faith (Gals 3:17-19, 22). Law, by contrast, depends on human ‘works’. It is a covenant of works and so Paul speaks regularly of ‘the works of the law’ (Gals 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Roms 3:20). Law and promise are not merely two different covenants they are covenants based on two different principles (Gals 3:18). Promise rests entirely on righteousness and life gifted from God while Law depends on righteousness and life gained by man. Promise requires only faith in the Promise-Maker; Law demands faith in self. And so Paul juxtaposes ‘the works of the Law and the hearing of faith’ (Gals 3:2)
Despite the NT consistently and clearly presenting the Sinai Covenant as a works covenant many doubt that it is. It is hard to understand why. The evidence seems overwhelming. For instance at the inception of the covenant we read,
Exod 19:1-8 (ESV)
On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
The Lord makes clear that the covenant with all its promised blessing (you shall be my treasured possession…) depends on their obedience and faithfulness to the covenant laws. Israel understood this, for the people rather too self-confidently affirm, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’. The covenant depended on works; it was a covenant of ‘he who does shall live’. That is precisely the point made in Lev 18.
Lev 18:1-5 (ESV)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.
The covenant did not assume obedience as the consequence or effect of life rather it promised it as the cause or means of life. This law-works perspective of the covenant is repeated regularly through the OT. When Moses repeats the covenant to the generation of Israel about to enter the Land we read,
Deut 4:1 (ESV)
“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
Deut 8:1 (ESV)
“The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers.
Life, and life in the Promised Land depended on ‘doing’ the covenant commands. Moreover, it depended, not in keeping them approximately, but completely. They must be careful to do, ‘the whole commandment’. The curses of a broken covenant fall on those who fail to do ‘all‘ the commandments of the Lord (Ex 15:26; Lev 26:14,15; Deut 5:29; 6:2; 13:18; 27:26; Gals 3:10).
Ezekiel reiterates the covenant conditions to those of his day. That life depends on obedience could scarcely be clearer.
Ezek 18:5-9 (ESV)
“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right- if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully-he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.
Indeed, Ezekiel states a principle that Paul reiterates in the NT – that judgement (life or death) is according to works (Roms 2:6-10).
Ezek 18:21-24 (ESV)
“But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? But when a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice and does the same abominations that the wicked person does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds that he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, for them he shall die.
In Ezekiel 20, the Lord tells how Israel had been warned in her infancy that God’s blessing depended on obedience – ‘if a person does them he shall live’ – yet Israel had disobeyed and God’s judgements had fallen on them in the wilderness – that generation did not enter the Land. In Ezekiel’s day similar failure meant exile from the land; life in the land was contingent on obedience… this do and live.
Ezek 20:10-13 (ESV)
So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned. “Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them in the wilderness, to make a full end of them. (Cf Ezek 20:21)
So unable are Israel to keep the covenant and thus gain life that Ezekiel foresees (as did Moses in Deut 30) a new covenant. In this New Covenant God would allot by grace what Israel could not achieve by works.
Ezek 37:14 (ESV)
And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”
The key point of the New Covenant is that any ‘doing’ that is required, God does it.
Sometimes it is suggested that the life promised in the OT is simply temporal life in the land and not eternal life. In one sense, this mistake is understandable for the OT perspective on life and death is in the main physical and this-worldly. However, by the NT, the understanding of life and death has considerably enlarged. Life in its fulness is ‘eternal life‘ and likewise death, is ‘eternal death‘. Jesus’ discussion with the lawyer who hoped to trip him makes this plain.
Luke 10:25-28 (ESV)
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
Notice the context. It is clear the discussion is framed within the terms of the OT Sinian Covenant. The lawyer is thinking of life earned through law-keeping. He speaks in the language of the Law – ‘what must I do’. That he means ‘do‘ in the sense of law-keeping is clear, for Jesus asks what the Law requires and cites the Lev 18 text ‘do this and live’ (Cf. Matt 19:18). Yet, the lawyer conceives this law-life not merely as temporal but as ‘eternal life’ (cf. Matt 19:16-25).
Furthermore, in the NT letters, when law-life and faith-life are contrasted, the contrast is not that one is temporal and the other eternal but that one is possible and the other impossible. Righteousness and the ensuing life cannot be attained by Law for law-keeping is impossible. The Law does not effect righteousness rather it exposes and excites sin (Roms 3:20; 7:5). Righteousness and life are always gifts from God (Roms 3:21-26; 5:17) and come only through faith. And so Paul writes,
Gal 3:11-12 (ESV)
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Rom 10:5-13 (ESV)
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
This last text is an important one. For here, in NT language, we have the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant to which Ezekiel alluded (Ezek 37) and of which Jeremiah spoke.
Jer 31:31-33 (ESV)
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Obedience is no longer an impossibility (who shall ascend…descend) but entirely possible (the word is near and in your mouth and heart). In the Roms 10 text, Paul takes a text from the OT (Deut 30) that refers to the Law (old covenant) and speaks of it as gospel (new covenant). How he can do this must wait a future blog. The purpose of this post is simply to establish, by glancing at the OT, the truth of Paul’s contention that
Gal 3:12 (ESV)
… the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”