WHAT THE LAW COULD NOT DO
T. PIERCE BROWN
In Romans 8:3, Paul says, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” There is more in that one verse than we can adequately discuss in one article, but we want to consider only one aspect of one phrase in it. What are some of the things the law could not do? There are many, although God Himself gave the law, and it was holy and just and good (Rom.7:12). It was through the law that we could have a knowledge of sin (Rom.3:20). However, even that knowledge of sin was not revealed by the law in the same way it was revealed in Christ. In this article we only want to examine one aspect of that truth.
In the first place, the law revealed that sin is bad and even demanded the death penalty in some cases. However, the law could not show how bad sin is. For example, when a man sinned, he might offer a lamb as a sacrifice. So the law showed that any sin was bad enough to demand that blood be shed because of it. But could the death of a lamb indicate the price that must be paid for sin? Is sin only bad enough that a lamb to satisfy justice? No, it took THE LAMB. It took the cross of Christ to show how bad sin is, for even the law that said a murderer was to be put to death could not show how God viewed all sin. There is no way even God could show by the law how bad sin really is, and how much God hates it, since any sin of which we do not repent separates us from God.
Directly related to that is the fact that the law could not show the mercy and grace of God in any way that remotely compared to that which is shown at the cross. Of course God showed His grace constantly in the Old Testament. The deliverance ofIsraelfromEgyptwas by God’s grace, as was the cure of Naaman, the salvation of Noah, and dozens of other events. None of them demonstrated the extent and depth of God’s grace as did the fact that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6-8). So again Christ did what the law could not do.
Not only did Christ reveal how bad sin is, and how great God’s grace is in a way that the law could not do, he revealed what sin is in a way that the law could not do. Let us look at some startling illustrations of that which most of us probably still miss even though Christ clearly revealed it. First, notice the parable of the Prodigal Son. Many of us may realize that the parable is not so much to show, as we often do in our preaching about it, the awful condition of a person away from his father, wasting his substance in riotous living and how he came back. It was to show how bad the one was that we would have accepted as a paragon of virtue and respected as a worthy citizen and good neighbor. Jesus showed that self-righteous pride is worse than riotous living. Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat and spoke doctrinal truths that should be followed (Mt. 23:2). He also showed that the publicans and harlots, those who were despised by the good religious people of that day and this, would go into thekingdomofGodbefore those upstanding religious leaders who taught the truth about the importance of keeping the law. Does this suggest any lessons for you in our time? Have you found those who piously proclaim their orthodoxy and soundness while classifying as liberal, unsound and lost all who differ with their attitude or actions?
Jesus never hinted, as some we call “liberals” today claim, that some little, apparently insignificant parts of the law, could be disregarded in case of undue hardship, such as if the disciples were hungry and walked through the grain fields on the Sabbath they could disregard the Sabbath laws. They broke no Sabbath laws. They merely broke the tradition of the Jews. He did not teach that the law of tithing was to be disregarded in little insignificant matters. He said in MT.23:23, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye tithe mint and anise and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faith: but these ought ye to have done, and not to have left the other undone.” Note that none of them should be left undone, but some things are weightier than others. We have not always recognized what is weightier.
My point is that over and over Jesus showed that what we consider the better of two persons, Jesus considered them as the worse. He did not condone or overlook the sin of the woman caught in adultery (John8:11), as some would teach or imply. He did show that the Pharisees who were sticklers for keeping the law and teaching accurately the Law of Moses were really worse than the woman was. They were so eager to make sure that they kept the law about washing hands before eating that they would wash all the way to the elbow. Should we not have a high regard for a person who tries to be extra careful not do anything wrong?
The answer to that is, “Yes, but–.” The “but” refers to at least two things about which we must be careful. First, although it is good for us to take whatever precautions we feel we need to take in order to make sure we are right, we have no right to bind them on others and thus make void or transgress the word of God with our traditions (Mt. 15:3). Second, we must resist the almost universal temptation to feel self-righteous and glory in our own worthiness when we live and teach on what we consider a superior plane.
When a person is marching along in the army of the Lord and thinks that everyone is out of step except him, it may be that he needs to re-examine his presuppositions. It is true that we may be marching to the beat of the wrong drummer, and that a whole platoon could all be out of step except Johnny. However, it should call for a close scrutiny and a rigorous self-examination. As Paul said, “If we judged ourselves we should not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:3).
So we see many times the truth that Jesus illustrated by his living, teaching and dying that he cast more light on what sin is and how bad sin is than any law could ever do. Chorazin,BethsaidaandCapernaumno doubt were filled with apparently good religious people who would be welcomed by each of us as a neighbor. In contrast, we would despise and deplore the ungodly depravity and homosexual practices ofSodomandGomorrah. However, Jesus said, “It will be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment than for you” (Mt.11:24).
That is almost frightening, for I have tried all my life to live and teach in such a way that my children and my friends and neighbors could say, “There is a man who teaches the truth of God without fear or favor, and is a good example for us to follow.” I could not quite go as far as the elder brother who said, “Lo, these many years I serve thee, neither transgressed thy law at any time” (LK. 15:29). But I have, like the Pharisee in (LK. 18:11), thanked God that I was not like some men I know who are self-righteous and judge others as if they had the final say in a man’s eternal destiny. Jesus wants us to see more clearly that it is almost universally true that we think of our own sins or shortcomings as relatively small, but that of others are always worse. We know the admonition about the mote and the beam (MT. 7:3-5) but we are almost always sure that the other person has the beam, and we have only the mote, if anything at all. My primary point in this article is to help us be aware that Christ did what the law could not do in revealing sin and sinners in the proper light. We would do well to make sure that our evaluation is in the light that Christ shed upon it, and not merely in terms of our own supposed superior understanding of the law.
T. Pierce Brown
1068 Mitchell Ave.
Cookeville, TN. 38501
Phone: (615) 528-3600