This article was originally posted in 2013, and can be found here.
About a year ago, two brothers visited the church I used to attend. I chatted with them and found out more about their family background, where they went to school and the reason why they were with us this particular Sunday. I soon found out that they came along because their mother had been attending our church’s Mandarin service for a while now and had recently accepted Christ. As a result the two brothers were on one hand dragged along to church because of their mother, but the other hand were curious to find out what Christianity was about because they’d seen their mother go through significant lifestyle changes since becoming a follower of Christ. They continued coming to church and since then we’d hang out more. At different points in our conversations I would ask them what they thought about Christianity. One of the responses I got from both brothers was: ‘it is difficult.’ At that point I had an idea where they got this impression but I questioned on. They both told me that their mother, for good reasons, had posted the 10 commandments in both their rooms and they would walk out of their rooms each morning reading them and attempting to obey whatever they could. It is no wonder they thought ‘it is difficult’!
I’m sure they are not alone in how they feel. Most children’s bibles will have a colourful page with the 10 commandments written in a font that is appealing. These kids who read these bibles probably grow into thinking that these were commandments that they were meant to obey to make God happy. Now, as the previous two posts in the series have pointed out the Law is a lot more than, and not limited to, the 10 commandments. (The reason I’m using the 10 commandments here as a representation of the Law is because it is what most Christians are familiar with). You see, just like the 10 commandments, the Old Testament Law frustrates believers because it is not just difficult to read and understand – just try reading through Leviticus in one attempt and you’ll see what I mean – but also it also shows the inadequacies of man before a holy and just God. It shows us that God’s standards are way too high, and even our best attempts to please Him fall short of His expectations. What does that leave us with?
Praise be to God that He does not leave us in a state of helplessness. Because the law’s expectations are too high and are completely unattainable, God gave us the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is the Law and what is the Gospel?
To understand the relationship between the law and the Gospel we need to briefly define each of them. The law was a set of God-given instructions for ‘how God’s people were to live once they took possession of the Promise Land’1. This has a lot of implications for believers then and now, but Scripture clearly tells us that one of the functions of the law is to bear ‘witness to make our sin known to us.’ Paul writes in Romans 7:7 ‘What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law…’
How about the Gospel? The Gospel is the good news that Jesus came to remove the sins of mankind and to cover us in His righteousness. Without Christ all of us are subjects of God’s wrath and are all condemned to death and an eternity of suffering (1 John 4:10, John 3:16-18, 1 Timothy 1:15, Mark 2:17). And by repenting and placing our faith in Jesus Christ we can be saved by His life, death and resurrection.
Relationship between the Law and the Gospel
The law frustrates us because it shows us what needs to be done and what we are unable to do. It shows us our sins and our inability to overcome them! Just as we thought we were going well with the ‘thou shalt not murder’ commandment Jesus goes even further by saying that whoever is angry with his brother is guilty of breaking this commandment!2 What hope do we have?
The Law and the Gospel can be seen as individual images that, when combined, form a more infinitely beautiful picture. One can understand the Law by itself, and one can understand the Gospel by itself, but both can be better understood when they are put together.
When God gave the Law He intended that all of it be followed and fulfilled. But He also knew that even the best of us would not be able to perfectly obey His laws. Nevertheless they had to be obeyed. However, notice that we no longer have to kill animals and sacrifice them to God? Why aren’t we sacrificing animals? (When the writer of Hebrews writes ‘According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’, he means it!3)
As you may have guessed, it is because of what we find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the most simple and basic answer that most people will give you and it is absolutely correct. But what I mean by an infinitely more beautiful picture of the Law and Gospel combined is when we see how much Jesus had to do to fulfill the law on our behalf!
Without the law, we would not be able to know how far Jesus needed to go to save us.
Without the law, we would not be able to catch a glimpse of the pain Jesus went through when He was temporarily separated from God the Father. You see, Jesus came to be that final and definitive blood offering for us (which is why we don’t need to offer any more food/animal sacrifices). Jesus came to fulfill God’s holy demands and to be that perfection that we are not. He came to experience the separation from God that we were meant to experience. He came to die the death we should have died. The law gives us insight to God’s absolute perfection and holiness, showing our need for the Gospel and the reality of God’s immense love for us4.
What then do we gain by understanding the law and the gospel? We gain a greater understanding of God’s characteristics. Through the law we get to see God’s absolute perfection and holiness. And as the perfect and holy one He is He condemns all things that are imperfect and unholy. Through the gospel we get to see God’s immense love for us. And as the loving and gracious God He is He covers us in His own righteousness. Is it therefore through an understanding of both the law and the gospel that we get a greater understanding of the knowledge of God.
The law shows us our inadequacies both in our sin and our inability to do anything about them, and the Gospel shows us God’s sufficiency both in fulfilling the law (living the life that we were unable to live) and in forgiving our sins. Therefore, praise be to God! Let me encourage you to read Psalm 98 with a heart full of praise and worship to the God who deserves every bit of it.
Sing a new song to the Lord,
for He has performed wonders;
His right hand and holy arm have won Him victory.
The Lord has made His victory known;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His love and faithfulness to the house of Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen our God’s victory. Shout to the Lord, all the earth;
be jubilant, shout for joy, and sing.
Sing to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and melodious song.
With trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn
in the presence of the Lord, our King.
Let the sea and all that fills it,
the world and those who live in it, resound.
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the mountains shout together for joy
before the Lord,
for He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world righteously
and the peoples fairly.
Ps: the brothers that I mentioned at the beginning of this article are now followers of Christ who know that Christ has done it all for them.