This from Bill:
Back in 1985 or 86, I had a conversation with a friend at Seminary that has bothered me ever since. She contended that one could be saved by obeying the O.T. law. From her reasoning, she felt that God would have been unjust if He knowingly gave people a law that wouldn’t get them into heaven. I countered that the law could not save anyone and that it was never intended to, quoting Galatians 2:15-16 “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified (NIV).”
In spite of my persuasiveness, she did not budge. Her position has bothered me ever since—which is another way of saying that after 25 years, I still can’t let the conversation rest. The crux of the argument has to do with the real purpose of the law. Was it a list of things that people needed to do to get into heaven? The answer is no. The purpose of the law was to reveal to arrogant people that they are not as holy or righteous as they think. So, every time I see this topic addressed in the Scriptures, I yell, “Aha!” and highlight it in my Bible. Today is one of those days.
I’ve been reading the book of Romans in my quiet times—comparing the Nuevo Traducción Viviente (NTV, the Spanish versión of the New Living Translation) to the NET Bible. (For an explanation of the two, please see the boring footnote below.) The verses that would have confirmed my victory in the discussion are Romans 3:19-20. Since I’ve been reading in Spanish, I’ll include for you (at no additional cost) my quick and easy Spanish translation.
Rom. 3:19-20--19 Obviamente, la ley se aplica a quienes fue entregada, porque su propósito es evitar que la gente tenga excusas y demostrar que todo el mundo es culpable delante de Dios. 20 Pues nadie llegará jamás a ser justo ante Dios por hacer lo que la ley manda. La ley sencillamente nos muestra lo pecadores que somos. (NTV)
Bill’s quick and easy translation: Obviously, the law (of Moses) applies to those to whom it was given, because it’s purpose was to keep people from making excuses and to demonstrate that the whole world is guilty before God. Nobody will ever stand before God justified (or righteous) because of their obedience to the law’s mandates. The law simply shows what sinners we are (or, that we are sinners).
In my opinion, this is one of the most theologically significant quotes of scripture. Some thoughts include:
1. The law was never intended to bring one to salvation; rather, to open one's eyes to the condition of his/her heart, soul, and (lack of) character. 3:20, in the NET Bible reads as follows: 3:20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. Or, as the NTV puts it, “The Law simply shows us what sinners we are.” The revelation that we are sinners, the awareness that we’re not as good as our excuses make us out to be, is the impetus for running to the cross. The law reveals that we are sinners and that revelation makes us desperate for the grace that Jesus gives. So, in this way, the law really does have a significant (though painful) part in bringing us to salvation.
2. Bob Comfort is a famous evangelist who argues that we should bring the 10 Commandments into the evangelism discussion whenever possible, to reveal to people that they are not as good as they think. He makes a great point. Otherwise, people define "good" in self-serving ways. It falls clearly in line with Hebrews 4:12, which says that God’s word discerns the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. That is, God’s word clearly reveals our hypocrisy. As such, our evangelism discussions would be benefitted by memorizing the 10 Commandments and the Romans Road. (I tried this with a taxi driver last week and found that I could only list 8 of the 10 commandments—and only with great difficulty.)
3. Some say it is better to keep people ignorant of the law, so they won't be accountable. But, Rom. 2:11-16, especially verse15, shows that of the law is written on the hearts of all people to justly hold them accountable. “They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them... (NET).”
So, to my friend in Seminary (whose name I can’t remember), I say “Take that!”or “Touché!” (which looks a lot like “touchy,” pronounced with a French accent). To the rest of us, these verses remind us that God gets to decide was “good” is. The fact that we don’t cuss or smoke anymore is great, but it is not the same as achieving righteousness in the eyes of God. True righteousness is the gift of God, which we receive by putting our faith in Christ. So, it’s time to put a smile on our faces and look like the refugees that we are. We are people who, by grace, have just walked out of a burning building without getting singed. St. Paul says in Romans 5:1-2, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
(Caution—the following discussion is boring and technical and may be skipped by those who prefer pithy conversations over technical ones: The NET Bible is a modern translation that can be accessed for free on the web and which gives a lot of footnotes about the translation process. For example, the NET Bible may discuss why there is a variation between two common translations (e.g., why the NIV is different than the King James) and why/how the NET translators chose their version. In terms of dynamic equivalency (the translation philosophy of trying to accurately convey the meaning of whole phrases, rather than a word for word translation), the NET bible is the latter (i.e., more didactic—being closer to the NASB). The NTV is the opposite—sometimes going too far in their attempt to clarify what the text is saying. I’ve enjoyed reading the NTV and the NET, together, because the practice of translating the NTV’s Spanish has produced a lot of questions about what the original Greek or Hebrew is really saying. As such, the NET’s translation footnotes have really come in handy.)