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The Purpose of the Law

by Dr. Robert Jeffress

Many Christians View the Old Testament law negatively. But the apostle Paul also wrote, “the Law is holy” (Rom. 7:12) and “the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). There’s nothing wrong with the Old Testament law. It’s just that the law, strictly speaking, is limited.

So what is the purpose of the Old Testament law?

  • The law reveals God’s righteous character, but it can’t make us righteous (Gal. 2:21).
  • The law is a tutor to teach us about the Savior, but it can’t save us (3:24).
  • The law detects spiritual death, but it can’t make us alive (v. 21).

We can think of it this way: Imagine the Old Testament law is like a mirror, which, according to the apostle James, is exactly what it’s like (1:23—25). What’s the purpose of a mirror? When we look in a mirror, we can see the dirt on our faces. (And these days, my mirror also reveals a lot more wrinkles and gray hair!) The mirror shows us what needs to be cleaned, but it can’t remove any of the dirt.

The Old Testament law is like a mirror that shows us how dirty our lives really are. When we look into the law, we see the perfection God demands and realize all the ways we fall short of God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:23). Like a mirror, the Old Testament law reveals that we are dirty, but it is absolutely powerless to clean us up.

Does that mean the law is bad? Not at all. The law is doing exactly what God designed it to do. The law reflects God’s holiness and reveals how much we need His forgiveness and salvation. The purpose of the law is to lead us to the only thing that can remove our sin and guilt — the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ that cleanses us (Isa. 1:18).

Did God believe the Israelites could actually keep the law? Of course not. God knew we could never keep the standards of the law. Nowhere in the Bible is the idea that we can earn our salvation by keeping the law. That’s impossible. That’s why God instituted a sacrificial system with the understanding that His people would need forgiveness.

Some Christians think the Old Testament teaches we’re saved by the law and the New Testament teaches we’re saved by grace. That isn’t true. We find grace in the very first pages of the Old Testament. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sinned and sewed together that ill-fitting covering of fig leaves, they experienced God’s grace when He killed an animal, took the skin, and covered the first couple. We see grace and faith in Genesis 15:6, which says Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Every believer is saved the same way, whether it was in the Old or the New Testament. Salvation is by grace, which is appropriated through faith in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8). God gave the law not to save His people but to teach them how to live. The law, including the Ten Commandments, was given for the personal well-being of God’s people.


Dr. Jeffress unpacks more about the Ten Commandments this Wednesday and Thursday on LIFE TODAY. Excerpted from The 10 by Dr. Robert Jeffress. Copyright ©2023 by Robert Jeffress. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.