Why Read the Old Testament – 3rd Use of the Law

I enjoy a good book. or three. or five. As an avid reader, one of the ways I keep track of my reading, spur myself on, and learn about new books is through Goodreads – a social networking site for readers. The site allows me to track what I’m reading as well as what my friends are reading (I am currently reading 10 books at once – I may have a problem). One exciting feature that Goodreads provides is that ability to create a reading challenge for the year. It’s a new years resolution of book reading and as you go through the year reading books, the site will tell you if you are on track to meet your goal. As I am writing this, the current statistics for the entire site of Goodreads is as follows:

  • 372,546 Participants
  • 20,982,591 Total Books Pledged
  • 56 Average Books Per Challenge
  • 242 Challenges Completed

The roughly 400,000 of us pledged to read almost 21 million books this year! Despite living in a post-literate age, we are still people who read. Whether it’s theology, history, crime fiction, manga, steam punk, or young adult science fiction, we are still reading. Yet, why does the Old Testament remain largely unread and unexplored by North American Christians?

So many books, so little time. A picture by Stephen Shaffer
So many books, so little time. A picture by Stephen Shaffer

The Old Testament can serve as a mirror of our life before God and lead us deeper into the embrace of Christ. It is also the Bible Jesus knew and loved. But I wonder if, despite all of these wonderful reasons, we still struggle with what the Old Testament is for. What is the point of reading the Old Testament?

There is always a danger in reducing the God’s Word to its function, but as motivation for reading it, I think it can be helpful. Thankfully, we are not the first people to ask this question. During the reformation, as the core teaching of free justification by grace through faith was being recovered, the question of how to read the Old Testament resurfaced as well.

If we are saved, not by works, but by grace, what do we do with all the commandments of the Old Testament? If our standing before God is determined by Christ’s work and not our obedience to the Law, does that mean we don’t need to pay attention to the Old Testament anymore?

In response to these (and other) questions, the Protestant Reformers named three key uses for the God’s Law – three ways God uses our knowledge and reading of his Law in our walk with Christ. The first use of the Law was to convict us of sin and lead us to Christ. This is the ‘man in the mirror’ use of the Law. We need God’s law to remind us that our standing with God cannot come based upon our own righteousness and obedience, but must come as a gift from God through the cross of Christ.

The second use of the Law was in civil government. The Reformers believed that the state could use the power of the sword (force, violence, punishment) in accordance with the Law (particularly the second half of the 10 Commandments) to ‘curb the evil of men.’ They believed the government could use the Law as a guideline to help prevent our own evil from spilling out and damaging society – murder, theft, adultery, etc.

The last use of the law is, perhaps, the most important for those walking the way of Christ. In addition to convicting us of sin, the Law still leads us in righteousness. The Law serves to teach us the ways of God’s kingdom and how to live in gratitude for the salvation we have received in Christ. We don’t become right with God because of our obedience, but our walking in God’s ways by the power of the Spirit is an act of gratitude to God for the free gift of salvation. Consider the words Jesus uses toward the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount:

Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them, and teaches them, will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He came not to get rid of God’s will and commandments, but to fulfill them for us in his life and to fill them full with the meaning they were meant to have by interpreting them (see the rest of the Sermon on the Mount). God’s law still has a purpose in the life of a Christian – lead us in the way of Christ. John Calvin put it this way:

For although the Law is written and engraven on their hearts by the finger of God, that is, although they are so influenced and actuated by the Spirit, that they desire to obey God, there are two ways in which they still profit in the Law. For it is the best instrument for enabling them daily to learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow, and to confirm them in this knowledge;…Then, because we need not doctrine merely, but exhortation also, the servant of God will derive this further advantage from the Law: by frequently meditating upon it, he will be excited to obedience, and confirmed in it, and so drawn away from the slippery paths of sin. (Institutes II.7.12)

When we read the Old Testament, we still learn the will of God. We ‘learn with greater truth and certainty what that will of the Lord is.’ And we are also encouraged, spurred on, in walking in God’s way. We are ‘excited to obedience.’

God’s Word is the stuff of life. This includes the Old Testament. We do not keep the Law in order to become part of God’s people – we are adopted into the family because of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. But as we are adopted, we enter into a family which has a certain way of life. The Old Testament can help us learn the way of God’s Kingdom, the way of our new life as children of God. That is a reason to read, study, and meditate on it.

How frequently is the Old Testament read in your church?

How has the Old Testament helped you on the path of following Christ? 

Which use of the Law connects most with how you read the Old Testament? 

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