Read the series.
Many dispensationalists are mistaken about the impetus for obeying the Mosaic Law, and they’re mistaken about Paul’s main point in his letter to the Galatian churches.1 These errors compound one another and, like an investment gone mad,2 they produce great confusion among Christians.
I’ll repeat something I wrote in the first installment of this series:
In Galatians, Paul was not arguing against the Old Covenant. He was arguing against the twisted, warped version of the Old Covenant the scribes and Pharisees had been pushing for so long.
Dispensationalists have made many attempts to explain the relationship between Old Covenant saints, the law and Christian life today.3 They often labor mightily to avoid the excesses of Scofield and Chafer, while yet simultaneously upholding a strong discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. They often focus relentlessly on Paul’s letters (particularly Galatians and Romans), and less on the Old Covenant texts or their continuity with Jesus’ ministry.
As a result, many Christians mistakenly believe Old Covenant saints followed the law out of fear, or perhaps even as some kind of works righteousness.4 On the question of “why they followed the law,” the standard dispensationalist answer is terribly wrong – and this is the great error of their position.
In part one of this little series, I provided a brief survey of Jesus’ own interpretation of the Mosaic law (Mk 12:28-34). In part two, I quickly surveyed several Old Covenant texts and argued God’s people have always followed His law because they love Him. In this last installment, I’ll present a test case from Old Testament history, and invite the reader to follow along and draw his own conclusions – why did they follow the law?
Solomon’s Prayer at the Dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:22-53)
The temple has been built. The ark has been brought forth, and placed into the holy of holies. The people are offering sacrifices (likely burnt offerings); “so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered,” (1 Kgs 8:5). As soon as the priests place the ark and exit the sacred space, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord,” (1 Kgs 8:10-11). Yahweh had come to dwell among His people.
Solomon begins his public prayer to God in the presence of all the people by praising God for “keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to thy servants who walk before thee with all their heart,” (1 Kgs 8:23). God keeps His promises (cf. Isa 40:6-8; 1 Pet 1:23-25). Solomon is moved by love and gratitude, and understands God expects His children to love Him with all their hearts (cf. Deut 6:5; 10:16).
He pleads with God to keep His eyes and ears open, to hear the cries from His people (1 Kgs 8:28-29):
And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant and of thy people Israel, when they pray toward this place; yea, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest, forgive (1 Kings 8:30).
Solomon presupposes God’s people will spend time praying and pleading to God, asking for forgiveness for their sins. He continues:
When thy people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against thee, if they turn again to thee, and acknowledge thy name, and pray and make supplication to thee in this house; then hear thou in heaven, and forgive the sin of thy people Israel, and bring them again to the land which thou gavest to their fathers (1 Kings 8:33-34).
In the future, when (notice the certainty) Israel begins to suffer military disaster because of her sin against God:
- If they turn to back to Him (i.e. repent);
- If they acknowledge God’s name (i.e. reaffirm His Lordship, put Him back on the throne in their personal and corporate lives);
- If they pray and plead to God
Then Solomon asks God to:
His entire prayer is predicated on that first, most important commandment – to love God with everything they have (cf. Deut 6:4-5; Mk 12:29-30). There is no mention of bringing 100 sacrifices to “square” things away, is there? Solomon reminds the congregation their corporate life must be founded on the rock of sincere love for God, which produces loving obedience.
Solomon knows the law can’t be kept perfectly (after all, he assumes sin will occur), but one of the great lessons of the Old Covenant is the need for a final, definitive, once for all and total cleansing from sin, something better than the temporary band-aid of animal sacrifices, which were nothing but object lessons pointing to the true lamb of God to come - Jesus Christ.
He goes on:
When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against thee, if they pray toward this place, and acknowledge thy name, and turn from their sin, when thou dost afflict them, then hear thou in heaven, and forgive the sin of thy servants, thy people Israel, when thou dost teach them the good way in which they should walk; and grant rain upon thy land, which thou hast given to thy people as an inheritance (1 Kings 8:35-36).
In the future, when Israel begins to suffer drought because of her corporate sin against God:
- If they pray towards God’s house;
- If they acknowledge His name (i.e. reaffirm Lordship);
- If they turn from their sin when God afflicts them
Then Solomon asks God to:
- Hear them from heaven
- Forgive their sins
- Teach them by corrective action
- Remove the punishment
Solomon is describing true repentance (cf. Prov 28:13). He doesn’t mention law-keeping, external rituals or even a sacrifice. He advocates repentance. He also models how to teach believers through corporate, congregational prayer.
Solomon isn’t finished:
If there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence or blight or mildew or locust or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by any man or by all thy people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house; then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and act, and render to each whose heart thou knowest, according to all his ways (for thou, thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men); that they may fear thee all the days that they live in the land which thou gavest to our fathers (1 Kings 8:37-40).
If there is a famine, plague or sickness of any sort in the land of Israel:
- Any prayer or plea
- Made by any man or all people
- Knowing their own hearts, and stretching out their hands towards God’s house in repentance and submission (what else could this posture of abject submission mean!?)
Then Solomon asks God to:
- Hear from heaven
- Act by rendering to each man according to his own heart (e.g. is he truly repentant?)
- So that each person will fear God always.
In other words, Solomon understands God uses discipline as a teaching tool for His children (cf. Heb 12:5ff). Again, there is no reference to law-keeping, no hint of works righteousness, and no evidence of a strictly fear-based approach to covenant obedience.
Solomon now turns to God’s grace to Gentile converts in the covenant community:
Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of thy people Israel, comes from a far country for thy name’s sake (for they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to thee; in order that all the peoples of the earth may know thy name and fear thee, as do thy people Israel, and that they may know that this house which I have built is called by thy name (1 Kings 8:41-43).
When (not “if”) a Gentile foreigner comes to Israel to seek God for salvation (“for thy name’s sake”) and prays towards God’s house, then Solomon asks God to:
- Hear from heaven
- Answer the Gentile’s prayer
- So that more Gentiles would know God and fear Him
How will the Gentiles hear about Yahweh? From His covenant people, who are a kingdom of priests (cf. Ex 19:6), whose job is to show God to this pagan world. He doesn’t pray they will learn the sacrificial system, or learn about works righteousness. He prays these Gentiles would know “thy name and fear thee, as do thy people Israel.” His plea is that they, too would be able to call the Lord their God, know who He really is, and (by implication) serve Him because they love Him with all their heart, soul, and might.
If they sin against thee—for there is no man who does not sin—and thou art angry with them, and dost give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; yet if they lay it to heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent, and make supplication to thee in the land of their captors, saying, ‘We have sinned, and have acted perversely and wickedly;’
if they repent with all their mind and with all their heart in the land of their enemies, who carried them captive, and pray to thee toward their land, which thou gavest to their fathers, the city which thou hast chosen, and the house which I have built for thy name;
then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place their prayer and their supplication, and maintain their cause and forgive thy people who have sinned against thee, and all their transgressions which they have committed against thee; and grant them compassion in the sight of those who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are thy people, and thy heritage, which thou didst bring out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace) (1 Kings 8:46-51).
If Israelites sin against God, and He allows them to be carried away captive by a pagan army:
- If they “lay it to heart”
If they repent
- If they plead to God and admit, “we have sinned, and have acted perversely and wickedly”
- If they “repent with all their mind and all their heart”
Then Solomon asks God to:
- Hear their prayers and pleas from heaven
- Forgive their sins
- Forgive all their transgressions
- Grant them compassion among their captors
Solomon teaches that God forgives if His people repent, and return to Him. If they do this, then God will be merciful.
Solomon said nothing about works righteousness, a checklist approach to salvation or sanctification, or religion of externalism, or a path to salvation by obeying the law. These were the errors of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Specifically, it was the error the Judaizers made in the churches in Galatia, and it was what Paul spent the entire letter arguing against.
No, for Solomon, Jesus, Moses, John the Batist, Malachi, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Joshua, Samuel and everyone else in the pages (or kilobytes) of Scripture, there is only sincere, all-encompassing love for God which naturally produces joyful obedience.
Whether you lived in Noah’s day, Abraham’s day, Moses’ day, David’s day, Isaiah’s day, Paul’s day, or in the present day, these basic principles never change.5 You love God with everything you have. So, you serve Him and obey His holy law:
- because you love Him,
- because of His mercy, love, grace and kindness,
- because of all He’s done for you,
- because He saved you from yourself,
- and because He didn’t have to redeem you and didn’t need to rescue you, but He did it anyway
Why did they follow the law? Because they loved God. It’s always been that way. It always will be that way.
1 See, for example, Wayne Strickland’s contribution to the book Five Views on Law and Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999; Kindle reprint, 2010). He wrote, “Expositors such as C. E. B. Cranfield and D. Fuller have attempted to harmonize the ‘seeming’ contradictory statements of Paul regarding the law by arguing that wherever Paul disparages the law, he is actually denouncing legalism. According to this understanding, Paul did not present the Law and Gospel in antithesis, merely the Gospel and the Pharisaic misunderstanding of the Law. Cranfield attempts to prove this thesis by citing that Paul did not have a separate Greek term available to represent legalism. Consequently, he had to employ the term nomos to denote both the Sinaitic legal code and the abuse or legalistic use of the law. Is this a warranted understanding of the term?”
Strickland argued energetically against this viewpoint. His position is representative of many dispensationalists.
2 I’m an insurance fraud investigator, so I feel I ought to throw in some bad financial analogies every once and a while.
4 Strickland seems to suggest Old Covenant saints were under some kind of works righteousness system. He wrote, discussing Romans 10:4, “With the meaning of “cessation” for telos, Paul is contrasting the law righteousness with faith righteousness. The coming of Christ to the human scene brought an end to the law, making an appeal to Romans 10:4 in support of a continuum unjustified,” (Five Views, 270).
He also wrote, “The righteousness that Israel failed to achieve by the works of the law has been replaced by righteousness made possible by Christ’s coming. Now it is possible to achieve God’s righteousness by faith,” (Five Views, 269).
Are we to believe it wasn’t possible to achieve God’s righteousness by faith before the incarnation? I don’t believe Strickland actually believes this; I assume he was less than precise in his terminology. However, this only demonstrates the problems with the standard dispensationalist position on the Mosaic law.
William vanGemeren wrote in response, “In support of his position, Strickland deduces from Romans 10:5-8 (cf. Gal. 3:10-12) that the Mosaic law and Christianity have little in common. They represent two kinds of righteousness: a righteousness based on the law and a righteousness based on faith. The former focuses on Moses and is without Christ, whereas the latter focuses on Jesus as the Christ. If this is what Paul is saying, then I must submit to my brother in the Lord and repent from my Reformed view of the law,” (Five Views, 282).
There is no need for Bro. vanGemeren to repent; Strickland is wrong!
5 “These two laws— love God and loving others— are the greatest because they epitomize the nature and character of God from which all other laws of the Torah arise. Obedience to God is not about making sure every ‘i’ is dotted and every ‘t’ is crossed so that we are worthy to enter God’s presence. True obedience comes from a heart that has experienced God’s amazing grace and been transformed by it,” (Strauss, Mark, 545).