Why They Followed the Law (Part 3)

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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:

  • Hear
  • Forgive
  • Restore

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
  • Forgive
  • 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.

Conclusion

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.

Notes

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.  

3 See, for example, Strickland’s contribution to the Five Views volume, and especially Myron Houghton, Law & Grace (Schaumberg, IL: RBP, 2012).  

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).

Thanks

Well argued. And I appreciate this study. There is so much broad criticism of Moses these days... some of it borders on unintentional blasphemy. There was no new testament when these words were inspired:

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; (ESV, Psalm 19:7)

Or these...

7 I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules. (ESV, Psalm 119:7)  

And from a NT perspective Paul wrote:

13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. (ESV, Romans 7:13–14)  

The "that which is good" here is either law as a category or the law of Moses in particular.

Either way, it's a far cry from the way many speak of the law today (dispensationalist and non-dispensationalist alike!)

Spot On

Tyler, thanks for your work on this. A couple of thoughts. First, this framework causes some real problems for Sailhamer's thesis that Moses wrote the Pentateuch to contrast a life of Faith (Abraham) with a life under the Law (Moses). Also, do you think there are any implications for the classical Lutheran position that the Law is "anything which makes demands" (cf. The Book of Concord here: http://bookofconcord.org/fc-ep.php#V. Law and Gospel) and the subsequent relationship of Law and Grace (particularly in the Mosaic Covenant)?

[i]Working to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of the faith of those to whom God has called me, that I may rejoice with them in Him - Phil. 2:17[/i] I blog at [url=http://teambrazil.org]

Brandon

I was actually re-reading the Book of Concord on the use of law and Gospel last night. I didn't get past the first paragraph before my wife called for me to destroy a huge, evil killer spider in the kitchen, so I'll get back to you on the Lutheran position. It's been about five years since I last read Sailhamer's work on the Pentateuch, and need to read it again now that I'm a bit less dull than I used to be.

Bottom line, I have not found the classical dispensationalist position on the law, OT saints and the Christian today to be satisfactory. I've read Houghton's work three times, and I find it utterly incomprehensible. It's probably the most comprehensive dispensationalist treatment I've seen on the matter. My journey on this matter:

  1. I had no formal theological education before Seminary, had always attended dispensationalist churches, and had a vague idea that "we're under grace, not law."
  2. I was taught a dispensationalist approach in Seminary. I was never entirely comfortable with it. I'd been a criminal investigator in the military police and I always had the sense that, on the issue of the Mosaic law, dispensationalists were trying too hard to make a case that wasn't there.
  3. I preached through Galatians, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Hosea, Malachi, Habakkuk, Jonah, Ecclesiastes, Zechariah, John and Mark in a space of two years. I became very skeptical about the standard DT approach to the Mosaic law, the OC saint, and the Christian. I saw great continuity between the Old Covenant, Jesus' message, and the Apostle Paul's message in Galatians. I didn't see a radical discontinuity about the principles for why a believer follows God or how he relates to Him. The outward forms of worship were certainly different, and the contexts between Old Covenant Israel and the New Covenant church are different, to be sure - but I saw great continuity about the basic principles and impetus for service.
  4. I've read McClain, Houghton, Chafer and Ryrie on the law. I'm still not sold.

So, all told, I'm likely a dispensationalist "heretic" on this one.

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

Heresy

Tyler, thanks for continuing to interact on this with me. For what it's worth, there are Dispensationalists who offer a more balanced perspective. I have benefited from Eugene Merrill's OT Biblical Theology..."Everlasting Kingdom," I think. I'm looking at the Portuguese version here on my shelf, and it's just called "Teologia do Antigo Testamento." Very vanilla title. Anyway, Allan Ross, who was at the time at Dallas, contributed a good article in "Continuity and Discontinuity" which also was very firm on the gracious nature of the law and the capacity of Israel to obediently enjoy the blessings of the law by lives of faith. So there's some good stuff out there. But like you, I found "Law & Grace" by Houghton to be an unhelpful framework. I have a good friend who thinks the world of Houghton, and I'm sure Houghton has a sharp mind, but there are intrinsic inconsistencies in his model. 

Here's another question. How would we distinguish what we are saying about continuity from the classical Reformed model of continuity of grace? There are enough variations of "New Covenant" theology, or whatever Gentry and Wellum call themselves, that we don't need to consider the overarching "Covenant of Grace" as necessary to the system (they in fact deny such a construction). So how should we distinguish what we are saying about the continuity of grace from a generally covenantal perspective?

 

[i]Working to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of the faith of those to whom God has called me, that I may rejoice with them in Him - Phil. 2:17[/i] I blog at [url=http://teambrazil.org]

Brandon

Don't have time to answer very much right now. I suggest you listen to Dr. Paul Henebury's audio series on Biblical Covenantalism, or read his articles on the same, or watch his video presentations. I think his is the best overarching framework for understanding the storyline of the Bible. I was working my own way towards the same thing before I stumbled across his materials.

I don't see a need for an over-arching covenant of grace. I think we have God's revealed character, and the principles of how and why His people ought to relate to Him. The different biblical covenants (e.g. Noahaic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic) are all mile-markers playing important roles on the road to the prize, which is the New Covenant (i.e. Christ). The outward forms of worship are different between certain covenants (i.e. the Mosaic and the New), but the motivation for service is the same, because God is the same.

I think dispensationalismism, in it's essence, is right about Israel and the need for a responsible hermeneutic. I think the dispensations themselves are a poor framework for understanding Scripture, and they fit a bit like Cinderella's glass slipper on the wicked stepsisters - not well. I think it's a framework with a lot of insights, but I think it's really being forced onto the text in some areas. We're better off to focus on the explicit covenants in Scripture, and build a framework from that. And, to my way of thinking, Christ is the telos of all the covenants, and the goal they're all pointing and working towards. So, I suggest our center is Christ - built around the covenants as they progress through Scripture.

I"m probably disappointing you with my answers. No time. Must dash!     

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

Fellow heretic

I also have had trouble with the "Cliff's Notes" version of dispensationalism, at least, as I read through the Old Testament in light of the new and see Christ shining through in a ton of places.  So I guess I'm a heretic with Tyler on that.   And I simultaneously am uneasy with the Lutheran approach--it also seems to place a gulf between Torah and evangelios that I don't see in Scripture.  

It strikes me as well that Paul's denunciation of Pharisaical legalism--quite different from what Moses preached, I agree--stands as a warning to us about the perils of "fencing off" God's moral laws with our own rules.  Neither Paul nor Christ appear to have ever squabbled with earnest students of the written Torah, who sought to live it in their lives.  The squabble was largely with the Pharisees and Sadducees, along with the corrupt priesthood.  There is a lesson there, I think. 

The Way Out Is Through

There have been a couple of helpful dispensational reformulations lately that are worth mentioning. A number of years ago Mal Couch wrote an article entitled "The Relationship between the Dispensations and Covenants," Published in the second volume of what was then known as the Conservative Theological Journal (Now the Journal of Dispensational Theology), this article was an attempt to provide an element of continuity through an emphasis on the Covenants. It's worth reading. More recently, Michael Vlach just published a massive Biblical Theology entitled "He Will Reign Forever." He stands tall on the shoulders of McCune's theology of the Kingdom while providing a more balanced view of the questions of Law and Grace. His research is very, very extensive and he is thoroughly conversant on issues of Progressive Dispensationalism, Progressive Covenantalism (Gentry and Wellum's view), and classical Covenantal thought, while maintaining a generally Classical Dispensational approach. His volume ought to be considered a major contribution to the development of Dispensational thought.

[i]Working to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of the faith of those to whom God has called me, that I may rejoice with them in Him - Phil. 2:17[/i] I blog at [url=http://teambrazil.org]

Brandon

I plan to get Vlach soon. I suggest everybody look at Henebury's stuff (linked in one of my responses, above).

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.


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