Since the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the question has been asked endlessly: “What is the role of the law of God in light of the Gospel?” The apostle Paul found himself asking it (for example, Gal. 3:19: “What purpose then does the law serve?” NKJV). He had a profound sense of the place of the Law in the history of redemption and in the covenant purposes of God. But he also answered the question in terms of the life of the believer (for example, in Romans 8:3–4). Ever since, Christians have faced the challenge of walking the thin red biblical line that avoids the dangers of legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other.
The anonymous author of Hebrews was fascinated by the relationship between the Law and the Gospel. He explained how the Mosaic administration was like a shadow cast backwards into the old covenant period by the work of Christ in the new covenant (Heb. 8:5). Now that the new covenant has been forged in the blood of Christ, the old is revealed for what it always was, shadow rather than reality. Now it is “obsolete” (8:13).
Using the word “obsolete” about the Law makes some Christians nervous! So here, first of all, is something to think about: Unless I can say loudly enough for others to hear: “In Christ, God has made the Mosaic covenant obsolete” I must cease reading Hebrews, or at least stop reading it before I get to chapter 8, verse 13! The ability to absorb into one’s mental and spiritual constitution the full force of what is being said here is surely a hallmark of true New Testament liberty.
The author of Hebrews (a pastoral theology genius if ever there was one) resolves our problem in a remarkable way. The new covenant renders the old obsolete. And one of the ways God renders it so is this: “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts …” (Jer. 31:33, cited in Heb. 8:10; 10:16).
How can it be that the old Mosaic covenant at the heart of which lay the law of God can now be obsolete, yet the law of God be written in the heart as part of the new covenant?
To sense the depth of the Bible’s answer to this question, we need to see the role of the Law in the Bible as a whole. That role is revealed in a series of stages. In stage one, God made man as his image-bearing son. Into his very constitution and calling, God wrote a transcript of His own character — man was created and called to mimic God in the way he lived.
In stage two, God recreated Israel in the Exodus as His image-bearing son who was called out of Egypt (Hos. 11:1). For this son He re-wrote His law. But things had changed between Father and son. The son was now sinful, and even though he was a prodigal returning from Egypt, he still carried with him its baneful influences.
Essential, then, to understand the big picture of God’s law is this: The form the Law took in the Mosaic covenant was never intended to be permanent! In its very nature the Mosaic administration was as collapsible as the tabernacle in the wilderness. Only in the context of the work of Jesus Christ would the diamond of God’s will, first written on Adam’s heart, and then rewritten in negative form on tablets of stone, shine forth in all its multifaceted wonder.
In stage three, the author of Hebrews says “now” God has made obsolete the Mosaic form of the Law. Christ has fulfilled the Law (Matt. 5:17–20). Moses ascended Sinai and brought down the Law on tablets of stone, but our Lord Jesus has now ascended the hill of the heavenly Zion (see Heb. 12:18, 22), and has “come down” in the person of the Holy Spirit, who works in our hearts “that the righteous requirement [not just the negative avoidance!] of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4 NKJV).
What does all this mean in practical terms? The Law was written in Adam’s heart; Adam and Law were friends. It became his enemy only when he rebelled against it — and in the process became God’s enemy and his own worst enemy as well! Now, graciously, with a positive impetus, the Spirit of the Lord Jesus, the very Lord Jesus who kept God’s law as the Second Man and Last Adam, indwells us, rewriting God’s will in our hearts in letters of grace for the new covenant era. The law of God is our friend again — or, better, we are friends with it because we are friends with Him. Yes, we fail, we sin, and we are not yet finally delivered from the indwelling corruption that always sees and feels the Law as enemy and condemner. But a radical change has taken place. The law of God is once again the delight of God’s sons, bringing liberty to us.
So what is the place of the Law in the life of the Christian? Simply this: We are no longer under the Law to be condemned by it, we are now “in-lawed” to it because of our betrothal to Christ! He has written the Law, and love for it, into our hearts!