A mirror can reveal a dirty face, but can’t clean the face.
Lesson 38 from The HOPE Study Guide
…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.
– Romans 3:20
OBSERVE & CONSIDER
In the last two lessons we considered the Law that God gave to the Hebrew people. God promised that if the Hebrew people obeyed the Law they would be blessed, but if they disobeyed the Law they would be punished. We also saw that God, knowing the Hebrew people would not be able to fully and consistently keep the Law, provided a way to cover their sin through the offering of sacrifices.
But there is yet another important aspect of the Law we must consider. Many people have the idea that the Law was given as a means for man to be right with God. But the Bible is clear (Romans 3:20) that no person can gain right standing (be justified) with God by keeping the Law. Think about it. If we could keep the Law perfectly (although we can’t), we would still be infected with the sin which was passed down to every person through Adam (see Lesson 18). Sin separates man from God. Even if you had never sinned, the sin in you would still separate you from God.
As we study the Bible, we learn that the Law is like a mirror – for both God and man. In the Law we see a true reflection of God’s character. That reflection reveals that God is holy and righteous. But in the Law, we also see a true image of ourselves. Our inability to keep the Law reveals our inadequacy, for the Law clearly reveals that we do not measure up to God’s standard of holiness and righteousness. Something in us prevents us from measuring up, and according to Romans 3:20, that something is sin.
A mirror can be helpful to show you if your face needs washing. But it cannot be used to wash your face. No one in their right mind would take a mirror and rub it on their face to remove dirt. That requires a cleansing agent such as soap. So it is with the Law. The Law reveals sin, but it is not a cleansing agent. It cannot cleanse us from sin, but it can show us our need to be cleansed. It can create a sense of need for the promised Deliverer, the only One who can take away sin!
ASK & REFLECT
- Have you ever heard someone use the term “legalism”1? Legalism is the belief that salvation (being made right with God) can be gained through keeping the Law. But if the Law is like a mirror, rather than a cleansing agent, does legalism make sense as a way to righteousness? Why do you think some people cling to it?
- With regard to the Law there are perhaps two extreme positions. One is legalism as defined above. The other position, “license,”2 tends to view the grace of God in such a way that the Law has little or no practical meaning. Legalism and license mark the opposite ends of a continuum which reflects the way that most people view the Law. Where would you place yourself on this continuum, closer to legalism or license? Why?
DECIDE & DO
Ideally, a person would find balance in the very middle of the continuum between the extremes of legalism and license. Perhaps that center point of balance could be defined by the term liberty.3 A person with true liberty before God is a person who is free to revere the Law as the holy and righteous standard of God (Romans 7:12) and at the same time free from being bound to it as a means of being made right with God.
Liberty is God’s goal for every one of His followers. If you tend toward the license side of the continuum, then set aside some time to study the Law of God, particularly the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21). If you tend toward the legalism side of the continuum, then devote some time to the study of Romans 6-8, or the book of Galatians. Ask God to use your study of His Word to liberate you to a right relationship to the Law and to Himself!
FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Frequently Asked Questions about the Bible: In the Bible we read about “the law.” What does this mean, and are we supposed to keep “the law” today? (International Bible Society, 2006). (http://www.ibs.org/bibles/about/17.php). Retrieved October 18, 2006.
- Richard L. Mayhue, Legalism: Does It Lead to True Righteousness? (CrossMap.com, Pastoral Resources, August 20, 2005). (http://www.eapca.org/serviceministry/spiritualwarfare2). Retrieved October 18, 2006.
- John MacArthur, Liberty in Christ – What Is Christian Liberty? (Grace To You, 1974). (http://www.gty.org/resources/study-guides/40-5126/what-is-christian-liberty). Retrieved August 20, 2013.
- Ray C. Stedman, What Are Bodies For? (Discovery Publishing Company, A Ministry of Peninsula BibleChurch, 1995). (http://www.raystedman.org/1corinthians/3585.html). Retrieved October 18, 2006.
- John Niles, Legalism, License, or Liberty? (The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, 2004 posted this article which first appeared in Fellowship Magazine, June, 1998). (http://www.christianity.ca/page.aspx?pid=10848). Retrieved October 18, 2006.
1Legalism (theology). (© Wikipedia. 2006). (http://www.answers.com/topic/legalism-theology). Retrieved October 18, 2006.
2License. (© Answers Corporation, 2006). (http://www.answers.com/topic/license). Retrieved October 18, 2006.
3Liberty. (© Answers Corporation, 2006). (http://www.answers.com/topic/liberty). Retrieved October 18, 2006.