What does it mean to be ‘under law’?


We are doubtless familiar with the division of the Bible into two main segments, which we call the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’. The ‘Old Testament’ period is the time of God’s dealing with man from his creation until the time of Christ. The ‘Law’ was given to God’s chosen people during this period, through Moses. The people to whom it was given are referred to as being under the ‘Covenant of The Law’. The coming of Christ, in accordance with God’s eternal plan, as foretold by the prophets in the OT, ushered in another period, a period of grace, under a ‘New’ covenant in and through Christ.  The people to whom this new covenant applies are referred to as being under the ‘Covenant of Promise’ (or, the Covenant of Grace). Lets’ examine the nature of each of these two covenants separately.


Under law (under the Old Covenant)

After redeeming his chosen people from bondage in Egypt, God declared his righteous requirements in the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. These commandments, often referred to as ‘the law’ reflected God’s character, and established the measure of God’s absolute moral standards and perfect righteousness and holiness. The standards were not issued in the form of an ‘information bulletin’ about God’s character. They took the form of commands “Thou shall….” and “thou shalt not”. Through them God’s intent was clearly shown that all who would be his covenant people must meet his holy requirements. As with all prior covenants, God initiated this covenant. Man had no part in its formulation. The terms were God’s terms, being neither suggested nor endorsed by nor requiring the approval of man. The first four commands had to do directly with man’s relationship to God. The following six dealt directly with man’s relationship to fellow man.  However, the term ‘the law’ has a much broader scope. In its fullest sense, to the people in the OT, it referred not only to the Decalogue but also to an elaborate set of rules concerning ceremonial, dietary, worship and other laws, instituted through Moses. All of these additional rules of conduct decisively separated the Israelites from the people and the prevailing religious and social customs around them. Through these requirements, God made known his holiness, not just to his people but also to the surrounding nations. The Law included provision for unintentional sin through the institution of a sacrificial system. God gave his chosen people a specifically chosen and appointed priesthood to administer this system and to be the sole agency through which the sacrificial offerings were acceptable to God. The system, through its necessity for repeated sacrifices, clearly showed its impermanence, and pointed to the necessity for a ‘once for all’ (i.e., never to be repeated) provision. The covenanted people (the Israelites) were obliged to meet all the righteous requirements of the law in a very literal way. For example, there was no forgiveness of sin without the prescribed sacrificial offering which involved the life of the victim in the place of the sinner.   Those who were obligated under the terms of this ‘Old’ covenant are described as being ‘under law.’

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