The Old Testament is the record of the ruin wrought by the Fall. The New Testament is the record of the restoration wrought by Christ. The law is the plumbline showing where the natural man stands in relation to God.
Unfortunately, Israel’s whole history was a record of failure to keep the law. Nevertheless, through righteousness the kingdom might have been established (Jeremiah 17: 25-27; ch. 22: 1-5). Solomon trusted in God. As long as he cleaved to God, there was peace and prosperity in his days. But his apostasy brought about judgements on the nation. Solomon’s history brings into sharper relief man’s need for a righteousness that transcends that of the Law.
Salvation must be accepted as a “free gift” because ultimately, everyone falls short of God’s requirements. No one can earn salvation. So the legal standard will never save anyone. On the other hand, to say there is no standard of personal righteousness at all needed to enter the kingdom contradicts both Old Testament and New Testament Scriptures (Psalm 15; ch. 24: 3-6; 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10; Hebrews 12: 14).
The legal standard is of no avail because it simply lays bare man’s essential sinfulness. It was created “for the sake of transgressions,” i.e., to give sin the character of transgression (Galatians 3: 19). “The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15: 56).
As Mediator of the New Covenant, Christ taught that the true standard of practical righteousness is not legal, but spiritual. This is brought out in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5: 1-12). It wasn’t until the Cross, however, that the way to attain this standard was fully manifested. It is achieved by grace, through faith in Christ’s sacrifice.
“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8: 3-4).
Our justification is through the Abrahamic Covenant. Those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are children of Abraham and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3: 29).
These are blessed truths. Nevertheless, Abraham’s faith had two aspects. There was a faithful hearing, and a faithful doing. This is the main thrust of James’s argument in the second chapter of his epistle. He wasn’t riding roughshod over the doctrines of grace. He was reminding his readers that there are two parts to a saving faith.
Under the New Covenant, the law is fulfilled “in” us, not “by” us. But because it is fulfilled in us, it manifests itself in Christian character. The nine fruits of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in Galatians 5: 22-23 are the surest evidences of having a true saving faith. There is a type of faith that springs up quickly through revivals and other ministrations of the word, but whose roots do not strike deeply into the believer. Like the seed sown on rocky soil (Matthew 13: 5), this faith usually does not last long. The seed sown in good ground always produces fruit; “some an hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold” (Mathew 13: 8).
The practical results of salvation inevitably follow true conversion, as fruits will follow the planting of a healthy tree. This is a law of nature in the natural, as well as in the spiritual, world.
It is no mistake to say that God is a Fruit-Harvester, Who will send His Son to gather the fruits of His kingdom when He returns. In Scripture, one’s works are one’s fruits. All men will be judged by their works (Job 34: 11; Palm 62: 12; Proverbs 24: 12; Jeremiah 17: 10; ch. 32: 19; Matthew 16: 27; Romans 2: 6; 2 Corinthians 5: 10; 1 Peter 1: 17). For they are those fruits which identify the nature and quality of the tree that was planted. The work of God’s grace is to “make the tree good” (Matthew 12: 23), so that it produces the required fruits. These fruits are required by the Master of the Vineyard.
Modern evangelicalism hath a whore’s forehead, for she would fain deny that practical righteousness is needed to enter the kingdom. In their zeal to gain and keep converts, today’s ministers compromise or ignore the truth concerning the “other half” of salvation (James 1: 22).
“Blessed are they who do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Revelation 22: 14).
“For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5: 20).
There is no such thing as “cruise control salvation,” any more than fruits trees that do not require tending once they are planted. One may reply: “But the trees do not tend themselves. That is the business of the Husbandman.” True, but if the Husbandman is really tending the tree, then the tree will produce fruit. God’s grace is of an active, not a passive, nature (Ephesians 2: 10).
The parable of the vine and the branches (John 15) is essential commentary on the need for each believer to maintain a fruitful union with Christ. Lack of fruit in one’s walk should be a warning sign to the Christian. The age-long debate as to whether one can “lose salvation” is not in question here. Nor must we confuse the doctrine of “salvation by grace” with that of merit-based rewards. That there are rewards available that do not touch on salvation, is a Biblical New Testament teaching, as exemplified by Christ’s parable of the pounds. “Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities” (Luke 19: 17).
To speak more precisely, practical righteousness is the result of salvation–not the cause of it. To make it the cause brings one back under the yoke of the law. There is a very narrow way between the yawning gulf of works and the steep heights of grace. It is the way that leadeth into the Kingdom, but few find it. This narrow way recognizes God’s grace as the operative cause of salvation, and works as its practical and inevitable results. The Scriptures sometimes stress one side of the equation over the other. But the two are in as perfect agreement as the ying and the yang. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 12-13).
The true relation between faith and works has been seen more or less clearly since the Reformation. It is preserved in the article of the Westminster Confession entitled “Perseverance Of The Saints,” which found its way into the 1689 London Baptist Confession. In latter years, “Perseverance” has become “Preservation”– a switch from activity to passivity on the part of the believer–but the truth still holds good that all who are truly saved will make headway in the faith. “They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God” (Psalm 84: 7).
Anyone who gnashes his or her teeth at God’s requirement for a practical righteousness, must take arms against the whole body of Scripture–from Genesis to Revelation.
As mentioned, justification is through the Abrahamic Covenant. Man has never been justified by law. Justification has always been by faith from the very first (Genesis 15: 6). The concept reaches all the way back to Adam. While the law reveals to man his sinful condition, the remedy is contained in the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement.
The shedding of blood of an innocent life is the basis of all atonement. The soul (Heb. nephesh) is in the blood (Leviticus 17: 11). Without shedding of blood is no remission of sin (Hebrews 9: 22).
Genesis 3: 21 is the first recorded instance of this. God made Adam and Eve coats of skins to cover their nakedness; implying that man must be clothed with a righteousness not of his own making, but provided by a substitute. God had told Adam and Eve that they would die in the very day they ate of the tree of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2: 17). The punishment was not inflicted because a substitute died in their stead. Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13: 8). All Old Testament sacrifice points to Him. It is faith in a slain substitute that justifies a man before God; through lack of which man’s faith becomes the way of Cain.
Prior to the Cross, the Old Testament sacrifices “covered” the sins of men, allowing God to “pass over” them; but did not take them away. It needed something better than the blood of bulls and of goats to truly atone for sin. Only at the Cross was God’s righteousness vindicated, when Christ was “set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood” (Romans 3: 25). This probably explains, in some measure, the changed character of God in the New Testament. Only at Calvary was the penalty for sin truly and satisfactorily paid; allowing a Divine outflow of mercy to all men. At Calvary God was glorified in Christ, so that Christ could be glorified in God (John 13: 31-32).
There was no question that the law was a tough and uncompromising schoolmaster. But the Old Testament had set forth a remedy. So there was no excuse for unbelief.
When the true Lamb of God showed up in A.D. 30, Israel was at its very lowest state. The ancient doctrine of justification by faith had become clouded with an over-emphasis of legal requirement, as well as rabbinical commentary and codification which effectively negated the concept of the kingdom as one that only the righteous could enter. To them, righteousness was merely keeping the letter of the law. They missed the whole point of Moses and the prophets. Because of their blindness, they would miss the point of Christ’s message as well.
Nevertheless, John the Baptist came to break up the stony ground of the Israelites’ hearts and get them prepared for the sowing of the Gospel seed.