People who have been properly taught God’s law by the Holy Spirit are brought directly to the Saviour himself.
As the apostle teaches in another epistle: “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:21-24).
It is true that fallen human beings, wherever they are in the world, and in whatever century they live, still possess in some measure the “work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15), i.e. in their consciences. But they must be brought face-to-face with the breadth and depth of moral law as revealed in the Bible (Romans 3:19)—so that God will bring his people to this experience about which Paul speaks: “the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (Romans 7:9).
Being schooled by the “schoolmaster” brings people to Christ. That is what the law can do in people’s souls, when the Holy Spirit applies it to them.
That is why the church must preach both Law and Gospel.
What the Law cannot do
The moral law was, indeed, “ordained to life” by God (Romans 7:10; see also Leviticus 18:5; Luke 10:28). However, as Paul taught, “If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). So, the law cannot give life, because no fallen sinner can earn eternal life through keeping the law.
The law’s purpose was not to provide a way of self-salvation by our own “good works”, but to bring us to the Lord Jesus Christ—the only Saviour. We need to understand that God’s moral law, in its fullness, reveals a standard of holiness that we cannot hope to achieve. And we need to learn the lesson that our own experience should teach us: we cannot “do this and live” (compare Leviticus 18:5; Luke 10:28).
Paul, the former Pharisee, now teaches us: “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; compare Acts 13:38-39).
So, as Paul argued in Romans chapter 3: we have no righteousness of our own (v.10-20)—but God has given us a righteousness that is not our own, “without the law” (v.21). We have not kept the law, but the “righteousness of the law” (as obeyed by Christ) is “fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3), because Christ himself died for us. “For he [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 1:21).
The righteousness of the law can now be fulfilled in us who are in Christ because Christ has died for our sins and he has “condemned sin in the flesh”, so that it loses its power over us. Therefore, Christians can now “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). And this walking “after the Spirit”, of course, includes an increasing obedience to “that which is good”—namely, God’s moral law (Romans 7:13; see also vv.12, 16).
What the Gospel is not
Any system that fails to embrace the Bible’s teaching that salvation from beginning to end is all the work of our Triune God—is not the Gospel.
You have not understood the Gospel if you think that your salvation is ultimately determined by your own mental effort of believing in Christ. That would make your faith your “saviour”, not Christ! But it is not as though the one good work which a person must do in order to be saved is to believe in Christ.
However, not all who hold this false gospel are necessarily unsaved people. For there are some who have been taught this error—and some who even preach this error—but God has quickened their souls and he has already begun to change their minds.
God has opened their eyes so that they see something of the depth of the sinfulness of their own souls; they now know that they themselves are not “basically good at heart”. Yet for a while they still struggle, attempting to hold two contradictory systems of beliefs.
They were taught the faith-salvation error (and, depending on what kind of church they are in, they may also be taught the faith-healing error and faith-prosperity error1. But now they are coming to believe the truth that the Bible teaches, and which their personal experience agrees with.
They have a growing appreciation of the fact that everything they have ever done, said and thought has been thoroughly polluted by their own wickedness. They know that there is no hope for them—if salvation depends upon anything that they do, or think, or feel.
So, by the effectual working of God the Holy Spirit within them, the deepest prayer of their heart becomes, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). And their heart begs, “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
All who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ shall be saved (John 3:16; Acts 2:21; 16:31).
If you believe in the Christ of the Bible “according to the Scriptures” (see 1 Corinthians 15:3,4)—then you are someone who has believed through God’s grace—by the gift of God (see Acts 13:48; 18:27; Romans 5:15; Ephesians 2:8). And you shall learn to repent of all that denies this truth, so that you give God all the glory for your salvation. “But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (Romans 6:17).
The righteousness of God without the Law
When a person comes to believe in Christ, they begin to understand that God accounts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to them.
“By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in [God’s] sight:…But now the righteousness of God without the law [i.e. without us having kept the law] is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe” (Romans 3:21-22).
In the “high court” of God’s justice, God legally imputes the righteousness of Christ, which is the righteousness of God himself, to those who come to believe in him (in an analogous way to how the original sin of Adam was imputed to all for whom Adam stood in the original covenant of life)2.
They are the Lord’s elect people, for whom he stands as their Covenant Representative Head in the coveant of grace. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). “For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).
Notice that the Lord’s people actually receive this “abundance of grace and…gift of righteousness”, by which their lives are transformed. It is truly an abundance of irresistible grace!
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified3 freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation4 through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:21-26).
This righteousness of God, that God gives to believers through Christ, becomes fully and irrevocably their own righteousness. They become identified with God’s righteousness, and God’s righteousness becomes identified with them. So much so, that Paul explains it as follows:
“For he [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made5 the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“But of him [God] are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
- See chapter 13, Justification by Faith.↩
- See chapter 1, Death Passed upon All Men.↩
- Justified is another word related to just and righteous (see footnote 4 in chapter 24, When the Comforter Has Come. This translates the Greek word δικαιόω (dikaioo) which means to be rendered righteous/just, or to be (legally) declared as righteous/just, and therefore exonerated (Strong’s Concordance).↩
- Propitiation translates the Greek word ἱλαστήριον (hilasterion) which means appeasing or placating one who has been wronged (in this case, God, whom all our sins are ultimately against) (Strong’s Concordance). The same word is translated as “mercyseat” in Hebrews 5:1, referring to the cover of the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies (the holiest inner sanctuary) of the Tabernacle (and later, Temple), which was sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificed animals on the annual day of atonement (See Leviticus 16:8-34; 23:27-32).↩
- The Greek words here translated “that we might be made” imply no mere possibility of justification through Christ’s shed blood, but they teach that following the Lord’s particular redemption of his elect, their justification is inevitable.↩