Have you ever taken the time to wonder about how you and I accumulate knowledge? Everything that we know is built, one small block of knowledge at a time. It starts from the day we are born. We each learn small details. Perhaps as a child, your dad taught you to play baseball and that skill of being aware of what is going on around you has stuck with you. In baseball one of the most important things is being able to know what to do before it happens. You practice plays to be able to react in an instant. This is a skill that is important for more situations than just baseball. It is a skill that can become foundational to many other parts of your life. But it all has to start somewhere. The foundational knowledge needed to start this process is not instinctual but learned. The same is true of the foundational knowledge of Christianity. The foundational knowledge of Christianity, of being a Christian, is that we are born in sin and misery.
This brings us to the importance of today's question, "From where do you know your sins and misery?" (Q.3) The answer is simple enough, "From the law of God." (Q.3, A.3) There are many misconceptions about the law in scripture, but one of the most prevalent has to do with its purpose. Far too often the law is thought of as a standard that must be lived up to. This is the essential basis for legalism. The idea is that one must hold to all the laws in order to be saved. This is a works-based salvation. You can see this attitude in the Scribes and the Pharisees that come to Jesus. You can also see this attitude in the rich young man that comes to Jesus in Matthew 19. In Matthew 19:16 we read, "And behold, a man came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" This response is not unique to the rich young man but is in essence the response of everyone who has not been regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit. It demonstrates the underlying misconception of the law.
The Purpose of the Law
So what is the purpose of the law? With any such question, it is important to go to the source. When we look at scripture we see something striking about the purpose of the law. Paul in writing to the Romans explicitly tells us that the law cannot save us, but that the purpose of the law is to show us our sin. Romans 3:20 reads, "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." What Paul in essence is saying is that the law reveals that we have sinned. There is a distinction made to say that sin comes before the law. Another way of saying this is just because you do not know that something is a sin does not change the fact that it is. This is like getting pulled over for a speeding ticket and telling the officer that you didn't know. When he writes you the ticket he informs you of the law you have broken, so through the telling of the law comes knowledge of the infraction. This is the primary purpose of the law in scripture, to demonstrate just how far we fall short of God.
Different Types of Laws
In the Mosaic law, there are several different types of laws. There are laws about how the civil government is to be run and how a king should act. There are laws about what to eat and how to remain ceremonially clean. These last in particular are a good example of the law as a whole. See the purpose of these laws in particular is to demonstrate the Holiness of God and to show how we by our very nature fall short of it. What I mean by that is that there is no way to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean at some point. Every single person will become unclean at some point. The whole law does this on a broader scale. The law, when rightly understood, shows us just how short we fall. For example, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount helps us to better understand the fullness of the command "You shall not murder." He goes on to explain that if we have anger against our brother, or if we have insulted him, we have murdered him in our hearts. Not only that but Jesus' explanation of this law points to the broader understanding that the law is not meant just as a prohibition, but as a teaching tool to point us in the other direction. So if I am commanded to not murder, what am I commanded to positively do? I am commanded positively to care for the people around me and to love my neighbor.
What's the Take-Away?
It is important to understand that the purpose of the law is not to be a set of rules that earn you anything, but is there to reveal the nature of man. Man is by nature sinful. It reveals my inability to come to God on my own. Most importantly it reveals my need for grace. I cannot know the sweetness of grace unless I have felt the bitterness of my sin. Have you mourned over your sin? Have you been broken by the weight of guilt? Have you, like the woman who came to Jesus and wept, anointed the ground with the tears of your sin? This is why God gave us the law. It is to teach us our need for a savior. We cannot save ourselves. If we could then Christ would not have needed to come. There is only one name under which we might be saved, it is the Lord Jesus Christ. All those who have been changed by his grace, know their sin. Have you been changed?
Soli Deo Gloria