Is it possible to obey God’s Law? Much Christian theology asserts that meaningful obedience is not a realistic goal or even that God never intended for anyone to try to obey the Law. Some Christians even go so far as to call the requirements of the Law absurd for any age! But if the Law is absurd, and God never meant for anyone to obey it, why did He even give it?

The Scriptures are a very rich source of material concerning the character of God. I don’t mean for this to be an exposition on the character of God, but if we are to know whether God wants us to try to obey the Law or not, we need to know who He is. Please bear with me while I show you how Scripture reveals a small part of His character.

Is it possible to obey God’s Law? Much Christian theology asserts that meaningful obedience is not a realistic goal or even that God never intended for anyone to try to obey the Law. Some Christians even go so far as to call the requirements of the Law absurd for any age! But if the Law is absurd, and God never meant for anyone to obey it, why did He even give it?

The Scriptures are a very rich source of material concerning the character of God. I don’t mean for this to be an exposition on the character of God, but if we are to know whether God wants us to try to obey the Law or not, we need to know who He is. Please bear with me while I show you how Scripture reveals a small part of his character.

 

  • God is knowledgeable. He knows who we are, what we need, and what we are capable of.
    • Job 37:17 "…Those wondrous works of Him who is perfect in knowledge."
    • Isaiah 40:28 "…His understanding is unsearchable."
    • Matthew 10:30 "But the very hairs of your head are all numbered."
    • Psalm 147:4-5, Isaiah 46:10, Acts 15:18, etc.

  • God is truthful. He does not tell us everything all the time, but He would not tell us that A is true, when A is actually false.
    • Deuteronomy 32:4 "…A God of truth…"
    • Romans 3:4 "…let God be true but every man a liar…"
    • Titus 1:2 "…God, who cannot lie…"
    • Psalm 19:9, Psalm 33:4, John 17:17, etc.

  • God is faithful. He keeps His promises and His commitments.
    • Deuteronomy 7:9 "…He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant…"
    • 2 Peter 3:9 "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise…"
    • 1 Corinthians 10:13 "…God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able…"
    • Psalm 18:30, Proverbs 30:5, John 3:33, etc.

  • God is loving. He loves us more than we can imagine or appreciate, and He wants only good for us.
    • Deuteronomy 7:13 "And He will love you and bless you…"
    • Jeremiah 31:3 "…I have loved you with an everlasting love…"
    • 1 John 4:8 "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love."
    • Hosea 14:4, John 3:16, Romans 5:8, etc.

  • God is merciful. He delays punishment and is always ready to forgive. He stays his hand when we deserve nothing but the severest judgment.
    • Deuteronomy 4:31 "For the LORD your God is a merciful God."
    • Psalm 103:11 "So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him…"
    • Micah 7:18 "…He delights in mercy."
    • Psalm 103:17, Daniel 9:9, Ephesians 2:4, etc.

  • God is unchanging. His character, His desires, His plans are the same yesterday, today, and forever.
    • Isaiah 40:8 "…the word of our God stands forever."
    • Malachi 3:6 "For I am the Lord, I do not change…"
    • James 1:17 "…the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning."
    • Psalm 33:11, Psalm 102:27, Hebrews 13:8, etc.

  • If God knows His people, then He knows what commandments they can and cannot obey. He knows what behaviors are good and bad for them.

  • If God does not lie to His people, then He did not lie when he told them that they were able to obey His Law.

  • If God is faithful to His people, then He will not make empty promises of blessings in exchange for impossible demands.

  • If God loves His people, then He will treat them fairly and justly. He will bless them and give them what they need to live happy and fulfilled lives.

  • If God is merciful to His people, then He will be understanding of their failings. He will be slow to anger and judgment, and be ready to forgive them when they repent.

  • If God’s character is unchanging, then His standards of behavior, His truthfulness, faithfulness, love, and mercy are also unchanging. He loves His people just as much today as He did 3,000 years ago. He expects the same standards of behavior from them today as He did then.

God knows what we can handle, what we can and cannot accomplish. He doesn’t lie to us about what He wants or expects from us. He obeys His commitments and expects us to obey ours. He is merciful when we fail, forgiving us, and restoring us to a relationship with Him. He wants to bless us and to give us every good thing. These are all well attested aspects of God’s character, which He said will never change. If He loved the Hebrews in 500 BC, then He loved them in 1500 BC and in 2014 AD. There is no variation or shadow of turning in Him.

We can be sure then, that when John said the commandments of God were not burdensome in the first century AD (1 John 5:3), then neither were they burdensome in the first century BC, nor are they burdensome today. In fact, God said so Himself:

10 If you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to obey His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 11 For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deuteronomy 30:10-14 NKJV. Emphasis added.)

God made His Law simple to understand, easy enough for the common desert nomad to interpret and apply, so that they would be able to carry it out. God fully intended ancient Israel to obey His Law, and we know that He is truthful. David wrote that the word of God is pure (Psalm 12:6) and trustworthy (Psalm 119:42) and that His commandments are truth (Psalm 119:151). Jesus said that God’s word is truth. He did not repeatedly command Israel to obey a Law that He knew to be beyond their capacity, because it is not in His character to lie or to be unfaithful.

What did Paul mean then when he wrote, "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2)? Did he really call God’s Law a "ministry of death" and a "ministry of condemnation" (2 Corinthians 3:7-8)? How can a loving, faithful, and truthful God command His people to obey a law that only brings death and condemnation while promising them life, health, and prosperity in return for obedience?

We have to be very careful, especially when reading the letters of Paul, to understand each passage of Scripture in the light of the whole body from Genesis to Revelation, so that we are not misled by words that could mean one thing when taken alone, but actually mean something entirely different.

The confusion regarding the nature of the Law stems from the false idea that the Law can only be one thing or another. In reality, it is many things and performs a number of functions. Among those functions are the definition of sin and the conviction of wrongdoers. Without the Law there could be no condemnation and there would be no need for a savior. Insofar as it proves our guilt before God, the Law is a ministry (or an administration) of death, but it is much more than that. Unless God truly is a liar, the Law is also a ministry of life.

I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to obey His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. (Deuteronomy 30:16 NKJV)

James wrote that if anyone breaks even one commandment, then he is guilty of breaking the whole Law (James 2:10), and Paul wrote that everyone, without exception, has sinned in some way (Romans 3:23). No one but Jesus has ever lived a perfectly sinless life, and if we have failed in even one point, then we are deserving of condemnation and death. If that is true, what hope does anyone have of obtaining the promises of God? Why would He make such demands and promises when He knew that we could never achieve them? What a bleak picture that is! It’s no wonder that Paul referred to the Law as a ministry of death and condemnation.

There is only one way to reconcile these seemingly divergent data points, and fortunately, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Here is the key: The Law, with its promises and curses, is not a binary switch, which is either on or off, blessings or curses. It’s a target for us to aim at, a set of standards to give us a goal. God never expected Israel to obey the Law perfectly. When He commanded them to obey it, and promised them blessings for doing so, He never meant that the blessings were contingent on obedience to every letter and that a single failure would bring down all the long list of curses. He built allowances for human frailty and divine mercy into the Law from the very beginning.

You can obey it because God said you can, and God is not a liar. But as James and Paul pointed out, you cannot obey it perfectly, and you cannot earn your salvation through it. Eternal salvation and the removal of all sin from your soul was never within the scope of the Law. (Hebrews 10:4) It is a tool to teach us God’s standards for loving and living with each other and with God, a roadmap for working out a godly life. Unlike many of the traditions of men, the Law is not a burden too heavy for you to bear. There’s no need to worry yourself about whether you’re doing everything right. God is gracious and understanding. Commit yourself to obedience as God has instructed and settle in for a long journey full of wrong turns and road blocks, remembering all the while that God is faithful, merciful, and forgiving.