The Purpose of the Law


The Purpose of the Law

April 7th, 1946

Exodus 19

In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, And be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount. And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. And he said unto the people, Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. And let the priests also, which come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them. And Moses said unto the LORD, The people cannot come up to mount Sinai: for thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it. And the LORD said unto him, Away, get thee down, and thou shalt come up, thou, and Aaron with thee: but let not the priests and the people break through to come up unto the LORD, lest he break forth upon them. So Moses went down unto the people, and spake unto them.
Related Topics: Grace, Judgment, Law, Righteousness, Sin, 1946, Exodus
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Dr. W. A. Criswell

Exodus 19

4-7-46    10:50 a.m.



And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.  And Mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.  And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.

[Exodus 19:16-19.]


When we read these verses, we marvel at the majesty and sublimity of that sight.  Oh, to have lived through those glorious days!  Think what a spectacle that mountain presented, shaking as with an earthquake, burning as if set on fire, moving at the voice of Him who spake.  Up and up the great, craggy, towering peak rises, and down the glory of the Lord engulfs it in one mighty baptism after another of fire and fury and terror and thunder and lightning.  And in the smoke and the cloud is the presence of the Lord God Almighty [Exodus 19:20].  No wonder the people trembled; no wonder they removed and stood afar off and pleaded with Moses, saying, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die” [Exodus 20:19].

Our immediate response to this incomparable visitation from heaven is a natural one.  We think, what a glorious way for God to deal with men!  This legal method is surely heaven’s fullest and finest revelation.  It is certainly the natural relation to be established between the Almighty and the man He made [Genesis 1:27]; God the sovereign, we the subjects.  He the Creator, we the creatures.  The Lord God speaks, and we obey.  Jehovah writes out His commandments, and we keep them.  He makes the laws, and we hold them inviolate.  Apparently this affinity established on Mount Sinai is the only possible one.  What other could there be?  The very thunder and lightning and fire and fury attest the glory of that legal relationship.

When we view this relationship more closely, however, we are overwhelmed by the terrible perplexities that attend it.  For example, what about the inexorable penalties that go with pure holiness and unmitigated justice?  Who could live in the presence of the holy character of God?  There is something frightful in the very thought of justice without mercy, punishment without pardon.  There is no grace, no mercy in law.  There is no allowance for infirmities.  The soul that sins dies [Ezekiel 18:20].  “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses” [Hebrews 10:28].  The law is great, the law is glorious, the law is perfect, the law is final; yes, yes indeed.  But what of the inflexible penalties attached to it?  In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John the Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman taken in adultery.  They do it with the harsh announcement: “Master, Moses in the law said she must die.  She must be stoned to death.  That is the law” [John 8:3-5].  In the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers is the story of a man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath day.  He broke the commandment, and the penalty was death.  So all the congrega­tion brought him without the camp and stoned him with stones and he died, as the Lord commanded Moses [Numbers 15:32-36].  That is law.  Its penalties are impersonal.  Who can bear them and live?

Another thing that perplexes us about this legal relationship between God and man is the character of God that it reflects.  We sense an incongruity in the story just mentioned, recorded in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John.  “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest Thou?”  “BUT WHAT SAYEST THOU?” [John 8:5]  What do we expect Jesus to say?  Somehow we expect Him to say some­thing altogether different, yet the law says that she must die.  Surely, surely, there is in the character of God something beyond the terrible, burning revelation we see in Mount Sinai.  If a man just touched that moun­tain, he died.  If a beast drew near the mount, the beast died [Exodus 19:12-13].  “And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake” [Hebrews 12:21].

Is that God, and all of God?  The Lord God who spoke in fire and smoke, in darkness and tempest, on the top of Horeb?  Oh, what stern requirements and prohibitions fall from His lips!  His interdictions mean death to us all.  “Our God is a consuming fire” [Hebrews 12:29; Deuteronomy 4:24].  Yes, but is that all?  Is He not something more?

A third perplexity that overwhelms us as we read the Mosaic account of the giving of the law is this: how can any human heart escape despair, abject despair, if our relationship to the Lord our God is posited on our obedience to His commandments?  Who has kept the commandments?  Who is there among us that has not known sin?  By the works of the law, who can be justified?  By the law is the knowledge of sin, and “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” [Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10].  The law was given to Israel from the top of Sinai as they watched the smoke and fire of the mount that burned [Exodus 20:1-18].  But did it save them?  No.  They all died for their sins in the burning wastes that pressed close to the foot of the mountain.  Only two who that day witnessed the giving of the law ever entered the Promised Land.  Aside from these two, all were lost and perished in the wilderness [Numbers 14:30, 32:11-13].  The law was given to the Hebrew people [Exodus 20:1-17].  Has it saved them?  Through the years they have known hardly anything but heartache and defeat.  They are lost today—more lost than ever before.  They are wanderers, sojourners, strangers among the nations of the earth.  By the knowledge of the law no man or nation of people has ever been justified or been made righteous or been saved [Galatians 2:16].  “By the knowledge of the law is the knowledge of sin” [Romans 3:20].

As we review these perplexities, one great question thunders through these pages.  What is the purpose, then, of the law?  If the law was not given to save us “for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” [Galatians 3:21]; if the law was not given to justify us, that is, to make us righteous (“knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law … for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” [Galatians 2:16]; if the law was not given to sanctify us, to make us holy (“For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sin, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.  But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held”) [Romans 7:5-6].  Then why was the law given?  What is its meaning?  The very heart of the Old Testament and the very center of the Jews’ religion is the law of Moses.  Why was the law established?  Why did God hand it down out of heaven and place it in the hands of His great servant? [Exodus 20:1-17]. There are three answers to that all-important question.

The law was given from God out of heaven that we might see the depths of the depravity of the human heart.  It reveals to us the iniquity of our lives, the sin of our souls.  In the Book of Exodus are written many of the interdictions of God, pages of them, and some of those judgments are against the vilest things imaginable.  You have never heard them read in public.  They are laws against atrocious and unspeakable depravities.  When you read them, you have the same feeling that Hazael had at Damascus when Elisha anointed him to be king over Syria.  As Elisha set his eyes upon Hazael and steadfastly gazed into his face, the prophet burst into tears.  Hazael was aston­ished, and said, “Why weepeth my lord?”  And Elisha replied, “Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel” [2 Kings 8:12].  Then the man of God described unspeakable things that the king would do against the land of Israel.  Hazael broke in and said, “But what, is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?” [2 Kings 8:13].  Yet he did them, he did them every one, and more.  Hazael lived to see the day when he committed every iniquity Elisha had said he would.

It is thus with human nature down through all the generations.  Pastors in large cities soon learn that there is no filthy thing, no depth of depravity, no perversion that can be thought of but that people are guilty of just that.  The obscenity and corruption, the rot and lust, the stench and sting of human life are almost indescribable.  In any group the preponderant percentage will know what it is to lie, to steal, to live in a false light, to sin against the body, the heart, the soul, to violate the sacred relationship that should obtain between God and man.  The picture of Paul’s Roman world in the first chapter of the Book of Romans [Romans 1:17-32], is not overdrawn for his day; nor is it an exaggeration of the iniquity in our own day.  We live in an ocean of sin, and the law was given us that we might see it in all its blackness and death, that we might discern it for what it is, “that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” [Romans 7:13].

The law is a perfect mirror let down from God out of heaven that we might see the moral derangement of our lives.  It does not set things right; it reveals to us what is not right.

The law is a plumbline, straight and true, which God holds between heaven and earth, a straight line against which a man can see how crooked is his life.  It does not correct the life; it just reveals its crookedness.  The law is a lamp, bright and shining, fiercely burning, that uncovers the inner recesses of man’s heart and soul.  It does not create the evil; it does not remove the evil.  The light shines in the dark chambers of the heart and reveals its presence.  The light of the law quickens the conscience.

The law sets forth what a man ought to be and pronounces a curse upon him if he is not that.  It has but one question: do you measure up?  Are you what you ought to be?  The truthful answer to that question is a revelation of how far short we come of the glory of God [Romans 3:23].

The struggle to be righteous, and our dismal failure in the fight, are graphically depicted by Paul in the seventh chapter of Romans:


For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.  For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I . . . For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do . . . I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am!  who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  

[Romans 7:14-24]


There is nothing so obdurate and so adamant as the tendency of the human heart to evil.  However a man may choose to fight evil in his life, it is ever present with him.  Every hammer he may use will wear itself out against it.  Every instrument he may devise will prove inadequate and ineffectual.  Whatever his activity for betterment, the working of evil emasculates it.  No government that is promulgated, no law that is passed, no economy that is offered ever brings to us the Golden Age.  Our utopias never arrive.  Sin, greed, selfish­ness destroy them all.  In the wake of every generation come untold misery and heartache.  God alone knows the despair and disappointment suffered by those who fight against the odds of iniquity.

In our own souls we suffer the agitations of civil wars.  When we would give ourselves to high, noble activities, the most unholy oppositions rise to destroy us, the most unholy feelings course through us.  There is no place where evil is not.  In heart, in soul, in brain, in desire, in imagination, in work, in play, in home, in business, in all of life “evil is present with me” [Romans 7:21].  Where is there a man who can deliver himself?  The sins he has committed in the past cry out against him; the unholy nature he has in the present provides a battleground within him.  The man God made cannot save himself.  He cannot keep the law.  He is too weak, too prone to err, too carnal, sold under sin.  The law reveals not only our fallen nature but also helplessness to save ourselves.

“O wretched man that I am!  who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” [Romans 7:24].  Look at Paul’s triumphant, victorious answer: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” [1 Corinthians 15:57].  The purpose of the law is just this: to take us to One who can conquer for us.  “Before faith came, we were kept under the law … therefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” [Galatians 3:23-24].  The word Paul uses here, translated “schoolmaster” is paidagogos.  It is the word used for the servant, usually a slave kept by rich families of that day, who took the little child in the home to school.  The slave would hold the hand of the little fellow and lead him safely through the streets of the city to the school, where the lad was taught the Greek language and culture and all the other things that went with a liberal education.  Paul says that the law is the paidagogos to take us by the hand and to bring us to Jesus.

The law revealed to us the depths of the sin in our lives.  The law showed us we could not save ourselves.   Now the law takes us by the hand and leads us to Him who can wash away our sin, who can forgive our iniquities, who can temper justice with mercy, who can implant in us the spirit of a regenerate heart.  “For,” said John, “the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” [John 1:17].

In Christ Jesus there is a new creation, a new way, a new principle, a new work, and a new hope [2 Corinthians 5:17].  The fear of God we felt at the mount that burned with fire [Hebrews 12:18] is supplanted by a love that constrains us to draw nigh [2 Corinthians 5:14].  We might tremble and stand afar off at Sinai [Exodus 20:21], but any poor wretch can come to the Hill of a Skull [John 19:17-18] and look up into the loving face of the Savior of men. 


For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard entreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more. . .But ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven. . .and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.”

[Hebrews 12:18-24]


The terror of Mt. Sinai revealed the wrath of God against sin.  The law given there was a transcript of the mind of the Lord as to what a man ought to be and the penalties he faced if he fell short.

But there is more to God than judgment against sin—the wrath that burns forever.  And what that “more” is we see in Jesus Christ.  There is love, there is mercy, there is pardon, there is forgiveness in God.  In Him we have the answer to all the sins and weaknesses of our lives.  When we stumble and err, when we fall and are helpless, there is wonderful compassion and sympathy in Him.  The glory and light that shine from His blessed cross are love and pardon.  There are streams of mercy never failing.  There are helpfulness and understanding in Him who sits at the right hand of the throne of God to make intercession for us [Romans 8:34].  He can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  He was tempted in all points like as we are [Hebrews 4:15-16].  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” [1 John 1:9].  We rise from our knees strengthened and forgiven.

Our Savior said, “The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” [Luke 19:10].  He said again, “I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” [Matthew 9:13].  We have no gospel for a Pharisee.  We have no gospel for a self-righteous man.  But, oh, what a gospel we have for sinners!  The gospel of Christ is for the lost.  It is for the undone.  It is for him who cannot find in himself power to deliver his soul from sins but who will cast himself upon the mercy of God [Titus 3:5].  “And of His fullness have all we received, and grace for grace” [John 1:16].

Sometime ago, among those who came down the aisle in response to the invitation at our regular Sunday morning church services was a young woman about eighteen years of age.  She sobbed so piteously that I left my place of appeal and sat down by her side.  While the congregation continued to sing, I asked her if there was anything I could do to help her.  She replied: “I have been coming to the preaching services here.  I have a little baby boy, and I have been bringing him to the nursery.  I want him to grow up in this Sunday school and someday be a Christian.  And oh, how I would like to belong to this wonderful church!” Then in a voice of sadness she added, “But maybe you would not want the likes of me.”  “What makes you think we would not want you?”  I asked.  She pointed to the “Request for Membership” card which the clerk had given her to fill out and said: “See?  See, I write ‘Mrs.’ in front of my name.  But I am no ‘Mrs.’ I have never been married; that is my maiden name.  I write ‘Mrs.’ in front of my name for the sake of my little boy, so that when he grows up he will never know I have never been married.  But I want to be a Christian and to join this wonderful church.  Would you take me?  Would you have the likes of me?”

What would you have told her?  My reply was the same as yours would have been: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom”—she?  no!—”of whom I am chief” [1 Timothy 1:15].  Our gospel is a gospel for sinners; Christ died for sinners [1 Corinthians 15:3]; the Christian hope is for sinners.  The church is a home for saved, repentant sinners.  The Lord’s Supper is for those who see in the blood “the remission of sins” [Matthew 26:26-28].  Until we see ourselves as sinners, we can never be saved.  Salvation has no meaning except to those who realize themselves to be lost [John 9:41].

This, then, is the purpose of the law: to reveal to us our sins [Romans 3:20]; to show us that we are lost and cannot save ourselves; and, finally, to lead us to Jesus who can forgive us [1 John 1:9], who can redeem us [1 Peter 1:18-19], who can give us a new life and a new spirit, who can help us now, tomorrow, and to the end of the way, forever [Galatians 3:23-24].


There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;

And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,

Lose all their guilty stains:

. . .

The dying thief rejoiced to see

That fountain in his day;

And there may I, though vile as he,

Wash all my sins away.

[from “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood,” William Cowper, 1772]