Much discussion is had about the law and its place in our salvation. While many Christians will gladly say “‘amen” to the biblical truth of salvation by grace through faith, what about the law? Can it not also save us? The Bible’s answer is “no.” Here are some passages that explore the relationship between the law and our salvation:
Hebrews 10:1–4, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
Romans 3:20, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
Galatians 2:16, “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’”
Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
So, why can’t the law save us? First, let’s consider the law’s purpose. Far from being a system of salvation, the law reveals our sinful nature and accountability to God, as mentioned in Romans 3:20. Paul elaborates on this point in Romans 7:7, “What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”
The law by itself is good and reveals God’s moral perfection, but its main purpose is to expose our moral failure. While humans were already sinners before the law was given, it diagnosed our sinful state like a medical test reveals an illness. However, just as a test cannot offer a cure, the law is not the solution to our sinfulness.
It is a mistake to think that God saved people through the law before the arrival of Christ. Romans 4:3 debunks this notion by highlighting that Abraham was justified by faith, not the law. Even after God gave the law, the sacrificial system continued to cover people’s sin, indicating that the sin problem persisted and symbolizing the ultimate sacrifice that was to come (Hebrews 10:11). Temporary atonement through animals would be unnecessary if humans could be saved through obedience to the law. Old Testament characters like Abraham, Moses, and David placed their faith in the God in that they knew and relied on the promises He made. Their sins were ultimately atoned for at the cross (Romans 3:25–26; Hebrews 9:15).
Furthermore, the law cannot save because it lacks the power to transform. The Holy Spirit is the One who transforms us when we place our faith in Christ (John 3:5–6; Titus 3:5). Christianity distinguishes itself from other religions that teach salvation (in its numerous forms) is obtained by works. Adherents of other religions are left to struggle to keep the rules and inevitably fall short. They then either give up or dive deeper into self-righteousness. In Christianity, salvation is by grace through faith, leading to a relationship with God that shapes our lifestyle. Rather than relying on our performance, we trust in Christ’s performance and atonement.
The law is perfect and good, but it cannot save us. Rather, it reveals that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Salvation is found solely in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).