“For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory” – 2 Corinthians 3:9.
In the context of 2 Corinthians 3, Paul is discussing how God has made Paul and others to be ministers of the new covenant, and then contrasts the new covenant with the old covenant. The reason for this contrast is because Paul wanted to highlight all of the merits, benefits, and the blatant superiority of the new covenant Gospel founded by Christ, to the uselessness and dreary nature of the old. The old covenant is said to be less glorious, and is debased by Paul in this context. This brings me to my main point: why was the old covenant, which was given at Mount Sinai by Moses to the people of Israel, called “the ministry of condemnation?” What was it about the previous covenant that brought death and condemnation? Let us find out.
The Old Covenant Law
Moses gave the people of Israel the law of God at Mount Sinai which included the famous ten commandments, but also the commands regarding the Levitical priesthood, laws concerning sacrifices, laws concerning feasts, sexual conduct, tithes, general morality, property, and many other issues. These laws can be read in Exodus, Leviticus, and especially in Deuteronomy, since Deuteronomy is commonly referred to as “the book of the law.” The structure of the old covenant was that if Israel would obey the Lord, then they would live in the land and be blessed, but if they disobeyed the Lord, then Israel would die and be cursed, as it is written:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:15-19)
God heaped upon them moral and ceremonial precepts, demonstrating his righteousness and holiness, commanding what it is that he required of Israel. Deuteronomy 30 reiterates the covenant first given in Exodus, so the passage from Exodus is relevant as well:
“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.'” (Exodus 24:3-8)
The old covenant, the agreement that God made with Israel, was that Israel would obey all that God had commanded them. This covenant was formally inaugurated with blood; God was to give them punishment for disobedience, and reward for obedience.
The Purpose Of The Law
The reason that the old covenant was called “the ministry of condemnation” by Paul is because its only purpose is to reveal people’s sin and to condemn them. Every command that God gave to Israel, every ceremonial law, every moral law, every instruction, was meant to reveal the holy character of God, and to reveal the sin of the people of Israel, and by implication, the law reveals the sin of the whole world as well. The old covenant methodically causes people to sin due to the fact that no one can obey all of God’s law, and leaves individuals destitute with nothing left except the fear of judgement and punishment. The law is a measuring line which reveals the complete holiness of God and the utter ruin and depravity of mankind. This truth is demonstrated in the following texts:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20)
“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20)
“The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me…Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.” (Romans 7:10, 13)
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56)
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse…Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin…” (Galatians 3:10, 19, 21-22)
Since justification is to be declared righteous, justification is the opposite of condemnation, which is to be declared guilty. The reason the law has no ability to justify a sinner is because, just as the verse states, the knowledge of sin comes through the law, and therefore knowledge of one’s guilt is realized. The law gives God’s standard of righteousness, and just as it says in the context of Romans 3, the law demonstrates that all are wicked and deserving of judgement. The law can only condemn.
The law increases the trespass by clearly revealing our disobedience to God. Obviously no one can keep the law if all the law can do is make your sinful actions even more sinful.
Romans 7:10, 13
What’s there to even comment on? The law makes sin sinful beyond all measure since it shows sin to be sin.
1 Corinthians 15:56
“The power of sin is the law” gives further evidence to the concept that the law gives sin a bigger bite. All the law can do is condemn, as John Gill has said:
“…the strength of sin, its evil nature, and all the dreadful aggravations of it, and sad consequences upon it, are discovered and made known by the law; and also the strength of it is drawn out by it, through the corruption of human nature; which is irritated and provoked the more to sin, through the law’s prohibition of it.”
Galatians 3:10, 19, 21-22
The law was added, not for our immediate benefit, not for our salvation, not so that we would merely have a general set of principles for how to live with one another, but it was added because of transgression. Through the means of the law and the revelation of God’s law through scripture, humanity is imprisoned under sin, and has only judgement to look forward to.
The Purpose Of Condemnation
Now that it has been established that the purpose of the law is to reveal sin, to increase the trespass, and to condemn those who are under the law, we ought to find out what God’s purpose is for doing these things. There are several components to answering this question:
One of the reasons that God wanted to condemn humanity is for the condemnation and punishment of the reprobate. This is arguably the most severe implication of God’s purpose for condemnation. The law condemns everyone, and God has chosen a portion of humanity to be condemned in order to reveal his wrath and make his power known:
“What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Romans 9:22)
It is evident that God raises some individuals up for the purpose of killing them in order to glorify himself:
“And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Exodus 14:17-18)
God makes the wicked fall to ruin:
“Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin. How they are destroyed in a moment, swept away utterly by terrors!” (Psalm 73:18-19)
God sends some people strong delusions so that they believe a lie in order that they will be condemned:
“Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)
God has clearly revealed his purpose of reprobation in scripture in a variety of places, Romans 9 is arguably the most pronounced. One of the reasons that God purposed his law to condemn everyone is so that the reprobate with come under judgement, and that he would punish them in order to glorify himself in the revealing of his justice. The law is the tool through which God accomplishes reprobation.
By contrast, another reason that God gave the law to increase the trespass is for the purpose of redemption. God from eternity past has predestined to save his elect and to enjoy fellowship with them forever. God gave his elect heaven, himself, newness of life, and fellowship before the world began:
“who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9)
God has eternally predestined a specific set of individuals to be adopted as his own children and receive an inheritance:
“he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:5, 11)
By eternally purposing to redeem the elect, God has eternally purposed to reveal his mercy, grace, forgiveness, and Fatherly kindness to some individuals, all for his own glory.
3. The Glory Of Christ
This third answer to the question of why God has further condemned all individuals through the law relates heavily to the previous answer, redemption. The reason that this third option is distinct from election is because, in a sense, this is a further clarification of the second. The main reason that God gave the law, in order that the trespass would increase, and that sin may be sinful beyond measure, is not only so that God would be able to redeem a people for himself, but likewise so that humanity would have absolutely no hope of justification apart from Jesus Christ. One of the main reasons that God gave the law is not only to glorify himself in the punishment of the reprobate and the salvation of the elect, but also so that the eternal Son of God would be the sole, exclusive way of salvation:
“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:21-22)
Scripture imprisoned all under sin so that Christ would be the savior and judge. The work of Christ, his life, submission to the Father, atonement, resurrection, ascension, and glorification at the right hand of the Father came about as a result of our hopeless situation. Through Christ’s work of redemption and his exaltation, Jesus is glorified, and now all of God’s people look exclusively to him for salvation. The law prevents us from seeking redemption in anything or anyone else. There is no redemption in ourselves, in our actions, in superstitious rituals, in meditation, in free will, in the law – there is redemption found nowhere else except in the sinless Son of God:
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (John 14:6)
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)
To him we look and upon him we depend utterly.
What about Deuteronomy 30?
There are those who wish to dispute about the purpose of the law. Many wish to demonstrate that the law is a reflection of humanity’s ability, and that we can fulfill the law through our free will. People like these not only overthrow the purpose of the law, which is to condemn all those who attempt to obey it (Galatians 3:10) so that Christ becomes our only hope of salvation (Galatians 3:22), but also wish to overthrow the glory of Christ and his work, and to deny the complete inability of the old covenant to save sinners. The contrast between the old and new covenants is hardly noticeable at all for people like these, since they think that man’s ability and their stupid conception of “free will” has something to do with salvation and God’s eternal plan. One of the passages that they would appeal to as evidence that people possess the innate ability to fulfill God’s law is found in a chapter that I quoted above:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither 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?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
“See you stupid Calvinist?? The command is not to hard! It says that we can do it! Therefore free will and we can fulfill the law hurp derp”
There are a few things wrong with this straw man objection above:
1. “Not Too Hard”
Verse 11 where it says that the command is not too hard is a reference to its understandability, not in reference to how hard the command is to fulfill. This is evident in the proceeding verses since ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ is in reference to the need for interpretation. God here is saying that the command is perspicuous; it can be comprehended. The real issue of whether or not God’s law is easy to fulfill is found in verse 14.
2. Word Of Faith
Paul in Romans 10 applies aspects of this text in Deuteronomy to the new covenant:
“For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says,”Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:3-9)
This passage demonstrates that when Moses says, “But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it,” that he is not making a careless statement that the law can be fulfilled through humanity’s imaginary free will. The word is equated to the word of faith that is in the hearts of believers, and Paul just got through saying that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. In stark contrast to righteousness based upon obedience to the law, Paul speaks of the righteousness of faith. Only those who possess the word in their heart can obey God, and even then, only imperfectly. Deuteronomy 30:11-14 refers only to the regenerate.
If indeed the word of God is within a person’s heart, then they desire to obey God, since saying “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” is the same as speaking of the law being written on the heart. Those whom God regenerates and have the law of God written on their hearts, and those who possess faith, have the capacity to obey God to some extent. The promise of the circumcision of the heart, which is regeneration, is spoken of in the same context as Deuteronomy 30:11-14:
“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6)
The circumcision of the heart, the writing of God’s law on the heart, the removing of the heart of stone and the giving of a heart of flesh, and the Holy Spirit pouring the love of God into the hearts of his people are all indications of the same reality of being born again, the spiritual birth of all of God’s people:
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33)
“and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5)
“And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3)
These are all pictures of God causing his people to obey his commandments. The law is utterly unprofitable unless God writes it upon a human heart:
“And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Those who obey God’s commands are those whom God gives an ear to hear (Proverbs 20:12, Isaiah 6:9, Matthew 11:25), those whom God causes to be born again (Ezekiel 36:27, John 1:13, 3:8, 5:21, 6:63), those who have the word of God at work in them (1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 John 2:27). Since Moses speaks of the word of faith being within the hearts of individuals, he refers to the regenerate who have the law of God within them; the ones who God causes to obey him. The external written law has no capacity to change a heart; the only way that any obey God is when God causes an individual to obey through regeneration, which is when God places his law within an individual. If the word is within a person’s heart, then they are God’s people, and God is actively conforming that individual to the image of Christ and causing them to obey him. None of Deuteronomy 30 has anything to do with the stupid conception of free will, for in the same chapter in verse 6, and in the New Testament commentary found in Romans 10, scripture teaches that it is God who controls the human will in the first place.
I will summarize this section with a lengthy quotation from John Calvin’s commentary:
“The Sophists improperly and ignorantly wrest this passage to prove the freedom of the will. (They allege) that Moses here declares the precepts of the Law not to be above our reach. What? Does he state that the keeping of them is within the compass of our strength? Surely the words convey nothing of the sort; neither can this sense be elicited from them, if his intention be duly weighed. For he merely encouraged the Jews and commands them to be diligent disciples of the Law, because they will easily understand whatever is enjoined by God therein. But the power of performance is a different thing from understanding. Besides, Paul, with very good reason, accommodates this passage to the Gospel, (Romans 10:8;) because it would profit nothing to comprehend the doctrine itself in the mind, unless reverence and a serious disposition to be obeyed superadded. But he takes it for granted, that to have a good will is so far from being in our own power, that we are not even competent to think aright. Hence it follows, that what is here stated falls to the ground as frivolous, and spoken to no purpose, if it be applied simply to the Law. Paul also considers another thing, viz. that because the Law requires a perfect righteousness, it cannot be received by any mortals fruitfully; for however any one may study to obey God, yet he will still be far from perfection; and, therefore, it is necessary to come to the Gospel, wherein that rigorous requirement is relaxed. because, through the interposition of pardon, the will to obey is pleasing to God instead of perfect obedience, For Paul insists on the latter verse, ‘The word is nigh in the mouth, and in the heart, that the people may do it.’ Now, it is clear that men’s hearts are strongly and obstinately opposed to the Law; and that in the Law itself is contained only a dead and deadly letter; how then could the literal doctrine have a place in the heart? But if God, by the Spirit of regeneration, corrects the depravity of the heart and softens its hardness, this is not the property of the Law, but of the Gospel. Again, because in the children of God, even after they are regenerated, there always abide the remainders of carnal desires, no mortal will be found who can perform the Law. But in the Gospel God receives, with fatherly indulgence, what is not absolutely perfect. The word of God, therefore, does not begin to penetrate into the heart, and to produce its proper fruit in the lips, until Christ shines upon us with His Spirit and gratuitous pardon. Wherefore Paul most truly concludes that this is the word of faith which is preached in the Gospel; both because the Law does not efficaciously lead men to God, and because the keeping of it is impossible, on account of its extreme rigor. But this is the peculiar blessing of the new covenant, that the Law is written on men’s hearts, and engraven on their inward parts; whilst that severe requirement is relaxed, so that the vices under which believers still labor are no obstacle to their partial and imperfect obedience being pleasant to God.”
3. The Apostle Paul
Do free willers honestly think that they can get away with viewing Deuteronomy 30 in the way that they do in light of Paul’s writings in particular? Any individual that calls themselves a Christian who can ignore everything that Paul has ever said about the law in favor of a free will perspective of Deuteronomy 30:11-14 is stupid, ignorant, mentally insane, or a heretic that denies the apostleship of Paul:
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” (Galatians 3:10-11)
At the point in time where Paul says that none are justified through obedience to God’s commands, that all are cursed who are under the law, and that the old covenant is the MINISTRY OF CONDEMNATION and that none can obey the law, but that the law merely increases the trespass, we can bank on the fact that it is impossible to fulfill the law. Clearly we do not have the free will capacity to make ourselves right with God through external obedience.
Paul uses stark and dreadful language describing the purpose of the old covenant law. The law is nothing but the ministry of condemnation, and can do nothing but cause all people to be sinful beyond degree and reveal the holiness of God. Just as the Heidelberg Catechism teaches:
“3. Q. How do you come to know your misery? A. The Law of God tells me”
We ought not regard the commands merely as a standard which we ought to obey, but the tool through which God accomplishes his eternal goal of redemption and the glorification of Jesus Christ in his saints. We have no hope but Christ. We have no internal capacity, no internal power, no free will, no hope in the law, no personal righteousness; we have nothing, we are nothing, but we hope in Jesus Christ. He is our salvation, and he has given us a New Covenant, that through faith in his life, atonement, and resurrection, we may have peace with God, and eternal life. The law gives us the drastic contrast between punishment and forgiveness, wrath and grace, death and life. When we know our utter desperation, and when the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, righteousness, and judgement, we run to Christ in complete abandonment, in adoration and worship – in praise of the one who paid our debt, and gave us life when all we deserved was death and destruction. To God be the glory, and may he alone be glorified before, now, and afterwards, for all time, forever and ever. Amen.