Soon after it became compulsory to wear seat belts in Western Australia, the police began a blitz against drivers who failed to provide adequate safety restraints for their children. At that time my wife and I began to make our four-year-old son sit in his car-seat rather than in his mother’s lap. For a week or two, while our son adjusted to the new arrangements, our travel was punctuated with explanations about safety and policemen and paying fines.
While driving with my son one day, I stopped at a set of traffic lights, and a police car drew alongside me.
My son peered at the policeman and said, “It’s lucky we’re wearing our seat belts, isn’t it, Dad?”
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
“Now the policeman won’t be cross, will he?”
“No. He’ll be pleased with us.”
“And will he give us some money?”
“No,” I explained without smiling. “They don’t give us money when we do good things. They just take it off us when we do bad things.”
This truth came home forcefully some months later when after years of safe driving I had an accident in which I was at fault. I was fined and given demerit points. While I obeyed the law, the law ignored me—but the moment I broke it, it condemned me.
This is the predicament of all human beings concerning God’s moral law. Although the law (which is distilled in the Ten Commandments) is just and necessary, it is primarily negative in its effect. It can reveal guilt, but not restore innocence. It can condemn, but not exonerate. It can impose death, but not impart life. “[T]hrough the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20, ESV)—but not, alas, forgiveness for sin or freedom from it.
No person can live without breaking God’s law at some point in his or her life and thereby coming under judgment. Therefore, no one can ever be made right with God through his or her own efforts, because such efforts can never be good enough.
Indeed, we dare not place confidence in our own efforts, because “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’” (Galatians 3:10). If the law weren’t so categorical and comprehensive we might stand a chance. But who can meet the standard of doing all the things it requires all the time? We often find it difficult to comply with even the smallest things in the law, let alone all things! And yet if we fail to keep it at any point at any time, the law places us under the curse of condemnation.
God’s moral law is a curse to us not because it is evil but because we are evil. We lack not only the moral strength to obey it, but also the moral integrity to actually want to obey it. Consequently, we cannot escape its condemnation because we cannot fulfil its conditions.
This is why the gospel is such good news. In the Lord Jesus Christ, the demands of justice are satisfied and God’s mercy is put on offer to all people. For “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He took upon himself the curse of judgment and the curse of punishment that the Law imposed on us as lawbreakers. By his sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus has done everything necessary to achieve God’s forgiveness for our violations of his moral law. Consequently, “by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39).
The gospel truth can never be treasured and safeguarded enough: “It is through Christ’s death that our sins are forgiven and we are set free” (Ephesians 1:7; TNT). Indeed, “We know that a man is not made right with God by keeping the law but only through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16; TNT).