December 1, 2020

The Gospel: What the Torah Says about Faith vs. the Works of the Law

Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan, Molnar

By Chaplain Mike

“Then [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, NASB)

“…Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.” (Genesis 26:5)

“But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.'” (Numbers 20:12)

• • •

One of the great themes of the New Testament is that of salvation by grace through faith. This theme is often developed in the context of theological conflict, of apostles like Paul with Jewish opponents of Christianity, false teachers (sometimes called “Judaizers”) who were trying to impose Jewish practices on Gentiles for inclusion in the faith, or with Jewish Christians who were trying to work out the implications of faith in Christ as Messiah.

These conflicts often boiled down to a discussion on the relationship between “faith” and “the works of the Law.”

This is a huge subject and it cannot possibly be developed in a single blog post. All I want to say today is that this debate about how people become part of God’s community, maintain good standing in that community, and relate to others in that community is not a New Testament issue alone.

In fact, part of the Gospel message that the Old Testament (for our purposes here, the Torah) presents is that inclusion in true covenant relationship with God is by faith and not by works of the Law.

I believe that the Pentateuch is in agreement with these NT affirmations: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,” (Rom 3:20, ESV), and “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law, Rembrandt

The Torah: A Two-Part Biography with an Introduction
In order to understand how it is that the Old Testament affirms the way of faith and not the Law, we need to step back and take a look at the big picture of the Torah. The five books of the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) may be divided into three basic sections:

  • Section One: stories of the “Beginnings” — early stories that introduce God and prepare for the choice of Abraham and his family to restore God’s blessing to the world. (Gen 1-11)
  • Section Two: the Patriarchal stories — stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that lead their family to settle in Egypt. (Gen 12-50)
  • Section Three: the Moses/Israel stories — stories of Moses’ life, the exodus, journey to Sinai, covenant at Sinai, giving of the Law, wandering in the wilderness, sermons on the plains of Moab as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. (Exodus-Deuteronomy)

Section one is introductory, for the story of Israel starts with the call of Abram in Genesis 12.

That leaves two main biographical sections in the Torah. At first glance they are quite imbalanced. The stories of Abraham and his family end with Genesis. The remaining four books cover only the lifetime of Moses! However, if you were to remove all the laws, and directions for building the Tabernacle, and boil down Exodus-Deuteronomy to just its narratives, the patriarchal stories and the Moses stories would take up about the same amount of material.

Furthermore, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Exodus 1-18 (the first two-thirds of Moses’ life) occur before the giving of the Law. Thus Abraham and the patriarchs are portrayed as people of faith who lived without the Law, and Moses is a person who lived part of his life without the Law and part of his life under the Law.

John Sailhamer discusses this organization of material in the Torah:

The early chapters of Genesis (1-11) play their own part in providing an introduction to the whole Pentateuch; they stress the context of “all humanity” for both the patriarchal narratives and those of Moses. The Moses material, for its part, has been expanded with voluminous selections from the Sinai laws in order to show the reader the nature of the Law under which Moses lived.

…The chronological framework of Genesis…and the virtual freezing of time in Exodus-Deuteronomy…suggests a conscious effort to contrast the time before (and leading up to) the giving of the Law (ante legem) with the time of Moses under the Law (sub lege). Abraham lived before the Law and Moses lived after it was given.

The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 66

Let’s stop and summarize here.

  • The Torah has an introductory section followed by two biographical sections.
  • The two main characters in the biographical sections are Abraham (and his family) and Moses (and Israel)
  • The Abraham stories are about walking with God before the giving of the Law. This is also true of the first part of the stories about Moses and Israel (Exodus 1-18).
  • The rest of the Torah — the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — describe life under the Law.
  • As we will see, the author wants to draw a contrast between life before the Law and life under the Law.

To do this, Sailhamer looks at two key texts that reflect on the lives of Abraham and Moses and evaluate them.

Abraham, Faithful Law-Keeper
The first is Genesis 26:5“…Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”

This is a very interesting text! The list it gives, describing God’s requirements, is a common description of the Mosaic Law, the commands given by God in the Sinai covenant (see Deut 11:1, for example). How can it possibly be said that Abraham kept this Law? Previous narratives in Genesis stress his faith, but here it says directly and clearly that Abraham is credited by God with having kept the law — the same law given to Israel through Moses.

Reading the Abraham stories, one does not find indication of an intentional strategy to portray Abraham as a Law-keeper. There is no hint that God revealed these laws to him ahead of time, nor do the narratives present him as specifically observant. We might suggest that the “laws” of Gen 26:5 are more general ethical precepts, and that all this verse is saying is that Abraham was a good person according to standards understood through general revelation, but that does not ring true when these terms are used consistently of various laws of the covenant.

No. Abraham is counted a righteous person by God in terms of laws that would only be revealed and given later. He kept the Law. And it appears that the author wants us to see Abraham as a supreme illustration of what it means to “keep the Law.”

He is telling us that if we likewise want to be counted righteous by God, fulfilling the requirements of his Law, we should be like Abraham. What did Abraham do? He BELIEVED God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6). Abraham lived a life of faith. He trusted God. He was therefore counted just in terms of God’s righteous laws. It was not by actually doing the works of the Law, living under the Law and keeping its commands, that Abraham received God’s commendation as a righteous man. It was because of his faith.

Ultimately “keeping the Law” means “believing in God.” Live a life of faith and it can be said that you are keeping God’s Law.

Moses, Exiled by Unbelief
The second text is Numbers 20:12 — But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”

This is from the story of Israel at Kadesh, in the wilderness. They complained to Moses about lack of water, Moses and Aaron fell before the Lord, and God told them to speak to the rock and water would gush forth. They gathered the people together, Moses spoke harsh words of rebuke to the people, struck the rock twice, and water came forth to satisfy their thirst.

Then comes our verse. God says that Moses and Aaron failed to believe him in this incident. Was it because they struck the rock rather than speaking to it as God commanded? Was it because they spoke harsh words to the people instead? Was it because of bad attitudes, anger or rage? Why is Aaron included in God’s rebuke? The text is sparse and inconclusive. It merely says that God’s evaluation of Moses and Aaron in this situation is that they failed to believe him and failed to treat him as holy before Israel.

However, what is clear is that this unbelief carried a harsh penalty. Moses and Aaron would not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. After all they had experienced, they would not be allowed to enjoy God’s good gift of the land. They would experience, as it were, exile from Canaan, the land of milk and honey.

This is but the climax of a long season of failure after failure since the people had gathered at Mt. Sinai. Before the giving of the Law, they had believed in Moses, and Moses and Aaron had worked signs and wonders, and though Israel sometimes behaved in childlike ways, they trusted God and followed their faithful leadership to the mountain where they entered into the covenant with God. However, at Mt. Sinai and throughout the forty years that followed, they struggled to exercise faith and live faithfully. Time after time their faith grew weak and failed. From the Golden Calf incident, to this event at Kadesh, nearly the entire generation proved faithless.

Including, at the end, Moses himself.

Faith, or the Works of the Law?
Thus, the Torah in its big picture presents us with this contrast:

  • The way of vital and growing faith apart from the Law, as exemplified by Abraham.
  • Or the way of weakening and failing faith under the Law, as exemplified by Moses.

John Sailhamer summarizes:

The narrative strategy contrasts Abraham, who kept the Law, and Moses, whose faith was weakened under the Law. This strategy suggests a conscious effort on the part of the author to distinguish between a life of faith before the Law (ante legem) and a lack of faith under the Law (sub lege). This distinction is accomplished by showing that faith and trust in God characterized the life of God’s people before the giving of the Law, but after the giving of the Law faithlessness and failure characterized their lives. Abraham lived by faith (Gen 15:6), in Egypt the Israelites lived by faith (Ex 4), they came out of Egypt by faith (Ex 14:31), and they approached Mt. Sinai by faith (Ex 19:9). After the giving of the Law, however, the life of God’s people was no longer marked by faith. Even their leaders, Moses and Aaron, failed to believe in God after the coming of the Law.

The Pentateuch as Narrative, p. 77

If this reading holds up, and I think it does, then it shows that God, from the very beginning of Scripture, is encouraging the way of faith, and not the way of Law-keeping as the way of righteousness before God and in the world. Abraham is the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11), who teaches us that “the just shall live by faith.” Moses, on the other hand, is the father of the Law covenant that ultimately cannot justify (Galatians 3:11), cannot give life (Galatians 3:21), and ultimately leads only to a curse if one trusts in its efficacy (Galatians 3:10).

Now, to be sure, the Apostle Paul does not reject the Law as without purpose or usefulness. Galatians 3 affirms its purposes in the history of salvation, disciplining, protecting and maintaining Israel’s identity until the birth of Abraham’s Seed. In Romans 7, Paul further explains the necessary role of the Law as that “holy, righteous and good” standard that reveals sin and leads to Christ. However, we cannot, must not count on the Law for our acceptance or standing with God. We may not use the Law’s practices as “boundary markers” to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out” in terms of the true faith, nor may we require others to conform to those practices to be members of good standing in God’s family.

This is GOSPEL truth, taught by the Torah as well as by Paul. The just shall live by faith, not by the works of the Law.

“For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith.” (Romans 4:13)


  1. The Old Testament says it. The New Testament says it (that we are saved by faith and not by what we do).

    But that doesn’t matter. God could write it across the sky this evening and people would still gravitate to all the law language in the Bible and look for the religion project.

    We are bent that way. That’s why we need to hear the gospel over and over and over (and the law to drive us to Christ), and receive the sacraments for assurance.

    Otherwise, we WILL put the focus back onto ourselves.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      As one that has walked the perilous, yet comfortable road of legalism, I think you’re spot-on, Steve. It’s a lot easier to have a checklist than a relationship. Whether in the context of the OT or the NT, a legalistic approach to God is a perversion of the faith/religion/whatever. Yeah, being in relationship/covenant with God includes some ethical and behavioral expectations, but that’s not the essence of the relationship. Those are the out-flowing of the relationship, not the basis of it.

      • Happy for you that you are free of all that now, Isaac.

        Great comments.

      • Josh in FW says

        I was already aware of the problems legalism was causing in my relationship with GOD, but your comments helped me realize how legalism has been causing problems in my marriage too. “Being in relationship/covenant with [my wife] includes some ethical and behavioral expectations, but that’s not the essence of the relationship.”

    • David Cornwell says

      Steve, the more I observe human nature and religious enterprise, the more certain I am that you are correct.

  2. I believe The Lord Jesus Christ is God, The Son of God, and The Messiah as clearly taught in the Bible. The stakes are too high to be wrong about this.

    • Okay, color me confused. The posts so far for gospel week have shown that our history is richer and more nuanced than our “just get them to say a sinner’s prayer” “gospel” preached in all too many churches. But I certainly haven’t seen anything that would cause me to quit preaching “Christ, and Him crucified.”

  3. There are certainly a mulltitude of reasons why the relationship between God and His people (individually and collectively) has been compared to a marriage relationship. To me (and I am blessed with a marriage as wonderful and nurturing as my childhood was scary and cold, which certainly shapes my view) we are the spouse who tries our best to do things for our Beloved, not out of duty but out of love. We don’t HAVE to get up with the sick child or bring flowers or cook a favorite meal in order to be loved…we do it OUT of that love. And, often, we stumble and hurt each and strike out and even break our vows (and not just with sexual infidelity).And we forgive and are forgiven, over and over.

    No one with a brain would think “They love me so much, I can hit the bars/play golf every day/buy new shoes rather than food/sleep around/be cruel AND they will love me anyway, so let the games begin!!” (The Grace is there, so why not have fun??) On the other hand, if one has to grovel and have dinner hot on the table at six OR ELSE or perform sexually on demand or put up with any type of abuse or make a huge salary in ORDER to be loved….that isn’t love at all, but slavery.

    We are able to love because we are loved, and in that love want to give our very best back to our Beloved, who will forgive us when we fail, but who rejoices in the signs of love and sacrifice we offer.

  4. Claire in Tasmania says

    I’m finding some of the above quite concerning/weird. Not your main point, ITA that God has always wanted faith, and living by the law without faith never saved anyone.

    However, your argument in the middle, where you quote Sailhamer, seems to be saying that the Law was/is intrinsically harmful to faith, that living under the law leeches faith out of people.
    I have a couple of problems with this. Firstly, I don’t really see the pattern you are describing. For example, Jacob didn’t act all that faithfully (scheming for the birthright and the blessing instead of trusting God to provide). OTOH, the Joshua generation, who grew up with the Mosaic code, were fairly faithful on the whole.

    Secondly, it gives the impression that God would give a bad gift to his children. What I mean is this:
    A) God wants faith and
    B) the law intrinsically leeches faith, which is how I read what you’re saying and
    C) God gave that law to his people,
    then – he is setting them up for failure.
    He gives them something that, according to Sailhamer, makes it harder, if not impossible, for them to do what he wants – live by faith. That is a bad gift. I don’t believe God would do that. I can’t believe that God’s law would be so intrinsically opposed to God’s will, at its heart.

    So, am I misunderstanding you somewhere?
    (I hope I didn’t come across accusing or harsh. It can be hard to put ideas like this succinctly in a comment while also sounding gentle/listening)

    • Galatians 3 shows the positive purpose for the law — to be a guardian for Israel until Christ should come. I encourage you to read that.

      • Claire in Tasmania says

        Sorry, you seem to have misunderstood me. I should have said in my PP that I realise you see a positive purpose to the law.
        What I was asking for was clarification, as I find it hard to believe that you would think that God’s law erodes faith and thus made it hard, if not impossible, for his people to please him. Since you haven’t disagreed with my points above, can I assume that you do actually believe this? If not, could you please clarify? Thanks 🙂

        • God’s law only “erodes faith” because people do not have a heart to keep it. The problem is not with the Law itself but with human sinfulness. This is the point of Romans 7 and it reflects what Moses himself said in Deut 29:4 — “But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Rom 8:3 says — “For jGod has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” God’s gift of law was “holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good,” (Rom 7:12), but it brought out that which was sinful in humanity.