Much confusion has come about by a failure to distinguish the principle of law and the dispensation of the law. Paul makes a number of statements about the passing away of the law, such as, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth” (Rom 10:4).
And in 2 Corinthians 3:7, 11, 13 he speaks of the law which was written and engraved in stones as having been done away and abolished. What does Paul mean by these statements? In what sense has the law been done away? The law forbade murder, theft and adultery. Does Paul mean that under grace the law against such behavior has been rescinded?
Assuredly not, since Paul speaks out very strongly against such practices. Neither is he saying that the elemental law of human nature has come to an end, for Christians above all others have become sensitized to sin. He must, then, be speaking about the dispensation or administration of law, which was introduced by Moses, as having come to an end.
Earlier it was pointed out that Paul always associates the law with the flesh and that he contends that the law is not of faith (Gal 3:12). When the law was dispensed at Mt. Sinai it was given to a people who, while under the promise of God and in that sense the people of God, were as yet in actual experience in the flesh. The dispensation of the Spirit had not yet come. They were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. They had not experienced personal regeneration. The writer to the Hebrews describes these per-Christian saints: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (11:13).
Before fulfilling these promises to His people, God purposed to place them under the dispensation of law in order to manifest fully and completely the true character of sin, and the total inability of the fleshly nature of man to please God. Paul states very clearly God’s purpose in giving the law: “Now we know that what things so ever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:19, 20).
Paul likewise shows the inability of the law to produce that which it demanded from Adamic man. It could produce neither righteousness nor life. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh” … (Rom 8:3). “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Gal 3:21).
Now the principle upon which the law operates is not one of faith, as Paul plainly declares in Galatians 3:12, but “the man that doeth then shall live by them.” Law demands doing, or works. This is why Paul constantly speaks of the works or deeds of the law. God as a righteous Judge must justify any person who perfectly fulfills His holy law (Rom 2:13).
The law was placed over sinful flesh, and no flesh was ever able to fulfill the demands of the law. Therefore God has proven through the dispensation of law the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the absolute inability of the natural man to please God (Rom 8:7, 8). “But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good—that sin by the commandment might become exceedingly sinful” (Rom 7:13).