Leviticus 18:5 in Romans 10

Ever since I became a Christian there has been this highly used theological interpretation that the Jewish people had a works-based foundation, while Christians have a faith-based foundation. To be honest, this has always seemed really weird to me. When people say that do they mean that God used to save his people by works under the Old Covenant but then changed his mind under the New Covenant? If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), then maybe that theological interpretation is a bit off? There is a chance that the Pharisees took the law of God and interpreted it as a works-based foundation, but what if that wasn’t the case for most of Israel that was looking forward to the coming Messiah by faith?

    This morning I continued my devotions through Leviticus. Leviticus is a special book that makes much of God’s holiness and the necessity of blood-sacrifice to come into the presence of our holy God. But if we have been taught that Israel had a works-based salvation, then our reading of Leviticus might be skewed and fall under the umbrella of works. However, I think if we try to understand how the Apostles understood Leviticus and the Old Testament Scriptures, we may have to adjust our theological foundation just a bit.

    In Leviticus 18:5, Moses writes, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.” On it’s own, that sure seems like we must obey to be saved, right? Well, kind of. If we turn ahead to the book of Romans, Paul actually quotes Leviticus 18:5 in his words on our relationship with works and righteousness. Writing to the church in Rome, Paul has his Jewish brothers (non-Christians) in mind as he writes about their current state before God.

Paul’s understanding of Leviticus 18:5

   Romans 10:1-3 tells us that these Jews, by birth, have a zeal for God “but not according to knowledge.” Although they were born into covenant families, were circumcised as babies, and had the Old Covenant Scriptures, Paul says that they are “ignorant of the righteousness of God.” Then, before Paul gets to Leviticus 18:5, he makes a massively important conclusion in Romans 10:4. He says, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

    Why is this statement so massive? Paul is arguing that now that Christ has come and inaugurated the New Covenant by his blood, the time which the Levitical system was operational has ended. As Jim Hamilton says, “Now that Christ has come and the law has ended, anyone who seeks to establish his own righteousness apart from Christ must do so through perfect obedience to the law since no other sacrifice for sin is available” (Hamilton, God’’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, 112).

    Those two options help us understand that a change did happen, not to God, but to the way he chose to deal with his people. While the faithful Jews of the OT lived by faith in what God promised to do, New Covenant people look back to what God has done, particularly in and through his Son. And because of the payment of sin being full, final, and finished at the cross, we are left either believing by faith or trying to obtain a perfect righteousness on our own. 

    Enter Paul’s use of Leviticus 18:5. In Romans 10:5, right after his conclusion in 10:4, Paul goes on to use the Leviticus idea, not as it applied in Moses’ day, but as it applies to those same Jews in Paul’s own day who had a zeal for God but not the righteousness that comes from God…also known as the imputed righteousness of Christ. 

Why this matters?

    What this means is that we cannot simply say, the people of the Old Covenant were saved by works and the people of the New Covenant are saved by faith. No, all people of all eras are saved by faith in Christ; some looking forward and some (us) looking backwards. However, there are people, particularly present day Jews, who have rejected Jesus as the Messiah and are left with the same 2 options: 1. Trust in Jesus alone by faith and receive his perfect righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), or, 2. Perfectly obey the law of God on their own, which is impossible. 

    This begs the question for us, “What are we trusting in for salvation?” We might be quick to say, “Jesus Christ alone!” Yet, how many times do we feel superior over those who do not believe what we believe? Were we smarter than those people? Did God see something in us that others didn’t have? No, we are a people who have been save by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9) and can say with Old Covenant and New Covenant saints that salvation belongs to the Lord. And all who will look to him and believe (Rom. 10:9-10) will be saved and receive Christ’s perfect righteousness. 

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