No Standard

Many theologians and Bible teachers believe that the old covenant was a works-righteousness system in which people were expected to earn salvation by doing good works to please God. They contrast this with the new covenant based on salvation by faith alone.

Many problems with this understanding have been exposed during the last fifty years. However, the fundamental problem is that the entire concept of works-righteousness based on law does not make sense because the law does not provide a standard for personal righteousness.

God's standard for personal righteousness would include most of the following:

Most of these virtues are not specifically mentioned in the Torah, except the last four, and with violence, it is only the most extreme forms, such as assault and murder, that are forbidden.

Most of these standards were not spelt out clearly until they were listed in the New Testament as the Fruit of the Spirit. Clearly, these virtues are God's standard for personal righteousness, but an equivalent table of virtues was not provided in the Old Testament.

It seems that God knew that his standard would be impossible for humans prior to the cross and fulness of the Holy Spirit, so he did not bother setting them out systematically until after the Spirit had been poured out. This confirms that God knew that personal righteousness was not a realistic expectation prior to the cross, so he did not bother specifying what it entailed.

Different Purpose

Most of the Torah has nothing to do with personal righteousness because it describes a communal program that teaches people how to live together in a tightly populated land with relative harmony. The law was given when the children of Israel were about to move into a new land. While they were slaves, their taskmasters had controlled every aspect of their lives. Once they were freed from slavery and planted a new land, they faced the challenge of living together without falling out with each other over trivial issues. God gave them the Torah to equip them for this challenge.

These are just a few of the main purposes for which God gave the OT laws, but there are many more. The law provides guidance for marriage, instructions for defence and war, guidance for caring for the poor, and many other social and economic issues, but most of these are instructions to a community of people. They are not criteria for personal righteousness because that is not the purpose of the law.

Ten Commandments

Even the Ten Commandments were not really a standard for personal righteousness. They were more of a summary of Gods covenant with his chosen people. (The number of each commandment is in brackets)

Writers who say the Torah was a system of works righteousness do not understand the purposes for which God gave it. The Israelites came under Moses' covenant because they had been called and rescued from slavery and led into the promised land. The promises of the covenant belonged to all those who were descendants of Jacob. They did not have to maintain some obscure standard of personal righteousness to enter the covenant, or remain in it. These were born into these blessings.

Many of the blessings of the covenant came through living according to the instructions for economic life and family loyalty, but they were not a reward for righteousness, just a consequence of living in the way that God recommended for them. If God suggested living this way, we would expect that applying his wisdom to community life would bring benefits. Living by God's wisdom is sensible, so it is not an indication of personal righteousness.

The people of the covenant had to persist in their allegiance to God, or he would be squeezed out of their country, and the spiritual powers of evil would push in and bring curses. These curses were the consequence of the people's choices, not a sign of being outside the covenant. God's covenant stood firm, even when the spiritual powers of evil got on top and the Israelites were exiled to a foreign nation.

Personal righteousness was not necessary for remaining in the blessings of the covenant. Experiencing these blessings depends on allegiance to God and living according to his wisdom. Consequently, criteria for personal righteousness were not provided in the Torah. The Old Covenant was not a system of works righteousness.

No Plan B

God does not make mistakes. The Old Covenant was not his Plan A that failed, which had to be replaced by a Plan B, the gospel of Jesus. The Old Covenant was not a failure. It was perfect for the purposes for which it was given (like everything God does).

The Torah provided a system of justice to help the Israelites manage crime in their new land (it was so good that God expected the nations to copy it). It also gives instructions that would provide spiritual protection for the people, if they applied them (they often didn't). The Torah provided instructions for Economic Life to enable people who were used to being slaves to work together freely on various economic and social activities. To the extent they were applied, they were effective.

The Torah was not given to make people righteous. It was not designed to help people please God by living righteously. God has already chosen them to be his people, regardless of their lack of righteousness.

God always had a Plan A for dealing effectively with sin and evil and making humans righteous in his sight (not because he wanted to puff us up, but because our sin gives the spiritual powers of evil authority to control us). He always intended to do this through Jesus and pouring out the Holy Spirit, but he had to get a lot of things in place before he could send Jesus safely, so it was not the first thing that he did.

Because he had an excellent plan to make people righteous through faith in Jesus, he did not try to do it through the Torah. He did not try to do this because it would be a waste of effort. This is why the Torah does not set out a complete description of his standard of personal righteousness. However, it did prophesy the righteousness that would come through what Jesus would do.

The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live (Deut 30:6).
The Torah is ideal for the purposes for which it was given. It was not a failure because it did not try to do things that it was never intended to do. This is why, when the Pharisees tried to make the law into a system of personal righteousness, they lost the plot and turned it into a heavy burden that was too hard for people to carry (Luke 11:46). This happened because they were looking for a standard of personal righteousness that is not there. They were trying to do something the law was not intended to achieve. God always intended to solve the sin problem through Jesus.

Faith and Law

The traditional Christian view of the old covenant is that it was a covenant of works in which God's people were expected to earn his favour by living righteous lives. The usual corollary is that everyone failed to comply with Gods' standard of righteousness, so Jesus had to come and die on their behalf to satisfy God's requirements. In this view, the Old Testament covenant of works-righteousness is contrasted with the New Testament good news of salvation by faith.

The problem with this view is that the Torah does not describe a covenant of works and it does not set out a standard of personal righteousness that people should strive to obey. The truth is that the old covenant was a covenant of grace and faith, just like the new covenant. God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them into the promised land by a massive act of grace. He did this before he had given the Torah and before they had done anything to earn his favour. Grace came first. Faith followed because they had to trust that God knew what he was doing when he led them out into the wilderness. Their obedience to God was their response to his grace and the outworking of their faith in him.

The fundamental point is that both the old and the new covenants were covenants of faith. Paul makes this point clearly in Romans 3:30. God shall declare righteous the circumcision by faith and the uncircumcision through the faith.

Both those who are circumcised under the law and those who are not circumcised are put right with God through faith. The people under the old covenant needed faith in God's grace, just like everyone else.

Paul amplifies this point in Roman 4. He explains that the covenant that God made with Abraham was a faith covenant, not a works covenant. Abraham received an amazing promise from God that all nations would be blessed through him. Paul is clear that Abraham did not receive this promise because he had done good works. On the contrary, he received the promise because he trusted God.

For if Abraham was declared righteous, by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (Rom 4:2-3).
If Abraham had to be righteous to be blessed by God, he would have failed. He made mistakes throughout his life, even repeating the same one twice (pretending that Sarah was his sister). However, God is gracious and decided to call Abraham and bless him with amazing promises, despite his frequent failures, and Adam trusted God's promise to bless the nations through him.

The promise to Abraham was made 400 years before the law was given (Rom 4:13-15). This means that God introduces blessing through grace, faith and trust before he gave the law, so it would not make sense for him to go back to forcing people to earn their righteousness by good works when he gave the law.

Abraham lived before the law was given, but David lived under the law. He also received God's blessing through faith, not by good works.

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered (Rom 4:6-7).
David could not earn God's favour by living a righteous life under the law. He needed the forgiveness that comes through trust in God's promises.

Abraham and David were two of the biggest heroes of the Old Testament, yet they could not earn God's favour and blessings by their own personal righteousness. They both experienced the blessings of God, so clearly, they were not dependent on good works for his favour. They received the blessing of God through their trust in his gracious love. That confirms that the Old Covenant was not a covenant of works righteousness, but a covenant of grace. God did not expect the people living under that covenant to earn his favour and blessing by living a righteous life.

More at No Covenant of Works.