The True Picture
The complete ruin of human nature was never distinctly spelt out in the law. That does not mean, of course, that, with the benefit of the light of NT revelation, we cannot recognise some allusions to man’s true state in the OT. With the laver in the tabernacle, for example, we can trace a hint as to the repellent nature of the flesh in the fact that the women (the fairest portion of mankind) gave up their mirrors for its creation. Their mirrors reflected back images of themselves and as those that “crowded before the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Exod. 38: 8), the presence of the Lord appeared to have dispelled all notions of their own attractiveness before Him. Yet even here it is the outward appearance and not the hidden man of the heart that is alluded to. A clear declaration of the complete ruin of Adam’s race was not made in all its present distinctiveness till Christ came, the One who was Himself the Head of a new order of man. Accordingly, we find that the sin–offerings in Leviticus refer to certain actual breaches of the law, and do not directly teach the fact of the nature of the sinner being depraved. Leprosy, the type which perhaps approaches most closely to “flesh of sin” (Rom. 8: 3) could only be dealt with when some clear and palpable tokens of corruption were manifested to the senses. Contact with death and uncleanness would defile the Israelite, but he was nowhere taught in the law that those things which proceed “out of the heart” (Matt. 15: 18) are the things which really pollute a man.
If the law had plainly declared the complete and irremediable ruin of the whole man, the very giving of it would have contradicted its own pronouncement. What would be the use of commanding righteousness by man’s own efforts if the same word declared his entire impotence and inability to be righteous? How could a physician propose a remedial process, if at the same time he pronounced the patient incurable? One of the purposes of God in giving the Law was to bring out into the open the thorough ruin of the first man. Law came in “in order that the offence might abound” (Rom. 5: 20) and that “sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful” (Rom 7: 13). By law, the secret springs of the heart’s evil were laid bare (see Rom. 3: 20; 7: 7, 8) and the Jew (the best man in the flesh) as well as the poor outcast Gentile were proved “under judgment to God” (Rom. 3: 19). It was necessary that such a condition of evil should be demonstrated in order that life and incorruptibility might be brought to light by the glad tidings (see 2 Tim. 1: 10).
The pool of Bethesda (see John 5: 2–9) has often been used to illustrate the relationship between man and the law. When an angel “descended at a certain season” to the pool “and troubled the water” it offered healing to any that had strength to use it, but to the impotent man who had been there for thirty eight years it presented only a tantalising hope that could never be realised. The pool did nothing for him except prove his own impotence. If the power to step into it had been his, then he might have done without it altogether: he would not have required its help, seeing he would have already have ceased to be helpless before seeking its aid. It was the same in respect to the law: it did nothing for the one under it, except prove his inability to keep it, and any who had the power and will to walk according to its righteous requirement, would not have needed it. Certainly, the law did not declare man’s powerlessness, but it was given to make it known. Moses might command the children of Israel “to love Jehovah thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances” and have set life and death before them, telling them to “choose then life, that thou mayest live” (Deut. 30: 16, 19), but all this implies an ability to carry out what is instructed. Israel’s subsequent history proves their incapacity.
Whereas the OT does not reveal the true extent of man’s condition, the NT is explicit: “you, being dead in your offences and sins” (Eph. 2: 1, my emphasis), and a dead man can neither choose life or death. Furthermore, in case anyone should point out that this verse is aimed at the corrupt Gentile (‘you’), rather than the pious Jew, Paul goes on to say (speaking of himself and his fellow Jews), “we too being dead in offences” (v5, my emphasis). The ruin of the race as a whole is thus proved. In essence, this is the doctrine that a well–known “ruler of the Jews” (John 3: 1) found so difficult to grasp. Like many today, he would not have struggled with the concept of a reformation, but the idea that the flesh could not be reformed, and that he needed to be “born anew” (v3) was a startling revelation. As Nicodemus found, all that will avail for any of Adam’s race is the sovereign mercy of God in new birth.