10 Key Bible Verses on God’s Law

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

All commentary notes adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

1. Galatians 2:16

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

“Justified” means “counted righteous” or “declared righteous” by God (see ESV footnote). If people were sinless and perfectly obeyed all of God’s perfect moral standards, they could be justified or “declared righteous” on the basis of their own merits. But Paul says that this is impossible for any Gentile or even for any Jew to do (cf. Romans 1–2). we know that a person is not justified by works of the law. Paul saw that Christ had taught justification by faith, and so he called God the one “who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). Paul will soon show that this view was taught even in the OT (see Gal. 3:6–18), though it was not the view of most of first-century Judaism. (For example, a 1st-century-B.C. Jewish writing states, “The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord, and the one who does wickedness is the cause of the destruction of his own soul” [Psalms of Solomon 9.5]). In Gal. 2:16, “works of the law” means not only circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath, but any human effort to be justified by God by obeying a moral law. faith in Jesus Christ. Some contend that the Greek means the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” But “faith in Jesus Christ” seems much more likely since “faith in Jesus Christ” is synonymous with the next phrase, “we also have believed in Christ Jesus.” “But through faith in Jesus Christ” is the opposite of depending on one’s own good deeds for justification, since justification comes through faith in Christ alone. We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ implies that justification is the result of saving faith. The contrast and not by works of the law shows clearly that no human effort or merit can be added to faith as a basis for justification. (This verse was frequently appealed to in the Reformation by Protestants who insisted on “justification by faith alone” as opposed to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith plus merit gained through the “means of grace” administered by means of the Roman Catholic sacraments such as penance and the Mass.) Paul concludes decisively: by works of the law no one will be justified (cf. 3:10–14; Acts 13:39; Heb. 10:1–14).

2. Matthew 22:36–40

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

the great commandment. The rabbis engaged in an ongoing debate to determine which commandments were “light” and which were “weighty” (cf. 23:23; and note on 5:19). The Law refers here to the entire OT.

love the Lord your God … heart … soul … mind. This command from Deut. 6:5, repeated twice daily by faithful Jews, encapsulates the idea of total devotion to God and includes the duty to obey the rest of God’s commandments (cf. Matt. 5:16–20). “Heart,” “soul,” and “mind” do not represent rigid compartments of human existence but rather together refer to the whole person.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself. See Lev. 19:18, 34. Love signifies a concrete responsibility to seek the greatest good of one’s neighbors, both Jew and Gentile.

The kingdom life that Jesus initiated—summarized in these two commandments—fulfills the deepest longings of human beings created in the image of God to display his glory.

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3. Romans 3:19–20

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

These verses represent the culmination and conclusion of vv. 9–18 and all of 1:18–3:20, showing that all, without exception, are sinners.

The law here, as is typically the case in Romans, refers to the Mosaic law. Those under the law are the Jews. But why is every mouth left without excuse and condemned before God if the law is addressed only to the Jews? Paul’s logic is that if the Jews, who are God’s special covenant people, cannot keep the law, then it follows that Gentiles, who are taught much of the law by their consciences, will not avoid God’s condemnation either.

Works of the law is understood by some to refer only to the ceremonial law, i.e., those laws that separate Jews from Gentiles (such as circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath). But the context gives no indication of such a restriction, and therefore the phrase should be taken to refer to all the works or deeds required by the law. The law required perfect obedience to God’s will. All people sin and fall short of this standard, therefore no one is justified by the law. Justified is a legal term and indicates that no one will be declared to be righteous by God, who is the divine judge by virtue of his own goodness, since all violate and none fulfill God’s requirements.

4. Psalm 19:7–9

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

reviving the soul. That is, giving refreshment (see Prov. 25:13, “refreshes the soul”; Ps. 23:3 uses a similar expression). Sure, or trustworthy. simple.

pure. Unmixed with evil (cf. 24:4). enlightening the eyes. For the eyes to have light or to be bright is for the person to be alert and active (cf. 1 Sam. 14:27; Ezra 9:8; Ps. 13:3; 38:10; Prov. 29:13).

The fear of the LORD often means revering God, but here it is the revealed way by which one properly reveres God, i.e., the precepts of the covenant (similarly 34:11). true. A reliable transcript of God’s will.

5. John 1:16–17

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

Grace indicates God’s (unmerited) favor that brings blessing and joy. Grace and truth most likely recalls the Hebrew behind the phrase “steadfast love [Hb. hesed] and faithfulness [Hb. ’emet]” in Ex. 34:6 (cf. Ex. 33:18–19), where the expression refers to God’s covenant faithfulness to his people Israel. According to John, God’s covenant faithfulness found ultimate expression in his sending of his one-of-a-kind Son, Jesus Christ. The contrast is not that the Mosaic law was bad and Jesus is good. Rather, both the giving of the law and the coming of Jesus Christ mark decisive events in the history of salvation. In the law, God graciously revealed his character and righteous requirements to the nation of Israel. Jesus, however, marked the final, definitive revelation of God’s grace and truth. He was superior to Abraham (8:53), Jacob (4:12), and Moses (5:46–47; cf. 9:28).

6. Matthew 5:17–18

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

The Messianic Kingdom in Relation to the Law. Verses 17–20 explain how Jesus and the kingdom fulfill the law of Moses; this is the key to interpreting the Sermon on the Mount and indeed the whole of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus then offers six antitheses (vv. 21–48) that contrast proper and false interpretation and application of the OT.

abolish the Law or the Prophets. The “Law” or “Torah” refers to the first five books of the OT, while the “Prophets” includes the rest of the OT, all of which was held to have been written by prophets (cf. Matt. 13:35, which cites Ps. 78:2; on “Law [and the] Prophets,” cf. Matt. 7:12; 11:13; 22:40; Rom. 3:21). but to fulfill them. Jesus “fulfills” all of the OT in that it all points to him, not only in its specific predictions of a Messiah but also in its sacrificial system, which looked forward to his great sacrifice of himself, in many events in the history of Israel which foreshadowed his life as God’s true Son, in the laws which only he perfectly obeyed, and in the Wisdom Literature, which sets forth a behavioral pattern that his life exemplified (cf. Matt. 2:15; 11:13; 12:3–6, 39–41, 42; also Luke 24:27). Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom does not replace the OT but rather fulfills it as Jesus’ life and ministry, coupled with his interpretation, complete and clarify God’s intent and meaning in the entire OT.

until heaven and earth pass away. Jesus confirms the full authority of the OT as Scripture for all time (cf. 2 Tim. 3:15–16), even down to the smallest components of the written text: the iota is the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet (or the yod of the Hb. alphabet) and the dot likely refers to a tiny stroke or a part of a letter used to differentiate between Hebrew letters. pass from the Law. The OT remains an authoritative compendium of divine testimony and teaching, within which some elements (such as sacrifices and other ceremonial laws) predicted or foreshadowed events that would be accomplished in Jesus’ ministry (see notes on Gal. 4:10; 5:1) and so are not now models for Christian behavior. Until all is accomplished points to Jesus’ fulfillment of specific OT hopes, partly through his earthly life, death, and resurrection, and then more fully after his second coming.

7. Romans 2:12–16

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

All will be judged according to the standard they had. The Gentiles will perish (i.e., face final judgment) because of their sin (cf. vv. 14–15) even though they are without the law (they don’t have the written laws of the OT). The Jews are not spared judgment simply because they possess the law (of the OT), for those who transgress the law will be judged for their transgressions.

Paul reaffirms the principle enunciated in vv. 6–11, that the doers of the law are the ones who are righteous before God, and that their justification will be pronounced on the last day.

Some have suggested that these verses speak of Gentile obedience that leads to salvation (cf. vv. 7, 10). It is clear, however, that Paul explains here why Gentiles who do not have the law will face judgment apart from the law (see v. 12). The reason it is fair for God to judge them for their evil is that God’s law is written on their hearts, so that their consciences attest to what is right and what is wrong in their behavior. Paul does not imply that the testimony of human conscience is always a perfect moral guide (for people have conflicting thoughts about their moral behavior, sometimes excusing themselves from wrongdoing), but the very existence of this testimony is sufficient to render people accountable to God. (Elsewhere Paul indicates that people’s consciences can be distorted by sin; see 1 Cor. 8:7, 10; 10:29; 1 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15.)

8. 1 John 3:4

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

Children of God and the Forsaking of Sin. To confess the Son and to have the Father (2:23) profoundly alters daily living.

Lawlessness (Gk. anomia) is activity bereft of God’s guidance and in violation of his law. sin is lawlessness. Even Christians sin (1:9; 2:1), so it may seem like a trivial matter. But to disregard sin’s grave implications is disastrous.

9. Galatians 6:2

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

To bear one another’s burdens is the supreme imitation of Jesus, the ultimate burden-bearer (see Rom. 15:1–3). He has even gone to the length of taking mankind’s sins (Gal. 1:4) and the curse of the law (3:13) upon himself. and so fulfill the law of Christ. Though Paul insists that the Galatians are free from obeying Jewish ceremonial laws (see note on 2:11–12), this does not mean they are free from all of God’s moral requirements. The “law of Christ” in a broad sense means the entire body of ethical teaching that Jesus gave and endorsed (see note on 1 Cor. 9:21), but in a specific sense here it probably refers to the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt. 22:39; John 13:34), which, if followed fully, will result in obeying the rest of God’s moral law (Rom. 13:8–10).

10. Romans 13:8–10

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Read More

ESV Study Bible Notes

Verses 8–10 focus on the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic law. Owe no one anything links back to v. 7, and thus the command does not prohibit all borrowing but means that one should always “pay what is owed” (see v. 7), fulfilling whatever repayment agreements have been made. The debt one never ceases paying is the call to love one another. Indeed, love fulfills what the Mosaic law demands.

Paul cites several OT commandments regarding responsibility to others, all of which are summed up in the call from Lev. 19:18 to love your neighbor as yourself.

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