According to a widely accepted view of the gospel, Jesus had to die for people’s sins because human beings are unable to follow the Law. If only we could keep the Torah, so the argument goes, then it would lead to salvation; but since Law observance is impossible, Jesus comes to save us. However, this view reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of why God gave the Torah to Israel in the first place. The commandments do not to “save” anyone; God does that. The Law was given not for salvation, but for relation.
The so-called Ten Commandments (in Hebrew, the “ten words” [עשׂרת הדברים; aseret ha’devarim; cf. Exod 34:28; Deut 4:13; 10:4]) are the preamble to the Torah; they introduce the rest of the God’s stipulations, which span from Exodus to Deuteronomy. At the outset of the Ten Commandments, God declares, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods besides me” (Exodus 20:2-3). The first demand of the Law—not to worship any other gods—comes after the God of Israel has already saved the people from slavery in Egypt. Before Moses ascends Sinai, he refers to the “salvation” (ישׁועה; yeshuah) that the Lord wrought in rescuing Israel (cf. Exodus 14:13; 15:2). God offers the free grace of salvation before the Israelites observe a single task of the Torah. The point of the Law was not to “save” the Hebrews. Instead, God saves prior to giving the Law, and the commandments reaffirm the divine-human relationship.
Deuteronomy clarifies that the Law comes in response to God’s salvation, not as the way to achieve salvation. Moses proclaims to his people, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God rescued you from there (ויפדך… משם; va’yiphdkha… misham); therefore, I command you to observe this word” (Deut 24:18). Torah observance is the thankful response to God’s gift of salvation. This same sequence of grace followed by action appears in the New Testament: “By grace (χάριτί; chárití) you have been saved (σεσῳσμένοι; sesosménoi) through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God (θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον; theou tò doron), not [a result] of works so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Messiah Jesus, for good works (ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς; epì ergois agathois), which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Salvation comes through the grace that God provides in Yeshua, and good works are the way that saved human beings say, “Thank you.” Thus, the Torah provides the blueprint for what God accomplishes through Jesus, and for what is expected of those who follow him.
Although contemporary Christianity tends to frame salvation through Christ in opposition to the Law, as though the Law was meant to produce salvation but did not accomplish its goal, the Torah was never a means for being saved. In the history of Israel, God did the saving, and Torah observance was a way for God’s saved people to live in relationship with the Lord.