The pursuit of righteousness through obedience to law is what Paul called the “elementary principles of the world.” Man has an inbred penchant for attempting to justify himself in this way; it’s absolutely fundamental to our thinking about God. And why shouldn’t it be? Because this philosophy of life has been hammered into us since the dawn of man, it’s not easy to escape. It just seems so right! So given this fact, we can’t judge Israel too harshly for falling into this trap—they merely “stumbled over the stumbling stone.”
Making people work for righteousness was never God’s intent for law. Even in the Old Testament, grace was the key to righteousness before God. He instituted a system of sacrifice and offerings not for the Israelites to earn their way into His good graces, but that they might experience His forgiveness as they obeyed Him. Obeying God was to be an act of faith on their part, not merely an attempt to accumulate enough points to somehow satisfy Him. God’s intention regarding His grace is nowhere more evident than in the Old Testament ritual of the Day of Atonement described in Leviticus 16.
(Excerpted from “Free from the Power of Sin: The Keys to Growing in God in Spite of Yourself”)