Home - 1st Corinthians - Romans - Reformed Theology - Judges - Assurance - Prayer - Moses - Stewardship - Missions - Daniel

"Why the Law?"


CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon.

          Eavesdropping is normally considered rude, but there is a kind of “eavesdropping” that is not only not sinful; it is God-honoring and satisfying to our soul. That is the “eavesdropping” we do whenever we “listen in” on the letters of the New Testament.  We have been doing this kind of sanctified eavesdropping for several months as we have listened in on Paul’s written conversation with the churches he planted in the region of Galatia. Paul is writing to the Galatian churches to address the severest kind of spiritual abuse that has been perpetrated on these Gentile churches he has planted.  False teachers had come in and twisted the gospel itself.  In chapter three we have seen that they claimed that God’s plan of salvation for the Gentiles had two parts.  First, believe on Christ--trust in him for their salvation just as Abraham believed God’s promise to him. That much was fine with Paul, but the Judaizers added a second, unbiblical requirement that spiritually strangles anyone who believes it.  That is, they also called the Galatians to observe the Law of Moses, particularly circumcision, which they claimed completed God’s plan of salvation.  They wrongly taught that just as Moses and the law brought completion to God’s promise to Abraham, so also must the Gentiles both believe in Christ and observe the law in order to be saved.

          This was not only an inaccurate account of God’s dealings with Abraham and Moses, it was not the gospel and Paul violently opposes it.  Last week, we saw that God’s way of salvation had never changed—it was always by faith and faith alone.  God used Abraham as his model—he believed God’s promise and in response to his faith alone God counted him righteous in his sight. Paul reveals that the law plays no role whatsoever in making a person acceptable before God.   To add observing the law to believing the promise was a perversion of God’s plan of salvation. The law and the promise are not to be combined together as it relates to salvation.  They are essentially different and distinct from one another with very distinct purposes. 

          That truth leads to an obvious question.  That is—if observing the law—trying to meet God’s holy standard through the law is not part of God’s way of salvation, then what is the purpose of the law?  In the text we’ll be looking at today, Paul raises two questions that would have been on the Galatians’ minds.  First, “why the law?”  Second, “Is the law contrary to the promises?”  If the law and promises don’t work together to bring salvation, then what is the relationship between the law and the promises?”  Paul has drawn a very bold line of division separating the law and the promises.  Having done that, he now moves to clarify just what is the relationship between the law and the promise. Does the fact that the law and the promise are so different from each other mean they are opposed to one another?  That would have been an easy conclusion to draw based on what Paul has said up to this point, but it’s not the truth.

          Let’s read Galatians 3:19-25 to see Paul raise and answer these two questions.  He says, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.  20Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.  21Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.  22But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  23Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  24So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,” 

          As Paul raises these questions about the law, we need to admit that the role the law played in salvation history and continues to play in the life of a believer is a fairly complicated and complex question in New Testament theology.  Part of what makes this issue tricky is the wide range of truths the New Testament teaches about the law. On the one hand, there are several New Testament verses that teach that, with the coming of Jesus, the law is now abolished.  These include texts like Romans 6:14 where Paul says, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The law is something believers are no longer under according to the apostle.  Romans 7:6 says, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” The law is something we have been released from, died to, and under which we no longer serve.  Those kinds of texts seem to teach that the law is no longer in force.

          On the other hand, other verses written by this same apostle teach us that the law is something we are called to fulfill in our lives.  In First Corinthians 7:19 Paul says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.”  Paul frequently cites specific Old Testament commandments as an expression of God’s will for us.  Even later on in Galatians he says in 5:14, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  He cites the law to drive home a truth about how we are to live.  Paul isn’t the least bit allergic to the law in those and many other such verses.  All of these texts conspire to ask—what is the role of the law for the believer in Jesus?  What is my relationship to the law—what role should it play in my life—how, if at all, does it obligate me?  What is the connection between the commandments of God and my salvation if salvation is by grace through faith alone and not law?

          Many believers struggle with their relationship with God at this very point about the role of the law in their life. They may bounce between on the one hand, thinking the law dictates all the terms of their relationship with God while at other times thinking that the holy law of God is totally irrelevant to them.  As we look at what the inspired apostle teaches us about God’s intent for the law is for the believer, we’ll see that God’s intention for the law steers a different course away from those two extremes.  First, let’s look at the most basic question; Why the law?  Paul gives a very short and compressed initial answer to that question.  In verse 20, he says, “It was added because of transgressions.”  That obviously doesn’t tell us much and so he spends some time unpacking that reason for the law’s existence.

          Paul has two answers to that question, one of which we see in these verses.  First, he says that the law confines or imprisons us under sin.  This is a central truth for Paul as it relates to the law and we see it here in verses 22-23.  He says, “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin…”  In the context “Scripture” means God’s law.  Again in verse 23 we read, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.”  What does Paul mean when he says the law “imprisons” us?  The answer is not as complicated as we might think. The basic truth here is simply that the law places us into spiritual bondage.  It puts us into a place from which we cannot escape on our own.  The way it does that is--it commands us with the authority of God to do something—many things, that express God’s holiness.  The law reveals for us God’s holy character and it unrelentingly calls us to be like him by carrying out his law.  The problem is—we are not holy.  We are full of sin and we are not able to obey those laws without massive doses of grace and help from God and the law supplies us with zero help and grace from God. 

          The law imprisons us because it commands us to do things with the absolute authority of God—these are not optional commands—they must be carried out because they carry divine authority.  But the law gives us NO power to carry out these commands.  You must do this, but you in fact are not able to do this.”  That is the definition of spiritual imprisonment!  This would be like a parent commanding their two year-old to cook dinner or knit a blanket or wire an electric panel.  Toddlers can’t possibly do those things and if you were to command them to do those things but never helped them or lowered your expectations of them, you would have put them into a prison by giving them impossible and authoritative commands, but with no help for them to obey you.  This is not unjust or cruel on God’s part because he created humanity to express his holiness. 

          No, when God gives this law that imprisons us, his purpose is really gracious and not cruel because God had already worked out a plan of salvation.  Jesus Christ would one day come and die for sinners who see their sin and look to him alone as their only Savior from sin.  But the problem is—the same sin that renders us unable to obey God’s commands, also blinds us to the fact that we are full of sin and desperately in need of a Savior.  In response to that blinding influence of sin on humanity, God graciously gave the law for the purpose of revealing to us that we are sinners, constantly falling short of God’s perfect standard and in desperate need of a Savior.  We see this truth in several places.  In Romans 3:20 Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”  How does a sinner whose sin has spiritually blinded him, discover that he is in no way acceptable to God and in desperate need of a Savior? --the law.  Romans 7:7 elaborates on this truth.  Paul says, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." 

          The law, by telling us what God’s holy expectations are, but not giving sinners any help to do what he commands, reveals to us that we are sinful and unable to meet God’s holy standards.  The law consistently communicates to anyone who tries to keep it, “No matter how good you may have thought yourself to be, you are in fact not nearly good enough for God—you are not at all like him and yet he persistently calls you to be like him.”  That’s the basic message the law has for a sinner and that truth brings frustration and dejection.  By God’s grace, it also gives the self-sufficient, self-reliant sinner a reason to look outside of him or herself to the only solution to our massive sin problem.

The law has another function that Paul does not explicitly provide in this text, but we must mention it as long as we are on the topic of God’s use of the law.  In addition to imprisoning us to show us our sin and our need for a Savior, the law also incites us to sin.  That is—the law actually enflames or increases our desire to sin. We see this in texts like Romans 5:20.  Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,”  The law of God—when introduced to a sinful heart, rather than restrain sin—as the Jews and others wrongly believe, the law actually increases our passion for sin. Paul expands on this truth in Romans seven.  Verse nine begins, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.  10The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.  11For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”  The reason why the law enflames sin within the sinner is not difficult to understand.  God’s law is an expression of his holiness.  The sinner’s heart hates God and is in total rebellion against him.  Introduce the holy law of God that expresses his holy character into a sinner’s life whose heart is at war with God and what is the result?  The conflict only escalates.  The war of rebellion against God becomes much more intense when the law is injected because the sinful heart sees the law as an attack on its selfish agenda—which it is!  As a believer, my sinful flesh can have the same response to the law of God when I choose to live under the law.

          By God’s grace, the law of God shows the sinner what a deeply wicked person he is and in so doing points him to the only remedy for their sin, Jesus Christ.  Paul says the broad reason the law was given was “because of transgressions.”  That is--the law was given to reveal sin and even incite sin so the sinner who is confronted with the holy law of God, by God’s grace will see their rebellion against God and repent.  Then the truth of the gospel of Jesus can move into their lives and deliver them from the eternal penalty and enslaving power of sin.

          All of that assumes that the law was a temporary measure taken by God that is no longer necessary for that purpose now that Jesus has been revealed.  Paul repeatedly tells these Galatians, who had been wrongly told that the law was a permanent means of salvation, that this sin-exposing, sin-inciting purpose of the law was temporary. In verse 19 we again read of the law, “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” Once Jesus, the ultimate target of God’s promises to Abraham had come, there was no reason for this use of the law.  Again in verse 23 we see that this purpose of the law was temporary.  He says, “Now, before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.”  Verse 24 continues, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

          That word translated “guardian” is a metaphor Paul uses to illustrate the temporary nature of the law.  A “guardian” in Paul’s day was employed by affluent families to basically raise their children.  They did not educate them academically, but they did teach the child basic life skills and was responsible to administer discipline.  Paul’s main reason for comparing the law to a guardian is to emphasize the truth that the law was temporary.  Once the child has grown up, they no longer need a guardian.  Likewise, once Christ came, God’s people longer need the law for this purpose.  This use of the law—to imprison us and incite us to sin is over for the believer.  Jesus Christ has come and abolished the law in this sense. 

Paul also reveals that the law and the promise are two very different things by pointing out in verse 19 that the law was put in place by angels whereas the promises were made directly by God.  This is a small point, but one that other New Testament writers also make.  It supports the truth that the law is inferior to the promise in the sense that God did not directly speak the law to Moses, but he DID make the promises directly to Abraham.  The only reason this was important in this context is because the Judaizers were almost certainly boasting about the alleged supremacy of the law over the law because it was put in place by angels.  The Judaizers were like so many people today—overly impressed with angels.  Paul has a Biblical understanding of them, knowing that though the good angels are sinless, they do not bear the image of God and are at their own admission, servants of God.  So Paul reveals that instead of being a sign of the supremacy of the law over against the promises, the fact that angels put the law in place reveals instead the inferiority of the law to God’s promises that were delivered directly from God to Abraham.

          A second question Paul raises about the law, in light of the fact that he has drawn such sharp contrasts between the law and the promise is-- Is the law contrary to the promises?  If the law and promises don’t work together to bring salvation as the Judaizers claimed, then what is the relationship between the law and the promises—are they at war with each other?  This is surely what the Judaizers would have accused Paul of saying—that he was pitting God’s law against God’s promises.  Paul says in verse 21, “Certainly not!  For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.”  This verse is important because it ties so many of these important truths together.

          Paul has been making a huge distinction between the law of God and his promises to Abraham.  Here he specifically reveals a crucial and massive difference between the two.  That is—whereas the law issues commands from God, but gives no power to obey the law, receiving the promise in Christ provides the power to express God’s holy character.  As we have seen, what was the fulfillment of the promise to the Gentiles?  The Holy Spirit. We saw in verse 14, “…in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might received the promised Spirit through faith.”  The giving of the Holy Spirit is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.  Paul is not pitting the law against the promises. He is merely saying that the law was temporary.  The Old Covenant of the law reveals our need of forgiveness, cleansing and spiritual empowerment.  Those things are provided for through Christ in the New Covenant of the Spirit.  Paul says in verse 21 the law could not give life.  The Spirit gives life!  Jesus says in John 6:63,  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail…”  We see this contrast between the law that cannot impart life and the Spirit who gives life in many places in the New Testament. 

Romans 7:6 says, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code  [the law] but in the new life of the Spirit.”  In Second Corinthians 3:6, Paul makes the same point where he says of the law, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  That’s a towering distinction between the law and the promise of the Spirit that these Galatians and us need to hear.  The Judaizers wrongly taught that the law could give life—that was common rabbinic Jewish teaching.  Paul says—no it can’t.  The life—with the divine power to do the will of God—to express God’s holy character as it is revealed in the law--comes from the Spirit. We will speak much more of the life-giving power of the Spirit as we move further into Galatians because this becomes a central truth as the letter progresses. 

          A question in light of this is: if the law gave no power to obey, then how do you explain Old Testament saints like Moses and Samuel and Joseph who lived lives that certainly seemed to be empowered?  The answer is:  because God did give the Spirit in the Old Testament but in a very different way.  Phillip Ryken says, “…in the time of Moses the Spirit was generally withheld from God’s people, and the law without the Spirit produced death.” [Ryken, Galatians, 130]  God gave the Spirit, but only to certain people and at times, only for certain seasons of their life. That enabled these select few to walk by faith, looking to God as their provision.

          This Old Testament giving of the Spirit was different in measure than when he was poured out upon those who had trusted in Christ at Pentecost.  We know this was different from the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost because Jesus says in John 7:37-39 “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  38Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.' "  39Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”  The life-giving Spirit had not come in his fullness and so, while God’s Old Testament people possessed the law and knew what God called them to do; they failed because they did not have the power.  God graciously provided the animal sacrifice system to provide them with a means of addressing their sins, but that priestly sacrificial system was also temporary until Jesus, the Lamb of God was offered for our sins on the cross.

          The New Covenant is far superior to the old because we learn in Second Corinthians  chapter three that the laws was written on tablets of stone in the Old Covenant, but in the New Covenant, the Spirit writes the law on our hearts (v.3).  In light of these huge and blessed improvements with the New Covenant, it’s no wonder Paul was frustrated with these Galatians who were trying to live under the terms of the Old Covenant.  His frustration with the Galatians is captured in these questions:  Why are you trying to be acceptable God by relying on the law, when the law was only given to reveal your sin?  Why do you want to give priority to the law over the promise when only the Spirit that comes by faith in the promise will give you life and the capacity to fulfill the law of God?  Tom Schreiner spells out the crux of this. He says, “The Galatians have begun to experience the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham by receiving the Spirit, and to turn back to the law regresses to an era in which the law functioned apart from the Spirit.”(Schreiner, “The Law and its Fulfillment…” p.124)

          When we walk by faith, we not only know the will of God through his word, we also have the promised Holy Spirit who enables us to live in increasing victory. That brings us to the main point of application this morning.  That is—when we try to be pleasing or acceptable to God on the basis of our performance instead of trusting in Christ’s work for us, we cut ourselves off from the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Galatians, by following the false teaching of the Judaizers, had unknowingly cut themselves off from the ministry of the Holy Spirit that they as children of God were entitled to.  When we try to be pleasing to God on the basis of what we do for God, at that moment, we have put ourselves under the law of God.  That robs us of all spiritual power to do God’s will.  One reason God will not empower us through the Spirit when we are trying to live by what we do through the law is because as we said last week, when I am trying to please God by the law, I have made my religion all about ME.  It’s about what I can do for God.  The Holy Spirit will never invest himself in that ridiculous and self-centered venture.

          The Spirit’s power is available to us as we live with the moment by moment, deep sense of our own inability to please or be acceptable to God except through Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.  As we humbly live with that Christ-magnifying truth of the gospel saturating our souls, we will not be looking to be pleasing or acceptable to God on the basis of what we have done, but on the basis of what Christ has done.  As we walk in that faith, the Spirit makes available his supernatural power to us because as we said last week, his role is to glorify Christ.  As we are looking to Christ and his saving work as the basis of God’s pleasure and not what we have done—as we are in faith looking to Christ to supply power to manifest his holy life, then the Spirit will empower us to live out a holy life.

          The law of God could never make us acceptable to Jesus.  It was provided temporarily to reveal to God’s people their sin and drive them to the cross.  If we try to be pleasing to God on the basis of what we do for him, we too will find only sin and frustrations.  It’s as we declare spiritual bankruptcy and in faith humbly look to Christ, that the Spirit’s power will give us victory.  May God give us the grace to live by faith for the glory of Christ.


Page last modified on 08/03/2008

(c) 2008 - All material is property of Duncan Ross and/or Mount of Olives Baptist Church, all commercial rights are reserved. Please feel free to use any of this material in your ministry.