This is the third part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I presented at a New Covenant Theology think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.
The first of the five propositions we introduced in Part 1 of this series is that the law cannot cope with sin.
The law cannot prevent sin; the law can’t curb sin; the law is powerless against sin.
In fact, Paul tells us, the law provokes sin.
Although what the law commands is holy, it was given to stiff-necked Israel to increase transgressions until the Messiah, the single seed of Abraham, was to come:
 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.  Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.  Is 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.  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:19–27)
In his analysis of this passage, Jason C. Meyer references Thomas Schreiner’s argument that, “although the phrase ‘because of transgressions’ could refer to defining or increasing transgression, the latter option is preferable.” Schreiner gives three reasons for that interpretation: first, that the context of the passage is that salvation cannot be attained by the law; second, that the relationship of “under law and under sin” reveals the law’s role in arousing sin; and third, that there is a parallel withRomans 5:20: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass. …”
Meyer expands upon Schreiner’s argument with five observations:
First, the view that stresses the restraining function of the law does not make sense contextually. Paul could not persuade the Galatians to forsake circumcision and the Mosaic law by telling them of the law’s power to restrain sin.
Second, while the open-ended phrase “because of transgressions” could refer to either the defining or increasing function of the law, context favors the latter view.
Third, there are compelling reasons to think that the law’s purpose of increasing transgressions actually provides a coherent argument in the context. The downward spiral introduced by the advent of the law reveals that the law did not save Israel then and will not save anyone now. Humankind needs a Savior, not more stipulations. Paul accentuates the downward spiral precisely so that the upward spiral introduced by the coming of Christ would be all the more evident.
Fourth,Rom 5:20 provides an instructional parallel for this discussion of the law’s function. The parallel provides a Pauline precedent for this type of logic, though it does not prove that Paul is saying the same thing inGal 3:19.
Fifth, the view that the law increases transgression receives further support from places in Paul likeRom 7:7–11. Therefore,Gal 3:19b reveals the impotent nature of law in that the law cannot restrain sin (ontological problem); it only increases it (because of the anthropological problem.)
In using the terms ontological and anthropological, Meyer makes reference to a previous discussion on Paul’s reference toLeviticus 18:5, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord,” in Paul’s antithesis between law and Spirit inGalatians 3:11–12: “ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’  But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” Meyer explains: “The offer of life conditioned on human obedience never becomes a reality because ‘the one who does these things’ cannot obey them (anthropological), and the law (‘these things’) cannot provide (ontological problem) the power to overcome the anthropological problem.” (Meyer also notes a third problem – chronological – because Israel had not received the Spirit.) Even though believers are indwelled by the Spirit, sin remains in the old man, in the flesh. That creates an anthropological problem for which the law cannot provide an answer. In fact, the law by design causes that which it seems given to prevent. Meyer referencesRomans 7 as a parallel passage to support Paul’s assertion that the law increases transgression. Indeed, the apostle also makes it quite clear in his discourse in Romans chapters 6 through 8 that the law is ineffective against sin and, what’s even worse, arouses sinful passions in man.
Indeed, in Romans 6, Paul shows us that living under law is to live under the power of sin:
 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:8–14)
However, those who advocate three uses of the law – to restrain society in general, to convict the non-believer of his sin, and to, as the Westminster Confession of Faith states, “to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin” – argue that the third use of the law is a curb against sin in the believer. We will look at their arguments in Part 4.
Next: Completed by the Spirit Part 4: The ‘Poverty of our Sanctification?’
 Verse 27 is translated variously as “to lead us to Christ” instead of “until Christ came” in editions such as the New American Standard Bible. Could the preference of the NASB in law-preaching circles be a theological decision? Furthermore, the choice of “schoolmaster” or “tutor” instead of “guardian” (or perhaps better yet “nanny” or “babysitter” as a word for the slave or servant who supervised the conduct of a child) for παιδαγωγὸς gives the sense that the law teaches and leads the individual to Christ rather than being a covenantal law to guide the covenant people until the time of the Messiah. The latter understanding seems to fit Paul’s theology more consistently while the former more neatly tailors itself to the theology and confessions of third-use proponents.
 Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline Theology (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 168.