In the Bible God tells us the story of his glory in Jesus Christ. He wants people to know him and his joy in sharing all his richness with those who deserve wrath rather than mercy. God wants us to understand and appreciate this great story, the greatest of all stories, because he knows we become part of this story by his grace. Therefore, as we live out our part of the story, we need to understand his message clearly. Lack of clarity about the message produces confusion in our way of life. Paul has been saying that the only way to be right with God is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some false teachers had been telling the Galatians that they also needed to keep the law covenant, especially the command about circumcision. So Paul has proved that the law that came 430 years after the promise of justification cannot change the way of justification. Now he must answer an important question. “Since the law was not given to provide people with justification and life and God’s blessing, then why did God give it? What place did the law have in the plan of God?”
This is much more than some empty theological or academic question. The matter before us involves the correct way to live the life of faith as we follow Jesus Christ. To live godly and joyfully (and those two concepts cannot be separated), we need clarity of thought about three Biblical teachings: justification, adoption, and sanctification. We should also remember what is meant by the term “law”. It refers to the law covenant given on Mt. Sinai to Israel, with all its commands and regulations of life and worship.
Exposition: Four assertions about the law or old covenant (it is called old because a new and better covenant has been established)
I. The law was in force for a set period of time.
A. In the plan of God, the law (covenant) was added after the giving of the promise (covenant) to Abraham and to his seed, Christ (3:19). It is important to remember that the law was not added to change or modify the promise in any way.
1. The Scriptures note this definite beginning of the law (Rm 5:13, 20; 2 Cor 3:7). The law was not in force from creation or the fall. Since the same God is working out his purposes in history, in our reading of the early chapters of Genesis, we will observe consistent ideas about God and his purposes, but it is a serious mistake to import the law covenant back into that time. There are many truths you can learn in Genesis 1-3, but you cannot find the whole Bible in those three chapters.
2. This addition of the law was part of God’s purpose in gradually unfolding his plan of redemption in Jesus Christ. God created and humanity rebelled. And then God willed to let thousands of years of human history pass, until he gave the promise covenant to Abraham and hundreds of years later added the law covenant.
B. The law ended at a certain point in time (3:19, 25).
1. Beginning with the birth of Christ and culminating in our Lord’s death on the cross, the time of the law came to an end (Heb 8:7, 13; 10:5-10; Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:13-14).
2. This means that we are no longer under its supervision (3:25). In God’s good purpose his holy law (Rm 7:12) exercised this supervisory function over some people. Who were they? The old covenant nation of Israel.
Illustration: On the day before his crucifixion, even the Lord Jesus observed the Passover in order to keep the law. After his death and resurrection, no such observances are required. We no longer need the supervisory function of the Passover, because Christ is our Passover (1 Cor 5:7). The Lord Christ does not simply tell us what to eat one night of the year, but how to live as his pure people every day of the year.
II. The law was added because of transgressions (3:19).
A. Before the law was added, there was sin (Rm 5:13). But now sin became known in its character as transgression (“the conscious disobeying of definite commandments”, Cranfield, quoted by Bruce).
1. This made more of the evil of sin clear. Sin is not a preference or an alternative. It is evil; it ruins and distorts human character. Now people could see more clearly that sin is destructive behavior that people do. You might have had some terrible things happen to you, but that is not the full extent of your problem. You also are a transgressor. (I know people don’t like to hear this, but we need to see our situation clearly to want to receive the help we all so desperately need.)
2. Now people can understand sin as rebellion. People constantly walk past the boundaries in the word that God established. Open your Bibles to Colossians 3:1-17. Look at those three sections. You and I rebel against the right attitude, against getting rid of sin, and against putting on holy qualities. Fill in this worksheet in dependence on the Spirit’s help.
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B. Even more, the law had the effect of stirring up sin (cf. Rm 5:20).
1. How many times have we all seen that telling someone not to do something is taken as an invitation to do that very action? For example, what happens when you tell a child, “Don’t eat those cookies”? Before the prohibition, the child might not even have known that there were cookies to eat. Now they become irresistible!
2. What is our problem? “I have never believed in what is called morality teaching – I mean the teaching about sex which in some quarters is now being introduced into the schools, and for this reason, that, as a result of sin, the minds of children are not pure, and what such teaching is likely to do is to create in them a greater desire to know about these things and to do them. They already find out about these matters surreptitiously; and the teaching will simply intensify that interest and stimulate them to sin. Knowledge of sin has never prevented anybody from sinning. Indeed, the more one knows about it the more one is subject to the temptation to do it. So Paul says that the Law has increased sin even in that sense, that it has made us sin even more” (Lloyd-Jones, Assurance, pp. 293-294). The problem is not God’s law but the human heart, which is ruled by sin. The law made clear how desperately we all need a Savior from sin.
III. The law is not opposed to God’s promises (3:21-22).
A. The law was never given to usurp the place of God’s promises.
1. No law could ever give life to sinners, or else God would have given a law that could have. The only way of life for people dead in sin is by grace through faith in Christ.
2. The law can only condemn a sinner. It proclaimed God’s standard of righteousness. Such a standard must pronounce judgment on the unrighteous. That is all it can do. How could anyone ever think it could make a sinner righteous or help him become right with God?
Illustration: Rebels against a government are never improved by the government’s laws restricting revolutionary activity. Fear of punishment might restrain their revolutionary activity, but law and fear will never produce patriots.
B. The law discloses a truth of the Scriptures: the whole world is a prisoner of sin.
1. This revelation does not oppose God’s promise of justification, but rather shows the need for the promise of righteousness for all who believe in Christ.
Illustration: A diagnosis of an illness is not opposed to the treatment and cure of the disease. But a diagnosis alone will not cure the patient; in fact, the patient might hate the diagnosis or induce despair. But that still makes the diagnosis valuable.
2. The law was valuable to Israel, if it was used properly-as a diagnosis of how greatly they needed the promised Seed of Abraham.
IV. The law held people in bondage until Christ came (3:23-25). The apostle gives two illustrations to make this clear.
A. The law covenant was like a jailor, which did not give people freedom but held them in a certain place. The law did not and could not give a heart to follow the Lord freely; instead, it restrained people in a physical nation by the power of physical punishment.
Illustration: Jails are good places for people who need restraint from harming others, because they lack restraint in themselves. Jails are not meant for free people who have internal desires to live as free people should.
B. It was like a servant, who was in charge of a child. “In Hellenistic times, the paidagogos… was not really a teacher… He or she was usually a slave who served a household by being a companion to the children-accompanying them to school and making sure that they did their studies and stayed out of trouble” (Borchert). The child in such a situation did not dare stray away. If he did, the servant forcibly brought him back to where he should be.
1. The only way of eternal life and of true godliness is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God gives all his blessings to those who believe in his Son.
2. The law covenant was God’s holy jailor until the Liberator arrived. Never say there was anything wrong with what the law required. The law was holy, righteous, and good. It served a good function until the Redeemer accomplished salvation. But I’m glad for the freedom we now have in Jesus Christ to serve the living God.
3. Life under the old covenant was a time of strict regulation. It regulated what you could eat, what kind of clothing you could wear, when you could have marital relations, when you could cook food, when you could enter the presence of God (one man, one day of the year), and many other matters. Now we have the freedom of adult sons and daughters of God, so that we may better live for him!
4. A better way to view the history of God’s people, instead of “law and grace”, is “promise-law-fulfillment”.
Please Note: The views expressed by our guest writers are not necessarily in full agreement with our own but are worthy of consideration. – CMC