Completed by the Spirit: Part 3 – The Law Cannot Cope With Sin

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.

Ed Trefzger
Ed Trefzger
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:

[19] 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. [20] Now an inter­me­di­ary implies more than one, but God is one. [21] 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. [22] But the Scrip­ture impris­oned every­thing under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. [23] Now before faith came, we were held cap­tive under the law, impris­oned until the com­ing faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be jus­ti­fied by faith. (Gala­tians 3:19–27)[1]

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.”[2] 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. …”[3] 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.)[4]

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: “[11] Now it is evi­dent that no one is jus­ti­fied before God by the law, for ‘The right­eous shall live by faith.’ [12] 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.”[5] (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:

[8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must con­sider your­selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. [12] Let not sin there­fore reign in your mor­tal body, to make you obey its pas­sions. [13] 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. [14] 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?’
[1] 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.
[2] Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline The­ol­ogy (Nashville: B&H Pub­lish­ing Group, 2009), 168.
[3] Ibid.

Stand Firm in Freedom – Galatians 5:1


Galatians 5:1
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

How would you describe the purpose of Christ’s coming? Why did Jesus come to die and rise again? We can answer in a number of sound biblical ways. The Savior came that we might be forgiven of our sins and right with God, that we might be reconciled to God, and that we might have a relationship with God (1 Pt 3:18). He came that we might serve the living God (1 Th 1:9). Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work (1 Jn 3:8), that we might have life in its fullness (Jn 10:10), and that we might live godly and do good (Ti 2:11-14).  The answer of our text is unlikely to be suggested out of a context like our text. Our minds, including our evangelical minds, tend to run in other directions. Yet a clear understanding of the answer provided by this text will help us arrive at a better understanding of God’s saving call of grace to us. This is a “bridge verse”, like a land bridge between two continents. It summarizes what has come before and introduces the rest of the letter about true godliness. Now please do not simply nod your heads at this point! What he says here forms the basis of all that will follow. The context of freedom is necessary to avoid turning the pursuit of holiness into legalism.
I.          The purpose of Christ’s saving work was to set us free, in order that we might live as free people.
The worldly person, held fast in the chains of sin, cannot believe that there is liberty in Jesus, the Risen Lord. Every Christian must lay hold of and apply this truth.
A.        The nature of this freedom

1.         It is certainly correct that the Lord Christ has freed his people from sin and Satan. We should all know this, and we certainly rejoice in that reality. However, that is not the freedom that the apostle is talking about in this context.

2.         Instead, it is freedom from the law or old covenant. “What Christ has done in liberating us, according to Paul’s emphasis here, is not so much to set our will from the bondage of sin as to set our conscience free from the guilt of sin. The Christian freedom he describes is freedom of conscience, freedom from the tyranny of the law, the dreadful struggle to keep the law, with a view to winning the favor of God. It is the freedom of acceptance with God and of access to God through Christ” (Stott). We can add that it is the freedom of joyful, holy friendship with the Holy Lord of all. Peace and a confident awareness of God’s welcoming love are part of this freedom in the presence of the Holy God.
B.        The Lord Jesus intends that we live in a state of freedom. We are not to live as burdened slaves, but as free adult sons and daughters of God.

1.         Freedom from condemnation (Rm 8:1) – This is a basis of assurance of salvation. People set free by the Judge of all need not fear!

2.         Freedom of access to the throne of grace (Heb 4:16) – The Spirit encourages us to find all we need through the power of the Ascended Lord and Savior.

3.         Freedom to love and worship God without intensely searching out one’s motives (cf. Job 1:8-11) – We come with consciences cleansed by the blood of Christ.

4.         Freedom to love one another with a sacrificial love (Eph 5:25; Rm 15:7)

5.         Freedom to rejoice, be glad, and sing! (1 Pt 1:8)

Apply: We must clearly comprehend that our freedom in Christ is not some side issue. It is an integral part of true Christianity.
Transition: The way that the New Testament Scriptures teach us how to live is to present the indicative (here is what is true in Christ) and to follow up with the imperative (therefore, this is how you must live). The indicative is that Christ has set us free; the imperative is that we must stand firm in that freedom. We must resist any and every attempt to bring us into bondage.
II.        The spiritual condition they would come to if they followed the false teachers. They would be burdened and enslaved.
A.        They would be burdened with many obsolete regulations.

1.         It is one thing to do what God has commanded. But it is very useless and a dreary waste of time and effort to struggle to do what God hasn’t commanded, especially in following the false assumption that you are pleasing God in doing such things. Instead, consider and experience what the Lord has for you (Rm 14:17-18; 2 Cor 1:24; 2:3; 3:17; 5:15; 13:14).

2.         Christ’s ministers do not urge you to keep a list of manmade regulations. Instead, do what pleases the Lord (2 Cor 5:9). Love your neighbors; evangelize; do good; serve one another in love; rejoice in the Lord; pray constantly; in everything give thanks!

B.        They would be burdened in their consciences with guilt.

1.         You do not have to win God’s acceptance by your works. You can never earn it, because it is a gift of grace for those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. You are accepted; you are welcomed! You are part of God the Father’s family.

2.         Yet this is a great battleground for the immature or weak Christian.

Quote: Romaine, The Life of Faith, p. 39
C.        They would have a yoke of slavery on them.

1.         The false teachers were insisting that their system was the way to please God. “If you want to receive God’s blessing, you must do this (or have this experience).”

2.         But in truth, it was simply a yoke of slavery, cf. Ac 15:10. “To receive their principle, and to act on it, was plainly to renounce Christ’s authority, and to submit to the authority of men; and the whole of their system of seeking justification by their own doings was utterly subversive of the filial confidence, that generous spirit, which the faith of the gospel generates, and was necessarily productive of a servile temper” (Brown).

Apply: Learn the consequences of accepting false teaching. Some Christians act toward truth like they’re shopping for flip-flops in a discount store—way too casual. But truth matters!
 III.       A calling for Christ’s free people to pursue
A.        Some observations

1.         Only Jesus Christ can set us free. The truth of sovereign grace must always be protected! Yet once Christ has set us free, we are responsible to maintain that liberty. For a similar idea see Eph 4:3.

2.         We must gain stability in a life of freedom (cf. 1 Cor 16:13; Ph 1:27; 4:1; 1 Th 3:8).

3.         “Moreover, Christ won this liberty for us on the cross; the fruit and possession of it are bestowed on us through the Gospel… For if men lay an unjust burden on our shoulders, it can be borne; but if they want to bring our consciences into bondage, we must resist valiantly, even to the death. If we let men bind our consciences, we shall be despoiled of an invaluable blessing and at the same time an insult will be offered to Christ, the Author of freedom” (Calvin).

B.        What should we know about our freedom?

1.         It is an essential part of our relationship with God.

2.         It is the result of Christ’s redeeming death.

3.         It is life in the Spirit.

4.         It is part of our identity as God’s people.

5.         It is the nature of new covenant life.

Apply: Let every Christian assert their freedom and guard against any teaching opposing it. Let us live in the liberty that Christ has purchased for us.