The Law in Christian Life
Galatians 3: 15-25
Whenever we hear the radical claims of salvation-by-grace, we should immediately be prompted to ask: If we are “free from the law”, does that mean we don’t have to obey the law of God? If I am always saved only by Christ’s performance and not my own, why should I strive to live a holy life? Do I have any obligation to keep God’s law, and why?
In fact, there is no more practical question than that of the relationship of a Christian to the law of God. What is my relationship as a Christian to God’s law? So I am going to entitled my sermon as “The Law in Christian Life”
In the flow of his letter to the Galatians, Paul has established that we are saved, justified, redeemed only by faith in Christ, and not through any righteousness of our own. So he has reached the point where a careful reader will be asking the question about how the law fits. And so here in today’s passage, he addresses this crucial issue.
Paul answers this question by telling us two things in this passage. We need to understand both if we’re going to get it right. First, he says that the law was never meant to replace grace. Second, he says that the law does have a purpose in the Christian life: to show us of our sin and to lead us to Christ. As a result, thirdly, we will see how the Law and Christian life relates. So let’s look at each of these.
1. The Law was never meant to Replace Grace (vv. 15-18)
First, Paul wants to underline what the law does not do. So he takes “an example from everyday life” (v 15). He points out that human contracts are binding and difficult or impossible to void. “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.” (v 15). The word Paul uses here “covenant”, is a word for a legal will.
This, of course, is a good example, since once a covenant or will is duly and legally made, we consider it binding no matter what changes in conditions may occur. So it is with God’s promises.
For example, if a father leaves his poor son more money than his rich son, that legal document will be binding even if the rich son loses all his wealth the day after his father dies. The will or covenant holds despite new conditions.
Paul knows that some might see that Moses’ law was “introduced 430 years later” after God’s promises of salvation to Abraham (v 17), and conclude: Ah! This changes things! If we are to get the blessing of Abraham, we will now have to obey the law of Moses.
But Paul says, and shows, that this is a false conclusion: “The law ... does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise” (v 17). The law of Moses cannot turn God’s promise to Abraham into something other than what it is—a promise.
This is a powerful argument. If the law of Moses came as a way of salvation, then it means that God had changed His mind. It would mean that God had decided that we didn’t need a Savior, and that He would give out His blessing on the basis of performance, not promise.
If the law had this function, it would not add to the promise; it would “do away” with it altogether (v 17). “For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise“ (v 18).
For Example: If I give you something because of what I have promised, it is not because of your performance. If I give you something because of what you have done, it is not because of my promise but because of your performance.
Paul is adamant: either something comes by grace or works; either it comes because of the giver’s promise or the receiver’s performance. It is either one or the other.
This is worth reflecting on. For a promise to bring a result, it needs only to be believed, but for a law to bring a result, it has to be obeyed.
For example, if I say to you: My Uncle James wants to meet you and give you 10 Crores Rupees, the only way you can probably fail to receive the 10 Crores is to fail to believe the claim. If you just laugh and go home, rather than going to see Uncle James, you may never get the money. But if, on the other hand, I say to you: My Uncle James is willing to leave you his inheritance of 10 Crores Rupees, but you have to go live with him and take care of him in his old age, then you have to fulfill the requirement and condition if you are to get the money.
A gift-promise needs only to be believed to be received, but a law-wage must be obeyed to be received.
The promise precedes the law. The law cannot co-exist with the promise in bringing blessing; the law does not set aside the promise as the source of blessing. Israel was a nation which was to rely on God’s promise; the individual Christian no less so.
And also we see from this passage that the promises of grace have been all about Jesus right from the beginning. This is mind-blowing. What did God promise Abraham in Genesis 12 & 15? That by sheer grace, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Paul notices here that offspring is singular. What Paul realizes is that before God ever gave us the law, God gave us a promise: that a singular descendent of Abraham would bless every nation on the earth. God’s whole plan right from Abraham’s day was to send one person who would bless all nations. Do you see what Paul says in verse 16? “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offspring,” referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” God’s intention all along was to save us not by the law, but through the gracious gift of his Son. This isn’t new, Paul says. The gospel goes all the way back to Abraham.
Therefore, the law of Moses must have a different purpose.
2. The Purpose of the Law (vv. 19-25)
Firstly, he says that the law does have a purpose in the Christian life: to show us our sin
In verse 19, Paul tells us what the point of the law is! It was “added because of transgressions" (v 19) until Christ came. The law did not come to tell us about salvation, but about sin. Its main purpose is to show us our problem, that we are law-breakers; and to prove to us that we cannot be the solution, since we are unable to be perfect law-keepers.
In verse 21, Paul returns to the statement with which he began verse 19. God never intended His law to “impart life”, otherwise we could become righteous through it.
The true function and the main and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God.
This is the purpose of the law. It shows us that we do not just “fall short” of God’s will, requiring some extra effort to do better, but that we are completely under sin’s power, requiring a rescue.
The law has the power to show us that we are not righteous; but it cannot give us the power to be righteous. In fact, as we see God’s standards and try and fail to keep them, the law shows us that we do not have that power. “Righteousness” cannot “come by the law” (v 21b). Ironically, if we think we can be righteous by the law, we have missed the main point of the law.
In summary, Paul says, the law does its work to lead us toward recognition of our need for salvation-by-grace. The law, then, does not oppose the promise of salvation-by-grace through-Christ but rather supports it, by pointing out to us our need for it.
Secondly, he says that the law does have a purpose in the Christian life: to lead us to Christ
Paul uses two metaphors to characterize the way the law works in a Christian’s life.
First, the law is a guard. He says, the law is like a prison in verse 22. The law can’t make us right with God. It can only imprison us. But in prison we begin to long for freedom. We begin to long for a Savior. The law helps us recognize our need for Christ.
Second, the law is a guardian. This image he gives in verses 24 and 25. During Paul’s day, the guardian was usually a slave who supervised the children on the parents’ behalf.
In wealthy Greek families back then, children were raised by guardians. This guardian would serve as the child’s protector and disciplinarian from the age of six to adolescence. Drawings usually depict the guardian holding a rod or a cane to administer punishment. The relationship was often very close, but it was disciplinary, and it was temporary. But when a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a young man, they release him from his guardian; he is then no longer under them, but is allowed to go his own way. In the same way, Paul says, the law was needed for discipline on a temporary basis until Christ came.
In both cases, the guard and the guardian remove freedom. In both cases, the relationship with the “law” is not intimate or personal; it is based on rewards and punishments. And in both cases, we are treated as children or worse.
John Stott is worth quoting at some length here:
“After God gave the promise to Abraham, He gave the law to Moses. Why? He had to make things worse before He could make them better. The law exposed sin, provoked sin, condemned sin. The purpose of the law was to lift the lid off man’s respectability and disclose what he is really underneath—sinful, rebellious, guilty, under the judgment of God and helpless to save himself.
No man has ever appreciated the gospel until the law has first revealed him to himself.
It is only against the inky blackness of the night sky that the stars begin to appear, and it is only against the dark background of sin and judgment that the gospel shines forth.” (The Message of Galatians, pages 92-93)
That’s why Philip Ryken says, “Law and grace are not opponents; they are teammates working together for the salvation of God’s people. The law leads to grace, which can be found only in Christ.”
3. The Law and the Christians (vv 24-25)
The law locked us up “until faith was revealed” (v 24). Once faith had come, “we were no longer under the supervision of the law” (v 25).
In a nutshell, here’s how God designed it to work: the law drives us to the gospel and the gospel frees us to obey the law.
In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther summarized it this way: “The law is not kept by man’s own power, but solely through Christ who pours the Holy Spirit into our hearts. To fulfill the law ...is to do its works with pleasure and love...[which are] put into the heart by the Holy Ghost.”
Let me repeat the last line again. “To fulfill the law...is to do its works with pleasure and love.” Just knowing what God requires is not enough. Obeying him “because it’s what we’re supposed to do” is not sufficient. Truly fulfilling the law means obeying God out of pleasure and love: “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Ps. 40:8).
So Paul is indicating not that we no longer have any relation to the values of God’s law, but that we no longer view it as a system of salvation. The gospel means that we no longer obey the law out of fear of rejection and hope of salvation-by-performance. But when we grasp salvation-by-promise, our hearts are filled with gratitude and a desire to please and be like our Savior—and the way to do that is through obeying the law. And once we come to the law motivated by gratitude, we are better in our obedience of the law than we ever were when we thought that our obedience might save us.
My Example: In Ministry for many years serving the Lord out of obligation without joy but after I understood the gospel it changes everything.
A true Christian obeys God’s law, then, not out of obligation or duty, but out of love, for “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10).
It is a law that points us to Jesus. Romans 10:4 says, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes”. In other words, the end, the goal, the point of the law is to drive us to Jesus. When we really “get” this, we begin to see that every command in Scripture points us in some way to Jesus, who fulfills that command for us and in us.
He is our righteousness. We no longer need to construct our own. We are unable to do what the law commands us to do, but Jesus did it for us. And because he lives in us by his Spirit, we are able to do it, not from obligation, but from delight. So every command in Scripture points us to our own inability, and causes us to look to Jesus as the One who forgives our disobedience and enables our obedience. In other words, the law drives us to Jesus and Jesus frees us to obey the law.