Galatians (5) — The Purpose of Law

For the past several weeks, we have been studying from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is centered around the theme of God’s grace.  And one of the things the things that we’ve seen is this tension between law and grace.  On the one hand, you have these Judaizers who are all about keeping the law, specifically the Law of Moses.  But, then, on the other hand, you have Paul saying, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ… because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16).

And so, throughout this book, there is this tension between “law” and “grace”.  Now, it’s important for us to understand that Paul is not saying that law is a bad thing.  Rather, law is a wonderful thing.  God gave us law.  And Paul will tell us in our passage this morning that the law did exactly what God intended for it to do.  David said, in Psalm 119:97, “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.”

The problem is not with law  The problem comes when we try to make law do what it was never intended to do.  It’s like what sometimes happens in our house.  There are times when I need to use a hammer, but I can’t find the hammer, so I’ll make do with whatever I can find.  Maybe I’ll use a shoe to drive a nail into the wall.  But a shoe is a poor substitute for a hammer.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with a shoe, a shoe is a wonderful thing, as long as a shoe is used for what a shoe is designed to do.

And that’s the way it is with law.  As long as law is used for what law was designed to do, it’s a wonderful thing.  But when it comes to righteousness, when it comes to salvation, law was never intended to provide that.  And when you try to use law in that manner, it’s what’s known as “legalism”.

Legalism is the idea that we can be made right with God by following the law.  That as long as we do everything that God tells us to do, as long as we get everything in our worship exactly right, as long as we don’t misunderstand any doctrine, as long as we don’t mess up in any way, then we can be saved.  But, if we mess up on any point, then we’re lost.  Salvation becomes a matter of what we do and how well we do it, and Paul says not only is that wrong, but it perverts the gospel message and it causes us to fall from grace.  “You who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4).

And as Paul said in Galatians 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Now Paul is talking specifically here about the Law of Moses, because that’s the law that the Judaizers were trying to force everyone to obey in order to be saved, but in the original Greek, the word “the” isn’t there.  A more literal translation is “if righteousness comes through law, then Christ died in vain.”

As I said last week, I think we sometimes have this mistaken notion that we’re no longer under the Old Testament law, now we’re under New Testament law, which is new and improved.  It’s as if God took the Old Testament and said, “Well, that didn’t work out, they couldn’t do that, so I’m going to tinker with it, I’ll make it better, I’ll give them a better law and I’ll tell them to keep that one.”  And Paul’s point in this passage is that if there was any law that could have given us righteousness, then Jesus didn’t need to die.  If there was any set of laws out there that could save us, Jesus didn’t have to go to the cross.

So, I want us to look this morning at Galatians chapter 3 to see what Paul says about the law and its purpose.  Laws can be quite interesting, and sometimes rather humorous.  As you probably know, there are a lot of places that have some very unusual laws which were passed years ago that are still on the books, but are no longer enforced, for reasons that should seem obvious.  For example,

  • In Arizona, it’s against the law for donkeys to sleep in bathtubs (I’m sure there are many of you have been tempted to break that law!).
  • In Massachusetts, it’s against the law to have a gorilla in the back seat of your car.
  • In Georgia, it’s against the law to carry an ice cream cone in your back pocket on Sunday.
  • In Canada, it is illegal to board a plane while it’s in flight.
  • In Kentucky, it is illegal to remarry the same man four times.
  • In Florida, housewives are not allowed to break more than three dishes a day.
  • And in North Carolina, it is against the law to use an elephant to plow your cotton field.

I would love to know the origin of these laws, because you just know at some place, at some time, something happened that caused those laws to go into effect.  And at the time, those laws served a purpose.

There are also some Old Testament laws that seem rather silly, like “You can’t wear a piece of clothing made from two different materials.” (Leviticus 19:19).  Which would be a big problem for most of us here this morning.  Or, “You must not trim the edges of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27).  I’m afraid I’d be in big trouble for breaking that law.

But all of the Old Testament laws, including the ones that seem a little strange, served an important purpose.  But a limited purpose.

We pick up this morning in Galatians 3:15, To give a human example, brothers and sisters:  even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.  Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring.  It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 

            “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Galatians 3:15-18)

Now, let me stop here for a moment and explain what Paul is saying.  Paul has already established that the gospel message is that we are saved by grace through faith.  And that’s the way God has always done it, going all the way back to Abraham who “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). 

            Now that’s not to say that Abraham didn’t obey.  Because he had faith in God, he absolutely obeyed.  James will later point out that “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22).  And then James quotes the same passage that Paul does – “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (James 2:23)

That’s always been the way that God has saved – through a faith that is willing to respond to God.  But Paul anticipated the arguments of the Judaizers.  He knew they were going to say, “OK, we’ll agree that Abraham was saved by faith and that was a great way to be saved until the law came, but now that the law has come through Moses we have to keep the law to be saved.”

And Paul says, “No, no, no, the law didn’t undo the promises made to Abraham.”  He goes on in verse 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.  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.” (Galatians 3:19-22)

The promise God made to Abraham was that salvation would be made available to all nations by means of faith in Jesus Christ.  And Paul gives several reasons here why that promise was superior to the Law of Moses.

(1)       The promise came first

Paul uses an everyday illustration of the way human covenants work, and we understand this because many of you have a will.  That will designates who your heirs will be and how you want your estate handled.  Let me ask you:  Can someone else come along and change your will?  Can someone else say they want to alter the decision about who your heirs are going to be?  And the answer, of course, is No.

Paul’s point is that if a human covenant can’t be changed, then what makes you think that God’s covenant can be changed?  Once a divine promise is made, it can’t be nullified without changing God’s character.  In other words, to change God’s promise to Abraham, you would have to change God because God is faithful and he always does what he says he will do.  So it was impossible for the Law of Moses to change God’s plan for salvation.  What God promised to Abraham will always be true.

Keep in mind that what Paul says here about the law would have been very upsetting to the Jews.  Because, to a Jew, the law was what gave him his identity.  They didn’t always have their land, because they were kicked out of the land many times.  And they didn’t always have the temple, because it was destroyed several times.  But the Jews always had the Torah, they always had the law to give them their sense of identity and they believed that that law was permanent.

And then along comes Paul who says, No, you’re wrong, the law was a bracketed experience.  On the one side, there was this promise made to Abraham, and on other side Christ came to fulfill that promise and God intended for the law of Moses to be sort of a parenthesis.  He never intended for that law to be permanent.  The law was given to a limited people for a limited time for a limited purpose.

So, the promise is more important than the law because the promise came first.

(2)       The promise came directly

In verse 19, Paul points to a rabbinic tradition that the law was mediated by angels.  Now you can read the book of Exodus from beginning to end and you won’t find anything in it about the law being mediated by angels, but that’s what the Jews believed.  It’s what Stephen preached in Acts chapter 7, and it’s what the Hebrew writer said in Hebrews chapter 2.

Apparently, when God gave the law, he gave it through the angels who gave it to Moses who gave it to the people of Israel.   And Paul’s point here is that God was twice removed from the Jews when he gave them the law, but when God gave Abraham the promise, he did it in person. And that argument may not mean a lot to you, but to the eastern mind it was a powerful argument.

Because they believed the importance of a message depended on the means by which it was delivered.  For example, if a king wanted to send you a message and so, he called in an ambassador who gave it to his court servant who gave it to a herald who brought it to you, that’s an important message because it came from the king.  But if that king got on his horse and rode to your door and gave it to you directly, you would consider that message to be much more important.  And that’s Paul’s point.   The promise came directly.

(3)       The promise did what law could never do

Remember the story of how God made a promise with Abraham?  He came to Abraham and he said you’re going to have more kids than you can count.  And so in Genesis 15, God told Abraham to bring three animals and a couple of birds.  He told him to cut the animals in half and lay them on the ground.  Because, in those days, when you made a covenant with someone, two people would walk between the parts of the animals.

But, Abraham didn’t pass through the animals.  God passed through twice, once as a smoking pot and then as a burning torch.  Because God was the one making this promise, and there is a big difference between promise and law.


God said to Abraham, “Here’s what I will do.  It’s not up to you, Abraham, to make it happen.  It has nothing to do with what you do or how well you do it.   I will do it.”   Go back and read that promise made to Abraham.  Seven times, God says, “I will, I will, I will, I will…”

But when he gave the law to the Jewish people, what did he say?  “Thou shalt, thou shalt, thou shalt, thou shalt…”   The promise was dependent upon God.  The law was dependent upon man.  The promise centered on God’s grace, God’s initiative, God’s sovereignty, God’s blessings.  The law centered on man’s duty, man’s work, man’s responsibility, man’s obedience.   And, for that reason, the law could never do what the promise did.

In verse 21, Paul says, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.  Paul’s point is that law can’t give life!  It just can’t do it.  That’s why Paul said in Galatians 2:21, “for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

And this is so important for us to understand.  Now I realize we’re not Jews, I realize that we are not under the law of Moses, but sometimes we try to do exactly what they tried to do.  We try to find life in law.  Paul says if there’s any law that could be given that could give us life, then Christ would not have had to die.

If all we needed was a better law, we wouldn’t have needed the cross.  But salvation is not found in law, it’s not found in keeping the law, it’s found in promise – the promise of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham.  He is the offspring that gives life.  Paul says, “Don’t you know that when God said to Abraham, through your offspring I will bless the whole world, he was talking about Jesus?”  That was God’s plan.

From the very beginning of God’s dealings with man, his plan was for Jesus Christ to deliver us from sin and death.  The solution to the problem of sin was not found in law; it was found in Christ.  Law cannot save us.

Now Paul anticipates what they were thinking at this point.  In fact, it may be the same thing that some of you are thinking.  If the law can’t save us and if the law was temporary, then why did God give it in the first place?  And so, in verse 19, Paul answers that question.  “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…”

Paul says the law was added because of sin.  Or to put it another way – the law was added to show us what sin is.  You see, man had a problem.  Man sinned against God.  But man didn’t realize the seriousness of his offense.  So, God gave us the law so that we would realize we’re not just a little bit bad; we are in rebellion against God.  Through the law, God opened up our eyes so that we could see our disobedience.

The law is like a magnifying glass.  Take a magnifying glass and use it to look at a dirty piece of clothing.  Now, that magnifying glass will not make the clothing any dirtier, but it will help you to see just how dirty it is.  You will see dirt and filth you never saw before, and you will realize that this thing really needs to be cleaned.  That’s what the law was intended to do.

In Romans 3:20, Paul said, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.”  Through the law we become conscious of sin.  The law teaches us what sin really is.  This is an important point:  The purpose of the law was never to save sinners.  It was to show sinners that they needed to be saved.  

            The law is like a mirror.  When you got out of bed this morning, you went into the bathroom, you looked in the mirror and gasped and said, “Some serious work has got to be done here before I can go to church.”  Now that mirror can show you how dirty you are, but that mirror can’t fix the problem.  It can show you what the problem is, but it can’t clean you up.  And that’s what the law does.  If the law was going to provide life, the law would have to pardon lawbreakers, and that’s not the purpose of law.

How many of you have ever been driving down the interstate and seen some flashing lights in your rearview mirror?  A state trooper pulls you over, comes up to your window.  You say, “What’s the problem, officer, was I speeding?”  He says, “Oh no, you were driving the speed limit and I just wanted to stop you to thank you.  I’ve been sitting there watching people break the law all day long and when I saw that you were following the law I just wanted to stop you and thank you.  In fact, I’d like to give you a reward for keeping the law.  Here’s a gift certificate to Red Lobster.”   Has that ever happened to anybody in here?  No, that’s not the law’s job.  The law’s job is not to commend, it is to condemn.

The purpose of God’s law was to demonstrate to man his sinfulness, his inability to please God by his own works, and to help man to see his need for grace and mercy.  Because unless men realize they are living in violation of God’s law and therefore stand under his judgment, they don’t see any reason to be saved.  Grace is meaningless to a person who doesn’t realize he’s lost.  A person who doesn’t know that he has offended God doesn’t realize that he needs God’s forgiveness.

So law was added because of transgressions, but law cannot give life.  Law can tell you that you’re wrong, but it can’t take someone who is dead in their trespasses and give them life.

So is the law opposed to the promises of God?  Paul says absolutely not.  Paul doesn’t see the law contradicting the promise, he sees it working together with it.  God knew what he was doing when he gave the law of Moses.  Both the law and the promise were part of God’s plan.

And Paul uses two images to explain to us what the purpose of the law was.

            “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.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” (Galatians 3:23-25)

(1)       The law was a jailer. 

Paul says we were “held captive” by the law, “imprisoned” by the law.  Now I’ve never been in jail.  I’ve been to see people in jail.  But being in jail must be a very helpless feeling.  Because when you get locked up, you know that you are stuck there unless someone shows up to get you out.

And that was the purpose of the law, to help us to see that someone else was going to have to come and rescue us because we are powerless to rescue ourselves.  The law was a jailer keeping us locked up until Christ came along to set us free.

(2)       The law was a guardian.   

Different translations translate this word in different ways — schoolmaster, custodian, tutor.  The Greek word here is “pedagog”.  And it’s a hard word to translate because we don’t really have anything like this in our society.  But, in Greek society, a young boy was put under the care of a slave who was called a pedagog, and it was his job was to take that boy to school.  Now, he wasn’t the teacher, but he made sure the boy got to school.  Paul says that was the job of the Law of Moses.  The law’s job was to make sure we got to Christ.  It was to point us to Christ so that we could learn from Christ what the law could never teach us.

It’s the same thing Jesus said in John 5.  Jesus has a discussion there with the Pharisees, the experts in the law.  And starting in verse 39, he says, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life.”  Jesus says you think you can find life in law.  But then he says, “These are they that testify of me.  But you are not willing to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

The law was given to a limited people for a limited time for a limited purpose.  It was a parenthesis in God’s dealings with man.  God did not give the law to save us but to show that we needed to be saved and to point us to Jesus, who alone can save us. The promise is superior to the law, but not because of a failure on the law’s part.  The law did exactly what God intended for it to do.

And here’s the ironic thing about legalism.  Legalism places law in high regard but it reverses God’s very intent for the law.  Legalism says that law is important because we are made holy by keeping the law.  But God gave us law to prove just the opposite, to show us that we can never be holy by keeping law, and so we need Jesus Christ.

Understanding that doesn’t make us less obedient.  Just the opposite, it makes us want to be even more obedient.  Rick Atchley tells about something that happened to him when he was in junior high.  He said that one of his chores every week was to mow the lawn.  But one week he decided that he was going to defy his father and so he didn’t mow the lawn.

When his father came home, he walked into Rick’s room and he said, “Why didn’t you mow the yard?”  Rick said, “Because I didn’t want to.”  And then he braced himself for whatever was coming next.  But instead of a scolding or a punishment, his father looked at him and said, “Rick, you’re too old now for me to make you obey me with punishment.  You’re going to have to decide if you want to obey me because you love me.”  And he turned and walked away.  Rick says that, within five minutes, he was out there mowing the yard in five minutes.  And his father never had to threaten him again to get him to obey.

You see, we have a choice.  Do we feel compelled to serve God by law or do we feel compelled to serve him out of love?


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