March 24, 2005

Galatians VI: Why the Law, then?

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

What must I do to be saved?

A few years ago, I was doing some shopping when I was approached by a man who wanted to invite me to church. He handed me a card that identified himself as part of the "Ottawa Church of Christ" and invited me to attend a talk on some practical topic or other, along the lines of "coping with life's ups and downs." I politely declined. The International Churches of Christ, of which the Ottawa Church of Christ is a part, preaches a false gospel, on at least two fronts: first, by saying that to be saved you must be baptized - and by the right church (which of course means them); second, by saying that you must submit to the authority of a discipler, who becomes your de facto highest moral authority, and to whom you are accountable even for many of the tiny details of your daily life.

False gospels that add something to faith are nothing new. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to combat a first-century version of the same error. Professing Jewish Christians, or "Judaizers," were stirring up controversy by saying that circumcision was necessary to be saved. The Campbellite error of the ICOC is the same old heresy in modern packaging.

Paul defends the true Gospel of faith alone by first showing that he received his Gospel not from men, but by a revelation from God. He shows that he has the endorsement of the other Apostles, and then he shows that he was willing to stand up publicly even to them if their behaviour were at odds with his Gospel. Then he appeals to the personal experiences of the Galatians themselves, who received the Holy Spirit because of their faith, not their obedience to the Law. This is nothing less than the same faith as Abraham had, who was counted righteous by God because he believed God's promises. Righteousness by the Law results in a curse because it is not by faith. But Christ has redeemed us from the curse by taking it upon himself at the cross.

The obvious question, then, is: Why the Law, then? Now, starting with Galatians 3:15, Paul discusses what the law was for, and why it was incapable of saving anyone.

Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

The promise is better than the Law

God's promises to Abraham are like a man's will, Paul says. When a man prepares his will, once it is set down it cannot be changed. Similarly, God's promises to Abraham are irrevocable. A law that came 430 years later could not supersede what came first. What Paul is specifically talking about is is not quite clear, because wills, then as now, could be changed by the testator before he died. Perhaps he is thinking of a third party, other than the testator or heir. There were also some Jewish inheritance laws that were irrevocable. Maybe there was some other law that we no longer know about. The point is the same, however: If a man's will cannot be revoked once it is ratified, how much more is God's will irrevocable? Adding the requirements of the Law to God's promise would change its very nature, and it would be contrary to the character of God for him to go back on his promise.

God first makes a promise to Abraham when he tells him to leave Ur and head for the Promised Land. This takes us practically back to the beginning of the Bible:

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. (Gen. 12:1-4)

Right from the beginning of his story, Abraham has enough faith to believe God and obey him. But then God promised Abraham a son, taking him outside to count the stars, and saying, "So shall thy seed be" (Gen. 15:5). It is here that it is written, "And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness" (15:6). Abraham was declared righteous by God simply because he believed the promise.

Right after this, we read of a ritual that is strange to our modern minds: Abraham cut a ram, a dove, and a pigeon in half and laid the halves on the ground in two rows. Then, when it was dark, the presence of the Lord himself passed between the halves of the sacrifices, first as a smoking pot, then a flaming torch. This is an ancient form of oath that was used to confirm a covenant between parties. It is what is known as a "self-maledictory" oath - when the parties to the covenant passed through the dismembered animals, they were in effect saying, "May this also be done to me if I break the covenant." In effect the God of the universe is himself saying to Abraham: "May I be dismembered like these animals if I break my promise to you to give you an heir." This is another reason Paul gives why the Abrahamic covenant is superior to the Mosaic law: it is based on a promise instead of law. God's promise to bless Abraham is unilateral. Abraham himself does not walk between the halves. There are no conditions. By contrast, the covenant of Moses promised blessings, but they came with strings attached: the children of Israel were given a Law at Mt. Sinai, consisting of over 600 different regulations, and told to obey it. Faithfulness resulted in blessings; unfaithfulness, in judgment. The Law was not unilateral, but mediated by Moses between the children of Israel and God.

Fast-forward a few more years. God was good to his word, and Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac. But then God issued a command to Abraham: bring Isaac to Mt. Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering. At the moment of truth when Abraham was ready to do the deed, God stopped him. He provided a lamb as a substitute sacrifice, uttering these words:

[B]ecause thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son : that in blessing I will bless thee. . . . And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Gen. 22:16-18)

Next, Paul does what looks like some extreme theological hairsplitting: he latches on to the singular "seed" in Genesis 22:18 and says that this promise finds its fulfillment in one single person, Jesus Christ, Abraham's true seed. Of course Paul was aware that the natural meaning of "seed" is a collective noun meaning Abraham's descendants. He doesn't dispute that, and anyway there is no question that the promise to Abraham was literally fulfilled in Abraham's descendants. But what Paul says is that the ultimate fulfilment of the promise is spiritual, rather than biological: not the nation of Israel, but Christ - and, as 3:29 says, the promise extends to all, Jew and Gentile alike, who are in Christ.

The promise to Abraham foreshadows Christ. Think it through. Out of his love for God, Abraham was willing to give up his beloved, only son. Out of his love for us, God the Father was willing to give up his only Son. God provided Abraham with a ram to sacrifice as a substitute for Isaac; he provided the Lord Jesus as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Not only that, but Mt. Moriah, up which Abraham led Isaac to sacrifice him, is in the same part of the world where God led Christ up another hill to die on a cross. God's promise to Abraham was literally fulfilled in Isaac and his descendants according to the flesh. God's promise to Abraham was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and Abraham's descendants according to promise.

The purpose of the Law

Paul raises the obvious question: "Wherefore then serveth the law?" (Gal. 3:19). If the Law doesn't save you, and if the Law doesn't replace God's covenant with Abraham, then why did God even send down the Law to begin with?

First, it was "added because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19). The purpose of the Law was to demonstrate what sin was. It doesn't accomplish this merely by giving us a checklist of dos and don'ts. It's more personal than that. The Law shows us how truly sinful we are.

In C. S. Lewis' novel The Pilgrim's Regress, the main character, John, is given a card containing the rules his Landlord expects him to live by. Lewis writes:

At first he tried very hard to keep them all, but whe it came to bed-time he always found that he had broken far more than he had kept; and the thought of the horrible tortures to which the good, kind Landlord would put him became such a burden that next day he would become quite reckless and break as many as he possibly could; for oddly enough this eased his mind for the moment. But then after a few days the fear would return and this time it would be worse than before because of the dreadful number of rules he had broken during the interval.1

John discovers that there is a war going on within him; knowing the rules, he desires to keep them, but despairs of actually accomplishing it. Compare what the Bible says about the Law, in Rom. 7:

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (Rom. 7:7-13)

The Law shows sin for what it is, and it shows sinful people for what they are. Paul closes Romans 7 with this lament: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (7:24). Fortunately, he answers his own question: "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (7:25).

Righteousness cannot be based on law. The Law is unable to bring life - only death. It imprisons men in their sins. The Law is a jailor that holds men until faith comes to set free those who believe in Christ, in fulfilment of the earlier promise.

Paul uses another analogy to describe the purpose of the Law: he calls it a "schoolmaster" in Galatians 3:24. Some translations use words like "tutor" or "guardian" which doesn't really do the image justice; the NIV ambiguously says "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ." Really, there's no equivalent in our society or our language. Paul has in mind a kind of Greek slave, called a paidagwgo.j (paidagogos). In an upper-class household, he was a trusted, educated slave who was responsible for the upbringing of his master's boys. He was a stern disciplinarian, authorized to administer even corporal punishment. He taught them moral conduct, and supervised their lives, keeping them away from evil. In fact, before a boy became of age, he was not allowed even to set foot outside the house without the paidagwgo.j. One of the main jobs of the paidagwgo.j was to lead the boys to and from school every day.

This is the image of the Law that Paul wants us to have: It is a harsh disciplinarian, teaching us right and wrong, but whose ultimate purpose was to bring us to Christ by faith.

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under the paidagwgo.j. We "are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26); we have come of age and we receive all the benefits and responsibilities of being the legal heirs of the heavenly Father. This is something that Paul will flesh out at the beginning of chapter 4; Lord willing, I will come back to what that means in the next instalment in the series.

The Law is not contrary to God's promise. Indeed, the Law assumes the promises to Abraham. The Law does not add to the promise, but supplements it. The Law reminds the sinner of his sinfulness, driving him to appeal to God's mercy and grace. The Law leads us back to the promise. In fact, the Law ought to remind us of the promise. In Exodus 19:18, the words describing the smoke and fire of the visible presence of God on Mt. Sinai are the same words used to describe the smoking pot and flaming torch that ratified God's oath to Abraham.

Who we are in Christ

This passage tells us what our identity is. One of the ramifications of a postmodernist, poststructuralist worldview is that we are nothing but the sum total of our relationships. Consider, for example, the 1997 movie Fight Club, directed by David Fincher. This movie is the story of a wage slave in a mundane corporate job whose life is driven by the acquisition of material goods. He is completely alienated from others. He has no identity of his own; the credits simply list him as the "Narrator." At the beginning of the film, he begins to manufacture an identity for himself by faking serious illnesses and connecting with people at various support groups. Later he joins a "Fight Club" in which members bond by beating each other senseless. As the movie progresses, the level of violence in the encounters escalates, even to the point of picking fights with random strangers, as the Narrator seeks out more authentic experiences.

Paul gives the Biblical answer to the question of our identity in contrast to Fincher's artificially constructed one. We are the adopted children and legal heirs of God the Father. We are the spiritual brothers of Christ, God's firstborn, on the basis of his real, historical death on a cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. We are Abraham's descendants. We fulfill a promise made by God 4,500 years ago. We are not merely the sum of the shifting sand of our relationships. Our identity is firmly grounded on the objective rock of the unchanging God and the facts of history.

We are citizens of a different kingdom. As one of the pastors at my church once put it, "we are no longer ordinary." We have given up our private citizenship and become ambassadors of Christ. Paul says that if we were baptized into Christ, we have "put on Christ" (3:27) - essentially, we have put on Christ's uniform and we have declared ourselves to be in his employment. If you profess Christ, and you have not yet been baptized, ask yourself why you have not yet donned Christ's uniform. Do you feel you don't know enough about it? When When Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36-38), he had been a Christian apparently for only a few minutes, and had only one theology lesson. He had faith, not knowledge. Do you think the time isn't right? Then when will be the right time? A more convenient time? Death does not come at convenient times. You do not know what will happen to you even in the next day. Can you imagine yourself trying to explain to the Lord Jesus why you had been a believer for years, and even with all this time to be baptized you never actually found a convenient time?

Someone might also object: "But you don't need to be baptized to be saved." That is true enough as far as it goes. If I were arguing the Gospel with a member of the ICOC, I would insist on it, because that is the very point upon which their false doctrine differs from Biblical Christianity. In fact, I would argue straight from this very letter to the Galatians. The ICOC is recycling the Judaizers' arguments and simply replacing circumcision with baptism. But it is an invalid logical leap from "you don't need to be baptized to be saved" to "you don't need to be baptized at all." Baptism is not essential to salvation. But it is essential to obedience.

This passage tells us that God does not play favourites within his family. Gal. 3:28 says that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Racial differences are irrelevant; there is neither Jew nor Greek. When Peter first brought the Gospel to the Gentiles, he announced that "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35). Class differences do not matter; there is neither slave nor free man. James tells his readers not to give preferential treatment to rich men who come into the assembly, while humiliating the poor (James 2:1-13). Sex differences do not matter; there is neither male nor female. It is interesting to me that when Paul preached in Athens before the Areopagus, the only person mentioned by name as having believed the Gospel is a woman named Damaris.

This does not mean that sex, class, or ethic differences do not exist, or that they are to be disregarded altogether. The same Paul who says there is neither male nor female also establishes different roles for men and women in the church and the home, and he grounds these roles in the created order at the Garden of Eden (1 Tim. 2:11-14). I have been glad to have had friends with money when I have not, who were willing to who were willing to loan me a bit of money now and then so that I didn't get left out of social activities. And I can't help but appreciate the variety that my friends of Chinese, Filipino, or African descent bring to my life. But God doesn't play favourites. We are all adopted into his family by the same rules. We are one family.


1 C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 6.


Dr. Edmund P. Clowney, professor and first president of Westminster Theological Seminary, died this Sunday

at the age of 27. His book The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament was a great help when I originally prepared this message in 2003.

Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)


- Posted by Scott McClare @ 1:00 PM · Permalink