The Law and the Promise (Galatians 3:15-25)
I want to take you back a number of years. I was a fairly new and inexperienced pastor in my first church. One day we had a couple show up. They were from another church, which they said was legalistic. They wanted to know if we were a church that believed in grace and didn’t believe in the law.
Talk about a gift! It’s always exciting to get new people out to church. I assured them that we were a church that believed in grace, and that we wouldn’t put up with legalism.
A while later it came out that the male in the couple was engaged in some sin in his life. I confronted him about it, and he was aghast. He said, “I thought that this wasn’t a legalistic church!” They left the church and I never saw them again. I think they went to a new church and complained about me.
But as a young pastor, it made me think. Here’s the issue: if we are saved by grace through faith, then what is the law of God all about? What’s up with the 613 commands of the law in the Old Testament? More practically, does it mean that we can live however we please from now on? You get the idea: if the gospel is Jesus plus nothing is all we need, then we really don’t need the law. We may as well chuck it and just live by grace. There’s a lot of confusion over this issue, and I have to admit that it’s easy to end up muddled over this issue.
Let me give you an example. The psalmist wrote:
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
So the law is good. We should meditate on the law. It can make us wise. It should always be with us. But then you have what we’ve been reading in Galatians that seem to be pretty negative about the law. So we’re left confused. Is the law a good thing, or a bad thing?
Well, this is not a new question. And it’s not just an abstract discussion for us as well. The guy who came up to me at my first church got this wrong, and it led him into sin and confusion. He completely dismissed the value of the law. But you can also make the opposite mistake and become legalistic in your thinking. John Piper says:
Legalism is a greater menace to the church than alcoholism…Alcoholics are in a tragic bondage. And we must do all we can to help. But legalism is more subtle and more pervasive and, in the end, more destructive. Satan clothes himself as an angel of light and makes the very commandments of God his base of operations. And the human heart is so inveterately proud and unsubmissive that it often uses religion and morality to express its rebellion.
So what about the law? Is the law important to Christians or not? 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 lead us to Christ. So let’s look at each of these. What I want to do is to explain what Paul says, and then tell you what it means for us.
First: The law was never meant to replace grace.
Here’s the question Paul was dealing with in this first section in verses 15 to 19. The implied question is this: Why all these years did God require Israel to follow the law and to be circumcised? It seems like a pretty major change. All of a sudden Paul comes along and says that you need Jesus plus nothing else in order to be accepted by God. That’s fine, but what about the entire Old Testament? What do you do with Moses who received the Ten Commandments directly from God? It seems like they have a pretty convincing argument here. And if they’re right, then we have a pretty big problem here, because it would seem that we need Christ plus the law in order to be accepted by God. Paul’s entire argument would come crashing down, and we would be put back under the power of the law once again.
The question is really about when God began to come up with a way to save people who are sinners. There’s actually a bit of a legal question here.
Years ago my father loaned one of my brothers some money to buy a house, to be repayable to his estate upon his death. Because of the nature of the agreement, we got together and agreed how things were going to be handled. It’s one of those situations in which it’s better to avoid any possible confusion right up front. So we drafted a one-page agreement on how this was going to be handled. We filed it away in a safe place. We knew that one day we would all have to pull out this binding agreement. If somebody tried to make something up, we could all point to this piece of paper and say, “Look! We’ve already decided how all of this is going to happen.”
That’s essentially what was happening with the Galatians. Paul was talking about grace and faith. Some were pulling out what they thought was a binding agreement between God and his people, and the binding agreement basically said, “Keep the law! Be circumcised!” They thought they had Paul backed into a corner.
To top it off, covenants are unbreakable. Once a covenant is made, you can’t go back and just change it.
So what is Paul going to do? How is he going to answer this?
Read verse 15:
To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.
Just stop there for a minute. You can picture some of Paul’s opponents, the Judaizers, nodding, and saying, “Uh huh! Even Paul agrees that the law given to Moses can’t be annulled or added to once it’s been ratified.” It really looks like an airtight case at this point.
But go on. Verses 16 to 18 say:
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.
This is amazing. Look at what Paul does here. He gets us to agree that if God makes a covenant, that it’s a binding one. Then he reminds us that the covenant we need to pay attention to is not the covenant with Moses (the law) but the covenant with Abraham. What’s the covenant with Abraham? In Genesis 22, God said to Abraham:
I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:17-18)
So what’s Paul’s point? Paul actually has three points:
First: The promises of grace made to Abraham come before the requirements of the law, and they can’t be changed. Paul is actually arguing that God gave Abraham the gospel long before he ever gave Moses the law. So the gospel is not something that Paul just invented. The gospel has been there all along, all the way back to Abraham.
Second: The promises of grace have been all about Jesus right from the beginning. This is mind-blowing. What did God promise Abraham. 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 in 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 offsprings,” 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.
Third: the law is subordinate to God’s promise to bless the world through Abraham. Why? Because it was given first, and can’t be annulled. Also, in verse 20, because the promise to Abraham was given directly by God to Abraham, whereas the law was given through intermediaries. The promise, therefore, is in every way superior to the law. The law has always been subordinate to grace. That’s the way it’s been right from the beginning.
Look, this seems hard to follow, so stick with me for a minute. The question is an important one: Is our relationship with God based on the law, which we break, or is it based on the free gift of grace that comes from God? Paul says it’s always been about the promise of grace. It’s always been about grace, not by the law. This is not a New Testament invention. It’s been that way right from the beginning. It’s always been about Jesus; it’s always been about being accepted by God on the basis of grace through faith.
This makes all the difference in the world to us. Almost everything we do in life is based on performance. If you go to school, you get grades based on your papers and tests. If you work, you get reviews and you get measured against standards. We’re hardwired to judge ourselves based on performance. Brett Favre, holder of many NFL passing records, three-time MVP, and 10-time all-pro, Super Bowl XXXI champion, said, “You're only as good as your last pass.” That’s the way we are tempted to live. But Paul tells us that it was never meant to be this way.
Here we see the sweetness of the gospel from which we derive great comfort. We are not right with God by our obedience but by our faith in God’s promise…The law says: Do this. The gospel says: Accept this…The devil wants to discourage you and tell you that you can never be right with God because of your failures. But the gospel says that we are right with God because of God’s promise of life in Christ. (Thomas Schreiner)
Or, as Philip Ryken put it, “Salvation in Christ does not rest on a law that we inevitably break; it rests on a promise that God cannot break.”
Let me give you an example of how we can apply this. A student came to a Christian professor at a university. He confessed that he was a practicing homosexual. “I feel like a slave,” he said. The professor responded, “You are a slave.” He began to teach him about how to gain freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.
The student loved this. But one thing held him back: he really believed that he wasn’t good enough for God. How could God forgive him for everything that he had done? He said to the professor, “First I must become a Christian like you. Then God will love me.”
The professor replied, “I’m no better than you are, except for the love and power of God. He loves you now as you are.” Do you see that? God does not deal with us based on our performance, but on the basis of his promise. No matter who we are, no matter what we have done, we hold on to the promise that God made before the law. Pull out the irrevocable promise that God made before he gave the law, that points to Jesus Christ, and remind yourself that it cannot be broken. Salvation is by God’s grace. We don’t have to work to receive it.
So that’s the first thing that Paul is telling us. The law was never meant to replace grace. Grace always comes first. It’s been that way right from the beginning.
You can picture what some people are thinking. If this is the case, then what good is the law? Why did God give us the law then in the first place? Paul answers this question in verses 19 to 24.
The law was given to lead us to Christ.
Let me see if I can explain this. Paul says, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…” Several years ago they built a high-rise hotel in Galveston, Texas, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They sank pilings into the gulf and built the structure out over the water. When the hotel was about to have its grand opening, someone thought, What if people decide to fish out the hotel windows? So they placed signs in the hotel rooms, "No fishing out the hotel windows." Many people ignored the signs, however, and it created a difficult problem. Lines got snarled. People in the dining room saw fish flapping against the picture windows. The manager of the hotel solved it all by taking down those little signs. No one checks into a hotel room thinking about fishing out of the windows. The signs, though well-intentioned, created the problem. That’s what happened with the law. In a sense it provokes us.
Let me put it this way. I have some allergies. Every couple of years I have to go to an allergist. They put some different irritants on my skin and then prick my skin with a needle. They’re trying to provoke a reaction in me. Why? Because provoking an allergic reaction is the only way to reveal what allergies I have. That’s very similar to what the law does. It pricks our skins and causes a reaction that reveals the condition of our sinful hearts so that we can see what’s wrong with us. Martin Luther said:
The true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God.
That’s why Paul gives us two images here. First, 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 of Christ.
The other image he gives is in verses 24 and 25. This one needs a bit more explanation. In wealthy Greek families back then, children were raised by guardians or pedagogues. This pedagogue would serve as the child’s protector and disciplinarian from the age of six to adolescence. Drawings usually depict the pedagogue holding a rod or a cane to administer punishment. The relationship was often very close, but it was disciplinary, and it was temporary. One great writer said, “When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his ‘pedagogue’ and from his teacher; 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.
So the law isn’t contrary to the gospel. The law anticipates the gospel. It helps us realize our need for the gospel. It isn’t opposed to grace; it actually leads us to grace. That’s why we still need to know God’s law. John Stott said:
Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit the need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will be ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we ever turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.
For two summers, the Chicago Cubs showed us what this looks like. They first traded for Vance Law and started him at third base. A few months later, they brought up first baseman Mark Grace from the minor leagues. So they had Law and Grace, right next to each other in the batting order. They even had them in the right order: Grace came first, and then Law. They stood in opposite corners on the baseball diamond, holding down first and third base. “Opposing batters would smash the ball to third, where Law would knock it down and throw it over to first for the out…Law to Grace to retire the side.”
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.”`
That’s why if someone came up to me today and said, “Do you believe in grace?” I’d say, “Yes!” I’d tell them that grace is where it all began all the way back to Abraham. I’d say that salvation does not rest on a law that we inevitably break; it rests on a promise that God cannot break.
But then if they asked me if I was opposed to the law, I’d say, “Absolutely not!” The law is designed to lead us to Christ. It provokes us so that we realize what we’re really like, and then it drives us to Christ. It can’t save us, but it drives us to someone who can.
The law wasn’t meant to replace grace; it was meant to lead us to Christ.