October 1, 2017

The Law & The Promise

Galatians 3:15-22

In our study last week we heard Paul’s concern for the Galatians.  They clearly didn’t know what they were to do with the law.  Apparently false teachers were insisting that even though they had been declared righteous (justified) because of their faith in Christ, they were still dependent on the law to add on to that righteousness.  Paul was at pains to show them that righteousness, from beginning to end, comes through faith in the gospel.  He was emphatic that the law has no use in making anyone righteous.  This week Paul turns from showing what the law does not do to making a case for what the law does do.

#1 The law does not replace the promise.  

15To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16Now 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. 17This 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. 18For 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

Remember that Paul previously showed that even Abraham in the Old Testament was saved by faith in the promise of God.  Abraham, who was the “father” of the Jews was not saved by the law or sacrifices, but by faith!  Paul’s detractors would have responded to this argument saying something like this: Yes Paul, we agree that Abraham was saved by faith. Afterall, he lived before the law was given.  And now that the law has been given, clearly we are to be saved not just by faith but also by the law.

Paul  responds to this objection with a two-fold response:

(1) If even a man-made covenant is not just altered once it is ratified, how much more so is it true that a God-made covenant will not be changed?    We understand this.  Someone makes a will and designates where their worldly possessions will go when they die.  Perhaps they decide to leave all their money to a certain charity rather than their children.  Once the person dies, can the children do anything about it?  They cannot.  Paul says if human covenants don’t change certainly God’s covenant doesn’t change either.

(2) Paul says, furthermore, the promise wasn’t just made with Abraham but Abraham and his offspring.  And that “offspring” is actually Christ.  This important for many reasons, and for Paul’s purposes here, it shows that even though the law came after Abraham, it came before Christ.  So certainly no one can say that law replaces the promise even if the law was put in place after Abraham since the promise was also made to Christ who comes after the law.   [Did you catch that?!]

#2 The law reveals sin in us.

“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions”  Galatians 3:19

Paul’s opponents would have been asking at this point If the law isn’t good to make us righteous, what then is it’s purpose?  Here we have a positive declaration of what the law does.

If we were to piece together all that the Bible says about the purpose of the law, most Reformed theologians would agree that the law has three basic purposes:

  1. The law is a rule of life to show us how to order our lives in such a way to please God.
  2. The law restrains sin and evil in the world.
  3. The law reveals our sin to us.

It is this final purpose of the law that Paul has in view here.  The law was added because of transgressions, that is to show us our transgressions.  The law serves in this way as mirror.  If we ever come to believe that we are basically good, we hold up God’s law and discover the hidden darkness of our own hearts.

For the Judaizers (the false teachers) this would have been very shocking to hear.  What was their view of the law?  They believed the law not to be a mirror but a ladder.  A ladder they could climb right to heaven.  A ladder they could climb one rung at a time as if it were checklist.  Do not murder. Check.  Do not commit adultery. Check.  Do not lie.  Check.  The problem is if we use the law as a ladder, we will never see our sin for what it is.

However, the person who understands the law as mirror will have a very different response when they hear the law.  Do not murder.  “Well I haven’t taken anyone’s physical life, but have I done everything to honor and uphold life?  Have I become angry or hated anyone?”  Do you see the difference? We can hear the same commandment but our view of the law will determine what we do with it.  The law will be for us a means of justification or condemnation.

Further, Paul says not only is the law a mirror to show us our sin it is also a prison.

“But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin” Galatians 3:21

If the law was only  a mirror, we would see our sin and perhaps be tempted to conclude that we must try harder.  We must exert greater effort.  But Paul says the law is like a prison so as to leave us without any hope in ourselves.  To help us become convinced that there is nothing good in us and that no manner of human effort will save us.  This leads us to a related use of the law.

#3 The law leads us to Christ.

19Why 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. 20Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21Is 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.22But 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 purpose of the law is not to give us righteousness but convince us of our need for righteousness.  The law does not bestow salvation but rather leads to our Savior.   Paul says here that the law was put in place “until the offspring [Christ] should come.”  Why until Christ comes?  Because he is the one we need.  The law leaves us without hope in ourselves and leads us to him.  The old hymn “Rock of Ages” captures this well:

Not the labors of my hands, can fulfill thy law’s commands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.


We must let the law do its work!

“The law exposed sin, provoked sin, condemned sin. The purpose of the law was, as it were, to lift the lid off man’s respectability and disclose what he is really like underneath—sinful, rebellious, guilty, under the judgment of God, and helpless to save himself. And the law must be allowed to do its God-given duty today. One of the great faults of the contemporary church is the tendency to soft-pedal sin and judgment…We must never bypass the law and come straight to the gospel. To do so is to contradict the plan of God in biblical history…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.”    John Stott, Message of Galatians, p.92-93

We must allow the law to do its work in our evangelism.  The law is our God-given tool to lead others to Christ.  This means when we are sharing the gospel with others we must first show them their need for the gospel before we share the gospel.  Otherwise we end up throwing a life ring to someone who does not believe themselves to be in any danger.

We must allow the law to do its work in our own hearts.   Our natural tendency is to hide our sin.  In our flesh, we want to use the law as a ladder rather than a mirror.  But we must allow the law to condemn us.  And standing condemned, we run not to our own efforts or the opinions others, but rather we run to our Savior.  We say to the law  I have righteousness that you cannot give and it comes straight from heaven through faith in Jesus Christ.  

Discussion Questions

Thank you Pastor Dave for writing discussion questions this week!

Read Galatians 3:15. Has anyone in the group made out a will? What is the process? How are wills ratified or legally established today? After a person dies, can family members annul a will, set it aside, or amend it?

Read verse 16 and compare it to Genesis 12:7. What inheritance is promised to Abraham and his offspring? The Hebrew word for offspring is ambiguous by itself: it may be singular, referring to a specific child or a singular collective indicating a plural offspring. However, the Greek translation (the Septuigant) is singular. Paul says that the Septuigant translation is correct and interprets the “offspring” in Gen. 12:7 as a prophecy referring to Christ. Why is important to you and me that the promise to Abraham applies to the Messiah? See verses 22 and 29.

Read verses 17-18. Remember from last week that God’s promise to Abraham preceded the covenant sign of circumcision, as well as the giving of the 10 commandments on Mount Sinai after the Israelites left Egypt. Could the law take away the promise given previously to Abraham and the Messiah? Why not?

Read verse 19. Why then was the law given? If you have different translations, compare them. How does the law serve to reveal our sin? Read Pastor Billy’s blog comparing the law to a mirror verses a ladder. What is the problem with viewing the law as a ladder?

Read verse 20. The mediator of the Sinai covenant was Moses. Who is the mediator of the new covenant? See Hebrews 9:15.

Read verses 21-22. How does sin imprison us? How can we inherit the promise of God? Read the quote from John Stott on Pastor Billy’s blog. Why is it important to share with others my and their need for the gospel before we share the gospel itself?



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