The Role of the Law

The Role of the Law

TEXT: Galatians 3:15-4:7

Amazing grace – that’s been on the Apostle Paul’s mind thus far in Galatians as we’ve looked at it these past few weeks. Paul is very concerned that people not add onto the work of Christ to require “Jesus PLUS something” to be a Christian. He’s introduced the topic, shared several stories where Grace and Works have collided, and he has launched into teaching mode. To this point you might think, “Grace good; Law bad!” After all Paul has just talked about the “curse of the Law” (Gal 3:10). But the Law is not bad. He is talking about the curse of thinking the Law (or good works) can save us. Rather, the Law has another purpose, which is a good one!

If you noticed in our Call to Worship today, the Law is described in multiple positive ways. In today’s text Paul spends some time talking about the good uses of the Law. I want to make sure I don’t send you away with a negative view of God’s laws and commandments, but with a right understanding of their purpose.

NOT SALVATION; WHY THEN? (vv.18-19)

If the Law is not for salvation, what is its purpose? That’s exactly what Paul asks in v.18: “What is the point, then, of the law? … It was a thoughtful addition to the original covenant promises made to Abraham.”

Last week we looked at how Paul emphasized that Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith, his trust in God’s covenant promises. And Abraham came 430 years before Moses received the Law! So Paul is going to explain in some detail what he means by “a thoughtful addition” and he’ll name three different good uses of the Law (that aren’t salvation!).

You may even recognize these from our children’s sermon!

#1 CURB/RESTRAINT (vv.19-20)

The first good use of the Law is spelled out in verses 19-20: “The purpose of the law was to keep a sinful people in the way of salvation until Christ (the descendant) came.” I like that phrase, “the way of salvation.” It wasn’t salvation, but pointed God’s people toward the descendant of Abraham who would inherit the promises and distribute them to us.

On the way to that destination of Christ, the Law CURBS or RESTRAINS evil. Think of the “thou shalt nots”… heeding the commandment not to steal doesn’t save us, but it sure helps keep us out of trouble. The Ten Commandments (and other biblical laws) don’t remove sin or reconcile us to God, but they restrain the consequences of sin and disobedience somewhat… kind of like a seatbelt. God’s law is good protection to help keep us safe, given in love like the household rules of loving parents who want the best for their children.

#2 MIRROR (vv.21-22)

In vv.21-22 Paul goes on to name a second good use of the Law: “Its purpose was to make obvious to everyone that we are, in ourselves, out of right relationship with God.” God’s Laws are helpful to us, but because we keep falling short of keeping them perfectly they also serve as a MIRROR, holding up God’s holiness to us so that we at once see what God intends us to be and how far we fall short of that.

It’s like the seatbelt reminding me both that it is protecting me and that I am a very fragile creature if my car is moving at 60mph. Yet Paul is also careful to note that the keeping the Law does not have the power to create life in us, otherwise “we would certainly have gotten it by this time.” That’s simply not its purpose. But in showing me myself and my human limitations, it does point me towards the one who can and does create life.

#3 TUTOR/GUIDE (vv.23-24)

Finally, in vv. 23-24, Paul offers a third good use of the Law using an analogy which would have been familiar to his audience. He compares it to “those Greek TUTORS who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure they children will really get to the place they set out for.” What a great analogy, and even if we aren’t super-familiar with ancient Greek tutors, Paul spells it out pretty clearly here. Kind of like nanny-bodyguards, these Greek tutors would protect and lead small children until they were old and mature enough to function on their own. Paul says the Law is like this, a GUIDE towards a destination, but not the end in itself. And, of course, that destination is Christ.

And to his Christian audience he writes, “Now you have arrived at your destination: by faith in Christ you are in direct relationship with God.” (vv.25-26) Now we are “clothed in Christ” which is what God intended and promised all along!

IMPLICATIONS FOR YOU? (3:28-4:7)

In the rest of chapter three and the first part of chapter four Paul goes on to describe the implications of all this for us. I want to name three of those as well.

First, he famously says that there are no divisions of Jew/non-Jew, slave/free, or male/female, but that “we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” (v.28)  In keeping with his theme in Galatians, it is not “Jesus+Jewishness” or “Jesus+maleness” but just faith in Jesus. And that levels the playing field within the body of Christ and as Christians behold the world. All people, every race, every tongue, are loved by God and included in the original promise to Abraham to bless all the nations of the world. It profoundly shapes how we interact with the world around us, particularly around themes of religion, race, and gender.

Second, Paul says that we are free! We are not slaves to the Law or still under a child tutor. In Christ we have direct access to the promises of God. We are saved by what God has done, not what we have done. And there is joy and freedom in that! I think of how many Christians have frustrated and burned themselves out trying to be good enough and do good enough when God only asks that we trust Him. What freedom there is in that!

Thirdly, Paul carries that forward. We are no longer slaves (to sin or to the Law), but have been adopted into God’s family as children of God. And that’s not all! We are not just children, but heirs to all that God has promised, “with complete access to the inheritance.” (4:7) Yet how often we live otherwise. We believe God is disappointed in us or won’t welcome us; we keep trying to earn our way into God’s good graces (that’s a contradiction if I ever heard one!). We think ourselves unworthy, which I suppose we are, but that misses the point altogether! God isn’t looking to hire us for a job, but is welcoming us as adopted and beloved children and giving us a full inheritance. I think if we could grasp even a small measure of that truth it would radically change the way we think and live!

So God has promised us life, blessing, and love. He has given us His Law and Word to protect us, show us who we are, and guide us to Christ. And we experience that life, blessing, and love in Christ as community, freedom, and complete belonging. That’s Good News of the highest order! Amen.

Some Music Used

  • Preludes
    • Glory to God Forever
    • Let God Arise
    • My Lighthouse
  • He Saved Us to Show His Glory (Tommy Walker)
  • No Longer Slaves (Bethel)
  • By Our Love

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