The Purpose of the Law

Galatians 3:19-4:7


Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is marred by two profound flaws. For one thing, it burdens us with the most irrelevant and boring of topics – theology. In addition, its tone is terribly unpleasant. Paul denounces his victims with intemperate language and demands that everyone adopt his opinions. Surely there are less civilized societies that go for rude arguments, and even in our enlightened land there are those who waste their time in speculation, but for the most part modern America has moved past these immature occupations and entered a period of blessed open-mindedness and courtesy. But since we are so open-minded and tolerant, once again we will give our attention briefly to Paul’s letter and see what we can learn from it.

It does make you wonder, though, what would cause a fine, well-educated Christian man like Paul to get so worked up. In chapter one he savagely attacked anyone who taught something different than he, and supported this outrage with the claim that his message came directly from God. He followed this in chapter two with a painful recounting of his upbraiding of Peter. He called Peter blameworthy, fearful, and hypocritical for following Jewish custom. When he finally addressed his audience in chapter three, Paul accused the Galatians of being foolish and bewitched – a pretty poor way to warm up the crowd! And Paul concluded his letter with a racy reference to the flesh, only rendered inoffensive by a genteel translation.

When we read the book through, it becomes clear that the problem vexing Paul is the arrival in Galatia of other teachers. These men were Jews who were insisting that the Galatian believers be circumcised. Now it might seem petty and insecure of Paul to object so furiously to other teachers. After all, there were thousands of philosophers and rabbis in the Roman Empire at that time, as well as many prophets, teachers, and evangelists of the true God. Paul would have been foolish to think that he could keep the Galatians from listening to other teachers. And in fact Paul was not so provincial. We see in 1Corinthians that Paul had no objection to the ministry of Peter, Apollos and others. There he criticized the Corinthians for taking sides, even when they sided with him. No, the issue was not a provincial attitude or petty spirit. The issue was the message being preached in Galatia and the fate of those who believed it.

When we get to chapter four we see the root of Paul’s concern. In verse 11 he said, “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.” The real question in Paul’s mind was the salvation of the Galatians. He was concerned that they may abandon the faith and thereby perish. This is not merely a matter of correct doctrine, important though that is – it concerns the very lives of these people Paul loved so much. The Galatians are in danger of being deceived by right-sounding teaching which in fact would condemn them to hell. This is why Paul was so over-wrought and determined to stamp out this threat by any possible means. And this is why Paul began the letter with a curse on anyone who would preach a different gospel. Such a person would be preaching his audience straight to hell – and Paul’s love for his converts in Galatia stirred him to great anger at the thought.

Jews for the Law

As we said, Paul’s principal antagonists in Galatia were other Jews with a different message. The Jews hated, or at least scorned the gentiles, and the idea that unwashed pagans could be accepted by God was loathsome to them. The Jews would consider gentiles worthy of true worship only if they were circumcised and took on all the practices of the Jewish religion. Even then they were not genuinely loved. But what Paul was doing was scandalous. He was preaching that through Christ, pagan gentiles could become accepted by God merely by believing in Christ. He said nothing about circumcision and keeping the Law. He allowed them to continue their filthy gentile habits. Something had to be done. Now the Jews who came to Galatia to set things right were very crafty. They did not openly attack Paul’s gospel, nor reveal their hatred of gentile culture. Their basic message was, “You have believed in Christ. Very well. But you cannot be fully saved unless you keep the Law also.”

Now this is a very subtle argument and, judging by Paul’s reaction, apparently it worked quite well. For the Law is wonderful. Who among those who love God and sincerely desire to please Him would say the Law is a bad thing? The scripture itself proclaims the glories of God’s Law. Psalm 19 states,

The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether.
They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.
(Psalm 19:7-10)

The Law is God’s Law, and to speak against it is to speak against God Himself. In this regard the wicked Jews and the ignorant Galatians were closer to the truth than many evangelical Christians these days who ignore or virtually despise God’s Law. The Galatians were persuaded that God’s Law was beautiful and righteous – and it almost killed them.

Furthermore, the Law is appealing because it solves so many problems and promises so many blessings. Psalm 19 continues, “Moreover, by them Thy servant is warned; In keeping them there is great reward.” Psalm 119 is a vast catalog of blessings and promises to those who keep God’s Law. Let’s just hear the first three verses.

How blessed are those whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the LORD.
How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,
Who seek Him with all their heart.
They also do no unrighteousness;
They walk in His ways.

Do you want to be blessed by God? Do you want to do what He wants? Then keep His Law. It’s simple and effective. I suppose everyone here has at one time wondered what God wanted you to do. Should you marry, or not? Should you take job A or job B? Where should you send your children to school, or should you teach them at home? How much should you give to the church and to other Christian ministries? These are serious questions that require right answers. The person who wants to please God needs some guidance. He needs a way to know what is right and how to please God. In such circumstances have you ever prayed for God to give you clear guidance? Perhaps you even asked for a sign of some sort, or proposed a test for God, like Gideon. If so, you know how desperate you can be for an answer, and you understand the irresistible attraction of a law to guide you. You are like the Galatians, a potential target, an easy prey for those who would lead you astray by a false gospel.

Finally, the Law captures our attention because of its warnings. If we will not be wooed by its beauty and promises, we should be frightened by its threats. Again we will merely sample the scriptural warnings by reading from Deuteronomy chapter 28.

But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the offspring of your body and the produce of your ground, the increase of your herd and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. (Deuteronomy 28:15-19)

And this chapter goes on like this for 49 more verses! God hammers home the message that He personally will persecute and torment His people if they insist on neglecting His Law. Either way you look at it, you would be an idiot to ignore the Law. Yet Paul vigorously attacked those who taught obedience to the Law. Whatever is going on here?

Paul for Faith

One thing Paul is not doing is attacking the Law. In the letter to the Romans he said unambiguously that the Law is good. “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Rom. 7:12) The problem is not in the Law, but in us. The Law is wonderful, but we are sinful. Our problem is not primarily in knowing what to do, but in desiring to do the wrong thing. Until we are renewed in Christ we hate the Law and love to rebel against God. Our chief end and purest delight is to glorify ourselves and despise God forever. So the Law is hopelessly unable to save us – and this is the root of the problem. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy to seek salvation in the Law, or in some other system of human merit, when in reality we are completely unable to do anything to save ourselves.

This is the main point Paul hammers home in Galatians. Salvation is only in Christ, and we receive salvation only by faith. Nothing we can do can save us. As Paul says in Ephesians, we are by nature sinful and under God’s anger. Only when Christ comes to us and gives us ears to hear the gospel can we see our sin and turn to Him for salvation. The essence of faith is helplessly waiting for Christ to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. And praise be to God, He did it, 2,000 years ago on the cross! Christ paid the debt for your sins so that you may go free! And now, He sends His Spirit to you, to apply that salvation to your life today. So you see, the Law has no part in your being reconciled to God. Since faith in Christ is the only way to escape God’s anger, you will perish if you try to please God by keeping the Law.

OK. So the Law cannot save us. Only faith in Christ can save us. So what role does the Law play? God must have given it so we can know how to live after we have been saved. That must be it. Our sins are forgiven by faith in Christ, but we live righteous lives by keeping the Law. It makes perfect sense. But it is wrong. Paul attacks this view at the beginning of chapter three, where he says, “did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:2-3)

Paul’s point here is that salvation is always by faith, all the way through. Just as you begin by trusting in Christ, you must continue by trusting in Christ. Just as you did not have the power to forgive your own sins, neither do you have the power to overcome sin on your own. You cannot live by trying to keep the Law, because you will fail. This was Paul’s knockout punch to Peter in chapter two Neither they nor their fathers had been able to keep the Law, so they should not require the gentiles to keep it either. The Law is not only useless to deal with our sins in the past, it also is powerless to help us avoid sin in the present.

Well, if the Law can neither justify nor sanctify, how in the world can anyone say it is good, etc.? If this is the case, it seems like the Law is useless altogether! This is the question Paul addresses in today’s lesson – the true purpose of the Law. Salvation always was by grace – from Adam to Abraham, Moses, David, and the present. But the Law has a very important and specific role to play. It is in a sense an auxiliary role, but important nonetheless.

Two Keys

The first key to understanding the purpose of the Law is to keep in mind that our salvation did not happen all at once. Christ did not suddenly show up 2,000 years ago and die for us. God was at work for 4,000 years before Christ came, preparing for His arrival. The second key is to remember that salvation always involves a whole nation of people. Jesus did not die primarily for you – He died for His church. You benefit from His death because He has brought you into His church, the saved community. It is because you are part of Christ’s Kingdom that we can say He died for you. Anyone who ever was saved was incorporated into the body of God’s people, but that body changed over time. What did not change was the method of entering that body, and that method is faith. In Abraham’s day God’s people consisted of Abraham’s household and others who worshiped Abraham’s God. Later, Israel was God’s people, and those who worshiped God either joined Israel or worshiped Israel’s God. Now God’s nation is the church, and those who serve God are members of the church. In all cases believers entered by faith, but the nature of the body was different.

Paul explains why this was so. Just as a person is born a child and grows to maturity, so the church was born immature and went through a process of growing up. And just as a child needs firm rules so he knows how to behave, so the church needed firm rules at first. You cannot expect a four-year-old to eat properly, keep his room neat, or drive a car safely. If he were left on his own he would live like a little savage, or die in an accident. Over many years his parents teach him how to live in a safe and decent manner. It is a process that cannot be rushed. But if we are patient and teach him the rules, he will eventually become a fine, productive member of society. So it is with people in groups and so it is with the church. There is no way the church could have understood fully how to serve God, nor did they have the experience and skill to live righteously when they left Egypt. This would have been the case even were it not for their sin. So God provided a Law for them. The baby church needed firm rules to protect her from foolish and destructive behavior, and to enable her to gain the wisdom that comes only by experience. God’s people were saved by faith, but the Law was given to protect, guide, and instruct them – just as a teacher does for a child.

But now if you are attentive you may be about to object that this passage seems to speak of faith as something that was previously absent. Verse 23 begins, “But before faith came..” and verse 25 says, “But after faith has come…” Was salvation in fact achieved without faith in earlier times? In Romans chapter four Paul extensively demonstrates that Abraham was saved by faith, not by works of the Law; and in chapter three of this book, he said, “Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” No, the one thing we are sure of is that faith has always been the means of salvation.

The clue to these verses about faith “coming” is the immediately preceding verse which also speaks of something to come. Verse 19 indicates it is the Seed, Christ, who was awaited all those long years while the Law was in effect. When Paul speaks of faith coming, as though it were previously absent, he is engaging in hyperbole – exaggeration to make his point. You see, as Paul says in verse 24, the main purpose of the Law was to bring us to Christ. Christ is evident all through the pages of the Law, but dimly. He is suggested and hinted, but not clearly revealed. And how much faith can you have in something that is only hinted? Before Christ came God’s people knew enough to have faith in God to save them. They believed that God would send a Messiah. But since Christ has come, we are able to exercise a more precise faith, a more robust faith. We no longer trust in a promise, but in a historical reality.

So to be more precise, we could say that now our faith has a firmer foundation because the Messiah has come. We live in the age of faith in the sense that the object of our faith, Christ, is clearly visible. The Old covenant saints lived in the age of the Law in the sense that what was most clearly visible was the Law. The Law pointed to Christ, but it was more visible than He. So salvation has always been by faith, but God gave His people the Law when they were children to guide them and protect them. But now that Christ has come, the church is no longer a child. She is now an adult. And as an adult, she no longer is ruled by a teacher.

You see, the illustration here is taken from a common setting in a wealthy household or palace. The son is the heir of the estate or the kingdom, but is unable to govern adequately, or even to make good personal decisions. So the father gives him a tutor to look after him. The tutor is a full-time employee, like a governess, who not only teaches the boy the laws and literature of the culture, but also teaches him how to conduct himself as a respectable citizen. In this role, the tutor has total authority over the son. The son cannot decide to go here or there – the tutor decides for him. So Paul rightly observes that the son is no better off than a slave. But remember, this arrangement is not supposed to last forever. During childhood it is good and necessary. But during adulthood it would be evil and wrong. The purpose of the tutor is to train the child so that he grows up to become a responsible adult. At that point, the tutor is supposed to step aside and let the young man run his own life.

Let’s go over this again. The Law was good because it protected and guided the church as a governess in her childhood. But when the church became an adult, the Law’s role as governess had expired. It would have been wrong for the Law to maintain its control over the church, just as it would be wrong for a governess to continue ordering around an adult man. The coming of Christ signaled our gaining the full rights of sons. This should be an occasion of celebration, not an immature looking to a governess for our instructions!

How Shall we Then Live?

If the Law no longer rules us, then how shall we live? Are we to do as we please? Sadly, this is the attitude that many people take. They are like a teenager who grudgingly accepts his parents’ guidance when at home, but then lives a life of abandon when he goes to college. Such a person shows that he is unfit to be an adult and unworthy of his parents. He forgets that although he is free to make his own choices, he never ceases to be his father’s son. The purpose of his parents’ guidance was not only to control his behavior so he did not hurt himself, but to train him so that he would learn to live by their values. The young man or woman who forgets this proves himself or herself unfit to assume adult responsibilities.

This same principle applies to the church. We are no longer ruled by the Law. We are free to worship when and where we wish. Decisions about how to dress, use our land, arrange marriages, contract employment, etc. are ours to make. But here is the million-dollar question. Are we mature enough to use this freedom properly? Have we been trained by the Law to make sound judgments? Are we true sons of our Father who gave the Law? Do our lives reflect His character? Or do we have rebellious spirits that are more like Satan’s than God’s?

Most people read this passage and see in it something about how they are saved and how they should live. But that is not the focus of this chapter. This letter was not written to us. It was written to the church newly free from the oversight of the Law. It is not primarily about your growth and maturity as a believer, but about the growth and maturity of the church through the ages. Paul’s point here is that the Law was necessary and good until Christ, but that after Christ its rule had expired. And Paul and the Galatians were living in the midst of that transition. This letter does indeed minister to us today, in that it clears up the obvious question about the relationship of the Law to us, and how the role of the Law came to change in history. Therefore, the primary application for us is to the church as a whole body. The question to the church is this: are you living by faith or by Law? And are you living as true sons of your Father?

As we said earlier, there are powerful pressures to live by law, either God’s law or one of our own making. There is security in knowing what the rules are, and in enforcing the rules to prevent social disturbances. Over the years the church frequently has fallen into the trap of legalism. We can think, for example, of the Medieval period, when the church strictly regulated public worship, private devotions, business, and even the civil government – and this impulse is still strong in Roman Christianity to this day. In the century just past, protestant fundamentalists sometimes tended to live more by law than by faith, with rules against drinking, card playing, smoking, and dancing – and for Wednesday night prayer meeting attendance, etc. There were very sound reasons for these rules, but it was a fallacious approach to the Christian life because salvation can be achieved only by faith. I still think certain of these habits are harmful, and there are other important issues that require a moral response. Issues such as educating our children, use of the internet, attendance at disgusting movies – all these tempt us to declare that certain behavior is incompatible with Christianity. We feel more secure if we know there is a rule against R-rated movies. It is easy for us to know what to do and how to teach our children. It is comforting to know that God loves us because we have kept the rules.

But do you see the perniciousness of this approach? God does not accept you because of which movies you do not see. God accepts you because of Christ! If you believe in Christ you have all the acceptance there is to get – regardless of which movies you see. It is lazy and immature for the church to revert to living by the Law. It is childish, and she is supposed to be a grown son by now. Which lead us to the second application question.

The Focal Question

The focal question for the church is this: are we living as a true son of the Father? Has the church learned from her experience with the Law? Has she absorbed the values of her Father? Although free from control of the Law, does she live in accord with the desires of her Father? Well, how shall we know? How can we know what the Father wants? By reading His word, of course – including the Law! But we don’t study the Law in order to enforce it. We study it in order to understand our Father so that we may then please Him. Obviously, this will frequently involve direct obedience to the Law. Sometimes it will require mature thought as we react to circumstances not mentioned in the Law. But in all cases our reading of the Law is not to seek salvation, but to understand better how to please the God who saved us.

It is this attitude which pervaded the thinking of the Puritans and is inscribed in our Westminster Confession. It states that, “Although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly…” (WCF 19:6) So although obedience to the Law for salvation is doomed to fail, neglect of the Law shows scandalous disregard for the God who saved us.

In our zeal to avoid legalism we must take care not to fall into the opposite sin – licentiousness. That is a big word which means doing whatever you please. We are sons of God by faith in Christ, but what kind of sons are we? Some churches are so enamored of their freedom that they wantonly disregard much of what God has to say about how to live. They worship in any manner that pleases them, dress like the world, and amuse themselves without thought for using their time to serve God. These churches show by their immature behavior that their love for God is shallow.

Which are we? Are we a church which tends to lose the gospel in rules we impose on our members – maybe unwritten, unspoken rules? Are we a church characterized by unrighteousness that comes from an “I’ll do it my way” attitude? Or are we a mature church, striving to be a good and faithful son of our Father?

Although the primary thrust of this passage is directed toward the church as a whole, the principles here are applicable also to individuals, since we are members of the church. Are you seeking to be saved by following the rules? Do you think you can do as you please? Or are you striving to be a good and faithful son or daughter of your heavenly Father? You might think it is a lot easier to get through life by following a set of rules, but you cannot be saved that way. You might think it is a lot more fun to do as you please, but you cannot be a faithful son that way. In either case, God will pursue you and correct you if you are truly His. The only right, wise, and mature path is to rest in Christ for your salvation and study God’s Law to learn how to love Him better. May God help us so to do.


Heavenly Father, we are no better than our fathers. We futilely seek your love by attempting to obey laws – your or ours – and condemn those who do not measure up to our standard. We presume upon your goodness by wantonly doing as we please and mocking those who are truly pious. We swing from one sin to another, all the while neglecting to trust in Christ hour by hour. When we should be your grown son, we act like a spoiled child. Forgive us, Father. Help us to remember and believe that we are your sons and daughters. Give us the desire to live as such. Give us such a love for you that we eagerly seek to do what pleases you – not by law, but in love. In the name of Christ your Son, our Savior, Amen.

C. David Green
Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church
June 20, 2004