The purpose of the Law: Galatians 3
Today’s reading: Galatians 1-3.
Paul asked the Galatians, “What, then, was the purpose of the law?” It’s an important question. Even today, many people believe that the key to salvation is being a good person. Without realizing it, they are subjecting themselves to an unwritten law that somehow describes what it means to be a good person. Going to church, being nice to others, and not doing “bad things” are common examples of what such a good person does. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a good person, but simply being good will not get you to heaven. Even the best swimmer can’t swim all the way from California to Hawaii. Even the best person isn’t good enough to get into heaven on their own merits. They need the righteousness of Jesus to successfully make that trip.
The Galatian Christians believed in Jesus after hearing Paul present the Gospel. They became followers of Christ by faith. Then something happened which jeopardized their faith. Men came and preached a different gospel, one that insisted they must observe the commands of Moses’ Law, including circumcision, in order to be saved. It was no longer, “believe in Jesus and you shall be saved,” but believe plus be circumcised. Today people don’t talk about needing circumcision to find peace with God, but many still overlook what Jesus did and insist they need to do something to be approved by God. Paul wanted to set the Galatians back on the proper road to salvation, the path of faith.
So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. Galatians 3:24-25
Paul began by teaching the Galatians that they were justified by faith, not by keeping the Law. In fact, no one had been justified – declared not guilty of sin – by keeping the law. The law only condemned them. But when they shared in Christ’s death on the cross by faith, their sinful self was put to death and they lived again in Christ. In fact, Christ lived in them, and they were made right with God. If someone insisted Christians must keep the Law of Moses, he was saying that Christ died for nothing.
Paul then raised up the example of Abraham, the man of faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham found peace with God long before the law was given. God made his covenant with Abraham over 400 years before the Israelites received the law. That covenant declared that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham, a blessing that would require faith in Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ, rather than obedience to the law.
So why was the law given? Paul says the law was given because of transgressions. The world was a prisoner to sin. Even before God gave the law, sin had captured the entire world. The law came in to prove that fact; the law came to point all sinners to Jesus, the only one who could deliver them from their sin. Paul says the law was our teacher, educating us about our lost condition and leading us to the solution, Jesus Christ. As the law was our teacher to lead us to Christ, we have now graduated from the school of law. Now we live by faith, the same faith that justified Abraham, and we are all sons of God and heirs of Abraham according to the promise God gave him long before the law.
I find in every circle a class, who say, in plain English, “Well, I am as good a father as is to be found in the parish, I am a good tradesman; I pay twenty shillings in the pound; I am no Sir John Dean Paul; I go to church, or I go to chapel, and that is more than everybody does; I pay my subscriptions—I subscribe to the infirmary; I say my prayers; therefore, I believe I stand as good a chance of heaven as anybody in the world.” I do believe that three out of four of the people of London think something of that sort. Now, if that be the ground of your trust, you have a rotten hope; you have a plank to stand upon that will not bear your weight in the day of God’s account. As the Lord my God liveth, before whom I stand, “Unless your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” And if ye think the best performance of your hands can save you, this know, that “Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness.” Those who sought not after it have attained it. Wherefore? Because the one hath sought it by faith, the other hath sought it by the deeds of the law, where justification never was to be found. – Charles Spurgeon
Image by cybrarian77 on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0