The Law in Service of the Promise

ByQuits Sabio

The Law in Service of the Promise

According to Paul, works of the law cannot justify (Galatians 2:16; cf. 3:2, 5), the law brings not a blessing but a curse (Galatians 3:10) from which Christ has released us (Galatians 3:13), and that the inheritance comes by promise and not by the law(Galatians 3:18). So the question in verse 19 was raised because the conclusion so far seems to suggest that the law was without a purpose. At least that’s the objection that Paul expects from his enemies. Why then the law was added if it’s not meant to annul or ammend the Abrahamic covenant?

Verses 19b-22 as a unit serves as the complete answer to this main objection. I say complete because you’ll notice that there’s another question raised in verse 21. Paul asked, “Is the law therefore against the promises of God? ” Now in answering this second question in verses 21-22, Paul completes his answer to the first question about the law’s purpose. So we’ll look at them one at a time.

Why then the law?(vv. 19-20)

The answer Paul gave can be divided into answers addressing six more questions. What was the purpose of the law? Until when was the law enforced? To whom the promise has been made? How the law was added? Through whom and by whose hand the law was administered?

What is the purpose of the law? (vv. 19b)

The law was added because of transgressions. Literally for the sake of or on account of transgressions it was added(τῶν παραβάσεων χάριν προσετέθη). Paul, like in verses 15-18, emphasized the point that the law had a beginning. The law was added. But what does it mean that the law was added for the sake of transgressions ? How was it on account of or because of transgressions?

Theologians debate as to what it means. There are at least four main options that buys for acceptance:

First it can be construed as “because of”. Meaning , because of the need to reveal and define what sin is. Similar to what’s being said in Romans 3:20 and Romans 4:15. According to Thomas Schreiner: “The law provides the standard, the measuring stick, by which sin is identified. The law classifies sin as sin in a technical or legal sense. In other words, sin is identified as “transgression” when a specific law is violated.”

Second almost similar with the first one, but this time it is because of the need to restrain and deal with sin. The law deals with sin through the sacrificial system of the old covenant and restrains it or curb sins through punishments. The law acts as a deterrent.

The law was in service only to the promise. It’s never meant to be enforced forever.

Third, it was added for the sake of showing the sinfulness of sin just like in Romans 7:8-11. The law shows how sin used that which is good to produce all kinds of transgressions.

Fourth, related to the third one but the focus is on the increase of sin. That is, the law was added to cause more sins. Similar to Romans 5:20; “Now the law came in to increase the trespass.”

The problem with the first view is that it is difficult to see how the law defined sin only up until Christ came, according to some scholars. But that problem will immediately dissolve if what we meant by law is just the Mosaic Law. Because it is true that what defines sins as transgression in the Old Covenant is the Mosaic law up until the coming of the seed. But when it came, the seed, who is the Christ, ushered in the New Covenant and with it the Law of Christ which defines for us what sin is in this side of the redemptive history. Now I think this will only make the first view theologically sound but not necessarily demanded by the context.

The second view is more problematic than the first one. Though I would agree that God from time to time used the law to curb sins, nevertheless the Scripture is quite clear that it doesn’t have any inherent power to restrain and ultimately deal with sin. With or without the law, God restrains sin by mere act of sovereignty. Just look at how God sovereignly restrains pagan rulers even without the help of the law in the Old Testament. Also the main problem with this view is the context. If Paul will concede that the law can in fact restrain sin, then his whole argument will fall to the ground. That’s why I agree with what Thomas Schreiner has to say;

“Such an admission by Paul would support the view of the Judaizers who argued that the Galatians must be circumcised and keep the law. Surely the opponents must have argued that the law’s restraining function was desperately needed among the Galatian Christians. Instead, Paul has already argued that the law curses those who are under its rule since no one can obey it (3:10). Indeed, the law is unable to grant life, and all enclosed within its realm are under the power of sin (3:21-22). Furthermore, 4:5 speaks of those who were under law as redeemed or liberated from it, indicating that those who are under law are enslaved to sin. Hence, there is no reason to think that the law is envisioned as restraining sin here.”

The Mosaic law was never meant to be in force forever. It was meant only to point hopeless, broken, and sinful people to the coming of the seed.

Options three and four may in fact go hand in hand but the fourth one perhaps is more preferable within the context. Notice that in verse 22 the scripture shut up or imprisoned everything and everyone under sin. Paul’s argument at least in this context only, seems to hinge on the role of the law in the flourishing of sin and as a result the written law shuts up everyone to be under sin, but not on how sin take advantage of the law and that resulted to the flourishing of sin. So even though theologically correct, option three is not to be preferred. Again Schreiner gave support why the fourth view makes more sense in this context;

“The idea that the law increased the reign of sin in Israel until the coming of the Christ, however, fits with the OT story of Israel’s life under the law. Furthermore, it was noted above that Paul links being “under law” (cf. 3:23) with being under the power of sin, and hence the upsurge of sin under the law is preferable. By showing that the law could not curb sin, God revealed that the only answer to the power of sin is the coming of the Messiah.”

One last thing, the fourth view is the only option that would result to the objection in verse 21. Because it would seem that by adding the law to increase sin, it becomes more evident that everyone is undeserving of God’s blessing.

So to sum it up, the purpose of the adding of the law is for the sake of causing sin to increase.

Among the “seeds” of Abraham, Jesus Christ was the only one who came and died and in dying terminated the reign of the Law. Not Isaac, nor Jacob, not even the whole ethnic Israel, only Christ.

Until when was the law enforced? (vv. 19c)

The law was added or enforced until the coming of the seed. Literally until which the seed would come(ἄχρις οὗ ἔλθῃ τὸ σπέρμα). Or until the time the seed would come. The Mosaic law was never meant to be in force forever. It was meant only to point hopeless, broken, and sinful people to the coming of the seed. This by implication also means that the Abrahamic covenant was a superior covenant than that of the Old Covenant and by extension the Mosaic law. Verse 19b shows that the law was in service only to the promise, while verse 19c shows the law’s inferiority by the length of its tenure. According to Douglas Moo; “If the law has a definite beginning, it also—and this is more directly relevant to the Galatian situation—has a definite end: it was to be in force only “until the seed to whom it was promised came.”

To whom the promise had been made?(vv. 19c, 16)

The promise had been made to the singular offspring of Abraham. It is significant that the seed that renders the law outdated by its coming is the same seed that the promise had been made. What this tells us is that the seed could never be any other than Jesus Christ himself. Among the “seeds” of Abraham, Jesus Christ was the only one who came and died and in dying terminated the reign of the Law. Not Isaac, nor Jacob, not even the whole ethnic Israel, only Christ.

How the Law was added? (vv. 19 d)

It was added through the angels and by the hand of an intermediary. The ultimate agent of the verb διαταγεὶς refers to God, though not stated. This is what some scholars refer to as the “divine passive”. The verb is in the passive voice not because God is passive but rather the subject of the verb, namely the law, was the thing being acted upon. This is actually an argument to further support the superiority of the Abrahamic covenant over the Mosaic Covenant. The argument goes something like this: The law was mediated by angels and by the hand of an intermediary but by contrast the promise was given directly by God to Abraham therefore the promise must be prioritised. With this interpretation in mind, verse 20 makes much more sense. I think Paul is implying the conditional and inferior nature of the law because mediation also implies a contract between God and Israel. Therefore, the promises of the covenant were dependent on both parties fulfilling their responsibilities. The Mosaic covenant failed because Israel did not do what was demanded and broke the stipulations of the covenant. The promise given to Abraham, by contrast, is dependent on God alone.

Is the Law then Against the Promise?(vv. 21-22)

Paul then expects his opponents to raise this issue; “Is the law then against, that is oppose to the promises of God?” and as I mentioned earlier, this objection is to be expected because of the very purpose of the law. But Paul still answered with an empathic no. May it never be!

In my exposition of verses 15-18, I argued that there must be a disjunction between the law and promise in order for the argument from chronology to stand. Because if the law is a mere restatement of the promise then it doesn’t really matter which came first. But here, if we’re not careful, we might find ourselves pitting Paul against himself. So we must understand first what Paul meant by his denial of the incompatibility of the law and promise. That is, Paul affirms that the law does not contradict the promise and that the two are compatible.

To address this seeming contradiction, we must take note of in what sense are they incompatible and in what sense they are compatible.

When I(and I think Paul also) argued that the law and promise are incompatible from verses 9-18, what I meant is that they are of different categories. One is subordinate to the other. So in that sense they are incompatible because they will never cross paths. The promise is operating in a different plane way above the plane of the law. On the other hand, they are compatible and complementary in the sense that the law rightly understood is serving the way of the promise. It’s meant to drive those who are under the law to Christ. Schreiner virtually is saying the same thing; “When Paul says that the law and the promise do not contradict one another, he is not suggesting that they have the same function. The law and the promise fit together in the economy of God’s plan, but they play different roles.”

Now that this seeming contradiction is out of the way, let’s see how Paul argued that the law and promise are in accord.

The very purpose of the abrogation of the law is so that sin might be disarmed and be rendered powerless. So why continue in sin?

Paul gave the grounds for his answer in the last part of verse 21. For if a law had been given that was able to give life, certainly by law then comes the righteousness(εἰ γὰρ ἐδόθη νόμος ὁ δυνάμενος ζῳοποιῆσαι, ὄντως ἐκ νόμου ἂν ἦν ἡ δικαιοσύνη). A second class, contrary-to-fact condition is used here to explain that the law did not and cannot produce life, because if it did then it would have been by the law that one would attain righteousness. But instead verse 22 shows that the law serves a functions quite differently from the promise but its very purpose is the receiving of the promise through faith in Christ Jesus. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, in order that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe(ἀλλὰ συνέκλεισεν ἡ γραφὴ τὰ πάντα ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν, ἵνα ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοθῇ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν). The first clause is the function of the law, and ultimately the last clause is the aim or goal of the law.

Therefore to sum it up, the law is not without a purpose and is not against the promise because it is meant to imprison everyone under sin until the seed to whom the promise was made would come, in order that the promise, by means of faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Are Christians without Law then?

In light of what we’ve seen so far with the temporary nature of the Mosaic Law, are we without any law then? Does Paul promote lawlessness? After all we are now living in this side of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, therefore should we continue in sin that grace may abound?

Like the apostle Paul, I will say by no means! We are no longer under the law of Moses but we’re under the law of Christ(Galatians 6:2, 1 Corinthians 9:21). When we died to the law(Galatians 2:19), we also died to sin, so how can we who died to sin still live in it(Romans 6:2)? You can’t have one and hate the other. The very purpose of the abrogation of the law is so that sin might be disarmed and be rendered powerless. So why continue in sin?

Don’t Repeat the same Error

Just as the law of Moses was meant to be obeyed looking forward with faith to the promise, even more so the law of Christ must be obeyed flowing from faith as you look back to the fulfillment of the promise in Christ death on the cross. In both cases obedience is necessary, and it always flows from faith. For whatever is not from faith is sin(Romans 14:23) whether in the old or the new. So don’t repeat the same error of legalism! But if you do, repent and trust only in the finish work of Christ for your acceptance and righteousness.

Study Guide

Study Questions

  1. What seems to be the conclusion that the Judaizers might have drawn from verses 15-18?
  2. What are the possible interpretations of the phrase for the sake of transgressions or because of transgressions?
  3. What is the most likely interpretation among them and why?
  4. Until when was the law in force?
  5. In what sense does the law compatible with the promise and in what sense they’re incompatible?

Going Deeper

  1. Why is knowing the who’s, when’s,what’s, why’s and the how’s of the Scripture important?
  2. What does the Law of Christ means and how is it the same and different with the law of Moses?

About the author

Quits Sabio administrator

Serving as an Elder and Board Member at SMEC. Founder and President of Reformed Exegetes Society. Quits is currently working as a Senior Lead Game Developer at Funguystudio(A Game Development studio at Makati Philippines). A husband to Malou and a father to Amara.

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