Why then the Law?

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In his letter to the Galatians, Paul had entered into a discussion on the function, and the purpose of the law. Apparently some Jews had been teaching these Galatians that obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation.

For Paul, this was spiritual suicide. He said in Galatians 3 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”, because “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the law” (3:10). In other words, trying to be justified by the law is impossible, because the law demands perfect obedience (abiding by all things). And because all men are enslaved to sin, anyone trying to obey all things written in the law is attempting the impossible. They are committing themselves to a standard that they will never live up to, even fall constantly short of. Paul concludes by saying that “no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).

Of course, a question naturally arises from this whole discussion: why did God give his law? If the law does not and cannot save anyone, then what is its purpose? Why would God give a standard impossible to meet? What was his purpose in giving it?

Paul takes up this question in the next section of Galatians 3. Paul himself asks, “why then the law?” (Gal 3:19). He answers by saying that the law “was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” (Gal 3:19). Now, what does Paul mean by this? And in what way is the giving of the law connected to the coming of Christ (the offspring)?

James Boice answer this question, saying,

On the surface the [verse] is ambiguous. The phrase [“was added because of transgressions”] can mean either that the law was given to restrain transgressions (which is the natural function of law) or that the law was given to make the transgression known, even in one sense to encourage them or to provoke them to a new intensity. In view of Paul’s choice of word “transgressions” rather than “sin” in this context and of his discussion of the purpose of the law elsewhere, the latter is the only real possibility. In Romans, Paul argues that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom 3:20) and that “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). The point is that though sin was in the world before the giving of the law, sin was not always known as such. The law reveals sin as sin. Hence, it may be said that it is the law that turns sin into transgression — transgression of law — and even accentuates it (Rom 5:20). In this act, law performs the function of showing man’s need of a Savior.

In other words, the law makes us aware of our sin. Paul himself says in Romans 7:7, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet'”. The law functioned in making Paul aware of his covetousness. In this way, the purpose of the law is to make us aware of our own transgressing of God’s commands. And in making us aware of our transgressions, it makes us aware of our need for a Savior.

Phillip Ryken adds,

When [Galatians 3] says that the law was “added”, it literally says that the law came in by a side road. The law feeds into the promise [of the gospel]; it is the on-ramp to the gospel highway. [The reason for this is because] the more we know the law, the more we see our sin, and the more we see this, the more we confess that we need a Savior. “The law was given”, wrote Calvin, “in order to make transgressions obvious, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt”. And it is only when we see our guilt that we see how much we need Jesus. The law is the law so that Christ can become our Savior.

In this way, the law came alongside the promise of Christ. The law was never opposed to the promise of the gospel. Rather, the burden of the law serves to make sinners more and more aware of the exceeding sinfulness of their sin! And then, it leads sinners straight to the gospel, in which the whole curse of the law is lifted and placed on Christ.

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The Curse of the Law

tim keller

In Galatians 3:10, Paul tries to explain to the Galatian church the long-lasting of effects of trying to live “under the law”. What is the outcome of trying to earn God’s love, as opposed to having it given to you in Christ? Paul says, “for all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”. Now, what does Paul mean by this?

Tim Keller, in his Galatians commentary “Galatians for You”, explains:

The result of living by the law is that we are “under a curse” (v. 10). This “curse” has two aspects. Theologically, anyone who says: I can be saved by obeying the law must then be prepared to really look at what the law commands. To love God wholly, we would have to obey the law wholly. To be blessed by God instead of cursed by Him, we would have to look at the law and satisfy its every demand. And that cannot be done. Objectively, attempting salvation-by-law-observance means we are cursed.

This means that, psychologically, everyone who is seeking to save themselves by their performance will experience a curse subjectively. At the very least, attempting to be saved by works will lead to profound anxiety and insecurity, because you can never be sure that you are living up to your standards sufficiently, whatever they may be. This makes you over-sensitive to criticism, envious and intimidated by others who outshine you. It makes you nervous and timid (because you are unsure of where you stand) or else swaggering and boastful (because you are trying to convince yourself of where you stand). Either way, you live with a sense of curse and condemnation.

Why the Gospel is Offensive

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I’ve been studying Paul’s epistle to the Galatians lately. Paul wrote this book to combat a false gospel which had broken out in the church. It was a gospel which preached salvation by works of the law as opposed to Christ alone. It was a gospel which demanded obedience to God in order to be saved. Paul wrote to correct this mindset, and free them (Gal 5:1) from the bondage of legalism. He wanted to them to get the full-orbed theology that is salvation by grace alone. Paul preached a gospel which said that salvation is free because Christ “gave himself for our sins”, and substituted himself for us (Gal 1:3-5). It was a gospel which said that Christ has done all the work, and therefore, we don’t have to do any work. Christ wins our salvation for us.

However, Paul came up with some issues when combating this false gospel. Paul’s reputation was coming under fire by people who were trying to discredit him. Some of Paul’s opponents had accused him of preaching free salvation in order to win “the approval of man” (Gal 1:10), not to serve God. In other words, they accused Paul of watering down his message in order to gain a following. They supposed that Paul made entrance into salvation easy in order to appease his crowds. He wanted them to like him, and so he made the gospel easy to obey.

However, when you think about it a bit more, the biblical gospel of grace, of free salvation, is not all that easy. Yes it is a gospel of grace. Yes, it is a salvation won by the merit of someone else. But it is also a gospel which presupposes man’s utter depravity in sin. It is a gospel which, while preaching freedom, also preaches man’s total bondage to sin (Rom 8:6). It is a gospel which despairs of all of man’s goodness. In this way, then, Paul’s gospel is not easy. It is not a crowd pleaser. And actually, Paul points that out. He asks in Galatians 5:11, if my gospel is such a crowd pleaser, “why am I still being persecuted?”. And in fact, Paul was persecuted severely for the gospel he preached.

Now why is that so? Well, I think it’s clear. It’s easy to be saved. But it is equally hard to admit your need for salvation. As Paul says, before we can be saved, we must be “found to be sinners” that need grace (Gal 2:17)! And it is hard to admit your need for grace.

As Martin Luther said, commenting on this truth:

[Paul] is saying in effect, … By my preaching I do not seek human praise or favor but rather desire to set out the benefit and glory of God…[For] we condemn human free will, strength, wisdom, and righteousness and all religion of human devising. In short, we say that nothing in us can deserve grace and the forgiveness of sins. We preach that we obtain grace only by God’s free mercy, for Christ’s sake… This is not preaching to gain human and worldly favor, for the world can abide nothing less than to hear its wisdom, righteousness, religion, and power condemned; to speak against those mighty and glorious gifts of the world is not to flatter the world but rather to provoke its hatred and indignation. If we speak against men or against anything linked to their glory, we must expect cruel hatred, persecution, excommunication, murder, and condemnation…

I show that people are sinners, unrighteous, wicked, objects or wrath, slaves of the devil, and damned, and that they are not made righteous by what they do or by circumcision, but only by the grace of Christ. Therefore I provoke people’s deadly hate, for… they would rather be praised as wise, righteous, and holy. So this is proof enough that I do not teach human doctrine

The gospel is truly offensive. But it is all the same free! What a paradox!

A Different Gospel? How False Teachers Mislead the Church

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Is there another gospel besides the gospel of Christ? Of course, the answer to this is a resounding “no”. But it is interesting that in Galatians Paul calls the false message given to the Galatian church “a different gospel”. He exclaims to them, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).

It should be apparent that Paul is using hyperbole. And he is using this language to highlight the absurdity of the Galatians’ actions in turning to a false message. James Boice comments on Galatians 1:6-7, saying that Paul’s statement in verse 6 “might suggest that there are after all various gospels among which a Christian may choose. This is the opposite of what Paul is saying”. Paul’s statement here was one of sarcasm and hyperbole. And in fact Paul says in verse 7, “not that there is another [gospel], but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of grace”. Boice says that Paul wants to clarify that “there cannot be another gospel as long as the gospel is understood to be God’s way of salvation in Christ”.

But why does Paul use this hyperbole, calling the false teachers’ message a “different gospel”? Why wouldn’t Paul simply tell us from the outset that their message is dangerous heresy? I think that Paul wants to make a point by calling this false teaching a “gospel”. First off, when you read through the book of Galatians, the false teachers were not opposing the Christian God. In fact, they were claiming to have more apostolic authority than even the apostle Paul! This is why Paul spent the first 2 chapters of Galatians defending his ministry. Second, they weren’t even denying the work of Christ. In fact, they were claiming that their doctrine was in more alignment with Christ than Paul’s! Lastly, they were claiming that their teaching was the teaching of true Christianity.

In this way, these false apostles were truly clothing themselves in a false version of the true gospel. Spurgeon once said that the difference between the true gospel and false teaching is not the difference between black and white. It’s more subtle than that! The difference between true and false teaching is the difference between white and off-white. For this reason, these apostles peddled a gospel so similar to the true gospel, that the Galatians were misled, and had nearly thrown off Christ altogether (Gal 5:2). In fact, these teachers were affirming Christ’s work; but, they were also adding to his work. “Yes Christ, but also Judaism was their gospel. They claimed that if one were to be truly justified before God, they must have Jesus as Messiah and adherence to the Mosaic Law. Interesting that these false teachers never once opposed Jesus (outwardly at least), but slyly added a work on top of it.

For this reason, their message looked so much like another gospel, when if fact it was blatant heresy. But this is how false teachers work — they clothe themselves in just enough truth and mix it with lies.

John Stott wisely says, “the church’s greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel…Conversely, the only way to be a good churchman is to be a good gospel-man”.

Martin Luther, in his great commentary on Galatians adds, “here we see the devil’s tricks. No heretic comes to us claiming errors and the title of the devil; nor does the devil himself come as a devil in his own likeness…In spiritual matters when Satan appears white, like an angel of God himself, he disguises himself in a most deadly way and offers for sale his most deadly poison instead of the doctrine of grace”.

Let us then be good Gospel-men, who can tell even the difference between white and off-white. Because this is the only way we can recognize the true gospel from a false one.