The Law and the Gospel
Scripture: Galatians 3:15-25
Most non-Christians assume that Christianity is like every other religion. Keep the rules. Get the blessing. Keep the rules. Get the blessing. It’s the way humans are wired. And that’s why every religion focuses on behavior.
Pray this prayer. Assume this posture. Light this candle. We believe that our behavior has spiritual consequences.
We all believe it because it is true. Our behavior does have spiritual consequences.
Psalm 119 verse 1 says: “Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!” Good behavior does lead to blessing.
But this is where the similarity between Christianity takes a different path from other religions. The Bible is also clear from beginning to end that getting the blessing of that verse is not as simple as other religions make it sound.
In Joshua 24, after the nation of Israel had taken possession of the promised land, the people renewed their vows to follow and obey God. But listen to what Joshua said to them:
You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.
You are not able. That is what separates the Christian faith. These two ideas were held in tension until the cross of Jesus. Serve the Lord. You’re not able. Keep the law. You’re not able.
We’re in the middle of Galatians 3 this morning. The Apostle Paul continues his argument that the Jews have misunderstood the purpose of the law and it is now hurting their understanding of the Gospel.
15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.
We don’t add things to a contract after it has been signed. God doesn’t do that either. The original terms of the arrangement have not changed. God has not changed the way he deals with his people.
This is why I’m not a dispensationalist. The Bible is not the story of God changing plans repeatedly. It is the story of one plan slowly being revealed.
16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
Paul draws a line from Abraham to Jesus and rightfully so. We’ve talked about the covenant with Abraham before. Remember the cutting of the animals and the path of blood? That’s how people made official promises to each other. They walked the path together as a statement – if I break this promise, you can do this to me!
But God put Abraham to sleep and walked the path alone. What did that communicate? It was God’s way of saying, “I will keep my side of this covenant and when you break your side, I will die.” That’s what Jesus did! Paul sees that connection between Abraham and Jesus. The work of Jesus was the object of even Abraham’s faith.
17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.
Moses came along hundreds of years after Abraham. God made a covenant with Moses, but it wasn’t a completely new thing.
18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
The plan did not change. The promise did not change. God did not move the goalposts. God simply provided some new information. Why? What was the purpose of the law?
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.
God gave us the law to reveal sin – to help us better understand our need for Jesus, whom Paul calls “the offspring”.
This argument is meant to show that God’s covenant with Abraham was primary and His covenant with the people through Moses was secondary. This is why Paul says it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. That would be Moses.
God spoke directly to Abraham, but He spoke to the Israelites through Moses.
20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
In a typical negotiation, there are two parties, and a mediator would represent both parties. But God’s covenants work differently because they are unconditional and unilateral.
In all of this together, Paul is defending the idea that God’s covenant with Abraham was more significant, and that God has not changed the plan.
But now, Paul anticipates an objection. The Jews would probably ask if the Mosaic covenant contradicted the covenant with Abraham.
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
In other words, Paul says that how you answer that question depends on the purpose of the law. If God provided the law as a way to be saved, then it definitely contradicted his covenant with Abraham! But that was never the law’s purpose.
22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
He calls the law “Scripture” to reinforce his belief that God provided the law and that the law is good. But why did God give us a law? Because the law imprisoned everything under sin. What does that mean?
Let me try to illustrate it. Imagine that you were born in a prison. All you’ve ever known was the inside of a prison. All you’ve ever seen is bars and cement. You get the same meals every day – bland, simple food. You wear the same clothes every day. And that’s all you remember because it is all you’ve ever known.
How could someone convince you that the world is better outside of that prison? They could describe it to you. They could show you pictures. They could sneak in better food. But all of that would be very depressing unless you also had some hope of getting out!
In a similar way, the law is good, but it can’t get is out of prison. It holds up a mirror, showing us our chains, showing us the bars and the cement. It doesn’t let us stay comfortable in the prison of our own sin. It makes us long for something better.
But it would be very depressing if all we had was the law, showing us and reminding us of our folly with no power to change the circumstances. Instead, we also have a promise that Jesus will rescue us from the prison of sin and death!
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.
Captive. Imprisoned. Longing for something better but trapped. For most of Israel’s history, they were longing for the fulfillment of God’s promise.
It was like the train whistle in that Johnny Cash song. He’s stuck in prison, but he can hear the train in the distance. I bet there’s rich folks eatin’ in a fancy dining car. They’re probably drinkin’ coffee and smoking big cigars.
That’s what it feels like being captive under the law. All the law did was make them want the Messiah more! That was exactly the point of the law, according to the Apostle.
24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
In other words, because they are now justified by faith in Christ, the Jews were no longer waiting for the Messiah, held captive under the law.
Now, let’s talk about why this matters for us.
First, let’s talk about the importance of church history. We are tempted to only see what God is doing in our moment – our churches, our families. We forget that God was at work in all the generations before us. We have something to learn from that.
Paul weaves together 2,000 years of history to show us how God worked. Jesus did the same thing with his disciples after the resurrection – explaining to them how God had been at work since creation.
Many of the problems we have today with doctrine and Christian ethics could be avoided if we considered God’s work in the past.
Second, I think it is important for us to know that God doesn’t move the goalposts. The Christian faith is not a bait and switch, but some Christians and some churches make it sound that way.
They make it sound so simple – pray this prayer, believe in Jesus. But once you’re in, they start loading you up with other things that sound necessary for salvation. And that can be very confusing.
We need to be clear that Christians are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.
God absolutely intends to sanctify us, to make us more like Jesus. But if we are united to Jesus by faith, then we are already justified. We are no longer condemned. That doesn’t change.
Finally, we need to see the value and necessity of the law. Sometimes Christians with good intentions talk about the law as if it is a bad thing, because they want us to focus on grace.
But that is a false dilemma. The law is good. We will not yearn for Christ without it.
As John Stott says, “Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.”
This is why it is so important that we know God’s law and examine our lives with it. If we cut away the parts of God’s law that offend us, we are making it less likely that we will yearn for Christ. The law is supposed to offend us. Its job is to expose our sin.
If we decide for ourselves that certain sins are OK, because of the pressure of society or because of our own personal preferences, then we are effectively choosing the comforts of our prison cell over the promises of Jesus.
If God’s plan is to save us from sin and death, then maybe we should trust His Word and the conviction of His Spirit to tell us what’s wrong with this world instead of listening to the world to tell us right from wrong.
Remember the tension we talked about? Keep the law. You’re not able. The greater the tension, the more we will feel our need of grace. The more we will need Jesus.
But if we dull our sensitivity to sin, if we soften our understanding of sin, if we start to believe that no one really deserves the condemnation of a holy God – then we won’t feel a need for Jesus at all. And Christianity becomes pointless.
Jesus died on a cross. He suffered the wrath of God for sin. That tells us that sin is a much bigger problem in God’s eyes than we want to believe. And that’s why Christians keep going back to the cross. It forces us to remember how much we need the grace of God. It resoles the tension between God’s law and our inability to keep it – between God’s holiness and His love.