Being that in our course of questions we have to the question, “Why then the Law?” it is fitting that we remain with the one who drove us most quickly to the point—the apostle Paul. He answers this question, writing:
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. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
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. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Gal. 3:19-22).
To answer our present question, “Why then the Law?” the most obvious course is to unpack the answer that the apostle gives. However, before we begin to answer that question, it is good to reiterate what has brought us to this point.
In own journey, we have followed the same line of thinking to which the apostle is outlining to the Galatian church. We have witnessed the testimony given by the Law to Moses and to national Israel, and we have looked at the author’s design in writing the Pentateuch. Having looked at the Pentateuch, we have seen that there is a Promise given to Abraham and his offspring. That Promise given to Abraham is that through his Seed all of the nations would be blessed. The apostle takes this Promise and broadens it to its fullest implications in his letter to Romans, writing, “The Promise to Abraham that he would be heir of the world did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith.” He later intimates that the Roman church is partakers of that Promise, writing, “[You are] heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided you suffer with in order that you may also be glorified with him” (Rm. 8:16, 17). This is a great Promise indeed.
The seeming problem that arises is that this Promise that was given to Abraham was given 430 years before the Law was given (cf. Gal. 3:17). That’s 430 years before the sacrificial system, 430 years before the tabernacle, 430 years before the civil law, and 430 years before the Ten Commandments. Abraham not only received an eschatological Promise of a Great Inheritance, but he was while he lived counted as righteous by his faith. And granting that receipt of the Promise required a perfect righteousness, the fact that Abraham not only pursued righteousness but attained righteousness apart from the Law drives us to question, “Why then was the Law given?”
To this question, the apostle Paul answers, “[The Law] was added because of transgressions.” In other words, the Law was given to Moses to lord over Israel because of their sins. And to this point, I believe John Sailhamer offers great insight in his book The Meaning of the Pentateuch. There Sailhamer contends that the Law was not the way that God desired (read revealed will) that his people interact with him. He desired that Abraham’s children would come to him as Abraham had—by faith—and that they would be to him spiritual children as well as his physical children.
But what happened? Israel was a disobedient and obstinate people, and they repeatedly transgressed and broke God’s covenant with them. And thus, in order to keep his Promise to Abraham and his Offspring (read the coming Christ King), he had to preserve Abraham’s lineage by reforging the covenant every time it was broken. Thus, as Sailhamer observes, we do not merely see a continuous book of law given to Moses in the Pentateuch, but we see a pattern of Israel’s disobedience, law, disobedience, law, disobedience, law.
When we view the giving of the law in this light, the apostle’s statement is strikingly clear—“The Law was added because of transgressions.” In other words, the reason that the Law is a part of the Scriptures (other than God’s sovereign will) is because Israel repeatedly rebelled against God by transgressing his covenant. They were unfaithful and faithless. Thus, God in his mercy and faithfulness, continually relented his wrath from Israel through the giving of the Law so that the Promised Offspring would come.
Upon this, the apostle elaborates his meaning. He first asks the question, “Is the Law contrary to the Promises of God?” to which he answers, “Certainly not!” His meaning is not to defend the Law as a proper means or a particular dispensation by which God chose to bring men to himself, but to make the point that the Law was never intended to bring about the righteousness and life that faith brings. In other words, the Law was never intended to be stepladder to God. He writes, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law,” intimating that there was never a law given by God that could give life. He makes this same point elsewhere, writing, “For by works of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rm. 3:20).
Now the apostle continues his point by intimating that Law, rather than serving as stepladder to God, served as a guardian and a slavemaster until the coming Faith would be revealed. The language that he uses is particularly strong, calling the law a guard and a prison, controlling its recipients for the sole purpose of preserving them until Christ came. It was instituted to preserve Israel and his children until that time when God’s people would be able to worship him in Spirit and in truth (cf. Jn. 4). In other words, it was brought into existence so as to preserve the line of Judah until that the time when the King from Judah’s line would come forth and would pour his Spirit upon all flesh.
Therefore, since that time as come, since that King has come and conquered sin and death and has ascended to the right hand of the Father in power, ruling and reigning until his enemies would be made his footstool, and since the promised Holy Sprit of God has been sent forth into the world, the Law has served its purpose and its power has been destroyed. As the apostle to the Hebrew puts it, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13).
The apostle Paul in this line writes:
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal. 3:23-29).
The sum of all these things is clear, namely that if one is in Christ, he is not under the Law of Moses. He has been set free by Christ from the taskmaster that held Israel, and the taskmaster has now been vanquished (think 70 A.D.). If we are Christ’s, we are so by faith and not by works of the Law, and, we, therefore, like the Galatians should not try to turn back to the slavemaster having now been set free. For that which the apostle writes duly applies to us, “Did you receive the Spirit by 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?” (vv. 3:2,3). No, indeed! and if Israel was not able to save himself by works of the Law, what benefit do we seek to find in its observance?
Next: The Christian Life and the Law