I invite you to open your bibles with me to Galatians, chapter 3, beginning in verse 19. Galatians 3:19-29. Galatians is in the New Testament – Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians. Galatians 3, beginning in verse 19. Before we hear God’s Word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.
Father, may Your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
These are the very words of God from the book that we love:
Why, then, was the law given at all?
It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promised referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party, but God is one.
Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freedom, nor is there male and female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
Why, then, was the law given at all?
We have been hearing the good news of the gospel in the book of Galatians. We heard how God rescues us from the present evil age to live with him in the age to come. We heard how God saves us by grace through faith and not by our obedience. And we heard how God saves us by making all the elect to be children of Abraham by virtue of the promise God made to Abraham himself. In short, we do not need to obey all the laws and commands laid out in the Bible in order to be saved.
But if that is true, then what was the point? Why make a covenant with the people on Sinai? Why include, by one count, over 500 commands, and then a history, and then the prophets calling people back to obedience? Why bother? Why not just skip all that and go straight to Jesus?
Or, as Paul phrases it in verse 19, why, then, was the law given at all?
In a faith based upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ, what is the purpose and place of all these commandments, in fact, this large chunk of the bible?
While there are more, we are given three reasons here in our passage this morning.
Two of them are contained in metaphors. Look with me at verses 23-25:
Before the coming of this faith, (that is, before Jesus came) we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
We were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. One of the metaphors we are given is that the law serves like a jailor, holding us in custody until Christ came to free us. It is the image of being restrained, held in check, even against our will, so that we don’t run off into danger. When we hear God’s commands – You shall not murder, You shall not steal – it causes us to pause. In trying to obey God and follow the law, we are kept from running after our own desires, which are often selfish and destructive. So Paul tells us that the commands of God held us in prison, to protect us from ourselves, until Jesus came to free us.
The other metaphor is that of a guardian. This is a difficult word. It is something between a legal guardian and a governess/tutor/schoolteacher. In the ancient world, the children of a wealth house would be looked after by a guardian until they reached the age of maturity and took on their responsibilities in the family. That guardian was often a slave and was charged with both teaching the children and disciplining them.
Before Jesus came, we were like children who needed a guardian. And so, in God’s wisdom, he gave the law to teach us the right way to live, the way that is best for us, our neighbor, and for living with God. He also gave the law to discipline and, honestly, punish us when we head off on the wrong path, just as a loving parent would do.
Both of these metaphors gives us the picture that God’s commands, God’s law, held us until Jesus came. It had a purpose, but it was temporary. It was part of God’s plan until Christ came to redeem us and set us right with God.
But there is another reason we are told that the law was given. In fact, it is the very first one that Paul gives. Verse 19: Why, then, was the law given at all?
It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promised referred had come.
It was added because of transgressions.
God gave his law, he gave all the commandments, because of sin. In the book of Romans, Paul expands on this point when he says that through the law comes the knowledge of sin (3:20) and if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin (7:7). God gave his law because of sin in order to expose it, to bring it to light, to help us to see it for what it is so that we know the only way to respond.
The law exposes sin for what it is.
When I graduated high school, all my friends threw graduation parties. Fairly similar to what they do here. After three or so weekends of multiple parties, I wanted to do something different, something a little shocking. I dyed my hair black and put it up in a faux-hawk. I put on dark aviator glasses, spiked collar, tight band tee-shirt, studded belt, velvet skinny jeans, and a pair of converse all-stars and decided to go to my friends’ graduation parties.
To say it was unexpected might have been an understatement. I almost got kicked out of one of them because they didn’t recognize me and thought I was crashing the party. It was a lot of good, innocent fun.
But an interesting thing happened. Not ten minutes after I showed up, I stopped be conscious of what I looked like. I was talking with one of my friends – regular conversation – and he stopped and said, “I cannot take you seriously right now.” I had forgotten what I looked like. What was at first so shocking, so quickly becomes normal. We see this in our culture, but it is also deeply true of our own lives. What shocks us initially (the way we treat someone else, the way we ignore the poor person on the street, the little compromises of our integrity), suddenly becomes normal. We forget what we look like.
Why, then, was the law given at all? It was given because of transgressions
One of the reasons that God has given us the whole of his word is that the commands of scripture hold up a mirror before our faces so that we can see what we really look like. Kaspar Olevianus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, put it like this:
“A man with spots on his face might happily go about in public, unaware that he has spots. But if someone shows him a mirror, he feels ashamed and tries to hide himself. We were spotted like that, and heaven and earth were both ashamed of us, but we nevertheless went about our business without paying attention to that because we did not know what sin was and hypocrisy had blinded our eyes so that we could not see the curse that was on us. The law, however, makes sin plain – this is what you look like when you are under the penalty of the curse.”
The law was given because of transgressions in order to expose the sin in us for what it is, because we have an incredible capacity for deceiving ourselves. We tell ourselves that things are really not that bad. I mean, I’m a pretty good person, I don’t do anything really bad. I mean, what I did yesterday wasn’t really that bad. Especially compared to what some people do.
We rationalized and minimize our sin and, in doing so, cover ourselves with layers of pride, self-deception, and self-righteousness. And what happens is that our popular culture feeds and validates this project of papering over our sins and struggles. We are told to trust ourselves, be true to ourselves, to follow our passion, not accept our limits, chart our own course. We are told that the best life comes in listening to ourselves, our inner voice, following our hearts. Never mind that Scripture values our hearts deeply, but also mistrusts their motives without the work of the Spirit. You can step into some of the largest churches in this country and hear a gospel not of God’s grace, but of self-trust.
This is not new, as awful and damnable as this false-teaching is. We have been doing this since almost the beginning. Adam and Eve disobeyed God, broke the covenant, entered into judgment, but instead of coming humbly to God in repentance, they covered themselves with leaves and blamed someone else.
But then God’s Word comes and begins to strip away those layers of pride. You know, I’m doing pretty good, I’ve never murdered anybody: You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder, and who ever murders shall be liable to judgment,” but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say ‘you fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Oh [start taking off jacket]
But wait, I’ve really done pretty well. I’ve not been sleeping around. I waited to have sex until I was married. I’ve done the right thing: You have heard that it was said, “you shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and thrown it away, it is better for you to lose one of your member than for your whole body to go into hell.
Oh [take off jacket]
But wait, I’m generally nice to people. Well, except for her. I mean, no one is nice to her. You wouldn’t believe how she acts and how difficult she is. But I’m still generally nice. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have, do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Oh. So that’s what I look like. [take off dress shirt, reveal ‘Bad Christian’ shirt]
When all of it is stripped away, and we face the truth about ourselves, we are ready to abandon our own righteousness and flee to Christ. When we look in the mirror of God’s law and recognize our own poverty, we are then stirred to turn to Christ, the only one who can save us.
Calvin says, “By displaying the righteousness of God, the law convicted people of the own unrighteousness. They were reminded that they must seek their righteousness elsewhere.”
But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
All of this leads us to abandon our own righteousness and flee to Christ.
And when we do, when we are found in Christ, we find ourselves. In Jesus Christ, through faith in Jesus Christ, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, Christians are united to Christ. And in that union, there are three glorious promises in this passage.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. By being united to Christ, by turning from ourselves and trusting in Christ, we find our place in eternity. We are children of God and we call God our gracious and loving father. We adopted into God’s family and welcomed into his house and his presence forever. Instead of under curse, we are under blessing. Instead of estranged, we are welcomed into a new home. These are the heights of God’s love, God would call us his children.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. By being united to Christ, we find our place in society. Race, Rank, and Gender, which in the world might be places of power and weakness, exploitation and inequality, are now different. We are one in Christ Jesus. We all stand on equal footing before the Cross, all stand equal in needing forgiveness – the CEO and the Student, Black, White, Asian, Arab, Hispanic, men, women. We are all equal before the cross of Christ and are all united into one people in Jesus. It is by being in Jesus that Christians from from variety and diversity are united together. No Christian is ever alone. No Christian is ever an outsider, a misfit, or a cast-off. You are all one in Christ Jesus.
If you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. By being united to Jesus Christ, Christians find their place in history. Instead of being wrapped up in our own stories, we are drawn into the bigger story. We have a place in the story of God’s redemption as those who receive the promises of Abraham. We are not being living small, quiet lives of discontent, children of God, heirs to the promise of Abraham.
These promises are for all the elect, for all those who trust in Christ for their righteousness and not themselves, for all those who believe that Jesus died for their sins. The challenge is now to live not seeking to cover ourselves with the rags of our own righteousness, but to clothe ourselves with Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.