The Purpose of the Law

Galatians 3
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. 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. 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. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
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. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
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. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

You and I live in a world of rules, a world of law. We have a government that tells us what we can and can’t do. Many of us have employers that tell us what we can and can’t do. All of you kids, you have parents that tell you what you can and can’t do. From a very early age, we are all confronted by the reality that life in this world is ruled by rules, ruled by law.

Why is it that often one of the first words a toddler learns to say is “no”? Well, it’s partly because it’s a short, simple word – but it’s also because toddlers tend to hear that word a lot. “No. Don’t do that. No, that’s not safe. No, that’s not nice.” No, no, no.

This morning, many of the decisions all of us have made have been driven by rules. Some of those are hard, written in law kind of rules, and others are more cultural, societal expectations.

An example of a rule that’s written in law: for those of you who were in the driver’s seat on your way here this morning, you were only able to do that (legally) because you have a driver’s license. We all were subject to speed limits as we drove here. I’m guessing that all of you drove on the correct side of the road. Partly so that you made it here alive, and partly because of rules. These are all examples of the rules that are in place because of our government. They’re written down somewhere as laws. But there are also the “rules” that are more societal, cultural.

This morning, all of you have stood and sat down in the worship service when you’ve been asked to. If there’s a time we aren’t instructed one way or the other, whether to sit or stand, we tend to just go along with what everyone else is doing. We sit quietly when we’re supposed to, and we sing when we’re supposed to. If someone says, “Hey, how are you?” What do we say? “Good! How are you?” “I’m alright, how are you?” There are so many societal norms that serve as rules in our lives.

We live in a world of rules. And that’s a good thing. It is a good thing. It makes the world a better place. It helps promote human joy and flourishing. But, there’s a catch: living in a world of rules can be a stumbling block that stands in the way of intimacy with God. It can be a stumbling block that keeps us from the one we were made for, keeps us from God.

The Galatian people could not get over this stumbling block. At one point they’d been fine. At one point they had trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. They’d trusted in Jesus to redeem them, and bring them into an intimate relationship with God. But what happened? Teaching came along that incited their old way of thinking, their old way of living that centered around rules, centered around law. When so much of your life runs on the basis of rules – including your relationships with other people, to some extent – then it’s hard to break that habit, break that way of thinking, when it comes to relating to God.

The Galatians had broken that way of thinking. They had broken out of that pattern. But it didn’t last. It didn’t last, in part, because they heard a message that, in a way, just felt right to them. The message was that there were certain rules that they needed to follow in order to fully earn God’s favor, in order to fully earn His approval – and thus, earn salvation.

And again, this felt right to them, it felt right to them in a way that I think we can understand. It’s like, “Of course you have to do something to truly be right with God!” That makes sense to us, right? It’s how we’ve been trained to think and live our whole lives long. And really, what could be wrong about doing something extra to prove your devotion to God? This message made sense to the Galatians. But in reality, they were blind to what was truly going on. What they didn’t realize was that they were effectively removing Jesus from His place as Savior, and replacing Him with the law. And that is why Paul wrote this letter. That’s why this letter exists. Paul wanted to wake them up, to open their eyes to the truth of their situation.

The Galatians were replacing Jesus with the law. And the law was never meant to be a savior. It was never meant to be a savior.

Paul explains in our passage today what the purpose of the law is, and what it is not. He begins with what it is not.

Galatians 3
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. 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. 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. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

These verses show us that the law was never meant to be a replacement for the promised Messiah, the promised Savior. Paul points out that the coming of Jesus was promised long before the law was given. He uses the example of the promise God made to Abraham. If we wanted to, we could look back all the way to the Garden of Eden to see the first promise of Jesus. But since Paul focuses on Abraham, that’s what we’re going to focus on. Paul quotes here from Genesis chapter 22, where God promised Abraham that his offspring would be the Savior.

Genesis 22
18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Only through Jesus are all the nations of the earth blessed. Only through Him do people from all nations on earth find eternal blessedness, eternal joy, in being brought near to God. This verse is talking about Jesus.

God promised that He would send a savior. And if the law was given to replace that savior, then God would have broken His promise. That’s Paul’s point when he talks in Galatians 3 about man-made covenants. The law coming on the scene, some 430 years after God‘s promise to Abraham of a savior, does not in any way annul that promise. It does not make God’s promise invalid. It doesn’t replace it. Because if it did, God would have been a liar. His promise would not have been true. That’s what verse 18 is saying.

Galatians 3
18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

So the purpose of the law is not to replace the promised Savior. It’s not to replace the promised Jesus. So then, what is its purpose? Why was the law given at all? Well, to put it simply, the law exists because sin exists. We see that in verse 19.

Galatians 3
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.

As sinners, we need the law. As sinners, we need the rules that this world is packed full of. The law exists because sin exists. Paul says the law “was added because of transgressions.” You see, the law is a deterrent of evil. It helps keep people from doing evil things. If there was no law saying not to steal, and no law that held thieves accountable, and punished them, then there would be a whole lot more stealing going on. The law helps restrain sinners from sinning. Not that it stops sin entirely. We still have sinful hearts. We still don’t perfectly follow the law in our actions. But it does help restrain evil.

Now, I want to go back to this idea of our world of rules creating a stumbling block for us. A stumbling block that stands in the way of intimacy with God. How do rules do that? How does the law do that?

One of the primary ways is that following the law can give us a false sense of our own righteousness. It can lead us to be self-righteous. Now, understand when I say that, I’m not saying we are actually self-righteous, as though our obedience to the law could somehow make us righteous. I mean it in the common way we use the term “self-righteous,” as a way that speaks of pride, of smugness, of a sinful self-sufficiency and self-focus. Obedience to the law can lead us into all of those ways of living. And as such, it can be a stumbling block that keeps us from an intimate relationship with God. Because God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble. God is near to the brokenhearted. He saves the crushed in spirit. But pride pushes us away from God, because pride puts us in the place where God belongs. It removes Jesus from being Savior, and makes us self-saviors. And thus, obedience to the law can lead to a wicked self-righteousness.

I want to read for you all a paragraph from Martin Luther, on this passage. What he says is so important regarding the way we think about the law. He says:

“Every law, then, is given to restrain sin. If it restrains sin, then it makes people act righteously, for inasmuch as I do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, or abstain from other sins, I do it not willingly or for the love of virtue, but because I fear the prison and the executioner. These restrain me so that I do not sin, just as chains restrain a lion or a bear, so that they do not tear and devour everything they meet. However, the restraining from sin is not righteousness, but rather a sign of unrighteousness. Just as a wild beast is bound in case it should destroy everything it meets, so the law bridles furious people so that they do not sin as they want to. This restraint shows clearly enough that those who need the law…are not righteous but rather wicked; it is necessary to bridle them by the bonds and prison of the law, so that they do not sin. Therefore, the law does not justify.”

If you or I view the law as a means of salvation, as a means of justification, we are fools. We’re fools. Because the very existence of the law, the fact that we even need it, is proof of how wretched we are, it shows us how wicked we are. If we use the law as a way to puff ourselves up, then we have it all backwards. But if we view the law properly, if we let it expose us as sinners the way it’s meant to do, then it can lead to life – because it can lead us to the true Savior.

And here’s the good news: the law exists because sin exists, but Jesus has defeated sin. Jesus has conquered sin. Through His life, and through His death, and His resurrection Jesus defeated sin. And we get to share in that victory. All who call Him Savior get to share in that victory – now in part, but one day, fully. Jesus said:

Matthew 5
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

He says that until heaven and earth pass away, until all is accomplished, the law will remain as it is today. But my question is: what happens after that? What happens after all is accomplished?

Right now, we need the law. It’s a good gift from God to us. We need the law to fulfill its purpose of restraining sin, helping us live lives that please God. And we need it to fulfill its purpose of showing us our need for a Savior. But a day is coming when we will not need it for those things anymore. Because a day is coming when we will truly be like Jesus. When we will live perfectly, sinlessly, all the time. Filled to the brim with the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”

One day when heaven and earth pass away, those things, the fruit of the Spirit, will perfectly describe every one of us. And what does Galatians 5 say about those things? “Against such things there is no law.”

One day we will live out the law without actually needing the law. What a day that will be. What an eternity that will be! And it’s all because of Jesus, our Savior.

Galatians 3
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. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

I read earlier from Genesis 22, but I didn’t share the full story there. The words that Paul quotes from Genesis 22 were spoken during a key event. They are the words that the angel of the Lord spoke to Abraham when he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham was going to offer his son up as a sacrifice to God, and the angel of the Lord stopped him.

Genesis 22
10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Abraham looked up at that time, and he saw a ram caught in a thicket. By God’s provision, he was able to offer up the ram as a sacrifice instead of Isaac. But God had an even better sacrifice in mind, a sacrifice which He then told Abraham about. Immediately after Abraham sacrificed the ram, the angel of the Lord called out again.

Genesis 22
16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

You and I are those who have been blessed because of Christ. We belong to the offspring of Jesus Christ. The multitudes of offspring, like the stars of heaven, and the sand on the seashore. We are part of that offspring, not by works, but by faith in Christ. By faith that Jesus was, and is, the better sacrifice. His sacrifice is far better than any sacrifice we could ever make. It’s far better than all the works we could ever muster. And it was enough. He said, “It is finished.” Jesus was the better sacrifice, the perfect sacrifice.

I want to leave you with these words from Tim Keller. He says: “Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was truly sacrificed for us all. God said to Abraham, “Now I know you love me, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.” Now we can say to God, “Now we know that you love us, because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from us.”