Biblical Theology Briefings

Law or Promise?

Andrew Evans

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These notes are from the fifth of a series of twelve sermons given to our morning congregation at Christ Church, which is mostly students and young professionals. The transcripts of these talks can be found at . Some of the further reflections on the place of the law in the life of the Christian believer are a result of reworking the material in a more topical form for the UCCF North West Team's team days in December.

What this passage is not about - false trails in the sermon

The challenge when teaching this passage is to allow the text to speak for itself, without what has been described the "death of 1000 qualifications", and yet not to take such an extreme position that by the end of v20 our audience are about to answer "yes" to Paul's question in v21 ("Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God?")!

A number of well known evangelical sermons on this passage say, at different points, "of course we must teach the moral law of God", without explaining where in Galatians (or anywhere else) they derive that exhortation, and without really attempting to define how their understanding of "the moral law of God" differs from "the law" as Paul uses that term here.

Whilst demonstrating a noble desire not to be libertine, this kind of qualification when preaching on Galatians 3 can blunt the force of the passage. If we leave people with the impression that it is only seeking circumcision, obedience to special days and dietary requirements (the three issues that are specifically addressed in Galatians (5:2, 5:11, 6:12, 6:13, 6:15, 2:12-13, 4:10)) that constitute legalism, we will entirely fail to drive home the challenge of the book to the thousands of people in our churches who believe that they do maintain their standing with God precisely by keeping the 10 commandments, having a daily quiet time and all manner of other things. Of course we need to teach people that God does indeed have ethical standards for Christians - but it's important to allow this teaching to be brought out in chapters 5 & 6 where Paul places it rather than trying to impose it on chapter 3!

Another error is to get hideously bogged down in what it means for the law to be our "schoolmaster" (AV) 3:24. Many preachers seem to make this the main point of the sermon. This can leave the congregation with the impression that Paul's main focus is that Christian must read the OT law constantly so as to be led to Christ. Whilst it is, of course, absolutely essential for us to immerse ourselves in the whole of the Scriptures so as to understand our Saviour better, Paul's main point here is that having come to Christ the law has served that purpose for the Christian (v25).

Others move in the opposite direction and say that the law was a paidagogos only for the Jewish people and so has no role to play in bringing Gentiles to Christ. Clearly there is a specific sense in which the Jews were "under the law" in a way that no other people ever has been. But it would seem odd for Paul to write to a predominantly Gentile church from himself and a mixture of Jewish and Gentile associates using "we" in the restrictive sense of Jewish Christians only, especially given the global flavour of v22.

What the passage is about - the difference Biblical Theology makes

2:20-21 is in many ways the key to understanding the whole letter. Paul is absolutely clear that not only his being right with God (2:16) but his continuing to live in a right relationship with God is nothing to do with his obedience to any aspect of the Old Testament law. It is continued faith in the gospel of Jesus that keeps Paul right with God.

The main issue for the preacher in this passage then is the place of the Old Testament law in the life of the believer. This is a notoriously difficult problem - and one which, for this writer, is still very much work in progress.

The classical solution to this question, adopted first, we think, by Aquinas in the 12th century, and presented here in a simple, though I hope not simplistic, way, is to divide the Mosaic law into three categories:

The civil law is those laws which are to apply to Israel as a nation state.
The ceremonial law is those laws relating to the cultus - that is to the temple, the sacrifices, the priesthood and etc.
The moral law is that part of God's law relating to moral values of ethical behaviour. For most people the 10 Commandments would be the prime example of the moral law of God.

We can then distinguish why it is that Christians have felt that we should obey some of the Mosaic law and not the rest:

The civil law related to Israel as a nation state. Since the locus of the people of God has now moved from a nation state to a people of all nations, scattered amongst the nations, the civil law can no longer be applied to Christians.

The ceremonial law related to the sacrifices that were provided for the Israelites to make atonement for their sin and the other sacrifices that were part of maintaining their relationship with God. Jesus Christ has fulfilled all those requirements through his substitutionary death on the cross and therefore Christians no longer have to keep the ceremonial law.

The moral law of God does not change and so Christians today should still obey it.

On the face of it this seems like a neat solution to the problem. But there are a number of problems with this tripartite division of the law :

  1. The OT law itself does not seem to make this distinction (this is, of course, not conclusive as we draw quite a lot of distinctions from Scripture that are not made explicit).
  2. The definition of moral law under this view is somewhat circular. The moral law is the law which does not change. How do we know which part of the law we should keep? It's the moral law. How do we spot that? It's the bit that does not change - ie the bit that we still keep!
  3. All of the law of Moses is moral in some sense - ie for a Jewish person in the time of Joshua not to keep the ceremonial law would have offended God and thus been immoral!
  4. When Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it, it seems very clear that he was making no distinction between different types of law but talking, very explicitly, about ALL the law of Moses (and the rest of the Old Testament) - Matthew 5:17-20.
  5. A number of very important Old Testament laws seem to fall into multiple categories! The prime example of this is the Sabbath commandment. The practice of a day of rest is clearly related to the ceremonial law (it bears on the list of holy days and celebrations), to the civil law (Sabbath was one of the key distinguishing marks of Israel as a nation) and to the moral law (in that it is one of the 10 Commandments that most proponents of this view say make up the heart of the moral law).

So although the categories of civil, ceremonial and moral law do have merit they are not going to help us to decide which of the laws of Moses we should "keep" as Christians.

Paul's views on the Mosaic law have received much attention in recent years because of the ‘new perspective' of Sanders, Dunn and others. The ‘new perspective' theologians' argument, very much simplified, is that the main difference between Paul's theology and that of contemporary C1st Judaism was not to do with justification. The ‘new perspective' writers don't think the Jews of Paul's day were legalistic. They think that Paul's dispute with them was really about how many people could be included in God's covenant - in other words that the question was about whether Gentiles could be God's people as well as Jews.

The new perspective is helpful in showing that sometimes evangelicals have read Galatians and, to some extent, Romans too much through Luther's spectacles. But it fails to see that justification is a central issue for Paul because he argues that the way we are justified and the way we maintain our relationship with God are the same - trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Coming more specifically to Galatians many writers and preachers seem to go off road in one of two ways.

Some liberal commentators seem to deal reasonably fairly with the text of Galatians as it stands but see it as nothing more than a primitive step in Paul's thinking about the law and the believer. So a typical argument would run that Galatians comes first and here Paul is negative about the law. The Corinthian correspondence comes next and here Paul attempts to enforce the Old Testament law. Finally Romans represents a synthesis of Paul's ideas and is his final view on the issue. Such an approach is clearly unacceptable to anyone who takes the Bible seriously.

On the other hand many evangelicals, wanting to integrate Paul's teaching in Galatians into a right Biblical and systematic theology, tend to blunt the power of Paul's "law free gospel" as taught in Galatians for fear of appearing anti-nomian.

So how should we think about this?

Colin Kruse helpfully explains the role of the law envisaged by Paul in Galatians and throughout the New Testament letters as a "paradigm" for Christian people rather than a "regulatory norm". This serves a number of useful purposes:

It makes it clear that "no matter what other role the law might was not re-erected to function as a standard by which believers, even Jewish belivers, must, live".
It helps us to understand Paul's use of the narrative sections of the law (eg 1 Corinthians 9:8-12a; Galatians 4:21-31).
It helps us to see how Paul can explain his ethics in terms of the law without himself committing the Galatian heresy (eg Galatians 5:14).

The approach I have taken attempts to avoid the pitfalls outlined above by taking the text on its own terms and working from the passage to think about the place of the law in the Christian life whilst taking seriously other Biblical material relating to this issue. Whether this approach is successful will be for the reader to judge!

Sermon Shape and Structure

One of the major issues in Galatians is to what extent Paul is arguing that the Christian is now in a different relationship to the law to the faithful Old Testament Jew and to what extent he is arguing against a distortion of the function of the OT law by his contemporaries. I think that Paul is doing both of these things but principally the latter. This shaped my introduction:

The Darwin awards exist to commemorate those members of the human species who have killed themselves in particularly stupid or spectacular ways. I observe from their web site that the vast majority of those so commemorated are men - you may feel free to draw your own conclusions from this. One of my favourite, though I think sadly fictional, Darwin Award stories is about a young man in Los Angeles (where else?) who lived in a house in the suburbs next door to a stunningly attractive young woman who was given to sunbathing in her back garden. In an effort to watch her as she reclined one summer afternoon the young man acquired four weather balloons, filled them with helium gas and fastened them to his sun lounger, with the intention of floating a few feet above the garden fence and getting a good view into the next door garden. Unfortunately, however, this was not how things worked out. Instead of hovering gently the buoyancy of the balloons was such that he was instantly swept well over 1,000 feet into the air. And rather than attempting to burst one of the balloons to try and lower himself at a reasonable speed to the ground the man simply sat there, hoping that somebody would come and rescue him. And indeed a plane did come. But sadly it was a Boeing 747 jumbo jet on the approach to Los Angeles airport, an approach which ran right over the man's house. Final score jumbo jet 1, sun lounger 0. The moral of the story, of course, is that weather balloons should be used for recording the weather and garden loungers should be used for lounging in gardens. In other words if you use things for something they are not designed to do it can be very dangerous.

2000 years ago in Galatia a group of false teachers had infiltrated the churches planted by the apostle Paul. The essence of their teaching was that to be a Christian, to live as a Christian, it wasn't enough just to put your trust in Jesus' death on the cross. In addition to trusting in Jesus the really serious Christian who wanted to maintain and grow his relationship with God, had to obey the law of Moses. It didn't matter whether your background was Jewish or not. If you wanted to be a proper Christian you had to follow the law. Not all the law of course - that would be far too difficult. Just the really important bits of it - being circumcised, not eating certain sorts of food and recognising certain festivals and special days.

But as far as Paul was concerned to tell people that to be right with God they need to keep any rules was a dangerous lie. And so, if you've been with us over the last few weeks, you'll have seen Paul battling in this letter to show the Galatian Christians that it is by trusting in Jesus alone that we are made and kept right with God.

And in the passage we're looking at this morning Paul wants the Galatian Christians, and all of us, to be absolutely clear that we don't experience God's love by proving ourselves worthy of it by obeying religious rules of any sort.

The introduction serves to alert people to the key to understanding what Paul is saying in this passage and, especially in the last couple of paragraphs, to focus the main point of the sermon.

My headings weren't exactly inspiring but, I think, capture the main essence of the passage:

1. God's law does not override God's promise (v15-18)
a) The law is conditional
b) The law is mediated
c) The law came later

2. God's law does not give life (v19-25)
a) It shows us how dead we are (v19-23)
b) It points us to Jesus, who can give life (v24-25)

1 God's law does not override God's promise (v15-18) As some of you will know Gaynor and I are in the process of attempting to sell our house in Ellesmere Port and buy a house in Liverpool. The day we are really looking forward to is the day of exchange of contracts. Until then in any transaction there is no legal obligation on either side. But once contracts have been exchanged it's a done deal. That's the kind of thing Paul is thinking of in v15. Once an agreement is properly and formally agreed you don't just go round changing it willy-nilly.

And if that's true for agreements between people how much more true is it of what God, who does not lie, whose word is always totally trustworthy, says.

God made a promise to Abraham and to his seed. And when God made that promise he wasn't speaking to every genetic descendent of Abraham - his seeds - but to one specific descendant of Abraham - to Jesus of Nazareth.

At this point it is worth noting that we had Genesis 12:1-3 as our earlier reading in the service and on the service sheet.

God made a promise to Abraham that he would give him a land, and a people and that all nations on earth would receive God's blessing through Abraham's seed. That promise was, ultimately, to, about and fulfilled in Jesus. And God doesn't go round breaking his promises. So whatever the place of the Old Testament law is in the life of a Christian it can't contradict the fact that God promised his blessing unconditionally to all who trust in Abraham's seed, Jesus. And that means that the law can't be about salvation. The OT law cannot, v18, be the thing that lets us inherit God's blessing - because if it did the inheritance wouldn't depend on a promise, which it does!

In fact, Paul says, there are clues in the law itself that the law was never meant to be the way to receive God's blessing:

a) The law is conditional

Firstly there is the fact that the law is conditional. Do certain things and you will receive certain blessings. Whereas the promise is unconditional.

One might want to include a reference to (for e.g.) Deuteronomy 30:15ff

b) The law is mediated

V20 is famously difficult! But I think that what Paul is saying here is that whereas the promise came directly from God himself, the law had several different mediators or middlemen. It was given to the people of Israel by Moses and to Moses by angels and by God to the angels. The promise is therefore superior because it was given directly by God.

c) The law came later

Most importantly the promise is not annulled by the law because the promise came first. V17: the law doesn't override the promise because the promise came first.

I think this is actually quite a difficult concept for people to grasp so I tried this illustration:

Imagine I took you outside and showed you my car. And I said to you - in 12 months time I'm going to give you my car. I'll sign over the vehicle registration and get it taxed and MOTd and it'll be yours. It's a gift. I have made you a promise. Now imagine if in 6 months time I come to you and say. If you're really nice to me for the next 6 months I'm going to give you roof-bars, a foot pump, AA cover and an in-car CD player. Does that mean that if you're not really nice to me I'm not going to give you the car? Well of course it doesn't. I promised you the car. Unconditionally. Some subsequent contract between us about something you'll do for me can't cancel my promise. If I am a man of my word I will give you the car. No matter whether you're nice to me or not.

Like any illustration it's not a precise analogy for that point Paul is making but I think it serves the purpose adequately.

That's something like what Paul is saying here about God's promise and God's law. The law came later. It had a different form and a different purpose. So it can't possibly override the God's previously existing promise. Because God keeps his promises. Now if you were a Jew brought up, as Paul had been, with the view that it was your obedience to the law that made you right with God - or at the very least that it kept you right with God - all this might make you think - so why the law? If the law isn't a guide to how to please God so as to maintain my relationship with him, then what on earth is it for?

In fact Paul, aren't you, v21 there, basically saying that God's promises of blessing to Abraham and the law given to Moses are so incompatible that you're just squeezing the law out altogether and giving us a Bible that goes straight from Genesis 12 to Matthew 1? Paul answers that challenge in v19-25.

So far we are probably on relatively uncontroversial ground - the difficult part comes in trying to articulate what the law IS for without falling into the traps mentioned above...

2 God's law does not give life (v19-25)The law, v19, was a temporary measure introduced only until Jesus came. And it is, v21, absolutely not opposed to the promises of God. That might surprise us, given how negative Paul seems to have been about the law up to now. You might expect him to say that law and promise are opposed to one another. But as far as Paul is concerned it's not the law that is the problem - it is the misuse of the law by the false teachers that's the problem.

Just like in our Darwin award from the beginning of the talk. There was nothing wrong with the weather balloons or the sun lounger. They were only dangerous when they were used for a purpose for which they were never intended.

If we understand the law as God intended us to then there is no opposition between the law of Moses and the promises of God to Abraham. So then what does the law, rightly understood, do?

a) It shows us how dead we are (v19-23)

If the law could have given life, v21, righteousness would definitely have come through the law. But the Bible itself, the book where you find this law, tells us that the law hasn't enabled us to meet God's standards. All it has done is expose our failure to meet God's standards, v22: The whole world is a prisoner of sin.

In fact, v19, it was because of transgression, because of sin, that the law was given. The very existence of the law increased the number of sins there were. The law provoked and defined sin. Not because the law itself is bad, it isn't. But because its effect on sinful human beings was to expose our wickedness.

It's worth noting that I have taken what seems to be a minority view (following Bruce) that the law does not just show up sins more clearly but actually was given "in order to produce transgressions". As Cranfield points out the Greek expresses purpose ("because of" (NIV / ESV) is not really strong enough here). A rendering like "that there might be transgressions" seems to give a greater theological consistency with Romans 4:15 than some of the other suggestions of the commentators. "The purpose of the law was to increase the sum-total of transgression."

It is a mark of human perversity that we try and use the law of Moses, the 10 commandments for example, to prove that we're OK whereas God gave us that law to show us that we're not OK - to make it utterly clear and obvious to us that we are all sinners.

b) It points us to Jesus, who can give life (v24-25)

The law was not just designed to make us aware of our moral failings. God gave the law to make us aware of our moral failings so that we would cry out to him for rescue, for forgiveness and so that we should recognise a saviour when he came. Or, as Paul puts it, v24 there, the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.

Obviously Paul here is mostly talking about the Jewish people - people who were actually under the law of Moses. Rather than making them think that they were OK the purpose of the law was to make them realise their inability to meet God's standards and to cry out to God for a saviour.

The law wasn't given to replace God's promise but to make people look to the promise for rescue from our sinfulness. The law was an expression of God's moral standards to show people just how much they failed to meet those standards and to drive people to cry out to God for mercy.

What a terrible thing then for the Galatians who have received the rescue that God offers to go back to the law. They had received the amazing rescue that was performed when the Lord Jesus Christ, v13, because a curse for us. When he bore the penalty of God's judgment for our failure to keep God's law. What a terrible thing, having received the promised rescue, for the Galatians to go back to the law that was meant to lead us to that rescue. No wonder Paul says, 3:1, you foolish Galatians.


In many ways the hard part of Galatians is persuading Christians that we are all, temperamentally, inclined somewhat to the legalistic attempt to prove our own righteousness before God.

Having received all the blessings of God's promises by grace through Jesus why go back to a law that can only bring God's judgment as we fail to keep it? Of course we wouldn't be that stupid would we? Would we? Well, sadly, it seems we would. In fact most distortions of Christianity depend on going back in some way to an Old Testament, law based religion.

The prime example of course is Roman Catholicism with its priests, churches as temple and mass as sacrifice. But many who call themselves evangelical Christians, especially as they go on in the Christian life do become increasing obsessed with observing certain religious rules as the way to maintain their relationship with God.

Have a daily quiet time

Do not go to a supermarket on Sunday

Attend at least one large Christian conference annually

Never smoke

Just last year there was a series of very well attended talks at the Anglican cathedral which gave the strong steer that the main point of the 10 commandments is that they are a blessed way to live.

Well what Galatians teaches is that if you seek to create or maintain your relationship with God based on your obedience to the 10 commandments that is not a blessed way to live. Rather it will put you under God's judgment. And the only way to escape that judgment is to trust in Jesus.

Now that is not to say that there are no ethical standards for Christians. In fact Paul will have much to say about ethical standards for Christians in chapters 5 and 6 of Galatians. And it's not to say that the only function of the 10 commandments and the rest of the Old Testament law is to show us our sinfulness. The Old Testament law can provide ethical guidance for Christians and it does genuinely reveal God's standards of holiness.

But it is to say that if you are a Christian here this morning you must not treat the Old Testament law as law. Don't be a lawyer. The law's primary purpose is to show us our sinfulness and lead us to Christ. So if you've come to Christ don't go back to the law.

Using the law wrongly is not like messing about with a weather balloon and a garden lounger. Because for that to kill you you have to be unlucky. But if you misuse the law. If you think that Christianity is about rules and that you can maintain a relationship with God based on your obedience to the 10 commandments or any other rules it will kill you. Because it will make you miss the one thing that can give you life - you will miss God's promise.

Christianity is not about keeping rules for a reward. It is about trusting God's promise of an inheritance.

What happened next?

At Christ Church we take questions each Sunday morning after the talk. On this Sunday morning, as most Sunday mornings when we were looking at Galatians 3:1-4:31 the questions focussed around what basis there is for Christian ethics. It is, perhaps, a mark of the pragmatic nature of our age that people are reluctant to be told to trust in God's promise for salvation - they want to DO something!

For the expositor of Galatians this is a real challenge because Paul simply doesn't tell us the answer to the question "how then should a Christian live?" until 5:13ff where he explains that those who trust in the gospel and are thus recipients of the Spirit will be transformed in their living. In other words the key to Christian ethics is to continue to trust the gospel. Although some people found it frustrating to have to wait a few weeks while we kept saying "if you hang in till chapter 5 Paul will tell us about that", it added a real sense of progress and interest to the series as a whole.

Don Carson discusses this very helpfully in relation to Matthew 5 in The Sermon on the Mount (Paternoster, Carlisle: 1978)
See recommended reading list.
Kruse, p284 (italics his).
Ibid. Italics his.


F F Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians, NIGTC (Paternoster: Exeter, 1982)Detailed commentary of the Greek text. Like many very long commentaries not always brilliant on the big picture but better than most. Carson's recommendation in New Testament Commentary Survey!

R Alan Cole, Galatians, TNTC (IVP: Leicester, 1989)
Solid evangelical commentary on the text. Very helpful for those who don't feel up to Bruce!

Colin Kruse, Paul, the law and Justification (Apollos: Leicester 1996)
Detailed evangelical response to the new perspective. Kruse starts with a helpful summary of current literature and then takes the major letters dealing with the law (Galatians, Romans, 1 Corinthians) passage by passage. A great place to go to think about integrating your teaching on Galatians to the rest of the Bible.

Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul's Charter of Christian Freedom (IVP: Leicester, 1996)
Readable and fairly detailed commentary. Probably better on the big picture than Bruce and many insightful comments.

John Stott, The Message of Galatians, BST (IVP: Leicester, 1968)
A great book for the congregation to read along with as you teach

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