Its Temporary Nature: Page 2 of 3 (series: Lessons on Galatians)
by John Lowe
Israel, says Paul, “received the law by the disposition of angels.” This means that the nation received the law third hand: from God to angels to Moses. But when God made His covenant with Abraham, He did it personally, without a mediator. God was revealing to Abraham all that He was going to do for him and his descendants. A mediator stands between two parties and helps them agree; but there was no need for a mediator in Abraham’s case since God was entering into a covenant with him, not Abraham with God. “God is one,” therefore there was no need for a go-between.
The Judaizers were impressed by the incidentals of the law—glory, thunder, lightning, angels, and other externals. But Paul looked beyond the externals to the essentials. The law was temporary, and required a mediator. The covenant of promise was permanent, and no mediator was required. There could be only one conclusion: the covenant was greater than the law.
The Purpose of the Law
21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.
22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.
23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.
The law, therefore, was added to the gospel of grace to show and to reveal the awfulness and true character of sin, and the great need for the grace of God. No one has ever been saved by keeping the law, nor can they be. This is made clear by another question Paul raises in anticipation of the Galatians response: “Is the law then against the promises of God?”
“But the scripture hath concluded all under sin.” The Scripture began to be written after the promise was given, at the time when the Law was given. The written Word was needed in order to permanently convict men of sin—disobedience to God’s command. Therefore, he says “the Scripture,” not the “Law” “concluded all under sin.”
“Before faith came” means before the beginning of faith in Jesus Christ. Justifying faith was operative in the Old Testament, but faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ did not come until he was revealed. Before that Israel was under the protective custody of the Law, God thus shielding his people from the heathen rites surrounding them.
If the law could have “given life,” (spiritual life) Paul says, then it would not have been necessary for Christ to die. If a man can save himself, then why does he need a Savior to die in his place? If a man can keep himself saved, then why does he need a High Priest to intercede daily for him from His place at the right hand of God? The law and the gospel, says Paul, are not against each other, but they do have entirely different purposes. The law slays and kills the sinner, so that he turns from the law and his own works to Jesus Christ who alone can give him life.
The Law’s essential weakness was that it confronted man with a debt he could not pay, it threatened him with a penalty he could not bear, and assigned him a task he could not perform. The Law demanded perfection and offered little or no help in responding to such a demand. The law knows nothing of extenuating circumstances. It knows nothing about mercy. It has no elasticity. It is inflexible, and immutable. God’s Word says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die . . .” (Eze. 18.20). You may not have committed as great a sin as Stalin did, but you and I have the same kind of nature that he had. In fact, it was Goethe, the great German writer that said: “I have never seen a crime committed but what I too might have committed that crime. He recognized that he had that kind of nature.
Now, the question this brings to mind is this: How was a man justified to God before the law was given by Moses? Since the law was given by Moses, then there was a time when the Law of Moses did not exist. If sin is a transgression of the law, then there could have been no sin in the world before the law was given. But there was sin because the Bible tells of Adam’s sin, Cain’s sin, and the sin of many others; and there was death because of sin. Before the law there could be no transgression of the law, but sin is more than a transgression of the law. Paul also spoke of this in his letter to the Romans: “because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression” (Romans 4.15). Notice these inspired words through the apostle, “And where there is no law there is no transgression.” He clearly says that before the law came there could be NO transgression of the law. This is pure common sense. But from this you might immediately ask, “Was there sin then before the law went into effect?” I assure you, my friend, there was sin, and sin was just as wicked, and just as terrible, and just as horrible before the law as it is since the law was given. There was sin before the law, but NO transgression. But man did not realize the gravity and the awfulness of his sin, and for that very purpose God gave the law in order that He might reveal to man the awfulness of the sin he was committing, and which he might not have been conscious of committing. And so God gave that law, and now that sin which had always been morally wrong, has now become legally wrong; and in addition, the nature of transgression is given to sin. Transgression, after all, is only one aspect of sin. The word “transgression” comes from two other words, “trans” and “gresso,” and means “to go beyond.” The law then was given to prove to man that sis is sin in all its awfulness. In Romans 3.30 Paul says this: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
Now the law did not produce sin, neither did it make the sin worse, neither was the law itself sin; it entered because of transgressions, to make “sin exceedingly awful,” which means to show the exceeding sinfulness of the sin they had been committing. This is what Paul says in Romans 5.20: “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.”
The law then revealed the true nature of sin, so that we might flee to Almighty God for His grace. In addition to sin always having been morally wrong, the law now made it morally wrong. John tells us: “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3.4). No verse in the Bible has been more abused and misunderstood than this one. It is constantly quoted by legalist as though sin was always a transgression, and the only sin is transgression, but there is one word which repudiates this interpretation. It is the word ALSO. “Whoever commits sin ALSO commits lawlessness.”
But sin is more than transgression. That is the legal definition. Transgression is the legal aspect of sin. But we have seen that before the law, there already was sin, but it was not reckoned as a transgression of the law, which had not yet been given. A thing may be morally wrong, and yet be legally right.
The problem with the law is this: The Law Could Not Save. It was not designed by God to save men or to make them better. Prohibition could forbid men drinking alcoholic beverages, but it could not stop them from thirsting, and it led to an age of bootlegging and wide-spread violations. What then, I’ll ask again, was the purpose of the law? The answer is, to reveal to man his utter corruption, his terrible sinfulness, and when Christ would come to save by grace, man would turn forever from the works of the law, and plead only for the grace of God. The law was given to make sin appear exceedingly sinful. The law increases your condemnation. The law is a mirror to help us see our “dirty faces” (James 1.22-25)—but you do not wash your face with the mirror! It is grace that provides the cleansing through Jesus Christ—“and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 7b). Sinner, will you turn to Christ, abandon all hope of keeping the law for your salvation, and come to Him who said: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11.28).