Why Then the Law?

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one.
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

The Life and Death Importance of the Who and Why

Saint Paul's mind is more like Rudyard Kipling's The Elephant's Child than Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade." Tennyson said of his "noble six hundred,"

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Many of us are tempted to live like that. We understand so little and see such a small part of God's purpose in things that we want to give up thinking and say, "Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die." But not the apostle Paul. If I read Galatians and Romans correctly, Paul would have agreed more with Kipling when he wrote,

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.

In a universe created by a personal God who does all things according to his purpose, the most important of those two "serving men" are WHO and WHY. There was no question who gave the law to Israel. The question was why. "Why then the law?" (Galatians 3:19).

Not everybody cares. You can imagine someone saying: "What differences does it make, why. It's there. So let's make the most of it. Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do and die." Many in Israel did, and died precisely because they did not know the reason why the law was given. You can't make the most of it unless you know what it is there for. If you don't know why the traffic light is red, you may get smashed in the intersection. If you don't know why Mr. Yuk is on the medicine bottle, you may get poisoned. In many areas of life yours is to reason why lest you do and die. And that includes the law of God. If we don't understand why it was given, we can kill ourselves with it. Paul said in Romans 9:32 that the reason Israel stumbled into destruction was not that they didn't pursue the law, but that they pursued it in the wrong way: from works and not from faith; in the effort of the flesh instead of the power of the Spirit. In other words, moral effort can be a mortal sin.

When I wrote in The Standard this month that legalism is a greater menace to the church than alcoholism, it wasn't for shock effect. It was a straightforward theological truth. Alcoholics are in a tragic bondage. And we must do all we can to help. But legalism is more subtle and more pervasive and, in the end, more destructive. Satan clothes himself as an angel of light and makes the very commandments of God his base of operations. And the human heart is so inveterately proud and unsubmissive that it often uses religion and morality to express its rebellion. As Romans 10:3 says, "In seeking to establish their own righteousness, they would not submit to the righteousness of God." The pursuit of righteousness can lead to perdition. So Galatians admonishes us: Know why the law was given and don't be bewitched into pursuing it in a way that leads to death, but only in a way that leads to life.

Why the Law Was Given

Galatians 3:19–22 gives two answers to why the law was given to Israel and became part of our Holy Scripture. Both of these answers are stated twice, once in verse 19 and once in verse 22. The first answer in verse 19 is that the law "was added because of transgressions." I'll try to show in a minute what this means, and that it is virtually the same as the first part of verse 22: "the scripture (or the law) consigned all things to sin." The second answer to the question, "Why then the law?" is the latter half of verse 22, "that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." And this is the same as the part of verse 19 which says, "till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made." So in summary, the two purposes of the law in this text are first, to shut up the world under sin and increase trespasses; and second, to see to it that the inheritance will come to and through the promised seed, Jesus Christ, and no other way. I'm going to save this second purpose for next week when we finish chapter 3 and talk about the law as a custodian. Today I want us to think mainly about the first purpose: the law was added for the sake of trespasses and for shutting people up in sin.

But first a brief comment about the last half of verse 19 and verse 20. It says, "The law was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one." I am not going to deal with this because I don't know what it means. I cannot figure out how the two halves of verse 20 relate to each other. I would be happy for anyone to give me insight here.

To Reveal Sin as Sin

So that leaves us with one chief task: to understand and apply to ourselves the first purpose of the law. We'll start with verse 19. When it says, "The law was added because of transgressions," does it mean that the law came in to produce transgressions, or that the transgressions were there and the law came in to punish them? The former is almost certainly the meaning: the law was added to produce transgressions. The key parallel to this verse is in Romans 5:20. There Paul makes his meaning very clear: "Law came in to increase the trespass."

This is true in two senses. The first is clear from Romans 4:15, "For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression." I think what this means is that you may distrust your doctor in your heart, but that distrust doesn't become visible until he gives you a prescription and you toss it in the garbage. The prescription makes a visible transgression out of invisible rebellion. So when Paul says in Galatians 3:19 that the law was added because of transgressions and in Romans 5:20 that it came in to increase the trespass, he means, first of all, that it functions like a doctor's prescription to show who trusts the doctor and who doesn't. By prescribing the obedience of faith, the law turns the hidden sin of distrust and rebellion into the open transgression of disobedience.

To Stir Up More Sin

There is a second sense in which the law came in to increase the trespass. The law doesn't just give visibility to present sin; it gives rise to more sin. Romans 5:20 says, "Law came in to increase the trespass," but it goes on to say, "But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." Sin doesn't just become visible in open trespasses; it increases. The rebellion and insubordination and distrust of the human heart intensifies and expands when it meets the law. This is clear from several verses in Romans 7. For example, verse 5, "While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death." The sinful inclinations of the heart are not just exposed by the law; they are aroused by the law. Here's why. Apart from the Holy Spirit our hearts are utterly self-centered, and when such a heart sees that it is being called into question and criticized by the authority of the law, it "seeks all the more furiously to defend itself" (Cranfield). And so the law increases sin by stirring up more self-assertion and by hardening people in their self-satisfaction.

Another example from Romans 7 is verse 8: "But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness." Covetousness is the kind of desire you have for something when you are not trusting in the mercy of God to satisfy you with all you need. How, then, did the law produce covetousness in Paul? Perhaps like this: the law held out blessings to Paul which he wanted; but instead of humbling himself to trust in God's mercy to provide them, Paul undertook a rigorous program of law-keeping in reliance on his own moral effort and sought the blessings of the law without trusting the mercy of God. And that is the essence of covetousness: the kind of desire you have for things when you are not trusting in the mercy of God. So the law increases sin even in those who set out to obey it, if they do it in their own strength and not by faith in the power which God supplies.

One last illustration from Romans 7:13, "Did that which is good (the law), then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good (the law), in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure." This verse mentions both senses in which the law increases trespasses. The first is "that sin might be shown to be sin." The second is that sin "might become sinful beyond measure." The law reveals sin, and the law intensifies sin. But Paul insists that the law is not itself sinful or evil. On the contrary, the fact that the human heart could take something as pure and good as the law of God and make it a vehicle of pride and selfish passion and covetousness and death shows how dreadfully corrupt the human heart is.

That gives us some understanding, then, of Galatians 3:19, "Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions." It was added to turn invisible sin into visible transgressions of law. It was added to stir up the insubordination and rebellion of the human heart and make it sinful beyond measure. Now let's look at verses 21 and 22: "Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not, for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." Verse 21 makes the same point as last week's message on 3:15–18: the law, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham and his seed, is not an annulment or alteration of God's original covenant relation to Israel. As verse 21 says, it is not at all contrary to the promises. The promise was made in a final sense to the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ (3:16). But, as verse 21 implies, the law could not make alive. Instead, as verse 22 says, it shut up all people under sin. I think the word "scripture" (v. 22) refers to the written "law." So the text says: the purpose of the law was not to make people alive (and so short-circuit the work of Christ), but to hold them in sin until Christ came.

The Law's Impotence and Our Imprisonment

Now there are two crucial questions to ask, and they have the same answer, I think. So I will ask them together: Why couldn't the law make people alive? And why did it shut up people under sin? The answer is found again in Romans (8:3, 4). "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do," (cf. Galatians 3:21), "sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." Just like Galatians 3:21, Romans 8:3 says there was something the law could not do. It could not do away with sin in people's lives nor could it empower people with the Spirit. And so it could not make alive. So the reason the law could not give life (Galatians 3:21) was not due to its own defect but to a defect in the people. Romans 8:3 says the law was weak through the flesh. The reason the law compounded sin instead of giving life was that the recipients of the law were ruled by the flesh and devoid of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:7 describes the kind of mind which the law met with when it came: "The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed, it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God."

So the answer to our two crucial questions is the same: Why couldn't the law make people alive? Because they were ruled by the flesh and were without the renewing Spirit of God. Why did the law shut people up under sin? Because they were ruled by the flesh without the renewing Spirit of God. Or to put it another way: the law kept people in sin and did not give them life because it was not accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit to enable people to obey. Wherever the command of God is proclaimed (as it is in the law and in the gospel), but the sovereign, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is withheld, the natural self-centeredness of the human heart will express its rebellion, either by rejecting the law and living in immorality, or by embracing the law and living in legalistic morality. In either case (whether you are a self-reliant moral person or a self-reliant immoral person), the flesh, or the self-reliant ego, is in charge, and the result is bondage to sin and, finally, eternal death.

Israel, the Law, and God's Glorious Promise

Therefore, Paul's point in Galatians 3:19–22 is that God gave the law without giving the Holy Spirit to most Israelites, so that the deep rebellion of man could be exposed and so that sin would become exceedingly sinful (as it made the holy law a moral means of self-exaltation).

Moses himself had said in Deuteronomy 29:4, after giving Israel the law, "To this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, or eyes to see, or ears to hear." And so he knew the law would not give life but only condemn. He said in Deuteronomy 31:26, 27, "Take this book of the law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are." The law increases transgressions and shuts people up under sin, not because it requires imperfect people to merit God's favor, but because it requires proud and independent people to humble themselves and depend on God's transforming mercy. The law is the aroma of death wherever those who smell it are rebellious and stubborn (cf. Hebrews 4:2).

But the story will have a happy ending. Moses sees a day of life coming. In Deuteronomy 30:6 he says: "The Lord your God will circumcise your heart . . . so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." Jeremiah picks up the prophecy in 31:33, "After those days, says the Lord, I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts." And Ezekiel picks it up in 36:26: "A new heart I will give you (says the Lord), and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances." And Paul announces in Romans 8:4 that with Christ the day has arrived. Sins are atoned for, and the Spirit has been poured out, and "the just requirement of the law is fulfilled by those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (See Galatians 3:5 for how to walk by the Spirit.)

Three Lessons

So what lessons are there for us in this text? I'll mention three in closing. First, God has devoted over a thousand years of history (from Moses to Christ) to help us see ourselves in the failures of Israel. He aims to make visible the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the depth and subtlety of our own pride and insubordination. Therefore, we should look and be appalled in the mirror of God's law. And we should admit that there are yet roots of independence and pride and distrust to be dug out.

Second, we should cherish Christ and adore the grace that opened our hearts to receive him. The lesson of the law is that we are utterly dependent on grace to remove our heart of stone and give us a soft heart of faith and love. Contrition, humility, lowliness, gratitude—let your heart be filled with these as you recall, "Where sin abounded, grace much more abounded" (Romans 5:20).

Finally, if God thought it wise and helpful not to let the sediment of pride and rebellion and distrust lie quietly at the bottom of the human heart, but instead, stirred it up and made it visible by demanding the obedience which comes from faith, then that's what my preaching should aim to do. More than ever I see the need for pastors to preach and Sunday School teachers to teach and members to admonish each other in such a way that the sediment of sin in the lives of so-called "carnal Christians" be stirred up and come to a crisis.

Could it be that one of the reasons we see raindrops of blessing at Bethlehem instead of showers is that week after week several dozen people sit in these services with a layer of sinful muck at the bottom of their lives with no intention of doing anything about it? If so, let's pray that God use the Word to stir it up, so it can be seen for what it is, so there can be repentance and forgiveness and cleansing and renewal.