22 Oct Galatians 07: The law and the promise
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. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian
How many of you do not know that I love KFC? If that’s you, welcome to ROCK Sydney church. My name is Yosia and I am the lead pastor of the English service. But for the rest of you, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. There were times in my life when I used to eat KFC twice a week. But now I eat KFC twice a month. Why? Because I care about my health. And more importantly, my weight. As much as I love KFC, eating KFC twice a week is not good for me. I’m at the age where I need to eat more healthy foods. Why am I telling you this? Because it is easy for us to just want to consume spiritual KFC in our spiritual diet. All we want is quick and simple entertaining practical tips on how to live a good life message from the Bible. And I am not saying they are wrong, but they are not enough. If all we have are KFC-equivalent messages, it won’t be long before we become spiritually obese and unhealthy. We need a healthy spiritual diet. And that’s what the book of Galatians gives us. The book of Galatians is not for the faint of heart. Especially, the text that we are in today. It is not an easy text. It is very theological and has no immediate practicality. It is a hard food to chew. But it is healthy. Because this kind of text helps us to go beyond the surface and explore the root. It helps us to know God and delight in God more. And when a text like this takes root in our understanding, we become steady Christians who are not easily swayed by false teachings because we are deeply rooted in the Bible. We’ll be like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither. How many of you want that kind of life?
Over the years, I met many well-intentioned Christians who believe that God has different plans of salvation in the Old Testament and the New Testament. They say things like, “In the Old Testament, God saved the people of Israel through the law. So, for people to be saved, they have to obey the law of God. And if they fell short, they could not be saved. Salvation is conditioned upon their obedience. But in the New Testament, God saved people by grace. God realized that salvation by obedience to the law was a total failure, and so God changed his plan of salvation. God now offered people salvation by grace, without the condition of their obedience.” So, in the Old Testament God is like a strict father who disciplines his children with the law, and in the New Testament God is like a grandad who is very gracious and lenient with his grandchildren. How many of you have heard that before? This view is wrong. As we have seen in the past few weeks, it has always been God’s plan to save people by grace. Abraham was counted righteous not because of something that he did or did not do, but because he believed God. Salvation by grace through faith alone is not God’s plan B; it has always been God’s plan A. God never changed his plan of salvation. But here is the question. If salvation is by grace alone, then what is the purpose of the law? If we are free from the law, does that mean we don’t have to obey the law? If we are saved by Christ’s perfect performance, why should we strive to live a holy life? Let me put it in our daily life context. “If I am already accepted by God because of faith, then how should I treat my spouse? What can I spend my money on? How hard should I work in my job? Do those things even matter?” And this is what we are going to talk about tonight. How does the law fit into the gospel? As Christians, what is our relationship to God’s law? Let’s get into the text.
Three things we will see in this text: the priority of the promise; the purpose of the law; the presence of faith.
The priority of the promise
Galatians 3:15-17 – 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.
Previously, in the book of Galatians, Paul argued that justification comes by faith alone and not works. Ps. Ferdinand preached wonderfully last week that the righteous shall live by faith. If we can’t be like Michael Jordan, what makes us think that we can be like Jesus? God’s standard is nothing short of perfection and we all fall short. But praise God for substitutionary atonement, where Jesus became a curse for us so we can receive the blessing of Abraham through our faith in Jesus. And now to solidify his point, Paul gives an example from everyday life – a man-made covenant. The Greek word Paul uses is ‘diatheke’ which is a word for a legal will. What is a will? A will is a legal document paper that a person writes down to say what should be done with his possession after he dies. And after he dies, whatever is written in the will is unnegotiable and unchangeable. Once a will is legally made, it is considered binding no matter what changes in conditions may occur. Let me give you an example. A few years ago, my dad wrote his will. I know what is in his will, but I am not going to tell you. But let’s say that my dad apparently has a Ferrari, a private villa, and a private jet. And he also has a Hyundai i30. And he writes in his will that the Ferrari, villa, and jet will be mine once he passes away, and my sister will get the Hyundai i30. That is his inheritance for us. But then my sister lost a lot of money in her business, and she is in financial need. She could really use my part of the inheritance. But it does not matter how much my sister needs my part of the inheritance, it is mine. She must be content with hers. And Paul says that God’s promises work like a legal will. This is Paul’s point. If a man-made covenant cannot be set aside, how much more is God’s covenant? What is true in a human court has even greater force in the courtroom of God.
When God made a promise to Abraham in Genesis 15, God sealed that promise by making a covenant with Abraham. In ancient times, when you made a covenant with someone, you acted out the curse of breaking the covenant. So, if I am making a covenant with you, I would say, “I promise to do this and that” and you would say, “I promise to do this and that.” And then we would take animals, cut them in half, walk together between the pieces, and say, “If I don’t keep my promise, if I break our covenant, may I be cut to pieces like these animals.” We are acting out the curse. But what’s amazing about the covenant God made with Abraham is that Abraham did not walk between the pieces. God was the only one who walked between the pieces. God was saying to Abraham, “Abraham, I will be faithful to my promise. I will keep my covenant with you. And if I break my covenant, I will die.” And do you know what was Abraham’s role in the covenant? Nothing. He just had to believe. He did not walk between the pieces. It means it did not matter what Abraham did. The responsibility to fulfil the promise lay on God alone. God would die before he broke his promise to bless Abraham. God was saying, “I will do this for you Abraham. I will bless you. I will give you descendants. I will bless all nations through your offspring. It doesn’t matter what you do, I will do it. Whether or not you are faithful to me, I will be faithful to you. Even if I have to be killed, I will do it.” That’s how committed God was to fulfil his promise to Abraham. No strings attached, no laws to obey, no conditions to fulfil. God would do it.
Why is this important? Here is why. Paul says that the law came 430 years after God’s promise and covenant with Abraham. And the promise and the law are not on equal terms. The question is, which one has the priority? The former (the promise) or the latter (the law)? The false teachers said, “The law changed everything. God made a promise to Abraham, then God gave the law to Moses. That means if we are to get the blessing of Abraham, we must obey the law of Moses. There is a progression from promise to law. Yes, we believe the promise, but now we also must obey the law to receive the promise.” And Paul says, “No. You get it all wrong. You get the order mixed up. If by giving the law, God made the promise he had with Abraham conditioned upon people’s obedience to the law, then the covenant promise to Abraham is null and void. It means God had changed his mind. But that’s not possible. God does not make promises to break them. Especially his covenant promises to Abraham. Because if God did so, he would be dead.” In other words, Paul is saying, “Instead of looking at the promise of God through the lens of the law of God, switch the order. Look at the law of God through the lens of the promise of God.” Remember, order is everything in Christianity. It is what separates the true gospel from the false gospel. Paul says that the promise of God has priority over the law of God. The law that came 430 years after the promise cannot alter the promise that God had already made.
And look at verse 18. 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. This is crucial. The concepts of promise and law are mutually exclusive. We can’t mix them. If I give you something because of what I have promised, it has nothing to do with your performance. If I give you something because of what you have done, it has nothing to do with my promise. Paul is very clear. Either we receive something by grace or works; either it comes because of the giver’s promise or the receiver’s performance. It’s one or the other. For a promise to bring a result, we only need to believe. But for a law to bring a result, we must obey it. For example, if I say to you, “I want to give each of you $1000. Don’t go anywhere after the service and I promise I will give it to you,” what do you have to do to get it? You simply have to believe my words and not go anywhere after the service. If you fail to believe me and leave straight after the service, you won’t get the money. But if I say to you, “I want to give each of you $1000, but you have to bring one friend to church every week for the rest of the year,” then you have to fulfil the condition if you are to get the money.
Can you see the difference? In a promise covenant, it all depends on the promiser. All you have to do is believe the promiser. In a law covenant, it has to do with the recipient, whether or not you meet the condition. Paul says that the blessing of Abraham either comes by promise or by law. It is either on the basis of the trustworthiness of the promiser or on the basis of the performance of the recipient. But it can’t be both. If it’s both, it has a condition to it and it’s a law. Do you see it? Here is the point Paul is making. There is a contrast between the promise covenant and the law covenant. Look at the contrast between these two covenants. In the promise covenant, God is saying, “I will, I will, I will…” In the law covenant, God is saying, “You shall, you shall, you shall…” Promise covenant is about God’s plan, God’s grace, and God’s initiative. Law covenant is about man’s duty, man’s works, and man’s responsibility. Promise covenant is only to be believed. Law covenant is to be obeyed. So, which one is Christianity? It’s one or the other. Here is the good news. Christianity is not the religion of law but the religion of promise. We receive the blessings of Abraham not by works but by faith. And the promise of God to Abraham finds its fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus is the promised offspring through whom all nations of the earth shall be blessed. We received the blessings of Abraham solely through our faith in Jesus.
Let me tell you how freeing this is. If we can be honest, we often make the same mistakes as the Galatian Christians. We think that God has promised to bless us, but this blessing is achieved by our obedience to the law. And it puts us in a performance treadmill which goes nowhere. We are trapped in a performance mentality, and we are exhausted because of it. Christianity becomes a burden instead of joy. We keep saying, “What do I need to do? How often do I have to pray? How much do I have to give? What sacrifice do I need to make?” But Paul is saying that an offer that begins as a promise, must continue to be made on the same basis. As soon as it is based on performance, it is no longer a promise. And yet it is very easy for us to look within ourselves, to look at our own effort and performance to give us a sense of assurance in our relationship with God. And we become extremely insecure because of it. But the gospel tells us, “Stop looking at you and look at Christ. Look at Christ’s performance for you. Look at what he has done at the cross. That’s how you know where you stand with God. Your work does not save you. Your performance does not save you. It is Christ who saved you. What you need is nothing. All you have to do is believe.” God does not deal with us according to our works but according to his promise. Everything God has to offer comes through a promise. In other words, get this. Our salvation is not hinged on our performance and ability to keep the law but on Jesus’s performance and ability to keep the law for us.
So, if you hear the gospel and say, “I have to do something to be worthy of it,” that’s unbelief. The offer of the gospel is for you to come with nothing and simply believe. It is the offer of rest. You no longer have to strive. You can breathe and rest because the work of salvation has been done for you. I hope that’s clear. The promise has priority over the law. The law of God does not and cannot change the promise of God. But then the question is, if that’s true, what is the purpose of the law? We know that God is the one who gave both the promise and the law. Therefore, we cannot separate them. We cannot make the promise and the law enemy. There is no contradiction in God. The law coming along could not mean God changed his mind about how he relates to us. But the law is also not a leftover. The law is not like a few extra screws that we don’t know what to do with after we assemble our furniture. So, why the law?
The purpose of the law
Galatians 3:19-20 – 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.
We will look at three purposes of the law. One at this point, and two others at the next point. But this one is probably the most shocking. Many Christians assume that the main purpose of the law is for us to obey it and receive salvation through it. They can’t be more wrong. Paul says that the purpose of the law is not to provide salvation but to point people to their need for salvation. The law did not come to tell us about salvation but about sin. In other words, the main purpose of the law is to reveal sin. The law of God reveals God’s perfect standards for us and at the same time, it reveals our failures to meet those standards. The main purpose of the law is to show us that we are lawbreakers. And it proves to us that we cannot be the solution to our problems. Listen. The 10 commandments are not given as a checklist for us to be saved. The 10 commandments are the expression of God’s standard of holiness. It shows us the kind of person we must be to be accepted by God. The problem is none of us can live up to that standard. The law tells us what to do but does not give us the power to do it. It’s like weighing myself on the scale. I just came back from Bali, and I know what the scales say. It tells me, “My dearest boss, how long has it been since the last time you exercised? You ate too much ‘babi guling’ and you need to go on a diet and start exercising.” That’s what my scale tells me. However, my scale does not have the power to make me exercise or go on a diet. The law tells us what is right, but it does not make us righteous. The law tells us our problem, but it does not give us the solution.
In fact, the law makes the problem worse. How? The law makes wrongdoing a legal offence. It turns invisible sin into visible transgression of the law. Think about it. Let’s say you go to a doctor, but you do not believe in the doctor. That distrust is something that is already true in your heart. You distrust your doctor in your heart. But it is invisible. No one can see it. But that distrust becomes visible when your doctor gives you a prescription and you toss it in the bin. That written prescription makes a visible transgression out of invisible distrust. Are you with me? The law does not make us sinners. But the law reveals the fact that we are sinners. It is easy to say that we love God. Everybody loves God until God says something. Nobody has a problem with God until God gives the law. The law reveals the wickedness of our hearts.
Parents, don’t you see this problem in your kids? How do your kids respond when you tell them, “Don’t do it”? Isn’t true that the more you tell them not to do it, the more they want to do it? And they have the audacity to look at you and smile while they do it. It is as if they intentionally want to do it because it is forbidden. Let’s not talk about kids. Isn’t that true about us? The more people tell us not to do something, the more we want to do it. The more people tell us to do it, the more we do not want to do it. There is a voice inside of us that whispers, “Nobody tells me how to run my life. This is my life and I get to decide what I want to do with it.” Do you see what happened? Rather than enabling us to obey the law, knowing the law actually makes us want to disobey it. The law reveals our deep desire to be our own saviour instead of depending on the saviour. We want to be sovereign. And that is why we hate the law of God. Because the law reminds us that God is sovereign, and we are not. The law makes the invisible sin of our hearts visible.
Now, let me be honest. Verse 20 is really hard to understand. One commentator noted that there may be up to 300 interpretations for verse 20 alone. What does it mean when Paul says, “Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one”? I have read many different interpretations, and this is the best I found. And I am quoting John Piper. He says, “I am not going to deal with this because I don’t know what it means.” If John Piper can say that, it gives me the liberty to say the same thing. I am not going to deal with this verse because I don’t know what it means. But it’s enough for us to know that Paul is once again arguing for the superiority of the promise over the law. The people of Israel received the law through mediators. God gave it to an angel, an angel gave it to Moses, and Moses gave it to the people. The law came to the people third hand. But not the promise. God gave the promise directly to Abraham. The promise came to Abraham firsthand. Therefore, the promise is superior to the law. It’s like when we are unhappy with the employee in the customer support. What do we do? We say, “Let me speak with the manager.” The promise to Abraham had no middleman and therefore it is superior to the law. But then the question is, if that’s the case, does the law work against the promise?
Galatians 3:21-22 – 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.
Paul’s answer is certainly not. Paul is saying that there is nothing wrong whatsoever with the law. But the law is never given to make us righteous. No one has even been made righteous by keeping the law. We break the law every day. The law proves that we are sinners, but it cannot make us right with God. And the problem is not the law but the sin inside of us. The truth is, we are far more wicked than we think we are. We have a capacity for evil way beyond what we dare to believe. And the law exposes us to our true condition. We cannot say no to sin. We are so addicted to sin that we can do nothing but sin. And the law cannot help us. The law is holy, but it cannot make us holy. The law is good, but it cannot make us good. The law is righteous, but it cannot make us righteous. Leave to our own, we are hopeless. Let me put it this way. The law functions like chemotherapy. When I was diagnosed with leukemia, my doctor decided to give me the strongest chemotherapy treatment available at the time. And they told me that when the treatment started, I would not get better; I would get a lot worse. Because chemotherapy is a very strong poison. It destroys both the good and bad cells in the body. So, during the treatment, chemotherapy would make me sicker, not healthier. But it was necessary for my long-term health. In much the same way, the law makes us worse to make us better.
How does the law make us better? Here is how. Our inability to keep the law shows us that we are prisoners of sin, helpless to free ourselves. We desperately need a rescue. The purpose of the law is to show us our real condition and point us to the only solution, the promise of God. By giving us the bad news, the law points us to our need for the good news. The law does not oppose the promise but points to our needs for it. The law shows us we need salvation by promise. The more we know the law, the more we see our sins, the more we confess our need for a saviour. The law is the law so that Christ can become our Saviour. When the law is used properly, it does not oppose the promise of salvation by grace, but rather supports it, by pointing out to us our need of it. The law makes the promise indispensable. I love the way Thomas Watson says it. “Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.” The law and the promise work in harmony to bring about our salvation. The law cannot save, but it points to Jesus, and Jesus can save.
The presence of faith
Galatians 3:23-25 – 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian
In these verses, Paul gives us other purposes of the law. Paul uses two different metaphors to describe the way the law works in our lives. The first metaphor, the law is a guard. The words held captive and imprisoned mean to be under the watch of a military guard. The second metaphor, the law is a guardian. In the homes of Paul’s day, a guardian was usually a slave who supervised the children on the parent’s behalf. A guardian is like a babysitter with the parent’s authority to discipline the child. The role of a guardian is to make sure the child grows up well and well-educated. In both metaphors, a guard and a guardian remove freedom. The relationship is based on reward and punishment. They can govern our behaviour, but they do not have the power to make us good. And this is the second purpose of the law. The second purpose of the law is to restrain. The law keeps our sinful nature in check through threats of punishments and consequences. It does not erase the presence of sin in our hearts but restraints it. Like, how many of you hate speeding cameras? I hate it. I especially hate speeding cameras in school zones. I got caught a few times. Now, imagine a country in which there are no speeding laws. Do you think everyone in that country would drive 40km/hr in a school zone? No. They would drive 100km/hr. It would be very dangerous. So, the fact that we have speeding laws and speeding cameras is good. It helps to protect the safety of the children and it restrains us from speeding through the threat of a $300 fine. But it does not remove our desire to drive fast. What do we do as soon we pass the school zone? We hit the gas pedal.
So, the two purposes of the law are to reveal and restrain. But here is the important part. Paul says that the works of the law are temporary. The law keeps us in prison and disciplines us until the coming of faith. But once faith comes, once Christ comes, once we are justified by faith, we are no longer under a guardian. We are no longer under the law. So, the lesson the law is teaching us is we must go beyond the law. We must go to faith. We must go to Christ. But to go to Christ, we need the law. Listen. We need the law to lead us to Christ. For only when the law reveals our sin will we look for the salvation that God has for us in the gospel. We must get this. That is why it is not enough for me to preach only the good news. It is not enough for me to preach grace. I also must preach the law. I must preach on sin and judgment. I cannot bypass the law and go straight to the gospel. We must know the severity of bad news for us to know why we need good news.
I am going to quote John Stott at length here. But it is really good. “No man has ever appreciated the gospel until the law has first revealed him to himself. It is only against the inky blackness of the night sky that the stars begin to appear, and it is only against the dark background of sin and judgment that the gospel shines forth. Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit our need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.” It is only when the law has done its work in our lives that we are ready for the gospel. We only celebrate the gospel to the degree we understand the law. Good news is not good news unless we understand the bad news.
And after we put our faith in Jesus, does it mean that the law no longer has a purpose? Does it mean we can forget the law? Absolutely not. Does a child who has come to maturity then throw out all the values that the parents and the guardian have put in him? Of course not. If all goes well, the adult child is no longer forced into obedience through reward and punishment, but those values have become intrinsic to him, and he lives it out because he wants to. And this is what Paul is hinting at. The gospel means that we no longer obey the law out of fear of rejection. We no longer obey the law out of hope of salvation by performance. But when we grasp salvation by promise, our hearts want to please God. And the way we do so is by obeying the law. This leads me to the third purpose of the law. The third purpose of the law is to redirect. After we have been saved by faith, the law shows us how we can please God with our lives. So, we do not get rid of the law after we are saved, but the law shows us the direction that we need to take in our lives.
The law is like a railroad track. It guides the train and makes sure the train stays on the right track, but it does not have the power to move the train. The law points us in the right direction, but it does not have the power to move us in the right direction. And the gospel is the locomotive. The gospel is the engine. And now that we have the engine power to obey, the law gives us the direction that we should go. We obey the law not because we have to but because we want to. Without the gospel, we can obey the law, but we will learn to hate it. We will never love the law of God. We are simply using the law for our self-salvation project. But once we get the gospel, once we understand we are already accepted by our faith in Jesus, we no longer obey the law for our sake. We obey God for his sake. We are using the law to please God. And listen. There is no way we can love the law unless we know there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We will never love the law without the gospel.
Let me close with this. Can you see how the law and the promise work together in our salvation? We must not and we cannot separate the law and the promise. Jesus is the embodiment of both. Jesus is full of grace (promise) and truth (law). He is not 50% grace and 50% truth. Jesus is 100% grace and 100% truth at the same time. And we must embrace both. We can’t have the joy and freedom of acceptance if we don’t admit the seriousness of our sins. We must listen to the law’s painful diagnosis of our condition. Unless we see how helpless and sinful we are, the gospel will not be precious and liberating. Unless we know how big our debt is, we have no idea what it costs Jesus to pay our debt. But if we let the law show us how bad we really are, the law will also show us how good Jesus really is. Let’s say your friend decided to pay off your bill. How will you respond to your friend? It depends on the bill, right? If it’s a $50 bill, a “thank you” is sufficient. But if it is $500,000, you would probably fall to your knees and say, “Command me!” This is what the law and the gospel do. The law reveals how big our debt is. The gospel tells us Jesus has paid that enormous bill. Jesus obeyed the law perfectly on our behalf. And he died miserably to pay our infinite debt. So that when we put our faith in him, we receive the blessings of Abraham. The law brings us to the end of ourselves to show us the infinite worth of the gospel. And once we see our saviour die to make us righteous before God, we love him, and we want to please him by obeying the law. Let’s pray.
- What struck you the most from the sermon?
- Why does the promise have priority over the law? What does it teach you about Christian life?
- Look at the three purposes of the law (reveal, restrain, redirect). Which one surprised you the most and why?
- Explain the relationship between the promise and the law and why we can’t separate them.
- How does the gospel enable us to love the law of God?